Funded via Kickstarter, Escape the Dark Castle: The Game of Atmospheric Adventure is a grim co-operative dice game which echoes the Fighting Fantasy series of solo adventure books from the nineteen eighties. Published by Themeborne, Escape the Dark Castle is designed to be played by between one and four players, aged fourteen plus, so just like those Fighting Fantasy books, it can be played solo. It can be played in thirty minutes or less—probably less because Escape the Dark Castle is a brutally challenging game to beat and offers plenty of replay value because of the number of cards it comes with and the random set-up each time it is played.
In Escape the Dark Castle, each player controls a prisoner who has been wrongly incarcerated below Dark Castle for more years than he or she can recall. Now there is an opportunity to escape and take up their old lives again, but between them and freedom stands some fifteen encounters or locations, as well as a boss responsible for their imprisonment. They will face traps, monsters, choices, and more, all of which they must work together to overcome if they are to escape. For if one of their number dies in the process, then they all fail. So, in Escape the Dark Castle, it is a case of ‘together or death!’
Escape the Dark Castle comes decently appointed. This includes six Character Cards, fifty-three Chapter Cards, five Boss Cards, and a Start Card, all of which are A6 in size. The thirty-five Item Cards are standard sized cards. The fifteen, large six-sided dice are divided between the nine black Chapter Dice and the six white Character Dice. A scorepad and several pencils are included to track the escapee’s Hit Points. The black and white rule book is just twelve pages long.
The Character Cards depict an Abbot, a Cook, a Miller, a Smith, a Tanner, and a Tailor. Each has ratings in three Traits—Cunning, Might, and Wisdom. The ratings each Character has in these Traits indicates how many times they occur on their Character die. So, the Smith has four in Might, three in Wisdom, and one in Cunning, and the corresponding number of symbols appear on the Smith’s Character Die. Some of the symbols appear twice on the face a Character Die and in shield. When rolled, this means that a Character is twice as effective, whilst the shield indicates that all damage has been blocked. The Chapter Dice simply show the three symbols twice.
The Chapter Cards depict monsters and challenges the Characters have to overcome and the horrors and choices they will face. Each Chapter Card clearly indicates what the Characters have to do, how many Chapter Dice need to be rolled if required, and how much damage the Characters will suffer if they fail. For example, the Characters might encounter a putrid captain sitting at a table, his face shrouded in shadow. He will suddenly rise and attack if the Characters try to get past him. They have two choices. They can flee, but suffer three Hit Points of damage in the process, if they fight, they must each roll their Character dice to try and match the symbols rolled on the Chapter Dice in order to beat the Captain. Each round the Captain remains standing, he inflicts two Hit Points of damage on all of the Characters.
The Item Cards are a mix of consumables, equipment, and relics. So, the Cunning Concoction is drunk to apply an extra Cunning result in a Chapter, the Infested Cheese Wheel is eaten to restore a Hit Point for everyone, the Rotten Shield reduces damage taken by one point, and the Decayed Blade allows a player to reroll his die once per round if he rolls Wisdom and choose the best result. None of the Characters have bags or pockets, so they can hold two items or a single two-handed item. Lastly, the rulebook is a quick read and the rules are easy to learn. (In fact, Escape the Dark Castle can be played within ten minutes of opening the box as it is very easy to teach.)
At the start of the game, each player chooses a Character, which should be done to ensure that together the players have a good mix of Characters favouring the three Stats. Fifteen Chapter Cards are selected at random and shuffled to form the Castle Deck. The Start Card is placed atop the Castle Deck, whilst a Boss Card is placed at the bottom. Everyone takes their Character Die and the game is ready to play. All this takes a couple of minutes to set up.
The game starts with a player turning over the Start Card and reading it. Then the first Chapter Card is turned over and play proper begins. There is no turn order, the players deciding who will turn over each Chapter Card and what they will do to overcome them. It can be important who turns over a Chapter Card as some have conditions which apply only to that player. From one Chapter to the next, the Characters might have to hack their way through thorny vines, fight a ghoul, aid or rob a nobleman, make a deal with a trader, steal from an empty guard room, avoid a set of three swinging axes, and so on. Along the way they will find items which will help them and if they are lucky, they will be strong enough to face the Boss at the end of the dungeon and defeat him to escape.
All this plays in thirty minutes. Which when combined with the quick set-up time makes for a quick playing experience. More importantly, it is a very luck-based experience. Not just the roll of the dice to determine the outcome of Chapters and combats, but also what Chapter Cards and Item Cards will be drawn. It is also a brutal playing experience as there are few easy Chapters and combat can be really nasty if the players do not roll the dice they need to defeat a foe. This also makes it tense experience as from one Chapter to the next, as the players are forced to make choices, balance their need to defeat foes to find Items versus their remaining Hit Points, and try keep their Hit Points high enough to survive facing the final Boss—if they get their far…
Physically, Escape the Dark Castle is really well produced. The Chapter, Boss, and Character Cards are large and really easy to read and understand. Each one is illustrated in Black and White, in a style which echoes that of the Fighting Fantasy series and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay last seen in the nineteen eighties. There really is a rich seam of nostalgia running through this game right down to the illustration of the Dark Castle itself, which echoes the castle of Citadel Miniatures. (That said, it is very, very British nostalgia, so it may not appeal to all gamers.)
Which all sounds well and good. Unfortunately, Escape the Dark Castle feels as if it should offer more complexity than it actually does. With just fifteen Chapter Cards each game and the choices limited to events described on those Chapter Cards, it never feels as if the Characters have any choice as to where they go—it is always forward, forward, forward to escape and the next Chapter Card. Similarly, none of the Characters really feel different to each other. Only the Stats differentiate between them and this makes them feel a bit flat. A special ability for each of the Characters might have been enough for them to stand out from each other. Nor are there any rules for scaling the game up and down to make it easier or more difficult to win. (The solution would be to decrease or increase the number of Chapter Cards.) Hopefully an expansion will add these options and so offset the game’s simplicity, making it a bit more appealing to a wider audience.
Despite these issues, Escape the Dark Castle is still fun and still challenging to play. Indeed, overcoming the challenges of the Chapter Cards and defeating the final Boss really does feel as if the players and their Characters have achieved something. It is quick to set up and play through, making it a good filler. It is also possible to tell a story of desperation and heroism as Characters progress further towards the exit from under the castle—it is here that that the game really begins to echo the solo adventure books. Overall, this is a brutal filler which offers plenty of choices and challenges to face and plenty of cards to make you want to return to see if you can Escape the Dark Castle: The Game of Atmospheric Adventure once again.