Secrets of the Tombs was clearly designed by Martin Wallace to be sold in the British Museum's gift shop. As such, it contains lovely components, including cards with photos of actual Egyptian artifacts and educational text descriptions. Other cards, if you bother to read them, have information about Egyptian mythology. I would expect a game like this to be a dreadful roll and move affair, or possibly a dreary set collection game. Surprisingly, there is actually an enjoyably trashy game in the box.
In Secrets of the Tombs, players are archeologists, or perhaps just tomb robbers, racing to be the first to collect a certain amount of treasure and get out of the tomb alive. Like DungeonQuest and The Adventurers, it is absolutely possible for all players to die, and for everybody to lose the game.
Players lay corridor tiles (straights, right angles, three way intersections, and four way intersections) on a square, gridded board in an attempt to create paths to several treasure rooms. On your turn you pick three random corridor tiles out of a bag, and place them adjacent to any other corridor tile or treasure room on the board, which means you could use them to continue your own path, or you could use them to shoot your opponents off in the wrong direction, or even trap them in a dead-end. After laying your three tiles, you roll special dice to move along your path.
There are some tiles that are "trapped" and make you stop moving, and draw an event card. These cards are the most disappointing part of the game. They are pretty generic, and boil down to lose a life, gain a life, or save this card to prevent losing a life in the future. They all have some long, boring educational text about Egyptian mythology or something like that on them. It would be far cooler if they had some kind of strange and interesting event related to exploring a tomb that explained why you lost a life, gained a life or earned protection. The distribution of the deck makes these dull event cards pretty much a wash - gain a life this time, lose a life next time, whatever. Since this is a race game, it's being forced to stop moving that is the pain and horror of these tiles. Throwing these trapped tiles down in an opponent's path to slow him down was a pretty common strategy in our game.
When you reach a treasure room that hasn't been emptied by an opponent, you may stop and pick-up treasures in the form of cards from a face down deck (those pretty ones with photos of actual Egyptian artifacts that I mentioned earlier). Picking up treasure may trigger a trap or traps (indicated on the treasure cards), which can make you lose one or more lives. Landing on a 3 treasure space when you only have a few lives left is a pretty tense experience. We have another player slowly flip over the treasure cards just to drag out the agony.
Finally there is an Egyptian god/demon thingy named Ammut that gets moved around, and if he lands on you, you're pretty much dead. Okay, there is a slim chance you might survive, Ammut is fickle like that, but he's a frackin god. What are you gonna' do, pull out a tommy gun and shoot at him? Seriously, the monsters in Arkham Horror are like fluffy kittens compared to this dude.
In addition to the tile laying and chasing after other players with Ammut, you can spend lives to perform certain actions: swap out tiles, which is particularly useful if your opponent has trapped you in a dead-end, pull 2 additional tiles, or roll the dice and move again. You can also heal two lives by spending a turn resting.
In Secrets of the Tombs, death comes in fewer delightfully horrible flavors than in DungeonQuest. Secrets of the Tombs isn't as elaborate and varied as The Adventurers. It's not as light and silly as Fluch der Mumie a.k.a. Pyramid. However, with the ability to add tiles to other players' paths, and send the Egyptian god/demon thingy chasing after your opponents, Secrets of the Tombs does offer significantly more player interaction of a very nasty sort. If played with people who "play nice" I imagine Secrets of the Tombs would be quite the snooze fest. I had the good fortune of being able to play with the Man and the Spawn, who have no qualms with regard to being absolutely mean to me. I was killed off by the Egyptian god/demon thingy about two thirds of the way through our game. The game is rather short, however, and I found it exciting enough to stay and watch the Spawn claw her way out of the tomb on a miraculous die roll with only one life left.
Surviving the tombs requires skillful play, attention to other players, knowing when to push your luck, and a thick skin. It also requires a fair amount of luck. Randomness comes at you from five different directions: starting position, dice, tile pull, and two decks of cards. You can play well, but still get destroyed by unfortunate die, tile or card results. Due to the generic event cards, the lack of a bit of macabre humor to lighten the mood of the game makes Secrets of the Tombs feel heavier and more serious than it is. While many gamers will gladly go along for a chaotic ride in a humorous or experiential game that has relatively effortless decisions, most gamers will get their panties in a wad over games, like Secrets of the Tombs, which require a bit of mental effort but allow skill and intellectual superiority to be trumped by luck. The frustration factor of Secrets of the Tombs may also be too much for kids, depending upon their age and personality. However, for mature gamer kids, who are aging out of kiddie games and safe multiplayer solitaire family fare, but are not yet ready for longer more strategic Ameritrash games, Secrets of the Tombs may work the charm.
Secrets of the Tombs plays in less than 90 minutes and costs under $25 (on line). I recommend it as a family game to be played with gamer kids 10+ who are mature enough to deal with a bit of frustration, and also not take a fit if they get killed by the evil Egyptian god/demon thingy. Plus, it's educational.
For younger kids, non-gamer kids or simply a lighter game with a higher "fun factor," and lower "puzzle factor" check out Fluch der Mumie a.k.a. Pyramid. It's absolutely fabulous fun.