Room-in-a-box, Mar 2017
The Unlock! series of play-at-home escape games from Space Cowboys is sold in Europe as a single box of three games, but in the US as three separate games. While all share the same game system, each of the three has a different author and illustrator, and a different style of puzzles.
Each consists of a deck of cards. The only other element is an app, which you must install to play the games. This acts as a timer, clue system, and source of background audio.
To understand the way to play the game and use the cards, the best option is to try their 10 minute tutorial game (included in the box for European players, and also available from the website for print-and-play along with a bonus 30 minute game). In brief, cards are numbered and fall into different categories. Red and blue cards typically represent objects and locks and can be used together; to combine one red card with one blue card, you add the numbers of those two cards, and then search the deck for a card that has the resulting number. Grey cards cannot be combined in that way, but provide additional hints and information. Green cards are puzzles, which can be solved to give a number that can then be combined with a red or blue card in the normal way. And yellow cards require the players to find a four-digit code to enter into the app.
Importantly, players are instructed to search the deck for target card numbers each time, rather than, say, spreading the deck out to see what’s available.
It’s less instantly intuitive than the code-wheel systems used by the ThinkFun and Exit games, and the need to constantly sum numbers might be off-putting to the number-phobic, but is quick to master and allows a far greater range of puzzle types than a code-wheel.
There’s also a lot of searching involved. That should sound strange – how can a boxed game involve searching, when by definition all the components are right there in front of you? But Unlock! uses a mechanism where whenever you see a number (or letter) in one of the card illustrations, you can take the corresponding card from the deck. Normally those numbers are printed and highlighted clearly, representing objects in plain sight. However, some numbers are concealed in the picture and require players to pore carefully over the cards for hidden subtleties.
I’m in two minds about this system. On one hand, it successfully reproduces an element of physical escape games that I’d never have expected could be part of a boxed game. The location of the hidden numbers are never arbitrary – in every instance they appear on the picture in a place where something could reasonably be hidden. And they manage to be tricky to spot while simultaneously very clear when noticed, without any doubt as to whether they’re a hidden number or a random squiggle. On the other hand, they’d be a nightmare for anyone with poor vision, and I’m not wholly delighted about the reintroduction of the familiar, niggling worry that perhaps a puzzle can’t be solved because you’ve simply failed to find a crucial clue.
One other important aspect of the game is the penalty system. Enter the wrong code into the app and you lose three minutes on the timer. Combine the wrong two object cards together and you get a red card instructing you to hit the app’s penalty button, which takes another five minutes off. This is certainly effective at preventing players from brute-forcing combinations of cards, but is pretty punitive and leaves you nervous to attempt some codes or ideas.
All of that is common to all the Unlock! games. Of the three, the first one we tried was Squeek and Sausage, because, well, the cover picture had a mouse holding a sausage running away from an evil clown / mad scientist, so how could we resist?
The background is a tongue-in-cheek secret agent story, and the artwork is energetically cartoonish with bright colours and skewed geometry that reminds me of Day of the Tentacle. The puzzles match the theme, taking advantage of the format to include ideas that couldn’t be used in a physical escape room, and which are much more reminiscent of point-and-click adventure games on the computer. It also uses the penalty system to gleefully bop you over the head whenever you rush into an over-hasty solution, which after the painful first time we quickly learned to be on our guard against.
Multiple areas open out in a way that really shouldn’t be possible in a card-based game. The difficulty level is reasonable, though note that if you take any penalties and still manage to finish within the time, it’s effectively less than a 60 minute game.
One specific puzzle stumped us until we asked the app for a hint. As it turned out, the solution was exactly what one of the team had been suggesting, and which we’d ruled out as crazy. You’ll either think this puzzle is ingenious or you’ll hate it. We hated it, and felt it took away from an otherwise superb game; but even so the game is slick and fun, and more importantly the system and game come together in a way that just works.