Room-in-a-box, Mar 2018
Escape The Casino describes itself as a ‘digitop’ game, and represents another variation on the play at home format. Several other games use a support app as part of the game, to track time and verify answers, but Casino takes it one step further by including fully digital puzzles. Physical components may provide clues to digital puzzles, and digital clues may help solve what to do with the physical items.
First impressions are excellent. The glossy box reveals a set of distinctive, beautifully constructed items of a refreshingly large size. Game setup arranges the first set of clues on a playing mat styled as a poker table, a lovely presentational touch that really shows the effort the designers have gone to in making the game feel like a themed experience not just a bunch of puzzles. The app looks good too, particularly the slick intro video, which has a cool noir aesthetic that’s used throughout the game. The whole package looks like it was put together with serious care to its visual design and without cutting corners.
The setting is of course a casino, though it turns out this casino’s been rigged with a bomb that you need to defuse. That’s a pretty standard rationale for a puzzle game, but here the story is fleshed out in detail: as you play you uncover the motivations of the bomber and the relations between the main characters. The app shows you in different locations so you also get a sense of moving around.
The way the app adds digital puzzles to the game was, to me, simultaneously a strength of the game and perhaps its biggest weakness. I should point out that the two of us were playing on a small iPhone screen, and that’s emphatically not recommended – the website clearly says that it needs a tablet to play on. There’s no technical limitation with using a smartphone instead, but the small screen makes it difficult to tap in the right places and requires some squinting to make out all the text.
Any frustrations there were entirely on us for using an unsuitable device, and we took that in our stride. What I had bigger doubts about was the use of digital puzzles at all. These are of course part of what’s distinctive about the game, and they add a range of puzzle types that couldn’t be supported in a purely physical game. And yet – there are literally hundreds of computer escape games that you can play in your browser. The digital puzzles in Escape The Casino work well, but simply by being digital, and similar to puzzles found in many online games, it felt like it lost some of the appeal of playing a physical game. Moreover, even if you’re playing on a good size tablet and casting the screen onto a smart TV so everyone can see easily, only one person at a time can interact with the screen. It’s a very sequential game so in the meantime, the rest of the players are reduced to shouting encouragement and advice, like a group watching their teammate attempting a task in Crystal Maze.
Whether that bothers you will be a matter of personal taste. My teammate liked the digital elements, particularly the way they linked back and forth to the physical clues.
For those who’ve played several boxed escape games, I’d describe the difficulty level here as higher than the ThinkFun games but easier than most of the Unlock! and Exit ranges. I’d have liked there to be a little more content, though I suspect the length and difficulty are pitched suitably for most groups. Perhaps it’s just that the quantity and quality of the components led me to expect a longer game. Speaking of difficulty, the app connects to an online leaderboard. To measure scores fairly, only the time taken on your first attempt at the game is recorded there; you can replay the game afterwards but the scores don’t count. Probably because of that the game is very strict about playing it straight through, with no pause option other than a one-off 75 second break for emergencies. You should therefore plan to play it when there’s little danger of interruptions.
A great deal about Escape The Casino is superb. I loved the lavish quality of the components and the way it successfully tied (more or less) every step of the puzzles into its story. The music, the intro video and the visual design are all stylish and very slick, and the game design manages to be genuinely novel. I hesitate slightly to know exactly which demographic to recommend it to, though. Enthusiasts who play a lot of boxed games might find it has a relatively high price point for a game they may finish quite quickly. The big components and the focus on immersion make it very suitable for a themed game evening (think costumes for players and casino props), but then the need to play large parts of it on a tablet screen is a drawback.
Even so, it’s the second case that it’s best suited to. Casually blasting through it in an evening along with a couple other games would be a waste; better to make an evening of it, and aim to enjoy it without rushing too much, to pay attention to the story and to savour all the effort that’s gone into making the game.