Escape Game Enterprises – The Enigma Files [Review]

Puzzlegram shark.

Location: at home

Date played: October 8, 2017

Team size: 1-4; we recommend 1-3

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: £19 (+£2.50 Shipping) UK, €22 (+€4 Shipping) Europe, $25 (+$10 Shipping) Worldwide

Story & setup

When a great white shark washed up on the shore of South West England, investigators found several documents inside its stomach. We were called in to help investigate.

In-game: An assortment of photos, maps, and articles from Escape Game Products.

The Enigma Files was a play-at-home tabletop puzzle game. Escape Game Enterprises mailed us a collection of paper puzzles. This was about as straightforward as tabletop escape games get.

Puzzles

The Enigma Files contained paper puzzles. We determined which pieces connected to others in order to begin solving the puzzles. These puzzles all had at least two layers to them.

While paper-based, it played in the style of an escape room.

Standouts

There was minimal setup and it was easy to get rolling. The puzzle structure was straightforward. It soon became clear how these pieces would ultimately fit together, which gave us a finite goal.

The Enigma Files had a clear objective. It was also immediately apparent when we’d solved the game.

Although entirely paper based, the puzzle components interacted in fun ways and solved cleanly. We enjoyed the more involved puzzles.

The puzzles felt well tested.

Shortcomings

The Enigma Files was well made, but homemade. It didn’t have the polish of many of the other play-at-home games.

Some of the elements in the box seemed unnecessary. If they were puzzle pieces, we didn’t need them. If they were story elements, we didn’t get that from them.

The solution didn’t mean anything. It didn’t have any bearing on the brief staging. We were left wondering why that was the solution… and for that matter, why the setup mattered at all.

Should I play Escape Game Enterprises’ The Enigma Files?

The Enigma Files was an escape room-style puzzle game to play at home. While the setup and solution weren’t meaningful, the puzzling was clear and satisfying.

Note that you can request hints for The Enigma Files over email. We did not try the hint system and can’t speak to its speed or efficacy. Honestly, this was a mistake on our part.

The Enigma Files was entirely paper-based. It was well made, but not as polished as many other escape room-style play-at-home games.

If you’re just getting into these types of games, there are more exciting ones on the market for less money (consider that this one is shipping from the UK).

If you enjoy this type of hour-long, at-home puzzle game and you’re looking for another one to sink your teeth into, The Enigma Files would be a good choice. You’ll likely enjoy the gameplay.

Buy your copy of Escape Game Enterprises’ The Enigma Files, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Thank you to Amanda Harris and Drew Nelson for sharing their copy with us.

 

Sleuth Kings – Case 001: The Guilty [Review]

I’ll be back in 5 minutes.

Location: at home, with an internet connection

Date played: October 9, 2017

Team size: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯; we recommend 1-3

Duration: up to one month

Price: $24.95 per month

Story & setup

Sleuth Kings is a new play-at-home escape game subscription service that mixes mailed materials with online inputs.

We played the role of remote assistants to private investigator Sullivan King. King sent us a file of evidence and then we emailed with him when we’d solved pieces of the case or needed a little extra help from him.

The materials in Case 001: The Guilty were printed papers, photographs, and a rather fetching folder with Sleuth King’s logo emblazoned on the cover.

The Sleuth Kings folder of materials next to a laptop with the Room Escape Artist logo.

The internet interactions were predominantly email-based. Sullivan King was in fact… an email bot.

Surprise Chipmunk
Dun, dun, DUN!

Case 001: The Guilty had us investigating a street revolutionary who went by the moniker Dictator Sin. We had to team up with Sullivan, root-out Dictator Sin’s plans, and stop him.

Puzzles

Sleuth King’s puzzle game was strong with varied, challenging, and interesting puzzles driving gameplay.

After we resolved a puzzle, we would email the solution to Sullivan who would “act on the information” and provide us with followup details.

Standouts

I really enjoyed the puzzle offerings of Sleuth Kings.

The conversational interface of emailing with Sullivan was a good way to narrate a story and keep everything cohesive.

The Sleuth Kings logo is slick.

Sleuth Kings delivered puzzles that weren’t in the initial packaging.

Shortcomings

As we sent information to Sullivan, he would take time to act on it. He’d reply, something like, “The address isn’t far. Give me five or ten minutes and I’ll email you when I’m there.” Then we’d literally have to wait 5 minutes or so before receiving another email moving the story forward and giving us our next task. This shattered the game flow.

Hinting got a little awkward because Sullivan-bot could only discern three things:

  • Correct answers
  • Incorrect answers
  • Requests for help

When we were almost there, and simply inputting our answer incorrectly, it was treated as a wrong answer without any feedback that we were on the right track and simply needed a nudge.

Additionally, Sleuth Kings was constantly creating new email threads. All in, I had 19 threads through Case 001: The Guilty. It wasn’t initially clear to how this threading/ replying dynamic operated.

The many of the printed materials were a little hokey.

The story was fine, but not particularly believable.

Should I play Sleuth Kings’ Case 001: The Guilty?

If you evaluate the standouts versus shortcomings in this review purely on word count, it would be easy to think that Sleuth Kings was bad. It wasn’t. It was actually quite fun, and this was their first chapter.

Sleuth Kings has a fantastic concept and an interesting structure. It needs additional refinement to run smoothly, but it largely works.

Interaction with automated characters smartly mixed story, puzzling, and gameplay. If Sleuth Kings can refine the pacing issues and make the system a little more aware and able to identify nearly-correct answers, this would be phenomenal. Swapping from email to a chatbot, or the addition of another character who could “run errands” while the gameplay continues, could smooth over some of these issues.

Sleuth Kings is strong contender in the burgeoning subscription puzzle game market, and could make for a fantastic holiday gift for that special puzzle lover in your life.

I welcome our robotic puzzle overlords and look forward to where Sleuth Kings is heading.

Subscribe with Sleuth Kings, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Note that Case 001: The Guilty is no longer available. Your purchased subscription will start with the current month’s game.

Full disclosure: Sleuth Kings comped our tickets for this game.

 

Dispatch by Breakout – On the Run, Box 1 [Review]

Box of soap opera.

Location: at home

Date played: October 8, 2017

Team size: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯; we recommend ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Duration: as long as it takes to solve the puzzles

Price: $24.99 per month for a monthly subscription

Story & setup

A package came in the mail filled with media clippings, journal, wedding invitation, wedding program, and letters. My (the collective ‘my’) best friend’s heiress wife had turned up dead on his honeymoon and he had disappeared. I (the collective ‘I’) knew that something strange was going down and had to sift through the evidence to make sense of these tragedies.

Dispatch, On The Run box. A cardboard shipping box made to look like it was covered in stamps.

Upon opening Dispatch by Breakout, the first thing that I noticed was the high quality printing of just about everything in the box. The wedding invitation was an actual invitation and newspaper clippings were on newsprint. Everything else was printed in color on quality stock.

The second thing that became immediately apparent was the volume of reading material. We played this in the car driving between New Orleans and Houston. It took us well over an hour to read everything in the box aloud.

Structure

Breakout is one of the largest escape room chains in the United States. Dispatch, however, was decidedly not a boxed escape room. I would describe it as interactive fiction. Dispatch was more like a novel, broken up between different written materials, than it was like an escape room (boxed or real life).

An assortment of papers from Dispatch, On The Run. Newspaper clippings, a journal, wedding invitation, a wedding toast, the cover of a tabloid magazine.

On The Run was the first chapter of Dispatch. It set up a lot of different mysteries that I assume will be addressed in future installments.

Puzzles

We had to use the information in the box as well as a web browser to explore the world that Dispatch built. There were a handful of puzzles to solve. I counted 3, but I think that you could count differently. They had to be solved sequentially.

Dispatch, or at least this first chapter, was far more focused on building a world than on puzzling.

Standouts

On the Run set up an engaging story. After reading through all the written materials and poking around on the different websites they mentioned, we were invested in the characters and the mystery.

On the Run was approachable and physically compact. There weren’t any heavy objects or tiny odds and ends. The elements in the box were high quality paper products. They were legible and accessible.

Additionally, the handwriting fonts used throughout the game were easy to read. This might seem like a minor thing, but we’ve seen far too many challenging handwriting fonts.

It was clear when we reached the conclusion of the first episode. We had many more open plot threads than resolutions, but we knew we’d achieved success.

We really enjoyed the first puzzle. We didn’t find it particularly difficult, but it got us rolling and we found it amusing.

Shortcomings

After that first puzzle, On the Run was like finding a needle in a haystack. We had tons of information to work with and little direction. The solutions ultimately relied on information that was out of the proverbial box.

There was a lot to read, which was not conducive to group gameplay. We ended up having one person read everything aloud to the group. This seemed to be the only way to reasonably engage everyone in the mystery.

While there was a lot of story to absorb, there were only a few puzzles to solve in the first box. We spent a lot of time working on just a few things.

This turned out to be a printed story and an internet hide-and-seek. We all searched the internet for information that was more or less challenging to uncover. While On the Run created a world to explore, it was much like day-to-day existence, searching through browser tabs.

A lot of the internet-based components were simply not believable. I’m no Instagram expert but that was decidedly not the Instagram profile of a sexy tabloid-stalked heiress.

The hint system was delayed. When we asked for a hint, we received it almost 24 hours later. If we’d intended to explore On the Run over a long period of time, this could have been interpreted as experiential. Since we played through the box in a single (long) car ride, by the time we had received a hint, we no longer needed it… because we’d texted a friend.

Should I play Dispatch by Breakout’s On the Run?

Dispatch was interactive fiction with some puzzles. The story pulled us in enough that we wanted to see it through, even when the game was not what we thought we were getting into.

Expectations really matter here. Dispatch was absolutely not the game that we thought we were receiving from an escape room chain. It bore almost no resemblance to an escape room. That’s not a knock against it; it’s simply a description.

If you’re looking for a play-at-home escape game, there are many on the market; this is not one of them.

If an interactive novelization with a soap opera-y narrative and a few puzzles sounds like something that you could enjoy over an evening or two (or a long car ride), then Dispatch by Breakout will have plenty of drama and intrigue for you to explore. You just have to go in knowing that the few puzzles there are can be a bit obtuse.

This is not really my go-to type of game, but I am pretty curious where this story will go and what they will do with it as Breakout refines their storytelling.

Buy your copy of Dispatch by Breakout’s On the Run, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Dispatch by Breakout provided a complementary first episode.

Journal29 [Review]

They were here before…

Location: at home

Date played: Summer 2017

Team size: 1 -¯\_(ツ)_/¯; we recommend 2-3

Price: $16 per copy

Story & setup

A top secret excavation yielded no interesting results until the team suddenly vanished on the 29th day leaving behind no evidence of their existence except for a mysterious and cryptic journal.

Created by Dimitris Chassapakis, Journal29 was a puzzle book with a narrative experienced entirely through puzzles and illustration.

The Journal29 book, a pencil, and a iPhone with the Journal29 website open.
All that you need to play.
Playing Journal29 required the book, a pencil (seriously, don’t try this with a pen), and a computer or smartphone.

Every 2 pages of Journal29 contained a URL / QR code and puzzle. When we thought we had a solution to a puzzle, we visited the URL, submitted our answer, and the page either told us we were wrong… or rewarded us with a “key” word. The keys from the puzzles would ultimately be plugged into subsequent puzzles.

Puzzles

Journal29 contained 63 individual puzzles. Each one was unique. If a particular method of solving worked once, it would not work again. In the book’s own words, Journal29 required us to “write, draw, search, fold, combine, and more.”

Standouts

While some of the puzzle types were familiar, many were remarkably inventive.

The mix of puzzles was fantastic. These included both simple ones and mindbogglers.

The first 8 puzzles built a elegant on-ramp for the rest of the book.

The website was simple and effective.

The key system was smart. If we solved a puzzle based on incomplete information (we didn’t have one of the necessary keys) and then backsolved that key, it did not spoil the puzzle that was meant to yield the backsolved key. We simply had the key to an unsolved puzzle… not the solution to the puzzle. (I’m looking at you puzzle #28. One day I’ll figure out what the hell you are.)

We loved how some puzzles daisy-chained via keys. This meant that certain portions of the book would bind up until we made progress on an earlier puzzle. In the meantime, however, we had other puzzle tracks and puzzles that required no keys. Because of this design decision, we could be woefully stuck in one segment and simply move on to different puzzles. We’d periodically revisit the puzzle we were stuck on until we had a breakthrough. As a result, every time we sat down with Journal29, we made some progress.

Journal29 was low commitment. It lasted us a few weeks of on again, off again puzzling.

I liked the geometric aesthetic of Journal29’s illustrations.

Shortcomings

The handwriting font used in Journal29 was occasionally difficult to read. This led to transcription errors when we jotted down keys, which later resulted in frustration in the form of unsolvable puzzles.

The QR codes were worthless. It was easier to type into the URL bar to jump between puzzles. This was important because after the first 8 puzzles, we stopped solving them linearly. Also… QR codes are a silly, ugly, and insecure feature for people trapped in 2013.

A few puzzles in Journal29 got a little weird. They all ultimately had reasonable and clear solutions, but it was a grind to get through some of them.

The story was present, but not so compelling.

I really, truly wish that the answer website had accepted minor variations on puzzle solutions. There were times where we derived an answer along the lines of 123-456-7890, but it had to be entered as 1234567890. We lost a lot of time and built up a lot of frustration over minor variance in solution formats.

Journal29 had no built-in hint system. The Journal29 forum, however, did have spoiler discussions for each puzzle. I used this twice and the experience was mediocre because the discussions were unstructured, often giving me more detail than I wanted or requiring me to dig deep because some of the comments were more confusing than the puzzles. Both times that I used the forums, I learned that I had a key transcription error. I wish that the Journal29 simply had a structured and predictable help website; it would have been a better experience.

Should I play Journal29?

If you’re a puzzler, Journal29 is a fantastic purchase. It was more intriguing than a normal puzzle book. It was deeper, more challenging, and more entertaining than a 60-minute at-home escape room.

We’ve been traveling more than normal these past few months and we carried Journal29 with us. We’d pull it out on a train and solve a puzzle or two or focus on it for hours during a flight delay. It was lightweight and low tech. Because most of the puzzles solved with “ah-ha!” moments rather than grinding process puzzling, we could experience it casually.

I recommend Journal29 for small groups of people who spend a lot of time together. As a couple, it was fantastic. We could easily share the book and it was always remarkable when Lisa easily saw a path forward that was completely invisible to me (and vice-versa). If I was going to attempt this book with 3 or 4 people, I’d consider purchasing a second copy just to make sure that everyone could participate.

It is possible to solve Journal29 without destroying it, but you’d have to work very hard and probably photocopy many of the pages to do so. Jorunal29 was designed for destruction and that was absolutely fine with us.

Grab your copy of Journal29, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Thank you to Amanda Harris for giving us a fresh copy of Journal29. You’ve brought us hours of entertainment.

(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

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

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.

Escape the Crate – Escape the Queen Anne’s Revenge & Escape the Colosseum [Review]

Looking for gift ideas? Check out our holiday buyer’s guide.

📦 ⚓ 📦 ⚔️

Location: at home

Date played: July 7, 2017

Team size: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯; we recommend 2-3

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $29.99 + shipping charged every other month when a new box ships

Story

In the second and third chapters from Escape the Crate, we continued to chase our villain through time to stop him from altering history by retrieving the anachronistic objects that he had left behind.

The second chapter, Escape the Queen Anne’s Revenge, brought us to 1718 at the Blockade of Charles Town aboard Blackbeard’s ship.

Opened Escape the Queen Anne's Revenge crate shows brig bars with writing on them. Through the bars the ship's masts are visible.

The third chapter, Escape the Colosseum, took us back to a gladiator fight in Ancient Rome.

Escape the Colosseum opened, depicts a schedule of spectacles, a magnifying glass, and a picture of the Colosseum.

In each episode, our mission as time traveling agents was to retrieve the anachronism so that our present time would exist as it should.

Structure

Escape The Crate is a subscription service that delivers a tabletop puzzle adventure every other month.

Opting for a lower cost, higher output model, Escape the Crate packed game segments into sealed envelopes that we earned entry into by submitting puzzle solutions to a website. The website also delivered audio messages that narrated the story as well as provided guiding instructions to keep the game flowing.

The website included hint delivery as well. Each puzzle had a series of hints that escalated in detail until the final hint provided the solution.

The components of the game were generally made from paper or inexpensive fabric. There were a few props that were more tangible, but they were the exception, not the rule. At the end of the game, we were instructed to keep a few key components for use with future Escape The Crate shipments. As subscribers, we continue to build an arsenal of equipment by retaining certain items from each adventure as we chase this time-hopping villain through world history.

Puzzles

Similarly to Chapter 1: Escape the Confederate Spymistress, in these subsequent chapters, Escape the Crate designed puzzles themed on the relevant historical era and location.

We needed to observe carefully and “unlock” sealed envelopes that represented different containers or rooms in each episode’s “set,” Queen Anne’s Revenge and The Colosseum, respectively. The puzzle structure mimicked a physical escape room.

While most of the puzzling was paper-based, each episode incorporated a few more interactive challenges.

Standouts

We appreciated Escape the Crate’s commitment to the historical setting of each episode. Both Escape the Queen Anne’s Revenge and Escape the Colosseum involved thematically appropriate ciphers (although the Roman game did this better)… If you know anything about ciphers, you’ll know what to expect from Escape the Colosseum.

Escape the Crate augmented the contents of each crate with a web interface. The website provided the “locks,” hints, and narrative audio clips. It was intuitive to use – on both desktop and mobile – and didn’t detract from the game components on our table.

Overall, Escape the Crate provided generally entertaining and satisfying puzzles.

These two Escape the Crate episodes were not cookie-cutter. Each chapter included significant puzzle design or gameplay components that were unique to that episode. In Escape the Queen Anne’s Revenge, one puzzle actually created the semblance of physical space. Escape the Colosseum introduced a new type of gameplay that we hadn’t seen in either tabletop or real life escape rooms.

Escape the Queen Anne’s RevengeEscape the Colosseum, and their first chapter, Escape the Confederate Spymistress, were each individual stories with narrative and episodic resolution. In addition to being entertaining and satisfying as self-contained escape rooms, they each teased the upcoming episode. Each chapter felt like a part of a larger time-traveling adventure.

Shortcomings

A critical component of Escape the Queen Anne’s Revenge did not work as planned for us. Our speculation is that the box was shipped to us when it was cold and dry and we didn’t play it until it was hot and humid… We think that things may have expanded a bit. This key component became stuck and after taking a few hints that didn’t help, we resorted to “outside tools” and a bit more than “finger strength” to “solve the problem.”

A plastic bottle with a mangled mouth. A pair of wirecutters and pliers sit beside it.
It was neither pretty nor proper, but it worked.

Escape the Colosseum had a few structural flaws that caused frustration. An observant player with knowledge of ciphers can easily jump ahead, skipping other puzzles, and create a time paradox of sorts within the game. We did this and ended up having to backtrack after realizing that we’d broken the order of the game.

Additionally, while Escape the Colosseum introduced a new and exciting game mechanic, in practicality it was frustrating. It needed improved clueing and a better web interface to support it. This design mechanism had a ton of potential, but it wasn’t quite ready for primetime at the Colosseum.

While both Escape the Queen Anne’s Revenge and Escape the Colosseum made strides in production quality, they still felt too homemade. Escape the Crate episodes would benefit from additional attention in print design and production, which could improve the quality of many game elements without a ton more effort.

Should I play Escape the Crate’s Escape the Queen Anne’s Revenge & Escape the Colosseum?

We continue to be impressed by Escape the Crate’s subscription model. Their episodic at-home escape rooms work as stand-alone games and fit into a larger adventure. Furthermore, they continue to output new episodes on the promised delivery timeline. So far each chapter has included an innovative design element.

Because they continue to innovate and output at this rate, however, each episode included moments that could have used more testing and refinement.

In terms of production, Escape the Crate episodes are not polished compared to most other mass market at-home escape rooms available from larger companies. That said, they’ve designed a gameplay structure that works, complete with locking, story delivery, and hinting. In our opinion, that’s the crux of an escape room, and the folks from Escape the Crate continue to make a fun product at a fast pace and affordable price.

We recommend Escape the Queen Anne’s Revenge and Escape the Colosseum for an hour (each) of educational, family-friendly puzzle entertainment in your own home.

Subscribe with Escape the Crate, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Note that Escape the Queen Anne’s Revenge and Escape the Colosseum are now “retired” games that you can purchase individually, outside of the subscription model. Your purchased subscription will start with the current month’s game.

Exit: The Game – The Abandoned Cabin, The Secret Lab, & The Pharaoh’s Tomb [Review]

Looking for gift ideas? Check out our holiday buyer’s guide.

Inexpensive & satisfying.

Location: at home

Date played: May / June, 2017

Team size: 2-6; we recommend 2-3

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $13 to 20 per game

Exit: The Game is series of tabletop escape games originally published in Germany by Thames & Kosmos. The Abandoned CabinThe Secret Lab, & The Pharaoh’s Tomb have all been adapted for an English-speaking audience.

Structure

All three Exit: The Game scenarios were destructible standalone games that operated with the same core mechanics.

In-game: A mess of cards, the decoder wheel, images of the cabin's rooms, and a book that reads, "Welcome Guests..."

We opened the box and found:

  • Journal – The 10-page color booklet had illustrations of the game’s “room” and other close-ups of things found about the space. It was essentially a hybrid map and puzzle book.
  • Decoder Wheel – The first round of answer verification, this worked exactly like the answer wheel from the ThinkFun tabletop escape games. Answer verification then had a second step involving the deck of Answer Cards.
  • “Strange Items” – These were little cardboard bits specific to each scenario.
  • Three Decks of Cards:
    • Riddle Cards – Labeled with letters on the backside and puzzles or puzzle components on the front, they became in-play after we “found” them in the room or earned access through others puzzles.
    • Answer Cards – Labeled with numbers on the backside and answer verification methodology on the front, these existed to make sure that we could not accidentally brute-force the Decoder Wheel.
    • Help Cards – Labeled with shapes on the backside and systematic hints on the front, these cards were predictable. Each puzzle had 3 hints. The first hint card explained which riddle cards, game components, and journal page(s) were necessary to complete the puzzle, along with a soft hint. The second hint card provided a heavy hint. The third hint card was a solution card.

In-game: An assortment of hint cards organized by shape, riddle cards, and answer cards.

All three games were:

  • puzzle-driven
  • light on the (ignorable) prose narrative
  • approximately the same level of difficulty
  • about an hour
  • of similar quality
  • partially destroyed during the playthrough

Story & setting

Each of the three Exit: The Game scenarios was set against an incredibly common escape room theme:

The Pharaoh’s Tomb: Egypt. Pyramid. Curse. Puzzle to safety.

The Abandoned Cabin: Car breakdown. Old cabin. Haunted. Puzzle to safety.

The Secret Lab: Experiment. Passed out. Woke up trapped. Puzzle to safety.

Each game had a range in artwork detail on the cards and in the journals. Some portions were surprisingly intricate and elegant, while others were clearly simplified to reduce red herrings. A few of the puzzle illustrations in each game were a little goofy.

Puzzles

The Abandoned CabinThe Secret Lab, & The Pharaoh’s Tomb were purely puzzle games. Most of the puzzles were visual and solvable with minimal manipulation of the bits and pieces in the box.

That being said, there were plenty of satisfying solves in each box. Each of the three games had 2 truly standout puzzles.

Standouts

The Abandoned CabinThe Secret Lab, & The Pharaoh’s Tomb were all:

  • strong puzzle games
  • sometimes surprisingly creative
  • affordable
  • easy to set up & start playing

Having played a lot of tabletop escape games, my favorite part of the Exit: The Game series was the hint system. It was useful, easy, and predictable. This straightforward system empowered us to use it as we saw fit, which has not always been the case with at-home escape games.

The story was done with a light, unobtrusive touch.

I was particularly fond of a few of the more creative puzzles in The Secret Lab & The Pharaoh’s Tomb.

Shortcomings

It occasionally seemed like we had enough components to solve a puzzle and we ended up taking a hint just to learn that we didn’t have everything we needed. [Pro tip: If you find yourself using a hint to confirm that you have all of the components, cover the bottom half of the first hint card, so that you don’t see the additional hint].

Some of the printed materials could only be used by one person at a time, which created a massive bottleneck. In each game, this was especially true of the journal booklet.

All three Exit: The Game titles were marketed as a game for up to 6 players and that’s a joke.

All three games had a broad range of print design quality. Some hokey design elements seemed out of place. Rummaging back through the boxes, I’m still a little surprised at the inconsistency.

The Abandoned Cabin’s “strange items” were hyped up throughout the game… and oh my were they anticlimactic.

The Pharaoh’s Tomb had a specific puzzle that suffered from poor print quality.

Should I play Thames & Kosmos’ The Abandoned Cabin, The Secret Lab, & The Pharaoh’s Tomb?

The Abandoned Cabin, The Secret Lab, & The Pharaoh’s Tomb were satisfying puzzle games. At roughly $15 each for an hour of gameplay, they were competitive with other professionally produced at-home escape games.

These would be great games for 2 or 3 people to share, but more than that and you will end up watching your friends solve puzzles. We played each of the games with another couple and it worked because everyone went out of their way to share. However, if Thames & Kosmos were to release another episode of Exit: The Game, I would probably just play it with Lisa.

There weren’t a lot of the puzzles in The Abandoned CabinThe Secret Lab, & The Pharaoh’s Tomb that require us to destroy components. There was, however, just enough destruction to make it very hard to reassemble the games. If you want to go miles out of your way to preserve these games for your friends, you can do it. That said, at this price point we didn’t mind wrecking these games.

If you’re curious… Lisa and I agreed that we liked The Pharaoh’s Tomb best. Our opinions were split over the other episodes, but we liked them both.

As with all of the at-home escape games that we’ve played, the Exit: The Game series did not replace the exhilaration of a great real life escape room. At a fraction of the cost of admission to an escape room, however, these boxes are a fun way to get your puzzle fix.

Crack open a bottle of wine and lock yourself into The Abandoned CabinThe Secret Lab, & The Pharaoh’s Tomb.

Full disclosure: Thames & Kosmos sent us a free reviewer’s copy of each game.

(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.)

Spin Masters – Escape Room The Game Funland & Murder Mystery Expansions [Review]

At least you can turn them into a drinking game.

Location: at home

Date played: June 2017

Team size: 3-5; we recommend 2-4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: ~$16 per expansion, base game is required

Structure

I described how this at-home escape room game works in detail in last year’s review of the Spin Masters’ Escape Room The Game. The Funland & Murder Mystery expansions do not change the formula at all. They play in exactly same ways but provide 2 more hour-long scenarios.

Both Funland & Murder Mystery require the original base game.

The chrono decoder, Funland cover, and game components along with a bottle of Ibuprofen.
Ibuprofen not included, but strongly recommended.

Puzzles

Funland‘s puzzling was built around traditional logic puzzles and played nearly identically to the original scenarios in the base Escape Room The Game.

Murder Mystery was the first Escape Room The Game scenario to deviate from the norm. This game attempted to cast us as detectives searching through a crime scene and using what we found to conclude whodunit. It had some puzzles, but this game focused on detailed (nitpicky) observation.

Standouts

Funland had a few puzzles that were satisfying solves.

My favorite part in Murder Mystery was solving the sort of puzzle to bring up the walkthrough on the game’s website.

Shortcomings

The price. The base version of Escape Room The Game will cost you $30 and provide 4 scenarios. These expansions cost $16 each for a single hour of play. These expansions were not of higher quality, nor did they introduce new props and tangible pieces.

The chrono decoder, hint decoder, keys and various components from Murder Mystery.
Most of what you see here came with the original game.

Escape Room The Game’s hint system was punishing and tedious. It time-released hints and more often than not, they didn’t help us. Either we had figured out the thing that was being hinted or they gave us something that added to our confusion.

Funland included an exact recreation of an old puzzle that has been circulating around the internet for years.

We misinterpreted Funland’s first puzzle and our bad answer used the same keys in the same order as a previous scenario’s first answer. The Electronic Chrono Decoder accepted it and then wouldn’t accept any of our subsequent answers. (The first correct answer you input tells the device what scenario you are playing.) I ultimately realized what had happened and restarted the game, but Electronic Chrono Decoder was a dumb machine without any sensible feedback or contextual awareness. It’s also so buggy that we legitimately couldn’t tell if the problem was it or us. Spin Masters would have been better served creating an iOS and Android app… At least they could patch bugs on a mobile app.

Murder Mystery had the most groan-inducing observation puzzle in the Escape Room The Game series. It was lame as a puzzle and it was silly in the narrative.

One puzzle in Murder Mystery had such tiny and fine details that I took a photo of the component so that I could zoom in. It’s worth noting that while my distance vision is insufficient, my reading vision is impeccable.

 

Should I play Spin Masters’s Escape Room The Game: Funland Murder Mystery?

I was lukewarm on Escape Room The Game’s base set because I thought that it had one game’s worth of good puzzles spread out over 4 scenarios. However, I did recognize that it offered a lot more value than any other at-home escape room games. It’s hard to say the same thing about Funland Murder Mystery.

Together they cost the same amount of money as the base game for a lot less material. You’re talking about spending $16 on a box with a few paper puzzles and there’s a lot of air in the box.

If you’re among the folks who truly enjoyed the original scenarios in Escape Room The Game, then you’ll probably get a kick out of Funland; it felt a lot like the original scenarios. I don’t think it’s a great value, but at $16 it won’t break the bank.

As far as Murder Mystery is concerned. I think that it’s a complete waste of money.

Thank you Amanda & Drew for sending us your copies of these two expansions.

(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.)

Mystery Mail – The Criterion [Review]

Puzzles postal

Location: at home

Date played: Q1 & Q2 2017

Team size: player’s choice; we recommend 2

Duration: however long it takes

Price: $125

Story & setting

A series of puzzles sent in 5 letters, Mystery Mail’s The Criterion wasn’t really a mystery so much as a collection of puzzles where the pieces arrived every few weeks.

The tiny letters contained paper-based puzzle components that were supplemented with a web-based answer/ hint page as well as the occasional third party browser-based app.

Photo of 5 opened letters and a pile of assorted puzzle material including a partial QR code, a 2 of spades, and a cipher grid.

Puzzles

Mystery Mail had a range of puzzle types including but not limited to logic, spatial, and reasoning challenges.

The mailings weren’t self-contained. Individual puzzles were frequently spread over multiple mailings or the entire multi-month experience.

Standouts

The core concept.

We enjoyed many of the puzzles that Mystery Mail sent our way.

The hints were structured such that we couldn’t receive a hint to any given mailing until the next one had arrived. In theory, we liked this structure.

Shortcomings

At $125, it’s incredibly expensive for what was delivered.

A few puzzles were pretty tedious. One puzzle involved a particularly shitty Flash-app. Its inclusion in the game baffled me.

The individual mailings did not contain any level of individual resolution, which was problematic. There were times when we sat on puzzle components for months without any idea of what to do with them. There were also times when we knew exactly what was coming, but had to wait weeks or months for it to arrive to tell us the specific letters, numbers, or symbols we’d need.

The hint website was confusing to navigate and at times didn’t resolve our puzzle confusion. This was frequently a byproduct of the mailings containing components that were essentially useless when we initially received them.

Upon completion of the last mailing, the website told us that we had earned a final bonus puzzle. We’ve waited a couple of months for that to arrive and finally decided to just publish this review without it.

Should I play Mystery Mail’s The Criterion?

We were really excited about Mystery Mail’s concept. Upon receiving the first couple of mailings we attacked them with vigor. As we realized that the letters were incomplete puzzles, we grew frustrated and finally let the game sit until we received the final mailing. Incomplete puzzles were not fun.

Had the mailings offered some kind of regular resolution or an engaging mysterious narrative, I think we would have had a lot more fun. It’s still possible to have episodic resolution within a larger puzzle running through a long-term experience, but this was a long-term puzzle with periodic resolution. Without any mystery, that didn’t cut it for us.

It’s too expensive and far too underwhelming. Skip it.