To watch an overview of this game and see a few sample turns, click here.
What is this game about?
Escape the Dark Castle is the debut title from Themeborne, a publisher that apparently lives up to its name. It is a retro fantasy game in which players work together to... well... escape a dark castle. Along the way, you will be confronted with interesting choices, gruesome monsters (all illustrated in a really cool black-and-white style), and tons of very well done flavor text.
Mechanically, Escape the Dark Castle is incredibly simple. To set up the game, players create a deck of castle cards that begins with the introductory card and ends with one of several boss cards. Each game will play differently, depending on which cards made it into the castle deck. Each turn, players flip over new cards, make any required decisions/resolve any surprise die rolls, and enter combat if they have encountered an enemy. Each character has a custom die with its own configuration of three traits: might, cunning, and wisdom. Players fight enemies by rolling their dice and taking damage until they have rolled the necessary symbols, after which an enemy is defeated and players draw helpful item cards. One warning, though: The player who first entered the room/turned over the card may have to deal with extra danger or damage, so it is important for players to be clear about who will turn over the next card.
Players either all escape the castle together, or lose together if even one player dies. But really, the point of this game is to enjoy the adventure for however long you survive.
How does it play solo?
To play a solo game of Escape the Dark Castle, players need to control two characters to ensure more balanced odds when rolling dice. The game works as normal during solo play, except that the solo player needs to decide which of her two characters is the one overturning each card in order to correctly resolve any special effects.
Escape the Dark Castle is really something special. The production values are top notch: When you open the box, you are treated to chunky custom dice and luxurious, oversized cards that are surely a sleever's nightmare (do they even make card sleeves this big?). The flavor text is excellent, and the art is distinctive and creepily appealing. It's clear that a lot of love went into this game.
Another important contribution that Escape the Dark Castle makes to gaming is its accessibility. Pretty much anyone could learn to play this game in five minutes or less, and just about any group of friends could have a good time progressing through the variable "story" that the game creates. This is the kind of game that I want to show other people so that we can all have a good laugh and a great time. In addition to solo play, I really enjoyed playing it with my boyfriend, and he has asked to play it again soon—definitely a good sign.
That said, Escape the Dark Castle loses a little something when I play it alone. Mechanically it works, but the gameplay is so simple that there aren't too many interesting choices to make. The dice rolling itself quickly becomes repetitive. So do the cards—eventually, you'll have seen them all. (Although fortunately there is an expansion to add variety.) And while I devour the text on each new castle card with gusto, Escape the Dark Castle also makes me want to find someone else to show it to. It's just not as much fun without friends to ask, "Hey, remember the time we were almost thrown into the evil cook's soup pot?"
Do I recommend it?
For solo play, maybe. If there is space in your life for a light filler game that takes you through a story without too much thought, then give this a try. For group play, however, I definitely recommend it.
Overall Rating: 3 stars (3.5–4 stars if playing with others)
5 stars — I love it!
4 stars — I really like it.
3 stars — I like it.
2 stars — It's okay.
1 star — Meh.