Escape the Dark Castle from the newly formed Themeborne was high on my list of things to see at Games Expo. The aesthetic reminded me a lot of playing black and white RPGs on a borrowed school computer and the Fighting Fantasy books of my childhood. This was a game that hit me right in the nostalgia.
Escape the Dark Castle sees 1 or more players starting off in the prison cells of the castle. You pick your character and grab their special die, then as a team set off into the castle to defeat the big boss, who is randomly selected, and win your freedom! The first room you enter also gives each of you an item that you will find useful on your perilous journey. This was my character:
The three symbols on my sheet in order are fight, cunning and wisdom, with the number of dashes beside each one showing how many times they appear on my custom dice. You will note that there are more than 6 appearances in total across the 3 abilities and some sides of the dice will have more than one symbol on it. We’ll come back to those shortly.
Noting down my health of 15, armed with my trusty shield and accompanied by my fellow prisoners, an Abbot and a Miller if I recall correctly, we entered the first room of the castle to find…..
…..a terrible maniac! Oh no!
The You part of the card refers to the person who turned the card over. Many of the encounters will have an effect on the person who entered the room meaning you want to pass this responsibility around the table, allowing each player a chance to narrate the horrors of the Castle.
This particular encounter also entails some combat: shown by the symbols in the bottom left and the number in the right. The black dice are used to show how difficult a given combat is. The two fists mean we put two of the dice down with a fight symbol showing and the little person symbol means we also roll a number of those dice equal to the number of players. This gives a nice uncertainty to a given encounter, even if you have come across it before.
Once its difficulty is established it’s time to tackle the combat in a series of rounds. Each player decides whether they are going to engage or rest on a given round. When resting you gain 1hp back, you can’t take damage but you can’t help out this round. Only 1 player per round can rest. Anyone engaging rolls their custom dice and then tries to match the symbols they roll with the black dice of the encounter. Any matched black dice are removed and if all the dice are gone the monster is defeated. Simple.
Anyone who engaged the creature also takes the damage listed in the bottom right hand corner, unless they rolled one of the shield symbols on their dice indicating they managed to dodge out of the way or block the blow. There is a great feeling of risk/reward with the combat system that really makes the encounters feel increasingly desperate as you work your way towards the final encounter and out of the Castle!
And so it goes as you pick your way through the castle: defeating encounters, getting items from slain monsters and trying to maintain your health for even one of you falls, it’s all over for the team!
Even though the mechanics are simple in ‘Escape the Dark Castle’ there is a lot of room for the team to create a variety of interesting encounters. For instance look at these skeletons:
A simple twist to the mechanic which provides an interesting choice to the players: do they rush in hoping to be able to take them down but risking a lot of damage, or do they go in more cautiously, meaning the combat will most likely take longer but leaving them better prepared to take a hit.
It is these elegant mechanics, with simple but significant decisions that really make ‘Escape the Dark Castle’ sing. Every choice feels important right down to who should turn over the next card for you don’t know what is lurking around the next corner!
The art throughout is superb and really evokes the feeling of classic computer RPGs and the Fighting Fantasy books that many of us grew up with. Right down to their superb trailer the team have absolutely captured the feel of these games with a simple aesthetic that drips with nostalgia and reverence. I mean look at this thing:
The team at Themeborne have already slain a slew of stretch goals, already unlocking better quality cards and chunkier dice, like the ones I was playing with at Expo. They have also hinted at different settings using a similar system so I can see them producing different ‘books’ of encounters in space, modern day the possibilities are endless with such a good system to build on.
Back it. Back it now. Don’t you want to ESCAPE THE DARK CASTLE?