Room-in-a-box, May 2021
Escape Tales don’t do things by halves. Children of Wyrmwoods, the third game in the series, doubles down on the style of the earlier games in pretty much every way – even more story! even longer game time! even more possible endings! For fans of the series, this should be excellent news. For those who found it a bit laborious to wade through all the story text and the many many cards, be warned that it also doubles down on complexity and on the amount there is to read.
As before, you have location cards, puzzle cards, a limited supply of action tokens to use to explore and discover them, and a booklet of story snippets to tie it all together that you navigate Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style, jumping from one numbered paragraph to another as directed.
The story this time is more of a fantasy theme, with your hero exiled from his small village and exploring mysterious forests full of ominous, semi-sentient plants. And making it feel even more like an RPG, you have character stats, which increase and decrease throughout the game as you find useful items and allies and suffer penalties. This is via ‘modifier’ cards, which stack with a main character card, such that you calculate your current stats values by looking at the base number and adjusting it as indicated on the modifiers. That might sound complex but I found it fairly straightforward in practice, and a big improvement on the previous games.
The other main process innovation is item cards. You can attempt to combine two cards by typing their numbers into the game website; if successful, you get a message telling you which piece of story text to read next. This extends the type of puzzles the game can include, although most of the item combination puzzles are straightforward and far simpler than the game’s main puzzles.
As before the website used for entry confirmation is simple to use, with graded hints and the extremely useful option to check how many cards you’re expected to need to solve the current puzzle.
With Wyrmwoods, as with the earlier games, I found the puzzles curiously incidental to the story. How well you do at solving the many puzzles matters far less to the story outcome than your luck in picking the right locations to investigate. That’s a little less true of Wyrmwoods than its predecessors, in that the character modifier system gives you more explicit rewards for solving puzzles, in a way that has a major effect on how ‘good’ your story conclusion is. Even so, it’s less about how good your puzzle solving skills are and much more to do with whether you happen to explore the locations needed to give you all the clue cards for a given puzzle – if you don’t have all the clues needed, you’re not going to be able to solve it. I’m in two minds here, because I like the fact that there’s no time pressure on the puzzles and no penalties for taking hints; at the same time, it feels like odd that the puzzle solving isn’t more closely tied to how the story goes.
The game has a prologue, two large chapters, and a final epilogue. I very much liked the prologue and first chapter, which had a clear progression through a sequence of relatively short scenes. I got on less well with chapter 2, which unleashed a dizzying sprawl of cards at the same time, and left me feeling like I was casting around hoping to assemble all the cards needed to do a puzzle, like a glorified game of Go Fish. That might also have contributed to finding myself less invested in the narrative; I was more curious to see what the possible options were than caught up in the story. Wyrmwood makes it easy to satisfy that curiosity though, far more than in the previous games: once you’ve completed the game, it lets you go through and explore all the alternative endings without having to laboriously retrace your path through cards and story text.
The actual puzzles were, broadly, fine. There was a bit of a sense of quantity over quality, and while most were well designed, few were strikingly memorable. A handful suffered from needing a bit of mind-reading to work out how you’re intended to approach them, or how you’re intended to enter the answer. Our bigger complaint was that several are puzzles that would work really well in physical form, with components that could be moved around. Since the components are instead just illustrations on small cards, they can only be rearranged mentally, or by scribbling down schematic versions on paper, or by taking photos and using graphics software. Those approaches work, and in fact add to the challenge, but they also make those puzzles harder work, less fun, and less well suited to collaborative play.
If you prefer puzzles that make you work for the solution, that might be a positive not a negative. Although Wyrmwood is perhaps the most intense of the three games so far, it’s also not a bad starting point for those who are new to the series. It’s certainly dark in tone but not as relentlessly grim as The Awakening, and there’s more of a sense of control over the outcome than in either of the others. It certainly meets the ‘story driven escape game’ tag line, provides a huge amount of content for its price tag, and is entirely non-destructible. With the amount of process and text involved, it’s definitely not a game to binge your way through except perhaps for the most hard-core, and I’d strongly recommend splitting it into at least two sessions if not more; plus maybe a follow-up session to try the paths and puzzles you didn’t encounter the first time through.