Escape Room in a Box – Flashback [Review]

Update 3/16/21: If you enjoy Flashback, we hope you’ll check out our interview with game and puzzle designers Juliana Moreno Patel and Ariel Rubin (The Wild Optimists) on The Reality Escape Pod.

Cameo

Location:  at home

Date Played: July 27, 2019

Team size: 2-8; we recommend 2-3

Duration: 90 minutes

Price: $20.99

Publisher: Mattel

Disclaimer

I’m going to open by being especially up front. We know the creators of Escape Room in a Box very well.

There’s a mutual respect and friendship that we need to be clear about. David has collaborated with the women behind this product on a television pilot… and there’s enough affection in this friendship that Juliana and Ariel named the main character of Flashback Dr. Lisa David.

No one is hiding anything.

We wrote as honest a review as we would for anyone else, but if you’d like to disregard our thoughts on this product, feel free to stop reading now.

REA Reaction

Mainstream, mass-produced tabletop escape games are almost exclusively made from paper; Escape Room in a Box is the exception.

We were big fans of Escape Room in a Box’s The Werewolf Experiment and we’re huge fans of Flashback. Anyone can open this box and just play it. There aren’t laborious rules, quirky apps, or unusual nuances to understand. That’s how escape rooms are supposed to work.

The weakest points in this game were two of the puzzles that felt like they needed a little more work. One lacked precision; the other required lighting conditions that won’t always be present. Neither of these broke the game in a significant way.

From the writing, to the art, to the puzzles, Flashback demonstrated that Escape Room in a Box wasn’t just a one-hit wonder. These are still two of the strongest, most escape room-y tabletop games on the market.

Whether you’re new to the genre or you play them all, we recommend Escape Room in a Box’s Flashback.

Who is this for?

  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Solid puzzles that are far more tactile than most tabletop escape games
  • A cute story and strong writing

Story

We’d received an urgent letter from Dr. Lisa David warning us that we were in grave danger. One of her friends had descended into madness and was coming after us.

We had to delve into her past in order to determine what was wrong and remedy the situation.

Setup

Escape Room in a Box’s Flashback was a natural successor to The Werewolf Experiment. The game was loaded with tangible components and played like a real life escape room. We opened the box and the progression of play was self-evident.

There were minimal rules and no software to futz with.

Flashback was structured in three 30-minute segments (blue, red, and purple). They could be solved in any order or in parallel; each stood on its own as a unique path. For reference, we completed all 3 paths in about 45 minutes.

Gameplay

Escape Room in a Box’s Flashback was a play-at-home escape game with a moderate level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around observing, making connections, and puzzling.

Analysis

➕ The folks at Escape Room in Box write their games in a playful, entertaining voice. They leaned into this with Flashback, delivering an adorable story through fun and relatable banter.

➕ Flashback relied heavily on tangible props, more so than the majority of boxed escape rooms. One of these interactions will likely stop some players cold (rest assured, it was well clued). In this way, Flashback felt more like an escape room than many of the play-at-home games in this style.

➕ The colored puzzle tracks were clear. We could play them sequentially or simultaneously, and we never felt lost. We enjoyed how the tracks were themed by puzzle type, which was grounded in the narrative. The gameplay worked well.

➕ The game looked and felt polished. We appreciated the quality paper materials. The art looked great, especially in the purple track.

➖ While some of the artwork was adorable, it didn’t carry throughout all of the puzzle tracks. More memorable art throughout the game would have further supported the narrative.

➖ A few of the puzzles lacked precision. In one instance, the prop didn’t match its cluing quite closely enough. In another instance, we didn’t have the environment that the puzzle demanded or enough direction as to how to create it. These puzzles felt unrefined.

➕ With Flashback, Escape Room in a Box integrated the narrative and puzzles more closely than in their original game, which was a delight.

➕ The hint system was easy to use, self-service, and comprehensive.

Flashback was easier than many of the play-at-home escape rooms on the market. This will be a quick playthrough for experienced puzzlers, though no less fun because of it. If you’re looking for meaty puzzles, however, look elsewhere. Flashback would be a great choice for beginners and families.

➕ At $20, the value of this game is insane relative to other similar products made entirely of paper.

😏 Objectively speaking, Doctor Lisa David was a most excellent character name.

Tips For Player

  • Space Requirements: a small table
  • Required Gear: pencil, paper, access to a kitchen
  • I would recommend playing the puzzle tracks sequentially. There’s no real reason to rush though this game. Savor it.

Buy your copy of Escape Room in a Box’s Flashback, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Mattel provided a sample for review. 

(If you purchase via our Amazon links, you will help support Room Escape Artist as we will receive a very small percentage of the sale. We appreciate the support.)

Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment – The Mattel Edition

Update 3/16/21: If you enjoy The Werewolf Experiment, we hope you’ll check out our interview with game and puzzle designers Juliana Moreno Patel and Ariel Rubin (The Wild Optimists) on The Reality Escape Pod.

This is the third edition of this game to arrive in the mail.

We wrote about the first one in February 2016. It was a prototype, sent to us in the hopes that we would promote the Kickstarter. Spoiler: we did.

We wrote about the second one in October 2017. We’d backed the Kickstarter and now we could play the game that Juliana Patel and Ariel Rubin had created.

Escape Room in a Box: The Werewolf Experiment's black, white, and yellow box.

Now Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment has arrived yet again. This time, it’s manufactured by Mattel and available on Amazon for $29.99.

What’s the difference?

Price

At $30, the new Mattel edition is $15 – $30 less expensive.

In-game: The initial opening of the box, a number of components are obscured by a piece of paper that reads, "Keep out."

Components

The Mattel edition has a new aesthetic. It’s still playful, but its color pallet shift leans a little more brown.

In-game: a green biohazard box locked with a plastic 3 digit lock, a gold plastic warded lock, and art depciting a female werewolf.

Most noticeably, from my vantage point, the locks – combination and key – were made from plastic. Typing this, it sounds like a criticism, but it isn’t. The locks work well. They don’t need to be durable; they aren’t security devices.

Mattel swapped out a few props for new items. This was for ease of manufacturing and to eliminate the destructible element.

In-game: a pad of paper and a pencil.

Puzzle Variation

A few of the puzzles in the new edition are different from the original. Some changes are minor improvements; some are a minor downgrade. Either way, nothing has changed enough that it’s worth buying a new one if you’ve already played the old one (unless you want some plastic locks).

A close up of many components, "Start your timer now!" scarwled

Should I Buy Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment?

Three editions in, we stand by both our previous reviews of Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment. If you’ve already played the Kickstarter version, you’ve seen what this game has to offer. We still think that it’s the best that the play-at-home escape room market has to date.

If you haven’t played Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment, it’s now available at a fraction of the price and with 2-day delivery.

Learn More About The Making of this Product

We interviewed the duo behind this game in late 2017. The creators of Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment, Juliana and Ariel, gave a ton of interesting insights into the marathon that was bringing this game to market.

(If you purchase via our Amazon links, you will help support Room Escape Artist as we will receive a very small percentage of the sale.)

Wild Optimism: Behind the Success of the Kickstarter Escape Room in a Box

Update 3/16/21: If you enjoy this written interview, we continue the conversation with game and puzzle designers Juliana Moreno Patel and Ariel Rubin (The Wild Optimists) on The Reality Escape Pod.

This never should have worked.

In early 2016, the women behind Escape Room in a Box asked us to promote their play-at-home, tabletop escape room. We thought this was a terrible idea so we said, “only if we can review it.” They sent us a prototype. We played it, enjoyed it, and reviewed it.

Juliana Patel and Ariel Rubin have come a long way since then:

  • 2,353 backers pledged $135,429 to bring their project to life.
  • The Kickstarter product shipped. We reviewed that one too.
  • They sold their game to Mattel.
Escape-Room-Photo
MATTEL DEBUTS NEW ADULT GAME — ESCAPE ROOM IN A BOX. New Game Inspired by Escape Room Experiences Available This Fall (PRNewsfoto/Mattel, Inc.)

Today, the Mattel version is available for purchase.

We looked at the data: Most escape room Kickstarters fail. This one, on the other hand, sounded like the fairytale Kickstarter story.

We sat down with Juliana and Ariel to get their story of wild optimism, long hours, and creative perseverance.

Room Escape Artist: Where did the idea for Escape Room in a Box come from?

Juliana & Ariel: We’ve always been into board games and Juliana was frequently hosting game nights. We were increasingly spending a lot of money going to escape rooms in sketchy neighborhoods. (This is before anyone could afford prime real estate for escape rooms.) So we figured we’d just buy an at-home one for Juliana’s next game night. We searched the internet, but we couldn’t find one to purchase. When we couldn’t find one, we decided to make one. We figured we couldn’t be the only people out there who wanted this.

Juliana & Ariel at a conference in front of an oversized wooden box labeled, "Escape Room In A Box."

Once you had the idea, how did you seed the market for the Kickstarter?

We reached out to lots of reviewers, both of escape rooms and board games. We were lucky to have a number of major influencers (like you! and Joel Eddy) respond in the first wave. Even though neither of you thought the game was going to be any good, you still agreed to play it. Once you knew it was awesome, your support brought us more reviews and press coverage.

We reached out to any media outlet that we could think of that might want to cover the game. We personalized our emails, pointing out specifically why their audience would want to learn about this project. (Yes, it takes forever to watch/read a good bit of their content, but it proved to be well worth it.) We emailed or tweeted any journalist or blogger or podcaster we could find who had ever covered escape rooms and tried to convince them that this would make a great follow-up story.

Note that for every article or review you see that we DID get, we probably reached out to twenty more who (mostly) never responded, or who said they didn’t want to write about the game. It is, in some sense, a numbers game.

We also sent a personalized thank you email to every single backer, which we think made people feel appreciated and more likely to share the project with their friends and on social media.

We paid attention to who the backers were. When we saw that Elan Lee (creator of Exploding Kittens and Bears v. Babies) had backed our game, we reached out to him and offered to let him play the game immediately. He was incredibly gracious, inviting us over to his house for a play test and giving us excellent feedback and advice on both the game and dealing with Kickstarter.

Once the Kickstarter was successful, we followed up with people who had never responded to us, sending them a second email to let them know how well things were going. We received more responses that way.

So at that point, while the Kickstarter was running, you already had samples to send. We haven’t seen that all too often. How did you get to that point?

We approached this as a board game Kickstarter (since that was a well established model) and most of those would never dream of launching without independent third party reviews, especially for first time creators.

The Werewolf Experiment - Revisited 2

To get to that point, we were continually testing the game. We started by reaching out to our friends and asking them each to bring a friend we didn’t know. We also needed to find escape room-minded testers, so we tried different ideas. We went to a Puzzled Pint and asked everyone there to test the game. They all said yes and they were great. We also reached out to people who had reviewed escape rooms on Yelp, but the vast majority of them never responded to us. (We maybe got one playtest out of that.) Some ideas worked and others didn’t.

We were testing all the time. We started splitting up so that we could have two test groups running at once.

We asked the playtesters what they liked and didn’t like about the game, but they usually couldn’t articulate that well. We got more out of simply watching them play the game. People don’t know what they’re good at. They always suggested ways to make the game harder, but that wasn’t the feedback we sought.

How much did the game change during testing?

At first it changed rapidly. The first group took three hours to complete the game, with generous hinting. So, we iterated. We knew everything was fixable.

For example, we originally included a challenging logic puzzle. First we simplified it. Then we added step-by-step instructions for how to do it. However, people didn’t want to read the instructions. We found that people like to figure things out by themselves rather than read and follow instructions.

Originally we relied on a lot of paper puzzles, but we noticed that players enjoyed the physical interactions more, so we leaned into that. We wanted people to have more energy while they played and that was the solution. More innovative and more interactive.

As playtesting continued, we learned not to get hung up on everything. Gameplay wasn’t a problem until multiple groups had the same issue. In some cases, these repeat issues led us to add hinting, or clue structure, into the game itself. When testers repeatedly failed to find the same thing… we won’t tell you what we added, because spoilers!

After a while, the rate of change plateaued.

Once the testing completed and the Kickstarter funded, was it smooth sailing to a finished product?

There was another round of more testing after we got the artwork back from our artist. We spent hours sitting with him, making him get rid of beautiful things that we all loved because we knew they would come across as clues when they actually meant nothing.

Then we did a bunch of play tests with the artwork, which led to more changes. This was stressful because he does amazing work, but he also has a day job so it was tricky for him to meet our manufacturing deadlines. At one point we literally bought him an automatic cat feeder so that he wouldn’t have to worry about his cat and could focus on getting the work done. It sounds completely illogical, but we had to do what we had to do to get the artwork!

We also had to work through manufacturing. We needed to make sure the manufactured product matched our prototype exactly.

The Werewolf Experiment - Revisited 3

At one point we were convinced that some of our locks were breaking in transit… but only the red ones. When manufacturing didn’t believe us, we had to devise a test to prove it. We put 5 black locks and 5 red locks through a dryer cycle. All the red locks broke, but the black ones were fine. We knew this would be a problem for shipping our game, so we changed all of the locks to the black version. Problem solved.

What tips do you have to help people do Kickstarter right? Any blog or podcasts suggestions?

Understand how much work you need to do both before and during a Kickstarter. You can not rely on Kickstarter to bring you an audience. You must bring in your own audience. Some people do that by building up a huge mailing list before launch. We did that by gathering a ton of press that all hit within the first week of the campaign. They all brought their audiences to our game.

Independent reviews of your product make all the difference in the world, especially if it’s an expensive product. We’ll gamble $20 on an untested puzzle game, but have a hard time parting with over $50 if all we have is your word that it’s going to be awesome.

Jamey Stegmaier and James Mathe have excellent blogs filled with useful information about how to run a successful Kickstarter. They cover absolutely everything. This includes huge things like how to build up an audience or do worldwide shipping for the best price and smaller tips such as: don’t launch on a weekend or a holiday because people aren’t sitting at their computers browsing Kickstarter at that time.

What are the differences between the Kickstarter version of your product and the Mattel version?

Not a whole lot.

The biggest difference is that the Mattel version doesn’t include any destructible components.

We included one element that gets used up. Mattel replaced it with something that doesn’t get destroyed and is easily resettable. It’s also super cool!

There are other things a big company like Mattel just can’t do. For example, Mattel replaced the pen in our original game with a pencil.

Now that Escape Room in a Box is for sale, what are you working on?

With Mattel, we are working on the next game in the series. Unfortunately that is about all we can say about it at this point.

We sold the Escape Room In A Box trademark to Mattel, so we are now the Wild Optimists. We create custom escape room-style experiences for a variety of clients. This ranges from a centerpiece puzzle at a gala to a completely personalized escape room for an epic marriage proposal. Designing puzzles is our absolute favorite part of this entire process, so this allows us to have a steady stream of new and interesting projects to work on.

Juliana & Ariel posing in front of a mural of an umbrella shielding pink rain. They appear to be holding the umbrealla.

Puzzles are such a great way to bring people together, get them laughing, talking, and bonding. That’s why we’re incorporating them into more unexpected environments where you want people to meet each other (like galas and weddings). The beauty of these puzzles is that they are one-time use, so we can design things you could never do in a traditional room (like having a puzzle that involves mixing up a cocktail). We love getting to personalize our creations to our audience.

We love the name “Wild Optimists.” Does that name capture your mentality at the beginning of the Kickstarter?

We didn’t think it would be easy and it certainly wasn’t. It WAS doable.

A hand holding a locked tin labeld "Biohazard. In the background is a table covered in paper and physical puzzles.
The prototype

However, we literally did not stop working during the time we created the game and ran the Kickstarter. We couldn’t sleep because we were working through puzzles while lying in bed. We would slap together meals while responding to comments on Kickstarter. We barely saw our husbands, ignored our children more than we should have, and focused everything on the game. After the Kickstarter was over, we agreed that we would never work like that again because it had been totally insane and was not sustainable. There was zero work life balance.

All that being said, we are continually pinching ourselves at how well everything turned out. We now have a career where we get to design puzzles, play games, bring joy to people, and still be home as the primary caretakers for our children. It’s been a really epic journey and we wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Purchase your Escape Room in a Box: The Werewolf Experiment.

(If you purchase via our Amazon links, you will help support Room Escape Artist as we will receive a very small percentage of the sale.)

Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment – Revisited

Update 3/16/21: If you enjoy The Werewolf Experiment, we hope you’ll check out our interview with game and puzzle designers Juliana Moreno Patel and Ariel Rubin (The Wild Optimists) on The Reality Escape Pod.

Back in the old, innocent days of February 2016, Lisa and and I were a month away from our wedding when we received a message from Julianna and Ariel, the creators of Escape Room In A Box. They asked, and I’m paraphrasing:

“We’re about to launch a play-at-home escape room on Kickstarter. Will you promote it?”

Now we were not sold on this and thought it seemed like a pretty terrible idea. We’d seen our share of bad escape rooms and the last thing that we wanted to do was blindly promote a pile of garbage, so we responded:

“Nope, we won’t promote it… but we would review it if you could get one to us.”

We thought that would be the end of the discussion, but Julianna and Ariel said “sure” and overnighted the game to us.

We gathered our regular team, plus a newbie (as we generally try to include fresh eyes). While everyone was skeptical at the beginning, no one was at the conclusion. This was the review that I wrote then (in our old, non-standardized format):

Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment [Review]

Revisiting The Werewolf Experiment

Some 20 months later we gathered a new group of escape room lovers, cooked them risotto, baked them cookies, and watched them play the Kickstarter First Edition of Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment.

In-game: The stop warning, time will begin as soon as the panel is lifted.

While The Werewolf Experiment was our first attempt at a tabletop escape game, this new group of players had seen many of the at-home escape rooms on the market. We worried it wouldn’t hold up, but they had a great time.

Assorted illustrations and the box tied off with rope.

I’m happy to report that we’re able to let that old review stand with a few additions:

  • The packaging in the Kickstarter edition was dramatically improved from the prototype that we played.
  • The art, illustration, and general presentation of the Kickstarter edition were cohesive and massively improved. (I don’t really remember any in-game art in the prototype.)
  • I didn’t know enough about at-home escape room games to comment on the hint system at the time. Now I can add that the hint system is easy to use and a lot less annoying than most of the tabletop escape game hint systems.
  • We also called out that many of the puzzles were paper based and felt a little homework-y. While I think that style of puzzle is more acceptable in a tabletop game than a real life escape room, I also think that those puzzle types will stand out even more nearly 2 years later.
  • We found a minor typo in the hint & answer booklets.
  • This game still has some of the most brilliant escape room-y moments in all of tabletop escape games.

In-game: 2 locked tins, and one locked antidote bag.

 

Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment, Mattel Edition

This November, the retail version of The Werewolf Experiment will hit store shelves as the game was picked up by Mattel.

Box art for Mattel's Escape Room in a Box.

The new edition will cost $29.99 and we will run a test group through it as well.

Kickstarter lateness

Some closing thoughts on the nature of Kickstarter:

Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment shipped roughly 7 months late and some folks have expressed resentment to Lisa and me over this. Not directed at us, but in our direction.

I’d like to take a moment to praise Julianna and Ariel for shipping within a year of their expected ship date and handling their Kickstarter with professionalism and grace. They kept in regular contact with their backers and focused on delivering a quality product. They did just that.

Lateness and Kickstarter go together like steel toilets and hidden keys. I backed something in November of 2014 and it was supposed to ship in March of 2015… and in October 2017, the dude is still working on it.

Backing something on Kickstarter is like paying someone in advance to keep a pinky swear. When a Kickstarter ships within a year of its expected date and turns out to be what was promised in the initial description, that’s a win.

While we’re on the subject of Kickstarter, have a look at our analysis of escape room crowdfunding efforts:

Should you Crowdfund an Escape Room? A Data-Driven Look

Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment [Review]

Update 3/16/21: If you enjoy The Werewolf Experiment, we hope you’ll check out our interview with game and puzzle designers Juliana Moreno Patel and Ariel Rubin (The Wild Optimists) on The Reality Escape Pod.

We were skeptical, but we were proven wrong.

Location: Buy it and play it wherever you want

Date played: January 31, 2016

Team size: 2-6; we recommend 4-6

Price: $60+shipping per box, $45+shipping if you support the Kickstarter

A room escape at home

Launching on February 3, 2016 via Kickstarter, Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment is exactly what its name states: A room escape in a box.

Their Kickstarter states:

“Escape Room In A Box is an experience as much as a game. It is all the fun of working with your friends at puzzle-solving, clue-finding, racing-against-time of an Escape Room crammed into a tiny box of DOOM! (But only if you don’t escape, if you do escape it’s a tiny box of BRILLIANCE!).”

The claim was lofty.

What’s in the box?

Photo of Brad Pitt from the movie Seven, captioned, "What's in the box?"

There were 19 puzzles and three locked containers.

The puzzles were largely paper-based with a variety of small objects woven in for variety.

Everything in the box mattered. It was dense.

Theme & story

The theming and story were pretty loose.

We had been infected with a werewolf virus and had an hour to find the antidote… or else.

The writing was light and comical. It didn’t attempt to be sciencey or heavy. Stylistically most of our team appreciated this (because faux science takes longer to read), though one of our teammates wanted it to feel more real.

The plot functioned more as a set of rails for the puzzles to ride along.

Half tabletop game, half puzzle adventure

We set this up as we would a game night. (Like many room escape enthusiasts, we also host regular game nights).

The entire game took place on our dinning room table.

By virtue of the setting, it felt like a tabletop game at first. But as the game unfolded our escape gaming instincts kicked in. A few minutes in, it felt like an escape room… except that our legs weren’t relevant.

Puzzles and challenge

Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment was packed with interesting and challenging puzzles.

Because many of the puzzles were pen and paper driven, elements sometimes felt like homework. But the worksheets included a diversity and cleverness that homework never achieved. The game extended far beyond worksheets.

A hand holding a locked tin labeld "Biohazard. In the background is a table covered in paper and physical puzzles.
If you study this photo closely… You will learn very little about the game.

The game captured many of the high points of escape rooms in a way that was legitimately surprising.

Using simple components, it provided some magical moments.

Party planning

The creators of Escape Room in a Box included a pamphlet of food and drink recipes to theme an entire evening on the game.

We put this shindig together last minute, so we ordered pizza. But given another day to get ready, we would have tested out the recipes. (We usually cook fully themed meals on game nights; Pandemic is always fun).

With the recipe pamphlet, the game could become an evening event.

Is it replayable?

Like most escape rooms, win or lose, it’s a one shot deal.

Throughout the game, we marked up most of the papers, and in the case of one object, rendered it unusable for future play. The game designers know this and offer an inexpensive refill pack, so that the game can be played by more people. It just isn’t replayable by those who have already experienced it.

Ultimately, Escape Room in a Box plans on having a hardware return program whereby those who buy their games can return the expensive bits for a significant discount on their future Escape Room In A Box experiences.

Should I play Escape Room in Box: The Werewolf Experiment?

The word of the day is “surprise.”

When the demo copy of Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment arrived in the mail, my initial thought was:

“How the hell is a box this small going to capture the fun of a good room escape?”

The game doesn’t have a dedicated room. It isn’t themed, lit, or particularly physically interactive. However, the designers steered into its strengths. It offered challenging puzzles, clear and thorough instructions, and variety. It also included a hint guide and answer book.

It contained complex elements of discovery, scavenging, and accumulating puzzles that built upon one another such that players had to work together to succeed.

It encourages players to plan a whole evening experience.

If you mentally approach it as an escape room and not a board game, then it is a steal at $45 ($60 too).

Does Escape Room in a Box rival the grandeur of the best games we’ve played? No.

However, it offered us a better experience than many rooms do. It did so from the comfort of our own dinning room, at the price of 1.5 tickets to an average room escape.

Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment was a great game. It was well-designed, innovative, and fun.

Back Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment on Kickstarter, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: we reviewed a free demo version of Escape Room In A Box and have returned the demo copy.