The Curious Case of Curio: The Lost Temple

I love a quality escape room tabletop experience. Unlock, Exit, Escape Room: The Game – bring ’em all on. The main conceit of all of these designs is that you can’t replay them. You finish a scenario, possibly shredding the components, and you toss it out in the garbage like a dream you’ve forgotten before the bacon’s done. Curio says not anymore. This sucker is replayable and requires no destruction.

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That concept is pretty gnarly, why wouldn’t I want an escape room game that was replayable?

Well, some concerns come to mind.

I first wondered how this design would incorporate a sense of story. It would necessarily need to randomize elements to allow for repeated play, so how’s it going to tie things neatly together with narrative beats? The answer is of course that it doesn’t.

Curio has this interesting introduction concerning the discovery of an ancient Mesopotamian temple, but it merely serves as art direction for components and is never interwoven with the mechanisms. Ultimately I can live with that subtitle serving as mere lip service if the game can deliver quality puzzles that are tense and engaging.

And sometimes it does.

Curio utilizes speed and multi-tasking as it splits players between giving clues and solving puzzles. Isolation is the main implementation as each participant takes their unique puzzle module and must perform their tasks behind a small shield. The problem is that the design sort of loses itself in order to adhere to the goal of replayability.

You see, Curio mostly feels as though you’re following directions. No matter the module, you must perform some very simple tasks such as rotating a wheel a few notches or locating icons in a grid. Then you follow more and more instructions as you uncover a secret word, a letter at a time.

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The challenge here is in performing these actions precisely and with care. The gun barrel being driven into your temple is the artificial timed scoring element, reminiscent of that found in the Exit series.

Tension is more concretely manifested in the single most wonderful element of the game – the sand timer. This little smug dunder is sitting in the middle of the table quickly simmering. Before the git runs out you need to have one player place a palm on the cardboard mat it’s sitting upon which allows yet another player to flip the thing.

Appropriately enough there’s a sense of unevenness in this implementation. Humorously, it doesn’t allow you to talk when your hand is on the button waiting for someone to 180 the hourglass. Yet if your hand is hovering above the spot or even at your side, you can coordinate and draw your ally’s attention all you want.

Even with that hack you will sometimes fail. These are some of my favorite moments in the experience as your disregard for the countdown results in total destruction. It’s a legitimate consequence that gives weight to the design, and something it desperately needs.

Let’s get back to the puzzles. You split your in-game time between reading clues from a randomized card to another player, and performing likewise when another reads your puzzle’s card to you. This is fine as a way to divide operations in the game and to force interaction – which is otherwise non-existant – but it manufactures an odd pacing where sometimes a player is sitting there with nothing to do. The lack of downtime and constant sleuthing is one of the hallmarks of the genre and Curio occasionally washes that completely out.

The act of solving a puzzle can be interesting. This is mostly ignited by the variable modules which you can swap between across multiple plays. Each has a bit of a learning curve and its own quirkiness to explore and process.

Unfortunately absent is the action of actually deducing the nature of the puzzle. Instead, each of these has instructions and the spotlight is upon following those scripted directions. This is, of course, a necessary shift in play as the puzzles need to be replayable. In this format the process cannot be obfuscated because it’s not randomized between sessions.

What is randomized are the input variables, for instance how far you shift the wheel or at which coordinate you look at this time. This transition from exciting discovery to careful activity diminishes those light bulb moments often seen in this style of design.

It tries desperately to find some personality or semblance of distinction. You can see this in the shapes module which has two of the participants cooperating to solve while a third reads their card barking orders. Again, this is especially entertaining in a four player game where that fourth wheel is on the outside looking in.

Even a module shared by two players isn’t nearly exciting enough as you both perform similar tasks and then combine your result sets in a specific order. It’s the slightest of twists, like a drop of lemon in a gallon of water.

And that leaves our relationship at a bit of an impasse. Curio, without a smidgen of doubt, does what it was born to do. The problem is that this goal creates boundaries that limit the game’s potential. It’s an amusing experiment but ultimately it’s a replayable escape room that once you get out you likely won’t go back; in accomplishing its task, it’s lost sight of the point.

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