London, Dec 2017
Christmas is in trouble again, after a crash has left Santa lying in a snowdrift and you with the responsibility for sorting everything out. At least, I think that was the premise – if I didn’t catch all the details of the story, I blame that on the excellently over the top costume efforts that our hosts had gone to.
Agent November may be famous for their outdoor games, but Christmas Crisis is played inside a private room in a pub. It normally also includes a two or three course meal served by that pub, though when we tried it we played a stripped down version with just the game (plus a few drinks). Players are not expected to try to play while eating – the game is paused as necessary, and continues between courses. In our case we entered the room to find a selection of interesting boxes and items on the main table, and were instructed that everything relevant to the game was on that table; there was no need to go searching for items hidden around the room. After briefly attempting to play the game seated, it rapidly became clear that it was much more effective to have everyone standing up and able to move freely between the different items on the table.
Taking on the role of the Grinch, my biggest reservation about Christmas Crisis is the team size, which is listed as 5-15 players. There were six of us, and that already felt chaotic, full of moments where we struggled to spot things due to insufficient communication, or where players started to try to work on clues that had already been solved. That’s typical of any game with a large team, but is particularly relevant here for two reasons. Firstly, the game is listed as minimum 5 players, and allows anything up to 15 (!). Secondly, it’s based around some relatively small set-pieces that need to be closely inspected from all sides, in a way that pretty much guarantees bottlenecks of people all trying to look at the same thing at the same time. A different game structure might allow 15 people to all get involved in the puzzles at the same time without getting in each other’s way, but this game is mostly linear and has plenty of interdependencies between its components.
Midway through the game I was finding it quite confusing and was surprised by the degree to which it required external knowledge. That turned out to be mainly because we’d happily ploughed through two puzzles that were intended for a little later in the sequence. There was in fact one point where some external knowledge was needed, though it seems using Google is allowed and encouraged if the players get stuck there; everything else was simply that we were attempting to solve sections that we’d reached earlier than expected.
At almost £50 per person and a minimum team of five, this is not a cheap game. On the other hand, that’s a lot more reasonable when you remember that it includes a two course meal. Taking into account interruptions from food the total time is a lot more than one hour, particularly since the game includes a mechanism for providing bonus time, which also increases the value for money. Even so, at its price it’s still too slight a game to recommend for enthusiasts who are primarily looking for an escape room to play; but its strengths are tailored to its target market, groups who want to add in some entertainment as part of a Christmas meal together.
This isn’t a game to play competitively or seriously. The large team size and the clustering around clues would get frustrating under more severe time pressure, but the time bonuses and food interruptions mean it can be played leisurely, with different people taking it seriously or not to different degrees. The aim shouldn’t be to complete everything at top speed, but to have a good silly time with friends or co-workers, dabbling with puzzles over food and a glass of mulled wine.
Taken in that spirit it’s a great design, mixing plenty of decent puzzles with some moments that get everyone involved or laughing. There’s plenty of opportunity for groups to get confused, or to lose a crucial component, or to get stuck on a certain tougher puzzle near the end. However, it’s a curated game where the host is in the room too the whole time. I normally have mixed feelings about that, finding gamemasters hard to ignore when they’re physically present, but the Agent November hosts did an excellent job of not intruding, and it means that if a game is going off the rails they have more ability to intervene than if they were just communicating through a screen or walkie talkie.
And finally, the main boxes that drive most of the game are very pleasing, custom creations that unfold or unlock to reveal unexpected surprises. They’re fragile in places, and very padlock-driven, but the process of slowly solving these provided a lot of enjoyment. The resulting is something that goes very nicely with a mince pie and some Christmas spirits.