Escape rooms are great fun if you enjoy puzzles, lateral thinking, observation skills and teamwork. Imagine an escape room experience in a box, to be played in the warmth and comfort of your own home. That is what Unlock! Is offering.
Space Cowboys have some great games. I love the forward planning involved in Splendor. TIME Stories is a great narrative game with an exploration of different scenarios. The Unlock! series takes this player involvement one step further. By using a downloadable app players get even more of a sense of challenge to augment the gameplay.
Each Unlock! box contains three separate, puzzling situations. No spoilers or hints will be offered, but an overview of some of the techniques that might be needed to solve the scenarios. Unlock! Game Adventures draws on the familiar. It uses existing board games as a framework to which the puzzles have been attached. This will appeal to existing gamers although previous knowledge, or love, of the games is not required at all. Like any narrative game, players almost need to get into character. One member will download the app. This is essential for the game to play. This single app covers the entire Unlock! game series, over a dozen at the time of writing. Players just select their game box and choose their challenge.
Each box contains a series of three formal challenges, a starter, main course and desert, but with a tutorial as an hors d’oeuvres. The game consists of a series of cards, numbered on one side and containing information about the puzzling situation on the reverse. The introduction card is displayed, a little like the maitre d’ presenting the evening’s menu. Within a minute of reading the information you take your seats at the table and start the app.
By flipping over the start card players are presented with a series of choices. This information will be in the form of pictures setting a scene or a list with a couple of numbers. Like eager diners, the players can peruse the menu choosing the steak tartare to start or perhaps the melon balls. Once a clue is selected the appropriate card is chosen from the deck and examined. Some cards will provide more options. Others, form clues that need to be interpreted together with previous pieces of information. By adding these clues together, the game will guide you to other decisions and information [by selecting fresh new cards]. Whilst deliberating on your first few choices you become aware of the app and the countdown timer. This is an escape room after all. It needs to be finished within the allotted time otherwise you will be sent to the kitchen to do the washing up!
Some cards require a close examination, even using the phone camera and app in combination. This may reveal hidden detail, but if you make unwise choices then time penalties are added. Like a real-life escape room, you do not want to waste time, but you need to be confident that you have made a sensible choice. Occasionally some cards need to be used in combination or even placed together and rearranged on the table. This might be to spell words or give a new image. It is good to get one or two of the party to be having a big picture look and others to forensically examine the relevant cards.
At points in the evening the scenario can become somewhat strained, a little like when the dining guests start running out of conversation. Rather than just turning to a discussion about the caviar, players can choose to use the app. This will allow a hint function for any card. This comes at a cost [in the form of time penalties] but at least this will move the game forward. With the awkwardness and frustration of silence avoided, and the embarrassment of the hosts removed, so the game moves to a new phase.
Like the main course of the dinner, there are plenty of meal choices. Some clues look quite tasty, but is this a red herring? Others seem quite bland, yet you overlook these at your peril. This is where they get game gets fun. Unlock! could be played solo. This Game Adventures box however is better as a shared experience. Whilst one could play this game by yourself in the same way as you could eat a microwave meal TV dinner whilst watching a soap opera, sometimes a sharing platter with a group of friends of the right company will add so much more. Others around the table will bring other skills and thoughts to bear. Not everyone will enjoy salad niçoise, some prefer lamb shank. In the same way different choices and tastes will be needed to solve these clues and retrieve vital pieces of information.
After a while the clue cards and information pieces are being discarded like the mussel shells in a seafood platter. You have extracted all the goodness from them, and the game tells you to “lose certain cards”. You are now after more tasty tit-bits.
In the final phase you may be piecing together the last few clues. This might be to gain an insight into the mystery or the motive. The menu options are more limited as you’ve already played through most of the cards. Perhaps a dozen or so others remain for the “desert” phase. Time is pressing on, and the waiter will be back in a moment with the bill. The question is whether you have gleaned enough information, and perhaps used a few educated guesses, to solve all of the problems that have been posed.
Thoughts On Unlock
Unlock is an immersive experience. The app can have music playing in the background and has sound effects, perhaps when you open the safe. This is a game where you cannot have any “alpha” characters who dominate proceedings. There are too many other aspects to consider that ensures that everyone needs to play their part.
How many? That depends on how you feel. For an intimate, romantic tete a tete this will work very nicely. There are not so many clues thrown in on each card as to overwhelm a situation. With two people the challenge will work best if approached in a linear fashion. For a more frantic, almost scatter gun approach, with four or more, you could easily “divide and conquer”. One player will need to control the flow of information and enter values into the app. The more the merrier. This also means alternative viewpoints or ways of thinking are more likely to be expressed. One or two of the puzzles are certainly quite obscure. I personally think the sweet spot is four players.
One or two of the puzzles are very “left field”. I would even describe them as being obscure. In these we had to use the hint and on one occasion even the second hint to get the solution. In retrospect I can see where the designers were coming from. It just had not crossed my mind to use the clues in that way. Others, with more lateral thinking minds, may have seen the solution with more ease than my wife and I but for the “average Joe” I think many will have struggled.
This Unlock! game is based on three well known titles, Ticket to Ride, Mysterium and Pandemic. Prior knowledge is not needed at all. These games just set the scene. Unlock! would be very suitable to introduce to non-gamers at an evening event. It is not threatening. There is no player competition, only cooperation and a sense of achievement when the puzzle is solved. The complexity of the clues at times are quite awkward and the game is best suited for teenagers or adults. People who have eagle eyes and the ability to spot the unusual will do well. As someone who does have trouble with certain colours, I struggled with one of the situations, but the others around the table were able to solve it. That is the beauty of teamwork.
Final Thoughts On Unlock!
Unlock! was plenty of fun. Once completed it is solved. There is no replayability. However, unlike most exit games the clues are all card based. There is no tearing up or writing on the cards so the game will remain pristine. This would allow others to enjoy the situations.
For three escape room scenarios in one box, the current Zatu prices represent excellent value for money. With hours of entertainment and head scratching for a few people, and one that is suitable even for non-gamers, Unlock! is very suitable to be brought out when friends are invited for food. It is a fun way to start the evening, can be enjoyed in a stop-start fashion, and will certainly keep the conversation moving along nicely. Just don’t drop the clue cards in the soup otherwise you can’t pass this game on for others to enjoy!