Review: Bring Them Home, VAULT Festival

Part immersive theatre, part interactive board game, Treehouse Games’ Bring Them Home provides an inventive, manic evening of 1970s Space Race-themed fun in which the unfolding whirlwind of galactic drama is left largely open to its participants to direct.

The game sees space agencies from Russia, the US and the EU collaborate to guide a group of astronauts trapped in a damaged spaceship safely back to Earth through a fizzing maze of solar flares, ion storms and black holes. Thankfully, these cosmic perils are left to our imagination but pretty much everything else, including a state-of-the-art plywood spaceship, is brought to life within the dimly lit bunker of Unit 9 at the Vault Theatre.

On arrival we are met, briefed and split into roles by game designer Jon Gracey’s larger-than-life character as the games master. One person plays the lead astronaut who controls the spacecraft’s movement from inside the capsule (bringing a whole new meaning to box seat tickets), communicating with the outside world only in messages posted through a little slot. Most participants join one of the three agencies exploring space and advising the astronaut how best to navigate its hazards whilst competing to reassure her that they are taking good care her cat back on earth. Then there are two press representatives who shape the narrative of events and allocate the decisive prestige points to the various agencies whilst pursuing their own dubious agenda. In a twist of metafictional irony that says nothing whatsoever about my personal affinity for moulding other people’s fates according to the whim of my judgement, I am assigned to a role in the press.

The game soon kicks into gear in a frantic series of diplomacy-esque time-limited rounds in which all the factions scramble to achieve their individual and collective objectives, sharing superficial information with other factions whilst covertly scrambling each other’s communications with the astronaut. A particularly engaging feature of this conceptually ambitious game is the range of possibilities afforded to all of the independent groups and individuals to exploit or abuse as they see fit, with the game moderators allowing the narrative the freedom to hurtle unchecked like some unruly comet in whichever direction events decree.

Unfortunately, however, everything happens at such a dizzying pace that plenty of time is spent trying to understand the barrage of new developments occurring each turn and what the various objectives actually mean. It is clear that a great deal of thought and detail has gone into designing the game, but at times this is difficult to appreciate amongst the adrenaline-fuelled, chaotic entertainment. Perhaps fewer but longer rounds would allow room for greater emphasis on the game’s strategic and creative potential.

Possibly this is exacerbated for the press as they have only two representatives compared to the five or six members of each agency. They are arguably also investigating the broadest range of information with the fewest tools. Of course, it is theoretically conceivable (although unlikely, I know!) this could in fact reflect the inability of this particular, rather bewildered press team.

On the other hand, the game is clearly designed to represent a rapidly developing, pressurised situation in which decisions are made quickly with limited information. The importance of the press in allocating prestige points despite knowing very little of what is actually going on, provides an entertaining commentary on the media’s role during the Cold War in determining success based, essentially, on shameless propaganda for whoever is most pliable in furthering their ulterior motives. Fortunately, we no longer have such worries about media integrity today. Mine’s a Moët for anyone seeking a five-star review.

Bring Them Home is playing The Vault Theatre until 3 March 2019. For more information and tickets, see the Vault Festival website.