Escape: The Curse of the Temple is a cooperative game of frantic dice-rolling as players work together in an attempt to explore and escape the temple before it collapses, trapping them inside. The game is played in real-time with a 10-minute soundtrack, and players will all be moving simultaneously to try and overcome the time constraints.
At the beginning of the game, each player takes five dice and places their adventurer token in the center room. Two random room tiles are drawn and placed on either side of the center room, and a certain number of gems (according to the difficulty) are placed on the small side board. The soundtrack is then started, and once the creepy voice in the recording says “Escape…”, the game begins.
Players do not take turns in Escape but rather roll their dice simultaneously, trying to get results that they can use to their benefit. They can continually re-roll dice as much as they want, with one exception: any black mask results are locked and cannot be re-rolled. However, rolling a golden mask allows the player (or another player in their room) to re-roll two black masks.
The primary goal of the players is to move around the temple, revealing more of the map in an effort to find the exit. There is a catch though: players can only escape the temple by rolling key results equal to the number of gems on the side board, plus one, while standing on the exit. With the large number of gems that start on the board at the beginning of the game, this task would be impossible! This means that the players must not only find the exit, but they must also find ways to reduce the number of gems.
To move their adventurer to an adjacent room, a player must roll and use two dice results that match the room to which they want to move. To reveal a new tile, they must spend two adventurer results when next to a door leading to an empty space. Players will quickly discover rooms containing ways to remove gems from the side board. These consist of some target result that must be rolled, such as four torches. If players in that room can cumulatively roll and use results that match the goal, they can move a matching number of gems from the side board to that tile. Some of these tiles even have different levels of opportunity, placing one gem for a small amount of matching dice, but up to three gems if players can spend upwards of ten matching dice.
In addition to the tension of trying to remove gems and find the exit before the ten minutes expire, there are also three times when a gong sounds, and the pace of the music quickens. The first two times this happens, players must return to the central starting tile as quickly as possible, and only have 30 seconds before a slamming door sounds. Any player who does not make it back to the starting tile in time must permanently lose one of their dice. When the gong sounds the third time, every player must successfully escape the temple by rolling keys on the exit tile, or all players lose.
The base game also comes with a mini expansion which adds both curses and treasures. The curse module exchanges many of the room tiles for versions that have a large mask. Whenever a player is exploring a new space and reveals one of these masks, they must draw a random curse tile from the stack which burdens them with some negative effect. These range from not being able to leave the room to making their golden masks less efficient to forcing them to hold their arm on their head while they play. Only by rolling and spending dice that match the three icons on the curse are players able to remove the negative effect.
The treasure module adds rooms where a random treasure tile is placed. Any player can roll two keys while in the room to flip and take the treasure tile, which will have a positive effect. These range from free die results to removing a gem from the side board to a secret passage that can turn a wall into a door.
Should players get really stuck due to rolling too many black masks, they have the option to add a gem to the side board to allow every player to re-roll their black masks. This can only be done twice, and at the discretion of the team, as adding gems will only make it more difficult to escape the temple in the end.
What Is It Like to Play?
Playing a real-time game that is over in just 10 minutes is a very different experience than most other board games. While there are not really any deep strategic decisions found in Escape, the game system asks you to make tons of simple decisions really quickly, without any time to pause or exhale. The result is a tension that is not only fun, but is shared around the table as the team attempts to cooperate.
The game alternates between quickly determining a new near-term goal, and then rapidly rolling and re-rolling your dice to gain the results necessary to accomplish that goal. As you roll, you may see opportunities to change your plans on the fly. You may have wanted two torches to move into an adjacent room, but since you happened to roll adventurer results, maybe you should go ahead and explore an empty space instead. Or maybe your results don’t open new opportunities, but rather lock your options as unwanted black masks appear. The whole game requires you to quickly evaluate your die results and make decisions about how to best utilize and re-roll them, all while yelling out your intentions or problems to your teammates.
It is also common for players to split into smaller sub-groups, which creates an interesting dynamic where it is almost like multiple different cooperative games are being played simultaneously. Two players might be discussing how they want to work together to roll keys to place a gem, while the other two players are across the map frantically trying to unlock one of the player’s black masks before they will need to run back to the center room. The whole team may be discussing tactics at the same time, but throughout the game the discussion will shift from being one large discussion to a number of smaller discussions from subsets of the team that are pursuing different tasks.
When played on a difficulty that matches the skill level of the players, the final minutes ramp up to a climax where players are frantically trying to make the final moves to exit the temple, and it is not uncommon for players to rise to their feet as they make it out one by one. When the game ends, the players can finally let out a deep breath and begin reflecting on the details of the session; on what led them either to success or failure. Examples of end game dialogue might include, “That was huge that we were able to work together and get the third level of gems in those two rooms at the end” or “Daniel, why on earth did you run off by yourself? It took me forever for me to come back for you and unlock your dice!” or “I didn’t realize the gong was coming up; I shouldn’t have explored so far away!” Almost every game of Escape I have played has ended in a lively discussion as the players’ brains catch up on the reflection that they didn’t have time to engage in while they were on the clock.
The fast-paced nature of Escape helps it to retain decent replay value without having a lot of strategic depth to explore. However, in my experience, it is really the expansion modules that push the replay value into the area of excellence. The curse and treasure module that comes with the base game is mandatory in my opinion, and once the Illusions and Quest expansions are included, you really have a game that continues to stay fresh long-term. It certainly helps that the game is so short; it is hard for a 10-minute game to outstay its welcome.
I mentioned how it is common for the group to split into smaller groups when exploring the temple, and I find that the game is most fun when this is possible. For that reason, I think the game is best in the 4-5 (6 with Illusions) player range. 2-3 players may be fine, but you are kind of forced to all stick together because one player wandering by themselves is just asking for trouble without anyone to help them unlock their dice. If I had to pick an ideal player count, I feel like my best games of Escape have most often been with 4 players.
Escape: The Curse of the Temple was kind of on the front-end of a whole wave of real-time games that have become popular in modern board gaming. One of the most popular new twists on this formula is Magic Maze, which relies on a clever mechanic of having each player control a specific function for all characters (such as moving right) as opposed to controlling one character. Captain Sonar is another popular real-time game that splits the cooperation into two opposing teams. Project: ELITE pits players against an alien attack and has received high praise from several popular reviewers (including its ascension to Tom Vasel’s #1 game of all time in 2018). For a group that enjoys the real-time cooperative formula but wants something with a little more meat, Space Cadets may fit the bill.
Once you have several of the optional modules and expansions mixed in, setup can take a little longer as you sort through which pieces are needed and which should be left in the box. You also will need to pick a difficulty, which in my experience is usually a process of trying to remember what number of gems has been a good challenge in the past, and adjusting that based on the modules and players included in that game.
However, since the game itself is so short, it is very common to play multiple games in a row. Since everything is already set up, it is pretty easy to reset and give it another go, adjusting the difficulty as necessary.
Similar to many games that have lots of expansion modules, the challenge in teaching Escape lies in the fact that the game is more fun with more modules, but it also makes it more difficult for new players to learn. I usually will include the curses and treasures module that comes with the base game with new players, as I think it really amps up the flavor of the game enough to offset the extra rules. I try not to explain every tile, but rather tell them to ask me on the fly if they find something they don’t understand. With such a short game, it is actually a viable teaching strategy to jump into a first game with some players a little underprepared, stumble through it, and then play the game again now that they have a better idea of what is going on.
Things to Like
It is not much of a time commitment to play a game of Escape, and you can pretty much count on it delivering the kind of experience that you are looking for. The entirety of the 10 minutes is spent rolling dice as quickly as you can while making decisions about which results to keep and how to strategically navigate the temple map. The whole experience has such a raw fun factor, and while it isn’t the kind of deep strategic experience that I am often interested in, I always seem to come away from the game with a smile on my face.
Since the map tiles are drawn from a randomized stack whenever a player explores, the temple will develop differently each time you play. This helps keep the team on their toes and is also visually interesting as you see the temple expand across the table. This positive gets amplified even more as you add in expansion content that increases the options and variability, which I will touch on later.
Cooperative games are the most fun when it comes down to a close finish, and Escape makes it really easy to tune the difficulty to find that perfect balance for your group. All you have to do is add or remove gems from the the starting pile, giving you a lot of granular control over dialing in the difficulty. This allows me to ramp up the challenge with experienced gamers, but tone it down when introducing new players.
The base game of Escape comes with the curses and treasures module, which is really necessary to keep the game from getting stale after a few plays. However, I think anyone who really enjoys the game should look into some of the expansion content. So much of the fun in Escape is the team needing to react and improvise in real-time, and that fun is multiplied when there are more options for how the temple could develop and which elements are in play. I’ll touch on the expansions in more detail below, and I realize that not everyone likes the idea of feeling like expansions are necessary to fully enjoy a game, but I personally count it as a positive when a game has the opportunity to be extended for experienced players that are looking for more.
Things to Dislike
I’ll go ahead and flip my last positive point into a negative… While I love when games have great expansions, I have to admit that my enjoyment of Escape would not have been nearly as high if I hadn’t picked up the expansions early on. It is harder for me to give a full endorsement of the game with the contingency of never buying expansions, and that really means that the game experience I recommend comes with a higher price tag. I think there is a lot of fun to be had with the base game, but I feel the expansions are almost required for it to become a long-time staple in a collection.
As mentioned earlier, Escape is more fun the more modules you use, but more modules means a more complicated teaching experience. It doesn’t help that the effects of the curses and treasures are only defined by an image (which doesn’t always double as functional iconography), and the last thing I want to do with new players is ask them to memorize a list of image-effect pairs before we play a simple 10-minute game. It doesn’t end up being a huge deal since you can just answer questions on the fly, but it does make it a little harder to get new players up to speed.
I highly recommend downloading the Escape soundtrack to your smartphone so that you always have it available regardless of internet connectivity or access to a CD player. But even with the soundtrack reliably accessible, it is a game that may not hit the table simply because a real-time audio soundtrack isn’t a good fit for the setting for any number of reasons. Really a small nitpick here, but I have seen it passed over many times just because we needed a game that was a little quieter, or needed to be more flexible about the game being interrupted.
I have emphasized the strength of the expansions for Escape, and that is primarily in reference to the first two: Illusions and Quest.
Expansion 1: Illusions
If you enjoy the base game of Escape, I see no reason to hesitate in picking up the Illusions expansion. It adds a few new types of tiles to freshen up your procedurally generated temples, including illusion tiles that disappear after each gong, double rooms that needs to be accessed from the opposite side, and tiles with low-cost requirements for placing gems that require players to activate multiple matching tiles simultaneously. These are all great and allow your games to develop in more interesting ways each time you play. Additionally, it introduces the Holy Grail tile that requires you to drag out the chalice if it is found, or otherwise you lose. This is a cool new mechanic, but is really just a teaser of what is to come in the Quest expansion. You also get a new color to bump the maximum player count to six, which I can confirm is a crazy fun and hectic experience. The new treasure and curse tiles are a nice addition, though they are one more text-less illustration for new players to forget.
Expansion 2: Quest
For me, the Quest expansion is what really turned Escape from a fun experience into an evergreen game in my collection that I have played 75 times. The main attraction here is five new quest tiles, that join the Holy Grail tile for a total of six. Each game, you shuffle in a few of these randomly, depending on your desired difficulty (we usually play with two). Now, besides needing every player to escape the temple successfully, the team also needs to find and complete all of the quest tiles that are in the game. Each of these have unique mechanisms:
- Holy Grail – You must drag the chalice out of the temple.
- Task Chamber – Players must roll results for every tile in a randomized stack.
- Altar Chamber – Players must collectively sacrifice two dice, leaving them locked in the room.
- Ghost Chamber – A ghost appears on the starting tile and must be chased back to the Ghost Chamber.
- Tree of Life – Players must spend gold mask results equal to twice the number of players.
- Obelisk Chamber – For each side of the tile that doesn’t have an adjacent tile, a gem is added, making it harder for players to escape. These gems can only be removed by exploring and placing tiles adjacent to the Obelisk Chamber.
These tiles are awesome, because they really give every game a unique flavor. Since I am usually only using two per game, the combinations are always different and come up at different points in the game. Add in all of the new tile types found in Illusions, and you really have an experience that can stay fresh through many repeated plays.
Additionally, the Quest expansion adds character abilities that give each player their own power that they can apply during the game. These are fun to add in with an experienced group that is familiar enough with the rest of the game, as it adds another piece of variable setup to make each game feel different.
The Quest expansion may feel like a steep price point for what is just a few tiles, but functionally it boosts the experience of Escape in a way that I believe is totally worth it.
Escape is a game that has received the full expansion treatment, and you can go down a rabbit hole of all the additional add-ons and promos that you can find for the game. If you love the game, I think Illusions and Quest are all you need to really have an experience that will keep you happy for a long time. However, adding in just one or two new tiles can make your temples that much more interesting and varied, so if you are really a nut for the game, it’s nice to have those options out there.
Game Design Perspective
Escape was on the front-end of a wave of games that embraced real-time play that focused on players rapidly performing actions simultaneously. I appreciate that it breaks the mold of what we have been trained to think of as a “board game,” and reminds us that anything that players can do around the table that results in a fun experience is fair game.
I am also a fan of game systems that lend themselves to easy expansion, and I think the core temple exploration mechanic in Escape is one that serves the experience effectively, and gave the designers some interesting knobs to play with in the expansion content. The core experience really feels like more of a novelty that should get old quickly, but the design laid down a runway for new content that allows experienced gamers to scale the complexity and variability to their desired level.
I think the design also does a good job of building the sense of team through some cooperative-focused mechanics. The first is the ability to share gold masks, and it works brilliantly as multiple times each game, it is common to hear a player yell, “help, I am completely stuck!” and have their teammate reply, “don’t worry, I’ll stop what I am doing and come back for you!” It encourages the team to work in groups, and that maintains the cooperation and team dialogue throughout the game. Another mechanism that encourages cooperation is the tiles that have three levels of gems. One player may be able to place one gem on the tile by themselves, but usually the team will want to come together and all contribute to hit one of the higher levels. Little design decisions, but they directly influence how the players really feel like part of a team all the way through the end.
Escape: The Curse of the Temple is a frantic cooperative experience that densely packs fun moments and quick decisions into a ten-minute window. For players that enjoy that pure fun factor paired with tense time pressure, expansions provide a path towards a richer experience that has the longevity to hold down the “quick real-time” niche in a collection for a long time.
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