The Ariadne Punctuation

Before bed tonight, make sure to thank your benevolent overseers for the color-coordinated jumpsuits, puny humans.

If you were to tell me that you’d designed a cooperative stealth game about breaking out of some impenetrable locale, saturated with guards who moved according to programmed logic that I had to evaluate and preempt, and that much of the gameplay revolved around gradually uncovering the layout of the map and assembling codes to break through certain critical areas, my first reaction would be to ask why I’m not just playing more Burgle Bros. Because Burgle Bros. is a lot of fun and — bonus! — it already exists.

The Daedalus Sentence now also exists. And in some ways, that’s all I want to say about it.

This game would have been doubly cool if you had been actual criminals in an actual slammer rather than innocent people in a prison that's only unbeatable to dumb aliens.

The Daedalus Prison is sort of like a panopticon, but with idiot guards, no way of observing the prisoners, and… okay, it isn’t a panopticon.

The elephant in the room, and the circular growth lodged in The Daedalus Sentence’s pricey heart, is its ring-shaped prison. Series of rings, rather. It’s the reason behind the game’s awkward box and its slightly above-average heft. Your characters are abductees, you see, of aliens who for some reason have erected this impressive ode to the deities of detention rather than simply chucking you into a deep pit. Quick poll, which sounds more effective at keeping humans from escaping: a rotating clink with a million moving parts — including a bunch of machinery that humans possess the digits to operate — or a three-hundred-meter-deep cylinder surrounded by walls slick with vegetable shortening? Yeah, I chose the rotating space station too.

Sure, it’s a gimmick. But it’s a clever one. It informs everything you do, and leads to these pitch-perfect moments where surviving just one more turn feels like an actual feat of escapistry.

Here’s the idea. Your goal is to escape the outermost ring of this improbable place, but standing between your destination and the inner chambers that serve as holding cells are any number of guards, of both the dumb shambling and smart hunter varieties. There are gates that require codes before they’ll admit you to the next ring, spots for hiding or gathering information or crawling through the ventilation system—

And, best of all, the rings rotate at random, altering the layout of the station. One moment you’ll pop open a door to the next ring and you’ll be free and clear, only for the station to hiss counterclockwise and put a crowd of mewling mutants in your face. It’s rude like that.

For a mechanical device made of chewing gum and asbestos tiling, the good doctor really splurged on the graphics for the minotaur proximity indicator.

“Um, Doc? Aren’t minotaurs supposed to have— AUGH MY FACE”

Before we talk about anything else, I should mention how great it feels to rotate the rings. When you’ve successfully planned your moves correctly, watching as an unlocked gate lines up perfectly with a secure stretch of corridor provides a wonderful sense of relief. In that moment, the heavy plastic dish that serves as the game’s base goes from silly to necessary.

The reason the station’s movements never seem fickle is thanks to the Theseus board, which is the dorky name the story’s scientist came up with because he once took an undergraduate course in Greek mythology. He also babbles something about King Minos. Thankfully, he died off-screen before the game opens. At any rate, this board tracks a few things for you. The top row reveals how the station will rotate once your characters wrap up their turns, while the bottom row shows where the guards will patrol, and any monster cards will spawn fresh freaks to hunt you down. This might sound terribly unfair to some, though the real trick is that your characters will uncover locations that will let them manipulate these proceedings, nabbing that plan-wrecking wildcard or alien-birther for something more benign. The downside, naturally, is that every moment spent tinkering with the station’s programming is time not spent on the actual business of escaping.

It’s a simple and effective bit of manipulable foresight that grows more complex as you journey outwards and trigger more alarms. Early on, only a pair of cards will cause trouble, and much of the time they’re for a ring you can’t see yet, which effectively dismisses themselves from your concern. The catch is that each ring you open adds another pair of cards to the ones that will trigger that round, piling on extra rotations and guard movements as you progress outwards. In the early stages, it’s easy enough to stop most monsters from appearing; later on, you’d have to dedicate two full characters to nothing but wrestling with the station controls.

This has the positive effect of creating some truly interesting pacing, with early rounds tentative and constrained but not too rushed, through a mid-game act that’s all about trying to program the rings into a safer configuration, to a grand finale that sees you rushing to complete the final code and get the hell out of there. While the rules haven’t changed, the opening moments feel starkly different from the tasks you’re presented with near the end of the game, and for that reason alone The Daedalus Sentence is worth playing at least once.

At LAST, a game that doesn't presuppose that a HERO must be OLDISH, like TWENTY-PLUS YEARS OLD.

I adore how one of the characters is basically a ten-year-old girl.

Unfortunately, that once doesn’t necessarily translate to two or three plays, and certainly doesn’t lend itself well to many more beyond that. While the layout of the station changes between games, and while the rulebook urgently and repeatedly reminds you that there are a number of difficulty enhancers to employ, The Daedalus Sentence never ponies up enough variety to feel like a game that deserves this hefty of a price tag. It also doesn’t help that pinched characters are sent back to their cells until rescued, which simultaneously provides an interesting little quandary but locks someone out of the game for a while.

The final result is a game that’s at its best the first few times through, when the station is a mystery yet uncovered, your team’s understanding of how to turn the Theseus board to their advantage is budding, and anything could be lurking around that darkened corner. As is the case with all too many cooperative games, learning the Daedalus Sentence’s secrets means solving them, at least unless you want to make the game profoundly unfair with some of the difficulty enhancers. In the end, The Daedalus Sentence packs a whopper of a gimmick, some great pacing, and way too little for a price tag in the triple digits.

Posted on November 1, 2016, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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