Online, May 2020
In this recent rush of online games, The Network is an exception, because it’s so very physical. There are important elements delivered in your browser, including the audio and video that provide the story, but each of its three stages are primarily driven by the papers and items delivered in the main game box. And it’s quite some box – an absolutely luscious embossed container that had me excited about the game the moment I saw it.
Unwrapping the game is a thrill, and there are few box games you could say that about. Everything speaks of being lovingly tailored and hand-packed, and I was cooing over small details. Perhaps the effect was accentuated by two months of playing games implemented online or with flimsy print-outs, but there was a considerable tactic pleasure simply in the game’s materials.
Supplementing the box content is the web portal, which is equally slick and polished. Your mission, as explained by video, is to investigate a recent series of leaks from the secret organisation The Network. Each chapter is introduced by video, and then directs you to open a set of clues / briefing notes from the box, which provide the puzzles to solve. Typically a chapter involves multiple separate puzzles, the answers to which must be combined into a single solution that unlocks the next stage. Those puzzles are mostly quite strongly themed, and the process of solving them gives a feeling of doing spycraft while still being a fairly accessible level of challenge. One in particular is memorable, in being something you definitely couldn’t do in a digital game, and probably not in a normal physical escape room either.
Our playthrough didn’t go completely smoothly in all respects. I found one puzzle just a bit too based in guesswork, where you end up trying to guess which pieces of information to use how. Sensible assumptions will probably get you to the right answer first or maybe second try, but since you enter an answer based on all the chapter’s puzzles at once, if you have something wrong there’s no indication of which part of the answer is the problem. In addition, the (well-presented, themed) hint system will confirm whether you’re taking the right approach but not whether you have the right answer. Each of those things is individually very minor, but in combination can become a frustrating block. Separately, my teammate and I had rather different reactions to the main puzzle in the final section, and I suspect it won’t appeal to all tastes.
It would be a waste to complete such a well-presented game in only an hour, and fortunately the quantity of content should take most groups perhaps twice that or more. Still, the thrifty part of me has mixed feelings about the extravagance of such high quality components being used for a one-shot game. They absolutely added to the enjoyment of the game, and once finished I’d have liked to pass it on for others to enjoy; simply discarding them is more painful than it would have been had they been cheaper.
The Network is a premium product, priced higher than most of the other play at home games currently available, but the price is absolutely justified by the quality of the contents. It’s worth considering whether that’s something that matters to you – if you just want some puzzles and don’t care if they’re on printing paper, then you’re likely better off looking elsewhere. Otherwise, it’s a large and satisfying game delivered with exquisite presentation, very well suited for when you want something a bit more special and deluxe to play through.
Disclaimer: We played this game on a complementary basis. This does not influence the review or rating.