Escape Room table top games are the bee’s knees. Everyone wants to be Andy Dufresne chiseling away at that wall behind Raquel Welch. Solving puzzles appeals to our insatiable search for meaning that’s deep-rooted in our extreme form of consciousness. This primal urge has led to the rise of Escape Rooms proper, and their table top spin-off in the form of France’s Game of the Year As d’Or winner Unlock!
While Unlock! was not the first board game design that attempted to distill Escape Room elements, it’s one of the more notable attempts. This arrives courtesy of Asmodee design studio Space Cowboys-the outfit responsible for the inventive modern classic T.I.M.E Stories. That previous release drew much inspiration from the Escape Room concept and set the tone for this future title. Comparing the two is a worthwhile endeavor for context. While T.I.M.E Stories is more of a narrative game with puzzles thrown in, Unlock! is much more a puzzle game with narrative used as support. They function as two siblings, immediately sharing genetic code but eager to display their divergent personalities.
One of the core strengths of Unlock! is its malleable nature. It hits you with puzzle after puzzle while a 60 minute timer hisses in the background like a stick of dynamite with a purpose. Those conundrums take many shapes and present interesting challenges that range from obvious to “what the hell does this mean?” The trick is in the simple system.
You start the mind-bender by reading the scenario intro text aloud. This offers narrative context and thematic direction. Then you light the fuse by clicking start on the free app and your heart kicks up wet mud like a stallion on the day of the Derby. You flip the intro card revealing your starting room with a small illustration. Other numbers and letters will be highlighted at different positions on the artwork, signaling for players to dig through the accompanying deck of cards and reveal those with similarly labeled backs.
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This aspect of exploring a location by revealing additional cards is very effective. It presents items and areas of focus that you can now pick up and investigate more closely. Maybe the TV in the far corner has a peculiar button arrangement. Perhaps that broken pile of glass with a green substance bears further inspection. As a team, you start pawing through these new cards that are revealed, holding them up in the light and desperately trying to assemble the warped pieces of the puzzle while that evil SOB taunts you in the background.
Cards are organized into a few types with accompanying mechanisms. Many items you come across will be labeled either blue or red. One item from each of these colors is combined and you add the numbers of the two cards together, the total being the identity of a new card you can reveal. So if a blue key is card 21 and a red locked chest is 35, you can rummage through the deck and pull out card 56, revealing it to the group. Often this results in even more cards being revealed as you enter a new room or come across a suite of new items. Sometimes the solution is a red herring and the game laughs in your face.
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This system is clever as it gives you immediate direction on how to proceed. You start trying to fit items and their numbers together, leaning on thematic sensibilities if possible. It feels as though you’re actively progressing down a path and reinforces a general sense of cleverness.
Other types of cards include yellow codes, green puzzles, and grey objects. The yellow type tends to be keypads or locked doors, requiring you find a four digit number to progress. This number is discovered through other components and is then entered into the app to check for success. The green puzzles tend to require you work through a logic riddle thematically tied to a physical element of the room. Stuff like connecting a wire to the appropriate socket on an electric grid, or needing to assemble a unique keyboard with a swathe of letters removed. Typically the solution offers you a red number which is paired with another blue card to progress. The key to solving these individual puzzles will often be found in other areas of the scenario, requiring you to work through the difficulties presented and overcome the cognitive challenge.
Grey objects tend to be items that unlock branches of other cards or may sneakily possess their own embedded clues. Occasionally a number–corresponding to a new card you can reveal–is visually obscured in the artwork. This is where the game simultaneously is at its most clever and most aggravating summit. When your synapses are exploding like errant bolts of forked lightning as you’re quickly picking out those hidden numbers in the artwork it absolutely works. It feels great as an enormous light bulb pops above your cranium and bathes the room in a lustrous glow. When you miss those numbers, well, it plain sucks.
Your group is huddled around the table, repeatedly gawking at the five cards you’ve revealed. Looking for even the slightest character obscured in the small images can be frustrating. The NOS-fueled pace grinds to a big halt as you’re not quite sure how to proceed or what to do. Father time doesn’t give two you-know-whats.
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That’s the big crux of this design. It’s a 60 minute series of puzzles that can have you riding along the burning edge of the horizon or ground below the boot of an oppressive giant. It can feel unfair at times as you struggle with the creative application necessary to solve a puzzle. The different types of challenges are extremely creative, much more so than in T.I.M.E Stories. However, the consequence of this creativity is an unclear route to the solution at times. Space Cowboys realizes this possible stumbling block and relies on an optional hint system ingrained in the app.
In addition to handling the timer and code entry, the Unlock! application also allows you to request hints for nearly every card in the game. The clues themselves are well presented and not too revealing as to steal the joy out of the solving. In this way it feels as though the designers actually expect you to utilize a few clues per game. It’s apparent this is the norm and not an exception as many of the puzzles are obtuse until you realize the direction they want you to go. This is something you need to accept and can be viewed as a flaw or perfectly fine depending on your perspective.
In North America Unlock! comes packaged as individual small box scenarios; as with all of the Escape Room games, they’re really only good for a single session as foreknowledge will ruin the challenge. Fortunately, each includes a short demo deck to familiarize yourself with the system. It is absolutely encouraged to run through this with new players. The game can become extraordinarily frustrating if you start falling outside its system boundaries and become confused. Once you have your confidence it will hum along like clockwork and you can focus your rage on father time.
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The three scenarios are all pretty unique. Squeek & Sausage is a wacky fun-house setting with some bizarre twists. It’s the most reliant on the hidden character trick and for this reason can be hit or miss with certain individuals. The Formula has you descending into a secret laboratory and features some of the most interesting puzzles of the lot. Finally, The Island of Doctor Goorse kicks off with a very unique setup that challenges your preconceived notions built by the previous narratives. Each has a solid personality that remains distinct from its peers.
It’s pretty simple. If you’re looking for an abstracted Escape Room experience, Unlock! is here to toss you in a cell and throw away the key. It’s one of the most creative designs of the year and absolutely earns its wings through a consistent flood of creative and satisfying puzzles. It’s a game that focuses on making you feel clever. The bottom line is–
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Have you played an Escape Room table top game? Did you enjoy it? Let us know in the comments below!
Image Credits: Space Cowboys/Asmodee