EXIT: The Catacombs of Horror
- Designers: Inka and Markus Brand, Ralph Querfurth
- Publisher: KOSMOS
- Players: 1-4
- Ages: 16+
- Time: 3.5 hours in two sessions
- Times played: 1, with review copy provided by Thames and Kosmos
The EXIT series was one of the original puzzle-game franchises to hit the market when the escape room game craze took off a few years ago. To date, my family and I have been able to play all of the ones released here in the US, and this is a series that we continue to look forward to future installments.
While there are many worthy competitors in the genre, the EXIT series is possibly the best known of the bunch – due in part to the initial set of games being awarded the 2017 Kennerspiel des Jahres award.
I received this newest EXIT adventure at the end of May, but with travel, holidays and the end of the school year, it has taken my family a few months to it to the table. Trust me, it’s not for lack of excitement about them, but more just trying to get all four of us together when there isn’t something else on the agenda for one of us. The reason that we need so much coordination is that these games (like all their other EXIT predecessors) can only be played once. Once you know the puzzle solutions, you really can’t play the game again. Additionally, the game may require you to destroy or deface some of the components, and that also makes it hard for someone else to play with a copy which has already been experienced.
I will try to give my thoughts on this game as best as I can, but beware – much of what I saw will be couched in generalities. As with all the other escape room game reviews, I will not spoil any of the secrets. Any details come from the box, the rules, or the things which you can see from the start of the game.
Unlike the earlier EXIT games, this game is in a larger format box – essentially double the footprint of the previous games; and the reason for this is that The Catacombs of Horror is the first 2-part mystery in the series. All of the puzzle material is contained within the box, and it makes sense that a double adventure would need double the volume in the box. The rules specify that you will need some extra material – it recommends having paper, pens, and scissors handy. Unlike some of the other entries in the escape room game genre, this one is definitely more of a “legacy” style as the intent is that you will need to alter the components in some way in the process of solving the puzzles.
The format of the game is fairly similar to the previous games other than the two-part-ness (is that even a word?!). There is a rulebook, a large deck of cards and a few assorted specialized bits that are specific to this game. There are more components here than usual (as you would expect for the double feature) as well as a fairly sizable mystery box – which you are clearly warned not to open!
The deck of cards is split up into three stacks. The first stack is a bunch of green clue cards. There will be three clues for each of the puzzles in each game. So far, in the entire EXIT series, there have always been ten puzzles in each box – but there are more puzzles here given the two parts. The puzzles are identified by a shape (in the game components) and this same shape is found on the back of the associated cards. The second stack are the light blue numbered answer cards. You will use these to see whether you have answered a puzzle correctly. A final stack are the red letter cards, from A thru … (different for each game). As you solve different puzzles, you’ll be directed to reveal certain letter cards which give you more information or puzzle pieces.
So, when you start the game, you generally have a small amount of information to start with – the initial story and hints are usually found these components. Again, puzzles will be denoted by a black outline of a shape (such as a circle, a crescent moon or a cross). However, many puzzles have multiple parts to them, spread out amongst the different game components, and oftentimes they’re not all labeled – it will be up to you to figure out what goes with what. As you look thru the bits, you will often see a red letter card icon. Whenever you see this, you can then look at the matching letter card from the deck.
All of the puzzles have a three part solution – which might be letters, numbers or shapes. It all depends what is on the solution wheel in the particular game. In The Catacombs of Horror, you’ll find a three digit number as the solution for each puzzle. When you think that you have the right answer, you use the solution wheel to dial in the answer. The outermost ring has the puzzle shapes. You line up your three-part answer in a column under the appropriate shape, and then you look at the hole in the inner section. It will give you a number. You then go to the deck of numbered cards, find the match and then look at the back.
Generally, that numbered card will have a grid on the back of it – and then you have to find the number which matches the puzzle you’re actively trying to solve. The grid will not be filled with the black shape outlines but rather images which are somehow associated with that puzzle; this prevents cheating or inadvertent puzzle solving. Look carefully at the game materials to figure out which illustration is needed. The chart will direct you to a second card number which you then find. If you’re wrong, the card tells you to try again. If you’re right, there will be instructions, puzzle bits or letter cards on the back of the second card that you can then add to your inventory.
The group wins the game when they complete the various puzzles. If, at any point, you feel like you’re stuck, you can flip over one of the clue cards for the puzzle you need help with. They are ordered from one to three. The early clues mostly make sure that you’re at the right place in the game to be solving the particular puzzle – the earliest clue usually telling you which game components you need to have access to at that time in order to be able to solve the puzzle. The game doesn’t necessarily specify an order to the puzzles – but for many of them, you have to solve other puzzles first in order to have all the information that you need. It is not uncommon for there to be two or three puzzles that are active at any time, and usually solving an earlier puzzle will give you a needed card or special component needed to progress on a different puzzle.
Once you have finished the game, you can give your performance a rating using a chart provided in the rules. Essentially, the best rating is for finishing the game in under an hour and having used zero hint cards. Your rating decreases with more time spent and more clue cards used.
My thoughts on this game
For those of you familiar with my older reviews in the series (here, here, and here), you’ll know that I’m a big fan of the EXIT games. I have consistently rated the games in this series amongst my favorite in the genre. Thus, I was really excited to get a chance to play this newest entry in the series, and even moreso because it offered twice the content in a single box!
Maybe I expected too much out of the game, or maybe the disjointedness of playing the game in two session was too much – but this was amongst the most disappointing in the series for me. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the experience, but this would definitely not be the one I’d recommend to someone new to the series.
So, what was different about this one? It’s not the puzzle variety – the Brands (and Querfurth) continue to amaze me with the different types of puzzles that they are able to come up with and the different ways that they are able to use simple paper and cardboard to do so.
The difficulty level may be above the comfort level of my family. Each EXIT game comes with a rating on the cover, and this one is rated at 4.5 out of 5. And, the puzzles are certainly difficult here. I’m all for lateral thinking – but we had to use the clue cards much more often than in previous editions. And, I definitely don’t have an issue using the clue cards; after all, that’s why they’re included in the game! But, man, there were a few puzzles that we needed the solution clue card to solve, and after we read the solution, all four of us pretty much couldn’t have seen any way that we would have solved it on our own.
Second, this game had a few typos/inconsistencies that I’ve never seen before in the series. Generally the EXIT games have been impeccably proofread. The reason why this is so important is that you only get one chance to play this game; so if there is an error, it’s not like you can re-do something – especially if you’ve already cut it out or somehow irrevocably changed something. The one example I can point to without spoiling things is in the rules to getting started. The rulebook tells you to get the starting components including the BOOK. However, there is no book. There is a letter in the box, but no book. So, we spent a bit of time poking around the box looking for a book, and we really didn’t want to get started until we were sure we had the right stuff – because again, we didn’t want to inadvertently spoil anything by opening up something that we shouldn’t.
The other issue we had was with the puzzles and the wheel. There is a nice system in place to prevent you from reverse engineering solutions by requiring you to do a two-step process to check a solution. In The Catacombs of Horror – it wasn’t always clear what the correct image was for a puzzle – and at least in one case, we flipped to a card which was a puzzle solution, but not for the puzzle that we were working on! I can see that the designers were trying to be cute/clever in disguising some of the puzzle identities – as this is an additional puzzle within a puzzle – but man, it may have been one trick too many for me in this case.
Finally, the overall length of the game may have been too much for us. We normally get through EXIT games in 60-70 minutes, but with the difficulty/obtuseness of some of the puzzles, we were close to 90 minutes when we were instructed that we were at the stopping point. Looking around the table, it was clear that we had reached the end point for the evening. We packed stuff up as directed and didn’t get back to the game for a week. When we returned, it took a good fifteen or twenty minutes to get everything set back up and to make sure we had all the material out that we needed without anything extra or un-necessary. And, while theoretically all the puzzles are independent, it did take a little bit of time for everyone to re-examine all the game bits we had at that time as you never know when you’ll need something from the start of the game to solve a puzzle at the end. This break obviously reduced the fluidity of the game, and I think that it really hurt our ability to solve at least one puzzle. It made a long and frustrating game even longer and more frustrating.
But, enough of the complaints. I still enjoyed the game, and there were two puzzles I was very impressed with. I’d still rather play this than many of the other escape room games that I’ve tried in the past three years. But, I’d definitely recommend this only for escape room game veterans, and I’d definitely recommend playing this in a single sitting. Clear off your calendar for the entire evening and settle in for this one. I am still looking forward to the next iteration of the EXIT series, but I am hoping that it is back to the single, one-hour variety…
Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers
Lorna: We also had difficulties with some ambiguities and thus ended up way off track. I didn’t mind the two parts and we definitely found some of the puzzles very difficult.
James Nathan: Switching our usual roles, this was my favorite of the Exit series. I completed it over a series of 3 or 4 sessions over 2 days: we started in a coffee shop; continued in the lobby of an escape room; and finished in the dining room. I played through it with a friend who has not previously played any of Exit/Unlock/Deckscape, etc. (Other than doing the newest Escape Room in a Box the night before we started this.)
That said, my gamemate’s inexperience was the key: they see things in a unique way. Sometimes, in ways that I think are leading us astray and other times they notice or suggest something that is just the breakthrough we needed. In a few instances, they nearly had a puzzle solved before I had finished pulling clues: cases where I don’t know how long it might’ve taken me, or my normal gamemates, to reach a breakthrough.
This entry felt refreshed and refined to me. Most of the twists were nice touches that made me smile. The puzzles were clever and a few were brilliant. The difficulty of this one felt “just right”, though, again, I think playing with a partner with diversity of thought processes and experiences aided my game.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! James Nathan
- I like it. Lorna
- Neutral. Dale Y
- Not for me…