Room-in-a-box, Nov 2017
The remarkably prolific Exit series of play at home escape games are now up to ten games in their native German, and the second batch of three are now available in English. They follow closely the format established by the previous boxes, with a few minor tweaks: they’re now listed as suitable for 1-4 players not 1-6 (sensible, since very few home escape games work well with larger numbers), there’s an optional helper app you can download for atmospheric audio and a digital timer, and a difficulty rating. Polar Station is listed as 3/5 difficulty, which should be taken relative to the series as a whole – it’s around the same level as the earlier Exit games, but those were distinctly tougher than most other home escape games available.
Having now played six of the Exit boxes, Polar Station is my least favourite of the series. Part of the reason for that is undoubtedly that I’m quixotically insisting on playing them non-destructively, and they’re really not designed for that; doing that made one clever puzzle idea into a fiddly pain and caused another to be considerably more confusing than it should have been. But it’s not fair to penalise the game for that, since I’m not playing it in the intended fashion (though I do consider the one-use design to be a major downside to this otherwise impressive series).
However, quite apart from problems introduced by not destroying the components, Polar Station seemed to have a higher rate of unnecessarily confusing elements. A couple of the puzzles near the start are reasonable but potential brick walls if your mind doesn’t jump in the right direction; a couple of others have intentional gotchas and another has a nasty unintentional gotcha. To be fair, that last is almost certainly specific to the English-language version of the game and must have been introduced in translation.
Two additional minor strikes against it are that the codewheel is less interesting than most of those in their games, using simple digits for all codes, and the lock targets are often a bit confusingly similar, increasing the chance of accidentally looking at the wrong solution card and thinking a correct answer is wrong.
Normally in the Exit series of games the background plot is a thin excuse for the puzzles. One point in Polar Station’s favour is that it tries harder on the story – it still takes a distant second place to the puzzles, but there is a genuine narrative that emerges as you play, revealing what happened to the deserted research station.
And even if I was less impressed with some of the puzzles here, they continue to find ways to go way beyond magazine-style pen and paper puzzles, and the best of the puzzles show the series’s usual ingenious creativity. It’s a well-designed set of games and if you like the format, you’ll enjoy Polar Station too; but if you’re trying them for the first time, better to start with one of the others.