Bucharest, May 2018
From the Romanian name I guessed this would be a game involving wine and the Greek deity of alcohol, which was only half right. It’s actually based on a piece of real world history from Romania’s communist era, involving a corruption scandal in the 70s where a crooked businessman managed to defraud the government to create a surplus supply of wine, which he then sold on the black market and thereby enriched himself. While the real-life Bachus was eventually caught and shot, the game has you as investigative journalists, imprisoned in Bachus’ cellars and awaiting a sticky (and possibly fermented) end.
As well as being based on a historical incident, the game is located in a historical wine cellar. Don’t picture small and cramped tunnels, the cellar in question is as spacious as an underground barn. Despite the story players do not start tied up, and the wine theme is used much more than the one of imprisonment. But more than either, this game is a demonstration of what can be achieved using purely physical mechanisms.
From the start there is an array of interesting cables visible over the team’s heads, plus a few tempting objects that are clearly clues. The briefing makes clear that players should not make efforts to get these until something lowers them into reach, and a couple of later steps have explicit instructions for what players should and should not do: a clunky bit of artifice that’s necessary for the game’s magic to work.
That magic is the way the room continually surprises with its hidden secrets, and the way objects are released or lowered to the players, all without a single maglock or electronic switch. At its best it’s almost like being inside a Rube Goldberg machine, with the players themselves as a necessary part of the mechanism.
Officially, hints are built into the game as a crate of bottles. Each puzzle is marked with a symbol, and to take a clue for that puzzle you look inside the bottle with the matching symbol. In practice we found the host was not slow to chime in over the audio system, and we received quite a few clues that way without ever resorting to the hint bottles. Where I’ve seen equivalent hint systems in the past I’ve tended to dislike them, partly because of the risk of accidentally getting more hint than I want, and partly because explicitly labelling puzzles undermines immersion. But here it seemed much more reasonable, partly because of the nice theming and partly because immersion isn’t an important part of the game anyhow.
The weakest side of the game is that it’s a linear game in a large space filled with interesting objects: with a lot to look at but only one place at a time where it’s possible to make progress, it’s sometimes a matter of guesswork which section of the room to focused on. As a result we occasionally felt led around the room by hints from the operator, where a bit more signposting within the game itself would have made it flow more smoothly.
But although it felt unpolished in some places, Secretul lui Bachus also felt quite original and different to most games, and had a unpredictable flair in its twists and turns. It may not have been perfectly slick, but it was definitely clever, interesting and great fun. (And if you play it during the warmer part of the year, try to leave some space in your schedule afterwards – the venue has a very pleasant area above ground to relax in after the game, and you may find the owner offers you some Romanian wine to sample.)