Norwich, Aug 2018
Since this review is inevitably going to degenerate into a rant about ‘good’ difficulty versus ‘bad’ difficulty in escape rooms, let’s start on a more positive note. The Treasure of Green Beard is nicely presented, a traditionally structured escape room that puts puzzle solving ahead of narrative, with a wide array of nautical knick-knacks used inventively. The structure is somewhat non-linear, with a number of tricky-ish search targets in a way that sets it up well to keep a medium or large team busy, and a great deal of content to get through. The majority of the puzzles resolve to three or four digit codes, but with a healthy mixture of other padlock types, hidden electronics and physical puzzles to keep things varied. The design happily includes anachronistic modern items but as long as you’re thinking of it as ‘themed’ not ‘realistic’ then that works perfectly well.
So far so good. Less encouraging was the split start which required the team to successfully solve a linear sequence of puzzles get going, where any time one half of the team got stuck the other half would be twiddling their thumbs. I got stuck on the very first puzzle, though that turned out to be reasonable enough if a little abstract; but I suspect quite a few teams are caught by one part or another of that starting sequence. Where many escape rooms provide one or two straightforward steps at the beginning of the game to get players into the swing of things, this is the precise opposite: a discouraging initial barrier that’ll have many teams resorting to hints before they’ve solved anything.
Some subsequent puzzles were ambiguous in mostly small ways – such as the one that gave two possible sets of three digits, for which a particular order of those digits seemed likely but not certain, with more than one suitable lock to enter the resulting code into. Others required actions that made sense but where many alternative incorrect actions would also have made sense. And several tricky search targets in the busy game area made it hard to know, when we got stuck, whether we needed to think harder about the items in front of us or look for additional clues.
But a few ambiguities and sticking points is hardly unusual in a game. Much worse was the puzzle which had an answer that was clear, logical and wrong. On trying it we got a hint message saying ‘that would be too easy’; the expected answer was something much more arbitrary.
A different step had a mechanism that was clever but which gave several equally plausible answers. Again, that’s a weakness but not particularly unusual; but then the lock for that puzzle had two ways to enter the correct answer, only one of which would open it. That means that even when you’re trying the right thing, you have a 50% chance of it not working, at which point you’re likely to go back and continue churning through the various incorrect options.
These were not accidental ambiguities of the sort that creep into all but the very best designed games. Rather, as best as I could determine, they were points of confusion intentionally added to make the game more difficult. That seemed to reflect a design philosophy that believes, firstly, that escape rooms should be difficult enough that a majority of groups fail them, and secondly, that tricks, surprises and ‘gotchas’ to raise the difficulty level are all part of the fun. Our host told us before the game that no group had ever escaped without a clue, and appeared to think this was admirable not an embarrassing admission.
If the vast majority of players can’t complete something without a hint, there is a problem with that puzzle. Making a puzzle difficult to solve is trivial – after all, a padlock with no clues for its code is difficult to solve. The challenge of good puzzle design is to create puzzles that may initially appear baffling, but once solved have an iron-bound logic to them. When you see how to solve the answer, you can be certain it’s correct before you even try applying it.
If a puzzle leaves players trying each of several possible codes, it needs changing. Deliberately adding ambiguity there makes the game harder, but not in a fun way – it just means that players have to laboriously try each of the possibilities to ensure they haven’t missed something.
‘Good’ difficulty means that when the correct solution is seen, it makes so much sense that there’s a delighted feeling of everything fitting into place, and players might happily kick themselves for not having spotted it sooner. It gives players a way to know when they have all the pieces needed to solve something so they don’t waste time trying to solve something that can’t yet be solved. ‘Bad’ difficulty leaves the players cycling through each of many possibilities, or exhaustively checking everything in the room repeatedly in case they’ve missed something, or resorting to the hint system to get information that ought to have been built into the game.
Even bad puzzles can be fun to solve. A game can be wildly unfair and many teams will still emerge having had a great time, because they assume that it was their fault that they struggled not the game’s. Green Beard is one of two games I’ve played recently with someone who’d never before tried an escape room and wasn’t sure if they’d like them. In both cases the beginner player had a thoroughly good time playing the game. But our guest for the other game emerged surprised at how much she’d been able to solve and keen to play more; our guest for Green Beard felt she’d never have got anywhere on her own. That’s not because Green Beard is a more difficult game, it’s because its puzzles are less fair.
In the end, it was only a couple of steps that I thought really crossed the line, with various smaller niggles that would have been easier to overlook in isolation. Much of the game was absolutely fine and fun to play through, and I know there are a number of enthusiasts who like Cryptic Escapes a great deal. And in other ways it’s one that could be easy to love: there was an energy and creativity to some of the puzzle ideas that, had they been built on more solid puzzle design, would have easily won me over. Also discouraging was a comment from one of the staff that some teams never make it past the initial section – why would a gamemaster ever allow a group to have such a miserable experience, however bad the players? – but I hope I’m mistaken in attributing the flaws to intentional design decisions. If the company isn’t too wedded to the ‘all’s fair’ approach to increasing difficulty, it wouldn’t take much refinement to turn this into a dramatically more pleasant game.