Macclesfield, Apr 2019
Curious Encounters has been running at Escape Quest for several years now, but with a significant revamp in 2017. I never played the original version, so can’t comment on whether the changes amount to an entirely new game; if in doubt check with the venue. Since Escape Quest was a highlight of our last visit to the area, we were keen to try the games we hadn’t played; and the owners were kind enough to allow us to attempt it as a team of two, even though their games have a strict minimum of three players.
Your mission is to save a Victorian inventor from his malfunctioning time machine, which has left him stranded in an unknown place and time. This involves figuring out when and where the unfortunate inventor has ended up, as well as getting his device back in working order. You’ll be doing so from the absent Mr. Copplestone’s curiosity shop (or shoppe), a setting that gives licence for an array of interesting knick-knacks plus a smidgen of steampunk styling.
Like Escape Quest’s other games, Curious Encounters uses no electronics in its puzzles. Primarily that means puzzles tend to resolve to keys and codes for padlocks of various sorts, but the game also uses some more inventive mechanisms that elsewhere might use electronics and maglocks. Here they are instead operated by direct gamemaster intervention, invisibly from the far side of a wall, an approach that elsewhere I’ve sometimes found a bit clunky, but here gave it charm and character.
Even though this is an updated version of the game, I thought it still felt like an earlier game from the venue – the puzzle structure seemed a bit more bitty, a collection of separate puzzles with less of a natural flow from one puzzle to the next; and decor that sometimes used simple hand-marked wood where I suspect they might now use shining brass.
We struggled with the later game in particular, finishing in the last thirty seconds only with the help of a few gamemaster clues. Of course, this is a non-linear game in which we had fewer than the minimum number of players. There’s an effect I’ve noticed before in games that use an open structure, where you can end up having solved all bar a few final puzzles; the problem is that then when you get a hint, that helps you solve one of the remaining things but you’re left equally stuck on the others. That happened to us here, and taking two or three hints for different puzzles in quick succession is a bit discouraging. However, we’d have really benefitted from one or two more players to provide extra ideas (and extra eyes with which to search the room!), so I think that was more a reflection of our small team size than anything fundamental about the game design.
In any case, it’s a game full of lovely curios and smart puzzle ideas, with a largely open structure that gives plenty for a larger group to get stuck into while still giving a clear progression towards the finish. The difficulty didn’t come purely from our team size: I noticed that individual puzzles tended to involve slightly more moving parts than in a typical game, where you’d often need more than just a single flash of inspiration to reach the correct solution. And although we found we lost steam later on, in other respects the game finishes strongly: it brings together its various strands as parts of your final goal, makes it abundantly clear when you have everything in place, and finishes on an adrenaline high.