As a board game reviewer, I sometimes have to accept that it can be hard to get some games to the table. Where Secret Unknown Stuff: Escape From Dulce is concerned, I have to hold my hands up and say that I wish I had done it sooner. The thing is, with two fully three-dimensional models to build, tons of standees, about ten decks of cards and countless other components, I was initially put off by the complexity of the game, but it’s actually much simpler than I had imagined.
First of all, anyone planning to play Escape from Dulce needs to immerse themselves in the B-Movie style that the game is steeped in. If you’re not in the mood to suspend your disbelief for the duration of the game (which I’ll come to) then you might as well get something else off the shelf. Escape from Dulce is so much more enjoyable when you play it whilst in the right mood — I recommend putting 1996’s Mars Attacks on in the background.
The next thing you’ll need to play is time. There are two main ways to play the campaign game, and then a couple of alternatives that give players a shorter, more specific mission. My version of the game includes two Kickstarter extras that feature a couple of these missions, but I’ve no doubt that there will have been more at different pledge levels, and it seems likely the game will be expanded in the future as well.
The short campaign is pencilled in for about two to three hours, whilst the long campaign takes more like three to four. Yes, you read that correctly, it’s an average of three hours between the two. On top of that you’ll need to add set up time, which is at least 30 minutes the first time you do it, but can reduce to more like fifteen once you get used to the — actually straightforward — elements of building the two towers and setting out the decks and standees.
The two towers you’ll see in some of the pictures represent different levels of the Dulce base, which in most games you’ll be trying to escape from. The way these towers work is that players work their way up one floor at a time, alternating floors between the large and small towers. Once players reach the very top floor, they have a chance to escape the Dulce base, which usually counts as a win considering that most of the player characters have been subject to some pretty awful experiments.
On that note, the players will choose from a huge roster of characters, each of whom comes with a large dossier that provides a ton of flavour text and information, whilst also acting as the player board during the game. The choices are practically limitless, from paranoid ex-soldiers and previously abandoned grey aliens, to a family that has been mutated into a single creature and a talking cow with two heads.
Again, the B-Movie theme really comes through the character design and each one is brought to life in exhaustive detail on their dossier, as well as via the miniature that represents them. It’s hard to get across on paper how odd it feels to be passed a document with so much irrelevant information on it feels, but as soon as you know that you’ll be “living” that character for the rest of your afternoon or evening, you also realise that you’ll have plenty of time to read up on them.
Of course, the player dossiers also have functional uses such as tracking health and providing other information about how the character performs — such as their mental strength or their actual ability to carry stuff. You’ll also see slots for weapons, armour and backpack items, which can easily be arranged based on the symbols that are shown printed on the dossier. All in all, the functional use of these dossiers is as any other player mat, but the additional fluff and imagery is very befitting of this particular game.
Despite having organised multiple item and enemy decks during setup, the actual gameplay is very simple. In short, each turn will have the players drawing an Event Card from a deck numbered I, II, III or IV, depending on which floor they are currently on. As you can probably imagine, these decks present more and more challenging scenarios as the game goes on, in line with the advancement that each player should experience as they progress.
These event cards line up with item decks which are numbered 1, 2 and 3, and again, each deck is more powerful than the last. Once you come to terms with the fact that these decks are usually used one or two at a time rather than all at once, the complexity of Escape From Dulce really is focussed on setting up the game and packing it away in an orderly fashion.
The game begins with the players in a cryochamber room on the 6th floor, and the first choice is to decide who will enter the next room first. The players will basically always advance from one room to the next on each turn, and there’s no real mechanism for “staying put” except in certain specific circumstances. Upon entering a new room, an Event Card from the appropriate deck will be drawn.
Each Event Card usually features yet more flavour text – often quite a bit – and then a number of different possible groups of enemies, depending on player count and alarm level which is tracked elsewhere on the board. At a green alarm level (the starting default in either campaign) the players will set up the enemy group(s) based on a grid, and then place a number of enemies onto the board in the room that was just entered. The players then draw cards from the deck associated with the appropriate enemy, and each card will match a numbered enemy token, and may have different values such as initiative, health or attack pattern.
Given the length of the game, it’s actually very cool that one lizardman might actually be different to the next. It does slow the game down having to assess each card and deal with that enemy individually, but over the course of such a long game, it helps reduce the possibility of boredom setting in to have an element of risk or randomness about the encounters, even beyond the Event Deck itself.
Each enemy drawn will then have a token placed onto the Combat Tracker in the numbered position that matches the initiative on their card. This basically means that the enemy character in question will act when that point on the Combat Tracker is reached. The players will now determine their initiative by adding their speed to the outcome of a D6, and again, their matching token will be placed on the Combat Tracker.
Combat is then resolved in initiative order, with any ties being favourable towards the player (and any ties between players giving them the choice of who acts first.) Enemies behave as per their card and all characters (both enemies and players) can make a number of attacks equal to their remaining actions. Attacking is simple — firstly a dice is rolled to attempt to match or roll below (not above) the attackers accuracy rating, then, one or more damage dice will be rolled. An accuracy roll of one is always critical, and will result in at least one extra damage dice also being rolled.
Assuming that they are able to kill one or more enemies in this way, then for each one the players defeat, the player that dealt the killing blow will gain at least one experience, which is tracked on their dossier. At certain intervals along the track, the character will level up, allowing them access to increased statistics and better abilities. Should the enemies ever kill a player (which they probably will) then the player dies, drops their equipment and then restarts with just a rusty pipe. More importantly, one of the limited number of clone tokens will be removed from the board, and should the supply ever empty, the players lose.
Play continues broadly in this manner, with the players working their way through rooms, defeating encounters and then searching for loot by drawing from the decks. Searches are only successful when a mental check is passed, and what tends to happen is that games of Escape from Dulce begin with a fairly desperate set of weapons and circumstances, but the players get stronger and more competent as the game rolls on.
There are several boss encounters in the base game (one for each kind of enemy, basically) and there are also some in the expansions that were bundled with my copy. These tougher enemies can come out in several ways, but primarily as a result of the Event Cards in the higher level decks. To be fair, there’s a high degree of randomness in all of the encounters, and like any dungeon crawler, the players will need to focus on increasing their chances of dealing damage to enemies and mitigating it to their own characters — the bosses simply up the ante.
There are a few things about Escape From Dulce that make it interesting. First of all, there is the three dimensional nature of the board which is very cool and certainly draws a lot of attention. It’s easy to build the towers and they all pack back into the box nicely, with the only downside being that playing on any level below the top obviously has minor view restrictions, and clumsy hands can end up knocking things around by catching the legs.
The other thing about Escape From Dulce that I really like is its theme, which is absolutely pervasive throughout. The design team clearly had a singular creative vision and they have committed to delivering against it one hundred percent. If you love B-Movies and comedic sci-fi, then I don’t think I could name a game that captures the feeling of that genre better.
The towers and impressive visual nature of the game wouldn’t be worth anything if the game itself weren’t up to scratch. Thankfully, Escape From Dulce also gets the gameplay fundamentals right, delivering a fun, generous and creative dungeon crawling experience. If there is one thing that I think will hurt it, it’s the game length, which is in many ways just unnecessarily long. Not many players that I know have a great desire to play the same game for three hours, but those who have always enjoyed it. Ultimately, if you’re a fan of the B-Movie style and you love a dungeon crawler with a bit of randomness to it, Escape From Dulce is a great addition to your collection.
You can find more information about Secret Unknown Stuff: Escape From Dulce on the developer’s website.