Thursday, January 10, 2013

Escape: The Curse of the Temple

Sometimes, you just want to get your hands on some loot.

Sometimes, that loot screws you big time.
Escape: The Curse of the Temple (which I really wish was called Escape!) is about being screwed. Escape! made a huge splash at Essen last year after a successful Kickstarter campaign by Queen games back in April. In Escape!, you play a crew of adventurers who have fallen into a room in a Temple that is on the verge of collapsing. You only have 10 minutes to get out, but the magical power of the gems is keeping you trapped. You must collect the gems and find the exit, and then EVERY player must escape or you lose.
Escape takes 10 minutes to play. It's a timed team game! Escape comes with a CD that you play to track the events of the game. You begin the game with 5 dice and three rooms discovered (including the safe 'base' room).
The different rolls you can get. There are two green men faces.
There are no turns in this game, you just roll the dice as quickly and often as possible. You may reroll any number of dice (picking and choosing the ones you like) with one exception: the dreaded black mask.
This die hates you.
If you roll a black mask that die is locked and unusable until you roll a golden mask to "restore" up to two black dice to you or any of your buddies in the same room as you. It's entirely possible to end up with all 5 dice as black masks, helplessly languishing until one of your friends comes to free you from your curse. The other three symbols are used to interact with the board: the green men are used for moving, the red torches are used to discover gems, and the blue keys are also used to discover gems. It takes two specific dice to discover new rooms and two specific dice to move into those rooms. There are two kinds of rooms with gems: those that require 4 of either the torches/keys and those that require 4, 7, or 10 of those torches/keys. The latter of those rooms can be completed at any difficulty level (but only once) with friends, while the former room must be completed solo. Once you have collected most of the gems and found the exit, you can roll some keys in order to escape. Once you escape you can hand one of your dice to a player still in the game.
There is one further complication: twice throughout the course of the game a gong will sound indicating that you need to return to the central chamber within 1 minute. If you fail to do so, you permanently lose one of your dice (making subsequent tasks much more difficult!).
Looks like these people are trying to escape, but there are too many magical gems trapping them!
Going off by yourself in this game is likely a death sentence - even though you are just as likely to roll gold masks as black masks, it can be really easy to find yourself trapped in a death spiral if you get just a little bit unlucky. Yes, the odds of it happening aren't terribly high, but you roll your dice so often (once every two seconds or so) that eventually you will trap yourself or get so bogged down you can't do anything other than try to break the curse. 
One complaint I have about the CD is that the gong/door shut sounds are not quite as distinct as I would like for them to be - when I played with my family we were constantly screaming at each other and gong sounds almost always had us going "Was that a gong? I think that was a gong! Did you hear the fucking gong?!?"
Another thing I will say about this game is that it is ridiculously easy to unintentionally cheat: be it picking up a black mask by accident, miscounting your groups torches, or walking through a wall - you will just accidentally cheat here and there.
Why does this chart look so crazy? Read below.
FUN: 2(4) Ok, so I cheated here, but it's for good reason! The lighter shade of orange in the chart above relates to my initial ranking of the game, a ranking that I think would hold for certain folks permanently but doesn't really hold for me (dropping it to my "true" darker orange rating). So why is this game initially a 4? Well, I think everyone should give this game a shot - it's a total blast to play! There are some similarities with this game and Space Alert, but other than that Escape is quite a unique gaming experience. When I explained the rules to my father, he was initially frustrated by how stupid the game sounded, but after playing he said, "Ok, I get it now." Using die rolling as a mechanism to race against time just makes you want to jump up and down and throw your dice all over the room in order to get that fourth torch but ARGH A GODDAMN BLACK MASK. Escape gets your heart rate up in a way that very few other indoor activities do.

But adrenaline wears off. 

I imagine every time I introduce this game to new friends I will get a laugh out of them panicking about what is going on. However, on a personal level you start to 'get' the game at a very rapid pace. In the case of a time pressure game, 'getting it' is a bad thing. The pressure is lessened and what's fun about the game really falls off. In my opinion, the initial "wow!" appeal of this game is what made it have such huge buzz at Essen this year but will make it hard for Escape to become a staple after the excitement wears off. As a 2, I would still play it from time to time, but I don't have any desire to own the game. I think after ten or twenty plays of the game it is likely near exhausted. Twenty plays sounds like a lot but keep in mind the game plays in 10 minutes, twenty plays of this game equals one game of Through the Ages or three games of Settlers.

STRATEGY: 1 Roll some dice. Run into rooms. Roll some dice. Roll again. Cuss. Roll again. Wait for a friend. Roll again. This game isn't deep, and despite the time pressure, it requires very, very little brainpower to be good at it. The tiny iota of strategy is in deciding when you are going to stick together and when you are going to split up, and also how you are going to explore and build the temple (as you have some control over that). There are expansions that I think make the game harder (one comes with the game), but I doubt it really changes anything drastically. My family and I played this game three times and won every time with something like 2 minutes to spare, which says to me that it's a bit too easy (at least, without an expansion rule).  One of the times we even employed the Super Adventuring Party Strategy* to great success.

* - Super Adventuring Party Strategy or SAPS is a stupid/ridiculous strategy for 4-5 players I came up with to play this game that involves staying together the whole time as a group. You elect a party leader who is the primary explorer of new rooms, and you travel in a straight line, ignoring any normal dungeon construction plans. You never reroll gold masks so you can cure other party members.Since all of you are together, you tend to conquer rooms at a very rapid rate. When the gong goes off, you IGNORE IT and continue playing. Everyone will lose a die, but you move through the dungeon at such efficient speed that it doesn't matter. You obviously have to move fast because after the second gong you can't conquer any of the single gem rooms (4 minimum). Crafty players will hold onto torches and keys for additional speed as you move through the dungeon. Not only did this hilarious strategy work, it worked with flying colors. Lots of yelling at each other ensues.

SOCIAL: 4 A large part of the fun in this game is coordinating amidst chaos. Teaming up to complete certain rooms or splitting up to explore more ground but not getting too far away from one another requires a ton of constant communication. That being said, I couldn't in good faith give this game a 5 because in my experience I only interacted with half the players at the table! This just happened to be whatever 2-3 person group I was moving around with in any given moment. Of course, the game is so short that you can play again and coordinate with other people the next time, but it is immensely easier to coordinate with someone sitting next to you so you aren't screaming across the table. (Note: SAPS allows you to scream at everyone equally)

FLAVOR: 2 I love Indiana Jones, so I'm all about the idea of a pulp, booby-trapped dungeon. In an expansion that comes with the game (that I am yet to play and looks like it adds a little spice but nothing mind-blowing) you can even become cursed (the most hilarious curse is if you roll a die off the table it is gone forever). That being said, all you're really doing is running around and rolling dice. Why does it take 4 keys to unlock this gem, and what the hell is rolling dice supposed to indicate that my character is actually doing in the game? I have no idea. I like to pretend your avatar is going through all his pockets and trying to pull out enough MacGyver goodies at any given moment, but who knows. Also, why do I need to run back to the central chamber every few minutes, and what is it that makes that central chamber so safe anyway? And when I lose a die, what does that even mean? Eh, I give up.

MISCELLANEOUS: 3(5) Escape is incredibly unique, which is what gets it most of its points. The first time you play this game its like "Wow! This is amazing, why haven't I been playing frenetic run around games my whole life?" but then you realize, "Oh, because while fun, it isn't particularly deep." What I actually love most about Escape is the role I see it fulfilling in my life: time-wasting filler on game days. You know what I mean - you have a game day with 8-10 people so you split into two games. One game finishes a half hour before the other, and you want to do a player swap, but what do we do in that half hour? 
Move aside Zombie Dice, helllllooooooooo Escape! If Escape were 20$ cheaper I would buy it for this sole purpose.

Parting thoughts on strategy: Uh, don't go anywhere alone. Don't choose 4x as an option for any of the multi-option gem rooms. Try to build your dungeon in such a fashion that makes it easy to get back to the central chamber and then to get back out again.

Best of luck, uh, escaping!

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