Spice It Up with Deckscape: Escape from Alcatraz

Alex Goldsmith from the Dukes of Dice Podcast has me hooked on Taskmaster, an insanely addicting series from British TV, where five comedians compete at idiotic challenges, all for rubbish prizes. Most of the best moments in the show are when something unusual happens, or the Taskmaster has a witty rejoinder to a contestant’s hapless excuse why they were so poor at the particular task.

But, some of the brightest moments on Taskmaster come from watching regular humans, with the camera lights on and a clock winding down, struggle with the simple puzzles presented to them by the hilarious co-host, Alex Horne.

Humans have always liked solving puzzles. I can imagine a group of humans 15,000 years ago sitting around a campfire, probably singing an early version of “Wagon Wheel” while melting snow for a late night treat — there likely being no s’mores in the early pre-Clovis culture, at least to my knowledge. As darkness descends around the edges of the light of the sparkly flames, the leader looks left and right, and then utters a challenge:

“Cross the Beringia landbridge in under one thousand years. Your time starts now.”

I’ve never done a proper escape room, but I have sure enjoyed playing these escape-rooms-in-a-box, a genre that just keeps exploding each year. I’ve tried most of the familiar escape room experiences: Unlock, Exit, Graphic Novel Adventures, Your Brother’s Daughter’s Third Grade Dance Recital That Your Mother Won’t Let You Miss.

The folks at dV Giochi sent us a review copy of their latest Deckscape to check out. I imagine you will not find it as complicated as the theories behind the “Settlement of the Americas,” but let’s see if it will spice up your next game night!

Deckscape: Escape from Alcatraz is a 2020 escape room game designed by Martino Chiacchiera and Silvano Sorrentino, with art from Alberto Bontempi. The box says the game is suitable for one to six people, and that the adventure will take about an hour.

Boxes lie.

PRESENTATION:

Yeah, that’s a tricky question. Let’s just say that Deckscape is a nice sized small box game with a bunch of cards in it. The cards are oversized and well-made. Each of the cards has words and pictures and numbers and lots of other non-words, non-pictures, and non-numbers types of things that are all useful or not useful in helping you accomplish the tasks you may be given. I also like the fact that this is similar to the Unlock series in that you can totally reset the cards and give the game to another person or group to enjoy.

There’s lots of good looking art, too, and the whole package can fit into your pocket or game bag easily. I really should not tell you anything else or it will spoil the contents. Suffice it to say that the production is well done and meets the standards of any small box escape room puzzle type game.

I do need to insert a caveat. Because of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, I enlisted some of my friends from the excellent “Gateway & Filler Games Group” on Facebook for a Friday night session. We were spread out among all three coasts, playing by using an iPhone connected to Zoom showing all of the cards and art, and chatting with each other over our webcams.

Ideal? Of course not. But, it was workable and shows that you can have awesome group gaming experiences even over the internet in these dark times. But the caveat is that we did not play this together. Some of the players had a hard time reading the print over the webcam, much less seeing all of the cards, and some of the puzzles took us longer as a result.

GAMEPLAY:

Yeah, that’s tricky question number two. I sense a theme here. Let’s just say that it might be easier just to copy the description from the publisher:

This is a hectic adventure set in the maximum-security prison of Alcatraz.

I literally knew nothing about the gameplay other than that brief description when we played the game, but you can probably figure out that the game will set up a scenario, and in the first few cards, walk you through how the game is going to be played. This is going to involve a lot of puzzles and card flipping and, at least in our cases, educated guesses, but the system is simple and easy to use.

I love games that have a tutorial, so that you can skip reading a rule book and commence squeezing all of the fun out of the paper and cardboard in the box. Deckscape does a great job of quickly teaching you the rules of the game and gets you right into the action while doing it.

Personally, anything more might give up some of the coolest elements of the game, so as Rodney Smith would say, I’ll leave you to discover the rest….on your own.

BUT IS IT ANY FUN?

Yeah, you are just full of tricky questions, aren’t you? How does one talk about the fun of a puzzle game without spoiling the puzzles? By not spoiling the puzzles, of course.

What do I want out of an escape room game? First, I want there to be a strong, consistent theme, and Deckscape: Escape from Alcatraz delivers that in spades. Within minutes, you really feel like you are the adventurer stuck in the prison of Alcatraz. I’ll point to the combination of the artwork, the storyline that emerges, and yes, even some of the puzzles, that will maintain that illusion. Well done.

Next, I want there to be some kind of narrative arc, not just a random collection of puzzles. In Deckscape: Escape from Alcatraz, you are going to face decisions that will not only affect your ease of getting to the end of the puzzle — something every escape room game does — but it will also affect what happens to you in the game. Cryptic, aren’t I? Trust me, there will be plenty of moments to cheer or express regret for your decisions.

Also, I want the puzzles to be tough but fair, a mixture of styles and complexity, and give me a feeling of satisfaction when I accomplish the task. For most of Deckscape: Escape from Alcatraz, I thought the puzzles to be exactly that. But, just like a lot of other similar game experiences, there were a few head scratchers.

Finally, I want there to be a great third reel, a payoff that has been building and then hits me right in the feels. Most of the escape room games that I have played do not give me that cinematic ending, but I can honestly say that Deckscape: Escape from Alcatraz comes the closest.

Sure, we took about three times longer than the average group that runs through the cards, but a lot of that can be blamed on the fact that we were doing this in pretty tough conditions. Using an iPhone and Zoom to show four other players the inside the box was not easy. We made it work, we did a lot of talking and moving stuff around to get a focused look through the iPhone’s camera, and I was definitely happy with the outcome.

CONCLUSION:

I checked the price of Deckscape: Escape from Alcatraz, and it looks like it runs about $10 stateside. Egads, that’s a great deal for what will probably take your imminently smarter group of friends only 60-90 minutes to complete. Almost all of the puzzles are clever and well thought out, and there is a pacing to the game that I really enjoyed. A slog of a conundrum was usually followed by a race of two or three easier puzzles, and they usually set up another big moment. I liked that pacing, and I very much enjoyed our adventure at Alcatraz. Thanks again to dV Giochi for sending us a review copy.

WHAT THE KREWE SAID:

Steve “The Name Father” O’Rourke:

This has a good story arc, though it can feel a bit “on rails” at times. The puzzles are generally good, though they may lack some of the clever twist moments I’ve experienced in the Exit series. We had one or two solutions that gave less satisfying resolutions or explanations than others. The solutions for the challenges did range from simple to tricky within the game, so there is variety. I’d like to see less reliance on pure visual acuity to complete tasks. Overall, it’s worth it as an affordable escape room tabletop experience.

Erik Batson:

I thoroughly enjoyed the story line. It was a good escape room game with depth to many of the puzzles. Many twists and turns that made every decision viable and enjoyable. I would be very willing to try another in the series.

Kevin Konovitch:

Overall, Deckscape is a solid “escape room in a box.” There’s great variety in the puzzles, in both nature and difficulty, and the narrative was engaging to boot. I appreciate that there is no reliance on an app, but when marking errors/alarms I did miss having that bookkeeping done for me. Also, it was much more colorblind friendly then other escape rooms I have played. If you like escape room games, give Deckscape a look. If you do not, I don’t think it does anything different enough to change your mind.

Kelly Jean:

I was immediately intrigued by the storyline, it kept my attention throughout. Loved the plot twist!

Until next time…

Laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ @boardgamegumbo

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