Room-in-a-box, Jul 2018
It is very much to Unlock!’s credit that they keep experimenting with their format. Having established a game system that works, they could have easily settled into churning out identikit games. Instead, each new release seems to push the format in a different direction. Some of those experiments are more successful than others; Tombstone Express is a bold attempt at innovation but sadly didn’t win me over.
This time the theme is the American West, set on a train where you’re tasked with protecting a valuable gem needed for a peace treaty with the Apaches – but naturally, the gem is stolen, and you need to find it and identify the thief.
The first way in which Tombstone Express is unusual is that it’s a dynamic game. The app counts down to zero in the usual way, but may also trigger timed events based on how you’re doing, usually to release additional complications and challenges for you to deal with. Exactly which occur when (and if they occur at all) depends on how your game goes.
Secondly, underneath the usual Unlock!-style puzzles, this is essentially a form of murder mystery. As you proceed you reveal various characters, the dramatis personae from whom you’ll eventually need to select the correct culprit, with the amount of time available for that decision based on how well you’ve done earlier in the game.
I love the idea of all of that. It’s an intriguingly different spin on the usual style of game, and the timed events and narrative variations successfully add a feeling of action where the game’s not passively waiting for you to draw another card.
Less successful is the way the first half of the game unlocks a huge number of cards in quick succession. You can easily end up with almost half the entire deck available at once, after spending most of the first ten minutes of the game tediously finding one card after another. (I know some players dislike searching the deck for a particular number and prefer to sort the cards for Unlock! games into numerical order before they play. I don’t do that since I normally quite like the searching mechanism, but for this game it might be worth considering.)
Then the actual puzzle content felt weak, with several item combinations that seemed quite arbitrary, while other plausible options resulting in time penalties. One step seemed to need either trial and error (with penalties for incorrect tries) or on US-specific outside knowledge. And another was a ‘machine’ with a perfectly fair solution – but I made the mistake of experimenting with it before I had the necessary clue, only to discover that I’d invisibly incurred a series of time penalties for doing so, wiping out half our time.
And finally, the logic of the denouement where you select the culprit seemed shaky, where the route to the solution seems to be based on making a jump from the available clues rather than anything cast-iron. But then I seem to reliably feel that about murder mystery style puzzles. Perhaps because they necessarily involve selecting from a small number of options, puzzle designers feel they need to have less clear-cut clues pointing to the intended answer, so that the puzzle isn’t too easy. If that bothers you less than it does me, you’ll probably like this game considerably more.
The clever timed events and the unusual structure gave Tombstone Express a great deal of promise; the production quality is up to Unlock!’s usual high standards. It even throws in a mini-game partway through – which some players will likely loathe, but which I thought was a bit of good silly fun, and which is in any case easy to skip if you prefer. My impression was that the actual meat of the game was too often confusing or arbitrary, which left me liking it less than the others in the series.
Although this game had flaws, I enjoyed it a great deal. Aside from great production values, the “pop-up” challenges that occur give a fun intermission and break from the main event. Yes there were flaws – one pair of puzzles was particularly arbitrary, and you had to make a bit of a leap on a couple of others. However I would say that actually this was one of my favourite play at home games if you don’t mind getting a lot of cards out and keeping them organised while you play.