August 31, 2014

Game Review: Level 7 [Escape]: Did We Escape the Maze?

Last night we gave Level 7 [Escape] by Privateer Press a go. Reviews of the game on seemed mediocre, but I liked the theme enough that I wanted to give the game a try. This year at Gen Con 2014, I broke down and purchased a copy.

As usual I won’t go into a rules summary here, but rather present my thoughts of game play, etc.

Style and Theme: Theme in Level 7 [Escape] was very good. The artwork is great, and very horror-oriented, as befits the theme. What great cover art! The aliens, guards, and rooms are all creepy.

Components: Overall, the components were good. The “board” tiles are made of a decent grade cardboard, and printed on both sides. The hybrid clone (alien) figures are physically larger, evoking their greater menace, which is a nice touch. The smaller chit and markers are well illustrated as well.

My only complaints are that 95% of the room tiles look extremely similar, all utilizing the same greyish-blue color palette, and a bit of color variation would have gone a long way toward making the game more visually interesting. Likewise, it wasn’t always easy to determine doors or vent openings at a glance and some distinct color there would have helped.

The character and enemy (clones, guards, and hybrids) figures are stand-up cardboard in plastic stands. Plastic figures would have been a cooler edition (especially because the character figures are easy to confuse with one another), but that’s a minor grumble.

Overall Play: I’ll say upfront that Level 7 [Escape] falls largely into the Dungeon board game “see what’s in the next random room and deal with it” style of play. As the characters explore the underground facility, the players place random tiles, some of which trigger various events or contain random equipment, etc. As I’ve grown older, I’ve distanced myself from these sort of games, because of the sheer randomness—as an old Dragon magazine review of the aforementioned Dungeon stated (paraphrasing), “… turn over a tile, maybe get a monster, maybe get a treasure, and maybe stop caring after a while.” The randomness doesn’t feel quite that bad, because the whole theme is about running around an unknown, underground labyrinth in search of an exit. Exploration and the threat of unknown danger around each corner fit the theme.

We enjoyed the game, but there were shortfalls. Opportunities to make the game better were missed. Although characters all start with two randomly drawn Skill cards, customizing them somewhat, the four starting characters are otherwise identical; some small variation would have been nice. (I suppose one could argue that the Skill card variance provides the same difference, but the Skill cards were very luck driven and often led to very one-sided “brainy” or “brawny” characters.)

We also ran into a lot of “We just drew that event!” type of card repetition—though I haven’t played enough to determine how many different events there are.

One area where more variance would have been appreciated was the clones (aliens) and guards—they’re all 3 strength and toughness 3; as far as I can tell, except for movement (clones can move through air shafts) aliens and guards are mechanically identical. There should be a discernible difference between them.

Last, but definitely not least, the rules are “fiddly” in places. The little rules, like gaining a threat when you attack a guard or increasing your fear when you enter an air shaft, all make sense, but remembering them is a chore for new players and some sort of summary card would have been appreciated. And as I expected, my players got confused with regard to the whole air shaft movement thing.

The rulebook, although very pictorial, can also be confusing. Finding the bit of info you’re searching for can be a chore, and there is no index. At one point, anther player (who happens to be an editor by trade) and I both searched in vain to discover exactly what condition triggers a trip to the infirmary. There was a nice sidebar about what happens when you go to the infirmary, but no sign of what sends you there! (We found our answer on a player-written rules summary at Boardgamegeek.) Likewise, determining a character’s starting fear level (3?) was something we had to guess at, because if it’s in the book we didn’t find it.

So what’s my final take? It’s a cool game. The theme is there in spades, and although very random and possibly confusing the first time through, the gameplay is decent. Things can be uneven—I escaped in Scenario One before I encountered a single enemy, which made that game rather anticlimactic for me. Some players may finish (escape) and have to wait o the sidelines for other players to finish. But I think we’d play again, if only to work through each scenario at least once. 

This is one of those games that could really benefit from a revised edition; replace the cardboard stand-ups with plastic figures, add more different colors to the tiles, add some new cards and missions, and (most importantly) revise the rulebook for clarity and we'd have a solid, thematic winner here.

Components: B+
Theme: A
Gameplay: C+
Overall: B– 
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