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Escape The Dark Castle is Wicked, Atavistic Fun - Review

MB Updated September 13, 2019
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Escape The Dark Castle is Wicked, Atavistic Fun - Review

Game Information

There Will Be Games

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.

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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.

Editor reviews

1 reviews

A great homage to Fighting Fantasy and one of the most easy to play dungeoncrawls on the market.
Top 10 Reviewer 137 reviews
Michael Barnes (He/Him)
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Sometime in the early 1980s, MichaelBarnes’ parents thought it would be a good idea to buy him a board game to keep him busy with some friends during one of those high-pressure, “free” timeshare vacations. It turned out to be a terrible idea, because the game was TSR’s Dungeon! - and the rest, as they say, is history. Michael has been involved with writing professionally about games since 2002, when he busked for store credit writing for Boulder Games’ newsletter. He has written for a number of international hobby gaming periodicals and popular Web sites. From 2004-2008, he was the co-owner of Atlanta Game Factory, a brick-and-mortar retail store. He is currently the co-founder of and as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Miniature Market’s Review Corner feature. He is married with two childen and when he’s not playing some kind of game he enjoys stockpiling trivial information about music, comics and film.

Articles by Michael

Michael Barnes
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Articles by Michael

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drewcula's Avatar
drewcula replied the topic: #301672 12 Sep 2019 19:43
Yes yes yes. I've been playing EftDC for over a year, and have enjoyed it immensely. It also passes the spouse test. She and I listen to our EftDC soundtrack, read the cards aloud in our best Orson Welles impersonation, and almost always lose when (if) we reach the final boss. MB review is pretty spot on, though I may know be experiencing my own sense of FOMO. I bought the core game. When it was reprinted, I bought he expansions. I did NOT buy the collector's box. Hmmmm....

The one thing I cannot do, is back the sequel. It's currently finishing up the pledge manager phase. It's sci-fi. The great EftDC aesthetics just don't seem to jive in the future as well as they do in a medieval pastiche. That, and the added rules for ranged attacks just seems unnecessarily fiddly for fiddly sake.
Frohike's Avatar
Frohike replied the topic: #301675 12 Sep 2019 21:47
I’m all in on the sequel, so I’ll report back once I can play it. I personally love that style in a sci fi setting (also in on Dark Venture because of this & nearly pulled the trigger on Cryptic Explorers).
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #301676 12 Sep 2019 22:44
Man I’ll take a damn train game if it’s in all black and white like this. I have a thing.

I also have an advance copy of Cryptic Explorers. Looks cool.

Frohike you should get the Collector’s’s very cool. The six bosses are great, the Flaws are essential. There’s a new artifact, the Living Stone. There are also some other niceties, like the hilarious YOU token. Everything fits in the box SLEEVED. And man, they have like the nicest sleeves I’ve ever seen.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #301677 12 Sep 2019 22:44
OMG I’m an idiot...LIVING STONE. Ha! Just got it.
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #301681 13 Sep 2019 03:41
FWIW, here's my review of it without expansions and snazzy extras.
fightcitymayor's Avatar
fightcitymayor replied the topic: #301684 13 Sep 2019 08:50

Then you are going to see the people that don’t, for a lack of a better phrase, “get it”

I see you've watched the Tom Vasel review.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #301685 13 Sep 2019 09:07
I don’t watch anything he does...but seeing as this is a dude who once said that Talisman is not for (and I quote) “discerning gamers”...not surprised.
drewcula's Avatar
drewcula replied the topic: #301688 13 Sep 2019 10:58
Well, when a door closes - a window opens.

Earlier this week, I missed the boat on Barnes' offer for those Frostgrave books. Damn.
Now I'll spend away that money on the EftDC "Collector's Box." The pledge manager for Escape the Dark Sector has it as an "add-on."

[MB, please PM your street address. My wife will be targeting your home with hate and vitriol.]

NOTE: If any F:ATtie wants to try this little gem of a game, the pledge manager is still open. It's a modest price, and I'm certain; if you like the aesthetic - you'll like the game. The UK pledge manager is a decent way to grab the core, the expansions, and all of the cute/unnecessary tiddly winks.
drewcula's Avatar
drewcula replied the topic: #301689 13 Sep 2019 11:03
And I may have screwed that up too.
I just placed my order via their pledge manager. Supposedly, it went through.

This is telling, because an earlier e-mail informed me the pledge manager was closing last weekend (Labor Day weekend).

We'll see...
drewcula's Avatar
drewcula replied the topic: #301690 13 Sep 2019 11:37
Okay. I'm an idiot. In a rush, I filled out a pledge manager that closed a week ago. While the order supposedly went through, I don't know if it really will.
So I sent a message to customer support.

Largely in part, because EftDC expansions and such are already available of the publisher's web store. Sigh...

Moral? Don't buy stuff hung over.

Happy Friday the 13th everyone!
fightcitymayor's Avatar
fightcitymayor replied the topic: #301691 13 Sep 2019 11:40

Michael Barnes wrote: I don’t watch anything he does...but seeing as this is a dude who once said that Talisman is not for (and I quote) “discerning gamers”...not surprised.

Some fun quotes from his video review:

"I hate this game, I mean I hate it,"
"I despise this game, looks boring, looks dreadful, looks bad, looks like some kid's doodling,"
"Do you want to be these people?! They all look grotesque and nasty and blah!"
"The game itself... there's no game!"
"There's no decisions, this isn't role-playing, this is a game that should have come out in the 80's,"
"The solo game of this is extremely unfun,"
"This is one of my least favorite games I've played in a long time,"

and perhaps the inadvertently truthy clincher...

"I think the vast majority of people who watch Dice Tower reviews... I don't think this would be your style."
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #301694 13 Sep 2019 12:18

Michael Barnes wrote: Man I’ll take a damn train game if it’s in all black and white like this. I have a thing.

I get it. Black-and-white art can sometimes be more compelling than color art. The contrast can be more dramatic, and the linework can be very detailed, delivering a sense of texture than can go missing in color art.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #301699 13 Sep 2019 12:59
I guess Themebound didn’t pay for one of the more expensive content packages...
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #301704 13 Sep 2019 13:42
Black and white artwork is especially good for horror:

From the Toadswart serial in Epic Magazine, with art by Tim Conrad:

From the Illustrated Frankenstein, with art by Bernie Wrightson:
thegiantbrain's Avatar
thegiantbrain replied the topic: #301717 14 Sep 2019 06:37
Yeah the dice tower review was full of 'I don't get what this game is trying to do'. I do think Tom is bad at context for reviews. I personally love the game and have been blowing the Themeborne trumpet since I came across the game at UKGE 2017.
ChristopherMD's Avatar
ChristopherMD replied the topic: #301876 20 Sep 2019 17:41
Received and played solo today. This is exactly the kind of game I want to be playing as far as short and simple games go. I enjoy the artwork and "atmosphere" in the game. Its got a fun narrative and despite my dwindling health and trepidation, I looked forward to flipping each new chapter knowing it was taking me that much closer to freedom. My Tailor and Tanner did quite well and nearly escaped the dungeon having reached the boss, The Master of Darkness, with 3 and 1 HP remaining. Fucking gargoyle helped him finished off the Tailor and that was it for that attempt. There WILL BE more escape attempts in the near future (probably tonight).

The Collectors Box outright sucks. Its way too big, you can't read the game name on the shelf, and the insert doesn't really sort everything well. It also doesn't have slots for future expansions so I guess this is it. Which is fine as its a lot of material already but I wouldn't say no to more chapters that don't add new rules. A half-size box with movable dividers for the two cards sizes and a place to hold dice would have been better and still left room for much more.
NeonPeon's Avatar
NeonPeon replied the topic: #302060 27 Sep 2019 22:40

I don’t watch anything he does...but seeing as this is a dude who once said that Talisman is not for (and I quote) “discerning gamers”...not surprised.

Wow, he said this? My eyes hurt from rolling so hard.

Forgive the following. I sometimes go on Talisman rants because I'm always hearing about how it's a shitty, mindless game for the plebs, and this kind of bullshit sets me off.

I would say it takes a MORE discerning gamer, although I try to avoid such pretentious language, to master the strategy of Talisman over some generic Euro that presents the strategic options to you on a platter: take two actions during your turn. An action can be to convert colored cubes into other colored cubes and/or victory points according to this chart, to build some stupid structure that makes more cubes or something, or to draw more cubes from a bag or some shit. It can be difficult to master the mathy puzzle solving of a game like this, but it literally tells you the kinds of decisions you have to make.

Talisman may have the veneer of "go left or right and draw cards, wheeeee" - but you actually can figure out short and long term goals and make plans to achieve those goals. You need to figure out when to hover around a space you want to land on given estimated probabilities of which spaces/cards you can land on next turn, keeping in mind other players' chances of landing on you who might pose a threat. A large part of the game is timing - when to make your dash for the endgame, when to use a spell or do you want to just burn it off, when to attack another player and if you do whether you try to knock down his lives or steal something, when to spend Fate, when best to visit a particular expansion, making constant risk/reward estimates for all these things. Sure sometimes it IS basically do you go left and draw a card or go right and draw a card, and sometimes fishing for Adventure cards is the best option. But if you turn off your brain entirely because you mischaracterize the whole game as this simple, then you miss all those moments when you really do need to make the best decision.

There's a social element that shouldn't be discounted. If I'm the high-starting-strength Troll I might act threatening and announce on turn 1 that I'm going to kick everyone's ass at every opportunity (since odds are, at least at the beginning, I have a +2 to +4 combat advantage over pretty much every other player). This puts pressure on the other players - when it's time for them to make their binary choice of which direction to go, they may avoid landing within range of me, even if it means going in the opposite direction of where they're aiming, just because they don't want me taking their sword. But the cost of doing this for me is I spend more turns killing characters that may distract me from my own goals. If my current goal is to go the Enchantress (a good early game goal as you can build up Strength/Craft with little risk except for Toadiness, but hey there's Fate for that, or you can just deal), if I beat up a player when I could've landed there, that's my opportunity cost. Players who can initiate psychic combat may initiate revenge against me (because the Troll's Craft is low). I might just give such a player a pass from my wrath as a safety measure for myself. Tradeoffs!

I could do the opposite and lay low - I do this often as the Dwarf who requires one die fewer for the Craft path to victory which is a huge advantage that others often underestimate. I've lost track of my number of sneaky Dwarf wins this way.

One summer, my siblings, friends and I played Talisman nearly every day - it was our obsession - and I played my best to win every time, winning a majority of the games with 4-6 players. Later I used a binomial probability calculator to estimate how my win record could have arisen by pure chance, and it spat out the minimum possible value, something like "<0.0001%" - so clearly I was doing something right. Although generally these days I just play more "for fun" with my son, often just the two of us, and I help him out by advising and thinking through his options. We try random stuff, like exploring an expansion board just for kicks even if it may not be the best option strategically - because having fun is good! And that's the beauty of the game - you CAN play it hard if you want, or you could chill out, draw random cards, have drinks and laugh. But I guess I'm just not discerning because I enjoy this game. You know I just looked up the meaning of "discerning": "having or showing good judgment" - he can go fuck himself.