Review: Unlock! – Squeek and Sausage, The Elite
|Release Date||June 2017|
Designers: Alice Carroll, Cyril Demaegd
Artist: Arnaud Demaegd, Legruth
Publisher: Space Cowboys / Asmodee
Category: Deduction, Puzzle, Real-Time
Price: $14.99 MSRP
In the past few years, Escape Rooms have exploded in popularity. Board game publishers are trying to capitalize on that by creating “escape room in a box” experiences for a fraction of the price. There have been several such games already, but the two biggest ones releasing this summer are EXIT: the Game and Unlock!, each of which are sold by individual scenarios. My partner in crime, Chris Hecox, reviewed the EXIT series, here, here, and here (and I helped with the one I’ve played, The Secret Lab). How does Unlock! stack up to the rest of the pack? Let’s find out! (I am doing my best not to spoil anything here for either scenario, by the way.)
In Squeek & Sausage, players are trying to escape a mad scientist, but it’s all very tongue-in-cheek. In The Elite, players are trying to find evidence in an office and escape. Both involve nefarious plots for the bad guy, but there’s nothing gruesome, sexual, or profane in either release.
First, let me tell you about my experience playing Unlock!. I’ve been to an actual escape room, and played EXIT. I read the rules, played the tutorial mission, and then played Squeek & Sausage. After maybe 15 or 20 minutes, I got frustrated and quit. Then I tried The Elite and really enjoyed it. The next day, I came back and tried Squeek & Sausage again (I hadn’t gotten very far) and liked it much better.
What was the problem the first time? Well, Unlock!‘s method of code-breaking is entirely numerical, aided by an extremely useful app. There are frequently four-digit codes to try to enter (and you lose time if you guess incorrectly!). However, what I really got hung up on is the card color(s). In the game, yellow cards have four-digit cards, grey cards just tell you things, but blue and red cards combine to open new things. You can take any blue card and any red card, add their numbers together, and reveal that card if it’s in the deck.
From the rules, it sounded like that was the primary purpose of blue and red cards, but it really isn’t. Every card has a myriad of useful information on it, and many red and blue cards are not meant to be combined—really, they’re paired off. The game knows you’ll try anyway, and some of the resulting number cards are simply time penalties for doing it! Once I understood this direction for the game (not clear from the rules), the game was much better.
Another piece of information on many cards are “hidden objects.” These are simply, minuscule letters or numbers that, if you actually spot them, allow you to reveal the corresponding cards. However, some are really hard to see. The app has a setting for beginners that occasionally just tells you where to look for hidden objects, and I strongly recommend using that setting for your first scenarios. Otherwise, it can kinda feel like the game just locks up if you can’t find the object.
However, one way the game keeps from locking up is the app. In addition to providing the code entry system and hidden object help, the app also has a hint system. Each card is associated with a number, and you can type that number in to get help with the card. I felt like the hints were helpful without giving things away, which is a difficult thing to do. Some cards occasionally will have the app prompt you if you want another hint, and those are usually give-aways. (The last lock in Squeek & Sausage was borderline too far outside-the-box for me.) I should also mention that the app provides music for each scenario. It adds a ton to the game, and I can’t stress that enough. While both scenarios were fairly standard themes, they were done with great style and humor, and I really enjoyed that aspect of both games.
Regardless, I found the game immensely fun, and it compares well with EXIT. The lack of destructible components means you can pass the game on to a friend, although it means the puzzles aren’t as creative. However, I found that this differentiates the types of puzzles: Unlock! is more left-brain puzzles, which is more my style, while EXIT was far more right-brain puzzles, which is why my wife had to solve every puzzle for me. (I should fully clarify that I played both Unlock! scenarios solitaire.) Furthermore, the app integration was really helpful, and a far better way to do hints than EXIT‘s messy card system. They are different enough that I can’t recommend one over the other, and I suspect most people will want to play neither or both.
So overall, I found that the system was really quite fun once you understood the system, which is the real central problem of any kind of escape room. You can’t get anywhere if you can’t get into the designer’s head. Fortunately, I was able to eventually get there with Unlock! and enjoyed my time with both scenarios.
Thank you to Asmodee for providing review copies of Unlock! – Squeek & Sausage and Unlock! – The Elite.
The Bottom Line
Unlock! is a great system for escape-rooms-in-boxes, buoyed by fantastic app integration. It'll never compare to a real escape room, but it's still a lot of fun for a fraction of the price.