Okehampton, Jun 2019
Sometimes the hardest games to review are those that impress in some ways but then badly disappoint in others. That’s the case with Templars, which seemed to have all the elements to be an exceptionally good game – but then let itself down with deeply frustrating gameplay.
Located in a warehouse in an industrial estate outside Okehampton, entering the venue achieves that magic transition from a mundane exterior to a hidden world that promises adventure. Our gamemaster appeared in costume and in character, further adding to the effect, before delivering a rapid-fire briefing and leading us into the room.
Templars is inspired by the secret agent movie Kingsman, and draws inspiration from that in style and plot. Suitably for the headquarters of a well-financed spy agency, everything is immaculate, everything gleams with polish and shine, an instantly impressive set that only improved as it went on.
With such a very promising beginning, I was shocked and disappointed to find that we ran into one metaphorical brick wall after another. We got stuck early on, took a hint, then had to go back for another hint for the same puzzle, then got immediately stuck on the following step. Thereafter the game began to flow somewhat better for us, but still seemed much more characterised by standing around in confusion than feeling engaged by the game.
It’s not that the puzzles were hopelessly arbitrary. Each step made reasonable sense in retrospect, and more sense than any alternative ideas for solutions. I’d put it down to a combination of several factors, first of which is that the game is designed as an entirely linear sequence of ‘aha’ puzzles, which are baffling right up until you have the right flash of insight. Additionally, many of them used a puzzle style that made frequent use of cryptic wording, in a way that we just weren’t in tune with; and the rich, elaborate decor provided a plentiful source of unintended distractions to fuel incorrect theories.
Making matters much worse was an entirely reactive hint policy, where if you don’t ask you don’t get; and when we did ask, the advice was as often as not a restatement of what we already knew. The gamemaster’s attempts to not over-hint were appreciated, but the suggestions provided seemed to often misunderstand what aspect of the puzzle was causing us problems.
I particularly hated the ending segment. The idea behind it might be good in theory; in practice it was wildly unclear exactly what was required for successful completion of the task, with a very open-ended quantity of things to do and no feedback or clear guidelines to narrow things down. That finished the game in a demoralising fizzle of confusion and failure.
So much about Templars is excellent, and it really ought to be a superb game; and yet I struggled to enjoy it. It has a gorgeous and exciting set that’s put together with exacting standards, an immersive style and creative puzzles that for the most part fit naturally into the setting and story; and perhaps we got off on the wrong foot with it. I can imagine some teams playing it and having a fantastic time.
Even so, I would expect most groups to find Templars’ gameplay confusing and frustrating. It’s clear that successful teams are exceedingly rare, and although that doesn’t necessarily mean problems with the puzzles, there’s a strong correlation between games that have a single-digit percentage success rate and those that have issues with puzzle design. Intentionally difficult puzzles that often stray a little too close to ‘mind-reading’, a near total lack of sign-posting, and reactive, partial gamemaster hints make it hard for me to recommend this game – which is a crying shame, given its potential. If you’re looking for games to play in Devon then you might consider trying it anyhow, in case you find the puzzle style suits you better than it did us.