Monday, November 11, 2013

Escape: Curse of the Temple Review

Escape: Curse of the Temple is one of an increasing number of what I call "experience" games.  These are games that usually involve a soundtrack, and are played in real time.  Their hook is mostly altering your perception of the game through their music and sound effects.  As well as some time dilation caused by the stress they put you under.  Escape in particular was published by Queen Games in 2012, and was designed by Kristian Amundsen Østby.

Escape primarily came to my attention thanks to Shut Up & Sit Down.  I bided my time, waited until I got a gift card and then grabbed it.  I just wasn't sure if the people I play with would enjoy it.  $40-50 also felt like a steep price for a game that lasts only 10 minutes.  So using a gift card definitely alleviated my fears of potential buyers remorse.  Of course, I also had fears about teaching the game properly, and successfully getting everybody through a game where I don't have the luxury of time to keep people honest about the rules.  So lets see how Escape did in those regards.

Rule Summary

The first thing you need to know about Escape, is that it's played in real time.  There are no turns.  You can perform actions as quickly as you can roll your dice and make decisions.  With that said, it's time to get to the rules proper.

To set up the game, you place the Starting Chamber in the center of the table.  Every player gets an Adventurer meeple, 5 dice which represent your tools, and a cardboard token to identify which color you are.  Keep the Exit tile out for now.  Lay out the Gem Depot tile somewhere convenient, and place a stockpile of Magic Gems in the Gem Depot.  The number of Magic Gems depending on the number of players.  It starts at 7 gems for two players and goes all the way up to 16 gems for five players.

Next you shuffle 13 Basic Chambers together with the 4 Gem Chambers.  Draw two, and place them with the stairways connected to the Starting Chamber.  Now draw 4 more Chambers, shuffle in the Exit Chamber, and place those on the bottom of the stack.  Or just slide the Exit Chamber into the middle of the stack with 2 players.

Escape all set up.

Now that you are set up, you need to start Escape's soundtrack.  Some creepy jungle sounds will play, and you'll hear a voice bellow "Escape"!  You now have 10 minutes to escape the cursed temple.  You may now begin frantically rolling your dice.  Each die has two adventurers, and one key, torch, black mask and golden mask.  Most of the symbols are required to perform actions.  However the black mask will lock that dice.  Set it aside, and don't roll it.  The only way to get these dice back is with a golden mask, which will unlock 2 black masks.

All the sides of the die

There are 3 basic actions you can perform with your dice.  They all involve rolling symbols to match something printed on a component.  When you spend your dice on an action, you reroll them.  Players may also pool their symbols together, and help each other out.  This includes letting people use your gold masks so they can unlock their black masks.

With 4 keys you can
activate this gem.
The first action is movement.  Every tile has 2 symbols printed on it.  To move into that Chamber, you need to roll those dice, and spend them.  The second action is exploration.  This takes two Adventurer symbols, and is also printed on the back of the Chamber tiles.  When you explore, you place a tile from the stack next to the room you are in, with the stairway connecting to the room.  You do not get to pick it's facing.

The third action is activating a Magic Gem.  Some Chambers feature a Magic Gem printed on them.  To activate this, you need to roll the number of symbols next to that Magic Gem.  Once you have activated that Magic Gem, remove a plastic Magic Gem from the Gem Depot, and place it on that Chamber.

Some Chambers allow you to activate 1, 2 or 3 Magic Gems, using 4, 7 or 10 of a symbol.  You can only activate one of these however.  After you've activated one of the Magic Gems in that Chamber, you can no longer activate the others!

Now that the double gem has been
activated, you can't activate the others
Eventually you'll find the Exit Chamber, which is the goal of the game.  You must make it to the Exit Chamber, and roll 1 more Key symbol than there are Magic Gems left on the Gem Depot.  Once you have escaped, you can give one of your fellow adventurers still inside the temple one of your dice.

However it's not that easy!  Roughly every 3 minutes, a gong will sound.  When you hear the gong, you must sprint back to the Starting Chamber.  Because shortly after the gong sounds, you'll hear the doors slam shut to the Starting Chamber.  Any adventurers that did not make it back in time permanently lose a die.  After the 3rd gong sounds, you must escape the temple before you are trapped inside forever.

If you want an added challenge, the game comes with the first set of variant modules, involving curses and treasures.  Every time you reveal a Chamber with a purple mask, you must take a curse.  They do a wide variety of things, from forcing you to keep one hand on your head at all times, to locking one of your dice.  To dispel the curse, you must roll the 3 symbols printed on it.  The treasures will also appear in the temple, and require two keys to claim.  After that, you can use it at any time.  They do things like providing extra keys or torches you can bank for later, or allowing you to make a new passageway between Chambers.

Timelapse of play

How accessible is the game to new players?

So my first fear about Escape was getting new players through their first game.  The clock is ticking, and it's going to be very difficult to answer a million questions, and baby sit anything through their "turns".

Helpful icons are on every component
The good news is that this was a complete non issue.  The design of the game is simple, yet robust.  You just roll the symbols printed on whatever you are trying to interact with.  The only rule that needs remembering is how the black and golden mask symbols work.  Everything else is printed on the game components.

Plus, when you do decide to mix in curses and treasures, the pictures on the curse and treasure tiles are remarkably well done.  Most of them effortlessly communicate what they do.  Plus the back of the rules for that module has a very well done reference guide.

What could have been done better?

The only thing I didn't care for was the audio introduction to Escape.  I get the feeling it was recorded before the rules were completely nailed down?  There are just a few sentences that could be misleading.  For example listening to the introduction, it sounds like golden masks only unlock a single black mask.  I have concerns that it could confused new players, although it's not a situation I've actually encountered yet.

How does the new player versus experienced player match up go?

Since Escape is a cooperative game, it's biggest challenge is dealing with an experienced player taking over the game.  Where as Forbidden Desert I feel coped with that using increased hidden information, Escape went with a real time approach.  It makes every player so concerned with their own position and goals, that it's extremely hard to boss anybody else around.  And even if you try to, odds are the other player will be too wrapped up in their own personal dilemmas to pay attention to you!

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?

Oh no!  The 3rd gong has sounded and
the exit is so far away!
The tension in Escape is fantastic.  The die locking mechanic, the soundtrack, and the crisis every 3 minutes creates a wonderful experience.  Even though there is tension, it stays light and fun thanks to the artwork, the short length of the game, and it's impulse driven nature.  You will not be grappling with having wasted an investment of time, thought or feeling.

In fact, I almost enjoy losing more than winning.  The games you absolutely crush, escaping the temple before the second gong goes off?  They are just boring.  A lot of coop games get boring when they are too difficult, because you can sit back, and clearly observe how impossible they are.  Then you lose in a quarter of the time it usually takes to play the game.  Yawn.

It's unlikely you'll ever have a sense of clarity with respect to your imminent doom in Escape.  But you will have a sense of disappointment when all the players make it out of the temple, and you realize you are only 5 minutes through the soundtrack.  You cheated yourself out of 5 more minutes of excitement and adventure by being too good, or making the game too easy!

What makes Escape so enjoyable?

The relationship between the time the game takes, and the difficulty earns Escape the honors of being the only coop game I thoroughly enjoy making as hard as possible.  Because it drastically improves the quality of time spent.  Those 10 minutes will be the best ten minutes of Escape you ever played!  Anything less than full on difficulty feels like a waste of time.

Long term strategy, short term tactics, both or neither?

Escape is clearly the most tactical game I've ever played.  All that really matters is the here and now, right in front of you.  Roll those dice as fast as you can and match those symbols.  But I will say, at higher levels of play, multitasking is crucial.

An example of multitasking.  You are looking for keys,
but you may as well explore while you are at it!

Say you are in a room, trying to roll 4 torches to activate a crystal?  Why not toss every pair of adventurers you roll into an explore action.  Or maybe you know you are heading into a room which requires keys next.  How about you try to save at least 1 out while you roll the man and the torch you need to enter.  The ability to plan at least one move ahead, and stockpile a die towards that goal can be a huge boost.

Are the dilemmas the player is presented with of sufficient quality?

Reading the rules of Escape might make you think the game is simple.  Especially if you've never played a game that puts you under pressure before.  And the rules are simple, which is what I consider to be Escape's primary strength.  But what it does to you, while you are trying to make these decisions inside this simple framework is fantastic.

Just a few pages of rules!
The pressure will ruin everything.  After the gong goes off, and the tension begins to build, your capacity to multitask will go out the window.  You may dash off towards the safe room, only to realize once you get there that you should have been heading for the exit!  Not to mention the real actual fear you'll feel when the music is pounding, and you just locked 4 out of 5 of your dice.  You capacity to make those "simple" decisions will be utterly and hopelessly shot.

And the simplicity of the rules allows you to fully and completely engage with the game, and immerse yourself in what it's doing to you.  Not get hung up on what rule 10.3.2 says about black masks in a room with only 2 doors.

Why are the dilemmas so good?

There are so many different modules
you can play with.
The one thing I love about Escape is that it has as much complexity as you want.  If you want to make the game harder, you can add more crystals and play with curses.  If you want to make the game easier you can play with treasures, or drop a few crystals.  You can also play around with how far down the exit is, or flat out add extra rooms.

What's great about this is that you can smoothly adjust the difficulty.  A single change won't cause the difficulty to massively jolt in any particular direction.  This is unlike many other cooperative games where advancing the difficulty a single level can take the game from solved for you group, to mechanically impossible as far as you can tell.  There is also a fantastic list of challenge levels for all sorts of permutations of extra crystals and tile sets on BoardGameGeek.

Physical component design and limitations?

I've always found Queen games to be very well produced.  They won't wow you.  You won't find any brilliantly sculpted plastic models, or enormous table spanning games or epic scope.  But their games feel solid.  They have a nice heft to them.  Escape is no exception.

The tiles for Escape, even the Curse and Treasure tiles, are a nice thick, dense cardboard.  The dice are custom molded, with the icons etched into them and colored.  The meeples for your explorers are a great size, and hard to miss or confuse.  Plus the bits for the Magic Gems are a perfect semi-transparent plastic.  I can't think of a better game piece for that.

As an added bonus, you can download the audio tracks from Queen's website.  You can put these MP3s on your phone, tablet or computer, or you could even download this Android app instead.

What could have been better?

I'd like to nitpick something about the components, but I really just can't.  I'm coming up completely blank.  This really is just an immaculately produced games, with no flaws I can think of.  If anybody can think of any complaints about the components, I'd love to hear them in the comments section.  Maybe that the game is over produced for a 10 minute exercise, which drives up the price?  I personally don't think so, but maybe that's a perspective somebody has.

Long term prospects?

So Escape has earned itself the honor of being one of a select few games that my girlfriend absolutely loves to play.  She knows it will take exactly 10 minutes, which make sit easy to schedule in.  The game also answers almost any questions she may have with it's fantastic dice/icon system.  So since it's a hit with her, it's a keeper in my collection.

As for everybody else?  Well, lets go back to the fears I had about Escape going into it.  I was worried 10 minutes of game wasn't worth $40-50.  I was also worried that it would be hard to get people through the game.

Well, I can confidently say I feel like it's worth the money for me.  You'll be under so much tension, the game will not feel like a mere 10 minutes.  This isn't 10 minutes of waiting for your turn in Settlers of Catan.  This is 10 minutes of nonstop, pulse pounding action.  It's well worth it.  As for my fear of getting people through the game, I've found it to be completely unfounded, no matter who I've played with.  Even in the middle of a gaming store, with plenty of noise and distraction, I had no trouble getting anyone through a game of Escape.  So I can highly recommend it, if you are even remotely interested in an "experience" style game.


  1. Nice review, Kyle. I don't know how I missed your blog before, but if you don't mind, I'm going to add you to the blogroll on my game blog Pretty Sneaky, Sis.

    On topic, the biggest question I have on this game is how is the replay value? At 10 minutes, it makes for a wonderful filler, but there are other short games that have tremendous replay value (The Resistance, I'm looking at you.) At $50, I want to be sure that I'm getting my money's worth. Not every game can be as rock solid on a dollar to fun ratio as The Resistance is, but I definitely want to know that the novelty will take a long time to fade.

    That said, I like the concept of the high tension real time game. I cut my teeth on the concept with Wok Star, which I enjoy greatly, and this theme has a greater appeal to me. That said, the only other game I've played with this theme is the first installment of The Adventurers, which was great for exactly 1.5 plays. The first play is fantastic. The second play benefits from the experience of one game helping your play decisions. There's literally no point in playing past that point. Thoughts?

  2. I think mileage may vary for replay value. Personally I see tons of replay value. Mostly because of how fluidly you can adjust the difficulty level. It's not uncommon for me to play 4 or 5 times in a row, cranking up the difficulty to more ridiculous levels each time.

    But since I posted this review on Reddit, I've seen a few people claiming that the game got old in a hurry. So it's not impossible that you'll play it out.