Them Bombs isn’t a new game but, hell, we played it anyway. Kelsey and Richard live together, study the same course, play games together, and spend way too much time together; so why not play a couch co-op game together as well?
Them Bombs is the debut title from 2017 Polish development team Yellow Dot. It’s in a similar style to Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes by Steel Crate Games from 2015. In fact, it’s way too similar. Like Keep Talking, Them Bombs has two players minimum. One player, the “Unlikely Hero,” is sat disarming a bomb while another player, the “expert,” reads from a manual on how to get through the puzzles opposing player one; but they do not see each other’s screens/manual. The game can be played with four players but from our experience, we’re not sure we’d recommend it.
The opening to the game starts you off with the plot of a mad doctor who has placed bombs around the world in an effort to create unlikely heroes. This is more of a framing device than an actual story.
The manual is 27 grueling pages of long instructions that is a huge put-off when you just want to jump into a game. Even we struggled to find the energy to sit down and really concentrate. Richard wanted nothing more than to not play as it seemed like homework to read such a long textbook.
Kelsey felt keen to play but, then again, he didn’t have to read it; he was disarming the bomb. This later proved an error on our behalf as you both really need to read through and understand the manual before playing otherwise communication will fall through.
Them Bombs has no real tutorial and doesn’t talk you through the game, you’ll only learn from reading the manual and trial and error. Solving puzzles can be near impossible at first but once you get it, you can do it a thousand times.
A qualm Richard had while playing was the instructions were like reading another language and sometimes they weren’t written very clearly. “Give me a bloody minute” was a common utterance. Attention to detail is very key with reading the instructions as sometimes a miss read cues can lead to a big problem, for instance “Above 9-volts” does not include 9 volts, that would be “other”.
As mentioned, the aim of Them Bombs to solve each puzzle, or “module,” before the time runs out and they can be from a random selection of twelve different puzzles. We have our favorites and ones we despise, but we’ll get to that later.
For now, we’ll say communication between both parties is important as both have information the other does not. For instance, the Unlikely Hero telling the Expert what battery type the bomb has can be important and then not knowing what went wrong because he described the battery poorly.
Communication can be fun, but it can also be the most frustrating part, sometimes it can be very hard to describe what you see as things like Greek letters and musical notes will appear.
At first, we found the game very difficult and aggravating and left it for a few days before coming back to it. This time with the manual printed out; bad for the environment but easier to read through. It’s hard, but once you disarm one bomb, it’s easy (it also helps that we played on max time).
At the start, Kelsey had much more fun disarming the bomb than Richard did explaining how to disarm it. However, that’s a given as Kelsey got to play a game. But after awhile Richard did come to enjoy it and it could get tense and more enjoyable once it was easy to understand.
We should mention, Kelsey disarming and Richard reading was a choice and we did switch it around a few times but felt sticking to these roles was more enjoyable and easier to get through it. We only really got a handle on how to complete the game after Kelsey had a look at the manual and Richard had a look at the game.
All this means you can’t just pick up the game as you really have to do your reading and, as a result, the game doesn’t have much replayability and there’s no real story that keeps you invested. Like Trauma Centre, where there’s familiar puzzles but an active story. All this game has is an arbitrary random number of people at risk if you don’t disarm the bomb. Failing to disarm the bomb means you may kill 1 to 5000~ people but you just restart the game with no hassle. We feel like a plot may make us more compelled to want to disarm the bombs.
Some modules are ridiculously easy compared to others. In the module “Three Blinking Lights”, the Unlikely Hero reads a letter and the Expert finds a 3-color code for said letter for the disarmer to input. It can be done in no time at all and holds no challenge if you can read English above a 5-year-old level.
In comparison, one of the hardest we found was “Pizza” as it’s instructions of “do this if this, but if this has this don’t do this, but also etc., etc., etc.,” can get really complicated.
Another feature of Them Bombs is a stress effect and an occasionally dwindling flashlight. The former can be resolved by holding a button for a few seconds as your character regains his bearings. For the latter, you’ll need to rapidly click in order to replace the battery.
We both had different thoughts on this based on our separate experiences. Kelsey found that it added a real-life sense of stress as it would often appear at inconvenient times and would need to be resolved promptly. Richard found this distracting and thought it didn’t add too much. It just made the reader sit and wait.
To finish off we thought we’d talk about our favorites and least favorites in more detail.
Triple Safe: Triple Safe is good as it has some challenges to it but not enough to make it frustrating or too hard. At first, we didn’t quite get it. But reading through it more and, again, trial and error make a big difference. The Unlikely Hero is given a bunch of colored buttons, a scientist name and a shutter door with a Greek letter.
The Greek letter and scientist name tell the Expert what color code to input. After you input it, the door open and you’re given 6 Greek letters. The reader then must find the correct combination. Once you pass through that, all you have to do is input the scientist’s date of death (that’s in the PDF too). We liked this mostly because it has everything this game is supposed to have: communication and a perfect back and forth of information being given to each other so you really work together. Once you disarm this a few times you can breeze through it easily.
15 Tiles and a Light: This one is similar in being good for communication. Put simply, the Unlikely Hero sees a light blinking in Morse code. The reader must translate it (which is in the back of the booklet). After that, simply write out the letter/number in the three-by-five grid on-screen, which the reader can give more detail too. This one is similar but something about having fun with Morse code adds to it and it’s a nice little gimmick to the challenge.
5 Letter Code: 5 Letter Code is an interesting puzzle as only Kelsey seemed to like it. True to its name, you’re presented with a five-letter code. Above it is a number sequence. All the odd numbers in this sequence need to be added up until you reach an even one (you add that one too). The number you get will have a corresponding letter listed in the manual. Do this five times to get your five letter code. Kelsey liked this one because it gives you a little more agency in a role that seems like you’re constantly leaning on the other guy.
The puzzle also incorporates some liberal guesswork while the other ones demand you go through the whole process. If you guess the five-letter code (which is usually a word), you can proceed. This was especially fun in one instance where we were down to our last few seconds and had to chance an educated guess. However, a minor criticism would be that the puzzle doesn’t really have much variance. Once you knock it out the first time, the other times are a piece of cake.
Musical Symbols: This one is just time consuming and annoying. A 5-digit code input is shown with some musical symbols, but above each input is a Morse code. The reader finds and translates these, then finds them on an unorganized sheet of random musical symbols from clefs to just the bars themselves, which are really annoying to describe visually (you try explaining what a “crotchet rest” looks like).
We had to write down things for this one as we’d forget the Morse code translations a lot. After you’ve gone through all five translations and then turned them into symbols the Unlikely Hero can put in the code and finally be done with it. Not a fan of frantic going back and forth and the added mix up of letters on the musical note sheet just adds to it; this one is just time-consuming and annoying.
Wires: Wires is difficult to explain, and that’s kind of why it sucks. It’s not just difficult to explain to you, the reader, but also the Unlikely Hero. The disarmer has six wires with a + and – attached to each end of them. First, the Unlikely Hero needs to find out what type of bomb is being used in the case; note this is the only module where this is required, all others like this have you check the battery type or timer.
The chemical element on the bomb is sometimes hard to read. We think it intentionally looks scraped and the atomic mass is minuscule. However, that’s not why we dislike this one: it’s the instructions. We feel the instructions for this module are badly written on not only telling you exactly what to do to cut a wire but also the hell that is the table with instructions.
Once you know the bomb your working with, you read a specific table on that bomb which asks what color the wires are. This is where it gets even more annoying. The instructions don’t usually clash with each other like “Pizza” but instead reads out like a long list of directions, but it can be misread as being multiple commands. There’s a whole load of specifics as to why we found this one annoying, but we’ll let you decide for yourself.
5 Letter Code (Reprise): Unlike Kelsey, Richard did not like this one. Is it because he’s dumb? Perhaps. Richard didn’t like this one as it can really be done independently with little input from the reader. And the math behind it, at first, didn’t make sense.
In summary, we did like Them Bombs. It was fun, but it took a while to get fun as a lot of work had to be put in. It makes it difficult to pick up but hard to put down. However, we would say the game doesn’t ensure replayability as once you’ve disarmed a dozen or so bombs, you’re not going to get much out of it, despite the modules varying. But, at a $10.99 retail price, it’s worth a shot.