Bucharest, May 2018
First of many games that I played on a visit to Bucharest, Coven was a particularly high quality game amidst impressively strong competition. The website and intro video suggest a full-on horror style of game and my teammate was dubious about my choice of it as first game of the trip. However, horror games appear to cluster in some cities much more than others, and in Bucharest they’re thin on the ground, with apparently none there using a live actor. So although The Void’s game could certainly frighten nervous players, it’s not an intense terror experience of the sort that can be found elsewhere.
The backstory involves three victims of long-ago witch-hunts, who have taken revenge for their painful deaths by opening a dark portal and wreaking vengeance upon anyone foolish enough to come near their abandoned hut – such as you. Fortunately, if you can solve all the secrets of the hut and close the portal, you may yet escape unharmed. The hut being veritably packed with secrets, you have 73 minutes instead of the normal 60 in which to do so.
Visually this is somewhere between a creepy Victorian townhouse and an abandoned medieval hut, a combination which sounds incongruous when written here but seemed surprisingly natural at the time. It’s also beautifully atmospheric, dimly lit but without the low lighting being used to hamper players, full of gorgeous wooden decor that gives no sign of the underlying technology. Several panels and cupboards are off-limits, but this is shown by use of a particular lock type, as a less intrusive alternative to ‘do not touch’ stickers.
I enjoyed the puzzle design right from the start, which gets players going with a warm-up task made memorable by a simple but clever twist. The creative style makes inventive use of the physical layout of the game and the furniture pieces within it, rewarding observation more than search skills and lateral thinking more than abstract logic. We missed a couple of things and got particularly stuck on one puzzle where I found the clue confusing, though that may just have been me overthinking it; but in each case once we’d identified a correct solution it was completely satisfying as the answer for its puzzle.
Coven uses an automated hint system, something I’ve disliked every previous time I’ve encountered one. In this version you press a button and look through a peephole to see a screen showing a short video (more a sequence of images) that may help unstick you, and it was far and away the best implementation I’ve seen of this style of hinting. That was for several reasons. Firstly, the presentation of the hint device and of the hints themselves is superb, and in no way detracts from the game’s atmosphere; quite the opposite. Secondly, when we needed to resort to hints the ones we received were exactly relevant, suggesting either excellent design of the hint system’s automated logic or manual intervention from the gamemaster. And most importantly, despite the automated hints we still got the impression that the gamemaster was paying close attention to our game, with none of the impression of neglect I’ve had with similar systems elsewhere.
Bucharest has some excellent games, and Coven was among the best we tried. Difficult enough to be satisfying to experienced teams, it looks great and has suitably solid and high-quality components used throughout. With a sneaky surprise or two and some great flair moments it’s an imaginative, cool game that I’d recommend for the must-play list of anyone passing through the city.