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A Guide to Tabletop Escape Rooms

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Escape rooms are the activity I never knew I always wanted.

I’ve always loved puzzles–the logic puzzles we did in school, crossword puzzles, Sudoku, even puzzle-solving video games. There’s something satisfying about stepping into a situation where something is out of place and bringing order to chaos. So when I discovered tabletop escape rooms, I was hooked.

My wife and I have tried several of the at-home tabletop escape rooms available on the market, and in this guide are our impressions of the main series. I’ve also included a ranking of individual escape rooms, our favorite to our least favorite, and recommendations depending on what you’re looking for in a home escape room. (I’ll keep updating this article as we play new ones.)

To the guide!

A Brief Examination of Escape Room Series

Below is a brief explanation of what makes each series of escape rooms unique, along with my impressions of the series as a whole.

Early into Deckscape, the deck splits into multiple stacks so players can make their own way through the escape room.

Deckscape (DV Giochi)

Amazon / ~$15 / Full review

Deckscape is a fully resettable, reusable escape room. The only components are a small deck of cards. Cards represent items that players can find, puzzles that players must solve, and hints that players can access. The way players solve puzzles is to answer the question on a puzzle card and turn it over, judging their answer against the one on the back of the card. The story advances regardless of correctness, but when players are incorrect, they mark an X on a scoresheet, which will count against them at the end. There is also a kind of “choose your own adventure” ending, which can impact the score.

Deckscape has a lot of room for potential, mainly because the game breaks the limitation of having only cards for components by allowing out-of-the-box solutions that players judge as correct or not against the answer on the back of the card. However, this strength is also Deckscape’s greatest weakness. Because solutions involve answering the question and checking whether you’re right, there’s no iterative solution to the puzzle: if you’re right, you move on; if you’re wrong, you move on and mark an X on the scoresheet. For my wife and me, much of the fun of escape rooms is iterative discovery: you try the obvious solution and realize it isn’t right; this will eventually lead you to the “aha” moment, letting you feel clever because you discovered the solution. Much of that feeling is lost in Deckscape because you get one try at each puzzle. Some of the puzzles in here are clever, but this series, because of this limitation, is my least favorite.

Some of the components in Dispatch. These really are top-notch.

Dispatch (Breakout Games)

Dispatch website / $25 per month / Full review

Dispatch is a serial subscription escape room. A new box of components is sent each month, and over the course of several boxes, players solve puzzles and slowly unravel the mystery. Players consult the materials in the box, but there are also clues online that will guide players in the solution.

I played the first two boxes of Dispatch (on a review copy from the publisher), and while the introductory box included a lot of background and not many puzzles, the chapter 1 box was promising. The puzzles were interesting (albeit not difficult), but the chief interest here is the developing story: as players receive more boxes, they begin to put the pieces together. And the components here are excellent: the physical components look real and draw you in, and even many of the online clues look like actual websites. This one seemed like two players was the sweet spot; it’s hard to imagine a group of players huddled around this and having fun. The chief deterrent is price (the subscription is $25/month), but if you’re interested in a deep-dive into a story that’s full of puzzles to work out, this one is engaging.

Image from www.spinmaster.com.

Escape Room: The Game (Spin Master)

Amazon / ~$30

Escape Room: The Game comes with a big, chunky chrono decoder, reminiscent of electronic board games from the early ’90s. The chrono decoder acts as a stopwatch and also as a code reader: there are physical keys to insert into the decoder, and the decoder tells players whether they’ve found the right code to advance in the story. Puzzles for each scenario come in multiple boxes and envelopes, and these are generally big enough to pass around. There are usually multiple puzzles going at once to keep multiple players occupied.

Escape Room: The Game is satisfying from both a components standpoint (there’s a tangibility to it) and from a puzzle standpoint. The puzzles are interesting and satisfying, and the physicality of the game makes it immersive, even if the narrative arc is not quite as good as something like Unlock!. The base game is around $30 and comes with four resettable escape rooms, which is a pretty great value. There are also expansion rooms that use the decoder. Because this game comes with a large, unique component, the box is bigger than I want it to be, although this may not be a problem for everyone. My decoder box also malfunctioned in one game, not recognizing our correct code. (We checked it online, and we were right.) But despite these minor complaints, this is an excellent option for a tabletop escape room.

Escape Room in a Box: The Werewolf Experiment (Mattel)

Amazon / ~$30

Escape Room in a Box was originally funded on Kickstarter and later released through Mattel. Escape Room in a Box mimics the physicality of components in a real escape room, with actual locks and boxes and fun surprises.

Escape Room in a Box is one of the easier tabletop escape rooms we’ve done–we completed it within the one-hour time limit taking no hints–but while the puzzles are easy, there are lots of them included in the box, and they are satisfying to solve. There’s a lot to do before you escape. This was probably the coolest escape room based on components, but it has a price to match: it’s $30 for a single-use escape room. (It can be reset at the publisher’s website with reprinted components.) It’s cheaper than a night at a real escape room, but it’s still fairly expensive. That said, this one best recreates the thrills of an actual room.

 

Image from www.thinkfun.com.

Escape the Room (ThinkFun)

Amazon / ~$20

Escape the Room is a kind of “host your own escape room,” and as such it probably does the best job of setting the scene of the tabletop escape rooms included on this list. Escape the Room also has the best components, employing wooden dowels and working gears that other rooms haven’t attempted. Despite the box saying it’s suitable for three to eight players, we played with two and couldn’t imagine playing with more than three. The reason for this is that most puzzles are linear, and it’s not possible for players to work ahead much, or to work on separate puzzles. Thus, everyone would be crowding around a few components. Despite this, what comes inside the Escape the Room box is satisfying and still fully resettable, so the value is there even with a higher price tag ($20 for one room). This is a solid choice.

Exit: The Game (Kosmos)

Amazon / ~$15 / Full review

Exit: The Game provides players with a simple list of components: a clue book, three decks of cards (riddles, answers, and hints), a decoder wheel, and some “strange objects” that players discover throughout the game. Exit is designed to be a one-time-use product, and it’s not really possible to salvage the game without playing against the designers’ intent. Each puzzle corresponds to an item somewhere in the book or on cards, and when players think they’ve found a solution, they put the solution code in the decoder wheel, find the corresponding answer card, and this answer card will point them to another card that will reveal whether they are right or wrong. (This several-step solution prevents accidental cheating and heightens tension as you wait to see whether you’re right.)

Exit: The Game is by far my favorite series of tabletop escape rooms. The puzzles are fascinating, and there is usually at least one moment of genuine surprise each game. Despite the small box of components, the designers have found unique and interesting ways to use the constraints to make players feel clever. Of all the tabletop escape rooms I’ve played, Exit has had the most difficult and satisfying puzzles. (I’ve not felt like any puzzle was unfair, even ones I’ve been stuck on for a while.) While these are one-time-use games, which is a bummer, I’ve found them fully worth the price. Exit doesn’t try to recreate an actual escape room in the way that, say, the Unlock! series does, and I think this works in the Exit series’ favor: it leans into what a tabletop experience can provide, setting players loose to write on and destroy components in a way you might not feel comfortable doing in an actual escape room. It doesn’t provide the most immersive story, if that is what you’re after. Again, this series is both my and my wife’s favorite series of tabletop escape rooms.

Flee set up. There are always four characters in the game, regardless of the number of players.

Fast Forward: Flee (Stronghold Games)

Amazon / ~$20 / Full review

Flee is an escape room in the loosest sense of the word. It was created as an homage to escape rooms, so it works a little bit differently. Flee is a sorted deck of cards that players puzzle their way through, trying not to lose. If they lose, they reset the deck from certain milestones and give it another go. Flee is fully resettable and is also replayable. (While some of the twists will be revealed to players, unlike traditional escape rooms, the puzzles can be solved in multiple ways.)

As an escape room, Flee is unlikely to satisfy: it lacks the narrative arc that provides meaning to the puzzles, and it just doesn’t feel like an escape room. However, as a puzzle-solving cooperative game, this is likely to appeal to the same kind of people who find escape rooms enjoyable. It’s also replayable (although I wouldn’t play games of it back to back or even close together).

Unlock involves pairing blue and red cards to unlock new possibilities. This works better than I expected, but it still feels kind of mechanical rather than intuitive.

Unlock! (Space Cowboys)

Amazon / ~$15 / Full review

Unlock! is an escape room in a deck of cards. It’s fully resettable, so after you’re finished, you can hand it on to someone else or resell it–no components are destroyed. Unlock! requires an accompanying free app that keeps time, offers hints, and now allows touchscreen input to run “machine” cards (cards that involve some manipulation that results either in a code or a modifier). The system’s main method for solving puzzles is pairing red and blue cards together, adding the card values, and pulling out a new card from the deck.

Unlock! succeeds most by creating an atmosphere. The app plays thematic music, and the gorgeous card artwork seeks to create a unique and immersive story of which players become a part. Each scenario employs a different artist and theme, and these have been some of the most exciting scenarios from a narrative point of view. Where the series falters, however, is in its intangibility. I can’t count the times where my wife and I have figured out the answer to the puzzle on the card but had trouble communicating that we understood the puzzle to the app or the game. The hints can be frustrating at times–giving either too much or too little away to be helpful–and there are hidden numbers on the cards that can be frustrating to look for. (Thankfully, the app doesn’t usually let you linger too long on these: it will prompt you if you spend too long.) There have been occasional translation errors that unnecessarily make the experience harder than it needs to be, and occasionally the scenarios are unnecessarily punitive, assigning (what seems like) unfair penalties for doing the obvious thing, which has the net effect of making players gun-shy to try crazy theories (which, to me, is part of the fun). It’s also easy in Unlock! to try something and turn over the wrong card, making you discover things you shouldn’t have yet, which takes you out of the experience.

In all of this, I think Unlock! has tried to recreate, in a one-to-one way, a physical escape room, but I don’t think all of the gimmicks translate that well to the tabletop. Despite the beautiful illustrations, the intangibility of the deck of cards also makes these less immersive as an experience because you’re not actually handling any of the objects you see–much is left to the players’ imaginations. Unlock! has provided some high highs and some low lows. These scenarios are very much hit or miss for me.

Ranking of Individual Escape Rooms I’ve Played

I will update this list as I play new scenarios. Here are the ones I’ve played, with the best at the top and the worst at the bottom:

Exit: The Pharaoh’s Tomb

Exit: The Abandoned Cabin

Exit: The Forbidden Castle

Exit: The Forgotten Island

Escape Room in a Box: The Werewolf Experiment

Escape Room: The Game: Nuclear Countdown

Exit: The Secret Lab

Exit: The Polar Station

Unlock: The Tonipal’s Treasure

Escape Room: The Game: The Virus

Escape Room: The Game: Prison Break

Escape the Room: The Mystery at Stargazer’s Manor

Unlock: A Noside Story

Unlock: The Formula

Dispatch: On the Run (chapter 1)

Fast Forward: Flee

Unlock: Squeek & Sausage

Dispatch: On the Run (introduction)

Deckscape: Test Time

Unlock: The Elite

Unlock: The Island of Doctor Goorse

Escape Room: The Game: Temple of the Aztec

Deckscape: The Fate of London

Unlock: The Nautilus’ Traps

Conclusion

Which series (and which scenario) is right for you depends on a number of factors and how you prioritize those factors. I see several different factors to consider: puzzles, thematic atmosphere, tangibility/components, and group suitability.

If your main concern is the puzzles…I’d choose Exit: The Game.

If your main concern is thematic atmosphere…I’d choose Unlock! or Dispatch.

If your main concern is tangibility or components…I’d choose Escape Room in a BoxEscape Room: The Game, or Escape the Room.

If your main concern is playing with a group of larger than three players…I’d choose Escape Room: The Game or Exit: The Game.

If you’ve never done an escape room before and you want to know where to start…I’d choose Exit: The Game: The Abandoned Cabin or Escape Room in a Box.

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

Discussion2 Comments

  1. This is a great guide! I have played all of these series except for Flash Forward and Dispatch. Escape Room: The Game (SpinMaster) and Exit! (Kosmos) are the most enjoyable. Our game group just finished playing Funhouse, one of the SpinMaster expansions, and we had a lot of fun with it.

    Deckscape is also pretty good, and Unlock is kind of fun in its approach but I agree that the penalties can be pretty harsh for making the wrong guess and some of the hidden numbers are ridiculously hard to see.

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