Dublin, Oct 2019
I need to start this review with one very large caveat. Convicts is designed as a versus game for 4-10 players, where one half of the group competes against the other. Each half plays a similar but different sequence to the other, sometimes with some visibility of the other team’s progress, but ultimately trying to beat them to the exit. We only had two players, and the owners very kindly arranged for us to play a modified version involving most of the puzzles from both halves as a single continuous game. What we played was therefore rather different to the standard game.
Convicts is of course set on the Zorg Ella, the same boat used for Escape Boats’ original game. It takes advantage of the boat’s venerable age to set the story in the era of penal transportation, casting you as prisoners trying to get off the boat before it sails. (That premise is used fairly loosely – the game doesn’t hesitate to mix in electronic keypads and other modern day equipment.) This includes a more theatrical intro than in their first game, narrated in-character in the dark.
For content warnings, although it’s a prison game you don’t have any restraints to worry about. It does however include tight spaces and physical manoeuvring, even more so than SOS.
An under-appreciated aspect of escape room design is the subtle art of directing players’ attention in the right directions, one of the magic ingredients in making a game flow. Escape Boats clearly have the knack of that; one moment in particular struck me as an immensely smart and original way to help players discover what would otherwise have been an overly-subtle search target.
Convicts doesn’t have a single obvious stand-out moment in the way that its sister game does. However, in other respects it matches the high quality of that and dials up the sophistication, with more physicality, more innovative mechanisms, more interactions with interesting genuine pieces of ship equipment. My impression was that if played normally it would have involved somewhat fewer steps than SOS did, but with a higher average difficulty level.
My biggest hesitation is that, when played in the normal competitive setup, it might be a bit quick to finish for enthusiasts; and as with any versus game, there’s a risk that the enjoyment of the slower team is blunted by failure. Larger groups could get very crowded indeed in the small spaces. I actually thought the modified version we played with both halves combined made it superbly suited for a small team of enthusiasts – with double content it was satisfyingly challenging, and I got to enjoy all the various puzzles instead of only seeing half of them. Fortunately, it sounds like the venue has plans to offer the game in this form too, so if you’re in Dublin with too few people to book normally, then it’s definitely worth asking them.
Any escape game built on a boat like the Zorg Ella starts with a huge advantage, instantly putting you in the story and layering on atmosphere and immersion. Pervasive sound effects build that further, and the puzzle content takes full advantage of the setting. If you can only play one of the games at Escape Boats, then you really shouldn’t miss their first game SOS; but Convicts a slick game packed with clever ideas and you should make a concerted effort to play it as well.