Designer: Inka Brand, Markus Brand
Artists: Silvia Christoph, Franz Vohwinkel
Category: Deduction, Puzzle, Real-Time
Price: $14.95 Amazon
EXIT: The Game – The Secret Lab is the second in the EXIT: The Game series, currently one out of three published EXIT games in english. KOSMOS is currently at work on seven additional titles in the series with three more publishing in the next wave. These are currently published in German.
EXIT: The Game – The Secret Lab simulates an escape room, trading the physical presence of an environment for a tidy bundle of cards and various escape-themed paraphernalia.
Thames and Kosmos is a science kit and board games publisher, with KOSMOS being the branch specifically for board gaming. KOSMOS has long published many games, including Reiner Knizia’s Through the Desert, Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth, and the original printing of The Settlers of Catan. More recently KOSMOS has published a number of children’s and puzzle games, including Harry Hopper, Dimension, Kerala, Ubongo, and many more. In addition, KOSMOS publishes a number of hobby/strategy titles, including Imhotep, Legends of Andor, Tumult Royale, Kahuna, Lost Cities, and the upcoming A Column of Fire.
Author’s Note: EXIT: The Game – The Secret Lab, along with all the other games from the series are rife with spoilers. These reviews will not reveal in-game content, aside from what you learn as soon as you open the box. I’ll still keep a few details from within secret, but I want readers to at least get a tiny taste of what they’ll find upon unboxing, and just a little more info on how the mechanisms work together as they solve the puzzle.
Fellow author Derek Thompson also had a chance to play The Secret Lab and will be offering a separate perspective underneath my own.
No issues here. The players are trapped in a lab, supposedly being experimented on, unless they can escape in time, though this is referenced solely in a brisk paragraph.
EXIT: The Game – The Secret Lab drops players right into a drab lab environment. Players are given a strange dial and lab manual, and are then instructed to discover the solution to leaving the lockup as quickly as possible, lest they become experiments in a test study.
Those familiar with the previous entry, The Abandoned Cabin, will find themselves on somewhat solid ground. Riddles work the same mechanically in that players use a strange code dial, alongside working their way through a few stacks of cards. See our review here to understand a bit of how the mechanisms work together to resolve the puzzles of the escape room.
Writing this review, I question whether the bigger challenge is playing through the escape room itself, or writing a review without revealing key spoilers to the game. It’s hard to give you specifics on a topic that I need to be a little vague on. One thing I can definitely attest to is: it’s far easier to decide my final and comprehensive thoughts on a one-off title, as opposed to playing a regular game 3-6 times to feel prepared enough to assemble a review for our audience.
To give you a frame of reference for my opinion: I’m not necessarily scientifically-minded. Sure, I can poke lots of holes into a situation. Without being pessimistic, I try to analyze situations from what works and what doesn’t work. Someone might have an excellent argument for resolving an issue on a project at work, but they haven’t thought about the cash we need to drop to rent specific video equipment, the actors we need to hire, the exotic locations they’ve mentioned that will cost hundreds of dollars in stock video, etc. This is how I think about things.
On the flip side, I was an A student in everything in school that wasn’t related to math or science. I did okay in science, but was a solid average C student when it came to math. It’s hard for me to understand why certain formulas existed and why we needed to memorize them. When Walter White goes off on a chemical equation in Breaking Bad, I was only interested because it was so dramatic. I like to have a grasp on the most basic understandings of how the world works chemically. Basically, it’s of interest to me that the body breaks down medication and sends it to certain nerves and parts of the bloodstream, but I really don’t want to memorize the process, and I definitely don’t want anyone to think I’m wise in it.
I tell you this because I didn’t like The Secret Lab the way I liked The Abandoned Cabin.
Don’t get me wrong. The Secret Lab is not a convoluted mess of scientific jargon, designed specifically for analytically-minded folks and those with PHDs. It’s not. Trust me.
Escape rooms are unique because you need a frame of reference for where the designers are coming from. It’s the same here. When I start on a project for work, I like to know what the client wants, how long the video needs to be, etc. This helps me to get started on something on the right foot.
I came into The Secret Lab without much guidance in what to expect. Sure, part of the thrill is determining where to start, but Katie and I were overwhelmed. I looked over the varying chemical symbols, multitude of colors paired with numbers, and fat stack of riddle cards. All I could feel was dread. Each new riddle left me feeling more lost than the previous card. With The Abandoned Cabin, we were excited to reveal new clues. There was a bit of hand-holding, sure, but I felt like we were at least heading in the right direction. In The Secret Lab, every riddle was another conundrum and I couldn’t wait for it to be over.
I admit, a huge contributing factor to the demise of the lab was me being unable to get out of my mindset. I was expecting difficult, science-themed riddles, needing some basic understanding of chemical compounds and reactions. That’s not what’s in the box. This was crushing to our experience.
I can sum up our experience in just a little thought: On finishing the game, players are presented a questionnaire with one question asking, “Who was the most successful at solving the riddles between the players?” The two of us agreed that the clue deck solved more than both of us, so we wrote that into the blank space.
Well, I do have a Ph.D., but in mathematics, not chemistry. And regardless, it didn’t feel to me like these puzzles were particularly scientific anyway. They were logical puzzles, but the problem for me was that several of the riddles did not make it clear how to “begin,” even to the point where you could work through the logic they were asking you to consider. And once you had that part down (often from taking a clue card), the puzzle was actually very basic. Ironically, for the theme, this particular release isn’t for logical/analytical/practical minds. My wife, the emotionally intelligent counselor, solved almost all of the puzzles while I helped very little. That’s probably why it took us an hour and 45 minutes…
I went to a real-life Escape Room recently and loved it, so I like the idea of these “escape-room-in-a-box” scenarios. However, without physical manipulatives to work with, it felt like they tried to make it difficult by just being unhelpful. It also seemed that, with this particular box, the destructible elements didn’t add significantly to the game, which is a bummer. (On the other hand, the only other destructible game I’ve played is Pandemic Legacy, and that’s an unfair comparison.) In terms of cooperative board games, the closest for me to something like this that I play regularly is probably something like Mysterium. However, in that game the “clues” are player-generated, and more importantly, the rules of the “puzzles” are far more clearly defined. It also has clear “winning” and “losing” conditions, as Escape Rooms do (get out in an hour!), and the lack of a way to “lose” made this feel like less of a game and more of a timed puzzle. Even though The Secret Lab is a pretty cheap buy, it wasn’t fun enough to last as long as it did, so I have no intention of recommending this particular release to anyone. If players play Abandoned Cabin and the other EXIT titles and they just really want more of the system, they might consider it, but I definitely would not start with it.
The Bottom Line
The Secret Lab is far more challenging than The Abandoned Cabin. Though it has some cool moments, The Secret Lab feels disjointed from The Abandoned Cabin, and offers a higher level of difficulty.