Escape rooms are a big thing at the moment; I wrote yesterday about how warehouse-sized spaces were – still sometimes are – used for large scale laser tag games, but these days it’s more common to see escape rooms set up than laser battle arenas, albeit in much more moderately sized premises. Players work together to solve environmental puzzles and escape the room they’re trapped in, usually with a strict time limit and plenty of brainteasers to co-operatively solve.
It isn’t always practical – or affordable – to go to a professionally designed and run escape room, so there are a few options when it comes to playing through a similar experience at home. There are a number of board games that aim to replicate the experience – most of which come with a large number of variations and difficulty levels. As far as I can tell, the two most popular product lines are the Unlock! series (by Space Cowboys) and the Exit: The Game series by Kosmos.
I’ve played a small selection of both; the Unlock! Games come in boxes of three adventures, with a variety of themes and difficulty levels in each box. Each Exit box is just one adventure, but this at least allows you to choose a preferred theme and difficulty level for your game group. Exit is generally cheaper than Unlock!, but don’t work out too different, cost-wise, when you consider that Unlock! has three escape room experiences per box (in fact, it works out cheaper than getting hold of three Exit games).
Unlock! is card-based and has a compulsory companion app, which allows you to enter codes and request clues or solutions, as well as providing an atmospheric soundtrack that’s relevant to the current adventure – and a countdown to really pile on the pressure, with your time often being cut short when you get a riddle wrong.
Exit does have a companion app but this is far less integral than the app for Unlock! – it’s optional, allowing you to track the time elapsed and give you a score a the end of the game.
It’s very hard to talk about what I’ve played of each without spoiling them, but I’ll cover the specifics of how each experience works without going into scenario-specific details.
Unlock! first then: whichever collection of three adventures you opt for when buying Unlock!, you’ll also get a tutorial deck that teaches you the game mechanics, in the format of a short escape room experience. It’s extremely clever and gets you immediately focusing on how you’ll need to work together, how the app works and the ways in which you’ll be expected to solve puzzles. Everything outside of the app in Unlock! is card driven; a common card type will be the room/place you’re currently in, which has different card numbers on objects you can interact with – for example, a 42 on a desk drawer will denote that you can take card 42 to investigate the drawer.
There are also cards marked with a blue or red jigsaw piece symbol; a blue symbol card can be combined with a red symbol card to solve a puzzle – for example, a key may have a blue symbol and a lock may have a red symbol; to combine these, you add the total of the two card numbers together and take the relevant card (so if the key is numbered 12 and the lock 14, take card 26 to see the result). Along with these, there are yellow padlock symbols on some cards; these denote that a code must be found and entered on the app; the app will then instruct you how to proceed (or tell you you’re wrong!).
What I like about Unlock! is the feeling of advancing through different rooms; exploring them and checking out objects as you would in a real environment. There are often visual clues in the objects and scenes; it’s also sometimes possible to find ‘hidden’ clues if you look close enough – and that’s very rewarding in itself. Though some riddles can feel somewhat obtuse – though it’ll depend on the brains you have in your group, of course – there are different stages of clue, and finally the solution, available on the app if you get really stuck. I’ve played through a full box of three adventures and my group did get stuck at least once each time.
Moving on to Exit; I’ve only tried the one scenario but it was a much more tactile experience than Unlock! Though just as cerebral (and with puzzles that may stump you along the way), it relies a lot more on physical components that you’ll tear, fold, cut and investigate in interesting ways throughout.
I can’t speak for all of the games in the series, but the one I tried came with a multi-use code wheel that was able to cope with a surprisingly varied amount of code types in order to point you in the direction of the next card needed. This points you to a specific card, which you then take and which will usually tell you that you could be right, but you’ll then need to find your specific scene and take a further card to see where that leads. If you’re right, you’ll generally be able to progress to the next page in your booklet – unless there are further objects and/or puzzles to solve on your current page.
With no app, progression in the game I tried was based around the included booklet, which you’ll read together and which contains the scenes and many of the clues you’ll need to progress. There were some scenario specific objects to use and the box itself was even used in a few different puzzles and their solutions.
As with Unlock!, you’ll sometimes come up against puzzles that baffle everyone in your group. With no app it means no clues available at the touch of a button – but Exit’s way around this is a clue/solution deck with three levels of help available (1st clue, 2nd clue, solution), so if you do get stuck you can at least use these to progress.
Progressing as you do through a relatively text-heavy booklet means that Exit felt like a more narrative-driven experience than Unlock! did. Unlock!, however, with its reliance on searching scenes for objects and then combining objects or entering found codes to progress, felt more like a point and click adventure.
Though Unlock! – at least in the scenarios I’ve tried – had a number of puzzles requiring you to combine and/or line up cards to reveal a solution, it didn’t feel as tactile or tangible as Exit, which used a number of unique objects and pretty much all of the included components in extremely clever and inventive ways. There was an amazing moment when we realised we were being directed to the game’s box in order to find a clue; even the box’s inner card tray was used to solve one of the game’s devious puzzles.
These are by no means the only escape room type games available, but both have extensive and popular lines that seem to be continually growing – meaning that, if you like the style of one, there’s plenty more that you can get into pretty easily, given that the basic mechanics of how the game works carries over in each of the different scenarios available – though the puzzles will of course be very, very different for each adventure. Difficulty levels are more obvious for the Exit games, I found – and there’s a possibility that one of the included adventures in any given Unlock! collection may either not be to your group’s taste or may be pitched at the wrong difficulty level for the players you’re intending to experience it with. Unlock! has some absolutely wonderful visual design – it’s bold, bright, colourful and appealing; the Exit games are somewhat darker in their appearance, though not always in tone. Though the visual design of Exit is – in my opinion – less appealing than that of Unlock!, the game itself isn’t any less satisfying in practice.
One big point to consider is that you can only play through each scenario once. Though this means that you can play through a box of Unlock! scenarios in three sessions, one Exit product is just one game session; you’ll destroy or deface the components during the course of the game, as well as solve puzzles which, by their nature, don’t have a variable solution or outcome – so there’s no replay value at all.
When you consider the cost of a real escape room experience, both Unlock! and Exit are great value for money, but you’ll want to ensure you have a decent number of people to play with before you start, given that you won’t be able to play again.
I started with Unlock!, being drawn in by its more appealing aesthetic, but having experienced the more tactile nature of Exit I think I’d recommend starting there, with an experience at the lower end of the difficulty scale (each box is marked for difficulty out of five – having tried one marked as ‘two’ on the scale, I can say that’s probably the ideal starting point for newcomers – not too easy but only the odd really obtuse puzzle – you just have to get used to thinking both inside and out of the box!).
All in all then, both excellent collections of games with some fantastic, well-implemented puzzles – really satisfying experiences that can make you feel both clever and stupid, almost at the same time.
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