After years working in games distribution with Esdevium, 2017 saw Thomas Pike make the move into games design.
Joining forces with co-designers Alex Crispin and James Shelton, Pike brought his first board game, Escape the Dark Castle, to Kickstarter in May 2017, where it raised almost eight times its goal.
A casual, cooperative adventure game inspired by Eighties fantasy classics like the Fighting Fantasy books, D&D and the TV show Knightmare, Escape the Dark Castle boasts a focus on atmosphere, player cooperation, and fun.
Players take the role of prisoners on a quest to escape the castle of the title, and must work together to overcome its many horrors, traps, and challenges. As the chapter cards are revealed one by one, the game takes on the form of a shared storybook experience, with the players making decisions about what to do each chapter before using a combination of dice and item cards to complete challenges.
With a set of expansion packs available on Kickstarter, we caught up with Pike to learn more about the game’s distinct look and what’s next for the Escape the Dark brand.
Prior to Escape the Dark Castle, what was your history in the world of tabletop games?
I worked in tabletop games distribution for 10 years. It was my first proper job after university. It was just an office job, nothing creative, but I did learn a lot about the game business and it stood me in good stead to launch my own company. But primarily I was a games player and enthusiast. That is the most important thing.
Where did the idea for Escape the Dark Castle come from?
The first glimmer of the idea came during a long walk in the countryside, and it was my co-designer Alex who first planted the seed. We got talking about games and about how hard it was to find a game which satisfied us. Inevitably we came to the idea that the only way forward was to make a game of our own. Honestly, this was a conversation we must’ve had a hundred times over the years.
I had grown unhappy in my career and was a lot more eager to ‘really do it’ this time. I remember pressing the point perhaps more than usual, and making a particular case for using Kickstarter.
In our ramblings about what we wanted to make, we came to D&D (our favourite game) and from there to Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. Alex pointed out, in so many words, that it would be cool if there was a game where you turned cards, revealing the kind of weird scenes you used to get in those books. He wasn’t sure how it would work, but for me it was a lightning bolt and sent me sprawling into a flurry of ideas about how to take that idea and make it into a reality.
We went straight back to my little flat where I got this mechanic out of my head and down onto some revision cards. Within a couple of hours of cutting and sticking we had knocked up a kind of half-prototype, just to illustrate the basic idea. On the most basic level possible, it worked, and I think we knew by the end of that day we had the basis of something good. Soon after that we brought in James and with three of us working on it the ideas really started to flow.
Can you talk us through a little of the development process. Did the finished game veer much from your initial concept?
This thing was in development for three years, maybe more, and there were many different builds during that time. At one stage it was a much more complicated, multistage game with different paths and all sorts of things. But it just wasn’t right.
Somewhere very early on I remember writing down a kind of three-step ethos for what I felt the game had to be. It was something like: ‘Open the Box, Shuffled the Cards, Play’. I felt very strongly this, about not wanting it to be in the least bit complicated to set up – or play for that matter. Whatever variations we tried, we kept coming back to this relatively simple build as being the ‘best’ version.
From there, it became an exercise in restraint, trying to cram as much content, atmosphere, and interest into the game as possible without overstepping that ethos of mechanical simplicity. Anything which muddied the water was cut. It turns out this discipline was vital, and the result is a game we feel is uniquely streamlined and elegant in the genre.
The game has a very distinct look. How did you approach creating the artwork for Escape the Dark Castle?
I think the term is ‘mood board’. We batched up all our favourite images and styles. That was the starting point. Then we went looking for artists – the plan was not for Alex to do it. We hired another chap, who was great, but it just didn’t work out – I think we were a little too demanding. So that is how Alex stepped in and it turned out to be the best thing for this game. Being co-creator, his unique understanding of the vision, of what the game should look like, has been a cornerstone.
A line of new Adventure Packs for the game have landed on Kickstarter. What new aspects do these bring to Escape the Dark Castle?
Adventure packs are designed to expand and deepen your adventures in the Dark Castle. In terms of content, each Adventure Pack follows a similar format – adding new chapters, characters and items to the game. Each pack also introduces a new mechanic which brings a little more complexity to the game – but these new elements are always optional.
You must have a copy of Escape the Dark Castle to use one of our Adventure Packs, but you can play the chapter cards from each pack as a themed quest. Alternatively, you can mix the new chapter cards into the contents of the main game for even greater variety. If you change your mind later, you can easily separate the cards by set, using the unique codes subtlety printed onto each card.
The idea is that you can pick and choose before each game which cards and rules you’d like to play with – so you can tailor the game to your taste and level. For example, maybe you want to play the chapter cards from the base set, but with the Curses from Adventure Pack 1, and also the Companions from Scourge of the Undead Queen. No problem! Think of the Escape the Dark Castle range as something of a toolkit. With the wealth of components at your disposal you can craft endless combinations of exciting adventures, and the organiser inside the new Collector’s Box makes this easier than ever before.
The choice is yours!
Why opt to launch via Kickstarter?
The market is so competitive now that it takes a lot of money just get a game from concept to being ‘Kickstarter ready’. I spent all my savings doing that, perhaps foolishly, but I believed so deeply in the game. There was no money left to print it, so we turned to Kickstarter to fund the first print run. The rest is history.
As our second campaign passes the £250k mark, I look back at those slightly desperate times. It just goes to show, you have to take risks to succeed in life. Hard work and risks.
The other option would have been to try and sell the game idea to an existing publisher, someone who has the money and market position to take the game into their catalogue. But, I wanted control, and I knew no-one else would understand the vision we had for this game. We did have an offer, but I was never truly tempted. I knew I had to do this my way.
Creativity-wise, do you think the tabletop space is in a good place at present?
Pretty good, yea. Some nice ideas out there, but I think there is still a long way to go. We are really just reaching a point where this medium of board games is starting to mean something. We still need to make great strides if we want our art form to be regarded among the best in entertainment. It will be very exciting to see what happens. Fortunately for us, there are still lots of opportunities for young companies if you can put together the right creative team.
Looking ahead, are there plans to expand this world further, or to create games away from the Escape the Dark brand?
Escape the Dark Castle is the first game in the Escape the Dark series, so you can expect more in that range. However, these things take time, and our main priority now is supporting Escape the Dark Castle and launching this new wave of products.
Beyond that, we have another game which is already in the advanced stages of development and we hope to announce it towards the end of 2018 or early 2019. After that we have about 10 more games sketched out that we are really passionate about making, but we’ve learned first-hand just how long these things take to do properly. They really are years in the making, so at this rate we’ll still be here in 20 years. I certainly hope so!
Check out the Escape the Dark Castle expansion packs over at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1998318065/escape-the-dark-castle-the-legend-grows.