Bolton, Apr 2019
Squeezing in a quick extra escape room in Bolton my choices were limited. No Exit purchase their game designs, and I’d played three of their four games at other venues, so Tomb of the Pharaoh was the only option. The friendly gamemaster gave us their usual set of game rules, and mentioned firstly that they considered Pharaoh an easier game, and secondly that it worked differently to most, in having no locks.
Not having any padlocks can mean a sophisticated, technologically advanced escape room – but sadly that wasn’t the case here. This game invites you to dislike it right from the start, with a rather bare room in which the very first puzzle is a frustrating time sink that’s difficult for more than one person to work on at a time, and which requires more luck than skill or intelligence to solve. That was immediately followed by a very simple task, setting the tone for a game where the difficulty level jumped up and down unpredictably.
Having started with a focus on physical skill tasks, Pharaoh later shifted to puzzles involving plenty of abstract symbol matching. Two puzzles in particular had quite complex multi-step solutions – though we ended up short cutting both of them to a greater or lesser extent. Both had the potential to be decent puzzles but were very open to interpretation, partly because both provided extraneous clues or items that introduced distracting false trails. Elegant puzzle design is characterised by efficiency, where everything provided is used and where all the pieces fit together in exactly one way; that was very much not the style here.
As much as the puzzles themselves, we struggled with the room in more mundane ways: struggling to notice certain small details (which was an intended part of the game design) and struggling to notice when something we’d done had unlocked something (which wasn’t).
We had an attentive gamemaster who kept us from getting bogged down too much by any of those. Between the lackluster decor and the various weaknesses in puzzle design and flow, I didn’t find a whole lot to enjoy about the game, but neither did it ever really plumb the depths; not having anything more enthusiastic to add I’ll just say that I’ve played worse.