It is an odd cultural moment when one of the premier ways to empty your pockets is to pay someone else to lock you in a room, but here we are. The nerds have won the day, and their insatiable appetite for puzzles always cries out for more.
Tabletop publishers have taken note of this trend, with several tabletop escape rooms releasing in 2016 and 2017. Is Unlock!–the latest in the tabletop escape room space–the key to a fun evening at home?
How It Works
Unlock! is a cooperative puzzle-solving game intended to simulate an escape room for one to six players. Players have sixty minutes to solve the puzzles keeping them from their goals. If they’re able to solve them in that amount of time, they win.
To begin, players place the deck of cards within reach (ideally arranged by number). They boot up the Unlock! app and go to the right scenario. They read the introductory card and press play on the app.
During the game, players will examine cards and uncover new objects. Sometimes numbers will be hidden on cards (and when they are found, players can claim that card from the deck). Other times players will add together the numbers on red and blue cards to come up with a new card from the deck.
If players get stuck, they can ask the app for hints. The app will also (when asked) give players hints about hidden objects. Players use the app to enter codes for certain cards, and the app also controls the timer for the game.
If players can solve all the puzzles and reach the conclusion before time runs out, they win and are given a score from one to five stars. Otherwise, players lose.
Love Is an Open Door?
I’ve never been to an escape room, but I’ve enjoyed puzzles my whole life. Logic puzzles, Sudoku, crosswords–all have graced my tabletop. While I haven’t been to an escape room because of expense, I’ve been curious about them, so I’m glad for the recent spate of tabletop games that supposedly re-create the experience at home. Unlock! is the newest entry into this genre, and it has the backing of publisher Space Cowboys, known for making beautiful and story-driven games. So how does Unlock! fit in?
Unlock! is a fun diversion, and I like it, but not without some reservations.
(Note: What follows is spoiler-free, thus the dearth of pictures and specific details.)
First, what’s to like: Unlock is a consumable experience–that is, once you play a scenario, you won’t really be able to play it again–but it’s a reusable consumable experience. What this means is that once you’re finished, you can pass it on to the next person or group, and so on. It’s the kind of thing that can just keep giving enjoyment, which is a boon. I also like that in the USA, the scenarios are sold individually rather than packaged together. Some have complained that this seems like a money grab (“You’re selling three products instead of just one!”), but I like that players can pick and choose which scenarios interest them and purchase only those. Or if you’re strapped for cash, you can buy one now and save the next purchase for later.
I also like the look of the game. The artwork is very good and stylized to fit each scenario. I’ve played two scenarios–the promo scenario “The Elite” and “Squeek and Sausage”–and both had excellent illustrations, and the style for each was very different from the other. “The Elite” has a Las Vegas casino theme, and “Squeek and Sausage” has a cartoonish mad scientist/funhouse theme. Both settings worked for me, and the artwork served to help immerse us in what we were doing. I think consistent art throughout individual scenarios that varies from box to box (similar to the different god illustrations in Space Cowboys’ Elysium) is a great way to make each Unlock! scenario feel distinct while maintaining the system from game to game. The cards are tarot-sized, so they are large without being unwieldy. This is a nice balance between form and function. The cards are large enough to see detail (a necessary part of Unlock!) while also fitting in a box small enough for travel.
The app integration here is well executed. The timer keeps players on their toes, and it’s easy to access hints when they’re needed (although we found that these hints weren’t very helpful). The app provides background music for each scenario, which is a nice thematic touch, although there were several times when we were so perplexed that we shut off the music so we could think straight. (Thankfully, turning the music on and off is as simple as pressing a button.) While most of the “game” is handled through cards, players enter codes into the app. This was fun and seemed like a good use for the app, as entering a code felt like we were doing something new because we switched to the digital realm. A wrong code also deducts time from you, so it makes each code entry feel momentous.
The puzzles in Unlock! are not brain-burning hard, but they do require some outside-the-box thinking. They stretch and pull players in different directions. My wife and I played both scenarios with just the two of us, and we had trouble at several points because our mode of thinking was so different from what the puzzle asked of us. If we’d had more players around the table, I think we would have had an easier time (although the logistics of staring at cards would have been complicated). That being said, the puzzles in the game (with the possible exception of one) didn’t feel like cheap tricks; they were definitely solvable if we had only been thinking about them in the right way, which is what provides the fun of a puzzle experience in the first place.
So the puzzles are fun, the illustrations are great, and the app integration handles some of the housekeeping that could bog down an escape room experience without adding extra cost to the box. As I said, I like Unlock!, but I do have some reservations about it.
For starters, the reusability of the game is its greatest strength but also its greatest weakness. Since the whole of the game is cards, I can pass it on when I’m finished. However, it also means the game lacks physicality: I’m looking at illustrations of rooms and objects, but there’s nothing tangible to manipulate. As such, the card system of unlocking feels…mechanical. When I pair two objects together, it doesn’t feel like I’m doing anything in the physical world; it feels “gamey,” especially when pairing the cards together simply means adding the numbers together and finding the corresponding card in the deck. This is a clever system, to be sure, and it works, but it feels less like an experience and more like a game. (Still, the artwork and music on the app do help to keep players in the setting.) We also had some trouble initially with understanding exactly how the system worked, even after playing the tutorial. Because these weren’t physical objects that we could manipulate in real life, we had to interact with the objects pictured on the cards in game-specific ways, and these game-specific ways weren’t always clear. In each case, we figured it out, but again, the learning felt more mechanical than intuitive, and while the tutorial helped orient us to some of the basic ways to play the game, it didn’t leave us feeling confident that we knew what we were doing when we started the real scenario.
I’m also not terribly keen on the time limit. I recognize that this is a personal preference, and I realize that escape rooms are timed, but in our household, we usually take our puzzles slowly in order to savor them. We play Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective to solve the mystery, yes, but also to experience the whole of the story and to revel in the details. Unlock’s one-hour countdown serves to elevate tension, but it is also frustrating when you feel like you are spending too long on a puzzle that you should be finishing and have no idea how many puzzles remain to be solved, especially given that you “lose” when you hit an hour, removing momentum to keep going. We did finish within the time limit for both scenarios, but we probably took more hints than we would have without this limitation. For some, I imagine the hard limit will be fine; we felt a little rushed, and that rushing did not improve the experience. (The publisher has indicated that a forthcoming app update will include an option to remove the time limit.)
And finally, there’s the cost. For the hard one-hour time limit, the $15 price tag hardly seems like a bargain. Here, I suppose, everything is relative. An escape room in my area costs $30 a person for roughly one to two hours. If I were to go see a movie with my wife, we’d have to pay a babysitter plus $20 (or more) for just the movie tickets. So it compares favorably if you look at other “consumable” experiences, and truth be told, I enjoy this kind of thing more than sitting passively at a movie. But when compared to other tabletop games, $15 for one hour is steep. Yes, you could resell it or pass it on, but if you’re looking for “bang for your buck,” you probably won’t find it here. It’s best to approach Unlock! the way you would any “night on the town” activity.
I’ve played only one other tabletop escape room game (the Secret Lab scenario of the Exit series), so I can’t compare Unlock! to everything that’s out there. Exit took us three hours to play, and we were enchanted by the requirement to destroy components. It gave the game a physicality that Unlock! lacks, and there were several puzzles that put huge smiles on our faces once we figured out what was going on. I asked my wife what her excitement level was to try another Exit scenario, and she said 10. After playing the tutorial, “The Elite,” and “Squeek and Sausage” scenarios for Unlock!, I asked my wife on a scale of 1 to 10 what her excitement level was to try another Unlock! scenario. She said 7.
I’m in the same boat. I think Unlock! is interesting, even good, and it has potential, but I’m not dying to play the next one. For comparison, after playing Exit: The Secret Lab, I immediately ordered the other scenarios when they became available. With Unlock!, I hemmed and hawed for a week or more before eventually deciding to place the order. The visual puzzling of Unlock! is interesting, but I don’t like combining the cards as well as I like the pen-and-paper (one-time-use) puzzles of Exit, which, I suppose, are more like the traditional puzzles I’ve always enjoyed. That being said, Unlock! can be used multiple times with different groups, which is its greatest selling point, and I’ve already taken this to work for my coworkers to enjoy (which they did). And even if I’m not as excited about Unlock! as I am about Exit, I did pick up the other scenarios, which is perhaps a better endorsement than my words. Cooperative puzzle solving is a genre I can get behind, and the ease of entry into the Unlock! puzzles (even over Exit) is such that I think my family and friends will enjoy them. Unlock! is a worthy entry into the tabletop escape room genre, and if you are okay with the cost, it’s not a bad way to spend $15.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Asmodee USA for providing us with a copy of Unlock!: “The Elite” and “Squeek and Sausage” for review.