London, Jul 2018
Omescape is a company familiar to many US enthusiasts, and having run three games in North London for a couple of years now they’ve expanded to a second branch in Aldgate. The first game at the new branch is one I’ve seen mentioned several times in enthusiast discussions of games with unusual themes: having trespassed in the Kingdom of Cats, your only chance of persuading King Jasper to show you mercy is to complete a series of challenges to prove your worth. This is a huge contrast to the gritty style of the first three Omescape games I’ve played, and the theme was instant catnip to most of my usual escapers.
Almost any puzzles can be excused when the backstory is that someone’s setting puzzles and challenges for you. The design emphasises this though, presenting everything as puzzles that have been set for you, often with written instructions or clues presented with elegantly calligraphy. With few exceptions it uses a linear structure where each puzzle must be completed before you move on to the next.
I found the game space quite sparse. The excellent decorations didn’t entirely manage to prevent the rooms feeling like they didn’t have all that much in them, and while there was certainly plenty of cat-related decor and some gratuitous fluffiness, I’d have liked to see them go much further with feline theming. Looking at that in a more positive light, they’ve been very disciplined about not including anything that’s not part of the game, with a strict absence of anything that could ever be construed as a red herring.
Our two teams were each unimpressed by a different point in the game. One was a certain puzzle type that’s cool but often frustrating, and which was implemented here in a way that was more confusing than usual; and the other was just a bit too mathsy. Leaving those aside, much of the game feels quite abstract, consisting of puzzles that could just as well be presented on paper. Kingdom of Cats takes those puzzles and presents them very nicely, with some lovely artwork and components, but for me the presentation didn’t entirely make up for what felt like quite lightweight content.
None of that should be taken as meaning it’s a significantly flawed game, and if you’re more forgiving of written clues you’ll likely have a more favourable impression of it. Kingdom of Cats gained a good reputation in the US, and I can see why: the whimsical premise and the cutesy-but-fun decor hit a pleasing note, and although the puzzles didn’t win me over the clear linear structure plus an easy starting point make it very accessible to beginner teams.