ESCAPE THE DARK CASTLE/SECTOR

★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _TABLETOP.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
publisher _THEMEBORNE.   designers _THOMAS PIKE, _ALEX CRISPIN, _JAMES SHELTON.  players _1-4.   playtime _20-40 / 30-60 MINS.

June 7, 2023

box art © Themeborne Ltd, photos © TWE.

The concept of the ‘encounter deck’ – or some thematic equivalent thereof – has been fairly abundant in the world of board gaming since time immemorial. Even stretching back to the micro narrative flairs of, say, Monopoly’s ‘chance’ cards (apologies, of course, offered to the board gaming community for employing such a Kryptonitic reference), the idea of drawing a card for a quick fire flash of storytelling, consequence and decision-making is by no means a new or innovative concept.

Meanwhile, the boom of fantasy adventuring, roleplaying and choose-your-own-adventure making in the seventies and eighties in particular – from the obvious candidates (something to do with dungeons?) through to the various Livingstone offerings – carved an audience for narrative and consequence-driven gaming experiences within high fantasy realms. A genre that steadily ticked away until a notable resurgence in the past decade in particular (thanks, Youtube, Community and a certain pandemic…).

In many ways, the offerings thus far from Norwich-based Themeborne represent a melting pot of these disparate elements.

Jetty that first word from each game’s respective title, though; the fantasy offerings of Escape the Dark Castle and its sci-fi successor, Escape the Dark Sector, share precious little in common with that other relatively-recent burgeoning craze in home and tabletop gaming; the escape game.

Rather, Dark Castle and Sector both are focused, deeply thematic, card-based narrative adventure games. Pivoting around a simple (with each game boasting a slightly generous 2-minute setup time) layout and premise, players cooperatively make their way through a deck of ‘chapter’ cards, revealing each individual card in turn, and working together in their attempt to tackle obstacles, vanquish foes, overcome challenges and ultimately defeat one final, fearsome adversary, in order to escape their confinement and win the day.

And, not entirely uncommon for a cooperative title, if even a single player falls, it’s game over and everyone loses.

There are certainly distinctions and gameplay wrinkles between the two titles that stretch out beyond their thematic trappings – and where appropriate, this review will seek to point these out – but generally speaking, Castle and Sector offer a broadly identical calibre of experience.

Escape the Dark Castle, Themeborne’s first offering, is the clear tentpole and foundation here. It offers the cleanest, simplest and most straightforward of experiences – though on balance, whether this makes for a better game than the slightly more robust Dark Sector, will likely be a matter of personal taste and preference.

“…generally speaking, Castle and Sector offer a broadly identical calibre of experience.”

Fashioning a deck of fifteen chapter cards (from the 45 provided in the base kit) to serve as that session’s adventure, each player then selects one of a starting group of six playable character classes, each with their own unique character die and consequential strengths.

The gameplay of Castle and Sector both hinge on the same three dice-centric ‘traits’ – ‘might’, ‘wisdom’ and ‘cunning’. With each character having their owm unique die with varying configurations of these three traits upon them, different roles will offer different strengths. The ‘Cook’ of Castle, for instance (in a neat, idiosyncratic move, every role in the two games are named after what can register as both a profession and possible surname at once), is high on might, with their character die showing four instances of that particular trait’s icon, but on the flip side, when it comes to wisdom they come up short, with only a measly one-in-six chance of rolling it.

Given that the action of both games is almost entirely decided by dice rolls, it’s shrewd – particularly in smaller player counts – to try and strike a balance of traits across your party, as you will almost inevitably come up against situations and encounters that will actively involve every one of them over the course of an adventure. The aforementioned Cook, for instance, pairs up well with the ‘Tanner’, who has high wisdom, yet pathetically low might.

With characters picked (and once you venture into the realm of expansions, you can opt for some real specialists and wild card options), you then begin to make your way through the chapter deck, turning over each card and dealing with the corresponding narrative and happenings.

It’s here where the neat ‘You’ concept comes in to play. Players will need to agree amongst themselves which of their party will turn over each card to read the corresponding narrative and challenge. That player becomes the designated, slightly ominous ‘You!’ for that particular chapter (and again, a dip into the expansions offers up a suitably foreboding metal plaque to identify who currently holds the dubious honour). On a fairly regular basis, there will be rules, challenges, restrictions, forfeits or even encounters that will only affect or target the poor, unfortunate, eponymous ‘You’, so pick wisely.

It isn’t uncommon for the choice of card turner and chapter reader to alternate early on in some sort of rough turn order, but when the inevitable sting of either game lands, and HP and resources start looking low, there can be a tension and fraught energy in deciding who will unveil the next card. There’s no real security in just handing it off to whoever has the highest health, either – particularly in Sector, there are plenty of nasty surprises, encounters and traps hidden in both decks that will affect everyone outside of the card turner.

For the most part, chapter cards will present some sort of die-based challenge, an individual or collective choice, or similar thematic challenge, or even outright combat encounters. Perhaps you happen upon a crumbling staircase, requiring each player to roll a double on their encounter die to avoid a damaging fall. Or maybe you come across an aloof nobleman, and as a group have to choose whether or not to trade with this suspicious-looking individual or attempt to steal from him, knowing the latter runs the risk of creating a potentially vicious combat, should you fail.

For some, there may be mild disappointment that there is relatively little surprise or unknown factor to any of the decision-making that Dark Castle or Sector ask of your party. The downsides and consequences of each choice and failure are outlined and printed for players to read and discuss before they make any sort of decision. At almost every instance, you will know beforehand what the penalty or outcome of your failures or choices will be. It certainly keeps things flowing, and given the dependency on dice there’s always some element of risk involved to any choice taken, but it would be nice to see Themeborne perhaps consider some form of blind decision-making or unknown consequences in future franchises and releases.

Whilst there isn’t a dizzying breadth of variety to the types of challenges and conundrums you face across either game, with most revolving around the dice mechanics as mentioned, it keeps progress pacy, and the cards themselves prove suitably evocative and atmospheric. Between the well-written storytelling and palpable sense of place afforded by Alex Crispin’s characterful black and white sketches (that offer more than a passing resemblance to the Fighting Fantasy interactive novels), it’s easy to become quickly immersed by the tale you go on in Dark Castle and Sector.

“Between the well-written storytelling and palpable sense of place afforded by Alex Crispin’s characterful black and white sketches… it’s easy to become quickly immersed by the tale you go on in Dark Castle and Sector.”

At some point throughout your adventure, should your plans go amiss, your decisions backfire, or should you just be unlucky enough to draw a card that immediately starts an encounter, you’ll enter combat.

The basic premise of combat in both games is simple enough – each adversary is listed with a certain number of each trait that must successfully be rolled, and thus removed, before it is defeated. A lowly beast of burden, for instance, starts with just a single cunning on its profile, followed by an extra trait that is rolled and added for each player in the game. Each round, players then roll their own character die, and for each trait they roll that matches one of the monster’s, they can remove one of that trait.

At the end of each round, where each player has rolled their character die but the adversary is not yet defeated, the foe will then strike back and inflict damage. That is, of course, unless a player was lucky enough to roll their ‘shield’ icon on their character die (of which every character has two), in which case they scrape by this round of combat unscathed.

Once all monster traits have been successfully rolled and removed, that creature is vanquished, and the party may celebrate their victory by drawing an item card.

 Infectious growth… Themeborne’s ascent from fledgling developer to a major presence within the board game and tabletop world is impressive, given that 2017’s ‘Escape the Dark Castle’ was their debut outing. In 2022, just five years after ‘Castle’s release, the Norwich-based group announced they had secured a major IP – Naughty Dog‘s hugely-popular ‘The Last of Us‘ franchise. Following a successful Kickstarter campaign, ‘The Last of Us: Escape the Dark‘ (pictured above, © Themeborne) is currently in development, with a scheduled release window of December 2023.

It’s a slick, simple engine that proves surprisingly addictive, and works instinctively and quickly. Many creatures have additional conditions and rules that complicate things further – making them harder to hit, isolating certain members of the party, causing certain hits to be re-rolled and other such twists, but generally speaking combat remains fast-paced and organic throughout.

As mentioned, over the course of encounters, events and chapter choices, players will draw item cards. These are rarely anything game-breaking or earth-shattering – normally offering one-time uses such as restoring HP or permitting re-rolls and other useful tidbits. Some items are more valuable than others; a tattered shield which caps the damage you can take per hit can become particularly valuable late-game, as the players’ healths begin to inevitably dwindle.

But generally speaking, the impact of items is limited. In Castle in particular, each player is limited to holding a maximum of two items, and even a major combat will only yield a single new item for the party to fight over as a reward. Dark Sector switches this up somewhat, with combat victories offering varying numbers of item rewards, and allowing each player four item ‘slots’. It also introduces the concept of powerful, horizontal/double space cards, though, meaning that in practice, you’ll rarely have more than 2 or 3 individual items or weapons per character (as the two-handed weapons are almost invariably the stronger options).

And there isn’t a tremendous amount more meat to the Escape bones than that – particularly not within the base games.

With Dark Castle serving as predecessor and tentpole, Themeborne do consciously extrapolate ideas and mechanics further with Dark Sector. Taking a swing into the sci-fi offerings of a similar era – with echoes of Ridley Scott’s Alien and Blade Runner aesthetics, along with graphic novels of the era amongst other influences, Dark Sector crucially sacrifices none of Castle’s grim sense of tone, mood or place. It simply transplants it – very successfully too, it must be said – to a whole alternate genre.

 Infectious growth… Themeborne’s ascent from fledgling developer to a major presence within the board game and tabletop world is impressive, given that 2017’s ‘Escape the Dark Castle’ was their debut outing. In 2022, just five years after ‘Castle’s release, the Norwich-based group announced they had secured a major IP – Naughty Dog‘s hugely-popular ‘The Last of Us‘ franchise. Following a successful Kickstarter campaign, ‘The Last of Us: Escape the Dark‘ (pictured above, © Themeborne) is currently in development, with a scheduled release window of December 2023.

Crispin’s artwork and depictions, of everything from haywire cyborgs to grotesque mutants and malfunctioning engine cores, remain just as unique and characterful as those found in its predecessor, leaving it to be the gameplay refinements where Dark Sector’s only real noticeable changes materialise.

Firstly, the base deck of 48 chapter cards are separated into three ‘acts’, in a fashion similar to deck building experiences such as some of the Legendary series. This goes a considerable way in trying to establish a gradually increasing difficulty curve. One of the madcap joys yet occasional frustrations of Dark Castle is how its chapter deck is completely random from first to last, without any structure or ratcheting difficulty whatsoever. It keeps things unpredictable, but by extension means you can quite feasibly turn over your first card and come up against a hideously powerful foe or, conversely, spend the penultimate few cards of a chapter floundering around in relatively anticlimactic harmlessness.

Sector certainly affords a more gradual ascension of danger and threat.

Combat is given an extra dimension of strategy and nuance here, too, with the inclusion of ranged combat and gunplay, to supplement the conventional ‘close’ combat of Castle. Players may initiate a combat in ‘ranged’ mode – exchanging fire with their adversaries using powerful guns, with different ammo types representing different weaknesses or resistances for certain opponents, but as soon as they run out of ammo or otherwise enter close combat, there’s no slipping back.

“Dark Sector’s combat is undoubtedly more strategic and involved than Castle’s.”

Some enemies will hit back harder in close combat, whilst others will be deadlier at range. Some encounters will even make the decision for you, forcing you immediately into close combat, meaning that some of the tactical flexibility of a ranged approach – which includes extras options such as the ability to ‘flank’ an opponent and take a quick shot at them without risk of return fire – become lost.

Dark Sector’s combat is undoubtedly more strategic and involved than Castle’s. Given that the game also provides each character with a choice of special cybernetic implants, contextual benefits which may make a player better at certain types of actions or combat roles, there’s generally a lot more to discuss and consider when battling in Sector, when compared to its predecessor.

And yet, chalk it down to personal preference, there’s just something about the simplicity and immediacy of combat in Castle that makes it just that bit punchier and snappier. The extra options and choices in Sector are certainly welcome, and some will doubtless prefer the extra depth and dimension to it all, but on occasion it can feel needlessly bogged down and complicated when you’re juggling ammo types with weapons, cybernetics, flank attacks, different retaliatory damage, and so on and so forth.

On balance, Escape the Dark Sector is certainly the richer and more involved experience. It has more rules, more components, more things to remember and at almost every turn more options to ponder and weigh up. If this sounds like a no-brainer that it must therefore be the better experience, take a moment to consider that despite all the extra flourishes and dimensions, it’s still ultimately centred around the same simple concept of card-based events and die-driven actions. It’s here that Castle feels the more streamlined and accessible of the two.

“Irrespective of which setting and title you opt for, one defining characteristic of both Escape titles is that they are fiendishly difficult.”

Irrespective of which setting and title you opt for, one defining characteristic of both Escape titles is that they are fiendishly difficult. In fact, despite its extra mechanics and options, and the more structured, three-act approach to its chapters, Dark Sector feels particularly brutal and unforgiving, especially at lower player counts. During play testing, not a single two-player party of ours managed to get to the final boss (the last chapter card), and even at counts of three or four, it was not uncommon for a particularly nasty event or encounter for which our team were not especially well-equipped, to quickly turn the tides against us. The extra options of Sector mean that a single bad strategic choice – say, going into close combat too quickly against a foe you’d have been better off peppering at range – can backfire spectacularly within an instant.

Given that even the more intricate Sector can be reset and started again in a matter of minutes, though, the unpredictable, challenging nature of play, and unrelenting and occasionally downright unfair randomness (you can easily get unlucky and draw consecutive encounters or challenges that your party is ill-suited toward), means that for many it will simply embolden them to reset the game and give it all another go. Castle is particularly well-suited for this, as even with a full player count its rare for any adventure to be much longer than a half hour.

Which all leads to perhaps the most important consideration of all when it comes to either game – replayability and repetition.

The base game of Dark Castle ships with 45 chapter cards, and considering each session will use up 15 of these (randomly, admittedly), it doesn’t take long for you to begin encountering the same cards and challenges on repeat. Dark Sector mitigates this slightly, providing 48 starting cards for a deck that only requires 12, so there’s scope for a touch more variety, but both games get familiar fairly quickly.

With so many of the mechanics and challenges taking nigh-identical forms, a lot of the heavy lifting of each experience in either game lies with its artwork and narrative snippets. And when you’re turning over a card you’ve already seen and read numerous times over, a lot of the fizz and excitement can begin to ebb out of the overall experience.

Fortunately, Themeborne have offered up a wealth of expansions and extra content for both games, and if, as we turned out to be, you’re a big fan of the core Escape experience, they build upon the offering and variety considerably.

“…if, as we turned out to be, you’re a big fan of the core Escape experience, [the expansions] build upon the offering and variety considerably.”

Whilst we only explored and played through Castle’s expansions, these beefed up the core deck several times over, introduced neat new mechanics such as companions, character ‘flaws’ (Castle’s equivalent of Sector’s cybernetic enhancements), status effects such as being ‘cursed’ or ‘plagued’, and a roster of new items, chapter cards, bosses, characters etc.

Neatly, the expansions can operate as standalone adventures (provided you have the base game), or all used interchangeably and mixed together, allowing for a far bigger, more robust and even more unpredictable pool of adventures and options.

With the expansions for both games ranging from between £10-18 each in the UK, they’re fairly modestly priced for the diversity and extra variability they noticeably afford your overall Escape experience. With the base games themselves currently retailing at £34.99 for Castle and £39.99 for Sector, you will likely have to be fairly invested in the mechanics and experience of either game to justify the overall cost of either game and all of their expansions.

For some, the limited number of chapter cards provided in the base games will lead to too repetitive of an offering, and they will not find the gameplay absorbing or varied enough to justify the financial sink into expansions. But again, at less than £40 each, the base games are hardly on the steep end of the board gaming market.

So much of the joy and fun of these games lies in the immersion, the storytelling and decision-making, not to mention the narratives and stories that will naturally, inevitably unfurl over the course of your adventures, such as when you hit upon a particular stumbling block or implacable foe, take an ill-judged decision that puts your entire quest in jeapordy, or perhaps even when you manage to pull of that one heroic, daring, last-ditch roll.

It is fun, addictive, accessible and immersive stuff. A game played with a group of under-elevens was particularly well-received, as is often the case within the fantasy and adventure genre.

Ultimately, Escape the Dark Castle and Escape the Dark Sector operate within something of their own niche, and it’s an interesting and idiosyncratic corner that Themeborne have carved out for themselves, and already look set to expand upon significantly with their recent acquisition of Naughty Dog’s hugely-popular The Last of Us IP. The Last of Us: Escape the Dark is currently in development following a successful Kickstarter campaign, and looks set to be an evolution of the formula laid down here in Castle and Sector. It will certainly be interesting to see where Themeborne’s development instincts take them, with such a major franchise and brand in their hands.

Before that, though, there’s plenty of fun, and challenging, unpredictable, immersive adventures to be had with their debut offerings. The experience won’t be for everyone, but the uniqueness of approach, excellent presentation and quick fire, pacy adventuring means that, for those who can overcome some repetition (or invest in the expansions), you’ll likely find yourself wanting to Escape from Themeborne’s rich, grim fantasy and sci-fi tapestries over and over again, for many bloodstained moons to come.

Immersive, accessible and deeply thematic adventuring. Crispin’s bold and distinctive art style enriches things considerably, and if you can live with some repetition or, better still, invest in the expansions, there’ll be mileage and dastardly challenge aplenty in either grim, characterful Escape universe. Bring on the Clickers…

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