I’m innocent I tells ya…I ain’t dun nuffin’!
…not that anyone listens to the little people. ‘Course they don’t. We’re…well, we’re just the minions of high society; the tailors and millers and tanners and cooks. What does anyone care if we are wrongly incarcerated?
Conditions are abysmal. This cell is soaking wet. Look at my carpet slippers! They’re completely ruined. That could be the end of my career in floor polishing and decorative hall walking…I can tell you! There’s only one course of action left. I’m not staying in this dingy cell another day. I’ll take off my socks and overpower the guards and then make good my escape. Who’s with me?
Let’s escape the dark castle!
What’s All The Fuss About?
Just that! The fuss is that Themeborne bring us escaping a dark tower… castle… dungeon thingy… you get the general idea. A very successfully Kickstarted project from last year, Escape the Dark Castle is a cooperative narrative-like adventure game deeply wrapped in atmosphere and player interaction…but does cooperative player interaction work for we soloists, I hear you ask…and, I have to admit that even though it interested me at the UKGE last year, I was a little sceptical…and foolishly didn’t back. Was I a fool not to back? We shall see.
Immersion or Subversion?
Backstory: wrongful incarceration….boooooo!
Setting: Dirty great big castle…boooo!
Objective: escape from said castle…hoooraaaaay!
Actually this is immensely immersive. Don’t be at all fooled by my flippant remarks. The gameplay, mechanics etc are no brain melter, this is true and cannot be disguised by any amount of flannel, but as the game consists of a series of chapters, encounters if you will, then we are free to begin telling the real story of our daring escape. There is flavour text, often somewhat dark, on each of the chapter cards with descriptions of our encounter. We sometimes have choices to make, but invariably there are dire consequences. It does feel like we are blindly racing through a warren of passages and rooms in a hapless bid for freedom. The characters we choose are no heroes. There is no power armour, magic or super weapons…infact the only weapons I have uncovered have been dirty, rust old relecks abandoned by their previous owner. So this really is a tale of the underdog.
Life is simple for us when attempting to escape the Dark Castle. Each character has a custom die that represents each of three attributes; Might, Cunning and Wisdom. A prowess in one area will mean more Icons on the die, a weakness in another, obviously fewer icons and so by their traits we can choose our ‘un-heroes’. Game procedure is simple. After a story deck of fifteen chapter cards randomly selected from a large deck of giant cards is collated with a random chapter “finale Boss Card”,
we choose a lead character per turn, draw the next encounter card, read the favour text, read how the encounter will affect us and act accordingly. Sometimes we need to make a test against an attribute to success or fail..sometimes we can just ‘leg it’ as things are getting just a little too dodgy…sometimes we just have to fight it out.
Encounter cards have cunning Icons located at the bottom indictating which chapter dice Icons are to be present (sometimes a die is randomly rolled by players to add to the predetermined icons) And so, by this method, the symbols we need to beat by rolling our hero die are generated. A matched symbol/icon rolled by a hero means one encounter/chapter die is removed per match (some symbols are doubles so match with teo chapter dice if applicable). Ah, but if at least one black chapter die remain, the hero involved suffers wounds equal to the number at the bottom of the chapter card. And that is it. Simples! *does sucking noise like mere-cat on British comparison website advert but unsucks as half chewed olive gets stuck in throughout causing convulsive coughing fit. We work our way through the chapters until a nast boss is reached (or if one hero is deaded before that point and we lose) and we have a last ditched encounter of fisticuffs to freedom or certain death.
Wood Chits and Cardboard Bits:
Dark monochrome gothic/medieval horror/witchcraft illustrative themes run throughout the game from the box cover right through to every playing piece and even some incredibly weighty, large custom dice. These little chaps really feel the part…one could imaging an echoed clank with every toss of the die.
The cards feel sturdy with a heavy linen finish both the euro sized item cards and the monster sized chapter cards. These are great to look at with the text and
illustrations taking pride of place but are an experience in their own right when it comes to shuffling. I have large hands so it is not too bad for me but others may need to be creative when it comes to their shuffle. The game comes with score pads and some pencils that, although black, remind me of the ones found at Ikea…but don’t let that sway you as they keep score just as well as any other pencil…that said I have grabbed two 1d8 die per character to keep track of score just to save writing so any photos displaying blue die are showing my components. The 1d8 don’t come with the game
Meeples and Standees:
- Game Design: Thomas Pike, Alex Crispin & Jamie Shelton
- Artist Graphic design: Alex Crispin
- Game Publisher: Themebourne
- Boardgamegeek Page: https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/227456/escape-dark-castle
- Playtime (Recess for US readers): 30 minutes
- Gangs of one: 1-4 players
- Age of Consent: 14+
- DOB: 2017
Obviously a game designed to be played cooperatively can be played solo but that is not necessarily a recipe for enjoyment for we solitary gamers. Does Escape the Dark Castle achieve this? Well, as turn order can impact how encounters are faced and how damage can be distributed, there is a very small rule set (about a paragraph) that states exactly what players should do to play solo. This principally requires us to operate two characters and additionally states we must make decisions on which characters will be the lead, before turning over an adventure. In this way any ‘you’ effects can be appropriately assigned. The only other change of note is the ‘per player’ instructions become ’per character’.
And that is it. Simple and to the point. We, the intrepid solo escapee can experience the exact same game as multiplayer cooperation type person…only we are, particularly in my case, ensured a highbrow level of conversation and discussion over decisions to be made….who am I trying to kid? I always end up arguing with myself and as for me, well, the less said there, the better!
The Real Nitty Gritty
- Winners and Losers: with some luck, careful use of equipment and choosing the right character for the right task, this is winnable and a bid for freedom is there for the taking…but it is more frequently a fruitless task trying to escape the dark Castle. It is extraordinary the vast quantities of unpleasant things that lurk within its walls. I have lost more times than I wish to relate, but I always want to have just one more go and the story never gets old.
- Rules is Rules is Rules: The rule book its self is a mere twelve A5 pages long, including an advert for an expansion so it is by far from rule heavy. It is simply laid out and clearly explains what we need to do to enable us to dive straight into the game. There are no tutorials as the game is a very simple beast to master.
- Lucky buggers: This game uses dice so it is going to have that dice hate me’ factor about it…but these dice are great big heavy affairs and feel great to toss about.it is the luck of the draw for which encounter we face…but isn’t that what racing blindly round a dank castle would be like as we blindly chase that glimmer of hope of escape? Throwing dice is always ging to be a luck factor but both encounters and dice throwing can have the luck element mitigated somewhat by careful use of tem cards and selecting the right person for the right job. If wisdom is key, then rolling a die for a character who’s fortee is Wisdom will surely lower the odds against our succeeding…failing…well, it will mean we stand more chance getting the result we need. Resting and healing at the opportune moment, too, mitigates the resultant injury from bad luck. The story would not be fun, would not mirror a desperate attempt at escaping against the odds if we knew the outcome every single time. The luck element adds to the tension as far as I am concerned.
- Highs and Lows: oh yes! There are highs and lows a plenty here. It is a veritable rollercoaster of a ride. One minute we are sailing through encounters then, round the next corner comes something unspeakably awful…scraping by by the skin of our teeth (never understood that saying as my teeth have no skin on then except at gum line, only enamel) we turn the next corner only to encounter something even more sinister. There is a dark macabre feel to this with medieval illustrative feel to it but as the narrative unfolds, it really is an exciting adventure that, for me, myself and I, makes us want to come back for more. Dark but fun? I suppose the two must be possible as Escape the Dark Castle is just that.
- Footprints All Over Both Sides of My Table: certainly when playing solo, two character cards, one chapter deck and the item deck are all that is required. The footprint is very small…which was ideal for me as it sat comfortably on my tiny table and allowed me to sit out doors playing…we get so little sun in the UK it’d be silly not to take advantage of an unusually warm spring. At a push ne could play on the box its self but comfortably it sits at about 25cm x 30 cm playing space.
Me, myself and I:
If not already apparent, because you too have been locked in a dark dungeon against your will, you will notice I thoroughly enjoyed this title….so much fun, if fun can be had dying a grusome death on the run…..and admittedly it will not blow your mind with complexity or depth of actual gameplay (this from a heavy euro-tactician’s point of view) but that is not the intention of the game. It lends its self to the ‘choose your own adventure’ Fighting Fantasy books style of game but, again, is not spacifically of that genre. The simplicity of turning a chapter card (no choice of other pages to go to) means we have no decisions bar those offered on each encounter ….but, as would be expected from a rag-tag collection of lowly commoners trying to make a bid for freedom in a decrepid castle, each corner turned will inevitably bring new terrors to overcome. Absorbant undergarments are a high recommend. There are no character super powers or special abilities, but as the characters are regular folks that would be ludicrous anyway. The custom dice are a really nice touch though. As in all walks of life we all possess a small skill set and this is true with the characters in Escape the Dark castle. As the character card illustrations show, the frequency on each die of the three attributes found within the game are easily identifiable, allowing us to make some informed choices regarding the way we face each new challenge.
And it is a challenge to be sure. Fifteen chapter cards, randomly selected from the large deck, provide a constant variation with each play and, because we rely on dice rolling, it can be difficult to overcome each one without significant loss. He interaction with encounters is very much luck based, as we are always chucking a fist full of dice…well, a die per character…but collecting equipment and using it appropriately can, with careful role selection, help mitigate some of the lick factor. But it all boils down to creating a narrative. A personal story as we, the soloist, guid our two whit-less heroes through the dank corridors of the Dark castle. This is the game’s strength. The story. The adventure. The attachment we form with our characters as we journey with our them through this building of dark malevolence, on that illusive bid for freedom cannot be but into simple words. It is a unique experience for each of us.
Now, although the game has a goodly number of chapter cards, item cards, three boss cards, six characters and replay-ability should be high, I could’t help feeling I might be wanting a little bit more in the near future…and as if Themeborne heard my call, they have a current Kickstarter with a couple of expansions that not only offer more characters, custom die, chapter cards but also introduce some new game mechanics all compatible with the base game. So when you have exhausted your fun with the base set, you can grab yourself more ways to impede your escape from the dark castle…link
Yay or Nay?
It has to be a Yay! Definately Yay! How could it not be? Very simple gameplay, easily accessible, tension, highs and lows, ups and downs, some seriously dreadful encounters and a look/feel of the gothic, of medieval woodcut illustrations and above all a strong personal progressive narrative. Escape The Dark Castle re-tells a distinct BSoMT 1d8 die roll of (7). I imagine it will prove to be a lot of fun for groups but as a solo adventure it isn’t….any different (I had you there for a minute didn’t I?)it creates a brilliant, wild story limited only by imagination (and the laws of physics, of course)
If you like strong thematic tales of story telling games but don’t particularly enjoy role-play, like me, then this will definately be a great fit. I you enjoy adventures and dice rolling…well it has that too. This is a very entertaining half hour solo game especially ideal for those times when soace is confined but is equally enjoyable when it is not.
Now this particular tunnel feels a little sticky indrfoot…I shudder to think why, but the light at the end looks less treacherous than the sharp spikes I just walked over…than goodness for the reinforced cardboard souls f my slippers…now if only I can get this torch to light…ah! There we go…oh! Great! A bloody great creature made from bits of loads of other creatures all sewn together….why? Why would such a thing exist?
Something For The Weekend, Sir?
Escape the dark castle expansion Kickstarter:
Additional info for the expansions
Escape the Dark Castle and its first expansion, Adventure Pack 1: Cult of the Death Knight, went on to a sell-out retail release in early 2018.
The latest campaign adds two additional Adventure Packs to the series along with The Collector’s Box to store the entire range.
The new campaign is also a great jumping-on point for newcomers, with Themeborne offering a money-saving bundle that includes the original game.
With funding currently over £100k, the new Kickstarter campaign has already exceeded its predecessor, with 8 stretch goals unlocked so far and more to come – including an App.
Adventure Pack 2
(RRP £14.99, KS Price £12.00)
On top of 15 new chapter cards, 5 new item cards, 4 new dice and a deadly new boss, Adventure Pack 2: Scourge of the Undead Queen adds a new mechanic to the system – Companions: three castle-dwelling characters who can temporarily assist the prisoners in their escape.
Adventure Pack 3
(RRP £14.99, KS Price £12.00)
Adventure Pack 3: Blight of Plague Lord includes all the usual content you’d expect from the Adventure Pack format, with new prisoners, chapters, dice, and items, and this set also includes an additional new mechanic of its own – The Plague! Now prisoners can catch, spread, and ultimately succumb to this most vile disease.
The Collector’s Box
(RRP £19.99, KS Price £16.00)
An expansion in its own right, the Collector’s Box contains a wealth of new, fan-driven game content for Escape the Dark Castle (including 6 new Boss cards) while also providing stylish and practical storage for all existing releases – and there is even space for future expansions too.
Themeborne on Twitter: