Escape rooms promise an immersive experience meant to test your powers of perception, puzzle solving and time-management skills with a narrative flourish to drive home the stakes. They can be frustrating, but there’s something uniquely satisfying about realising that something you thought was just part of the scenery is actually an important clue.
Escape room board games try to bring the experience home by offering boxes filled with puzzles, riddles and locks. But ironically it’s The Initiative, a game that doesn’t have any overt connection to the genre, that truly captures the powerful mix of collaboration, tension and discovery that have made escape rooms so popular. The narrative puzzle-solving game from Star Wars: Rebellion and Eldritch Horror designer Corey Konieczka’s new studio Unexpected Games has some of the best physical design I’ve ever seen in a board game. Secrets and surprises are hidden through the game’s components - not just the designated puzzle cards - pushing you to really appreciate the work that went into making each piece. Konieczka has found extremely creative ways to tell a charming story filled with brain-teasing challenges.
A spy-fiction version of Jumanji, The Initiative is set in 1994 and follows a group of four kids who buy an old game about spies cracking codes from a yard sale and wind up embroiled in a real mystery. Their story unfolds in a comic book illustrated by Andrew Rust-Mills you read between the game’s missions, with one to four players teaming up to play the missions as the kids do, effectively controlling both the characters and their spy alter-egos within the game.
It’s a bit like reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book with your puzzle-solving skills determining the outcomes.
The meta setup works well in linking your success or failure as a player in the campaign’s 14 missions to the characters’ own experience with the game. Fail some of the missions and you’ll be directed to read different pages than if you succeeded, and find that the characters will also have some misfortune that make future games slightly tougher. It’s a bit like reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book with your puzzle-solving skills determining the outcomes.
Each player controls one of the characters as they navigate around a game board, collecting clues that allow you to flip windows covering parts of the mission card and reveal hidden information behind it. You can guess any time if you think you’ve figured out the answer, but if you’re wrong you fail the mission. The first mission feels a little like an easy round of Wheel of Fortune, but things get more complicated fast as the solutions change formats to involve numerical sequences or scrambled words.
Time cards provide the same tension as a time limit without the stress that comes from having to actually play fast.
These complications press you to use your turns as efficiently as possible. Rather than a conventional timer counting down the hour you get for most escape rooms, the deck of action cards serve as a limit to how long you can try to figure out a puzzle. Moving your character around the board, flipping clues over to see if they’re relevant or actually a trap that will cost you resources, and picking up the clues to actually flip the windows all require spending a card. Each character has a powerful special ability they can use once a round to effectively break the rules of the game, but these take two cards.
When your deck runs out, you shuffle in a set of time cards and future turns become more of a press-your-luck game. Every time you draw a new card, you run the risk of getting a time card indicating the clock has ticked down once or twice. When time ticks down three times, you automatically fail the mission. Even when I wasn’t quite sure of my solution, I would always guess as soon as I drew a single time card - since I knew I would be hugely frustrated if I lost from time rather than guessing and being wrong. The time cards provide the same tension as a time limit without the stress that comes from having to actually play fast.
The base rules get more complicated as you move through the campaign. You’ll face tougher traps, obstacles and even enemies that need to be avoided or defeated. The mechanical complexity ramps up slowly, so you’ll have time to adjust to each new element before the game throws another curveball at you. Each mission takes about 30 minutes to complete, and setting up a new round is relatively simple, so it’s easy to get a few done in a single sitting. The narrative supports this too, usually delivering a nice breaking point after a few missions.
The real magic of The Initiative doesn’t happen on the game board.
Players aren’t allowed to share the full details of the cards in their hands, which keeps any one person from quarterbacking the experience, but you’ll still want to take the time to plot out future moves as best as possible to avoid messing up someone else’s action. You’ll need to use your turns as efficiently as possible so you have a better chance of solving the puzzle before your cards run out. You should keep the puzzle in mind throughout each mission, as sometimes it’s not even worth going for a revealed clue if it’s just going to flip a letter in a word you’re pretty sure you already know.
While the missions deliver tense but satisfying challenges, the real magic of The Initiative doesn’t happen on the game board. After completing some missions or reading certain pages of the comic, you’ll be prompted to dig up secret cards, most of which have their own puzzles. Some can be solved immediately, while others require you to gather further secrets or complete more missions before you have what you need to figure out the answer by cracking cyphers and spotting clues hidden in surprising places. By the end of our playthrough we had a notebook filled with keys to codes that built upon each other which we were constantly using to test new puzzles, trying to figure out if we had enough information to come up with a solution.
I can’t reveal much about these without spoiling the fun, but I was constantly delighted by the ingenuity Konieczka showed when it came to making players appreciate every part of the game’s design. There’s a powerful feeling of satisfaction gained from putting the pieces together yourself, but if you get stuck on some of the tougher challenges, you can consult the comic for a set of hints to make the solution increasingly more obvious.
Each kid has their own secret card representing an emotional arc for their character. While their narratives aren’t all equally developed, they’re still so charming that I felt an intense pressure to solve their puzzles and avoid letting them down if I failed. You get a powerful mechanical benefit late in the game if you succeeded at unlocking their achievements, but the narrative catharsis feels even stronger.
I felt as immersed in The Initiative as I did in an escape room filled with props.
While the game can be played solo, you’ll likely want at least one other person to bounce ideas off of - two heads really are usually better than one when it comes to solving complex puzzles. The mechanics of the board game section also seem to be best with two players since there are two very strong special abilities: Brock’s power to use any action and clear away cards that might otherwise block it, and Fil’s ability to reveal clues spread across multiple rooms while ignoring traps. The other two characters have movement and clue-gathering powers that could certainly be useful if you were playing with them, but there wasn’t a single scenario where I felt they were vital or a better fit.
The Initiative is the sort of legacy game that you can only play once because the puzzles don’t change. You also can’t really sell it or give it to someone else without working to undo the required modification of a key component or robbing the next player of one of the game’s biggest surprises. Luckily, there is some extra value built in through a series of 24 post-campaign missions. I’m also excited about the open-ended conclusion of the game’s story and the potential it creates for a possible expansion or sequel.
I felt as immersed in The Initiative as I did in an escape room filled with props - and experienced just as great a sense of accomplishment when I successfully completed the final mission as I have when escaping a room. Unexpected Games lived up to its name by delivering a debut packed with surprise and delight. I look forward to seeing what’s next for the studio.