Unlock! Escape Adventure – The Formula, The Island of Doctor Goorse, and Squeek & Sausage [Review]

“Of course, there’s a padlock”

Location: at home

Date played: Summer / Fall 2017

Team size: 2-6; we recommend 2-3

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $50 for all 3 games

Story & setting

Unlock! Escape Adventure was a card-based at-home escape game series created by Space Cowboys and published by Asmodee.

The initial three Unlock! games were all standalone games with different themes and feels to them.

Box art for Unlock! Escape Adventures

The Formula was your typical enter-the-mad-scientist’s-laboratory-and-retrieve-the-antidote type of game. This was the most room escape-y of the bunch. At times is seemed like it was knowingly parodying escape rooms in general.

Squeek & Sausage was, as the name suggests, the strangest of the set. It was a cartoonish thwart-the-super-villain game. It was incredibly odd and charming. It felt a little like Pinky & The Brain meets Batman.

The Island of Doctor Goorse was a bit like Lost meets Indiana Jones. We’d crashed to an island and our group was split up. We had to puzzle as two groups before eventually merging.

Each game progressed through a hybrid of card playing as well as inputting answers and getting hints from the app. The app’s interface was skinned differently for each game and played background noise that fit with each individual game’s theme.

Structure

All three Unlock! games were designed to simulate an escape room-style puzzle adventure. We had:

  • a 60-minute clock
  • a game theme, and
  • a collection of puzzling components and input mechanisms.

All three Unlock! games functioned with the same basic mechanics. We had a deck of cards and an iOS / Android app.

The app's screen depicts the timer, start/pause, hint system, penalty marker, and code/machine input.

The app served a number of functions including:

  • Game clock – It counted down from 60 minutes and let us pause the timer.
  • Hint system – We could take hints and it stored the hints that we received.
  • Code input system – While most of the gameplay happened with the cards, we’d occasionally derive a code that we had to type into the app to advance.
  • Penalty tabulator – If we made a mistake, the game provided penalty cards that we were supposed to inform the app about.
  • Ambient noise / background music – The app made themed noises based on the game that we were playing.
  • Score tabulator – At the end of the game, the app calculated a score based on our time and penalties.

An assortment of facedown numbered cards.

The card decks were where the bulk of the gameplay happened. All cards had a letter or number on the back and came randomized.

The initial room map for The Formula depicts a laboratory with assorted numbers.

There were location cards that gave us an overview of the gamespace, or set, if you will. These cards were covered with numbers indicating what we had found around the room. If we saw a number, we were supposed to retrieve the corresponding card from the deck. Most of the numbers were obvious.

A hidden number 16 with an arrow drawn in to highlight it.
Relax, this is from the tutorial. No real spoilers here.

Some numbers were hidden… occasionally very well (more on that later as well).

A red air vent card (63) + a blue screwdriver card (22) gave us access to card 85, a switch panel.
Also from a promotional tutorial game.

Blue and red cards were objects that could be combined. Blue always paired with red; no like colors could meet. We had to add the value of each card and flip the card with that corresponding value from the unrevealed deck.

Blue modifiers & green machines required us to solve some sort of puzzle to determine the value of the cards before we could properly combine them with their partners.

Yellow card depicting a combination padlock. The flavor text of the cards reads, "Of course, there's a padlock."

Yellow cards represented interactions where we had to input the solution into the mobile app. These were usually more complex. If this were a video game, I’d liken them to mini bosses or stage bosses.

Penalty card, reads: "Failed. Press the Penalty button once."

Finally, there were penalty cards that occasionally resulted from combining two things that ought not have gone together.

If we wanted a hint, we had to input the number of the card we wanted a hint on into the hint system.

All red, blue, and yellow cards were single use.

If you’re interested in seeing a walkthrough of the tutorial, this is a good video:

Puzzles

Unlock! clearly strove to recreate every aspect of the escape room experience in their card games. For better or for worse, they didn’t really leave anything out.

  • There was searching and there was nitpicky detailed searching.
  • There were tasks in the form of combining objects to advance the plot or gain new items.
  • There were pure puzzles of varying difficulty.

Standouts

Space Cowboys recreated all of the core aspects of an escape room almost entirely with cards.

The cards were nicely printed with consistent and elegant design.

I was particularly fond of the addition system to resolve puzzles. Tallying up the values of combined cards into a pseudo encryption key worked well.

The games were fully and easily repackageable. There was absolutely no prop destruction and reset was almost as simple as shuffling.

It was easy to pick up and get started after a quick perusal of the instructions and a runthrough of the tutorial.

While all of the games used the same structure, each of the three games had a unique character to it.

The price was incredibly low at roughly $16 per game.

The Formula’s parody of escape room tropes was humorous.

Red card depicting a periodic table of elements. The flavor text reads, "A periodic table of elements. What a surprise!"

Squeek & Sausage was generally strong and oddly charming.

The Island of Doctor Goorse had our favorite puzzle of the series.

Shortcomings

It was fairly easy to miss a hidden number and thus not reveal a necessary card. There was a hidden number hint system built in, but we misinterpreted it. From speaking with others, it seems we weren’t the only ones to do so. When we did this, our game badly spiraled out of control. I eventually had to pause the clock and literally rerun the game to essentially debug our attempt.

Hinting was clunky. At any given time we would have a lot of cards on the table and it was frequently unclear what direction we should go. If we got stuck and wanted a hint, we had to randomly select a card for a hint. More often than not, it wasn’t the right card to take a hint on. We’d end up taking a bunch of hints at once to find the thread of gameplay and get things going again. This became frustrating quickly.

The penalties were strangely aggressive. I think they were meant to indicate that we’d wasted time in the room; they were trying to recreate that feeling of diving down a rabbit hole and having it turn up nothing. Instead, these felt like punishments for doing something bad. This was made more confusing by the randomness with which penalties popped up. More often than not, if we got something wrong, the red and blue cards would not add up to a number that was in the deck. Most of the penalties seemed more like traps laid to lull us in.

Additionally, the tutorial game left out penalties entirely and we were thus unprepared for that eventuality. While the tutorial did allude to the hidden number system, it did not accurately train us for the level of pixel hunting ahead of us.

The Formula had an easy-to-earn penalty that simply did not make any sense in either the game or reality. It also sort of undermined the jokes that it had made about the escape room formula.

The Island of Doctor Goorse started with a split team, but it was a clunky experience. We had to stay close enough to the other team that we could follow the rules, but not so close that we could see/ hear what was going on.

These games will only remain playable as long as Space Cowboys maintains their app (and mobile apps are culturally relevant). Eventually in some far off future it is likely that this software will become unsupported and that will render Unlock! unplayable. I don’t really see this as a problem. The games are fun, but they are hardly heirlooms. I simply think that this is an interesting thing that people should be aware of when it comes to app integration in tabletop games.

Should I play The Formula, The Island of Doctor Goorse, and Squeek & Sausage?

The tabletop escape game market has grown into an interesting environment with low-cost paper-based games on one extreme and complex tangible games with physical locks and mechanisms on the other end. I am excited to watch both extremes evolve.

The opened box for Unlock! The Formula. The deck of cards rests in the box the instructions beside it.

The app notwithstanding, the Unlock! games are firmly planted on the paper side of the spectrum. At $16 per game, these are about as inexpensive as tabletop escape games get. It’s tough to argue with the value.

I wish that Unlock! didn’t have all of the hidden numbers and that the hint system were a little smarter and less reliant upon guesswork. Additionally, I feel like the penalty system could be adjusted to make it less confrontational, since it’s unnecessary.

If you’re only going to play one Unlock! game, I recommend Squeek & Sausage. It is entertaining, quirky, and had fewer bumps than its siblings. That being said, each one had its virtues.

If you’re planning to play all three, I recommend that you tackle them in this order:

  1. The Formula (recommended team size of 2, maximum 3)
  2. Squeek & Sausage (recommended team size of 2, maximum 3)
  3. The Island of Doctor Goorse (recommended team size of 2 or 4; you’ll want an even number)

As with all tabletop escape games, the decision to buy comes down to what you enjoy most about puzzle games:

If you’re looking for an intense real-life experience, then this won’t ever be it.

If you simply want to solve hard puzzles, then there are puzzle books and hunts that will meet your needs far better.

If you’re hoping to capture some escape room-esque glory with a companion over drinks in your home, Unlock! is a solid choice.

Visually interrogate every card for hidden numbers and do not causally disregard hints about hidden objects. You’ll more than get your money’s worth.

Order your copies of Unlock! Escape Adventure The Formula, The Island of Doctor Goorse, and Squeek & Sausage (currently unavailable for individual purchase)… or get all 3 for a price break today.

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