The biggest sleeper hit of ‘93, this game was well ahead of its time. Possibly too far ahead of its time for its own good; it seems to have largely been forgotten a couple of decades later. Among boardgame cognoscenti of a certain age, however, Escape! 404 Is synonymous with immersive fun.
A dice-roller with a Dungeon Master, Escape! 404 was preceded only by Hero Quest, which was clearly its major mechanical inspiration. Aesthetically, it owes more to Ghost Castle.
It was a unique board game for its time and even today. I’d describe it as a catered game of tag through a shifting maze.
The DM controls the placement of doors within the board and has at his disposal a nearly-unlimited army of slow-moving, overpowered ‘Infected’ monsters. The players move their characters through the maze with the goal of reaching the centre, a slime room represented on the board by a tub of slime. Players reaching the centre of the board would spend their remaining turns delving into the slime to retrieve coloured tokens. When they found the correct token for their character they would be able to access the evacuation chopper and escape, winning the game.
If caught by the Infected the player would enter a combat system based on a spinner. Upon failing, which was the usual outcome of combat, the player would take damage or become Infected themselves.
Upon Infection a timer is started and that player has one minute to find and consume an Antidote card before their game ends and control is taken by the DM. They can be found in random draws or through trading with other players, each of whom has a hand of cards to play at any time during their turn.
This board game was hours of fun for me and my friends when we were kids. We rarely won – it was a very unforgiving combat system – but even getting to the slime pot at the centre of the board and having that tactile element to the experience was reward enough. We were kids. There was slime. We were happy just to get our hands in the slime.
The mechanics were solid and fun. A good variety of generously-awarded buff and protection cards kept the players going against the far more powerful Infected and provided lots of emergent situations for the players to deal with that could help or hinder them.
The Hero Quest influence, Dungeon Master setup and narrative nature of the board and cards leads to characterisation of the pieces and builds strong attachment between the player and their pieces and their character. I still remember how avidly I defended my favourite piece, which was the dog, and the character I created to play in that piece’s paws, even eighteen years later.
On the down side, the combat was excessively unfair and there were a lot of random outcomes that made player skill obsolete. You just hoped for winning spins and an unimaginative DM.
Having said that, the game was still a lot of fun and completely dominated the summer evenings of ‘93 and ‘94 for me. It’s unfortunate that the game has fallen out of memory, for the most part. This is likely due to the slime component drying out or leaking and making old sets unusable, but in my case I was lucky. The slime has dried out but it didn’t damage any other components as it was properly sealed in its storage container.
There was an expansion pack released in late ‘93 called ‘Enter The Cloud’ which looked to delve deeper into the plague and world’s backstory but I was never able to find it, do not own it and am unable to review it. I will say that the world building in Escape! 404 is strong as it is in the base game.
Overall, this is one of the best board games I ever played as a child and it has been a pleasure delving through those memories to write this review.