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ESCAPE the DARK CASTLE from THEMEBORNE is a cleverly created adventure game for 1-4 players aged 14+
It is designed by Thomas Pike, Alex Crispin and James Shelton.  Alex Crispin also did the illustrations, artwork and graphic design.

The idea of it all being Black & White is probably to help keep the costs down but even if it is for costing or it is by actual design, it has the desired effect to make it look stark, dark and mysterious.

Along with two decks of cards and two sets of dice there are just 7 pages of full game rules and one half page of One Player rules; there are also some pencils and a score pad - everything you need to play is in the box.

During my review below I have used the words 'creatures' for 'monsters' and 'Symbols' for 'Icons' and vice versa just to prevent saying the same word over.

 

In the latest era of Escape Room games 'ESCAPE the DARK CASTLE' is a cooperative adventure playable after only a few minutes of opening the game box and reading the rules, in fact you can begin to play almost immediately and learn as you play.
The rooms and creatures of the DARK CASTLE dungeon are generated for each game to keep the players on their toes, never knowing what will be around the next corner. Games last around half-hour and although the game mechanic is the same with the rooms and creatures always changing each 30 minute escape attempt plays out differently. Playing 2 games, one after the other, is not a chore or a bore, it's a pleasure and it's fun.

The game setup is simplified to make it playable by newcomers to the fantasy, escape room or the dungeon adventure genre, but also entertaining and enjoyable for experienced players who like a game to be a thoughtful challenge but not one that takes 3-4 hours to play. The DARK CASTLE is made up of a shuffled deck of 15 Chapter cards under which a randomly drawn  Dungeon Boss is positioned. The only card that appears in all games is the Start Card which always begins on top of the randomly determined Chapter card deck. Next to the Chapter card deck is placed a shuffled deck of smaller 'items and objects' cards. There are 9 black Chapter Dice and 6 white Character Dice.

 

The Character cards show a haggled looking prisoner standing against a brick cell wall. On the wall you can see the Character's occupation: Cook, Smith, Miller, Tanner, Tailor and Abbott. You will also see the three trait Symbols (Might - fist, Cunning - eye, and Wisdom - star) with a number of scratches alongside each of them down the left side of the cell wall. Each Character also has a die with their name on it which is given to the player when they make their choice of who to play; the Cook gets the Cook's die, the Abbott gets the Abbott die etc. Players also take a sheet from the provided pad and use it to track their Character's health (hit points); the number of which depends on the number of players; the more players the weaker the Characters.

To escape the prison the Chapter cards are flipped over, face up, one at a time, each being completely solved or dealt with before the next one is turned. It is important to remember that the game is not played in turns and before turning the Chapter card over the players decide amongst themselves who will be the one to flip it. This is because some of the cards have effects that affect only the Character whose player turns the card. When the card is turned over, as if turning the page of a book, the player who flipped it reads the entire page out loud, including the atmospheric initialised text. This is a storytelling escape room game and the italic text sets the scene and atmosphere of each game.

 

Creatures in particular have a number of Icons at the bottom of their cards, these are the dice that should be rolled when the monster is attacked or attacks. If there is a 'meeple' Symbol it means the creature adds one black die for each Character, thus making it harder to defeat. The monster's Dice pool is rolled and then the Characters involved in the fight roll their Character dice and each white die face that is the same as a black die face removes the duplicate black die from the fight, shields rolled by the adventurers also negate (remove) a black die, some dice have double Icons which means there are two of whatever the Icon represents. Once the dice have been compared if any remain for the opponent/s then they get to attack back; attacks that get through do the damage shown on the adversaries card and the points are marked down on your Character sheet. Survivors of combat gain an item card taken unseen from the top of the deck. Another way of getting item cards is from the Chapter cards when they specifically say so. Characters can also gain a Hip Point back by resting - missing out on a combat round.

Item/Symbol cards generally give Characters equipment but use commonsense when it comes to what a Character can carry and use. If the adventurers as a group can survive the 15 Chapter cards and defeat the Big Boss they escape and win, but if even one Character dies then all the Characters lose. Next time someone not familiar with gaming asks about fantasy games just show them ESCAPE from the DARK CASTLE and they will get basics.

The illustrations are classic gamer-art, visually acceptable and recognisable as the items and objects represented. The equipment/item cards are of basic card, unlaminated, and do not shuffle or deal very well. The Chapter cards are much better, being thinner, larger and easier to shuffle and use.

I have checked online for the retail cost and have seen them to be between €30.00 - €50.00 plus there are apparently a number of expansions at about €18.00 - €20.00 each. Of course you should always check your local games store before purchasing online as you may get it cheaper and you'll almost certainly get it quicker. As I said 'apparently' about the expansions because I haven't actually seen them, but I hope that at least one of them will up the number of players to allow for at least 6 characters to try and escape.

A lively fun game that is enjoyable solo (makes a change) but is better with 3 or 4 players.

© Chris Baylis 2011-2015