There’s a bubble brewing around board games. It’s got a singular soapiness, in that the collectibility isn’t quite the driving breath like it was when comics had their spectacular burst back in the 90s. It’s just a big shimmering bubble that can’t help but seem ever more delicate as it grows, filling up with stacks of cardboard, tokens, and cards. The difficulty now is keeping up, as hype rises and falls in time with the tide, and game-makers are pushing their new systems before the old ones had time to settle. They’ve found that hype for fresh product pushes units, building their PNLs around the short tail rather than the long. Eventually, consumers will have to make harder and harder choices, and more often than not, those choices leave the little guys in the dust.
Which is a shame, because it’s the Kickstarters and independent designers battening down the hatches of gameplay and aesthetics. Games created through chance meetings, development space workshops, and bedroom tinkering are making their way into the sun with much more ease than was really possible before. Not all of them are runaway successes (I still wish more folks had been able to appreciate Gunsword), nor does every title have to invent or reinvent an established genre. These finely tuned workhorse games, like the soon-to-be-released Escape from Dulce from Sentient Cow Games, are doing some of the heaviest lifting in the board game space. It’s an example of the cheeky, drilled down game system one should scoop up before a financial pop renders the “almost too expensive, crunchy game that isn’t quite a lifestyle commitment” area of these titles no longer viable in the long term.
Don’t take this as a whiff of faint praise, because Escape from Dulce is a romp with excellent posture in its systems. Giving it a demo whirl at PAX Unplugged, I found the GM-less and shuffle-based procedural generation to be just grindy enough without necessitating a computer or doing away with any and all interesting decisions to be made. The developer I played with described the format as a “mid-level” dungeon crawler covered in every shade of tabloid sci-fi, which is as honest an assessment as one could give. A group of players find themselves exiting cry-pod stasis into a strange basement, ranging from a samurai warrior, a body-switched teenage cyborg, a two-headed cow and many more, all of whom must band together to plow through foes like lizard men, robots, a man in black tracking them down as they wander, and bosses guarding the portal to the next stage.
The set dressing is a real gumbo, a cross-dimensional mad-scientist splicing X-Files, Weekly World News, and Mars Attacks tropes with silly and sassy narrative descriptions. This all underpins a well-stocked shift among increasingly deadly and shrinking battlefields, literally making your way up a silo of cardboard. You aren’t working on a grid or hex map, meticulously tracking ammo and minute attributes, though there are levels and items, shifting powers, tactics, and crafting. Various hues of dice represent different types of attacks, and while there’s some strategy to winding between rooms in order to tire out groups of enemies, for the most part each player is sussing out the ideal angle of attack and hoping the dice are kind.
As the first of a planned trilogy of games, Escape from Dulce steps out strong. It’s the kind of game that is easily missed, improving the dungeon-crawling wheel by degree rather than conjuring up a new one altogether, and perhaps most at risk of a board gaming collapse. It’s too much for a workplace game night but not enough to dedicate a years-long campaign to. I see Escape from Dulce shining most when settled into, the narrative threads between cards allowed to wind through a time or two for all the droll, pulpy mayhem. Thankfully the bubble has yet to get pricked, surging enough to hold onto meticulously assembled titles that would otherwise get priced or pushed out. Escape from this co-op prison crawler while you can, because these kinds of intricate and quality games might not be long for the aisle.