Ghent, Jun 2018
ANTCollectief’s website plays its cards close to its chest with an intriguing lack of information about their game’s theme; something about discovering the secrets of a cellar, and little more. It does indeed take place in a cellar, a found space that has much more character than a converted unit of generic commercial space. The intro gives you a particular stolen object to find, based on an actual historical theft that famously occurred in Ghent in the 1930s.
The briefing filled that out further, cleverly blurring the line between out-of-character briefing and in-character narration. De Kelder is built and run by enthusiasts, and it shows through in the design, which mixes together an energetic variety in a way that is sometimes uneven in style but that shows no shortage of interesting ideas.
I’m notoriously bad at search tasks in escape rooms, and usually dislike them. There’s little joy in exhaustively trawling every inch of a busy room, running fingers under shelves and inside locker frames in search of some tiny object; after a few dozen games, checking under chairs and desks becomes more of a tedious chore than an exciting chance of discovery. However, De Kelder made we think perhaps it’s not search tasks I dislike, just lazy hiding places. Several of the hiding places here showed a higher level of creativity that made them fun to uncover, with one in particular cleverly hiding something in plain sight.
Not all of the eclectic mix of puzzles are winners, and it would benefit from less reliance on scraps of paper as clues. I took a dislike to a specific puzzle where it was tricky to tell which bits were completed correctly or not; more so because it was time-consuming and could only be worked on by 1-2 people, therefore becoming a bottleneck. Other groups’ experience may well differ though. The game is unusual in allowing wide variation in the order that puzzles are solved, so a team that tackles that puzzle earlier on might not find it to be a bottleneck at all.
That open structure makes it quite easy to get thrown off, particularly with a surprisingly uneven distribution of content between different parts of the game; we needed to be pushed by the gamemaster to go back to parts of the game we thought we’d exhausted, and without that we’d have spun our wheels trying out ever more unlikely ideas for the partial clues we’d assembled.
What really won me over was a particular large-scale puzzle nearer the end. It didn’t particularly make narrative sense, it would benefit from more lavish decor, and it could even be criticised as a potential hazard for the unwary – but it provided one of those moments of gleeful realisation that makes a game remain in the memory.
I’d always pick an interesting, creative game with rough edges over one that’s polished but mediocre, and De Kelder falls firmly into the former category. With unusual puzzle ideas, a commitment to immersion and a relatively high difficulty level it’s a game that I suspect enthusiasts in particular will appreciate.