Cards Against Humanity & Escape Rooms?

Last year we played and reviewed The Last Defender at the end of its run in Denver, Colorado. We absolutely loved it and awarded it a Golden Lock Award.

Promotional art for The Last Defender.

The Last Defender blended elements of escape rooms, puzzle hunts, and immersive theater into one 16-person game. Exploring Cold War nuclear deterrence and the notion of mutually assured destruction (M.A.D.), The Last Defender was as challenging as it was grimly hilarious.

One of the most impressive aspects of The Last Defender was that while we played it in late 2019, it debuted in 2016. We had been hearing about it for years. It was clearly ahead of its time.

In-game: 3 players in orange flightsuits working at the Operations cabinet.

After we published the review we learned that The Last Defender was returning home to Chicago, and the team behind it was launching a new game – Nova To Lodestar, and both of these games were going to live inside of a board games cafe funded by Cards Against Humanity.

We recently spoke with the folks behind this incredible collaboration:

  • Nathan Allen, Writer & Director
  • Sandor Weisz, Puzzle Designer
  • Max Temkin, Cards Against Humanity co-founder

Cards Against Humanity’s Board Game Cafe’s Intentions

Temkin: “The board game cafe is Cards Against Humanity’s ambitious plan to provide a community center of sorts for Chicago’s gaming community,”

Tables at the beautiful Chicago Game Cafe

The venue has everything that you’d expect from a board game cafe plus a small event space for talks, learn-to-plays, and other gatherings… and it has room for 2 permanent escape rooms by The House Theatre.

The Last Defender’s Success Wasn’t Overnight

Allen: “House Theatre has its name because ‘the house’ is the audience and we were trying to find ways to make the experience of being an audience member more vital and exciting. We were called immersive long before immersive theater was a thing.”

In-game: a character in a black rabbit costume standing before a multi-colored world map.

The Last Defender’s Goals & Ambitions Drove Its Success

The House Theatre’s aspirations when creating their first foray into escape rooms were to:

  • Translate narrative into game design.
  • Build empathy through characters and story.
  • Make the players themselves the protagonists, so they relate to one another.

Cards Against Humanity Wanted To Collaborate With Theatre People

Temkin: “We went to SCRAP in 2012. I had just been chasing after escape rooms. I felt like escape rooms needed theatre people because they bring in sound, light, actor, narrative, and prop design. They understand that this is really about story.”

Nova to Lodestar is a Response to the Lessons of The Last Defender

Weisz:The Last Defender was my first attempt at building something that immersive and complex. I’m really happy with where we landed, because while the puzzles on the whole are difficult, I feel like the puzzle design is elegant, which is the quality I value most.”

“As we approached Nova to Lodestar, we both wanted to stretch the bounds of what we know an immersive game to be, and to focus less on any kind of conventional puzzle format. With every design decision, we’re asking ourselves how this affects the emotional stakes and emotional payoff. Everything is in service of that.”

Nova to Lodestar preview poster art depicts a doomed space crew.

Allen:Nova to Lodestar is a response to what we learned. To further deepen the connection of the player and their agency.”

“We’re doing things like eliminating the clock, I hate clocks in games. It is inherently destructive to didactic feeling. In The Last Defender, skilled players race the clock, rather than trying to prevent the missiles from launching. In Nova to Lodestar, you can’t see the clock – it’s resource management that is the time limit, but you’re never confronted with time. The clock is a resource of ore – which keeps the players in a constant state of decision making – not just winning or losing. Nova to Lodestar is also less puzzle-based and more focused on a broader notion of gameplay.”

“We’ve turned the game from tactical to strategic. It should feel very different in the way you play.”

The House Theatre Is Avoiding Binary Win/ Lose Conditions

Allen: “I want to make experiences that aren’t so binary. Did you get out?”

Initially The Last Defender had binary win/ lose scenarios, but they added a third in-between scenario and it made the game far more interesting. We didn’t experience this particular conclusion, but I personally loved the threat of it while playing.

The Last Defender May Continue to Tour

I cannot confirm particular locations, but The House Theatre is hoping to tour The Last Defender to different parts of the country with Chicago as its home base.

Cards Against Humanity is Far More Than A Board Game Company

Temkin:Cards is weird as a company and a game. None of us are game designers, I dabbled in it but never thought that it would be a career. Our goal isn’t to make a lot of board games, our goal is to make people laugh. Not gamers, just people. A lot of Cards Against Humanity is just sitting around with your friends laughing and not on your phones.”

“We aren’t always thinking that we need to make another comedy card game to create that feeling.”

Cards is a catharsis of laughing at something you aren’t supposed to laugh at… and The Last Defender is the same way.”

Back in 2016, Cards Against Humanity made a 6,000 person month-long escape room/ ARG… is that happening again?

Weisz: “When that game ended, I was so high on the goodwill of this little community we had built that I couldn’t imagine not doing it again and keeping that community going. But it turns out it didn’t need me; it kept itself going on its own. The Slack communities from that game are active to this day!”

“I’ve since built another ARG — for Field Notes — that was smaller in scale but had the exact same effect: a really lovely, and loving, community of solvers, who are still friends today. To me that’s the best possible outcome of an ARG game like that.”

“I love making ARGs and definitely want to do it again. It’s just really hard to start one up on my own. I have no idea if there’s a model there where I can charge people to participate. If I get enough encouragement from the community, maybe I’ll give it a shot.”

Closing Thoughts

Speaking with these guys, I felt a strong connection to their goals and approaches.

I’ve always seen the rise of escape rooms and tabletop gaming as part of an equal and opposite reaction to the shift of socialization largely happening on a screen.

Additionally, their theatrical approach to game design is completely in line with our larger vision for the future of escape rooms and immersive gaming. The ideas that we talked about are among the many concepts that are underpinning the RECON, the Reality Escape Convention that we’re hosting in Boston this August. I hope that you come join us and help build a stronger community and future for escape rooms and immersive games.

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