Adventure Games: Monochrome Inc.

Wary but curious and with tempered expectations, I’ve played through the three parts of Monochrome Inc., a point-and-click adventure of industrial espionage in board game format. I bought the game hoping that it might deliver what I had vainly hoped to find in the utterly disappointing escape room games. Actually, it did deliver just that.

Designers:Phil Walker-Harding and Matthew Dunstan.
Publisher:KOSMOS.
Artist:Maximilian Schell.
Rules:Read the rules here or learn the game using the tutorial in the KOSMOS Helper App.
Solo facilitation:Cooperative game.
How I obtained my copy of the game:Purchased.

Some Background

In the most thoroughly negative review I’ve written to date, I shared my disappointment with the escape room games EXIT: The Game – The Polar Station and Deckscape: Test Time. Even though it seems that the Adventure Games series indeed caters to the same audience as the escape room games, after doing a little bit of research, I decided to try Monochrome Inc.

I had jumped into the disjointed escape room experiences expecting to first escape from a polar station and then to experience some exciting time travel from the comfort of my kitchen table. I got none of that; both EXIT and Deckscape turned out to be more or less arbitrary collections of riddles and brain teasers with no sense of place, narrative or theme whatsoever. The Polar Station was particularly bad in that regard, since its riddle mechanism is very inflexible and only accepts input in the form of numbers, which means that whatever you’re supposed to be doing, you’re essentially looking for combinations of digits. But enough about that! This new game, although sharing some traits with the EXIT series, is different enough to be enjoyable.

Point-and-Click in Cardboard

Just like KOSMOS’ EXIT series, the Adventure Games series consists of small, cheap, one-shot cooperative games, but while the former are basically collections of riddles with an exceptionally loose thematic framework, the latter are focused on narrative, exploration and discovery while also including problem solving. The packaging is similar, the pricing is similar, and both game systems use rather cheap components, mainly decks of cards. While there are similarities to escape room games, Adventure Games: Monochrome Inc. is closer to a classic PC adventure game with a touch of chose your own adventure book.

A One-Shot Adventure

Unlike the EXIT games, the Adventure Games are if not replayable, at least reusable; while playing, you’re not instructed to destroy any of the components. To be fair, the back of the box advertises a replayability of 3 out of 5, whatever that’s supposed to mean. But after just one time through I’m certainly done with it; just like an escape room game, this game has a solution. Sure, there are variable endings, but since there are no time constraints you’re likely to explore almost the entire game before it’s over. I certainly did.

One playthrough will spoil the story and you’ll learn how to beat the game. Thus I have to stress that this is a one-time experience, whatever KOSMOS tries to tell you. If your memory is poor, you might want to keep the game and play it once more in a year or so, but I’m giving my copy to a friend.

I will make sure not to spoil the story in this review.

Package, Presentation, Problems, Paragraphs, Playing…

The small box contains a rule book, a deck of numbered cards that you’re instructed not to look at, a bunch of larger location cards, four character standees and four character cards and an adventure book. The latter contains 60 pages of short, numbered paragraphs. The KOSMOS Helper App can replace both the rule book and the adventure book.

The Helper App contains both an animated rules tutorial and an audio version of the adventure book. I highly recommend the app. I found the audio variant of the adventure book to be particularly good.

While the rule book isn’t badly written and the animated instructions in the app are clear, the rules for movement are not intuitive in the least, surprisingly complex and rather difficult to internalize. Other than that, it’s easy to learn the rules and set-up is a breeze.

If you’re playing solitaire you’re instructed to play two characters. Each character has a standee, a character card and a card representing their signature weakness. There are four kinds of locations that can be explored in the game, and each character’s weakness corresponds to one of those. For example, it’s risky for Ramon the burglar to interact with certain locations since his fingerprints are on file. Tactically and strategically, it’s irrelevant which two you choose.

Once I’ve figured out how movement works I start playing. It soon becomes evident that the movement rules are unnecessarily complicated and convoluted; in practice, the characters can almost always go wherever you want them to in whatever order you prefer. Thus, learning the game is way more challenging than would have been necessary.

The adventure book (or its digital counterpart) is at the heart of the game. I’ll explain how it works using a made-up example. If your character has card 11 which represents a key, and is standing next to a door marked 234, you can try to open the door by combining the number of the card with the key with the number of the door, lowest first. You look up paragraph 11234 in the adventure book to see what happens. If you find the corresponding paragraph, the adventure book will instruct you to add another location card next to the one with the door, representing another room to explore. If there is no paragraph 11234, the key simply doesn’t work.

If you use the Helper App instead of the physical copy of the adventure book, you just input the digits and press enter. If there is a corresponding paragraph, the narrator reads it to you. The paragraph text is also displayed on the screen.

Apart from the issue with the movement rules, getting started is without hiccups. The introductory text in the rule book (or the audio in the app if you prefer that) explains that you and your shady colleagues have been hired to infiltrate the Monochrome Inc. research facility, where a miracle drug called Rainbow supposedly is under development. The synthesizing process is a well guarded secret; another team has already disappeared after a failed infiltration attempt. Your mission: get inside, access the restricted areas, find out everything you can about Rainbow. From the introductory paragraph in the adventure book:

The “smart” lobby is deserted. At its center are two elevators. One travels to the lower levels (106), the other to the upper levels (102). Between them, stairs lead up to a painting (101). Two richly ornamented bronze statues of lions flank the stairs (105). You take a quick look around and see the entrance to the cafeteria (107), a large screen (103), and several items lying on the floor (104). There’s also an open elevator waiting for you on the left (F1).

And off you go! There’s a total of 19 location cards, so there’s a lot to explore. The game is divided into three chapters. Each chapter took me a little over an hour to play. Putting the game away between chapters to keep playing at a later time is easy.

Exploration, Excitement (and a Few Issues)

Essentially, you do three different things in this game: move around, explore, and use objects to solve problems and overcome obstacles (like in the above example with the key and the door). While doing this you have to stay unnoticed; some actions can raise the “alarm level”, and when that level reaches five, the alarm goes off.

And this is my second issue with the game (the first being the unnecessarily complicated movement rules). Having the alarm go off doesn’t affect gameplay very much at all. Instead, it detracts from your end score. Since this is a game that first and foremost tells a story, at least I couldn’t care less about the end score – I didn’t even bother calculating it! To get tension out of this game, you have to be involved in the narrative. Scoring, in a cooperative game that lends mechanisms from choose your own adventure books, is focused on telling a story and isn’t really replayable, seems rather silly. Sure, you could “compete” against another gamer or gaming group, but that would border on challenging somebody in speed-reading.

Thus, having an alarm go off to indicate that people are on to you makes thematic sense, but integrating a scoring mechanism feels unnecessary. Still, I understand that there has to be some way of creating tension, and that simply having the players lose the game if the alarm goes off would be contrary to the narrative goal of the whole design. An interesting variant, at least for solo play, would be to start with four characters and have whichever character triggers the alarm disappear, apprehended by Monochrome Inc. security.

Anyway! Exploring the research facility is rather exciting. Industrial espionage, a secretive medical mega-corporation and some science fiction sprinklings throughout the story keeps me engaged all the way. The marriage between classic PC adventure game and choose your own adventure book is a happy one. Anybody who played Day of the Tentacle, Monkey Island or Myst in the 90s will feel right at home. They might also recognize some of the frustration that is inherent to this kind of game, perhaps in the form of a door that seems impossible to open no matter what you try, or a computer password that seems impossible to figure out (until you finally figure it out and it seems obvious). On the whole, though, frustration is a small part of the experience.

To compare Monochrome Inc. with a more or less traditional choose your own adventure game, let’s have a look at House of Danger. When I reviewed House of Danger negatively in 2019, I concluded that “the amount of story packed in this box doesn’t make up for the lack of game.” By a lack of game, I meant that the player is rigorously tied to the narrative. Sure, you can choose a left turn here, a right turn there, but in Monochrome Inc. there are choices way beyond forks in the road. Still, you’re exploring a story and that means that the game is not really replayable, but you’re moving around, picking up things, giving them to other characters, opening doors, revealing large location cards with thematic (if simple) artwork on them. Compared to House of Danger, Monochrome Inc. is much more of a game without being less of a story. Also, the writing is better and the story is a lot less whimsical.

There are mechanical similarities between Monochrome Inc. and the escape room games since problems have to be solved in various clever ways and numbers are combined as a means of creating player input to the game. There is a main difference, though. Unlike EXIT, this is actually a game and not just an arbitrary collection of riddles posing as one. Adventure Games: Monochrome Inc. makes sense as a whole. There is a connection between the challenges, the mechanisms, the theme and the narrative.

I’ve noticed one more issue with this game, and that is scaling between difficulty and number of players. At one point in the game, one of my two characters got stuck and had to basically forfeit his turns until he was rescued by his colleagues. All the while, the alarm level kept rising. This situation would have been a lot easier to handle with three characters, and with four it would have been a cakewalk. I would actually suggest soloing the game with three characters rather than two.

Finally, I have to point out that the “ages 16 and up” makes no sense to me at all. Sure, you or your group plays criminal infiltrators, and what’s going on at the research facility is not ethical, but the game is neither graphically explicit nor morally or ethically subversive in any way.

Summary

Adventure Games: Monochrome Inc. is a rather immersive and intriguing story driven game of industrial espionage, exploration and problem solving. It borrows a few mechanisms from escape room games, but it borrows a lot more from the PC adventure games of the 90s and choose your own adventure books. It’s more of a game than both escape room games and their arbitrary selections of brain teasers and riddles, and choose your own adventure books with their fork-in-the-road choices.

I have a few issues with the game: the movement rules are unnecessarily convoluted, which makes the game harder to learn; the end-game scoring feels forced and rather pointless; the game doesn’t scale too well and is a lot easier with more characters on the board; and, at least as far as I’m concerned, the game is a one-time experience – although I enjoyed it, I see no point in playing it again.

I recommend Monochrome Inc to any solo player interested in a story-driven game. It offers a good three hours of entertainment and when you’re done you can give it to a friend.

I suggest using the digital variant of the adventure book. The narration is rather good and it’s convenient to input the numbers on your phone. I also advice you to solo the game with three characters rather than two.

Other People’s Opinions

If you want a very different opinion, read the review by Annemarie Post. She played the game hoping for an escape room-like experience and concludes that she “hesitate[s] to call [Monochrome Inc.] a game.” This is, more or less, the inverse of my conclusions.


Thanks for reading!

2 Responses

  1. As per usual, a well-written and in-depth review. I have to admit that the whole “escape room genre” of board games like for instance the Exit and Unlock! series never really appealed to me. This however intrigues me, seeing how I grew up on a steady diet of point-and-click PC games like The Dig, The Secret of Monkey Island, Space Quest and Grimm Fandango to name but a few.

    Also, there is undeniably something quite soothing watching a tabby cat being at ease. 🙂

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