Tabletop Review: ‘Escape the Dark Castle’ Returns to Kickstarter

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‘Escape the Dark Castle’ returns to Kickstarter with three expansions. Image used with permission.

Prisoners must cooperate to defeat monsters and survive traps; you will all escape, or all fail together.

What Is Escape the Dark Castle?

Escape the Dark Castle is my new favorite tabletop game. It’s a card and dice game inspired by old-school Dungeons & Dragons-style role-playing games and ’80s sword and sorcery books and movies. The players are all prisoners trying to escape by getting past guards, monsters, traps, and other horrors. If they manage to clear all 15 levels, they must then face a boss monster such as The Master of Darkness or Terror of the Underworld. This is a cooperative game, and if any one player dies, everyone fails!

The game is easy to set up and takes about 30 minutes to play with 2 to 4 players. There are some alternate rules for solo play, if desired. Every player will be involved with every round of action, and must coordinate their efforts to win. I’d recommend this game for players aged 10 and up. My 11-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son both enjoy it, as well as my adult friends.

Escape the Dark Castle was created by UK game design studio Themeborne, and launched on Kickstarter last year. The original campaign included the option to buy the first adventure pack expansion.

On June 1st, Escape the Dark Castle returns to Kickstarter with a chance to buy two more adventure packs, plus some other add-ins. I have been told by one of the game designers that they have structured the rewards for the new campaign so that every possible combination of products is available. Everyone can get as much or as little as they want without any need to purchase any duplicates. This includes the original game, so there is no need to shy away if you missed the original Kickstarter.

New to Kickstarter? Check out our crowdfunding primer, and visit our Kickstarter curated page for more projects we love.

Escape the Dark Castle Components

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The original game box set with the first Adventure Pack. Image used with Permission.

The game is printed on quality card stock, and the box and rule book are all nice quality too. The black and white artwork is purposefully reminiscent of old-school Dungeons & Dragons drawings.

  • Original Game
    • 53 Chapter Cards
    • 9 Chapter Dice
    • 6 Character Cards
    • 6 Character Dice
    • 5 Boss Cards
    • 35 Item Cards
    • 1 Start Card
    • 1 Golden Axe Card and Die
    • 1 Rule Book
    • 1 Scorepad
    • 4 pencils
  • Adventure Pack 1: Cult of the Death Knight
    • 15 new Chapter Cards
    • 3 new Character Cards
    • 3 new Character Dice
    • 1 new Boss Card
    • 5 new Item Cards: The Curses
    • 1 Cult Die
    • Supplemental Rule Book
  • Adventure Pack 2: Scourge of the Undead Queen
    • 15 new Chapter Cards
    • 1 new Boss Card
    • 2 new Item Cards: Powerful Relics
    • 1 new Item Die (applies to the power of the relic items
    • New Game Mechanic: Companions
    • 3 Companion Character Cards
    • 3 Companion Dice
    • 3 Companion Trigger Cards
    • Supplemental Rule Book
  • Adventure Pack 3: Blight of the Plague Lord
    • 15 new Chapter Cards
    • 1 new Boss Card
    • 3 new Character Cards
    • 3 new Character Dice
    • 3 Companion Trigger Cards
    • 5 new Item Cards
    • 1 new Item Die (applies to the power of the relic items
    • New Game Mechanic: The Plague
    • 1 Plague Die
    • Supplemental Rule Book
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Game components: Box, rule book, chapter cards and dice, start card, boss cards, item cards, character cards and dice, scorepad and pencils. Image used with permission.

Characters

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Character cards define your attributes, and character dice affect your actions.

Each player controls a unique character in the game. Unlike classic role-playing games, your character isn’t an adventuring hero, but has a more commonplace profession such as cook, smith, miller, tanner, tailor, or abbot.

Characters have 3 attributes: wisdom (represented by an asterisk), cunning (represented by an eye), and might (represented by a fist). For example, the Abbot’s strongest attribute is wisdom, while the Tailor is more cunning.

The 6 original character cards all had a maximum attribute rating of 4, with the second highest attribute at 3, and the lowest at 1. The first Adventure Pack: Cult of the Death Knight, which was available through the initial Kickstarter, added 3 new characters: the Mason, the Hunter, and the Bishop. The new characters had their top attribute at 6, but the other 2 attributes at only 1. I found it important to build your party so there is a good mix of prowess in each attribute.

Each character has a unique white character die that reflects their attributes. The character’s top attribute will be more heavily pictured on their character die. A shield symbol on a die face represents the character’s defense, but I’ll explain more about that later.

Chapters

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Each chapter card defines an obstacle to be overcome, while the chapter dice represent how much wisdom, cunning, and might are needed to overcome it.

The deck of chapter cards present obstacles the players must overcome. There are guards, other prisoners, monsters, traps, and hazards in the castle. Some of the chapter cards have special instructions that might impact the first character to enter the room, and there are special combat rules for some foes. The challenges on the cards all require different mixes of wisdom, cunning, and might to defeat. With 53 chapter cards in the original deck, each game of 15 chapters represents a unique set of challenges.

The black chapter dice have an equal mix of wisdom, cunning, and might. However, each chapter card dictates how many chapter dice the players will need to face. The more chapter dice, the tougher the challenge.

Items

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Items help characters with healing, avoiding damage, and healing.

Items help your characters survive the Dark Castle. Even a partially rotten apple can help you restore a bit of health. Armor and weapons, often old and damaged, can help you in a fight. Other items may help you tilt chance in your favor by altering dice rolls.

Bosses

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The Dark One is an example boss card from the original game.

If your beleaguered characters manage to clear all the chapters in the game, they still need to face a boss! These baddies are the baddest, so don’t expect an easy finish.

Notice the symbols at the bottom-left of the boss card pictured above. To defeat The Dark One, you will face 1 chapter die with cunning (the eyeball), 3 wisdom dice, plus you will roll the number of chapter dice equal to the number of players. The Dark One is also going to cause the first player to enter the room to lose all of their items, which are often critical for victory, or even for survival.

The numeral 3 pictured at the bottom-right of The Dark One’s boss card indicates that he does 3 points of damage when he hits you. Most opponents you will face during the normal chapter levels of the castle are not that destructive.

How to Play Escape the Dark Castle

Set Up

You set up the game by picking 15 of the chapter cards at random and one boss card. Place all the cards face down in a stack with the boss card on the bottom of the chapter cards, and your castle is ready to go.

Each player picks a character and takes the corresponding character die. As mentioned, I recommend you try to build your party so that wisdom, cunning, and might are roughly equally represented. The number of health points each character starts with depends of the number players; you each get less health points if there are more players.

Turning Chapter Cards

Decide as a group who will turn each chapter card. The one who flips the card may be affected by what is written on the card more than the rest of the characters. I found it best to rotate this duty, especially as characters become wounded. Remember, if any of you die, you all lose the game.

Each chapter card will have instructions and a challenge of some kind. You’ll have to make choices, use items, and fight terrible foes. Some cards will tell you to draw item cards. You also get to draw an item card if you defeat an enemy.

Drawing and Using Items

When an item is drawn, the card is placed face up. Each character can carry 2 items, though some items require both hands and can only be carried by themselves. Items can be used at any time, and some are discarded after use. Items can be redistributed among players at the time they are drawn, or just after a chapter has been completed. You cannot trade items during a chapter or during combat.

Combat

Each foe you fight will have a set of dice icons on the lower-left corner of their card. This represents the number of chapter dice the players face. The icon with the person symbol indicates that you will roll the number of chapter dice equal to the number of players and add them to the other chapter dice shown on the chapter card.

Players get to attack first, by simultaneously rolling their character dice. Each symbol shown on the players’ dice takes away an equal number of chapter dice with the same symbol. Some character dice have 2 symbols on a face instead of one, which means you can take away 2 chapter dice with the matching symbol. For example, the Smith die has 2 might symbols on 1 side, and 2 wisdom symbols on another. The double-symbol faces of the dice also picture a shield, which you use for defense.

If you fail to defeat your enemy in the first round, they get to attack the party. Any player who rolled a shield symbol does not take damage that round. Everyone else takes the amount of damage shown on the chapter card’s lower-right corner.

This is where items can help avoid damage or heal back lost health points. Remember items can be used at any time, but can only be traded after the chapter is completed.

Each round of combat, one player can elect to rest instead of fighting. They take no damage that round and gain back one health point. Players can take turns resting during combat, but only one player can rest during each round.

Combat continues round after round until either the enemy is dead, or one of the characters dies and the game is lost. If you defeat your foe, the party gets to draw an item card. This is a good time to trade items, before you draw the next chapter.

Cult of the Death Knight

With the Cult of the Death Knight adventure pack, you get 15 new chapter cards, The Death Knight boss card, 3 new characters, 5 cursed items to add to the item deck, and a cult die.

Gameplay is largely the same as in the base game, but the curses are mixed in with the other item cards. Drawing items is a little different, in that you must decide which player flips each item card. If a curse is drawn, that player’s character is the one cursed. Cures cannot be traded like normal items, and do not count towards the normal 2 hand item limit.

The Marked for Death curse is particularly nasty. A character cursed with this card cannot rest. Some of the new chapter cards are cultists, and a character that is marked for death takes extra damage from cultists. Worst of all, if that character drops below half of their original health point value, they begin to succumb to the power of the death cult. They replace their normal character die with the cult die, and in combat, if they roll black they switch sides and work against the party!

Scourge of the Undead Queen

The Scourge of the Undead Queen adventure pack adds a whole new game mechanic… Companions! The pack includes 15 new chapter cards, the Undead Queen boss card, 3 companions (each with a character card, companion card, and event trigger card), 2 new powerful relic items, and 1 die that works with a relic.

Companions can be triggered to join the party during certain game events, and are similar to a non-player character in a role playing game. These allies can really aid the party, but they may not stay through to the end, so use their talents wisely.

Blight of the Plague Lord

Blight of the Plague Lord introduces another new game mechanic… the Plague! You get 15 new chapter cards with the Plague Lord’s sick followers, the Plague Lord boss card, 3 new characters, 5 new items, and a plague die to work with the new mechanic.

Characters may encounter plague carriers during the game, and if they are not careful they can contract the plague themselves! Sounds nasty.

Will I Enjoy Playing Escape the Dark Castle?

Gamers who like cooperative games with lightweight rules should enjoy Escape the Dark Castle. The cooperative play provides a good balance between luck and tactics. I also found the game to be well balanced, in that we lost almost as often as we won. So the game is always a challenge, and victory is never assured.

Gameplay is enhanced if the take the designers’ advice and read all the italic text aloud. So feel free to ham it up and create an atmosphere of dread and foreboding. Speak and act as your character would if you want to. The storytelling aspect of the game is half the fun. If you have fond memories of role-playing games, but don’t want to invest the time, this game provides some of that flavor.

The large number of chapter cards, plus the adventure packs and alternate rules, means this game has lots of replay value.

If you prefer heavy strategy games, or don’t like games where chance is a big factor, you might want to look elsewhere. Very young players who don’t react well to losing may not enjoy this game, although the cooperative nature of the game means at least they are not losing to the other players.

On the whole, I’d recommend this game quite broadly, and I bring it out to play as often as I can. Check out the current Kickstarter to see if you want to give it a try.

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