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Escape the Dark Castle (2017)

Escape the Dark Castle (2017) is so goooooood. After one play, it immediately joined our regular rotation of board games. It essentially takes the idea of an adventure gamebook like Fighting Fantasy, but tears the spine off and randomizes the story. You and your friends (it’s co-op) escape the dungeon and proceed, card by card, through fifteen rooms in hope of finding a way out. In those rooms are all manner of monsters, traps, mysterious strangers and other challenges to overcome, mostly through rolling special dice. Should everyone get through the regular rooms in one piece, all that remains between the players and egress is a terrifying boss monster. Should any character die, the game is lost. Shuffle the cards, pick fifteen new ones and try again.

Items give small advantages and healing. Expansions add wrinkles (like the curses and plagues, which make things harder, or flaws, which, despite the name, are beneficial, single-use special powers). There’s even a moody dungeonsynth soundtrack on vinyl and cassette. All of that stuff enhances a game that is already great. It is exciting to play, fast paced and keeps player’s attention even when all seems lost — like Return to Dark Tower, fortunes can turn rapidly. Escape the Dark Castle is harder though — we’ve only won two times out of probably close to 30 plays [edit: our average has improved since writing this, but not by a large margin].

A huge amount of the game’s appeal rests on the shoulders of the art of Alex Crispin that decorates all the cards. He captures something of the vibe of the early 80s UK RPG scene — the art is black and white and scratchy, its subjects a mix of gross, brutish, gloomy and silly — but also feels modern and un-nostalgic (as much as the art reminds me of Fighting Fantasy, it also reminds me of Marc Rude’s art for Earth A.D. and the pointy illustrations that cover black metal records). The result is an excess of delightfully grim atmosphere. Who’d have thought dying would be so much fun?

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