Turn Over To Begin: Escape The Dark Castle; A Review

As residents of an ill-lit fortress replete with dank abandoned shafts and labyrinthine twists-and-turns so numerous that they would make Daedalus quit his day job as the Go-To Maze Guy for ‘Fashionable Minoan’ and take up designing Bovine disguises for kinky queens and shitty gliders full time, it might seem that the Widow, her spiderlings and her long-suffering archivist would be less than interested in a game that re-enacts being imprisoned in just such a place. At the very least, one would think that the Widow might want to avoid inciting rebellion or escape, or such fanciful notions as ‘freedom’. And yet….

We first came across this game whilst visiting the nascent Games Convention ROBIN at Nottingham, and were struck by its stark visuals and eye-catching aesthetic (as well as an urge to start colouring in). Finding ourselves trapped in a Holiday Park, and in dire need of entertainment, we found that Mighty Lancer Games in Bridlington could meet that need. (A review of that eminent coastal attraction will be pursuant.) A copy of EtDC was duly purchased

Escape the Dark Castle Contents image

The contents of the Core Game, laid out ready to play.

Filtered through the Upside-Down, Escape the Dark Castle takes a host of familiar elements, such as monochrome art & ‘You will need paper and pencil’ combat mechanics, filters them through the Upside-Down into an alembic of Purified Knightmare, adds some powdered Heroquest, and slowly drips the resultant potion into the face of several Fighting Fantasy books secured with old copies of Ravening Hordes to a gore-encrusted rack…

Heroquest Broadsword Item Card

I know you’re saying it…and remembering it with visceral pleasure…

The rules themselves are incredibly simple to grasp, revolving around a system of symbol-matching custom dice for combat resolution, and steady progression through the various ‘levels’ of the titular Castle by turning over randomly arranged ‘Chapter Cards’ to reveal various events or creatures as they occur. The cards themselves are large (A6 sized), redolent of the pages of a Fighting Fantasy Gamebook. with clear instructions and thematic text sections. Where a card might bear some explanation, Themeborne have helpfully provided an FAQ for each one on their website. We heartily recommend you visit, and there view the splendid trailer for the game, which would be worthy of existing all by itself, such is it’s retrostalgic nature.

Skeleton Giant Illustration b+w Escape the Dark Castle Chapter Card art

Pretty sure I saw this band at Rock City once…

Each of the custom dice is inscribed with symbols: an eye for ‘Cunning’, an asterisk for ‘Wisdom’, and a fist for ‘Might’. This has led to the unfortunate happenstance of this over-excited random-chance-generating-cube-juggler leaping from his rickety stool and crying out ‘Hah! I fist the gruesome beast/skeletal giant/unfortunate dungeon dweller’ or ‘Egads, I’ve been Fisted quite thoroughly by that passing hideous monster’. This can be considered misfortunate, but is no reflection on the game itself, only on the dank contents of our own Mind-Dungeon. In our defence, we do insist on calling ‘Wisdom’ the ‘Sparkly Dice’, to prove it’s not all filth and ordure up in here.

On the other hand, whilst inadvertently generating some curious invective, the Fist icon was also gently finessing some other old-school memories. The Ever-Nostalgic Conrad Kinch of Miniature Wargames (@aquestingvole  ) recalled that F.I.S.T was once an interactive telephone adventure game, and indeed he is entirely correct. From the same Steve Jackson stable as Fighting Fantasy, (one of the biggest antecedents to this game) the advert below (and others of its ilk) were common in White Dwarf and other similar publications in the late 80s, and like many ‘Fantasy Scenarios’ on the telephone, liable to incur some considerable expense.

Advertorial for FIST: Castle Mammon, by Steve Jackson Games

Fantasy Interactive Scenarios By Telephone.

Another inspiration for EtDC surely must be Knightmare, the 80s CITV adventure game, hosted by the redoubtable Hugo Myatt as Treguard of Dunshelm.

Cover for Knightmare: Labyrinth of Fear Adventure book

There were Knightmare Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books…

We find it is impossible to not encant the text descriptions from the Chapter Cards in the style of Treguard, and actively encourage other players to seek out someone with an impressive delivery to do the same, whether they play along or not.

Hugo Wyatt as Treguard

“And just keep telling yourself… It’s only a game… isn’t it?”

The monochrome illustrations will be familiar in tone to anyone who spent their youth trying to mark 8 different pages of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book with only fingers, perused between the covers of White Dwarf and Dragon Magazine, and also strangely reminiscent of flyers for 80s Doom Metal bands…

Grave/Stench/Vomitory gig Flyer

It is known that the more indecipherable the name, the doomier the band. Would you know that last one said ‘Vomitory’ if it wasn’t further down the flyer?

In another beautifully atmospheric move, Themeborne have also released a soundtrack for the game. 6 tracks that wouldn’t be out of place inserted into the set-lists of any of the bands on the flyer above, rather cleverly released as a digital download and on cassette tape as well (sadly out of print at the moment). You can learn more about this fantastically evocative work and other material from the composer, Alex Crispin, here. It is, unsurprisingly, very atmospheric and perfect for playing to.

EtDC has already spawned a cluster of expansion sets, each introducing more Chapter cards, Characters, Boss battles, and sundry other mechanisms or extra rules which, although maintaining the signature simplicity of the core set, add layers of new and interesting details. Having bought and played the Core set multiple times over the space of two evenings, we have already made purchase of the first expansion: Cult of the Death Knight.

Adventure Pack 1: Cult of the Death Knight contents, Escape the Dark Castle

The first add-on Adventure Pack, with more characters, cultists and the titular Death Knight

Several other peripherals are available. As well as the Soundtrack mentioned above, there are playmats, a Storage box with all manner of extra accouterments, and the enigmatic ‘Death Book’. These have all gone on ‘The List’.

By design, EtDC punches many nostalgic buttons, and several more seemingly by chance. (As well as those mentioned above, it is quite redolent of early Text-based adventure games like ‘The Hobbit’, with ‘Dark Souls’ levels of difficulty. Although weren’t early games always difficult?) Unusually for us, it is a game free of miniatures, although that hasn’t prevented thoughts of painting up some old D&D models in nice monochrome schemes. We have thoroughly enjoyed its playing, and at first light will venture forth from the Under-city to introduce it to the innocent shopkeeps at Bake, Battle & Roll, our local Board Games Cafe, there to demonstrate it’s brilliance, and persuade them to adopt a copy, forthwith.

If ever there was a game that encapsulates living under the Lead Mountain, this does a pretty solid job. Especially when that monster made out of bits of animals shows up….

Treguard, Knightmare

‘Oooh…nasty’

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