There is a moment of suspense that you can find in just about any horror movie: Something horrible is steadily approaching, while the hero is struggling to find the right key to the door, and in the last moment the hero just manages to get inside and escape. I wanted Escape to include those moments of approaching horror where the hero just manages to get away in the last moment - or not. Thus the "run back to safe room" element was born.
I big inspiration when designing Escape came from the computer game Left4Dead. It does a great job at inducing a lot of these emotions. Another aspect of Left4Dead is that it is cooperative. In this online game players are on a team cooperating against hordes of attacking zombies. If you get knocked down by the zombies, you need help from another player to get back on your feet. When you are helplessly prone against the attacking hordes, it evokes a feeling of gratitude when another player risks their own life to come to your rescue. I thought it would be interesting to try to implement these situations in the analogue game. This would be the black masks, and the ability to help each other out when stuck.
So this is where it started. Kind of like an experiment to see what emotions I could fit in to an analogue game. It should be real time, it should have a sound track, and it should be cooperative. Now the players needed something to do. I believed that too much intellectual work for the players would interfere with the emotional aspect. Intellectual cortical brain activity inhibits the brain’s alarm central, the amygdalae, and steals focus from emotions. This is the scientific explanation of why you seldom hear people scream of fright as they solve a Sudoku.
This meant the tasks of the players had to be pretty basic. I first thought of the possibility of manipulating cards, since I generally consider cards to be more interesting than dice, but I very soon concluded that cards would be way too slow, and it would also require a lot of shuffling. So it had to be dice. And the system of the black dice becoming locked, requiring yellow dice to unlock was one of the first mechanics implemented. And very soon I had a working prototype where players stumbled around in a haunted house, trying to make it to the exit.
Actually, this first prototype was not that different from the final game. The theme was different (it was a haunted house), the rules for movement were different, and the game was also thought to be based on scenarios. The idea of scenarios was soon scrapped, because I wanted replayability. Also, I wanted the players to never know what rooms were ahead when they explored the haunted house. It was about at this time I included Emil Amundsen in the play testing. With him and my wife we play tested the game loads of times, experimenting with different rules for movement and exploring. Initially you could move several rooms in one go, and this would cost less symbols than moving through the rooms one tile at a time. This was of course thought to be an interesting mechanic, but after playtesting with a lot of more or less experienced players, we soon realised that the game did not need interesting mechanics for moving – it most of all needed to be intuitive. We also transferred this principle to the other mechanics in the game. We didn’t want players to be unsure about the rules midgame. All you wanted to do should be visible right in front of you. Picking up an item? The item tile should have two key symbols on it, which is the cost for picking it up. But even though the individual actions are simple, it can still be hard to decide which dice to keep and which to reroll, especially when you are planning ahead.
After some months of play testing, the theme of a haunted house began to feel a bit used up. For a couple of days the players were instead exploring a haunted forest, but it did not take long until the players were caught inside some Mayan ruins. I also wrote a little synopsis for a possible back story for the game (which you can read further down). At this time, the game was about trying to find the exit, which you could not use until you had completed all tasks on any task tiles that came up. A problem with this was that the players would have to learn the function of all task tiles beforehand – just in case that tile came up. Not a very good feature in a real time game. Hence the gems were introduced. The tasks were reduced to activating gems – and the exit could be used only when all gems had been activated. This made the game much easier to new players, and the pile of remaining gems also created a nice visual cue to how close you were to escaping. However, the strict requirement of activating all gems sometimes resulted in an anticlimax near the end: When the final countdown began, the players often knew they had lost if they had not already activated all gems. The solution of having the number of remaining gems deciding the difficulty of using the exit worked very well, and also created some additional dilemmas for the players: Should we head for the exit now, or should we first activate another gem to make the escape easier?
At Essen 2011 I showed the game to Queen. They quickly embraced the game, and I was very happy with just about every modification and adjustment suggested by editor Frank Thyben during the following months. I had also submitted my suggestion for expansion modules together with the prototype. For most games, expansions only change the game, without necessarily making it better. However, there are exceptions, like Dominion, where the variety itself is a very central part of the experience. Escape is also that type of game, where variety was meant to be a core part of the game all from the beginning. Players quickly get better at mastering the game’s techniques, and additional “modules” make the exploration of the Mayan temple so much more interesting. Two such modules were included in the base game, and I was very happy to hear that Queen also wanted to publish expansions for the game. More modules meant more variety. Finally I could include all the task tiles that had been in the prototype before the gems were introduced - those tiles which had had to be excluded from the base game because they could be a bit intimidating to new players. Specific examples of such tiles can be found in the first expansion set (Escape: Illusions). There you will find “the Chalice” and another favourite of mine: “the Linked Chambers”, and in the planned second expansion to the game you will find several more. So I hope you will get to see all the best ideas we had during play testing – all chambers and rules that kept the game enjoyable and interesting for us, even after what was probably hundreds of plays.
To sum this up, I am very happy with how Escape turned out, and with its final production. I see a lot of positive feedback and reviews from players, and all in all I believe that the little experiment was a success. To me, the proof lies in the countless grown up men I have seen screaming like little girls while they are frantically trying to roll that last key to the exit. Oh, and by the way: Below you'll find the short thematic synopsis I wrote for the game. It is very secret, and in no way an official story. If anyone quotes or links to it, I will deny everything. Also, any resemblance to characters featured in the game might be purely coincidental.
ESCAPE : The Turmoil Years
- a very unofficial back story
During the 1920s, an event known as the Great Turmoil turned the whole world upside down (literally). Strange phenomena started occurring. Over a few years the supernatural would become the natural. In the beginning, however, you had to be really alert to understand what was going on. The omens were overlooked by most, as the initial events were only small, almost negligible events of the supernatural: like the man who dreamt it was his birthday, and then woke up and realized that it actually was! Or the woman meeting an old acquaintance on the street, just to realize they both wore the same brand of jeans (it wasn’t the exact same model, but it was pretty close). Soon the supernatural was accelerating in both intensity and frequency, and it didn’t take long before the world was in need of a specialized team of explorers to explore these events all over the world. The E.S.C.A.P.E party (Explorers of Scientifically Contradictory And Paranormal Events) was formed the third of June in 1923, with the exact details being unknown. At the beginning this was only a loosely organized group of people, exploring everything even just slightly strange or uncommon (their first case was the man who discovered that the letters in his name could be rearranged into the name of his favourite cereal brand), but after a couple of years the team got more determined on looking into the grander scheme of things, with a main focus on investigating the causes and effects of the Great Turmoil.
Maria – As Maria was the only one on the team being born in the aries – the first sign of the zodiac – she was of course instantly appointed leader of the E.S.C.A.P.E. team. As of this, her identity is kept secret from the public. Her only known feature is that her favourite colour is purple.
Doc - Used to practice as a senior neurologist at Compton University Hospital. At the time of the great Turmoil several of his patients gained supernatural powers, he consequently lost faith in science and converted to homeopathy. He kept his nickname, though, because of the natural authority it provided.
Larda - Used to study gender stereotypes in popular culture at the University of Compton. When the Turmoil set in, she became an armed explorer of the paranormal and started wearing less clothes. She is also very fit.
Klaire - Former mechanic, with a great love for everything non-biologic. Until the Turmoil years, she had kept an ironic distance to astrology (which is very typical for people with cold, blue personalities). She had just read it every once in a while in the newspapers, just for the laugh and without really caring. It was first during the Turmoil that she realized the very real and profound impact astrology has on our everyday lives – on everything from change of traffic lights to whether a dropped sandwich lands with the buttered side up or not. Klaire is now an expert on astrology, and is feeling her life becoming warmer and more meaningful every day.
Ben - Former heavy weight wrestler. How he got his job in the E.S.C.A.P.E team is a mystery to most, but it is likely to have been through good personal connections. He now earns his living as a heavy weight paranormal explorer and by running a low-carb restaurant on the side.
Baltazar Drax – Used to be a plumber. During the early Turmoil years he tried to practice alternative plumbing for a while. This wasn’t very successful, so after a while he decided to start working as a dark priest instead. Also, he changed his name from Bob.