Room-in-a-box, Mar 2017
See the Squeek and Sausage review for a general overview of the Unlock! game system. For those purchasing all three games as a single box, The Formula is the first game and perhaps the most straightforward in style – though not in difficulty.
The game elements here, as represented by the cards, are very much traditional escape room fare, so much so that with only a couple of tweaks this game could be built as a physical escape room. In place of the colourful and quirky items in the Squeek game, here you have keypads and filing cabinets, contraptions and chemistry vials. While there are some hidden objects (in the form of numbers hidden within a card’s illustration), search is a much smaller part of The Formula.
It’s a more downbeat and serious theme, and less original by ‘typical’ escape room standards, but is implemented well with some clever creative ideas, including a couple of points where the players need to make a leap of intuition to work out how to proceed. We certainly struggled at points due to overthinking puzzles, but nonetheless I’d rate it as a clear step up in difficulty from Squeek.
Providing a challenge is good, but the greater difficulty of The Formula brought out some of the weaknesses of the Unlock! system. Firstly, the penalty for trying a wrong code or wrong combination of items is harsh, and deters you from experimenting. We wasted ten minutes by not trying to combine a pair of cards because it looked like a gotcha that would incur a penalty, whereas in fact it was the correct solution, probably intended to be obvious, and we’d been deterred purely by the way the items had been illustrated.
Similarly with entering codes into the app: in physical rooms keypads often lock after three or five incorrect attempts, with a penalty of a minute or so, but here you can easily lose six or nine minutes if you try the wrong thing first. That seems exceptionally strict in comparison, and also means that unless you’re very careful indeed you end up playing something rather shorter than the 60 minute game advertised.
The game gives you a score of one to five stars when you finish it, based on time taken and number of hints requested. Asking for a hint reduces the end score; trying incorrect codes or combinations deducts time. The game would feel fairer if those were reversed, such that asking for a hint subtracted time, and trying a wrong combination reduced the final score without losing time.
Adding further to the potential frustrations, the hint system doesn’t always know what you’re stuck on, so asking for a hint may incur a score penalty without actually helping. That’s in contrast to the hint system in the ThinkFun and Exit games, where the more rigid puzzle format allows a much more effective hint system. And if it doesn’t help, you can hit a dead-end – if you really can’t solve something and the hint system hasn’t helped, there’s no way to progress that doesn’t spoil the game (other than getting someone else to look through the deck for you, I guess).
So there’s no shortage of ways in which this game can turn into a frustrating experience, and we did encounter some of those. At points it felt like playing a physical room with a very inattentive GM. However, despite all that – we still had a great time playing it. I was again impressed at how much variety they’ve managed to squeeze into the card-based format, and the game combines some knowing nods to common escape room tropes with some refreshingly original ideas. And of course the Unlock! games are very easy to pass on to other people, with no component destruction or repackaging faff, so if you have friends who like escape rooms they’re that much better value for money.