On the morning of Christmas Eve I was headed out the door for the drive to Connecticut to visit family when a FedEx truck pulled up in front of my house. If their goal was to deliver in time for Christmas, this was as last minute as it could get. The driver dropped off a massive box and I couldn’t think of anything I had ordered that could explain it. Out of shear curiosity I brought it inside to open it up before leaving. Much to my surprise, it contained a pile of game boxes for a kickstarter project I backed back in July and forgot all about – Escape the Dark Castle.
Honestly, I don’t recall how I found out about this game, but the description struck a chord and so I decided to back it. But the thing is – this wasn’t the first kickstarter for this game. That had come and gone back in 2017, and the game already had an expansion pack to boot. This kickstarter was for three new expansion packs – two along the lines of the first, and the third was a new fancy “collector’s box” that could contain all the bits of the game and various expansions.
After a short debate on whether I should go find their site and just order the original game, I decided what the heck and backed at the level that got me everything – the original game, the three expansions, and the collector’s box. Hence the massive package delivered by FedEx I found myself opening on Christmas Eve. It was a gamble, but in this case, it totally paid off. Yesterday I sat down with two friends to play the thing, first just the original base game, and then the second run layering a mix of expansion material.
So, what’s the game like? It’s a fairly quick co-op game with a light RPG feel. The setting is kind of spooky medieval with a good dollop of the supernatural. The premise is that you’re a bunch of prisoners trapped in the dungeons below the dark castle and you have to try and escape. Characters are kind of ordinary medieval folks – a Tanner, a Tailer, a Miller, etc. Each character has different values in three stats – might, cunning, and wisdom – and a custom six-sided die with faces printed to represent the level of each stat (eg, the Smith with his high might has a lot more might icons on his die than cunning or wisdom). The dice are used most often in combat, but also some times to make random checks to say cross a collapsing bridge or dodge a flying demon.
The set-up of the game is the most important – you build a deck of 15 random encounter cards that you have to make your way through to escape. Some of them are straight up fights – it shows stats for the bad guy and then you use the standard combat rules to fight them off. However, every card includes some really well written text on what happens to your little group as it explores the castle, and more often than not you’re presented with choices you must make as a group. In one case we encountered a noble who was also looking for a way out – we could help him by telling him where we had been, or jump him and rob him. Given that we were beat up terrified commoners, and he was written with a somewhat haughty voice (I mean, he was a noble), we opted for the latter.
The random elements in our first game combined to create some fun story elements, and imprinted themselves on our characters in really enjoyable ways. For example, at one point our Tanner got separated from the group and had to survive torture before he could rejoin us. He had to make 5 checks to survive the beatings, but earlier he had found a magical scroll that allowed him to heal himself any time he rolled a specific face of his die. In his 5 attempts to survive the torture he amazingly rolled that healing result 3 times, coming away from the torture actually healthier than he had started. Thus we decided that our Tanner was in fact a masochist, and the torture was just what he needed to feel in control of his fate again as he attempted escape. This theme stuck with him for the rest of the game, and there were plenty of jokes of what kind of leather-work he was dreaming of returning to if he ever made it out of the castle, and one very funny scene where he muffled his screams of terror by inserting a ball-gag in his mouth.
So, the base game was super fun. On the other hand, I’d give the expansion material a mixed review. Some of the more generic elements I really enjoyed – one expansion adds henchmen to the game, and another adds some interesting dice to help tune the difficulty. These generic add-ons were generally well received by our group. We especially enjoyed the henchmen, and managed to draw all three through the course of our game. Some of the expansions try to push a specific narrative, even recommending you stack the encounter deck with a specific set of cards in a specific order. We played one of these for our second game, and frankly I think it made the game suffer.
Without the random element it felt like the story was a bit too forced. It reminded me of that site that analyzes the progression of Choose Your Own Adventure books, which shows a clear evolution from more branching/random outcomes towards a linear narrative. The fun of the game for me was watching the emergent story form, and in the second run it felt like the game was trying too hard to control the narrative.
Nevertheless, it was a really fun game, and I look forward to playing it some more. Ultimately the game definitely delivers on what it promises – a quick to set up, quick to play, story rich game that is evocative of more complex table top RPGs.