A Cult Following
Since the release of ETDC (Escape the Dark Castle) in 2017, its universe and fanbase have ballooned to a scale too great to be confined by the castle walls. After creating expansion packs, lore books and collector’s editions for ETDC, Themeborne ascended to create the space-based sequel, Escape the Dark Sector. Today, they are collaborating with Naughty Dog on an ‘Escape the Dark’ board game version of the immensely popular video game I.P ‘The Last of Us’. It’s therefore safe to say that they can be trusted to create a spooky tabletop experience.
This expansion, ‘Cult of the Death Knight’, was the first they ever embarked upon, pitting players against more dangerous foes and forcing even tougher decisions. With a game that had already mastered the concept of being simple, yet very challenging, this expansion seeks to add richer storytelling to the formula. The narrative of the cult (and the impact it has on the castle) is woven brilliantly into the 15 new chapter cards, regardless of the order that they are played in. Some of the individual cards are particularly challenging, but the chapters alone are not what makes this expansion one of the most difficult castles I have ever faced (and I have faced some 20+ chapter castles for fun). No, the difficulty really lies in how the new character cards interact with them, as well as the unique skills of the Death Knight himself…
The Knight of Death
Adorned with the emblem of their cult, and the skulls of their crushed foes, the Death Knight leaves an imprint on everyone who goes far enough to encounter them. To defeat them, you must withstand their 3 damage per round, successfully remove up to 8 chapter dice, and deal with the cult symbol. Considering that this is a boss card, these stats aren’t spectacular, but they are not the crux of the Death Knight’s power. All boss cards have unique special abilities that make the final battle even more difficult for the escapees, and the one belonging to the Death Knight is perhaps the worst of all.
‘At the beginning of each round, the Death Knight adopts a different fighting stance. Roll a chapter die and note the result. For the remainder of the round, the Death Knight is impervious to all attacks of this type’.
How damaging this special ability can be varies drastically based on the rolls of the chapter die, and typically land somewhere between minor inconvenience and practically impossible. That sounds dramatic, but it only takes a run of back luck to render the Death Knight physically impassable. If you consistently roll the same attribute on the chapter die (for example, might), and a few might dice remain on the Death Knight, then they can whittle away the health of stricken players, while they are impervious to attacks. This is especially problematic when playing with the new characters, or when a certain player cannot rest.
Without giving spoilers for later, this can be incredibly frustrating, and is one of the only weaknesses of this set. One of the strongest attributes, however, lies within the now treacherous item deck.
In a standard game of ETDC, being able to draw an item card is a great respite from the hardships of combat; it can never be a bad thing. Some chapter cards even allow you to take item cards for almost no risk, which can balance out a castle that features some fiendish ghouls. With this expansion, any such break in the tension is cruelly snatched away by the Death Knight.
The item deck now features 5 curse cards, which immediately harm the team with either the removal of health/items, or through permanent negative effects, such as only having one arm (because the other one suddenly rotted off). Getting one of these effects can make a game far more challenging, but they all pale in comparison to the most devastating curse, ‘Marked for Death’. The player who draws the curse cannot rest for the remainder of the game, takes more damage from cult members (who bear the symbol of the Death Knight on their chapter card), and must use a special ‘cult die’ when rolling after they have fallen below half of their starting HP. The specifics of the cult die take up a whole page of the rulebook, but it essentially starts to draw the marked player into the clutches of the cult, and they can start attacking their own teammates!
Throughout all of the castle and its expansions, there is no greater challenge than to be Marked for Death. Even when drawn from a very strong position, the curse forces one player to be ground down by combat, and when you drop below half HP, the game is incredibly difficult to recover. If you are able to overcome this curse, then you are a true master of the castle. Whilst being exceedingly difficult, it brings thrilling and unique dynamics to the game. It is therefore a crying shame that (unless you rig the item deck), the curse will come out so rarely…
The last part of the expansion is a group of 3 new characters, all of whom specialize very heavily in a particular trait. Mason, for example, has a total of 6 might on his die, whilst only bearing a single cunning and wisdom. Meanwhile, Hunter has a majority of cunning, and Bishop is very wise (also, did anybody else realise that each character’s name is also their profession? That is a very clever trick, and it took me far too many games, as well as reading the lore book, to actually notice).
Using all three of them together sounds like a very powerful team, but there are some practical issues with this.
(Caution: Math incoming)
Each new character die is constructed as follows: 2 sides featuring a single of their strongest trait.
2 sides featuring a shielded double of their strongest trait. 1 side for a single of each of the two remaining traits.
This means that these characters will roll at least one of their specialist trait 66.67% of the time. It’s far from guaranteed that they will roll what you need, but this is the highest percentage you will see anywhere, allowing for more consistent and predictable rolls. Unfortunately, this consistency comes at the cost of flexibility, and can become devastating if one character is very low on health.
If Mason has low HP, but there are 2 might dice remaining on the enemy you are facing, then you have only 2 workable options. You can either have Mason attack and hope that he hits the 33.33% chance of a double, or you can rest him and have just the other characters attack. In most other cases, another character would have a moderate chance of filling in for the mighty Mason while he rests. However, each of the other characters has only a 16.67% chance of rolling a single might, which they would both have to do to defeat the enemy. If the same trait keeps coming up, and one character is relied upon to do a lot of combat, this problem will quickly compound itself.
Despite my ramblings, these characters are not completely bad. It is possible to maintain a balance between them in a party of 3, but it is more of a challenge than when using the standard characters. What can be fun is to use them to balance out teams of 4, which inevitably feature 2 characters with the same specialism.
My Castle Diary
In my research for this piece, I attempted to defeat this expansion in its purest form (by using a party of the 3 new character cards and setting up the chapter cards in their correct order). After playing many, many previous games of ETDC, I thought it would be a simple test of the game, rather than of myself. I was incredibly wrong. A simple hour of play became a 2-day marathon as I tried to get to grips with the Death Knight, and how his castle continuously battered my seemingly optimal strategies.
Below are extracts from the notes I took whilst playing. If you are planning to go into the game without knowledge of specific chapter cards, spoiler warning for this next section:
Game 1: (Played with family) ‘First card is nasty, attacks everyone at first. Only one character can rest per turn, the other must roll for no reason when there is only one stat left.’
(This is another notable issue with using this team of characters. If only one trait remains on the enemy you are fighting, but only one of your three characters can rest, then you must attack with a character who is highly unlikely to roll the stat you need, risking damage in exchange for very little).
‘Giving up distilled wisdom to avoid damage was an error, HP can always be gotten back. Tough cards early. Chapter 4 is horrible for these characters. First cultist is chapter 6. We
drew Marked for Death that turn. Defeat on chapter 11 after drawing 3 curses. This feels hard, but these characters are almost a handicap. Marked for Death often doesn’t come out, but it is so difficult when it does and you aren’t drawing food, or if it comes out before the banshee (chapter 9). This feels the toughest of them all.’
Game 2: (From this point on, all games were played by myself. I controlled all characters simultaneously). ‘Bloodthirster (chapter 1) can cripple one character if they don’t roll well.’
(This card only attacks the player with the lowest health. If this happens to be the player that has the specialism you need, this can be devastating early on).
‘Lost on chapter 3, Hunter fell. The cunning specialist, on chapter 3, loses 12HP to the captain. It took another 2 rolls after the game was over to hit cunning. Is it the characters? My worst ever defeat. You can’t move to anybody else, I had to roll Hunter because she was the only one with good cunning chances.
Marked for Death is the significant curse, without it the die is never relevant, a bit odd.’
Game 3: ‘Weapons and relics really set by chapter 8, this is much better.
Lost on card 10, continued by reversing bad decision, lost again on card 15.
Adjourned, to be resumed tomorrow.’
(While I don’t recall what this bad decision was, this game shows how quickly this castle can ruin a strong set up. Some cards, especially the non-combat chapters, seems almost intentionally designed to defeat the Hunter, Mason and Bishop team).
Game 4: ‘Feels much stronger. The rolls are coming this time, good items.
Loss on card 10, Hunter down again. The cunning just wasn’t there for those crucial 3 damage rolls. This must be possible, but you need to be very lucky.’
(With ‘3 damage rolls’, I’m referring to how chapter 10 can deal 3 damage to players per round of combat. I have never struggled this much against the same castle multiple times).
‘The story on these cards is so good, as they all are. Even though I’m blitzing out the moves at this point, I still enjoy the story. Chapter 10 goes down in 1 turn. We have cracked axe, shield, potions and no curses, this could be the one.
The Death Knight is impervious to one type of attack (in this case, basically one character each round).
Lost to the Death Knight. He was impervious to wisdom for 5 rounds straight, he whittled me down. The next item card was a curse. I know that this is possible, I was within 1 good roll, but I have learned all I need to.
Overall, ‘Cult of the Death Knight’ adds more depth and difficulty to the ETDC experience. The narrower focus of the expansion allows for more consistent story-telling than the base game alone, creating even more investment and elation if the Death Knight is bested.
Whilst playing the expansion by itself is an enjoyable and fascinating challenge, I would recommend combining it with elements from the base game or other expansions to avoid the steep difficulty curve (and attached headache). That being said, if you are after a true test of your escaping skills, the Death Knight poses, in my mediocre opinion, the greatest threat in the entire franchise.