I don’t know if you’ve picked up on it from this blog, but I’m a bit of a board game fan. Board gaming has all but obsoleted video gaming for me over the past year. There are still video games that I play and enjoy, but few that I actively salivate over. However, something goes missing when you move almost completely from one to the other. Board-games can be fun, tense, interesting, involving, absorbing, immersive, fascinating. I can count on the fingers of one head though how many of them offer genuinely, nerve-tingling excitement. Board-games are one of the purest expressions of undiluted game experience. The very nature of analogue gaming though results in them being primarily exercises in heart and head. They’re about the intricate relationship of game systems and game states, ideally wrapped up in a delicious coating of thematic integrity. They’re rarely about adrenaline or sheer, frantic desperation.
Escape: The Curse of the Temple on the other hand…
There are some video games that so perfectly create the circumstances for flow that you only realise how intense the experience has been as you slowly ramp down. There are some set-piece battles in the Mass Effect series that left me feeling dazed and light-headed. I had only realised for how long I’d been holding my breath as I gave myself permission to exhale. There are some moments in Alien: Isolation that so successfully marry escalating tension to sudden fright that I had to put the game off for a little bit. You don’t get many experience like that in board-gaming.
That is, unless you pick up Escape.
Escape is a board game with the visceral energy of the best kind of video game. It’s part absorbing real-time challenge of ongoing optimisation and part relentless exercise in self-inflicted stress. It is very short – ten tightly designed minutes of extreme engagement. And yet it’ll stretch out that time period to feel longer. You’ll come out of this thing feeling like you’ve just been put through an emotional ringer. And then you’ll set it up once more and go again. It’s the perfect bite-sized time of play that permits repeated enjoyment.
Mrs Meeple is a keen fitness fanatic. Her resting heart-beat is a few whiskers above ‘legally dead’. She wears a fitness tracker at all times because of course she does. And at the end of Escape her heart-rate had spiked between thirty and forty beats per minute. I on the other hand, being more akin to pate in an ill-fitting man suit, had a shirt that was drenched through with sweat after three sessions. This is a game that should come with prominent warnings – ‘for the love of God, take a break every so often’.
Most games come with an estimated play-time to help you schedule your gaming experience. Escape comes with a stone cold guarantee – you’re going to be done in ten minutes. It’s easy to guarantee that – it’s played in real time.
It’s very quick to set up – you grab some dice, you set up a draw pile of tiles. You add in curses and treasures if you’re so inclined. And then you start the sound-track going. It plays some vaguely atmospheric sounds for a few seconds and then a low, forbidding voice intones ‘escape’
And then everyone, absolutely everyone, starts rolling dice as fast as they can.
Each roll, players can choose to spend their dice on certain actions. Two adventurer symbols means ‘explore’ and lets you draw a new a tile and attach it to an exit in your current room. Each room requires a certain combination of symbols to enter. Some need you to roll symbols to activate magic gems. Some will need you to share dice between adventurers in the same room. The only limit to how quickly you can do any of this is the speed with which you can roll the dice and co-ordinate activities. Escape is a co-operative game that creates regular, ongoing situations of staggering, hilarious selfishness.
You’re trapped in this temple, you see. You need to find the exit. The exit is somewhere in the draw pile. We know roughly how many tiles we’ll need to uncover to find it, but we have no idea what the rest of temple will look like by the time it’s revealed. When we get to the exit, we can roll to escape – we all escape, or we all lose.
But there’s a curse on the exit! It is magically sealed and in order to weaken the curse we need to transfer gems from the ‘gem depot’ into the chambers we encounter. Every gem in the depot is an additional key symbol we need to roll to escape. We have only five dice with which to hit that target. Each adventurer has to reach this total alone. You can’t share anyone else’s dice for this, so you better hope your own don’t let you down.
In a five player game there will be sixteen gems in the depot. To escape the temple, you’d need to roll seventeen keys. It always takes one key to escape, but you need to bring down the target total to something more manageable. You need to find gem chambers, you need to activate them, and you need to make sure nobody gets locked up in the process.
Locked up? Oh yes.
One of the faces on each die is a black mask. When you roll that, it’s locked. A golden mask will unlock two black masks, which stops them being too much of a problem. Except it’s very easy to have five locked dice in play at a time, at which point you’re reduced to wailing plaintively for someone, anyone, to come and help you out.
When your dice are locked up you can’t do a thing unless everyone at the table agrees to provoke a ‘turn of fate’. You get two gems you can toss into the depot at any time during the play, and that will unlock all black masks at the cost of increasing the difficulty to exit. But if people are distributed around the temple, what else can you do? You can wait, panicked, while someone edges closer to you on a room by room basis. What if they themselves get locked up in the process? What happens then? After all, when the gong sounds you’ve all got to get back to the starting tile.
The gong? Oh yes.
The sound-track contains three periods where the gong sounds. When that happens the first and second times you need to get back to the start tile before you hear the sound of a slamming door. If you don’t, you lose one of your dice permanently – and holy shit, that’s bad. It’s hard enough to make your way through the temple with five. It becomes exceptionally more difficult with four, and all but impossible with three. With three, you’re the metaphorical wounded soldier, shouting for your companions to leave you behind, you’re only slowing them down.
And you are! You absolutely are the wounded soldier that’s going to get everyone killed.
But they can’t leave you though because everyone leaves or nobody leaves! Hearing that gong is like someone pumping pure adrenaline directly into your heart. Suddenly the stakes become much greater and the dice much less forgiving. Every room needs a combination of symbols to enter, and everyone is racing from different parts of the temple to get to safety. Who’s going to stop to unlock you if things get bad? They need you to get out of the temple alive. They don’t need you to have all your dice to do it.
As soon as the game begins, it’s a frantic cocktail of laughing, whining, swearing, rolling dice, and the clacking of tiles as they’re put down. ‘I’m locked!’ someone will shout. Everyone will briefly glance up from their dice to see if they can help without giving up too much. You’ve got to explore the temple, and you can only do it from your current chamber. If you need to backtrack five rooms, maybe it’d be better just to wait until someone is closer?
‘I’m locked!’ they yell again.
‘I’ll get to you!’, you yell back, fully intending to ignore them until you find the exit. Then the gong sounds. Oh god, the gong. Wait, is that the second gong? When did we get so far through this? We need to get out of this temple by the time the third one chimes. Oh my god there are still twelve gems in the depot and we haven’t found the exit? What the hell has everyone else being doing, oh my god, oh my god! You’re locked? Hey, screw you buddy – contribute or get out of the way. A-B-C buddy – always be contributing. Unlocking is for closers.
This is excitement. It’s a ten minute game session with the same relentless pace and narrative arc as a sniper’s bullet.
And then, just when you think you’ve got this nailed down, you remember… say, weren’t there some extra tiles mentioned at the back of the manual?
And there were.
And these things turn a tense and energetic exercise in agitated dice-rolling into the meanest, cruelest crucible I have in my entire gaming collection. When you play with these cards, you get rid of the ‘basic’ tiles. They’re for chumps. You move on to the advanced tiles. These are for those that quite like the look of skydiving but think it’s maybe all just a bit sedate. These are curses, and every time you discover a room marked with a idol, you grab one of the associated curses and you’re stuck with it until you roll the dice to clear it. You’ll want to clear it too, because these things suck like a black hole. One curse means you can’t talk – if you’re locked, you better hope you can communicate that fact through nothing more than frantic gesticulation. One curse means you need to play with only one hand. The other one has to stay on the top of your head until the curse is lifted. Combine that with the curse that means any dice that fall off the table are lost for the entire game…
It’s not all bad though, because these tiles also have treasures on them. Special powers that make life just a little bit easier. They might free up gems, or give you free symbols to spend, or let you teleport to other rooms. There are just enough of these to offset the hilarious nastiness of the curses, but claiming them is going to cost you – each needs two keys, and often their effect is a one-off bonus. They sit there, tantalizing, but how much time can you spend trying to claim them? You don’t know what the treasure will be when you enter its room, you just know it’s there.
The curses and treasures both add more for you to do, and more to keep track of. They make it harder to play, both in terms of extra requirements but also in terms of sheer opportunity cost. What they don’t do is give you more time. You’ve got ten minutes. Escape.
When Escape is in full swing, you spend as much time frantically chanting your actions to yourself as you do planning out their consequences. The pressure can be considerable, to the point that you’re sometimes simply picking up dice and hurling them without any conscious idea of what you’re trying to do. Your fingers stop behaving properly. You start knocking dice over, or picking up only subsets of them. You sit, dumb-founded, rolling a single die over and over again because you don’t want to lose any of the ones you’ve saved even if that is mathematically the staggeringly obvious thing to do.
On occasion I have found myself trying to explore from a room with no exits. I’ve seen myself trying to activate a gem that someone else has managed to do in the time I’ve been rolling. You’re all working together, but you just don’t have the time to keep track on what anyone else is doing. If Looney Tunes had made an animated version of Indiana Jones, it would have been something like this. It would be full of screaming and running around, seemingly at random. It’s archaeology as envisioned by the Animaniacs.
It’s really good, is what I’m saying. It’s great, in fact. It’s joyful.
The only thing really that stops it being truly excellent is that while the real-time element supercharges the dice rolling you are still entirely at the mercy of Lady Luck. In one of the solo runs I did through this while learning the rules I managed to lock myself completely out on the first roll I made. Rolled five dice. Got five black masks. It certainly made me laugh, but one of the questions I always ask myself is ‘How could I do better the next time I play’? Again, we come back to the old saw, ‘Lol, just roll better’.
There’s quite a lot of tactical and strategic weight to play, and the co-ordination and sharing of dice between adventurers mitigates the randomness to an extent. However, when you’re desperately trying to enter the room that will save you from the penalty of the gong, it’s sometimes a little hard to be forgiving of the design as you watch your dice gradually locking up in front of you. You can get better, you can strategize more clearly, and communicate more effectively. You can spend some of your time on co-ordination – you can meaningfully improve your performance. What you can’t do though is eliminate arbitrary and unfair fate. Some of the games we’ve lost were as we tried to unlock each other’s dice only to gradually lock out more of our own. There’s a lower threshold at which your dice will do nothing. You can accomplish nothing with a single unlocked dice except to try and unlock the others. There’s no meaningful decision to this failure cascade – you just need to hope you get the right symbols.
But please don’t let this dissuade you too much. Were this a turn based game it would perhaps be a realistic candidate for the ‘worst game ever’. It literally is ‘roll the dice, spend them on symbols’. It is that phenomenal real-time element that transmutes mediocre dice-play into entertainment gold. All I’m saying is that the alchemy isn’t pure– it leaves the traditional by-products of arbitrary frustration that is common to this style of games. It’s buried deep, and only dulls the shine occasionally, but it’s there.
When Escape shines though, my goodness it shines. It glitters. It radiates a frantic, chaotic joy in all directions. It melds despair and triumph into one seamless spectrum of experience. The victories are often unearned and the defeats are often unfair, but nonetheless you’ll drink deeply of every single minute of play and still find yourself thirsty for more.
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