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Escape the Dark Castle Review

Quick Look: Escape the Dark Castle

Designer: Alex Crispin, Thomas Pike, James Shelton
Artist: Alex Crispin
Publisher: Themeborne, Ltd.
Year Published: 2017
No. of Players: 1-4
Ages: 14+
Playing Time: 30 min.

Find more info on BoardGameGeek.com

WARNING: This is a preview of Escape the Dark Castle. All components and rules are prototype and subject to change.


tl;dr: A perhaps-too-simple dungeon escape game focused on theme and story. Brilliant execution of the core idea.

Getting to the Game: Setting up and learning Escape the Dark Castle is incredibly quick. A deck of massively oversized "chapter cards" is shuffled, and 15 are dealt face-down into a pile. Blindly select one of the three "boss" cards and add it to the bottom of the stack. Put the start card on top. This stack of 17 cards is the game you're going to be playing. There's also a deck of item cards that should be shuffled, and everybody starts with one. There are six included characters to choose from, each with their own custom die. Each of the players (up to four) chooses one, and you're ready to go. 

Reading through the rulebook takes a minute or two, and if even one of your group has played before, explaining the game takes 30 seconds at most. It's here that we find Escape the Dark Castle's first and greatest flaw: it's just too simple. 

Playing the Game: The first thing you'll notice about the game is how monochrome it is. Set in the ink-and-paper world of a castle housing all manner of horrible secrets, you and your companions each play as one of the 6 roles available. Each character card is inked in black on a white background. You're each given a single white die with black etching. The chapter cards have gorgeous art, but completely boring black card-backs. Your characters don't have names, just jobs. They also are fairly indistinguishable from each other, the only distinguishing feature is the combination of the game's three action symbols on your single die. Not having a role ability feels like a huge mistake, and one that would be incredibly easy to implement. This goes back to a recurring theme: time and again, when it feels like a mechanic could be expanded upon or made more deep, that is sacrificed for simplicity and ease of play every time. The developers wanted this to be a story experience, rather than a game with depth. On that point, they succeeded.

Each chapter card requires you to choose which character is "active" for that card's text. That character reads the flavor text aloud, explaining what you're encountering in that room of the castle. Why couldn't the card backs have an intricate wooden door drawn on them? As you're escaping a castle, it makes sense that you all can't physically open a door together, and whoever opens the door first would clearly be the target of the wight or witches or puddle-of-ooze. If the room offers the group a decision, it's made together, and then the group battles the creature within, drinks from the offered potion, endures the ritual, or whatever awful terror the game's designers came up with.

Combat is again simple, but effective. Each combat card has some static symbols which are put into play, and then the card asks you to roll a number of black dice equal to the number of characters escaping. The goal of combat is to roll your group's white dice in order to match the symbols shown on the black dice. Everyone's player dice are different enough that you can suss out who should be rolling when. There's little room for hard decisions. It's often obvious which players should be rolling in combat, and which players can opt out in order to regain a health and avoid being hit. Fail to remove all the dice in a single round of combat, and the creature you're facing does damage to all engaged characters equal to the number in the lower-right corner of the card. If even one of your group's escapists' health falls to zero, you all lose. It's a punishing game, but not onerously so.

Overall, Escape the Dark Castle is a fine story-telling game that feels like it should be a piece in a larger whole. If I was running a D&D campaign, this would be an awesome side quest, especially at the very reasonable play time. Difficulty feels just right, as the game is completely dependent on dice rolling, though you can stack your odds somewhat with character selection. You're very often going to die in the castle before you escape. We had fun playing our first game, which we very narrowly won, but the feeling around the table was that people would play it again, just not right away. Escape the Dark Castle feels like that. A game that you have in your collection that you like, but not one that needs to get to the table every time.

Artwork and Components: The artwork on the cards is absolutely fantastic. Players of a certain age will immediately feel childhood nostalgia for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. The sometimes-grotesque, always-outstanding art on the chapter cards evokes a very powerful feeling of theme, and for this, artist Alex Crispin is to be lauded. The theme of this game is very, very strong. 

The components are another story. The dice came out of the box already missing paint in the etched symbols (perhaps intentional?). The box insert has spaces for everything, but the insets are too small to comfortably get everything out without turning the box over. There are channels on the sides of each inset, but they're not deep enough to get a finger down to the bottom. The chapter cards are absolutely HUGE, and the item cards are small. The dice and cards all feel good to use, but it just feels like there are missed opportunities. The backs of the chapter cards is really glaring for me, since a considerable amount of table space is used up by the yet-to-come cards.

The Good: The art style is top-notch, and a lot of thought has gone into the chapter cards individually. The overall theme is very good, with the variety of baddies you'll encounter in the castle enough to keep you coming back again and again...

The Bad: But gamers looking for a deeper experience may not want to.

Score: Escape the Dark Castle is a game that excels at telling a creepy story, and the difficulty is such that you're much more likely to fail than succeed. This could bring you back to see if you can best it, and the strong points might compel you further. I'm giving Escape the Dark Castle a score of Penny Dreadful.


About the Author:

Nicholas Leeman has been a board game evangelist for over 10 years now, converting friends and family alike to the hobby. He's also a trained actor and works summers as one of the PA announcers for the St. Paul Saints, a professional baseball team. He lives in Minneapolis, MN with his board gaming wife and son.
Escape the Dark Castle Review Escape the Dark Castle Review Reviewed by The Madjai on February 14, 2018 Rating: 5

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