Escape the Dark Castle: Thomas Pike Q&A

Escape the Dark Castle Interview

Thomas Pike of Themeborne Games, successfully created Escape the Dark Castle, a Kickstarter game that funded within two days.

Now they are once again experiencing a successful Kickstarter with the follow-up expansion sets. I got the chance to interview the creator of this game, a game that I thoroughly enjoy playing each time.

I’m a big fan of Escape the Dark Castle, I love the concept and the retro feel of it all and I thank you for bringing this game into my life, as well as everyone else’s both old and new to this style of game. So, my first question has to be, where or what were you doing when this idea popped into your head?

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 game books. 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.

When designing the game how many run throughs did you have to do before you finally settled on how the game was going to be played?

Oh hundreds. 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 base game KS was a massive success, when you pressed that button was it a bit surprising to see how well you had done in a matter of hours and days?

Funny story. We launched at midnight, as planned, after a long day of getting everything prepared. Hitting that button was one of those huge moments you look back on in life. I had quit my job and put all of my time and savings into setting up the company and launching this game. It was very daunting but exciting too. A complete unknown. Would anyone even notice us?

So it went live, and we got out first backer within a minute! I couldn’t believe it. I turned around to tell my girlfriend Alice the news and she was laughing - it was her, my #1 backer! My face must have been priceless. It was a great way to ease the tension and I will never forget that. Anyway, we woke up in the morning to several thousand pounds. It was unbelievable. I think it was £10k or so in the first day and then we funded a few hours into day two. Part of me was shocked and delighted, but part of me really believed the game had something special so I felt it was deserved.

You’ve gone back to your KS community with new expansions and goodies, is there a particular expansion that you are particularly looking forward to unleashing into the Castle?

I love the new Adventure Packs. They have some great new content and I couldn’t possibly choose between them. However, what I am really excited about is the Collector’s Box. Rather than just being a storage solution for the range, it comes with lots of great game content. The best bit has to be the six new Boss cards you get in there. The base game comes with three, or five if you have the Kickstarter Edition – so adding six more is a really big deal and there are some really awesome adversaries to content with.

So three new Expansions and I suspect they won’t be the last, are you worried you might accidentally go back over old ideas, or do you keep a notepad with all that is currently in the castle?

Oh yes, absolutely. To design, develop and balance a game like this you need lots of charts, spreadsheets and notes. Naturally, some mechanical elements are purposefully reused in just the right amount to give the game a nice flow and a sense of familiarity. Others are used very sparingly to give them extra gravitas.

In terms of thematic content, it is a challenge, but we work very hard to make every single chapter, item and character different from the last. The only limit is our imagination, and with Alex and James my team we have plenty more where this lot came from!

The Collectors Box looks great and that in itself comes with lots of goodies, was that idea driven by your supporters or always something that you felt was needed to help move forward with this game?

The Collector’s Box could just as well be called the Community Box. This product is the result of us compiling and digesting all the feedback from our amazing community of players over the 12 months since the original game released. Almost everything they asked for is in that box.

We are really proud of it, and happy to be in a position where we can respond to player demands in such a short span of time and offer it exactly one year later.

(not final design, some items shown are sold seperately)

This is your first game in the world of Tabletop, is there anything you have learnt so far that you can improve on in the future, especially as you have been quite successful thus far, and with that what does the future hold for Themborne?

We have learned a great deal. Listening to your community of players is one of the big ones, they have helped us make the game better. The rest is boring stuff really - practical things about how best to run a small games studio. There is still room to improve and this new Kickstarter campaign is a good example of that. It is better than the first in every way. The next one will be better still.

As for the future, we can’t wait. 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 another big thing we learned is 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!

Finally, I’ve been asked to ask this by a fellow lover of Dark Castle at my gaming group. Were you the kind of person who went backwards in ‘Choose your own Adventure Books’ to see what might have happened if you had picked the other tunnel?

Not at all. I played them totally straight! It is far more rewarding that way. Now, as a game designer I can see the other side of that. Trust me, do it the way the designers intended. Trust their vision – you’ll have a lot more fun.

Escape the Dark Castle Kickstarter Expansions is coming to an end soon, so check it out!