Context of Document
This is not a review of this game. You will find the review linked in the introduction.
Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.
Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then please stop reading now. This will not be the blog for you, and we have no interest in debating with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.
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With a four star review and a hearty endorsement, Escape: The Curse of the Temple has a lot to recommend it. It’s a a rare breed of tabletop game that manages to create real stress and tension from the simplest mechanics – it’s like the darkest timeline version of what Yahtzee could be. Play in Escape is an arc of desperation, triumph, frustration, joy, and rapidly escalating sadness and mounting despair. If they slapped a different theme on it they could have called it ‘Nightclubbing in Dundee’. It’s great and the rapidly modulating tempo of play is perfect companion to the emotional rollercoaster that reality has placed us upon in recent months. As usual though, we ask ourselves the key question – is this rollercoaster for everyone? Well, let’s grab our hat before it’s crushed by the closing door and find out.
Colour blindness is going to be a problem at high player counts for some categories of impairment. There is a palette overlap between the red and green and it’s especially pronounced for those with Protanopia. For those with the much rarer Deuteronopia there is a clash between the green and the blue.
The position of players is hugely important in Escape – you will need to know where everyone is, what they’re doing, and what dice they have available. This real-time pressure has several interesting implications:
- You will be only passingly aware of what everyone else is doing and where they’ve gone
- You will have very limited time to visually ascertain the location of players
- Everything is so frantic it can be difficult to ask for clarification of position over the clamour.
- Any time you spend dealing with any of these issues is time you’re not rolling dice, and you need all that time.
It’s not all bad though – you can easily substitute a different coloured meeple or other item for clashing colours – the only thing they’re used for is to indicate where you are in the temple. Escape provides markers to indicate which colour belongs to which player too (allowing you to identify at who you should be yelling to come help, for the love of God, come help). You’ll also likely need a matching identification symbol for the player so that you know which token is which.
The dice symbols are well differentiated, and even the different coloured masks are fine because they are also different styles.
Out of the box then there are problems but they are not intractable – with minor modifications you can solve them. Even if you couldn’t they’re only going to be an issue when there is a combination of colour blindness categories at the table, or when the player count goes above four.
As such, we’ll recommend Escape in this category.
The real-time element here really interferes with the visual accessibility of a game that otherwise has reasonably clear state indicators. The problem is that while every element of gameplay state can be interrogated with an assistive aid, and there’s even a pleasing sense of tactility in some gameplay elements, the time constraints make this entirely infeasible. On the other hand, if this was a turn based game it would easily be a candidate for ‘most boring game I’ve ever been forced to play at gunpoint’. Accessibility fixes for games tend to fall into two categories. Many are possible without impacting on the game itself – larger text, better colour design, memory aids, and so on. Others arise from very deliberate design decisions that cannot be changed without fundamentally altering the game itself. Escape’s major inaccessibilities are primarily in the latter camp.
Let’s begin with the good stuff. The room tiles are large, and they have substantial iconographic representations that show what needs to be rolled to activate each part. The stack of tiles is pleasingly tactile, and you can feel down its height to have an approximate idea of how far away you are from the exit. The gems can be interrogated by touch, and you can tell if a room has been activated by feeling for a gem. And, of course, the game has powerful audio cues that keep momentum going. The tokens that represent adventurers are reasonably large and vibrantly coloured (although with the issues we discussed in the section on colour blindness). That’s all great.
The problem is the extent to which the temple sprawls, and the speed with which you need to make decisions. This is compounded by the number of dice you have, and the rapidity with which you must roll them.
Everyone is frantically making their way through the temple, and the nature of the dice-rolling lends movement a stochastic unreliability. One player may be stuck in a single room for a solid minute while another races out, laying a long path of tiles ahead of them. For those with visual impairments getting close enough to see what symbols are needed to enter a room isn’t difficult, but it takes time. Time you should be spending on dice-rolling because you only have ten minutes. TEN MINUTES. By the time you roll the dice needed to meet some criteria, someone may have come and beat you to it. If on top of every dice roll you need to add in an investigation of the game state, it’s like trying to swim upwards to safety with a rock tied to your legs. .
On to this you then add the non-standard die faces. You’ll need a lookup table if you want to use accessible dice, and you’ll need five of those. The nature of saving and holding dice over from rolls means you can’t use one die several times. You really need to do them all at once and you need them to be very quickly assessed and compared and contrasted because you are expected to be recycling them into future rolls very briskly. Not only that, you’ll often be lending them to a communal effort when assisting others in your temple square.
Added on to this is a complexity that comes with assessing who is affected by what curses and what treasures they have. Some curses limit the effect of gold masks as an example of why you’d need to know that. Others lock off the use of dice, which means that a player may not be feasibly able to help you achieve a goal. To be fair, all of this is happening so fast that even those players that are fully sighted will be playing a desperate game of partial and rapidly changing information, but visual parsing of game-state is key to getting your bearings. You can ask questions of people but this is only a haphazard solution because everybody is under pressure to perform and they may simply not have the time to answer.
The obvious solution here is to play the game at a fraction of its normal speed. That’s only going to work for groups that contain no sighted players. The only limit to progress is how quickly you can roll and how long you have to do it. Changing what is an exquisite balance of timing through slow-motion audio would have a powerfully corrosive impact on game pacing if some are sighted and some re not. That would be true even if you could properly balance the time shift for all the different levels of visual impairment at the table.
Escape then strikes us a game that is, through fundamental elements of its design, entirely visually inaccessible and we cannot recommend it even in the most tentative terms. It’s a shame, because there is little about the game that is actively inaccessible otherwise. Without a real-time element, it likely would have achieved a reasonably high grade here. That element is something we don’t think could be removed from the game without ruining it. We might have been inclined to recommend it in this category, but at the cost of losing its recommendation as a playable experience. I’d be absolutely fascinated to hear from any visually impaired players that have given a non-real time version a try though.
This is a difficult one to evaluate, and again it’s the real time aspect that makes it so. There’s no reading level required, and only a minor level of numeracy that is easily handled through symbol matching. There is no complex game flow, no complex game state, and no issues of complex synergy. There are few tokens, and no real need to do anything except react. The curses and treasures add a cognitive load, but they’re optional and the game is still a lot of fun without them.
Really, the only thing that risks cognitive accessibility is the speed at which all of this has to be done. As we discussed when we talked about Dobble, the cognitive costs associated with even simple tasks under pressure can be considerable.
The job in front of you is reasonably simple and since it’s a co-operative game you can subdivide tasks easily. ‘You go hunting for new rooms’ for example. In that case the task becomes ‘roll two adventurer symbols’, which then needs some management of gold and black masks. But there’s also a point where you have to all scurry back to the centre lest you lose a dice. Exploration is a task of pushing your luck, and when that gong strikes you may find yourself suffering because of hubris. Pushing your luck is a game system that requires at least an intuitive grasp of probability.
On the other hand, you can have one player focusing on activating gems. In that case, they can move from room to room and simply attempt to match the requirements. The gem rooms may be distributed around the temple, but whoever is doing the exploring can make sure that the tiles are placed in such a way as to limit how far someone must roam.
Or you can have one player focusing on helping other players out. Looking for who’s blocked, making their way there and then lending support. Or looking for players trying to hit difficult goals and offering the dice to do it. Escape is frantic and stressful and exciting, but it can be managed if you want to make it a more structured and less cognitively demanding game. Players will have to give up some autonomy and adopt a more rigorous discipline of job roles, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The game also scales well to challenge – the number of gems in a depot depends on player number but there’s nothing at all to stop you fiddling with that formula to make it satisfying for the people playing. Easing back from the four player requirements or spicing up the two player requirements are both reasonable strategies for dealing with a player count of three where cognitive accessibility may need to be taken into account. In Dobble you’re competing with other players. In Escape, you’re working together. It makes the task of supporting cognitive accessibility needs more feasible.
As to memory, the only thing that isn’t expressed in the game in front of you is how far you are through the soundtrack – each of the three gong events uses a different number of chimes (one, two then three) but there’s no reminder during the lull periods as to which one last struck. That’s unlikely to be too big an issue though since you can focus on doing the job in front of you – it doesn’t really matter if you know how much time is left, you have the same rolls you need to make regardless.
The only other significant issue from the perspective of cognitive accessibility is the symbolism used to represent curses and treasures. None of them explicitly indicate the effect, relying instead on suggestive graphics. The curses for example:
You can see from the mute and ‘one handed’ curses what the effect is – they’re reasonably self-explanatory. The others though aren’t very intuitive from the icons alone. Icons are like jokes – if you have to explain them they’re not very good. Some cross-referencing might be required until the meanings are internalised, and that puts a burden on memory. As we discussed above though, curses and treasures are entirely optional.
As such, we’re prepared to give Escape a tentative recommendation in this category with regards to fluid intelligence impairments, and an overall recommendation when taking memory impairments into account.
Failure is perhaps a more likely outcome than success when looked at in the aggregate. I haven’t played enough separate games with enough separate player counts to offer much more than a gut feeling on that, so take it with a pinch of salt. The co-operative nature of play alleviates much of the sting of that – you’re not going to have to watch someone win and lord it over you. If you don’t all escape, none of you win.
However, that ‘co-operative’ there hides a number of nuances. You all need to get out, but you don’t all necessarily need to get out in the same condition, or as a result of making the same contribution. You can technically win the game co-operatively by having everyone leave you locked in a room and freeing you only when it’s time to escape. The time pressures also create moments of (hilarious) double-crossing – you might be happy to stay and help someone unlock their dice until you hear the gong, and then run off. Or you might be happy to benefit from their support at one point, and leave them locked up as you race to the start tile. It’s good sense too – if you don’t think you can save someone and make it out then it doesn’t make sense for you both to be penalised. However, the nature of dice play is such that you might actually end up sitting in safety long enough that you could easily have helped the other person out of their predicament. The time between the gongs striking isn’t very long, but it can seem long if you’re sheepishly avoiding eye contact with the player you abandoned in the depths of a cursed temple. It’s very funny if everyone takes that in the right spirit. But man, sucks to be you if you just lost a die because of it.
The hard-core randomness baked into the game creates a number of flash-points for frustration. You can essentially be forced, as a result of the ruthless mathematics of probability, into creating the circumstances within which you gradually lock yourself out of contention. You might accumulate three of the four keys you need, only to roll a black mask. Then you need to roll a single die to get you a key, a gold mask, or a black mask, all of which are equally likely. If you get another black mask you need to start losing ground on the challenge as you sacrifice previously rolled keys. The natural inclination for this is to minimise your losses, rolling only one of your keys in the hope of getting a golden skull. However, you’re still very much working against the odds – you can slowly, and incrementally, make your situation worse if you don’t just bite the bullet and roll the lot. If that happens as the gong rings, and as you see how far away you are from help, it can be angering because you can’t meaningfully fight the inexorability of random chance.
It’s only a minor worry though – the frantic energy and good humour of play tends to make aggravating randomness funny, and the brisk playing time means that you’re never locked out of fun for long. The worst that will happen is a ten minute stretch when you won’t get to do anything of interest.
We recommend Escape in this category.
The amount of physical activity in play is considerable, and it is a game where efficiency of physical interaction is vital. You need to roll dice, quickly. You need to partition them, quickly. You need to collect them up, quickly. You need to be able to rapidly ascertain what’s needed in terms of a roll across what may be a sprawling game map. It’s all likely doable if there is reasonable mobility in the hands, arms and upper torso but if there is anything that slows down the physical interaction the disadvantages are considerable and will compound.
Troublesome too is the fact the game is extremely resistant to verbalisation. Sure, all you’re doing is rolling dice and spending them but you’re doing it extremely quickly and at the same time as everyone else. In turn based games, you can get someone else’s assistance when it’s your go. With Escape, they’re busy and they can’t stop what they’re doing to help. If verbalisation is at all to be a possibility then you’ll need a dedicated helper. And if you can arrange that you better hope that you don’t Go Dobble because the stress of the time limit is almost guaranteed to create situations of temporary aphasia and tongue-tied frustration.
Curses too are likely to be a problem since they often require a degree of physicality in how they are enacted. One curse requires you to play with only one hand, one requires you to give up any dice you lose to the floor, and so on. In cases where physical interaction is restricted, it may not be possible at all to give up a hand to a gameplay system. It may be unreasonable where there are issues of precision or fine-grained control to have every lost die disappear form play. One curse prohibits you from talking, which requires you to replace verbal cues with wild gesticulation as you try to get the attention of players that are absorbed in their own dice-play. You can play without the curses, which would avoid these problems, but you also cut off how interesting the game can become. Tellingly, these game systems are supposed to temporarily increase difficulty to such an extent that you’ll spend time rolling the dice needed to remove them. That should tell you all you really need to know about Escape if the end result of a curse mirrors the permanent reality of a player.
With these teardowns, we focus largely on the satisfaction that comes from gameplay, and sometimes (as with Takenoko) a portion of that satisfaction will derive from the physical act of interaction. It feels nice to roll lots of dice very quickly, and even if verbalisation were to be possible with specific support we’d suspect the game wouldn’t be very satisfying.
As such, we strongly recommend you avoid Escape if you have any degree of physical restriction. It’s likely playable if physical impairments are not going to impact on dice rolling, but the sprawl that goes along with temple exploration is likely to be a compounding factor limiting satisfying play.
I’ll be honest, I bought Escape largely because we hadn’t done a teardown where the ability to perceive audio is an important issue. After all, didn’t Escape come with one of these ancient relics of antiquity?
Sound is a neglected channel of information in board game design, so we only rarely have something interesting to talk about in this section other than that which is associated with general table chatter. I thought Escape would give us a chance to explore that. And then I found out it comes with a sand-timer for where the audio cues are not appropriate. So that was awesome!
I have some issues with the sand-timer, but first I want to enthuse a bit about the way its inclusion is handled. It’s not an accessibility aid, prominently placed in the box for deaf players. It’s explicitly marketed for all players as a solution to environmental problems. I’ve said several times in this blog, ‘extraordinary users are the same as ordinary users in extraordinary contexts’. When we are in a noisy environment, we temporarily have many of the same accessibility considerations as someone that is permanently deaf. The things we talk about on Meeple Like Us are for everyone’s benefit.
There is a complicating factor when it comes to adopting accessibility support. Most of us, whether in need of accessibility or otherwise, don’t really want to be singled out as needing special treatment. Think of children that need glasses, and how they will often resist the requirement until it can’t be fought any longer. They don’t want to be called ‘speccy’ or ‘four eyes’ by their friends. Think of relatives that have put off getting a hearing aid because they don’t want to be seen as ‘infirm’. Accessibility solutions can be stigmatising.
It is fantastic then that the sand timer in the Escape box is pitched as what is essentially a mini-expansion. It’s even given a cool name – ‘the sands of fortune’. It’s lovely!
It’s not however a perfect replacement for the soundtrack. So much of what you do in Escape is focused on paying attention to your surroundings and your dice, and the sand-timer adds in one more thing you need to keep an eye on. It also requires players to be proactive in handling the rush to the starting chamber. It doesn’t give the same immediacy as the gong. However, that can’t really be helped and if playing in a mixed ability group you can synchronize the sand timer and the soundtrack so that you’re offering the same information in multiple different forms.
There is a degree of additional communication required for game co-ordination. The pace is too fast for you to really be able to do much planning and strategy. It’s not Pandemic, and there’s no over-arching need to plot out every last move. This is a game of action, not cogitation. However, the consequence of that is that people will be absorbed in the task in front of them, and not on the players around them. If you can’t signal the need for assistance audibly, you’ll need to rely on them noticing you gesturing or physically getting their attention. Every second counts in Escape, and any lag in play is going to impact upon that. The more that’s necessary, the more it will compound.
However, while the game won’t be optimal for deaf players or those with restrictions on expression it is fully playable and enjoyable and that’s marvellous. We recommend Escape in this category.
There’s only one adventurer on the game box, and it’s a guy. It’s clearly an Indiana Jones homage – the font screams that even if the outfit didn’t give it away. It’s a shame though we don’t see a bit of balance here – a Lara Croft reference would have rounded it out nicely. The manual too has a tendency to default to assumed masculinity in instructional sections, although the examples alternate between ‘he’ and ‘she’. It’s not endemic, and I get the impression given how occasional it is that it may simply have slipped through by accident.
The theme may be a little troublesome given the implied looting of antiquity that drips off of every thematic element. It’s never stated that you’re out to rob a nation of its cultural treasures, but come on. We know what Indy does for a living. This is compounded somewhat by the fact that you can’t get out because of a magic curse, which pretty much underlines the fact that you’re there as thieves. There’s very clearly an Earth parallel to the culture you’re robbing too – it’s never explicitly mentioned, but it’s certainly some variety of Mesoamerican civilization. As such there is a tang of Western cultural imperialism in the game. You can easily ‘head-canon’ it away if this is an issue. There’s no reason your adventurers can’t be on a field trip from the local university. I think you’d need to want to find the theme troublesome since it gives itself enough ambiguity to hide behind, but I mention it just in case.
Cost-wise it’s around £40 for the base game, although it cleanly plays from one to five players at a time. The play time is ten minutes, which may ring some alarm bells, but while you can’t build an evening around it you’ll certainly find it works well with repeated plays in a single session. If you fail, you’ll feel a fair compulsion to set it up again and give it another go. The game without the optional curse and treasure modules is fun enough, and you can get considerable additional longevity by building them in over time. The expansions that can be bought though are ludicrously expensive. For a few tiles, some extra dice, and a sixth player marker you’ll pay an RRP of thirty eye-watering pounds for one of them. You can often buy them considerably cheaper, but that’s always going to be highly dependent on stock fluctuations. It’s a pricey inclusion to your game library, although one that’s sure to be a crowd-pleaser.
With all this in mind, we recommend, just, Escape in this category.
There is a considerable amount of intersectional complexity that comes from the real-time element of the game. Accessibility support takes time. Though it would be possible to modulate the speed of the soundtrack to accommodate this it’s going to be extremely difficult to balance especially in a group where everyone may have a different accessibility profile. The need to be multitasking between several competing and mutually exclusive goals is going to put considerable strain on a player’s physical, visual and cognitive faculties. The dice play too is going to be even more difficult for those with physical impairments if there is a cognitive cost to bear in mind.
The time constraints are communicated either visually, via the sand-timer, or audibly, via the soundtrack. However, the sand-timer is inaccessible to those with visual impairments and the soundtrack is inaccessible to those with hearing impairments. If both must be considered, there is no channel through which this key information can be perceived in any way that permits the game to be played in real time.
More critically, this is a game that prohibits any meaningful support from other players at the table. They can’t help someone on their turn because it’s everyone’s turn all the time. Everyone is rolling everything. Despite being a co-operative game, everyone’s got their own things to worry about. It discourages the collegiality that otherwise tends to typify co-operative gameplay.
The symbolism on the curses and treasures offers some visual clue as to what they mean, but they’re not instantly understandable and this might be an issue with an intersection of visual and cognitive impairment.
The game is very short, but it is explicitly designed to be high energy and high octane. As I mentioned in the review, playing it had a very quantifiable effect on Mrs Meeple’s heart rate. You feel every single minute of gameplay because you’re stretched like a rubber band that is only given leave to relax at the end. Ten minutes is plenty of time to exacerbate discomfort in those circumstances. However, the cost of a player dropping out is minimal – the game scales beautifully to all supported player counts. It’s fine if someone wants to take a break from playing – nothing will break even if the game does become considerably more difficult. That can be resolved by getting rid of a few gems from the depot, or even skipping the soundtrack back a couple of minutes.
Given its peculiar interaction regime, it’s perhaps not surprising that Escape has such a wide ranging accessibility profile:
Its difficulties from a visual and physical perspective are unsurprising, but I was pleased at the conscious design for deafness. Board games which use audio as a major gameplay system are rare. The issues are well understood when we talk of video games, but we encounter them only very occasionally on the tabletop.
We gave Escape four stars in our review – it deserves a place on anyone’s shelves. It’s fast, frantic, and one of the most visceral gaming experiences you can have at the table. However, all of that comes at a cost, and that cost renders it inaccessible to substantial subsets of the population. Hopefully you’ll be able to play it because Escape: The Curse of the Temple is a great game that will fill a hole in your collection you may not have even realised was there.
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