‘Escape-room-in-a-box’ is fast-becoming a commonplace phrase among the world of tabletop gaming. We’ve witnessed huge success in this market with the likes of the EXIT series (Kosmos) and Unlock (Space Cowboys). But what if there was a larger escape room game on offer, of grandiose proportions? A deluxe package?
Enter The Emerald Flame, by PostCurious. One look at this box and it already suggests a substantial, epic, elegant experience. But can it deliver? Is it style over substance? Can it tick all the boxes needed to scratch that riddle-solving itch?
An Escape Room Without A Ticking Timer
The Emerald Flame is not a strict escape room, per se. There is no time limit put upon you. No feeling of panic and urgency as the clock ticks down. It involves riddles to complete a narrative plot arc, so it sits within the same genre. You can only play The Emerald Flame once – there is no replayability function here. (There is a ‘refill kit’ contained within, that resets it, to pass on to someone else to try.) I will attempt to keep this review spoiler-free, for obvious reasons!
There is three installments to play through, with each one in a sealed envelope. Like any kind of cooperative tabletop puzzle, in theory there is no player size limit. However, from personal experience, I find there is such a thing as ‘too many cooks’ when it comes to escape rooms and riddle-solving! You don’t want the player quota to be too high, or else you’ll only get in each other’s way. The box suggests 1-4 players; you want each player to have enough time in the spotlight. I’d recommend this for 2-3 players. Solo is doable, but with the difficulty of some puzzles, a second pair of eyes could prove vital.
A Battle Against Your Own Ego
You’re looking to solve four riddles within this first envelope, three of which are ingredients needed to create the elixir. The fourth puzzle involves trying to deduce a particular location within Prague. There is no timer, and you are free to take your time with these riddles. The only thing you’re battling against is your own ego. How smart do you really think you are?
There is one double-page spread leaflet that includes a breakdown of what to expect. It's a list of contents/components, and a gameplay guide. There's also two QR codes included – one that links to hints online; the other to PDF files of the physical ones included in the game. (This means that you could print out duplicates of the important pages, should you destroy them during the initial gameplay! Or you could have a second copy of the same riddle at the table. This way not everyone has to hunch around the same sheet, for example.)
When playing games like this, you don’t want to spend too much time liaising with this kind of rulebook. Why? Because it takes you out of the immersion of the narrative experience. It’s great that it’s a succinct spread then, and not too distracting from the main event, itself. You’ll want it close by for a link to those hints…
A Labour Of Love In Every Pen Stroke
Inside the first envelope, there’s a notable amount of goodies! The envelope itself is A4 in size, and of a sturdy cardstock – as in, it’s not paper. It’s ‘franked’ with Czech stamps, and dated Jan 14, 2020. (The second envelope's date is Feb 15, and so on.) Touches like this further strengthen the vibe as you open it. Within is a booklet, a letter (from the Koschei Society), sheets of parchment, and props. (Again, I will remain hushed about the specifics!) The pocket-sized booklet, filled with sketches of plants, at a first glance means nothing to you. There’s no obvious pointers in it. No neon flashing light on page one that suggests, “This is how to solve this!” You have to figure out how to use it via plenty of outside-of-the-box thinking.
You’re supposed to read the letter first, which is on plain white paper – and decent paper stock, too. The ‘parchments’, as well as having a ye-olde look, also have a pleasant texture to them. They’re not smooth like a standard piece of paper you’d slip into a printer drawer. Some of them have ‘hand-written’ notes on them in a cursive style. You have to squint to decipher the loops and shaking penmanship. All the artwork is hand-drawn (by artist and designer Rita Orlov), and boy, is this a labour of love. You’re thrown into the ambience of the narrative straight away. Everything about the contents within the envelopes paint a marvellous mise en scène.
The props themselves that accompany the riddles are of the highest production quality. They’re not budget, throwaway items. These are of a similar calibre to the kind of items you might find in an actual escape room. There’s a sumptuous feel to every aspect of The Emerald Flame. Every individual element makes you go “Oooh!” when you reveal them out of the envelopes. You’re filled with wonder, your imagination set ablaze as you ponder how to use them.
A Fulcrum Between Foolishness And Eureka
The job of any escape room is to create a balanced experience, where the participants feel both smart and dumb. Games like The Emerald Flame provide such a fulcrum, and the eureka moments swat away the head-scratching. It might take you a while... But when you get there, the rollercoaster lift rewards you with an exhilerating drop! I guarantee, though, there will be times when you play this where you stare at the sheets in front of you, and you feel lost. What are you supposed to do? Where do you begin? Some riddles, I’ll admit, had me stumped.
It’s vital that The Emerald Flame provided some kind of hint system. They have a website, reachable via the QR code I mentioned earlier, thatdrip-feeds clues to you for each riddle, with a Next button which takes you to the following clue. This is of course a question of willpower (try not to read too many clues in this manner!). I’m not ashamed to admit I needed help with some of the riddles!
I was a little disappointed with the presentation of the website for the hints, though. It is a plain white background, and looks like a bland, uninspired Word document. Given the phenomenal amounts of love and care that’s gone into the crafting of the game itself, the lack of attention towards the website felt like a stark slap to the face. The one thing it did do, though, was make me want to return to the action on the tabletop. I wanted to pay as little attention to the website screen as possible. And why not? These papers are a feast for the eyes. This website looks like school homework from 1998. (But hey, this is a pleasant feeling, right? It’s why many folks love playing tabletop games – you want to step away from tech for a blissful moment.)
This Ain’t No Stroll In The Park
The puzzles in here are crunchy. I’ve played quite a few of the Exit series (by Kosmos, designed by Inka and Markus Brand), including their Advent Calendar. The difficulty in The Emerald Flame is quite a few notches harder. In Exit you’re aiming to complete it in under an hour, and they include 10 riddles. They cater towards a family, more casual environment, even with the time restraint. Here you’ve got fewer riddles, but you need not concern yourself that this will be over in 20 minutes. I’d wager these will take you the same amount of time as an Exit game, if not longer!
The Emerald Flame is for serious, seasoned escape room aficionados. Complexity-wise, this is more akin to the likes of Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. Along with the high production value, you soon realise that this is no casual stroll in the park. This demands all your attention, and serious concentration. Or else, you won't enjoy the challenge. The suggested game time is between 2.5 to 5+ hours. (It could well be longer than that, given your focus and speed of puzzle-solving.) This isn’t a game for children – not because the content is adult in nature, but rather: will your younger kids’ attention spans survive this? I doubt many folks would want to complete all three envelopes back-to-back in the same sitting. Not because they’re not enjoyable – but rather, they demand quite a considerable amount of mental capacity!
It’s the sort of thing where you might consider tackling one envelope per day over, say, a Bank Holiday weekend. The narrative drives you into the next envelope, but games like this demand a certain quota of lateral thinking. You’d be forgiven for wanting a small break between sessions.
This level of complexity provides an equal ratio of satisfaction when you figure them out. The first riddle I solved was using a map of Prague Castle and one of the props. I’ll limit my description to saying it required a pencil. (Yes, you will need to draw on or end up destroying some of the pages. With artwork this gorgeous, it felt wrong to deface it!) It took me a while, but wow… once I cracked it, I felt like a smug genius! Then I moved onto the next riddle and felt like a fool. A determined fool, though. A fool who tried to ignore the QR code leading to the clues for as long as my stubborn pride allowed...
Final Thoughts On… The Emerald Flame
The puzzles are logic-based, not trivia-based. I’ve had the good fortune to have visited Prague in real life a couple of times. To my delight, I recognised certain details within the puzzles from my touristic travels. Don’t worry though; you need zero prior knowledge of the city at all to crack the codes. But if you have wandered around Prague before, you’ll catch yourself smiling as The Emerald Flame reignites your holiday memories.
There’s one prickly issue that sits around The Emerald Flame: and that’s the price point. If you’ve become used to the cost of an Exit game, or a three-in-one Unlock box, then you could suffer disappointment. This ain’t cheap. This isn’t a budget, throwaway box that will distract you and the kids for an hour. But this is also an opulent experience to the core. And that’s a key word that PostCurious keep stressing with their pitch for The Emerald Flame “Experience.”
You’re paying premium, yes, but you’re getting the golden bracket of immersive puzzle games. It’s apparent the moment you crack open the first envelope. The sheer volume of effort and passion poured into every facet of this deduction package is astounding. Like any product in any industry, if you’re happy to pay top dollar to feel like a queen (or king), then it’s worth it. Playing The Emerald Flame, with all the parchments spread out over my table, my fingertips on my temples, analysing the clues: it’s the closest I’ve felt to being a private eye. Not a very good PI, I should say! I don’t think the Koschei Society would have continued to contact me for the second envelope if they saw how much I struggled with the first set of riddles…