Dale Yu: Review of Escape Tales: The Awakening

Escape Tales: The Awakening

  • Designers: Jakub Caban, Matt Dembek, Bartosz Idzikowski
  • Publisher: Board&Dice
  • Players: 1-4
  • Ages: 12+
  • Time: 180-360 minutes (our game lasted 3hr 15min)
  • Times played: 1, with review copy provided by Board&Dice

The past few years have seen a boom in a escape room/puzzle room games with many franchises coming to the market (EXIT, Unlock, T.I.M.E Stories, Escape Room: The Game, Deckscape, etc) as well as many standalone one-off games.  In many ways, these games herald a shift in the game consuming paradigm as most of these games are playable only once – and, in fact, some of the games even require destruction of the components as you play them. As I entered the hobby, one of the big selling points of boardgames was that a game provided a good financial investment for fun as you generally paid for a game once but could then enjoy it over and over.  Now, many games are not meant to be played more than once.

Escape Tales: The Awakening is a new entrant to the genre.  Unlike many of its other puzzle game brethren, this game claims to offer up to six hours of gameplay for up to four players.   The box also claims that there is a higher replay value to the game as “you won’t gain access to every puzzle and location in a single playthrough of the game. Everything you do will impact the end result – which means the game can be played more than once”.

As with many other escape room games, any review of the game needs to avoid spoilers – and as such, I will not really give any specifics of the things that I saw in my playthrough of the game.  The game is not timed – so this is not a race. There are multiple locations in the game, and you theoretically have the ability to search “anywhere”. In actuality, each location is split up into twelve different zones, and each of those twelve zones can be explored by spending an action marker there.

So, let me talk about the story a bit before I get into how it works – most of the story takes place through a story book – and the introduction on the front cover tells you what you are about to get into:

Players take on the role of Sam, whose daughter has been in a coma for over two months and whose doctors still cannot explain how this happened or what caused it. According to them, everything is fine with the girl; she’s healthy and shouldn’t be in this condition. Sam is desperate and looks for answers everywhere he can, which leads to a weird meeting with Mark.

Mark’s son was once in a similar situation, and his father was able to help wake the boy up. He has given Sam a scary-looking book and said that inside this book he will find a ritual called “The Awakening”. But Mark warned Sam that he needs to prepare himself mentally since this ritual will transfer him into another dimension, where he should be able to find his daughter and understand what is the cause of this state. If Sam’s lucky enough, then he will be able to wake her up as well. Sam has held onto the book for more than a week. Finally, he’s ready to go into the basement and perform a ritual.

The story book is split up into a whole bunch of numbered chapters – the storyline is scattered around the pages so that you hopefully will not accidentally read something too early or by mistake.  The book will tell you to read “P143”, so then you flip through the book to find chapter #143, and then read it aloud. The written story may give you clues as to what you need to explore on the location or maybe clues on how to solve a particular puzzle.

Other than the story book, there are a few decks of cards.  There is an oversized location deck. You will be asked to find certain cards in this deck at times which will be flipped over to show you an image of the location you happen to be in.  There is a regular sized deck of 122 game cards – these have a number of different purposes. Some of them show miniature location maps, and you’ll use those cards to mark where you have explored.  Some will be clue cards or items. Some will hold puzzles, or part of puzzles. The story book will generally instruct you when to go thru the deck and pull out a specific card.

There is a thin deck of 8 doom cards.  As you enter a location, you’ll be told how many action tokens you have for a particular location. If you ever run out of action tokens but you want to keep exploring (or you must keep exploring because you haven’t found a way out of that location yet) – you’ll have to read the top Doom card which will help you keep going… but usually at a cost.

The last thing you will need is a computer, tablet or smartphone.  The game solutions are found on a website, and as you play, you can check your progress via this site.  The site also provides clues and hints which you can take as your need them.

You will work through a location by choosing one of the twelve regions to explore – and the map card will tell you what paragraph to go read in the book.  You read that section, and this may then tell you to flip over one or more cards from the game deck. Puzzles are generally denoted with an icon in a red box.  You can try to solve them at any time – and when you think you have the answer, you can go to the app and plug in the answer. Also, if you’re not sure what you’re looking for in a puzzle, you can go to the app and at least see how many spaces are in the answer area…

As you explore, you will hopefully find an exit (or two) from a location.  You can choose to leave a room at any time – but once you leave, you can’t go back…. So, you have to decide whether or not you want to keep exploring in a particular place, or if you want to go on to the next place.  If you leave earlier, you’ll keep any unspent action tokens, thus giving you more flexibility to explore in future locations – but you might end up missing a vital clue or a puzzle by leaving too soon. Many of our loudest debates were heard as we trying to figure out when we should give up on a location.

The game purports to have multiple endings, and there are a few places in the game where it is clear that your group stands at a fork in the road – This is a neat feature of the game, and these decision points will definitely get your group talking about what is the best play…   Depending on your choices, you will eventually reach the end of your particular story, and you will see what has happened to Sam and his daughter.

My thoughts on the game

Escape Tales: The Awakening is a very immersive experience, and one which offers a lot more story and theme than a traditional escape room game.  Heck, a few of the single locations in this game could have served as easy standalone puzzle room games!

The visual presentation is stunning as the artwork is superb.  I like the overall layout of the cards/maps, and this helps push the theme into the forefront of the experience.  The components are solid, though I will voice a small complaint at the packaging of the cards… My cards were shrink wrapped backwards with the “Spoiler – bottom of the deck” card found on the TOP of each deck, AND all the cards were in reverse order which means I had to count them out to get them in numerical order….

The quality of the puzzles is quite good, and the complexity of the puzzles spans the full range of difficulty.  Some were quite simple and could be solved without too much struggle while others required a good bit of lateral thinking (and maybe a hint or two from the smartphone).

The app is a nice way to make sure that players can get the correct answer – and that they can get hints as they need.  I do personally wish that the answer block was simply an empty space rather than a set of underscores. Sometimes, just knowing how many characters I needed to enter to solve the puzzle gave away the puzzle.  I would have liked to see this information maybe be one of the clues. The other thing I didn’t particularly like about the app system is that the number of cards needed for each puzzle was found on a button on the app.  I would just as soon had this information on the card itself OR have it be the first hint.

I have obscured the answer – but you will easily see that there are 10 spaces in this particular answer – just knowing that is a huge clue. and this one, you can’t ever avoid.

After spending five minutes on an early puzzle trying to solve it – but only later realizing that we only had one of three cards needed to solve that puzzle – we pretty much always went to look to see if we had all the right components.  Either, hide the information completely OR just make it clear what you need. Yes, maybe this is more a sign of our impatience than anything else – but that sort of frustration is not the type I want from a puzzle game. If I’m stumped on a puzzle, hey, good for you for making a tough puzzle.  If I waste ten minutes trying to solve something which I don’t even have all the information for – that just makes me want to quit or do something else.

The hints on the phone are good, and we did need to use them on a few occasions.  Most puzzles have at least three hints, and if you are really stuck, the final hint is simply the answer to the puzzle… so, even if you are fully stumped, you will never get irrevocably stuck.

I do wish that the app maybe kept track of the number of hints that you take so that it somehow affected your progress through the game or maybe which ending you moved towards.   You can freely take as many hints as you like, and I think that using the number of hints taken would have been another interesting way to stratify how you progressed in the story.

I have only played the game once, and to be honest with you, I don’t necessarily agree with the claim that this has high replay value.  Much of the tension in decision making is based on managing your action tokens and when to leave an area versus when to keep exploring. While it is true that you won’t see or finish every puzzle, and there are some locations in the game that you might not see – you’ll likely remember enough of the puzzles that you already did to change how the game plays.  You will likely remember all of the wasted exploration spots, and gaining those action tokens back is possibly enough to reduce the tension to a point where there really isn’t any tension at all. After our game, we simply went back to a few places to finish looking at a puzzle we left unfinished, and we did kinda rifle through the rest of the cards to see what we might had missed – but overall, we were quite satisfied with the story experience that we got in our play, and were OK with leaving some things behind, never to be seen….

Escape Tales: The Awakening will seem comfortingly familiar to those who have already played escape room games, but the longer game experience does seem to bring something extra to the table.  The story is much richer and deeper as there is more space (both in the book and on the cards) to tell the story, and the artwork definitely complements the story perfectly. This has been one of my favorite escape room games thus far, and I hope this format provides us with another episode soon.

here we are playing in the castle loungers

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Jonathan F. I agree with everything Dale said, which is a rarity.  The app worked well, the game system is solid with room for more branching and replayability if they choose to go there, and the # of cards needed to solve should not require the app.  One idea is to create multiple puzzles with the same answer. That way on replay with a new group, you can pick a puzzle you have not seen before, unless you remember the answer and choose to ruin it or reverse engineer the solution. I look forward to the next Escape Tale.

James Nathan: I agree with what Dale said too. There were a few times when I think the art could have been clearer in the colors used as I had to squint closely to see what something was supposed to be -or if something was there at all- in a way that I didn’t care for. This is generally more story than I’m interested in, as I’m here more for the puzzles than what to me is gratuitous flavor text.  However, it worked fine for me here. I occasionally have trouble reading aloud and also become short of breath easily when I do, so longer passages can be troublesome, but I found that the passages here were written such that neither of those was much of a problem. I am thankful for relatively short readings. I also thought the layout of the book was good for navigation and avoiding spoilers: the indexes on the side of the page, and the large headers worked well.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Dale Y, Jonathan F.
  • I like it. James Nathan
  • Neutral.
  • Not for me…

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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