Escape Tales: The Awakening

Jakub Caban, Matt Dembek, Bartosz Idzikowski

Publisher: Board and Dice

Boy, the hospital room sure looked like it was completely rat-infested.

** There are a few very mild spoilers in this review. Nothing specific that would ruin playing the game but certainly would reveal thematic elements of the game. You have been warned**

The Awakening is billed as a story driven Escape Room puzzle which is gaining quite a following these days in the board game arena. While some may argue that escape rooms are more puzzles than game, the genre has certainly captured the attention of puzzle lovers. Publishers have noted the trend and KOSMOS has led the way by publishing the EXIT series which won the 2017 Kenner Spiel des Jahres. The win spawned a bunch of clones: Space Cowboys came out with the Unlocked series, Giochix published the Deckscape games and a bunch of boutique companies came out with their own spin on the genre. Escape Tales from a trio of designers is one of the longest Escape Room puzzle I have played with a pretty fresh twist in the game design.

In a way, Awakenings reminds me of a more elaborate version of choose-your-own-adventure books, In the game, you visit a location, scan the location for clues, pick up new items or new observations that will lead you to the next location, rinse and repeat until you reach the final puzzle. Practically all escape room games have a similar structure and Awakenings is no different in that regard. Much of the innovation and variation from different Escape Room game comes from how clues are organized and presented to the players. Some use a simple deck of cards while others have decoder wheels. Some even employ gimmicks such as VR glasses to look at a 3D object or location. In Awakenings, the game is primarily card-driven with players solving clues to move the narrative along by reading numbered paragraphs in an accompanying story booklet ala Tales of Arabian Nights.

Awakenings introduces us to the concept of action tokens as a clever way to drive the story forward. At each location, players have a limited supply of actions to use for hunting clues on a spatial grid. Solving some puzzles can give you more action tokens but if you run out, you can flip cards on a “doom deck” to get more actions. The doom deck is meant to provide more obstacles to solve puzzles and is supposedly mostly “bad” events. Instead, I find it’s a clever way for the designers to weave small bursts of flavor text into the game while remaining neutral to the story. Once each location is cleared, the story moves forward to a new location with a new set of action tokens. In this way, the designers control the pace of story telling in a relatively linear fashion: solve the clue and take baby steps forward. At specific branch points, players are asked to choose a path which is meant for the story to diverge. It is not clear to me how diverse the story arcs are for the game and the extent of replayability. I suspect that while the endings may be different, you can play the game no more than a handful of times before you exhaust all the options. Even then, you would see many overlapping puzzles which will provide no challenge in subsequent plays. I would be inclined to replay only if my finale was less than satisfactory. Otherwise I would just go through some of the puzzles I missed.

The game requires online content and the app is absolutely critical to make forward progress as you have to input answers to puzzles to find the next section in the story booklet. More importantly, the app also informs you how many cards are required to solve each puzzle. The online web-based app is basic but well-implemented. The hints for each puzzle are layered but we found some of the wording a bit vague and misleading. We didn’t find the hints to be as useful for the tougher puzzles. I wished the authors would have included a full solution which explained the logic behind each puzzle instead of just the answer. Overall, the web interface is quite intuitive and smooth without any major glitches. Kudos to the web designers for Awakenings.

The overall quality of the puzzles in Awakenings is decent. There are several challenging but fair puzzles that you will definitely feel a sense of satisfaction for solving. There are a handful of puzzles we missed that felt obtuse and we failed to solve even with hints. Since no full solutions were provided, we are still in the dark. However, I can safely say most of the puzzles don’t deviate far from your standard Escape room puzzles. However, be forewarned that many of the puzzles are quite mathematical and if you aren’t a fan of math, you may not have a fun ride. Another minor complaint is that the graphic details are way too small for some of the puzzles. We found it challenging for 4 players to strain over a small card to solve the puzzle. Luckily, there are no 4th-wall violating puzzles which would not mesh well with a story-driven game. Like most Escape games, puzzle difficulty is often linked to how intuitive the clues are and whether it makes sense in the broader story arc. Here, I think Awakenings does a decent job in integrating story-based puzzles which rely on catching the small details provided in the story booklet. Well-integrated puzzles are critical if you want to get fully immersed and invested in the story.

There is one aspect of Awakenings that is a cut above the rest of the Escape Room games and that is the theme. This definitely a NC-17 type game with a very dark and emotionally heavy story line. Some of the more mature themes in the story include suicide, drug-use, mysticism and the occult. I personally think it’s great! Awakenings can invoke a sense of dread and morbid curiosity as the story unfolds. For me at least, there is certainly a sense of exploration and curiosity with the story and how it will end. There aren’t that many adult-themed board games out there and Escape Room games are the perfect vehicle for incorporating these mature elements in the story-telling. I think having some eerie background music to accompany the game would really spruce up the atmosphere and I believe the publishers missed the opportunity to include that with the app. That would have been a phenomenal addition.

One area of the game that may fall flat for some is the ending. While there are several potential end plots, a satisfactory ending maybe elusive for some as the game doesn’t really tell you outright what is required or expected for a positive outcome. We could at least anticipate or watch out for what was needed if we had an inkling of what was required. This felt anticlimactic and cheap for some of us. For a game with an epic feel, I would expect a little more polish and I feel this is easily rectifiable. The game could have been great instead of good.

Overall, I find playing Awakenings quite a fun and novel experience. The game mechanisms felt seamless and while there are lots of cards on the table, it never felt overwhelming or even confusing. The passages in the story booklet to keep or discard used cards were extremely helpful in keeping things streamlined. The game itself is unlike the EXIT or Unlock series and I find the story-driven game very appealing. It helps that no components in the game are destroyed and you can pass the game along for others to enjoy. The game took longer for us than expected which was fine given there is no time limit to the game and the slow pacing fits the supernatural theme a lot better. There were some misses from how the story ended, but nothing I would say hampered my enjoyment during game play itself.

Initial impressions: Good

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