12 October 2022
Tights and fights
Gather your merry band, sharpen your arrows and prepare to storm the castle, our verdant leader has been captured and we must join to liberate him.
The simple artwork screams ‘family game’ and while it works well for families, the interesting mechanics should keep more serious gamers entertained too… at least for a while. Alongside the entertaining whimsy of pun-filled character names and their jolliness ratings, there’s a level of complexity that provokes interesting tabletop discussions and plenty of tension.
In the first four (of five) rounds, players take it in turns to attack guards that are holding villagers hostage. Dispensing with a whole line of defence frees the villager (or villagers) they were guarding, and these villagers can then be drafted and used for battle in future rounds. In the final round, you must penetrate the castle and wipe out two lines of guards before rescuing Robin Hood.
You attack using three different attributes, which you gain from your current hand of villagers (your merry band) and record on a tracking board. Each attribute attacks in a different way. To battle with wit, you must push-your-luck against consecutive guards – deciding when to push forward and when to retreat. Stealth allows you to pick off specific guards, whereas brawn requires you to be able to beat the whole line – all or nothing. This is a co-op, so you’re going to want to use each player’s strengths strategically. Brawn and jolliness (which acts as a wild attribute), can be passed to the next player, so sheer muscle power builds, which neatly gives each round a natural climax.
Skills tokens provide additional abilities, enabling you to increase power and reveal, move or even eliminate guards. Deciding how to use these and where each player will target attacks creates interesting choices. But these decision points are fairly samey and with a larger group that’s prone to analysis, can be drawn out. A methodical approach could lead to a ‘rinse & repeat’ experience. Instead, the spirit of the game is better captured with a more gung-ho attitude, leaning into the push-your-luck aspect and embracing the highs and lows that accompany it.
Rescuing Robin Hood is described as a deckbuilder, but falls a little short of scratching my deck-building itch. You start with a random hand of eight basic, though pleasingly unique villagers, like Waldew Respect the Physician and Rowan Incircles the Scribe. After rounds two and four you can retire villagers to Sherwood Forest to make way for rescued ones with augmented abilities, but it’s deckbuilding on a miniature scale – you really don’t get to cycle through your cards. Instead, the focus is on optimising one hand, rather than optimising a whole deck.
In the final round, Robin Hood finally joins the party – shackled and surrounded by villagers you previously didn’t manage to rescue. Collectively, you win the game if you manage to scale the walls and dispense with the guards. But you can aim for the extra challenge of defeating the Sheriff of Nottingham – on a final row, protected by yet more guards. I’m not a fan of the Sheriff – it feels like an afterthought to make the game harder if you easily win. It also dampens the winning celebrations when you manage to storm the castle – making it feel like a minor win. In a co-op, I want the win or loss to be the very last thing in the game. It would perhaps have been better as an optional extra round, rather than as a preset. For me, the Sheriff is an annoying epilogue – though maybe that’s because we never got anywhere near defeating him.
PLAY IT? MAYBE
Attempting to battle guards using a mixture of wit, stealth and brawn is fun and trying to specialise and play efficiently is an interesting puzzle. Once you’re done with fighting - sit back, grab the 30-page character guide and delve into the world of Anne Dittover the Laundress and, my personal favourite, Frank Le Mydear the Servant.
TRY this if you liked Escape the Dark Castle…
These two games have very different styles, and the narrative in Escape the Dark Castle is much more pronounced, but the multiple cooperative combats, negotiated card distribution and push your luck mechanisms are similar.
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