Room-in-a-box, Aug 2018
Exit’s latest game is of course inspired by the Agatha Christie novel, and filled with nods and references to it, right down to the famous detective “Achilles Pussot” – who is missing in action, leaving the investigations to you. Fortunately it does not simply follow the resolution of that novel, so you don’t have to worry about the plot being spoiled before you even begin.
Orient Express is marked as 4/5 difficulty, which puts it at the hard end of the notoriously tough Exit series; and it is indeed among the most challenging boxed escape games out there. It’s tempting to deal with that by having more players, but, as with almost all home games, it’s awkward to share the small components between a larger group. Even with two players, I noticed the friction of both of us reaching for the same small cards. The higher difficulty level made that more noticeable, probably because it’s tempting to think that you could surely solve the intractable puzzle if only you could get a proper look at whichever clue your teammate is currently studying…
So the best advice is simply: play with no more than two, and just be really good at solving puzzles. Or failing that, don’t worry about going over time and/or peeking at hint cards. However, don’t be put off by the difficulty: this is comfortably my favourite of all the Exit games so far.
Exit appears to be experimenting with making their games more linear. The much easier Sunken Treasure limits players to particular pages of its booklet at a time; Orient Express does not, but has extra material in the form of illustrations showing the interior of train carriages. You are told when you may access these, and the result is that the bulk of the game proceeds on linear tracks. This also effectively doubles the quantity of illustrations, giving a richer and more complex game.
Most of the content follows the usual Exit format of puzzles that use the theme but which are essentially stand-alone, in the sense that it would be easy enough for the designers to swap in a replacement version of a puzzle without affecting the rest. However, this being a murder mystery, there is also an overarching story with a set of eight suspects, and the game culminates with you deciding which of them is guilty.
I recently wrote in other game reviews how unsatisfying I find most murder mystery puzzles: too often they rely on threads of logic that seem open to question. Orient Express is a triumphant rebuttal to that. Its central mystery manages to combine a great many moving parts in a way that neatly came together to a clear conclusion. It felt like it rested purely on observation and logic, with no sense of needing to guess what the creator intended. It achieves that by focusing on suspects’ alibis and avoiding any information about suspects’ possible motives, which some might find unsatisfying – but this is a puzzle not a novel, and I found it hugely successful.
(It’s not particularly a problem that Orient Express suffers from, but as an aside, does it really add much to have clues that rhyme in cutesy little couplets? It must be hard enough for a translator to preserve the right connotations of the original clues, without having to somehow force it to rhyme as well. The result sometimes sounds tortuous or awkward, but more importantly loses clarity. Much better to ditch the rhyming and focus on wording the clue as precisely as possible.)
Exit’s puzzle design trademark is clever fourth-wall breaks, where at some point in the game you need to think laterally beyond the obvious clue materials. Players tend to be divided on whether these are inventive or unfair. The places where Orient Express does this are challenging but, I thought, very fair. We needed hint cards to give us nudges in a couple of places, but that reflected the difficulty not weak puzzles. Only in one place did I try an answer speculatively, and be surprised when it worked – but while that step seemed poor, I have little difficulty overlooking it given the quality of the rest.
With that exception, Orient Express is the Exit series at its best. As a series of puzzles it’s tricky enough to give a challenge to all but the most elite puzzlers, and it’s far more narratively substantial than their other games. The way you build up an overall picture of the characters is very satisfying, and gives a much stronger ending to the game than simply running out of puzzles to solve. As long as you’re up for a challenge, this is among the best play at home escape games currently available.