The Best Way to Escape - a Comparison Between Exit and Unlock
There’s been a recent surge in “escape room”-esque games lately, with a few series peeking into the hobby - Escape Room, Escape the Room, Exit: The Game, and Unlock! I’ve had the pleasure of trying the later two in the series and have a few thoughts that may help groups decide which franchise to go with.
First, a quick summary of the format of each game. I played Exit: The Game - The Abandoned Cabin, rumored to be the best of the series. The Exit game came with a booklet full of random puzzles and clues, and uses a “decoder disk” to allow players to come up with 3 digit combinations for the various puzzles in the game. By changing the position of the 4 disks you can uncover a “solution card number” which will either tell you that you’re wrong (and slightly mock your incompetence), or ask you to verify which puzzle you’re unlocking; if the code and puzzle line up, you get a solution card that gives you more clues to gain access to different puzzles until you eventually reveal the “you win!” card. Exit also provides “hint cards”, 3 for each puzzle, that range from a slight hint to giving you the solution straight-up. If you’re ever stuck on a particular puzzle you can reveal a hint card to assist, but doing so will detriment your “star rating” at the end of the game.
Unlock! follows a similar format, but uses an application on your smartphone to handle the hints and solution cards - any time you’re stuck you can ask the app for a hint giving it a specific card number, or if you think you have a 4-digit code you can type it into the app to validate your guess. The app also keeps track of a timer; you have 60 minutes to solve the Unlock! puzzle. At least you start with 60 minutes; any incorrect code guesses or other penalties will subtract 3 minutes from your available time. If you do run out of time you can of course continue to solve the puzzle (it would be absurd to ask you to restart from the beginning), but you’ll get a lower rating. In addition, the app adds some nice ambient noise to your game experience and also allows for audio clues, something that would be impossible without an app.
Unlock! also relies pretty heavily on an “item combination” mechanic - throughout the course of the game you’ll be expected to combine “red” items with “blue” items by adding their numbers together and looking for the resulting card. If you have a red key numbered 10, and a blue door numbered 20, you’d attempt to use them together by revealing card 30 (assuming it exists). Unlock! prevents accidental combinations by indicating which cards you should’ve used to get to the newly revealed card, which works quite well. There’s also a few red-herring cards; if you reveal their numbers, you suffer a 3 minute time penalty.
One last mechanic on Unlock! relies on hidden numbers in the images; if you can discern a number in the background of an image you can reveal it from the deck to uncover other clues and progress.
I did thoroughly enjoy both series of games, although I’ve admittedly played Unlock! more (having solved all 3 available scenarios). Both games capture the experience of an escape room rather well, other than the idea of having physical puzzles. Also, just like escape rooms, once you “solve” the puzzle there’s no point in attempting it again other than to see how quickly you can do it.
My biggest gripe with Exit: The Game is the waste of cards. Sure, they’re all needed for the way that Exit works, but after seeing how well the app is integrated into the Unlock! experience it feels like there was a better way to do things. The puzzles in Exit require players to rip up, bend, and otherwise permanently alter the components in the game, making it unusable after the initial play. The Abandoned Cabin comes with 86 cards between the solution deck and the help cards; all of which are completely unusable after the game is played exactly once. I felt off about that before I even got my copies of Unlock!, but now that I see how reusable Unlock! is it bothers me even more.
Unlock!, while gaining points in the re-usability department, does suffer from a bit of meta-gaming as a side effect of how it’s set up. Unlock relies pretty heavily on the item combination mechanic - adding a red card and blue card together is a main way to progress in the game. That also immediately reduces your decision space; if you only have blue cards, you won’t be wondering if they’re supposed to go together. To compound that issue, because the decks in the first three Unlock! games don’t go higher than 99 you can immediately eliminate any possibility of numbers that would add past that - the #70 red key will never go with the #40 blue door.
Another gripe with Unlock! is the use of hidden numbers. While somewhat neat and reminiscent of physical escape room puzzles, someone with a visibility impairment (or who just plain doesn’t see it) would be unable to play this game without assistance. Fortunately the Unlock! app does provide hints specific to hidden clues, but it comes at a cost, which is somewhat unfair if you simply can’t see things the way they intend it. Of course, there’s a few false positives as well, and you waste time convincing other players that the 13 they see is just a smudge, not an actual number.
That said, I did prefer the complexity of the puzzles in Exit: The Game a bit more than Unlock. Our run of The Abandoned Cabin took us 92 minutes, and there were several points in which we were stumped and felt like we needed clues to proceed. In Unlock!, two of the three scenarios took us less than 45 minutes which is perfect for a short lunchtime game but also less challenging. The last Unlock! scenario we played, The Island of Dr. Goorse, was the hardest of the three and was on par with The Abandoned Cabin with puzzle complexity.
To me, the perfect escape room game would be a blend of Exit’s puzzles with Unlock!’s application, which would be entirely doable. Unfortunately, that doesn’t exist, so I’d have to give the edge to Unlock! simply for the re-usability. I fully intend on shipping my copies of Unlock! to friends and family and they can have the same experience I did, whereas Exit: The Game sits on the floor of my car, still there after last week’s game night.