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T’was a warm June evening when I decided to gather some friends around to try out a new game.

I remember being told during my time at the UKGE by the lovely folks at Themeborne Games that ‘Escape the Dark Castle is a thematic game full of atmosphere and simple RPG elements that even a complete newbie to RPG games or even board games, in general, could grasp quickly, and get stuck in’. So I wanted to test this.

I gathered up 3 friends, none of which really play anything tabletop beyond Monopoly at Christmas, with one who says she doesn’t like tabletop gaming because it gets really boring real quick. So I laid the gauntlet down hard on Escape the Dark Castle.

What Is Escape the Dark Castle and How Do You Play It?

escape the dark castle review

The game has you pick a character from a roster of 6 (Tailor, Miller, Smith, Cook, Tanner and Abbot) and you get a white character dice specifically for them. You then set up your castle by blind picking 15 of the 45 chapter cards as well as 1 of 3 boss cards. The start card goes on the top of this deck to set the scene. You then put your item cards next to this pile and have the black chapter dice ready too. With your trusty pad and pencil, you are ready to go. 

The game plays out cooperatively with you and your fellow prisoners of the castle working together to figure out how best to deal with the dangers that lurk on each beautifully illustrated card. You are often presented with options on how you want to proceed on each card, with lots of risk vs reward options for you and your fellow escapees to discuss. This will range from running away, bribing with items, engaging in combat or rolling to escape an area. This aspect of the game feels very well balanced, irrespective of what cards come up. There is a risk that some cards could be too easy, too hard or just not fit in with the flow of the game and Enter the Dark Castle avoids this well and with great care. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the individual aspects.

Character cards and dice: These are you, and you are beautiful.

escape the dark castle review

The 6 different characters have a mixture of the 3 different traits – Might, Cunning and Wisdom. The characters all have a different mixture of these. Two things that we would have liked with these though. Firstly, identification on the back of the card, just a simple character card title would do, as finding them at the start of the game proved to be frustrating as they were in with the plain black-backed chapter cards and took me way longer than I care to admit to find them. Secondly, a backstory. I want to know more about these folks, why they are in prison? Were they innocent? This information may be in one of the books that can be bought separately, but I don’t have those sadly but want to know more! These are effectively my only two issues with the game, and they are pretty minor. 

Chapter cards and Boss cards. This is the main bulk of the game.

45 gloriously drawn chapter cards with a good variety of scenarios, and this is where the game really comes into its own. Each card I played brought discussion, made us think about tactics and how we progress forward as a team because if one dies, we all lose. Do we risk it all and hope the dice favour us or run but guarantee taking damage? The random nature of the draw of the cards makes each play-through unique and makes you really want to find yourself imprisoned time and time again. The Bosses are a whole other beast too. By the time you get to them, you are weak, beaten and bruised, you are yearning for a taste of sweet freedom and then up steps this badass who is crazy powerful. Again, stunning artwork and interesting mechanics on these cards and makes finishing the game all the sweeter. 

Item cards. These little cards grant you several cool items, and you can hold a maximum of 2 items at any given time (bar 2 handed items, they are too big). Unlike most games, you get to reuse a few different items unless stated that it is to be discarded. This is both a useful mechanic and a weakness of them. On 1 playthrough I had a great item card early on and lost interest in whatever came out of the item pile at the end of a combat round as I was already pleased with my item, I guess that’s the luck of the draw. The cards are generally well balanced, but there are undoubtedly a few cards you really want; scientifically speaking the cracked axe is best and I will tell anyone who says differently they are wrong’ coz science. 

escape the dark castle review

Overall this is a brilliant game that offers tons of replayability and even managed to make a non-gamer ask ‘when is it cool for us to play again!?’ Great praise indeed. The art is stand out, the gameplay is fun and easy to learn, its interactive and can be easily picked up for a quick few rounds. You won’t find a ton of depth in the base game for those looking for a huge game to really sink their teeth into, but the expansions will hopefully flesh it out more for the gamers inclined to hardcore sessions of gaming. 

Wait! Before you go!

I was fortunate enough to speak to Escape the Dark Castle creator Thomas Pike, from Themeborne Games

R: Hi Tom, thank you for joining me today. Can you tell us what was the inspiration behind Escape the Dark Castle

T: The game is primarily inspired by 80s fantasy classics like the TV programme Knightmare, the Fighting Fantasy gamebook series, Dungeons & Dragons, and Hero Quest, but you don’t need to know what those things are to enjoy this game. 

R: Our head Coach Robin knows a fair bit about Knightmare! Obviously, the game is out now, so what aspect of it are you most proud of? 

T: We are most proud of the number and diversity of people who are now part of the Escape the Dark community. Young and old, and all walks of life are enjoying the game, and we get regular ‘letters of affection’ (usually emails) which really make it all worthwhile. We have learned that the game is used as an alternative to a bedtime story for 6-year-olds, as a teaching tool for English lessons at school, by a counsellor in therapy sessions, and by students as a drinking game, to name just a few of the uses beyond just your typical gaming group. 

R: That’s incredible. It is a game with a ton of character, and it seems the community is running with that. Tell us about the future of Enter the Dark Castle and Themeborne games.

T: Going forward, we are firstly expanding the Escape the Dark series. There are, of course, already several expansions out for Escape the Dark Castle, so players of that game now have a wealth of content. Beyond that, our latest game, Escape the Dark Sector, was successfully on Kickstarter and the campaign ended on July 1st. We hope to make this a long-running and much-expanded series, and that is already starting to take shape nicely – including Castle being released in Italian and Polish with more languages to follow. 

Of course, Escape the Dark is merely our first game system. We are also working hard on several other games (these things take years to develop properly), and we look forward to unveiling those when the time is right, the first of which will take us in a completely different direction to our current offerings – a head-to-head game of pure strategy. 

R: I, for one, can’t wait to play more. Thank you for your time!

T: Thank you

You can find Themeborne games here:

As always, look after yourself and happy geeking!

Coach Rob

A review copy of Escape the Dark Castle was kindly provided by Themeborne Games at UK Games Expo

Robert House
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