Escape The Dark Castle - Review
By Ben Porter
Escape the Dark Castle by Themeborne is a game that I've had my eye on for quite a while, so when I heard that a second print run was due for the game (along with an additional 2 expansions), I was keen to get on the bandwagon for a review. The game can be played with 1-4 players and advertises itself as 'The Game of Atmospheric Adventure.'
“But,” I hear you cry. Which is honestly a bit rude as I haven't finished my introduction.
“But is it?” you insist.
Well, you'll find out in a minute, won't you?
Without knowing how this game actually even worked, I wanted to play it. I missed the bus on the choose-your-own-adventure books of the 80s and early 90s when they first appeared, but the old-school gothic fantasy art that we've seen in old D&D and Warhammer books is immediately familiar. This old-school fantasy aesthetic is further enforced by the monochromatic colour scheme used in the game. Everything in this game is black and white, and it looks fantastic. They even went as far as to use the same typeface that was used on Citadel products throughout the 90s.
Inside the box itself, you'll find 53 Chapter Cards, 1 Start Card, 5 Boss Cards, and 6 Character cards which are all large-sized. The character cards are somewhat arbitrary as they don't contain much information (they don't need to when you have all of that on your character dice), but it is nice to see what malnourished, depressed character you're playing as. Immersion and all that. You also get 36 item cards which are miniature-sized.
As aforementioned, you also get 6 unique character dice, which even have the names of their respective characters on them, 9 Chapter Dice to represent the AI within the game, and a Golden Axe Dice.
“Wait, what?” you ask.
There's a Golden Axe Dice in the game.
“But you said everything was black and white in the game.”
Well, I lied, okay? Is that what you want me to say? Are you happy now that we've got that out the way? There is ONE dice in the game that is white and gold instead of white and black, alright? Besides, what colour should the dice for the best item in the game be?
That's right – gold. Now let's talk about theme.
If you cut this game open, cards and dice would go everywhere. But if – for a moment – you could imagine that this game were a person and you were to cut them, they would bleed nostalgia.
Everything about the game is designed to evoke the gothic fantasy of the 80s, and it does it exceptionally well. And whilst the black and white colour scheme does look rather classy, it does evoke an era where coloured print was not yet in widespread circulation. Even the monsters themselves have been deliberately kept simple, with ghouls and skeleton warriors aplenty.
Yes, the game is camp and it does feel old fashioned, but it feels creepy at the same time. You're not a sword-wielding hero or a mysterious wizard this time – you're a pleb. You're a sad, dirty peasant and the reality of your situation makes everything that little bit creepier and threatening.
A game of Escape the Dark Castle takes only a couple of minutes to set up and will run you about 30 minutes tops – even if you're playing with the maximum 4 players. Combat actions all take place simultaneously with players rolling their respective character dice, which makes for a simple, elegant solution to something that usually takes ages in other games.
The game sees players progress through an encounter deck comprised of 1 start card, 15 of the 53 chapter cards selected at random, and 1 of the 5 boss cards selected at random. Players are encouraged to flip through these chapter cards and set them out in the same manner as a book, again evoking the look and feel of the classic Fighting Fantasy books of yesteryear.
However, unlike those books, the game is really a sprint from point A to point B (B for Boss Encounter, I’m here all week). Where the choose-your-own-adventure books present a series of choices that each branch off onto another series of choices, Escape the Dark Castle forces players down a linear path of random encounters to which they react. It makes for very streamlined gameplay, with players not having to spend a long time mulling over their decision, but don’t expect the Fighting Fantasy experience replicated here with cards and dice. The atmosphere is here, but as a story engine this is a different beast.
And though the game is very simple, there is still enough depth here for more experienced players to have some interesting decisions to make. Will you scrabble around like a lunatic, punching everything in your path to try and get the really good items, and potentially limp to the boss fight in a weakened state? Or will you take a more tactful approach? Each character can only carry two items at a time, or one two-handed item, so clever management of inventory is key to success.
Combat is a simple case of matching the symbols on the chapter dice generated for the encounter and will be familiar to anyone who has played games such as Elder Signs and is simple enough for a novice to grasp. Again, players will have to be mindful of their characters’ strengths and weaknesses in combat and encounters, and it’s a good idea to select characters in such a way that the party has a balanced spread of each of the three attributes in the game.
TLDNR – The game is fast, simple, with just the right amount of depth to keep players of all skill levels engaged.
The Trina Test
At the cutting edge of board game theory is the process whereby the game is subjected to the ultimate test subject – a middle-aged woman.
Ever at that cutting edge, we at Unlucky Frog Gaming believe owe it to you – our dear readers – to relay the verdict yielded from the much-lauded Trina Test. (Shameless Plug – all the post-Trina Test interviews with my mother are available to our Patrons via our Patreon and are well worth a listen if you want a peek behind the Unlucky Frog curtain.)
In a nutshell, my mum’s main criticism of the game was that the artwork was horrible. She’s not wrong – it is a dark castle, after all.
“I was around in the 80s and I don’t remember any of this,” she continued when I tried to reason that the game is designed to evoke the early fantasy art of the halcyon Games Workshop days.
Whilst she did not like the theme at all, she enjoyed the bear bones of the game; the co-operative nature, the rolling of the dice in combat, the random encounters and the turning over of the chapter cards like the pages of the book were all to the good in her eyes. There were a few moments of confusion with some of the item card effects, but with a little bit of explanation we were able to overcome any minor bumps in the road.
But to return to my mother’s criticism of the theme, she does make a valid point. By her own admission, she does not like “creepy horror” and I daresay she is not alone in this sentiment. To that end, it is worth bearing that in mind when you decide to whom you wish to introduce the game to, and it is certainly not going to be appropriate to play the game with more sensitive children – as simple as its mechanics are.
If you have a desire to introduce analogue gaming to more people, or if you’re simply a collector of nicely presented board games, Escape the Dark Castle is well worth your time and money.
Weighing in at £30 RRP – in a day and age when games are often retailing at £60 or higher – this game is a bargain. The quality is exceptionally high, with a considered, highly-stylised art style and high quality cards with a nicely textured finish. The box itself is also well set out, with every component in the game having a designated place.
I was somewhat irked by the game’s answer to the increasing industry-wide demand for solo variant games, however. Simply telling players that they may take control of two characters if they wish to play the game alone is an unsatisfying and incomplete answer to the request for a solo variant. And to be fair, Escape the Dark Castle is not the only game that features tacked-on solo play. It is a minor criticism, but I would like to have seen a more imaginative solution to this request than a game variant that really seems like an afterthought.
The only other issue I had with the game was the pencils and pads included to keep track of character health. I do understand their inclusion; it’s a cost-effective means of tracking character health that simultaneously reinforces the nostalgia and atmosphere the game seeks to capture. And, yes, D20s or health trackers would inevitably drive up the cost of the game, but I can see myself resorting to simply using a few of my RPG dice in the future as a workaround.
But all in all, Escape the Dark Castle is an excellent game. It’s funny and creepy; it’s camp and it’s dark. It includes elements from a lot of other games that will be familiar to veterans, whilst introducing those same elements to people taking their first steps into analogue gaming. If you’re invested in people and games, Escape the Dark Castle deserves a place in your collection.