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What Are We Playing? [Mar-May 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. Here's the second roundup of 2023!

The Keeper and the Fungus Among Us is an escape room style game with a live game master played over Zoom. It received a lot of praise when it first became available in 2021, and frankly, I can't believe it took me this long to finally play it. Set up in a fictional world of mushroom villains, lovingly crafted miniatures, and original music, this game was simply a delight. Everything felt like it was part of a unified aesthetic, and it was clear how much effort the creators put into getting the details right. The difficulty of the puzzles felt approachable for beginners, yet still appropriate and satisfying for a more experienced audience to solve (though I would recommend keeping the group size to 2-3 for experienced players). The game was full of adorable puppets, video game references, and funky musical numbers, which appeared in the form of video transitions so seamless that it felt like magic. The campy tone fell somewhere between Labyrinth and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (but family-friendly—in fact, this game would probably be a great choice if you're looking for something to play with the younger folk.) Hats off to Headlocked Escape Rooms for keeping us smiling the whole time.

Time: <90m

Difficulty: 1.5/5

The Initiative is a cooperative campaign-style game with an accompanying graphic narrative booklet. The main game consists of 14 missions, which start off with players reading a section in the booklet and then taking turns investigating, moving, and discovering pieces of information necessary to solve a code and complete the mission.

The Initiative did a great job of onboarding—the first mission served as a tutorial which allowed us to learn the rules, the second allowed us to begin developing a strategy, and the game continued to ramp up from there, throwing new characters and challenges our way. Because the distribution of information was random across the board, however, the loss condition felt punishing at times. If the information we needed just didn't happen to be in the place we were looking, and we took more time to get there, we would suddenly become at risk of losing the game if we drew a certain card, even if we were really close to finding the solution. This led us to make some (what felt like) wild guesses at times, but then again, that could also be by design? Thankfully, losing a mission isn't exactly the end of the world, either.

On the positive side, we often found ourselves cooperating to come up with unexpected ways to solve a mission, and encountered several exciting surprises throughout the campaign. Despite the gameplay mechanic remaining similar throughout, The Initiative managed to keep the solves fresh by putting twists on things you have already learned in previous missions. It also comes with a ton of bonus content—in fact, I think there is more bonus content than there is base game content, so if you find yourself really enjoying the mechanic, there is a lot of good value in this box.

Time: ~45m x 14 missions = over 10 hours of main gameplay, plus a ton of bonus content

Difficulty: 1.5/5

NORCO is a narrative-driven point-and-click detective-style adventure that takes place over a couple of different time periods in a run-down Luisiana town. I picked it up because it was described as having a similar vibe to Disco Elysium (a top 3 video game favorite for me), and while they are very different games in terms of scope, both share a similar, yet hard-to-describe atmosphere—poetic, bleak, and somewhat fantastical, while also fundamentally human, and at times even funny. Unlike Disco Elysium, which has a more expansive RPG-like structure and significantly more content, NORCO is very linear and much more succinct, but this is isn't a bad thing. Although there are only few times at which more than one option is available to the player, I never felt trapped or stuck—instead, I was propelled forward by the story, and my own curiosity. If you enjoy a strange, dreamy, and meaningful narrative with some humor thrown in, this could be a good one to try.

Time: ~6h

Difficulty: 1.5/5

Superliminal is a digital game full of wacky perspective puzzles, guided by a humorous test subject voice. The tone was reminiscent of Portal and The Stanley Parable, while the puzzle mechanics reminded me of Maquette and A Fisherman's Tale. The gameplay consisted of moving from space to space, solving puzzles that involved illusion and perspective. Despite how many games I was reminded of while playing it, Superliminal kept surprising me with its own unique approach and often demanded some creative thinking to reach a solution. Because of its linearity, however, this sometimes resulted in my needing to look up hints in order to be able to proceed (not to mention, I completely missed the environmental puzzles on my playthrough... which is partially due to the signposts being extremely subtle, but can be equally blamed on my poor observation...) Regardless, this is definitely a worthwhile pick if you enjoy spacial puzzles and stretching your brain for outside-the-box solutions.

Time: ~2.5h

Difficulty: 2.5/5

Image via Steam

The Case of the Golden Idol

The Case of the Golden Idol is a deduction mystery game played in a series of 10 chapters. Each chapter presents the player with a scene and invites them to figure out what happened as they flip between the "Thinking" and "Exploring" modes. This game reminds me somewhat of Return of the Obra Dinn (another top 3 favorite) but with a much more approachable difficulty level. After finishing the third chapter, what struck me is just how top notch the onramping was. The game taught us its mechanics, characters, and quirks while slowly increasing the complexity of each subsequent scenario until we suddenly found ourselves exploring an entire mansion with a full cast of personalities, items, motives, and secrets. The solves were always logical, and not superficially easy. Only in one chapter did we truly fumble (once again the culprit was our own lack of observation), but for the most part we found the answers elegantly unraveling as we pieced together bits of information. Receiving feedback that our hypotheses were correct felt victorious, and the game kept us excited from the first chapter to the very end. If you enjoy a funky deduction mystery, make sure to give this one a try.

Time: ~6h

Difficulty: 2/5

The first volume of Mother of Frankenstein was a strong start to what I hope will be an even stronger trilogy, and is especially suitable for lovers of games in which the puzzles live equal to the narrative. Volume 1 was split up into 3 sections (poetry, music, and astronomy), and the puzzles varied in both style and difficulty. The writing was plentiful without feeling tedious. All the solutions felt logical and well thought-out, though I was left wishing there was a little less margin for error left in some spaces. I appreciated that the 3 section envelopes offer you a glance at the solution before you use the answer to assemble elements that become crucial in the final step, though I did wish the hints were written with a higher level of granularity to confirm and explain each step of the puzzle as you move through it—there were times where I went wrong, and I wasn’t sure why or how I got the answer that I did. Nevertheless, the assemblies from the three sections ultimately culminated in a satisfying meta sequence that simultaneously felt like a good conclusion to a chapter and an enticing set up for Volume 2.

Time: ~3h

Difficulty: 2/5

What have you been playing lately?


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