Recently I've found myself getting into gaming again. Not video games but sit-down, spend an evening with beer and pizza and board games type of gaming. As a kid, I never had the opportunity to play games much, having few friends and my brother being the type to flip the table when he was losing. So I was intrigued when I went to my first game night with some new friends and one of them reached into his bag and pulled out Escape: The Curse of the Temple.
Escape is a cooperative die matching game released in 2012 as a result of a successful Kickstarter effort. The goal of the game is for all the players to escape the temple (shocking, I know) before time runs out. To escape, you first have to break the curse on the temple by activating the magic curse gems found inside. The game is played in real-time over ten minutes making Escape a cooperative and hectic race-the-clock type game.
To help keep track of time and add to immersion, the game comes with two different 10 minute soundtracks which set the atmosphere and give cues when certain time limits are reached. This is the kind of gimmick that would've been a pain in the ass when I was growing up in the era of cassette tapes. But now, with the ubiquity of music players in computers, smart phones, tablets, what have you, it's far more practical.
There are many tasks to accomplish in the temple, each requiring a different combination of symbols. Each player gets five dice (seven if you're playing solo) with five symbols on each: two adventurer symbols, a key, a torch, a black mask, and a gold mask. Adventurers, keys, and torches are used to perform actions inside the temple. Black masks 'curse' your die and prevent you from re-rolling it until you lift the curse by rolling a gold mask.
Gameplay is (somewhat) cooperative--players in the same room can share dice with each other, helping you unlock rooms faster, work together to place gems, or rescue each other if your dice get locked with black masks. In addition, some tasks need more than five symbols to complete requiring the help of others.
Every few minutes a gong sounds and players must rush back to the starting point. If someone doesn't make it before the doors close, they lose a die, making the rest of the game that much harder. It then takes about 30 seconds for the doors to open again. This is a nice, built-in break from frantic die rolling and often a useful moment to step back and reevaluate the plans. When the gong rings for the third and final time, you must make your way to the exit or be trapped forever.
Once at the exit, each player must roll a number of keys equal to the number of gems remaining plus one to escape. For example, if there are 3 gems remaining when the players decide to leave, they must roll 4 keys each. This encourages players to place as many gems as possible before making a run for it.
The base game comes packaged with the Curses & Treasures modules which add a few more mechanics. These are optional and can be added or removed on a game by game basis. Curses adds special rooms which curse players when they're uncovered. Curses have a range of effects from stealing a die to forcing a player to play with one hand on their head. Curses can be broken by rolling the combination printed on the curse card. Treasures is about what you'd expect: some rooms contain treasure chests which can be opened to get the treasure inside.
There are also many other expansions which can be bought separately. These generally come in two sizes, small and large. Small expansions typically add one or two kinds of curses and sometimes a new special room. As of this writeup, the small expansions include The Pit, The Fountain, Mayan Calendar, and Doomed. Large expansions change core mechanics and add two modules each. So far they are bundled as Illusions & Special Chambers and Quests & Characters.
An Idea for Escape from a Dying Universe
As a whole, Escape is very fun for what it tries to do. It's not trying to compete with more cerebral titles like Settlers of Catan which is fortunate because they're two completely different classes of games. Catan is a game to build an evening around, Escape is a game to dash out in the odd minutes between classes, during break, waiting for dinner to cook, etc.
Between the race aspect, the relatively straightforward gameplay, and the emphasis on teamwork, this is a good game for children and/or families. The time limit also makes it much more appealing as a family game than traditional horrors like Monopoly or Risk which usually consist being painfully ground down until you finally lose hours later.
All of that said, I suspect it might not hold up to repeated plays. Once the novelty wears off it becomes pretty clear that, strategically, Escape is very simple. Sid Meier is often quoted as defining a game as 'a series of interesting choices' and while that definition certainly doesn't include all games, choice is an important aspect of what makes games fun. The major failing of Escape is that most of the choices are either very obvious or utterly trivial. 'Should I go left or right?' is not an interesting choice because of its banality, and choosing how many gems to activate in a given room is a no-brainer (always do as many as possible).
Curses and Treasures add some complexity into the necessary mental time budgeting but in the vast majority of cases, it's always worth it to get treasures and never a rush to break curses--they simply aren't dangerous enough. In fairness, I have only played the Curses and Treasures expansions and it's very likely that the other expansions (especially the large ones) offer a lot of novelty at the very least, and through that, perhaps more strategy as well.
Escape is also marketed as a cooperative game which is a bit of a misnomer. It's more akin to several players all playing the same single-player game in parallel. Yes, you can share dice but in most situations this is both impractical and unnecessary. While it certainly isn't competitive, your interactions with other players are extremely limited. Which, again, speaks to the simplicity of the game--there just aren't many ways to interact with the game environment period, let alone with other players.
So if you're looking for a fun, low key game to fill up a few minutes, Escape is a wonderful choice. It has a fun atmosphere and good gameplay to keep idle hands and minds busy. But if you're looking for solid game night with friends and family, you'll need to supplement it with something else.