19 January 2021
We’re going to try and escape from the dark again, but this time, we’re armed. We talk to Thomas Pike about firepower, time paradoxes, and the joys of dying in space
Words by Christopher John Eggett
Escape The Dark Castle is one of our favourite games to recommend to hobby game curious people in our lives. It does what a lot of gateway games stumble at, which is gives you a sense of agency from the very start of the game. You know what you’re doing immediately, the goal is on the box after all, and no one says anything like ‘why do I care about wood again?’
With the follow-up, this time a sci-fi outing, things are a little less simple than Escape the Dark Castle – but only a little. Alex Crispin’s art remains iconic and familiar, when you open the box there’s chapter dice, even the characters are suspiciously named in the same way as …Castle. But this is only the presentation, it’s a very different game.
“It was very important to us to not have any suspicion or suggestion that this was just a reskin,” says Pike. It’s far from that in fact, so much so that if you waded into …Sector expecting to understand it in moments because you’ve played ...Castle before, you’ll realise that you’re going to have to read the rulebook properly at least once.
“We took the core engine of …Castle, and then we said, ‘okay, this is a sci-fi game now. So what would a sci-fi game be like?’ And how could we reflect that in the theme and the mechanics and so on. And for us, those are very tightly integrated,” says Pike, “we could afford to be a little bit more complicated because that suits the sci-fi theme better. You can add bit more intricacy in technologies and things like that, which can bring up new special rules. And so, where …Castle was brutally simple and straightforward – which really suited the harsh, medieval, grim setting – ...Sector can afford to be a little more cerebral and a bit more involved.”
This isn’t to say the game is overladen will rules, special cases, and things to remember. It’s just got a strong theme integration that asks players to think a bit more. The main thing that …Sector introduces is the idea that players have to make tactical choices. Escape The Dark Castle was a survival game for the most part, players just hoping to get away with not being murdered every time they turn a corner.
Here, you have some training on your side – after all, you’ve been flying your starship around until you were caught. You can probably fix a warp drive, whereas in …Castle it unlikely you knew which end of a sword to hold.
Most of these choices are combat choices in one way or another. The game introduces ranged firefights as a mostly necessary option when exploring the theme.
“You play a crew and you’re trained in ranged combat, you’ve got some skills and some capabilities. You begin the game armed with ranged weapons too,” says Pike. These weapons are a big step up from the occasional knobbly club or broken shield.
“We’ve added all these new ranged combat actions. It’s not just running and punching. You can shoot, you can flank, you can reload. You can swap items with other players. The way the range combat is supposed to feel is that every round of combat, you make a plan of attack as a fire team,” says Pike, “you make this nice kind of flowing plan together on the fly during, during the fight.”
Of course, it’s still a horror game. You’re wandering along tight corridors, and your resources aren’t likely to last you forever.
“In both of these games, we wanted to give the feeling of claustrophobia and the sense that you don’t know where you’re going,” says Pike.
WHO SHOT FIRST?
“It wouldn’t be a proper homage to the sci-fi genre if we didn’t have cool pulse rifles and laser guns. And, you know, rocket launchers and all that stuff that is so satisfying about cool sci-fi settings – lasers basically,” says Pike. While …Castle only had close combat, here we can do all those things we’d expect to be able to do in a firefight.
As a team you can decide that one of you will supply covering fire, while the others reload, or to take a flanking action. This concept is an interesting one once internalised – your teammates can only reload their weapons while someone is supplying the supressing fire. If no one is able to fire, the enemy charges, or you charge them – depending on how you want to read the situation.
Flanking is a once-in-combat action that can improve your attack rolls. Players will take fire when moving to the flanking position
“It is something that is a modern warfare and therefore a future warfare tactic,” say Pike, “and the idea there is that the enemy won’t fall for it again.”
“The actions in ranged combat allow you to take cover, but only if someone is dealing with the enemy, like if you all just hide, basically the suggestion is the enemy charges you, then it’s close combat. Or you can think of it as if, if no one wants to shoot, you charge the enemy instead,” explains Pike, “you can voluntarily initiate close combat if you want. But in this game there’s so much cool weaponry and firepower that it’s encouraging you to open fire and enjoy that part of the game.”
In the games we played the frustration of not being able to get a shot off, because of a series of malfunctions, meant things got dicey very quickly. The full range of weaponry available is tantalising, but that’s also where the horror comes in, you can only overcome the monsters and mechs in the game with your equipment when it actually works.
For those familiar with …Castle there may be a feeling that there’s just not enough stable bread, rotten fruit, and generally disgusting consumables in …Sector to keep your health, now represented as a line graph, from flatlining.
“This is why it’s such a tactical game because you can find some unmarked pills, there’s alien sludge, there’s a MedPack and there’s some expired meds that you can discover. There are things that will help you out in the deck, but first of all, you have to get them,” says Pike, “and that means choosing to fight the enemy that has the right number of drops that will help you work through the deck and find these things.”
“But also you can think ‘is it better to just, you find your crazy rocket launcher that you’ve got while we take cover?’ And maybe if that obliterates him, we move on and all we’ve done is used up some ammo. So yeah, you have this ability to not engage, as long as somebody fights. The other members of the crew can take cover and not take any damage or they can activate the medical drone and heal themselves. It’s a different experience, you’re not just relying on finding bread, like you were in …Castle, you’re relying on your plan of attack to not expose you to too much damage.”
GET YOUR ACT TOGETHER
One of the main criticisms of …Castle was the fact that there was little in the way of a narrative structure. Every chapter card except for the start and boss cards were shuffled with equal footing. In Escape the Dark Sector however, we have three acts to move through. Deck construction – or adventure construction if you prefer – comes in the form of shuffling each pile and then drawing from each, stacking up from one of the five bosses through act three to one, finishing with one of the three starting cards.
“The three act structure is – there’s two sides to that,” says Pike, “on the one hand, it changes the experience that the player gets, which is obviously the main thing. It’s why we make games. It’s always at the forefront of our mind is what experiences is going to give to the player. And a three act system adds a lot to their experience. But also, as designers, it gives us an extra layer of control over the narrative arc and the kind of things that will come up.”
The player also benefits from this outside of the experience of the game – simply by knowing that the danger will ramp up, “for the player one of the important things to note about the three act system is, as you play a few times, you’ll start to realize the character of the acts. That the act one the item drop rate is higher for example,” says Pike.
“You usually have a choice as to whether you want to take on this enemy or evade it and go a different way. In the early acts, you’ll come to realize that it’s usually a good idea to take them on because the drop rate is so high, but at the same time, you shouldn’t take on every single enemy.”
“Act one is the detention level,” says Pike, taking us on a tour of the spacestation we’re trying to escape, “it’s all guards and corridors themselves and other prisoners and claustrophobia and trash compactors and all that kind of stuff. And then act two, you kind of break out into the sort of heart of the station. This is a living working space station after all, like Babylon 5 or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It’s got bars and slums and futuristic sports arenas, and all kinds of like just stuff going on that’s nothing to do with you. You’ve just arrived there. You break out into that area and that has much more kind of eclectic and kind of abstract experiences for the players.”
“And then when you get to act three, the forgotten zones, the perimeters, and the kind of freaky little areas of the station that the really nasty stuff is to be found. It’s got a nice flow to it in terms of the story there.”
At the mention of a few of the classic TV sci-fi spacestations, it’s hard not to wonder which particular slices of sci-fi are being pillaged for this homage?
“This is our sci-fi game,” says Pike in a way to that suggest this is their one shot at it, “so it’s kind of got a bit of everything to some degree, but not everything. Alien is a big deal, as is Star Trek: The Next Generation, and it has a bit of Star Wars in there – I mentioned trash compactor and stuff like that earlier.”
“It’s a mix of all our influences. In this act system, it allows us some other cool stuff as well. There’s one scene in act two where you, come across some sort of freaky laboratory where two beings are performing surgery on someone else. And you can’t quite see who that is. And then in act three, you are abducted, you blackout, you wake up on a table with two people leaning over you doing surgery or some sort of probe. So it’s the, the suggestion is that that’s you. And it’s this weird thing, there’s cards that connect with each other through the story. It’s not you on the table, and it is you at the same time.”
Things like this would be inconsistent elsewhere, but in sci-fi we just do an interdimensional shrug. Pike also mentions scenes where players accidently run onto a future sports football field in an earlier act, only to see it happen on bar TV screens later. Playing with these tropes is what gives ...Sector its knowing flavour.
ESCAPE THE GATEWAY
The Escape The Dark… series, as it now is, sits as something like the British gateway game. When we talk about gateway games into the hobby side of our community, we’re often talking about the gentler entries into Eurogames. We’re talking about softly approaching concepts of resource management, worker placement, and tableau building – but these are concepts that don’t necessarily sit well with the place gaming has historically occupied in Britain – which is wargaming and roleplaying games. The Escape The Dark… series is probably the answer to this however.
“This is the thing we have to remember – this is the entertainment industry and we are making fun experiences. We were not concerned with definitions of what is a game and what should or shouldn’t be in it. All we care about is what happens inside a player’s head when they play it,” says Pike, “and that’s what we love when we’re playing games is how it makes us feel. And on the experiences that we have. And, you know, we just wanted to create a vehicle for that sort of fun.”
Following on from the release of Escape The Dark Sector the team is focusing on the expansions for the game.
“After that, we will have done …Castle and …Sector and that’s kind of the two pillars of the Escape The Dark… series. It’s taken us something like six years to get to this point. A lot of work, love and passion has gone in to those six years. We will then set that aside to some extent and create something totally new, totally different. If there’s anything we want to respond to, not that anyone’s ever said it, but we want show that we don’t just make black and white adventure games,” says Pike, laughing.
Escape The Dark Sector is out now and the expansions should hit Kickstarter around October.
This article originally appeared in issue 47 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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