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What Are We Playing? [Jan-Feb 2023]

Periodically on this blog I highlight a handful of tabletop and digital games to spread the word about interesting experiences and support other creators, and we're entering the new year with a bang! Here's the first roundup of 2023.

Ruff Bluff is a punny dog-themed puzzle game with the ultimate mystery: Who stole the ruby bone? The game is divided into 4 chapters, an element that we had mixed feelings about. Although the chapters are divided intuitively in terms of the gameplay mechanic and story flow, they felt relatively uneven in terms of the actual investigation effort and gameplay time, and we would have appreciated a better breakup of the longest chapter. There was also a web app with a login to submit answers, but it only kept track of full chapter completions rather than individual answers—luckily, we kept track of all our answers throughout the game and recommended other players do the same, as the narrative builds well on itself throughout the chapters. We were impressed by the way objects were used in multiple ways, and the stories of the different characters evolved over our investigation (because of this, we also recommend trying to play the chapters in close succession.) Our favorite part of the game, unsurprisingly, was Trapped’s signature humor—even the filler content amusing to read and the wit made what could have been a simple mystery a much more whimsical journey.

Time: ~6 hours

Difficulty: 2.5/5

The Final Act is billed as an epilogue to the main story of On Circus Grounds, but in truth, it was its own short but complete game. Like its predecessor, The Final Act was a narrative-driven experience with well-designed authentic-feeling materials. It opened with excellent onboarding, which conveniently included an inventory list, and continued towards some enjoyable and well-signposted investigating, which shouldn’t be too much of a challenge for seasoned players but made for a satisfying solo playthrough. There was one puzzle sequence which, despite being solved correctly, didn’t seem to have the desired effect, making the solution difficult to parse, but thankfully this could be bypassed by the comprehensive hint system. All-in-all, a short and sweet mystery to cure your puzzle fix, especially for those who enjoyed On Circus Grounds.

Time: ~1 hour

Difficulty: 1.5/5

Envelescape’s Thornbright Manor: Chapter 1 was a bite-sized mystery that could use a little more refining but felt like an interesting start for the series. Logistically, having to keep the pop card fully open got a bit challenging, but this was easily fixed with a piece of masking tape. The overall puzzle solving was enjoyable, but better onboarding would have gone a long way in improving the flow, in particular having a more concrete starting point and some clarity as to the answer output. Nevertheless, the format is a fun experiment with what you can fit into a tiny envelope and we’re looking forward to seeing what comes next.

Time: <45m

Difficulty: 1.5/5

Hallows Hill is a spooky (not scary) cinematic point-and-click style game that is played in a browser and involves exploring a creepy manor (of course!) Although we struggled on the logic of one puzzle, the overall gameplay was relatively smooth. We sometimes wished it allowed us to do more than one thing at a time but did appreciate how the linearity and limited number of interactable objects kept things on track. We could have done without the timer, leaderboard, and hint penalties though—they didn’t feel particularly necessary to the game and took away from the immersion a little. On the flip side, however, the music and audio effects were great for setting the atmosphere, and the video transitions were effectively executed.

Time: ~1.5 hours

Difficulty: 2.5/5

The Glasshouse Ghost is a lightly spooky browser game inspired by the Winchester Mystery House. The interface was smooth, directing us toward what we needed and eliminating items when we were finished with them. It was a linear game with clear signposting, logical solves, and a correspondent that acted as a character in our adventure—they had their own voice, which was a nice touch and added to the immersion. The narrative framed the gameplay nicely, providing context and motivation, although we wished the house was further utilized and we could have explored more spaces within. We also really appreciated the way sound was used to direct us (though it’s worth noting this may be an issue if you’re hearing impaired.) This would make a nice bite-sized game for solo or duo play—we did wish it was a bit longer, but I suppose that is just a compliment to the chefs.

Time: ~45 minutes

Difficulty: 1.5/5

Alice is Missing is a really interesting experiment. It felt exactly like Life is Strange meets tabletop RPG. I wasn’t actually sure if I would include it in this blog post, but given I was still thinking about it days later, I decided this game was at least memorable enough to want to share with others.

As far as RPGs and storytelling games go, the mechanics are fairly simple, but require a lot of setup. Although the actual play time was only 90 minutes, the game started about 2 hours earlier when we created the world we were about to enter. Every member of our group built out their characters, including relationships, motives, and secrets. For someone who has trouble with improvised storytelling, the balance between prompt cards and composing felt balanced—it was enough to get you to think about something that has potential for more depth and development, but your answer could also be straightforward and simple. This flexibility was important because simplicity can be stretched in other ways. As a group we also had to grant significance to locations and other characters in the world, inventing scenarios, theories, and cooperating together to build a story that made sense. When this stage felt complete, we entered the game world, which was approached with complete silence from the players (relieved by a dedicated soundtrack) and progressed using only a group chat on our phones and cards that would have to be revealed at various intervals throughout the 90 minutes.

Our task was to find out what happened to Alice. It was an emotional experience, but your mileage will vary greatly depending on the group. Unfortunately, the ending felt like the weakest part—abrupt and unfinished. I had trouble truly believing that the culprit would have enough motive to commit the crime. Another aspect of the ending, however, was hauntingly beautiful (and I won’t spoil anything by saying more.) Our group needed a long debrief to piece together what actually happened in the end—we didn’t even know which parts were prompted and which were completely invented of our own volition, which is ultimately a testament to the design of the game. The system is also brilliantly simple in some ways—you could get creative and build entirely home-brewed scenarios using similar elements to make a very accessible one-off TTRPG. If you like intimate, emotional storytelling, find some like-minded friends and play through this indie gem.

Tips for playing:

  • Have the right group (and I cannot stress this enough.) Choose people that you can trust and be vulnerable with, and make sure everyone in the group is willing to engage actively with the story—it is a very collaborative experience.

  • Use the Search cards sparingly. A couple can make things exciting, too many will muddy up the story.

  • Budget enough time for world building, the game itself, and a debrief.

  • Have plenty of snacks and drinks around for your evening!

What have you been playing lately? Tell us in the comments!


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