Escape The Dark Castle Review – Monsters and Madness
Before we begin with this Escape the Dark Castle review, let me begin with a bit of a personal update. Believe it or not (you probably can) I haven’t actually been around all that much for the past month. Those in the blogosphere may have noticed this as I have been very quiet on that front. Those who visit this blog from elsewhere will have seen a post every other day and it probably hasn’t been that obvious, but it is true. You see, I’ve actually been without a laptop for the past month, so have been doing what I can through borrowing tech and writing articles on my phone. It was actually really bad timing with the UK Games Expo, but it was unavoidable.
Now though, I am back and back for good, writing this on my brand new HP Notebook. Snazzy.
Escape The Dark Castle Review
Of all the games at the UK Games Expo, Escape the Dark Castle was one of a kind. If games could be humble, and I think they can, then Escape the Dark Castle is a humble game. It is something with simple gameplay, and artwork that jumped off the shelves of the Themeborne stand and into our game collection faster than you could eat a slightly rotten apple. Escape is one of those games that comes along once in a blue moon, and after reading this review I hope you can understand why, over the past month since the Expo, we have kept taking it off the shelf. Time and time again we have explored the Dark Castle, “the game of atmospheric adventure”, surviving only when we work best as a team.
What Is Escape The Dark Castle?
Escape The Dark Castle is amazing. What do you mean, you want more information? Oh okay, fine!
Before we continue on this Escape the Dark Castle review let’s first explore what it is. Escape (EtDC) is a cooperative card-based adventure game, in which you, as players, are exploring a randomly generated castle, to fight a boss and escape. It’s kind of in the name.
From a more admin perspective, Escape the Dark Castle is a retro style game, designed by Alex Crispin, Thomas Pike, and James Shelton. The artwork is also by Crispin and it is beautiful. I will come onto this later in the review, but it reminds me of the original D&D Monster Manual artwork. It plays for 1-4 players, but is realistically best with 3-4 players. That is the recommendation on BGG, and I have to admit, I entirely agree with that. Having played it solo, it was still a very good game, but it removed some of the atmosphere that having other players gives.
How Do You Play Escape The Dark Castle?
Escape the Dark Castle is a bit like a Fighting Fantasy book or a text based adventure game. It is a card based decksploration game, in which you, as players, work together to work your way through a deck of 17 cards.
The game begins with the start card being placed over a stack of 15 random room cards, with a random boss placed as an additional card at the bottom of the deck.
Each player then chooses a character. Although there are a few expansions out now (or on Kickstarter), the base set comes with six base characters. These are the Smith, Tanner, Miller, Abbot, Cook, and Tailor. Each has three statistics – Might, Cunning, and Wisdom. They also have a singular D6 dice, with the sides showing how frequently the statistic comes up on the dice. For instance, the Tailor, has 4x Cunning, 3x Wisdom, and 1x Might. This makes the six sides of the dice:
- Single Cunning
Double Cunning, with shield
Double Wisdom, with shield
All players have two doubles and two shields on their dice. The players also start with hit points, and the number of players determines how many.
The players then turn over cards, resolving them one at a time. They resolve the effect of the card, before deciding who is going first and choosing the next card.
Some cards include traps, some events, and some monsters. When there is a monster, combat is done by putting out Chapter Dice (black dice that come with the game representing the monsters) equal to the statistics of the monster. This may be, picking one at random, Two Deformed Thugs.
The thugs have a statistic of 1x Cunning, and then 1 Chapter Dice rolled at random per player. This means in a three player game, their statistics will be 1x Cunning, plus 3x random Chapter Dice. The players will then take it in turns rolling dice, subtracting their result from the monster/encounter. The monster/thugs/encounter will then have an attack and deal damage, equal to their damage score, to all the players.
There are usually two exceptions to this. A player can choose to hang back and heal one hit point, in which case they cannot attack or be hit. One player must always be in the combat though, so that is worth keeping in mind. Otherwise, if a player rolls one of their shields then they take no damage.
There are other kinds of room throughout the castle which may require tests. Some allow for you to draw item cards, and some are good as well as bad. When you have made it through the top 16 cards (the starting card and 15 Chapter cards), you have to face the boss – and the boss is bloody hard.
Escape the Dark Castle is a fully cooperative game. You either all get out or, if one of you dies then you all die in the pits of the Dark Castle.
What’s It Like Playing Escape The Dark Castle?
When I first opened the box to Escape the Dark Castle I didn’t hugely know what to expect. The only things I knew about it were from online – I had a vague idea that it was a decksploration game and I knew that it was popular with those who had kickstarted it. Other than that – it was a brand new experience and one I went into with an open mind.
I have to admit, the first thing that struck me out of the box, and what this game does really well, is take nostalgia and work with it to create a brand new experience. Somehow Escape the Dark Castle feels comfortingly familiar and brand new, all at the same time.
So, what is the best way to summarise Escape the Dark Castle in one word? Punishing.
Escape the Dark Castle is a punishing game. It is a game where the group really has to strategically think about what they are doing. Although there is a lot of luck in the game, since it all revolves around dice rolls, it requires a lot of balance. What this means, and it takes a bit of practice, is that it is imperative to understand what each character is strong at, what they are weak with, and when it is best to hold them back from combat. If you need strength, for instance, the Cook can probably hang back. Then there is the debate as to how long you hold them back for, what items you give each character, and how you decide to synergise that character with the rest of the group.
One of the best things about Escape the Dark Castle is, in my opinion, how rewarding it can be as a game. The majority of the game will be spent hinging on a dice roll, understanding that you are potentially close to death with every single card.
Of course, this can also be one of the biggest criticisms of Escape the Dark Castle as well. It is possible to get stuck on one card, needing to roll one Might (as an example) and between three of you rolling everything but Might. A single card could reduce your health by ten points which can be enough to make the rest of the game more of an academic exercise before you die. It becomes a challenge to try and stay alive, and in such situations you can really hone the balancing act, but it is also like being a man in a barrel trying to swim up a waterfall. In some way, you may just about be able to do it, but the odds are you’re just going to sink.
That being said, what Escape the Dark Castle absolutely nails is atmosphere. The game oozes the feeling that it is dark and moody. It feels thematic and it feels alive in its own way. Each card has its own part of the story, and it is through exploring that story that Escape the Dark Castle is such a joy.
Conclusion: Escape The Dark Castle
What is the conclusion of this Escape The Dark Castle review?
Just in case you hadn’t guessed – I love Escape the Dark Castle. It is a game that does everything well – from superb storytelling within the cards, to fantastic artwork, to incredibly smooth mechanics. It is one of those games that I hope helps reinvent a genre. For too long have decksploration games been associated with TIME Stories or Exit games. It is time for a new player to enter the ring to do something different, and that player is Escape the Dark Castle.
There is nothing else like it on our shelves, and I cannot wait to see what Themebourne do next.
So, what do you think? Is Escape the Dark Castle the kind of game you’d enjoy (even a game you have enjoyed)? Or is it the kind of game you are happy to let slide? Let me know in the comments below.