Online, Jul 2020
Co-Decode’s previous game A Jewel In Jeopardy was one of the strongest offerings of the early wave of digital games, and Operative Onboard picks up where that left off, both in narrative and in play style. As a description, ‘digital’ is only partially accurate for a game that combines printed paper materials with web-based resources; like its predecessor, it makes extensive use of QR codes to jump between the two.
In this game you’re on a train to the destination you identified at the end of the first chapter, and trying to work out which of a set of suspects is the thief who’s stolen from your luggage. The setting is evoked by the initial two game sheets, which form a floor plan of the carriages and which immediately give a clear idea of your in-game surroundings.
As before the game is gentle on printer ink. There are six black and white pages in total, designed cleanly to reduce ink requirements; unlike before the pages that you unlock partway through the game are provided up front, which is hugely helpful for those without easy access to a printer. In another welcome change, the QR codes have been super-sized to make them less fiddly (I believe the same change has been retroactively applied to the original game too).
One interestingly different innovation in Operative Onboard is a type of search mechanism. Because of this part of the game, you’ll want to play it on a larger screen if at all possible; navigating it on a small phone screen could be frustrating. Even with a larger screen, I suspect it’ll appeal to some players more than others, but it’s a clever way to inject more variation into the play style.
Operative Onboard is a big game, and its suggested play time of 3 hours is not an exaggeration. At the same time, it involves a relatively small number of puzzles – but these are challenging puzzles that you’ll probably need to work at, which expect you to figure out how to approach them without hand-holding instructions. But they’re worth persevering with; the one time I decided a puzzle was too ambiguous and resorted to a hint, I immediately realised that in fact it was perfectly logical and clear and kicked myself for not spotting the right approach. With all the puzzles in this game, however baffling it might look initially, it makes complete sense once you’ve cracked it.
Which is to say, this is a densely packed, intelligent game that boasts rigorous logic and meticulous attention to detail throughout, and that is particularly well suited to enthusiast players. At the same time, I have a couple of reservations along with the praise. That long play time reflects the difficulty of the puzzles, but you’ll also find you spend rather a lot of time doing things other than solving puzzles. That’s partly cutting up paper (which you can’t really do before the game without seeing spoilers) and doing other ‘papercraft’ things; partly the ‘search’ elements; and also rather a lot of time simply navigating QR codes, keeping track of what you’ve found where, and general game management. For me at least, the degree of overhead involved watered down the enjoyment of playing a little.
Secondly, this is at heart a whodunnit game, which builds to a murder mystery style puzzle where you have to find the right suspect (even though in this case the crime is theft not murder), synthesising a great deal of detailed information to find the tell-tale inconsistency. Operative Overboard manages to do one of the most impressive such puzzles I’ve seen in a game – challenging, subtle and pretty much without any reliance on questionable mind-reading assumptions. At the same time, this style of puzzle is simply much less to my taste than the rest of the content, and that combined with a particularly fiddly bit of paper-craft meant the grand finale was the part of the game I enjoyed least. However, that reflects personal taste not any flaw in the game design, and if you like this style of puzzle I’d expect you to love this one.
Despite all the smart, creative ways that Co-Decode use their QR code game system, I continue to think their games would work better translated to a different system that involves less fiddle for the players. Still, they’ve smoothed out potential gameplay barriers in a variety of ways, and the enlarged QR codes are a clear improvement on the previous small ones.
Co-Decode’s Chapter 1 was excellent; this Chapter 2 is as good or better in every respect I can think of. The big whodunnit element makes that part of it less suited to my tastes, but I can’t deny the quality of the execution, and I had a great time with the rest of the game. It’s obviously not an easy or a quick game, but if you’re looking for a solid challenge to sink your brain into, this will deliver in spades.