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Playing video games with friends online has never been easier. Yet it still doesn’t compare to gathering around a table to throw dice, move miniatures, and build empires of cards.
Though part of the rise of tabletop gaming is a desire for physical gaming, that hasn’t stopped us from enjoying digital versions of our favorite board games. And if anything has created a need for digital board games, it’s the global pandemic of 2020.
The last several years has seen successful adaptations of nearly every major board game on PC, mobile devices, and increasingly the Nintendo Switch. This year alone has seen the release of several high-profile digital board games, which we’ve highlighted below.
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Game Length: 2-4 hours
Escape Room board games have been around for years, emulating the unique Escape Room experience of solving riddles and puzzles with friends in a heavily thematic setting.
While other Escape Room board games are filled with envelopes, lock boxes, and pages of cryptic clues, the newest Escape the Room game from ThinkFun, The Cursed Dollhouse, transforms the entire game box into a 3D Dollhouse for an immersive and horror-themed puzzle-solving experience – perfect for a Halloween get-together!
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Some assembly is required to create the evil, haunted dollhouse, as the two halves of the box form the four rooms of the house, along with an attic on top. Each room contains some tantalizing objects to investigate: a bookshelf in pieces, a foldable shower curtain, a locked chest, and several different kinds of dolls.
After assembly we begin the Escape Room by reading from the manual, which drops us into the supernatural dollhouse like an episode of The Twilight Zone. The writing is richly evocative and doesn’t wear out its welcome – we only read from the manual after completing a room and moving to the next one, as the story grows more desperate.
The goal is to escape the house by solving puzzles in each room one by one, beginning in the living room. Each room holds several puzzles that we’ll need to solve in order to plug in the correct symbols into the code wheel and unlock the next room.
The room-by-room approach helps keep the story focused while providing several puzzles to work through simultaneously. What makes The Cursed Dollhouse special is the tactile joy from physically searching the rooms for clues and objects, not unlike a classic Point and Click adventure video game.
Like an Adventure game, it’s entirely possible to get completely stumped. I’m no Escape Room veteran but I have played a number of puzzle games, and The Cursed Dollhouse doesn’t pull any punches. The Kitchen alone had my wife and me scratching our heads for nearly an hour.
Thankfully ThinkFun includes an intuitive digital hint system on their website, as well as mood music, and reassembly instructions. By clicking on a room, then an object, you can easily pull up only the specific hint you need, beginning with a slight nudge all the way to the full solution. It’s a smart approach that gives us the satisfying Ah-Ha moment without spoiling the whole puzzle.
The recommended age rating for Escape the Room: The Cursed Dollhouse is 13+. Puzzles can be quite complex, but more importantly the theming is classic Horror (though never R-rated) as you work to escape an evil haunted house.
After playing The Cursed Dollhouse, I can’t imagine returning to the mundane 2D picture cards of other Escape Room games. The 3D puzzle box expertly captures foreboding tension while focusing on diabolical puzzles, making Escape the Room: The Cursed Dollhouse the best escape room experience you can have without leaving your home.
Find Escape the Room: The Cursed Dollhouse at Amazon.
Eight years ago the now infamously defunct 38 Studios released their first and only game. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was a big-budget single player RPG. It was created as a prequel to the studio’s ultimate goal of a World of Warcraft-level massively multiplayer RPG.
The MMO was never finished, the studio went bankrupt, and the state of Rhode Island lost millions. But a funny thing happened on the way to this ill-fated venture: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was a darn good RPG, and one of the most underrated games of the era.
The RPG was derivative of many familiar games that came before, notably World of Warcraft, Diablo, and Skyrim, with a generic fantasy world that was forgettable even while playing it. Yet the combat was fast, fluid, and imminently satisfying. The art style and world-building channeled the best elements of Warcraft’s colorful fantasy lands, and you couldn’t go more than ten feet without running into another quest to complete.
It’s with great satisfaction that one of my favorite games from the Xbox 360/PS3 generation remains just as good in 2020, thanks to an HD facelift by THQ Nordic.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning begins with a compelling story hook – my custom protagonist has died on the battlefield in the ongoing war between the mortals and the immortal fae, specifically an evil new faction called the Tuatha who are hell-bent on conquering the world.
Thanks to a powerful device called the Well of Souls, I’m reborn, choosing between four different races that don’t matter much beyond starting skill points. The exciting escape from the dungeon serves as a helpful tutorial, teaching different weapon attacks, the importance of blocking and dodging, and how to sneak up on enemies and cast spells.
From there the game world opens up a bit, but make no mistake – this isn’t an open world RPG along the likes of Skyrim or Breath of the Wild. The world of Amalur is broken up into distinctive zones and areas, with plenty of dungeons and quests (and typically a town) in each of them.
Fans of classic MMORPGs like World of Warcraft will immediately recognize this approach to world-building. It feels quaint in 2020, but not unwelcome. Exploring the world by combing through zones in a mostly linear order is easy and rewarding, particularly for my fellow completionists. Quest objectives are displayed on the mini-map even when they’re not the active quest, dangling proverbial carrots across each zone and drawing me into dungeons and new regions where more quests can be discovered.
None of this would matter if the combat wasn’t so much fun. As a nod to more action-oriented games like Monster Hunter and Dark Souls, my fighting style is tied directly to which weapons I use. Each of the three skill trees: Might, Sorcery, and Finesse, have three weapons associated with them, though I’m free to mix and match as much as I want provided I have the skill points.
My first character in Re-Reckoning is a stealthy rogue, specializing in daggers for stealth kills and a longbow to whittle down groups of enemies. Stealth is easily the weakest part of the game, however. Enemies are typically found in groups, and the linear path of dungeons and constant patrolling makes it nearly impossible to stealth-kill more than one enemy at a time.
I also played around with a full sorcerer, and found combat far more satisfying early on. He’s armed with a scepter for long-range attacks, which can rapid fire or charge for bigger blasts, while an elemental staff could handle surrounding enemies.
Amalur’s combat relies on rapid and carefully timed combos to unleash special attacks, along with dodging and blocking to avoid damage. Weapon animations are bombastic and exciting; I never tire of my sorcerer dramatically spinning his staff before unleashing an explosive fiery blast, or my rogue rapidly sprinting between groups of enemies with her daggers.
The final ingredient in this comforting layer cake of an RPG is the loot. Amalur wasn’t exactly the first RPG to use random loot tables, but they smartly feed into the constant desire to explore, complete quests, and crack open juicy treasure chests to find those magical ice daggers. The loot system prioritizes the skills and weapons I’m using, leading to more loot I’m interested in rather than throwing them in the junk pile to be sold at the next town.
Re-Reckoning’s biggest flaw is that it doesn’t do enough with its remaster. Amalur didn’t much fixing to begin with, as all of its gameplay systems have aged incredibly well (minus the still-woefully boring story). But the menus look old and a bit grubby, from the low-res ability icons to the messy inventory screen that quickly turns into a giant scroll bar of boots, helmets, and weapons. The menus are a pesky reminder that I’m playing an older game with a fresh coat of paint.
I also take umbrage with the level of blood and violence during combat, which betrays the colorful tone and adds nothing to the game other than an M rating.
Despite 38 Studios’ implosion, the future is bright for Amalur. THQ Nordic has announced an all-new expansion, Fatesworn, coming next year. With dozens of hours of content to hack, slash, and adventure through, Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning proves that one of the most underrated RPGs of the last decade is well worth playing today.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning is rated M for Mature with Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, and Suggestive Themes. It’s available on PC (Steam), PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.