Now turn over...
I expect that reactions to Themebound Games’ Escape the Dark Castle will fall into two broad camps. You’re going to get the folks that for a lack of a better phrase “get it”- that it’s an atmospheric roguelike adventure game couched in a nostalgic homage to the particular Jackson/Livingstone style of fantasy narrative made popular in the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. Then you are going to see the people that don’t, for a lack of a better phrase, “get it” – and they’ll file complaints that there are “no meaningful decisions”, “it’s too dependent on dice rolling”, and that it is “more of an activity than a game”. Even though I am firmly in the first camp, I don’t think the second is entirely wrong in some of its postulated criticisms about this atavistic, willfully primitive game. But I also don’t care about them because I think Escape the Dark Castle is awesome.
Here’s a tip. If you want me to be interested in your game, make it black and white and have it look like either crudely drawn 1980s fantasy or the cover of a black metal record. In fact, this monochrome aesthetic is what made me notice the game in the first place. This is a striking game with the kind of grungy, lurid illustrations that make you feel like maybe you are looking at something you shouldn’t be looking at. Even the characters are drawn to look suspicious, eerie, and somewhat upsetting, let alone the vile denizens and diabolical minions you will encounter as you attempt to perform the titular action to win.
I have to admit that I was a little skeptical about the gamebook-inspired concept seeing as I thought last year’s Choose Your Own Adventure Game was a disaster, a rare failure from Prospero Hall. But the designers of this game got it right, offering just enough control to the player against a process of random encounters and dice-rolling that is designed to whittle them down. The rules are bare, and as a whole the game comes across as simplistic. There aren’t any fancy mechanisms, really, and it emerges as a game that you can set on the table and be up and playing in five minutes, even with new players.
The idea is that the characters are attempting to get out of the Dark Castle’s prison. Don’t ask why, it doesn’t matter. There are 15 large format chapter cards drawn from a larger assortment that form the castle deck. You turn one over, and it has a narrative encounter either with a monster, a trap, a weird NPC. Sometimes, an effect on the card targets the lead player (i.e. the one who turned over the card). Other times it may be a challenge that sees everyone rolling dice. Or, it could be a combat situation and everyone is rolling to match Strength, Wit, Cunning symbols against those on the monster’s card. Many cards present you with decision points –run, fight, hide, ambush, talk, poke around. Simple stuff that adds to the narrative line.
Each character has a unique die with a different distribution of these symbols, which is how they are differentiated at the outset. But as you move through the castle, the characters may also pick up various items including crummy weapons, rotten food, and questionable potions. Using these scarce resources to tip the balance at the right time, to get a reroll or a point of health in a pinch, is where some of the more (and I quote) “meaningful decisions” lie. But there again, the castle is made to punish you and it will wear the characters out as they progress toward a final boss, randomly determined at the outset, that will almost certainly kill you if the castle doesn’t. It’s very tough, but it is absolutely winnable with smart choices and of course a little luck.
The atmosphere is singular and cruel, but hardly humourless. The non sequitur structure of the encounters definitely calls back to the Fighting Fantasy books, where for example you might suddenly encounter a nobleman wandering around the dungeon right after fighting a butcher in the kitchen. How did he miss the three traps you just ran through? Was he hanging out with that butcher? The fun lies in trying to survive all of this, and the laughter lives in failing crucial challenges, watching your health dwindle because nobody can roll a god damned cunning. The co-operative gameplay will find you dragging your fellow players along as everyone limps to the 5th, 10th, or 15thcard.
But this isn’t Gloomhaven, for pete’s sake. This isn’t high end, elegant tactical gameplay where you can arch your eyebrow and congratulate yourself on clever play or skillful manipulation of the mechanisms. It’s about flipping a card, rolling dice at it, and seeing what happens. Some people just don’t understand the fun of this kind of gameplay. I pity them.
I especially like how low effort this game is. Unlike something such as Talisman, which is fundamentally similar in many ways, this is a game that requires very few components and very little time. The core game ships with golf pencils and a pad of paper to track health – no need for two punchboards worth of heart tokens. In its core configuration, it’s compact and supremely playable with plenty of reason to revisit the Dark Castle.
Now, here’s where things get a little trickier. And larger. Themebound was very kind to support ThereWillBe.Games and the presentation of this review with the full range of Escape the Dark Castle products (down to card sleeves and a lore book) and quite frankly I am glad they did because I would be feeling some serious FOMO if I only had the base game. There are three main expansions as well as some additional content in the massive, all-black collector’s box and all of it is terrific even if it pushes the design about as far as it should go in terms of complexity. The three expansions each add a new concept to the game that I think makes it all even more fun. I especially like the bit where a character might turn out to be a cult member – they get a special die that could randomly make them do a heel turn on the party in mid-combat. I love the Character Flaw cards in the Collector’s Box, they make each character more distinct. I also like the special golden axe die that adds a powerful magical weapon that may wind up breaking in the middle of the adventure.
But really, a lot of this material feels like it could have (should have?) been in the base game experience. The three expansions, for example, are 15 card sets that are roughly focused on the new mechanisms introduced – but not so much that you can’t just throw those cards in the mix with the full game and see what happens. I can’t imagine playing without the Death Book, which coordinates your final card with a little piece of text that fills in the morbid details of your fate. The Collector’s Box also has some fun upgrades like a big metal “YOU” token (so you know exactly what “YOU” means on the cards) and some metal skull HP counters. But it is also gigantic, reduces the portability and desirable small footprint of the game, and it isn’t really that useful if you don’t go all in and get everything. I suppose that’s why it is a Collector’s Box.
But as I look over at that big black monolith of a box, I find myself wanting to pop it open and run through a solo game. Two characters. It works great, just as much fun as with two or three friends. My kids love it. It’s only been a couple of sourpusses that I’ve introduced it to that grimaced at the “bad” art and the ruthless capriciousness. I think they are missing the point, and missing out on a fun and atmospheric design.