Escape Room Games – A Comparison and Review

As you may have noticed from our “Meeples Weekly Recap” posts, we’ve been playing a lot of “Escape Room in a Box”-type games. In fact, I think we’ve played all of the major series in this genre: Exit, Unlock!, Escape Room: The Game, Escape the Room, Deckscape, and Escape Room in a Box. This post will compare and contrast these different games as well as give a brief review of what we felt about playing each of them.  Please note that pictures and reviews many have spoilers, though we tried to minimize this as much as we could.

Exit

Let’s start with the Exit series. These games are one-time, non-replayable games that involve physical components, with some destruction of the of those components so that once you’ve played it can’t be redone. Each game in the series comes with a booklet, a deck of cards divided up into answer cards, item cards, and hint cards, a solution wheel, and possibly one or more other “mysterious objects”. These games start with the booklet giving an introduction of the scenario as well as hints for some of the puzzles, and an image of the locale of the game. The solution wheel is what will be used to actually solve each of the ten puzzles in each box. Once you think you know the answer to a puzzle you turn the solution wheel to the correct combination and get a number which will correspond to an answer card. If that’s the correct answer card it will ask you where in the picture you see that symbol, which will direct you to another answer card telling you if you are correct. If you’re incorrect, there’s no penalty and you can try again to find the right answer, but if you are correct you will take one or more item cards as well as being able to progress further with other puzzles. In addition to being gained from answer cards, item cards can also be found in the pictures in the booklet or on other items. If you ever see a representation of an item card, you may take that card and look at it. As mentioned earlier, these games can involve the physical manipulation or destruction of the game materials such as folding cards, ripping pages out of the book, poking holes through things, etc. This makes the game more immersive but it does mean that you can only play through them once without being able to reconstruct the cards or materials.

Unlock!

 

Another major player in the “escape room in a box” genre of games is the Unlock! series. There are three of these games currently available with more right around the corner. Unlike the Exit series, the Unlock games just involve a deck of cards as well as an app that’s needed to play the game. When you open the box the cards will be all shuffled together so the first task you’ll want to do is separate the letter and number cards and put them in some semblance of order. The first card or two will generally give some sort of introduction to the scenario along with why you’re trapped, and why you need to escape. Certain points in the game will direct you to flip over cards with a given number or letter. The cards have several different types: blue and red cards are types of items that need to be combined together — for example a key on a red card would need to be combined with a lock on a blue card in order to unlock a door. To combine items you add the number from the blue card to the number on the red card and then find the card corresponding to the sum and see if that gives you the results you’re looking for. There are some red herrings and ways to combine things incorrectly so you may end up with a penalty which reduces your time. There are also yellow cards which will require you to put a code in the app in order to proceed. These codes would be your typical escape room type puzzles looking for a series of four digits somewhere. Finally there are some neutral cards which just give hints or information.  Like the Exit series, some cards will direct you to flip over a card if you can find a hidden number contained in its picture; however these are a lot more subtle and can sometimes be overlooked unless you’re really looking closely at each card. Fortunately the app has a functionality to tell you if there may be any hidden pictures that you haven’t come across yet to give you a hint towards what numbers you may be able to find. The app also can give you hints on any card by entering that cards number in the app. Even though it just uses a deck of cards and an app the Unlock! series is a pretty good simulation of some escape room type puzzles.

Deckscape

 

Next let’s talk about one of the newer entries in the escape room genre — Deckscape. The first two entries in the series were just released in America at Gen Con and we picked them up and played them as soon as we could. Like Unlock!, these games use only a deck of cards to simulate the escape room. In both of the games we’ve played so far at the start you’ll divide the cards into several different piles that you’re working to complete simultaneously. On the front of each card is either a puzzle or some information, and for puzzles, once you think you have the solution you turn the card over to find out if you’re right. If you’re correct you move on to the next card in the set but if you’re incorrect you get a strike. Some cards just provide items that you can save for hints or to use to solve later puzzles. If you get a puzzle that requires an item wrong and you don’t have the item that it requires you’ll get double the penalty, so be careful. This is definitely the most low-tech of the escape room games that we’ve played so far and the puzzles seem like they vary pretty greatly in difficulty, at least amongst the two games that have been released thus far.

Escape Room: The Game

 

Escape Room: The Game is another series of escape room games, oddly enough, but unlike Exit, Unlock, and Deckscape it has multiple scenarios contained in just the one box. The base game box comes with four different scenarios, and there are extra expansion packs that can be used to continue your escape room experience. The focal point of these games is the Chrono Decoder, a large electronic box with a digital clock counting down the 60 minutes, as well as as well as four slots for keys and several other pieces of information and hints scattered around its surface. Each of the scenarios in Escape Room: The Game comes with three separate envelopes for which you’ll need to enter a different code to answer each one. You’ll be able to find the code either with letters, numbers, symbols or something similar and those will correspond to the different keys that you can enter into the Chrono Decoder. If you’re correct you’ll hear a noise and can move on to the next envelope, but if you’re wrong you lose some of your time. Each scenario also comes with a deck of cards which you can reveal at certain times throughout the experience to get hints. For instance, at 55 minutes remaining you can get a general hint about the first envelope, while at 45 or 40 minutes remaining you can get the first envelope solution if you’re still stuck at that part. In the couple of games we’ve played we haven’t had to use the hint cards so I don’t know how good or generic they actually are. Like some of the other Exit games these games involve some more physical components that you may have to manipulate or things to draw on or move around the table rather than just cards to figure puzzles out on. These feel like a pretty good simulation of real life escape rooms in that you need to find the solution to some puzzles in order to get to further puzzles and you’ll need to figure out how exactly to put together clues and objects to get the codes needed to proceed.

Escape the Room

 

The Escape the Room games are another series of standalone escape room games. There are two available so far, of which we just played the first one: The Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor. In the US, these are Target exclusive games, so you’ll need to head to your favorite big red retailer in order to find them. These games share elements with several of the other games mentioned so far in this article. Like the Exit games they involve a solution wheel where you’ll need to enter a correct four-symbol code in order to correctly proceed through the sealed envelope of this game. The way that the solution wheel works is that you find the symbol corresponding to the code you want to enter, enter the symbols corresponding to each color, and if the original symbol shows up in the middle you got it right and can go forward. Otherwise you’re wrong and will need to try again. This game also has a bunch of physical components to manipulate but nothing gets destroyed so you can repackage everything up for others to play with it again. One thing we found about this series of games is that they’re a lot easier than all the other games mentioned on this list. We were able to complete the first game in about a half hour even though it gives two hours for three to five players and 90 minutes for six to eight players. However, it was still a lot of fun even though I don’t know if we’ll be pursuing the further entries in this series.

Escape Room in a Box

 

Finally we come to Escape Room in a Box, the only one of these entries that is not part of a series, but a one-of-its-kind escape room experience. This game actually came to us via Kickstarter, but from what it sounds like it will be licensed (or has already been licensed) by Mattel and will be available in stores in the near future. This game also comes with an app, although it didn’t appear to be available for Android at the time we played and we made do without it using just a 60 minute timer. Of the escape room games this one tries the hardest to emulate a real life escape room game with physical locks, both combination and one that requires a key, various components to interact with as well as some other things that we won’t spoil in this review. The main mechanism of proceeding through this game is a series of puzzles which will lead you to answers to get through the combination locks or other locks and codes in the game in order to uncover the final solution. This game was definitely cool with all of its unexpected twists and was certainly a fun experience that I hope we can impart upon others sometime in the future.

Reviews and Comparison

Amber: These types of games have quickly become one of my favorites, even with the one-and-done play through. One thing that really draws me is that, as a co-op, everyone really has an equal chance to play.  In some cooperative games, the alpha gamer can take over and make the game un-fun for the other players; this can make players feel as if they have no control or no say in how the game is played.  With Escape Room games, because there are different ways to interpret information, everyone can add something to the game.  Players with different ways of thinking can point out information that even the most astute players may miss, all because we’re wired a bit differently.  I personally have a hard time understand strategy and planning ahead in some types of games, but have found personal success paying attention to detail and solving puzzles in the Escapes Room.  Ethan and I have done full-size escape rooms and work really well together, but those rooms can get pretty pricey (I think the least expensive one we’ve done was $30 per person).  These escape room games give a lot of the same types of experiences as a full-size escape room, but at a much more reasonable cost.

When it comes to ranking, I think that Exit is my favorite selection in the series.  Because you are physically tearing apart some of the components, this allows for a wider variety of puzzles, where as the other games typically have similar or predictable puzzles.  I also overall enjoy the themes of the Exit Games more than some of the other Escape Room games, although, theme is not necessarily and important factor when solving the puzzles.  One sad part about these games is that, unlike the other games of this type, you’re not able to reset and share with someone else.  With a $15ish price, however, this isn’t necessarily breaking the bank.

Ethan really loved Escape Room in a Box, and understandably so.  This game, which we received from Kickstarter, had some truly great components in it and really lived up to its name.  The puzzles were top notch and added real life components, like rope and a padlock, to give it a heartier feel.  However, I really struggled with the puzzles in this one; I felt as some of the clues weren’t quite obvious enough to ensure that players knew what they were talking about.  Maybe I was having a rough night when we played.

The one game that really fell flat for me was Escape the Room.  Compared to the other games, this one really had the best immersion of theme, with a lot of party suggestions on how to make the game even more thematic.  However, this was the easiest of these games for us, the game gave us way more time to solve the room than we need.  I really  feeling that this really was supposed to be more for families with children who wanted to try these types of games out.  I would highly recommend this game for people with younger and inexperienced players, but more experienced games may want to give this one a pass.

Ethan: I have always loved puzzles, riddles, and the like. Growing up, I played a fair share of adventure and escape room video games, so I’m sure you can imagine my excitement when real world escape rooms began popping up all over the place, and I was even more overjoyed when the board game escape room trend began. Like legacy games and some other story-driven games (like Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective), these are one-and-done experiences, because — even with the ones that don’t involve component destruction — once you know the answers, you’re not going to get a lot of value upon replay. Fortunately, the cost for these games isn’t prohibitively expensive, falling mostly around $10-15 per scenario. It’s a bit higher when compared to the replay value you may get from other games, but definitely a deal compared to the physical escape rooms they’re seeking to emulate. Fortunately for the frugal, most of these games can be reset without too much difficulty, so you may be able to buy a used copy, or split the costs with another group of friends and pass the game on to them once you’ve finished. From my experience with these 6 game systems, the experience has definitely been worth it! If you like puzzles and creative thinking, you really can’t go wrong with any of these games!

Now, to actually compare and contrast these different games… For me, the games that are best able to simulate the escape room experience are the ones that have actual, physical components to interact with, rather than just cards. For that, I think Escape Room in a Box: The Werewolf Experiment was the best of the bunch, as it has a lot of physical bits and really is able to simulate the feeling of surprise and discovery that should accompany an escape room. Unfortunately, it’s also the one that you aren’t currently able to get, as our copy was from Kickstarter. However, the game has been licensed by Mattel, and should be hitting shelves any time soon — I’d have to imagine they’d want to have it available before Christmas — and I’m definitely interested to see if the retail version holds up to the quality of the Kickstarter. Following ERiaB, I’d say my second favorite overall series of escape room games is Exit: the Game. The three we’ve played so far have been consistently good, and while some puzzles were tricky, we managed to get through them, perhaps just with one or two of the provided hints. And while the Exit games are the only ones that involve component destruction (folding, ripping, or cutting cards comes into play occasionally) and thus are truly a one-and-done, non-replayable game, I feel like that adds to the experience and personal investment in the game. I’ve found that the Exit games also provide a lot of “Aha!” moments where things click together, which is a hallmark of a good escape room.

I’ve alluded to it a few times, but difficulty is another big factor in my enjoyment of these escape room games. And for that reason, Escape the Room unfortunately has to fall to the bottom of the list, simply for the fact that we found it way too easy. It may just have been that we’re experienced with this kind of game and puzzle, but when two of us were able to beat the game in under 30 minutes when it was giving us two hours, it seemed like we may not have been the target audience. I still maintain that it’s probably a good introductory game if you’re new to the genre or a family with children, but for adult puzzle-oriented people, I’d give it a pass. On the other end of the difficulty spectrum, some of the puzzles in the Unlock! and Deckscape games were really challenging, almost to an un-fun level. In particular, the second Deckscape game (The Fate of London) had a number of puzzles we found to be really obtuse and out there. I realize that this is subjective, and it might just be us not thinking in the same way as the designer, but even after seeing some of the solutions I still wasn’t able to figure out how we were supposed to have figured it out. The other drawback to the Deckscape games compared to the others is that the answer is just on the back of the card, so when you flip it over, not only do you know if you’re right or wrong, but you know what the right answer actually is. Compared to putting a code into a solution wheel or app, and being able to try again to figure it out if you’re wrong, this fell a bit flat for us. The Unlock! games are definitely better as far as only card-based systems go, but they definitely suffered from some difficulty issues as well, especially The Island of Doctor Goorse, which (minor spoilers) requires you to split into two groups at the beginning that can’t communicate with each other. As for the last game I haven’t yet touched on, Escape Room: The Game is a solid middle ground. We’ve only played the first two scenarios so far and while the first was just ok, I really liked the second, so I’m looking forward to playing the other two in the base game box, and then potentially picking up expansions to add more. The Chrono Decoder feels a bit gimmicky, whereas you could just as easily have entered the codes into an app like with Unlock! However, it does add to the fun, and having to search through the keys to find the right ones to input can add to the tension. The difficulty of ER:TG seems pretty balanced as well — in the games we’ve played, we haven’t had to use any of the provided hints, but we also didn’t breeze through everything, finishing within 45-60 minutes as intended. For that, I’d say this one falls right in the middle of the pack in terms of my ratings.

Check out the table below for some comparison between these games, as well as our individual rankings of each.

Exit: The Game Unlock! Deckscape Escape Room: The Game Escape the Room Escape Room in a Box
Number of Scenarios 6, with more planned 6, with various other mini/demo games 2 4, plus 4 expansions 2 1
MSRP $14.95 each $14.99 each $14.99 each $39.99, plus $9.99 for expansions $21.99 $29.99
Resettable? No Yes Yes Yes, with reprinting some components Yes Yes, with reprinting some components
Components Cards, booklet, solution wheel Cards, app Cards Chrono decoder, keys, sealed envelopes, pictures, other items per scenario Sealed envelopes, solution wheel, various other physical objects Locks, keys, paper puzzle sheets, many physical objects that won’t be spoiled
Difficulty from 1 (easiest) to 5 (hardest) 3-4 3-5 3-4 2-4 1-2 3-4
App integration None Required None Optional, for background music None Optional, for timekeeping and ambient sound
Ethan’s Ranking (1=best, 6=worst) 2 4 5 3 6 1
Amber’s Ranking (1=best, 6=worst)  1 2  5  4  6  3

 

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