Epsom, Oct 2018
I knew before playing Challenge Chambers that it was a competitive ‘versus’ game where two teams can compete in identical copies of the room; what I hadn’t realised was that it also has a variable score system. Each copy of the room has a wall of puzzles, arranged in a grid. Your briefing tells you that you need to bring a key from one side of the grid to the other; since the puzzle padlocks block the key’s path, to do so you need to solve at least a third of the grid. However, other puzzles release bonus balls; and truly ambitious teams can aim to solve the whole lot.
You might assume that such a puzzle-centric room wouldn’t bother with a backstory, but Challenge Chambers does. Its premise is that a Victorian earl built a room of puzzles as a test for his daughters’ suitors to overcome; and there’s more to the story that unfolds during the course of the game. That theming also extends to the puzzle design, whose solutions often involve a little moral about the virtues needed for happy married life, from the point of view of a possessively paternalistic Victorian gentleman.
Challenge Chambers’ score-based, massively non-linear design is exceedingly unusual but not quite unique; I’ve played a couple of other games based on similar ideas (though neither of those were set up for versus play), and my impression is that it’s a difficult style to do well. The first hurdle is that the sheer quantity of things to work on is overwhelming at the start of the game, and that was the case here – I spent the first few minutes doing little more than looking around like a stunned calf, undecided between the many starting points.
But the really big difficulty with a game of this sort is judging the quantity and difficulty of the content. Normal games settle into a flow where you solve a puzzle and are rewarded with clues that let you tackle the next step, but here you have almost everything up front, and each successful solve bounces you back to the same problems you were already stuck on. That can mean the initial flurry of success grinds down to a frustrating series of roadblocks in the second half of the game. Fortunately, that didn’t happen in Challenge Chambers. The last quarter of the game certainly slowed down, but none of the puzzles felt unsolvable – the final three that we hadn’t done when the time ran out felt like we just needed a little more time to get through them.
Different groups’ experience will vary, depending on team size and how easy they find the puzzles. But the structure gives a clear initial goal with a structure that helps players decide what to focus on while still giving them alternatives when there’s something they simply can’t get past. Which is to say: I thought the design just worked, in a way that could be played either competitively or co-operatively, managing to strike a difficulty balance that should work for teams of all levels of experience.
The design puts quantity first, but there’s nothing wrong with the quality either; while some of the content is straightforward and felt a bit like filler, there’s plenty that’s much more satisfying, varying from physical manipulation through lateral thinking to multi-step logic and symbol matching.
You can also play it co-operatively as a single room, and that may be the more economical option since booking both copies costs twice as much as booking one; but if you’re looking for a versus game then it’s an excellent choice. Each time the opposing team gains one of the bonus balls it comes rolling down past you with a noisy thump, thump, thump that gives an oppressive sense of your rivals’ progress, plus a walkie-talkie that allows the two teams to swap clues or crow over how well they’re doing.