I’ve never been secretive about my general distaste for cooperative games. I might say it’s the way they often devolve into tedious group discussions about movement optimization, but the real reason is that my lack of self-esteem means I need somebody to grind to paste in order to feel good about myself. It’s a disorder.
But hey! For whatever reason, Kevin Wilson’s Escape from 100 Million B.C. is an exception. A grand, silly, can’t-wait-to-play-again exception.
On its face, there isn’t all that much to Escape from 100 Million B.C. Stranded in the past with a cantankerous time machine in dire need of hasty repair, your crew of relatively ordinary people — I’d say they’re misfits, but paleontologists, research assistants, investors, and reporters seem like sensible enough people to bring along on a time voyage — must search a valley out of time, dodge the creatures that dwell therein, and hopefully not step on the specific bug that will result in the future being dominated by snakes. Nothing but snakes.
So it’s a bit of a comical game, that much is clear. One of its greatest joys is meeting the people who constantly spill out of the time portals bubbling up across the landscape. One moment you’ll be chilling with Socrates, his silver tongue guaranteed to out-argue anybody you meet and thus persuade them to join your gang, the next you’ll chuckle when you realize that Amelia Earhart won’t damage the timeline if she isn’t returned to her present. Sayonara, Lady Lindy. And perhaps the biggest laugh we’ve had at our game table in months was watching in horror as Casey, Innocent Stable Boy, was torn to shreds by a pack of pteranodons, and his horse Remo too. Oh well. The impact on the timeline was negligible.
In fact, while your primary mission is to hunt down a bunch of missing time machine parts, in practice that task is often met with a loud yawn compared to the business of preserving the timeline. The aforementioned time castaways are the flashiest aspect of this, but they’re hardly the only one. For instance, while wandering around, you might stumble across discarded equipment crates that were torn free of your ship. In most games these would be nifty little perks, the +1s and extra moves and “heal a pip of whatever” that would assist your mission. In Escape from 100 Million B.C., they fill this function and then some, also serving as objects that might change the course of evolution itself. There’s even a peculiarly geeky logic to how they’re arranged: while something relatively inert like a case of ammunition or running shoes won’t prevent Archaic Man from learning to poop some distance away from the campfire, beware the fool who leaves a nano-factory or tasty snack cakes in the recesses of the past.
Even facing predators raises the possibility of royally screwing the future. Whenever a creature crashes out of the brush — or just barrels through the trees, since things were bigger back then — you’re usually faced with three options: fight, flee, or frighten. The first is often the easiest, leaving the creature dead and done for, while running or making a racket might permit your new dino pal to return later on, even possibly prowling across the map and consuming any innocent stable boys. But it’s also the most dangerous option in the long run, permanently nudging you closer to a full-blown time-disaster. For all you know, that oviraptor was going to eat Archaic Hitler or something. Say goodbye to human progress.
Of course, Escape from 100 Million B.C. wouldn’t be worth much if it didn’t make that decision a weighted one. In this regard, it’s a chipper success. While you might be able to frighten off an animal into retreating — usually by shooting it in its non-vital bits, according to the rulebook — sometimes you just can’t afford to live and let live. You might be low on “will,” the magic resource that can be restored by taking a nap in the time machine or huffing hallucinogenic flowers. Or perhaps you aren’t carrying a weapon that lets you perform such acts of firearms acrobatics in the first place. Or maybe you just happen to be very, very good at running very, very fast.
That this game has decisions at all is something of a miracle, considering the way so much of it plays out. Most of each player’s turn is about moving, flipping a random tile, and suffering the fate of whatever card that tile asks you to draw. It’s the sort of game that boasts a long row of decks.
Oh, and dice. So many dice. Fistfuls of the things.
More than that, these here are exploding dice, as all dice should be. In any of the game’s many skill checks, each of which is a brief duel between man and mammoth/dinosaur/killer turtle, a roll of 6 will result in both a success and another chuck, so expect lots and lots of beautiful rerolls. Standees will be knocked over, tiles will be unsettled, and that guy will become unreasonably upset. Count on it.
Naturally, there will be plenty of players who won’t see the joy in this. There are decisions to be made, though they’re of the odds-tweaking sort. When to spend ammo, when to head back to the time machine, when to flee. That sort of thing. The rest of the game is entirely at the whims of flipped tile and rolled bones. Even the miniature ecosystem that eventually takes shape, dinosaurs and time castaways both following their own automated movements that alternately clear the path or put you in harm’s way, are as random as they come.
But to focus on your lack of player agency is to do Escape from 100 Million B.C. a great disservice. Unlike far too many games, this isn’t really about optimization, at least not in any major way. Nor is it, when you get right down to it, about the decisions you make.
It’s about going on an adventure.
It’s about getting chomped by a shark in shallow water because you decided to push closer to that last time machine doodad. It’s about killing Ole One-Eye over and over again, spending every last bullet until your only remaining recourse is your own two feet. It’s about deploying a sentry bot to watch your six, only for it to crumble at the first whiff of a pack of deinonychuses. It’s about meeting Teddy Roosevelt and letting him murder all the dinosaurs and grinning like a fool because the timeline doesn’t even flinch, because guess what, he was going to do it anyway.
Escape from 100 Million B.C. is a success of cooperative gaming. And let it be written here first, it’s successful precisely because it’s about failing and succeeding and tripping over your own feet, and it doesn’t take any outcome all that seriously. Any game that makes you read an epilogue in which your successful return to the present is reminiscent of a bad episode of Sliders is a triumph in my estimation.