Saturday, 18 November 2017


Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

I have just written about the escape room game series Exit. Now it is the turn for Unlock. Unlock is an award winner too - the French Golden Ace award (As d'Or Jeu de l'Année), for 2017. I have only played one game in the series - The Formula.

Playing Unlock requires using a smartphone app. It acts as a countdown timer. Sometimes you are required to enter a passcode and it tells you whether it is correct. You can ask for hints. When you make mistakes, you may be penalised. You apply the penalty using the app - it reduces the time you have to escape the room.

Other than this app, what you use is just a deck of cards. There are different numbers and alphabets on the card backs. You start the game with just one scenario card. You read the scenario description aloud, start the timer, and flip the card over to see the room you are in.

This is the room. Those numbers and alphabets you can see mean you get to draw and reveal the cards from the deck with these numbers and alphabets. They are the objects you see in the room. The information on the cards are further details of the objects.

Your end goal is to escape the room in which you are locked. To do that you need to enter the right passcode into the app. To get to this final passcode, you need to solve a series of puzzles and riddles. You need to picture yourself in the room as depicted on the scenario card. There are many objects in the room. All of them will help you escape. Your task is to decipher the clues, and to make use of the objects to get more clues and more objects, until you eventually find the final passcode. Some objects combine to give you another object. Most objects are associated with a number, e.g. a lock is #10, and a key is #11. You may try to unlock this lock with this key. You do it by adding up the two numbers. The total is 21. You look through the deck for card #21. If the #11 key is indeed the right key for the #10 lock, the card #21 will tell you so, and give you a new clue, or a new riddle. If it is not the right key, the card #21 will tell you too, and you will be penalised. Usually you are asked to press the penalty button at the app, which shortens your remaining time. Because of this penalty, you must not randomly combine objects by summing up their numbers, hoping to eventually get a right answer. When you try to combine two objects, it has to make sense. You should only do it if you are confident and you have a logical explanation why the two objects should be combined. Sometimes the sum for two objects don't exist in the deck. Then you know for sure these two objects do not combine. Don't waste your breath.

You need to look closely at the cards. Sometimes there are hidden numbers or alphabets. Some cards require you to enter a passcode. This can happen in the middle of the game and not only at the end. Some cards require you to solve a puzzle where the answer is a number, and this number can be added to the number of another object. Some riddles can only be solved when you have all the necessary data, and the data is spread across many cards. Before you reveal them all, the partial information is not enough. There can be multiple riddles and puzzles at the same time. You can't be sure whether you already have all the necessary information. You need to work smart. If one path looks blocked for the moment, try something else and revisit this path later when you have more information.

You will not know which piece of information is for which riddle. In fact sometimes you may not even know whether a piece of information is a riddle or a clue for a riddle. You need to sort these out yourself. You always have a pool of information, and you need to keep breaking through to learn more, to get more riddles and to solve them too, and eventually get to the final passcode. Sometimes some cards will tell you you can discard specific cards, because the information on them is no longer needed. This helps keep you sane. If you feel stuck and need help, you can ask the app for hints. Naturally, it is most satisfying if you can solve everything without using any hints.

This is what the app looks like.

The Play

I played The Formula with just Allen. Han taught us the game. He had played before and couldn't join us. Allen and I managed to beat the game quite quickly, well under the 1 hour mark. We didn't use a single hint. That was satisfying. Han did help us along the way. He didn't directly give hints, but he did remind us to look at the cards closely, and also sometimes when he saw us spend much time checking things which he knew would yield no result, he told us flatly not to bother. So he did save us some time. Afterwards my children tried the game, and a group of friends too. I didn't give them any hints, only minor nudges, and it took them much longer to beat the game, about one and a half hours. What I find interesting is different people get stuck at different riddles. There are some which I found difficult and took long to solve, but others managed to solve quickly. Some which I found easy took others a long time to solve. Most riddles are logical in nature, as opposed to needing general or specific knowledge. In the cases of those which do require general knowledge, it is common knowledge that almost everyone should know. This is a good thing. There is little cultural barrier.

10 Sep 2017. The children struggled with the game, because it was just the two of them playing. I couldn't join them because I had already played it.

Halfway through the game Chen Rui gave up and left the table. They were stuck at the same riddles for a long time so Chen Rui was fed up and decided to go do something else. Shee Yun was determined to solve the riddles, and eventually did manage to beat the game.

There is time pressure when playing Unlock. You do need to use the app quite often, so you can't help noticing the timer. Each time you make a mistake and are penalised, you are reminded that time is running out. Exit has the same one-hour time limit, but in Exit you don't bother with the stopwatch until you are done with the game. You only check it after you are done to see how long you took. In Unlock there is no buzzing when time is up. You play on until you finally solve the final riddle, just that the app will tell you afterwards that you have done poorly.

The pleasure in Unlock is in analysing the wealth of data before you and sorting out which are the riddles, which are the clues, and which clues are for which riddles. You need to work out how to piece together the clues to solve the riddles. Step by step you solve the riddles and get more information, until you manage to reach the final passcode. There is always discussion at the table, throwing out ideas and bouncing hypotheses off one another. Due to the time penalty, before you reveal a new card you often need to think twice whether it might be a mistake.

The Thoughts

If you like riddles and IQ tests, I think you will like Unlock. In fact, to me, it feels more like an elaborate set of interdependent riddles than a boardgame. It is very different from what you'd expect a boardgame to be. When you work together with a group of friends to solve a difficult puzzle, you get a strong sense of comradeship.

If you ask me to compare Unlock and Exit, Unlock feels more thematic because it tries to make you imagine you are in that room, and the cards are actual objects you find there. The puzzles in Exit are more creative. Some of them downright amazed me. In Exit you may need to write, tear, fold, destroy and irreversibly change game components, so there is more freedom in coming up with puzzles. Unlock does make use of the app, so it has some elements which Exit is not able to support. If forced to pick which is better, I favour Exit slightly over Unlock. That said, I find these two series similar in the kind of experience and fulfilment they give you. If you like one, I'm confident you'll like the other.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Exit: The Game

Plays: 4Px2.

The Game

Escape room games are a new trend. So far I have tried two games from the series Exit: The Game, and one game from the series Unlock!. The basic premise of these games is you find yourself locked up in a room, and in the limited time given to you, you need to find a way to escape. These are cooperative games with many puzzles to solve.

The games in the Exit series which I have played are The Abandoned Cabin and The Secret Lab. A game is essentially a set of 10 riddles. You start off with some information and one riddle. Each time you solve a riddle, you get more information and more riddles. Sometimes you have a few riddles on the table at the same time. You may not have enough information to solve all of them, but you will have enough information to solve at least one of them. As you uncover more information and more riddles, you will eventually work your way to the final riddle which lets you escape the room. When there are multiple pieces of information on the table, you won't know which riddle or riddles they are for. You need to work it out yourself.

This is how a game is set up. The red cards are the riddle cards. You reveal them only when explicitly instructed to do so. The blue cards are the answer cards. They don't actually tell you the answer. They are just part of a system to help you check whether your answer is correct. The green cards are help cards. The icons on them represent specific riddles in the game. If you get stuck with a particular riddle, you may use these help cards. Most riddles have 3 help cards. The first one gives you a little help, the second one gives more, and the third one tells you the solution.

At the start of the game you get this disc with three rotatable inner layers, and a booklet. Along the edge of the disc you can see the icons representing the riddles. The solution to a riddle is a combination of three chemicals. To test whether your answer to a riddle is correct, you rotate the inner layers of the disc so that the three desired chemicals are aligned below the riddle icon. A number will appear in the small window, and that's the answer card you need to check to see whether your answer is correct. The booklet contains a lot of information, but in the beginning most of it will not be meaningful. There is no explanation on how to use the information. You need to work it out yourself. Most information will only be useful when you reveal the relevant riddle card.

The Exit games are once-only affairs. This is true on two levels. It is once-only because if you already know the solutions to the riddles, you can't unknow them. It is also once-only because during play you will damage, alter or destroy components irreversibly. You will write on them, or draw on them, or fold them, or tear them, or cut them. I shall not be specific. Once you are done with your copy of the game, you won't be able to lend it to a friend to play.

The Play

It's a challenge trying to describe Exit. I can't be telling you too many details. It would spoil the game for you. I can't share too many photos either. Both my plays were with my wife and children (10 & 12). The riddles are mostly logic puzzles. There is sound reasoning behind the solution of every riddle. Technically you can try all combinations for a riddle until you eventually get the right one, but that is against the spirit of the game. It defeats the purpose.

Many of the riddles require piecing together a few clues. Some feel like mathematical questions. Some require you to associate separate elements. Some of them are quite creative. They surprised me.

The first time we played, we managed to beat the game comfortably within the hour. We only used one help card. I thought the game was easy. Not challenging enough. Our second game took 1 hour 18 minutes, and we had to use three help cards. They were all for the same riddle which we got stuck at. We eventually gave up and had to look at the solution. It was a good one. I was impressed.

The game is easier with more people. More people means more ideas. When facing a difficult challenge, there is a better chance that one of the players can think of something to try which will work. It is possible to play solo, but I think it will be less fun. Even with just two players, at least you can discuss and brainstorm. That's part of the fun - working together to achieve something.

The back of the rulebook is for recording your play - who you played with, how long you took, which riddle was most interesting etc.

The Thoughts

Exit does not feel like a boardgame to me. It is an experience. An event. It is a process of solving a series of clever riddles. If you like solving puzzles and riddles, you will probably like it. You certainly have to put on your thinking hat. The riddles are mostly logical in nature. Few have cultural elements, or are language specific, or need specific knowledge or familiarity with current events. You just need logical thinking, mostly. So the game translates well from the original German version to other languages. Logic is language independent. One thing that I find lacking is I don't really feel I'm locked inside a room trying to escape. Many of the riddles feel like they are independent. I can't imagine myself in a room searching for equipment to help me break out. The riddles themselves are clever and interesting. There is some background story you need to read aloud to get you into the mood. Just enjoy the puzzles and don't worry too much about the story. The story is not the selling point.

As a shared experience, this is a good family activity. I imagine it will work equally well with a group of friends. It's something you do together to enjoy the companionship and comradeship. You face a challenge together and achieve something together. I don't have a problem spending money to buy a game which can be used exactly once. I'm buying the journey, not the components. I have already ordered Exit: The Pharoah's Curse, which I hear is the toughest among the first three games released. I'm very much looking forward to the challenge.

Friday, 3 November 2017

The Impregnable Fortress

Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

The Impregnable Fortress is a game about the Japanese invasion of Singapore during World War 2, designed by a Singaporean. It is a 2-player game, with one side playing the Japanese and the other the British. Singapore was under British rule then. The core game mechanism is modeled on Stratego. It is an abstract wargame. The identities of the game pieces are initially hidden from your opponent. They are revealed only during battle. To win the game you must find and capture your opponent's HQ.

You can see the British HQ at the lower left. During game setup, you arrange your 30 pieces in your deploy zone in any way you like. The strengths of your pieces vary from 1 to 9. During a fight, the weaker piece is eliminated. If the strengths are the same, both pieces are eliminated. During the game, the two sides take turn making moves, like in Chess. All pieces may move one step in any direction, except for the HQ's and the mines which may not move.

The game board shows Singapore and part of Johor, the southernmost state of peninsular Malaysia. The Japanese army starts in the north, and the Commonwealth army in the south. The hexes marked with crosses are impassable. The game setup is not historical. You can set up your army any way you like as long as you stay within your deploy zone. The army composition is certainly not historical. I am quite sure the Japanese army did not plant mine fields in Johor.

There are many details on the board. Some do affect game play. If you use the advanced rules, the Jurong Line hexes can increase the strength of Commonwealth units. The major road - Woodlands Road - allows units to move two steps instead of one. It is easier to reinforce units in this area, but it is also easier for your opponent to advance to attacking positions.

The front and back covers of the rulebook list the army composition of both armies. The two sides are the same. This list is quite important. During a game you need to keep track of which enemy units have been killed, and which still remain on the board. Some units are vulnerable to specific units, so it is important to know the current composition of your opponent's army.

The two maps show suggested setups. HQ's are tucked away in corners, and protected by mines. Mines are also set up elsewhere as diversions.

Many units have special interactions. Some are in the basic rules, some only apply if you use the advanced rules. When I played, I used all the advanced interaction rules. Let's look at the group at the top left. The mine (X) kills anything that attacks it. The only exception is the combat engineer (3) which can eliminate the mine. The conscript platoon (6) can be used to clear a mine, but it dies together with the mine.

At the top right, the recon troopers (4) can force all adjacent enemy units to reveal themselves.

At the bottom left, the bomber (2) may attempt to bomb any unit on the board. If the target unit has a strength of 4 or less, it may be destroyed. You play a mini-game with those square tokens to determine whether it is destroyed. Other units won't be destroyed, but they will be exposed. The bomber is effectively also a recon plane. The anti-air gun (5) may shoot down a bomber after its bombing run.

At the bottom right, the tank troop (9) is the strongest unit in the game. However it loses to the humble anti-tank team (1). The elephant fears the mouse.

Notice that some of the units are in a darker shade. These units are only used if you play the advanced rule which allows customisation of your army. You add 10 dark units to your pool of 30 units, and from this pool of 40 you select 30 to be your army. I didn't play with this because it was my first game and I had no idea how to do customisation.

The cards are an advanced variant too. Each side has its own deck of cards. Whenever you attack, you earn a political point (the star token), regardless of whether you win that battle. You may spend two political points to draw a card. You may spend political points to play a card. The cost is specified on the card. These two cards came into play during my game. The Water Shortages card was devastating to me (the Commonwealth). Heng played it when I had 7 political points. I lost all of them and had to painstakingly collect political points all over again. The British Tanks card allowed me to resurrect my tank troop, the mightiest unit in the game. This is a very powerful card, thus the high cost.

The Play

I taught Heng to play. He played the Japanese and I played the Commonwealth. We were both new to the game. I had heard of Stratego and the general idea behind it, but had not actually played it. The setup took a while. You can think of it as part of playing the game. I protected my HQ with mines, and put it at the back, as far from danger as possible. Units with situational uses were placed away from the front too. E.g. combat engineers had better stayed away from danger until I found the mines, the weak anti-tank teams were kept safe until the enemy tank troop was revealed. I put my own tank troop at the back too, worried that it might be caught by enemy anti-tank teams easily if I used it too early. As a result, my front liners were mostly the tier 2 units, the 6's to 8's. This was my thinking when I deployed my units.

The Impregnable Fortress is a game of attrition. Initially the board looks crowded, but very soon the crowd thins. When one unit defeats another, it becomes vulnerable too because its identity is now known. Your opponent will try to kill it with a stronger unit or a unit which specialises in killing it. This reminds me of Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, which also has a Stratego-like mechanism. As the units dwindle, there are fewer and fewer pieces to protect your HQ. It is a race to find and destroy the enemy HQ. No matter how bleak things look overall, if you manage to capture the enemy HQ, you win immediately. Normally you still need to take care of the big picture. You want to maintain a front. You want to score more kills than your opponent. Both qualitative and quantitative advantages will help you in the end game of hunting down the opponent HQ.

Heng was the Japanese. In the southwest corner he had one commando which managed to break through my flank and wreaked havoc behind my front lines. It was a 6, which was one of the stronger units. I had nothing in the area which could stop it. It also cleverly avoided two mines. Thankfully my HQ was protected by a mine. This brave Japanese unit eventually died on a minefield.

There was much fighting at the centre of the board. The major road was very useful in both offense and defense. You can use the road to attack an enemy two steps away. On defense, you can also use it to stay out of range of enemy units. Every time you attack, you get a political point, so players are encouraged to be aggressive. This is good design.

My artillery battery (2) helped me tremendously. It supported friendly units within two spaces, increasing their strengths by up to 2. My infantry company (7) was almost invincible with the support of the artillery battery.

The strong units are the stars. In the basic game, you have one 9, one 8 and two 7's. These strong units can go on a rampage. It is important to keep track of which units have been killed and which are still on the board. During my game I kept tabs on Heng's strong units. I knew if his 9 was dead, my 8 would be close to invincible. I only needed to be careful of artillery support and mines. Heng managed to break through my left flank. I pushed through on the right flank. I had more units advancing, so the progress was slow. Moreover I was wary of mines and advanced cautiously, using my recon unit as much as possible.

I gained an upper hand in the centre, managing to kill all his strong units eventually. After both our #9's (tank troop) died, I revived mine by card play. I knew then the centre would be mine. Heng could not stop my advancement in the east, because I had a #8 supporting that offensive. Eventually my eastern expedition force found and captured the Japanese HQ, saving Singapore and rewriting history.

The Thoughts

When I first read the rules of The Impregnable Fortress, I was a little disappointed, because I realised this isn't a historical wargame. It is an abstract wargame which uses the Battle for Singapore as a backdrop. It doesn't try to model the actual war. Some historical details are added, giving the game flavour. The cards contain many historical details, and I like that. This is certainly not a hex and counter wargame. It is at the other end of the wargame spectrum. This is a light strategy game. You do have to put some thought into the tactics. This is closer to a mass market game than a niche market game. Non-gamers can certainly handle the basic rules. Seasoned gamers will want to start using the advanced rules straight-away. The game is supported by the Singapore National Heritage Board. I imagine it being sold at museums and tourist centres.

Singapore is an immediate neighbour of Malaysia. We share many similarities, and we used to be one country for about two years. A game about the Battle for Singapore has special meaning to me, because the historical event was close to where I live.

Here the link to The Impregnable Fortress on Boardgamegeek: