The Pharaoh’s Tomb. Play to learn more than just the way out.
One of the most wonderfully creative and rewarding aspects of playing games comes when the player experience is built around a perspective you wouldn’t usually get in the real world. This is achieved when the mechanics are designed in partnership with the story or perspective. This can be used for abstract experiences, such as the example of being a tree in Photosynthesis, or something harder hitting and meaningful, like Brenda Romero’s Train (something my own work has been inspired by click here to find out more).
The gift of a new perspective, through the player experience, is what makes board games truly magical. However, there are plenty of examples where games fall short of retelling the story in the right ways. If the mechanics are carefully designed in balance with the narrative, with equal weight given to each during the design process, the experience becomes far more rewarding. When there is an imbalance, the experience is often hollow or unconvincing.
One example of this is Inka and Markus Brand’s Exit games, published by Kosmos, which takes on the escape the room genre, translating it into the home environment. For this article, I will be referring to Exit: The Game - The Pharaoh’s Tomb (2017).
The Pharaoh’s Tomb is ambitious and creative. It does well to capture some elements of the escape the room experience and offers fun, challenging and well-designed puzzles.
For those who are not familiar with the concept of an escape the room game, it is rather simple. You are stuck in an imaginative scenario, like a haunted house, and you must find clues, solve riddles, complete puzzles to escape before the time runs out. This is usually best in a physical space where everything is a possible clue and you are actually locked in. And herein lies our first problem for The Pharaoh’s Tomb, it struggles with simulating the experience because it fails to make proper use of the space the players occupy.
When you open the box, you are greeted with multiple warning labels and signs ensuring you are cautious when removing the components. This is so you don’t accidentally reveal any of the answers to the riddles or puzzles. Once you have flicked through the rules and completed the setup you are ready to go.
In this case, the area of play is not limited to a board, it is marked out through the cards and puzzle book. There is even a wonderful moment where the box is used in one of the puzzles. This gives the game a sense of flexibility in its play space, but you never really get the chance to break away from the table. Ultimately, you are anchored to the table because there is no reason to move around, something rather contradictory to the player experience of an escape the room game.
Now, if the players' space was to be considered, the game could have included design elements such as a poster to hang on the wall or a map to layout on the table, or even just larger enough components for all players to use simultaneously. Considerations such as these would give the players a central focus around which the gameplay would orbit. If it was a puzzle poster, for example, you suddenly get a three-dimensional experience that maps out the space you are “stuck in”, embodying some of the tension necessary.
The other great mishap in this experience is time.
When playing an escape the room game, time is essential to give the players an instant feeling of tension and suspense. “You are trapped in a room and have all day to find a way out” is far less exciting than being trapped in a room with only an hour to solve the escape route. Time gives you tension because it dramatically increases your chances of losing - something vital to the experience.
Admittedly, without being there to stopwatch the players, time is something that must be self-referred in The Pharaoh’s Tomb. This makes it the player’s responsibility to follow and action. However, the Brands’ solution to including time into the game seems an afterthought, kept to a single page in the rule book, and never really enforced. The game ultimately relies on a self-timed score system that is unimportant at best. Much like the physicality of the space, if the game included a physical component (like an egg timer), then the tension necessary is further embodied.
The final observation is about tone.
For any game (or entertainment medium) tone is a foundational parameter for the narrative. If you want the story of your game to have a whimsical lighthearted mood then the tone throughout needs to avoid any moments of seriousness, or sarcastic/ironic moments that don’t quite stick the landing. The same goes if your story is serious or dramatic; make sure you maintain the tense atmosphere by being consistently serious/dramatic with your tone.
When we play through The Pharaoh’s Tomb there are moments that contradict each other so greatly in tone that the tension is further lost, and the narrative becomes less believable. The writers inject a moment of whimsical comedy (centered around an ice cream cone) and then end the game with a rather horrifying and altogether serious narrative conclusion. This flip-flopping of tone leaves you feeling far less engrossed in the story. How the writers want you to feel is convoluted and difficult to pinpoint, which leaves you slightly disillusioned by the fiction.
Admittedly, a game need not be a complete tone throughout the player experience. A game need not be serious throughout to be able to deliver its serious story. Yet, any misplaced or poorly executed moments of humour—that might otherwise help to reinforce the seriousness of the story (we’re getting into theatre studies here and good old Brechtian philosophies)—simply disrupts the narrative and experience, jarring the players away from being wrapped up in the story. Therefore, my concluding advice on this point is to ensure the tone is consistent throughout to ensure you provide a reliable experience for your players.
(If you have any burning desire to include any narrative elements that might contradict what you have designed so far, you should playtest with a range of audiences to see if it fits.)
It is fair to say the Exit: The Game - The Pharaoh’s Tomb is an experience that, for the escape, the room enthusiasts out there, is ambitious and somewhat rewarding. However, for a designer, this game offers us a great case study in understanding the importance of time, space, and tone to a narrative. It sets up a clear example of how important the play space is and how we can, and should, be considering this when we are designing our games. It demonstrates that time is a vital element to help manage tension within the player experience. It shows us that without a consistent and reliable tone throughout the play, you can easily leave your players detached from the game’s narrative.
Exit: The Pharaoh’s Tomb is very good in its demonstration of how creative tabletop gaming can be, making for an interesting collection of puzzles. However, where it really shines, is in its flaws, as it showcases where a good game can truly be great.
Some Design tips:
Time pressure helps to easily increase tension
If the physical play space is important to your game experience, then don’t be afraid to use it—make your players move!
A game that gives a player a perspective they wouldn’t normally have is the start of a worthwhile player experience.
Consistent tone can help players be better immersed in your game's story.
As always, we're here to start a debate and expand on the conversations around video and tabletop gaming, past the review and into a critique. If you have any questions or thoughts on this, or any other articles we have posted, then please do let us know! Only with more voices can we have a better conversation.