There’s a lot to be said for atmosphere in games. Sometimes it can turn a good game into a great game, making a fun evening into one where you’re engrossed and don’t notice the time passing. In other games it’s essential to avoid the game being overly simplistic, to give it a sense of meaning and depth that might otherwise have passed it by. Escape the Dark Castle definitely fits into the second of those two explanations, but does it to such a great degree that the simple mechanics and almost-instant rule learning get forgotten as you fight to escape the castle you’ve been locked up in, desperately hoping you can scrape past the various rooms on the way to your final encounter.
There are two striking elements to Escape the Dark Castle. Firstly is the colour scheme, or distinct lack of one. Every single item on and in the box is in black and white, from the box itself through to the cards, instructions and dice. And yet it doesn’t look cheap or lazy, it just looks right. The artwork on the cards is equally unusual, looking like they’ve been sketched on the cards in black pen and bundled together, but they look fantastic.
But the other thing you’ll spot is how big the cards are. The main cards, those which depict where you are in the castle, or which freakish nasties you’re up against, or who your characters are, all sport the same oversized dimensions. Given that you won’t be handling them much other than to turn over a card every few minutes this isn’t a problem at all (although it does make shuffling them a bit of a bitch) and, considering how much information is on some of the cards, is a very wise move. Anything smaller and text would have been small, or the images would have been squashed and lost their impact.
And it’s that impact that makes this game shine. Without it, without this unique style, without the constantly on-the-edge-of-survival gameplay, Escape the Dark Castle would be little more than reading a few cards and rolling a few dice. To escape you need to play through a series of 15 randomly selected cards, turning each one over as you complete them to reveal where you’ve ended up next. With a decent shuffle you’ll never get the same game twice, in fact the likelihood of anyone getting the exact same game that someone else has previously played is incredibly slim, and as such the need for teamwork is high on the agenda. Choosing a balanced set of characters with varying skills can be vital, which brings us neatly onto how the dice work in the game.
As a dice-based game those who don’t like the element of luck and randomness in their games will develop a strong disliking for this very quickly. All combat is carried out with dice rolls, with nothing other than lady luck guiding you on your way to a brilliant escape or messy death in the hands of some weird ghouls or pissed off guards. Each character has it’s own dice, weighted appropriately depending on which skills they’re more proficient in. The Tailor, for example, has a high Cunning skill, so has more cunning icons on their dice, while the Cook has more of the Might characteristic, and so on. It means the character choices are more than just visual, and can seriously affect the outcome of the games; yet another way to make each run though different.
As you arrive at each of your 15 encounters in the castle (which aren’t always bad, a few will just randomly reward you with something) any combat requirements are laid out using the black dice, essentially giving you a target of what you need to roll with your character dice. Chances are you’ll find another icon too: what looks like a pawn. If that’s one of the icons then there’s another black dice added per character which is rolled and added to the pile of dice you need to defeat. This mean that unless there are a couple of doubles rolled (which take out two matching dice instead of one) everyone will be probably taking some damage from the fight. When your character dice matches one of the black dice, that black dice is removed. When everyone has taken a roll, damage is dished out to everyone (again, unless a double was rolled which also allows you to block the damage in most situations) and the character dice rolling starts again until either at least one player has been killed (at which point it’s game over) or the bad thing has been defeated. When that happens you all get some cool new loot, move to the next card and do it all again.
It sounds easy enough.
It’s not. It’s really hard.
The problem comes from your health, which starts at a relatively low level. In a 2 player game you start with 18 HP, which drops as you add more players. It doesn’t take much to get dangerously low after a messy unlucky fight, and with the final boss fights being incredibly tricky you’ll need a whole party of healthy fighters going into this final fight if you’re hoping to escape. The loot cards can help, sometimes offering strong weapons, or food to prop up your HP. You can rest in a fight too, preventing you from taking part in that round of rolls but also restoring one point of health. But it’s so hard to win – we’ve had several games now with various numbers of characters, and we haven’t escaped. We made it to the boss several times, but actually escaping proved elusive. It’s definitely possible, a little more luck would’ve got us out in one game, but so far we keep getting killed.
But, and here’s the kicker, we keep going back. It’s so easy to get engrossed, to get sucked in by what’s going on, to wonder what’s coming up next and how to beat it. You choose who turns each card over, and that in itself can have an effect on what happens next. It’s hugely luck based, but that works just fine, because the game itself feels like it should have an element of luck depending on which route you find yourself taking out of the castle.
We keep going back, and we’ll continue to keep going back, because it’s such an awesome game. Easy to learn, almost impossible to win, but also incredibly easy to love. It comes highly recommended from us at TGR.