Room-in-a-box, Jul 2017
In the increasingly crowded world of play at home escape games, Deckscape is the latest entrant. Test Time is designed to be the first in a series with the second game due out later this year.
There seems to be a progression towards ever simpler components and mechanics. The first boxed games to hit the market used nested packets containing a variety of bits and bobs, plus a code-wheel. Subsequent releases shifted to a greater reliance on cards, until the Unlock! series boiled the format down to nothing but a deck of cards plus an app. Deckspace takes the final step, and consists of only the cards.
A starting card shows you your location. Subsequent cards are predominantly either puzzles or items. Item cards are kept aside until needed. Puzzle cards of course display a puzzle. Some puzzles can be solved immediately; others require you to find a particular item card first, with the dependency sometimes stated explicitly and sometimes not.
Required items may or may not be available when you come to the puzzle that needs them, because the game is non-linear. It achieves this by having the deck separated into four piles through which you can progress in parallel, at least until you encounter a puzzle that requires an item hidden in a different deck.
The most distinctive feature of the system is that there is no verification mechanism at all. When you think you’ve solved a puzzle, you flip the card to see the answer. If your answer was correct, you progress to the next card with an appropriate glow of smugness. If not, you record that you failed a puzzle, and progress on regardless. At the end of the game the number of failures is taken into account along with your play time to determine how well you did.
There are also a couple of clue cards. We ignored these entirely, not through bravado but because we weren’t sure how they provided clues and were too worried about spoilers to flip them over. In fact they provide cryptic one-line hints for each of the puzzles, listed by number out of order and in mirror writing, so there’s little danger of accidentally seeing the hint for a different puzzle unless you have supernaturally keen perception abilities.
The backstory is that you’re in a mad scientist’s lab when he accidentally (or not so accidentally? dun dun DUN!) knocks a switch that locks the doors, turns out the lights and drops him safely out via a trapdoor, leaving you trapped in a laboratory from which you must escape. Okay, so it’s hardly the most original premise. But the story is actually one of the game’s strong points, at least relative to the low bar set by most other boxed escape games. The puzzles are designed around objects and equipment depicted as present in the location, though have no hesitation about being artificial for the sake of turning something into a puzzle. As the players make progress the story moves forward as well, and turns out to be more interesting than simply escaping from the room; and at the conclusion there’s a meaningful choice to make, which determines which of a variety of endings is seen. These range from ‘better’ to ‘worse’ outcomes, and the logic for picking the best option seemed questionable to me, but nonetheless the game gets points for having multiple endings at all.
I’m conflicted on whether I like the format or not. With no way to verify your solution, turning over a puzzle card feels high-risk in a good way: knowing that you only have one chance at it, and will incur a penalty mark if you’re wrong, adds an element of danger. But the flip side of this is that if you try a wrong answer too easily, you’re then deprived of a chance to go back and look more carefully. This could be a lot more frustrating with puzzles that had ambiguous answers, but fortunately there were only two or three that we felt were shaky. Other points in its favour is its simplicity and the quite rapid-fire pace it gives to the game.
As with most boxed games it’s listed as being for 1-6 players, and as with most boxed games that’s nonsense. We played with a group of three and that’s the absolute most I’d recommend – two would be better and it works perfectly well as a solo game.
The game is entirely replayable. One card is provided for you to write your start and end times on, but obviously you can record those elsewhere.
This isn’t as intense a brain workout as some of the competing products (the KOSMOS Exit series in particular). The style of the puzzles rewards careful observation and a little thinking outside the box, and players are likely to make rapid progress through most of the content. But there is a sufficient number of puzzles that at least a few are likely to prove tricky.
The style used in Deckscape makes it one I’d recommend for beginner groups. Both the mechanics and the puzzles are very accessible, and the pass/fail outcome for the puzzles will be more palatable for beginners than to experienced groups who resent failing any part of a game. But for any group of players it’s a good option for an hour’s light puzzling entertainment.