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Subject: Unlock! The First Trilogy - A Bundle Review (No Spoilers) rss

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Image Courtesy of W Eric Martin

This review continues my series of detailed reviews that attempt to be part review, part resource for anyone not totally familiar with the game. For this reason I expect readers to skip to the sections that are of most interest.

If you liked the review please thumb the top of the article so others have a better chance of seeing it and I know you stopped by. Thanks for reading.

Summary

Game Type – Escape Room (Puzzle) Game
Play Time: 50-70 minutes (each scenario)
Number of Players: 1-6 (best with 3-4)
Mechanics – Puzzle solving, Co-op Play
Difficulty – Pick-up & Play (Can be learned in 10 minutes)
Components – Excellent
Release – 2017

Publisher - Space Cowboys (Black Fleet, Elysium, All Things Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, All things Splendor, All Things T.I.M.E Stories, Via Nebula and Watson & Holmes)

Lead Designer – Cyril Demaegd (Amyitis, Bombay, Timeline Challenge, Ys)

Overview and Theme

Disclaimer - This review will be spoiler free, will not reference any of the individual puzzles and will only discuss the names of the scenarios and the components as can be seen on the back of the box.

I recently reviewed my first Escape Room game experience (link found at end of review) and had a great time with it. Not surprisingly I quickly acquired a bunch of other Escape Room offerings and so it would be fair to say that I am a fan of the Escape Room experience (both in real life and cardboard form).

But surely they can't all be good right? So this is the second review in a series where I hope to be able to play through them all for you and compare the various offerings. This may (or may not devil ) save you some of your hard earned cash by helping you decide which ones are for you, unless of course you decide you need to try them all!

This review will look at the first 3 releases in the series - The Formula, Squeek & Sausage and The Island of Doctor Goorse.

The format I will use here is to cover the basic format of the Unlock! series first before looking at the theme and my thoughts on each of the 3 titles separately. Then I will look to compare the Unlock! series of games to other Escape Room Game offerings.

For those living under a rock this past decade, Escape Rooms are real life constructs where a group of people are locked into a room for an hour and must solve a series of puzzles and challenges in order to escape.

The gaming market has jumped on board to try and replicate the experience without the 3D immersion and several companies (Space Cowboys, KOSMOS and Identity Games to name a few) have released offerings to fill this space.

What I can say here though is that Space Cowboys have some real pedigree when it comes to publishing deduction\puzzle\co-operative style games. With titles like Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, T.I.M.E Stories and Watson & Holmes already to their name, it would be a fair assumption to make that they have a fairly good knowledge of what works in this genre.

Okay enough of the nitter-natter, peel those eyes and engage computational brain...we have some puzzling to sleuth out!

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The Components

What sets the Unlock! series apart from other offerings is that the game requires nothing more than a deck of 60 cards for each scenario and a free companion App to play. It's kinda cool but it does leave you wondering, "Can this really work?"

d10-1 The Tutorial – Ok I lied a little, as each title also comes with a 10 card Tutorial, however the Tutorial is identical in all 3 titles in the first Unlock! trilogy, so there is no need to play the Tutorial again if you have played it once or are familiar with the Unlock! approach overall.


Image Courtesy of Alice87


d10-2 The Scenario Cards – All the cards in the game (Tutorial and Main Scenario) make use of a long vertical format, which take up 2/3rds of the box.

Each Scenario features an introduction card, which outlines the objectives of the game and tells a brief story to enforce the theme and give the players some level of purpose for their impending actions.

On the back of that initial card is the first location that the players find themselves in and the things they can start to interact with (a series of cards to reveal from the deck).

The design of the cards is pretty standard across all three titles in this first wave of titles. The back of the cards are then differentiated for each title, to better reflect the theme of the game in question.


Image Courtesy of Alice87


d10-3 The App – This is a nice and functional piece of software design. It has load screens for the games in their trilogy releases and it even included the title screens for the second trilogy, long before the games were available on the market.

The Tutorial does a good job of showing how the App can be used during play to enter codes, gain hints, register penalties and the like.

The App can be found with a simple search using 'Unlock'. It comes up on the first screen of options and it is free to download.


Image Courtesy of Alice87


d10-4 Rules – The rules are a nice slim line format to fit in the box. They outline the basic concepts and challenges the game is likely to present without spoiling anything. They do the job and really, after one play of an Unlock! game, you really don't need them anymore as the games are more experience than grappling with rule sets.


Image Courtesy of Alice87


Overall the components are done well but are fairly sparse compared to other Escape Room games on the market. The App though is very good and helps tie the whole production together. I also really like that the boxes are nice and small and don't have a massive footprint.


Image Courtesy of Alice87


Set-Up

NB - The free app can be found by searching for Unlock and it is free. The app of course needs to be downloaded before you begin play.

If it is your first time playing an Unlock! game, then it is wise to play the tutorial first. This consists of 10-11 cards that are white in colour. The Tutorial is also supported by the app and helps to become familiar with both the game and the app itself.

Once your group is ready for the main show, all that needs to be done for the set-up is to take the 60 cards out of the box and read out the first card that sets the scene.

Unlock! Series #1 - Overview

Image Courtesy of W Eric Martin


Before I begin, it is worth noting that the games in this series were available in a combined pack in Europe but in other parts of the world (well the USA and Australia at least) the games come packaged in individual boxes.

Each of the 3 games in the first series share these common attributes :-

d10-1 The Tutorial - Each game comes with 10 cards called the Tutorial. Its purpose is to get the players familiar with the style of puzzles they are going to face and the mechanisms or steps required to solve them.

The tutorial also has App support and it helps to make the players familiar with some of the App features as well.

It is a fairly clever way to introduce new gamers to the Unlock! experience. All 3 games in series #1 feature the same tutorial though, so really there is no need to play it again if you have already played one of the games in the series before.

The Tutorial has a time frame of 10 minutes to solve.

d10-2 The Main Scenario - Each of the main games offers up a 60 card deck. This single deck of cards are all the games need to challenge and attempt to outwit the group of players. It really is very clever and I'm sure it makes for a nice, low production cost as well. bag

Each game always begins by reading out the top card of the main deck. This sets the scene and theme for the game. Once revealed, the card is turned over to reveal the opening location you are in and what you can interact with. The game is away and the start button is pushed on the App to set that 60 minute timer in motion! surprise

d10-3 Locations, Items and Penalty Cards - The main deck of cards is essentially made up of 3 card types. The first of these is locations. These are various environs that the team will find themselves in such as rooms for example. On these cards will be some flavour text and a series of numbers and\or letters. These direct the team of players to draw the listed cards from the deck and put them into play face-up for all to see.

These cards represent the things lying around a room, the posters found on walls, statues in a garden and many other things that exist in our world.

Some cards in the deck though feature no other purpose than to reveal to the players that they have erred in some way and list a time penalty for doing so. This penalty is recognised by hitting the penalty button on the App, which then deducts the required amount of time and can affect your performance rating. shake

d10-4 The Puzzles - The initial trilogy of titles make use of essentially 4 distinct puzzle types that the players are trying to solve. There are other types of puzzles scattered throughout the games also, but they are quite special so I won't be mentioning them here.

mb Objects - These are by far the most common types of cards. They can represent pretty much any type of object from the world around us. Objects feature either a red or blue strip across the top of each card and this is to remind players that Objects can be combined to try and solve a puzzle, much like a pair of jigsaw pieces (in fact jigsaw icons are used to highlight the purpose of objects and that they can be combined to create a solution to a problem at times).

If the group think that two objects should be combined, they simply add the numbers of the two cards together and see if the deck contains that numbered card. If it does the players can choose to reveal the card. If they were correct (the game intended those objects to be combined) the card will make it quite clear that they have done well as the narrative of what they just did (in combining the objects) will be present and the new card will instruct the players to discard the cards that were used.

If the combination was incorrect however, the card will either make no sense in relation to what was just tried or a Penalty Card will be revealed, requiring the players to press the penalty button on the app, which will result in time being lost.

mb Machines - Machines feature a green strip and can represent any sort of mechanical\computational device. These puzzles feature a series of black numbers and the machine must be interacted with in some way to select one or more of these numbers. In doing so a total is created, which serves as a red puzzle piece. Then a blue object can be added to that total to represent the players manipulating the device in the required way.

Let me offer a completely made up example. The players find a radio which has several marked frequencies (numbers) in black. Using another clue in the game they identify the three channels that were listened to by the missing person. By adding these up they get a total, which can then be added to a blue card. This card represents a set of batteries needed to power the portable radio and features a number of its own. By adding the two numbers\totals together they create a total, find the card in the deck and reveal it. It shows a specific radio show that is given in the form of a code that then allows them to hear some audio via the app to reveal yet another clue to continue the journey. meeple

Hopefully the total results in a correct solution. Machines are much harder elements to overcome than other puzzles within the games, in my groups experience.

mb Codes - These cards feature a yellow strip across the top and they can represent anything in our world that tends to require a code. It could be a security code to open a secure door, the password to a mobile phone or the pin number for a bank card.

The players need to find and use clues to identify the correct code, which is always a 4-digit number. The numbers need to be entered into the app in the correct order to overcome this kind of puzzle, with penalties often being applied if the incorrect code is entered.

mb Hidden Objects - Hidden objects are quasi-puzzles really. The Unlock! series can often have numbers or letters or some form of visual clue that needs to be discovered in order to gain access to a new card or serve as a clue to finding a code or interacting with a machine.

These are not all that frequent but they can pose a real road block to a group of players if they miss them. This is of course very easy to do as there is the time pressure at play and the players are often passing cards around or not seeing some cards at all if they rely on their partners to inspect them carefully. All I can say is...keep your eyes peeled.

d10-5 The App and Hints - The app is a really well developed piece of software. Each title in the series has its own screen image to help identify which is which and they appear to be aligned into each of the trilogies. Once the right game screen is selected and the Start button is pressed, the timer starts to count down from 60 minutes and some suitably nerve racking tick-tock sound effects and thematic background noises are added for effect.

The core interface of the in-game app is a series of 7 buttons, arranged in a circular pattern. Most of the buttons control one aspect of the game, such as entering Codes, interacting with a Machine or suffering a Penalty.

The app also allows the players to ask for hints. By hitting the hint button, the players can enter a card number they have to gain a hint in relation to that card. Some cards only have 1 hint available, whilst others may contain 2 or even a final solution if the group is completely stumped.

But of course every hint asked for will be noted and they may affect your final rating at the end of the game, so only ask for them when they are really needed.

At the end of the game, if you successfully complete the final challenge, the app provides a summary page that outlines the time taken, penalties incurred and a rating out of 5 stars. It's pretty neat and allows a group to compare their performance against other groups that may play with their own or your copy.

The app is a free download too.

d10-6 How it all Unfolds -

Image Courtesy of W Eric Martin
So how does a game in the Unlock! series look and feel?

It's all pretty cool really. As soon as that timer starts ticking the players are racing through the deck of cards to try and find all of those numbered and lettered cards that are accessible in your first location.

Then the team starts to read things to one another, discuss possible opening options and are looking at the cards for any visual clues.

Soon you are looking to combine objects to find more clues, new locations or new objects that you can interact with. Soon Machines are discovered and the need for Codes exist.

As new cards are discovered, others are discarded as they have served their purpose (as directed by newly found cards). In this way the central playing area can become quite crowded with cards but they get thinned out and removed over time as well.

There will be moments of quiet as the group try to internalise the clues at their disposal...whilst all the time that damned clock keeps ticking down with its mocking sound effects. The tension is always ramping up and the table is witness to little moments of excited celebration as the next hurdle is overcome and the grinding of teeth when the team hit a stumbling block.

The Opening Three Titles in Brief (No Spoilers)

Following is a very quick synopsis of each of the 3 titles in the first release in the series. For all 3 games my gaming group consisted of the same 4 people.

mb The Formula mb

Difficulty - 2\3 Padlocks
Theme - Scientific
Player Count - 1-6
Designer(s) – Cyril Demaegd (Amyitis, Bombay, Timeline Challenge, Ys)

Summary - This is a really good place to start for the series as it has a 'classic' escape room kind of feel. The puzzles feel a bit 'old school' and follow a naturally 'logical' mindset. Science is at the heart of this experience thematically but I won't say much more than that.

Our group thoroughly enjoyed this experience.

mb Squeek & Sausage mb

Difficulty - 2\3 Padlocks
Theme - Cartoony Shenanigans
Player Count - 1-6
Designer(s) – Cyril Demaegd + Alice Carroll

Summary - Squeek & Sausage has more of an animated\toon feel to its presentation, which really sets it apart from The Formula (it almost channels a Day of the Tentacle\Sam & Max type artist approach). This too was a very enjoyable experience. It wasn't quite as traditional as The Formula and had a couple of twists that put our group on notice that 'anything goes' in this series. I won't say any more than that.

Our group enjoyed this one just as much as The Formula.

mb The Island of Dr. Goorse mb

Difficulty - 3\3 Padlocks
Theme - Mysterious Island
Player Count - 2-8
Designer(s) – Cyril Demaegd + Thomas Cauët (Nefertiti)

Summary - Boy was this one completely different from the first two, some of it good, other parts not so much. The puzzles really do ramp up significantly for that 1 extra padlock in difficulty rating and I'm not ashamed to say that my group had to hint the crap out of this one.

Our group had mixed feelings on this one with the general consensus being that some of the puzzles were just a little too obscure, with not quite enough 'nods' to the players to give them a fair chance.

Given the number of hints we ended up needing, this experience felt like we were more passengers intent on finding out how the heck we were supposed to solve something, rather than being actively involved and enjoying ourselves all the way. That's not to say that other groups couldn't have nutted out more than we did...we are not rogue scholars by any stretch (BGG really needs an Idiot emoticon). But we would like to see another 3 Padlock difficulty rating title to see if it was the nature of how this one was put together or if was just us.

It's also worth pointing out that The Island of Dr. Goorse cannot be played solo, whereas the first two can be. I think a reasonably clever cookie stands a chance to solve them if they play alone but it would be a good challenge for sure.

Comparisons to Other Escape Room Games

Image Courtesy of W Eric Martin


So this is the second Escape Room Game Series we have tried after first trying Escape Room: The Game

Overall our group really enjoyed the first wave of Unlock! titles. Our partners (Annie and Sally) in particular really enjoyed them, a little more-so than Escape Room: The Game (our first experience). They liked the clean approach and the nature of how the players could interact with the cards. I also suspect that they felt it was a little easier to share the cards in the Unlock! series than it was to share components in Escape Room: The Game, so they felt like they were more involved.

My pal and I enjoyed these, no doubt, but we are favouring the nature of Escape Room: The Game, just a tad bit more. The reason for this is that it was a little more tactile, with more to touch and interact with physically. Apart from The Island of Dr. Goorse, we also feel that the challenge was a little more engaging with tricky moments, but those moments could be nutted out with persistence.

For us, that lead to a higher degree of satisfaction and less frustration.

Difficulty Rating Comparison

Escape Room: The Game - Base Game

Scenario Difficulty Rating Components

Prison Break 3D \ Hands on

Virus 3D \ Hands on

Nuclear Countdown 3D \ Hands on

Temple of the Aztec 3D \ Hands on

Unlock! Series #1

The Formula Cards

Squeek & Sausage Cards

The Island of Dr. Goorse Cards



The Final Word

You have to take your hat off to Space Cowboys for being able to create an Escape Room experience with nothing more than a set of 60 cards, in much the same way as we (gamers) marvelled at first discovering what was possible with Love Letter's 16-card deck. Other games in the Escape Room genre make use of physical elements, larger map sheets, code wheels, decoding devices and the like.

The ways the players can interact with the cards offered up by the Unlock! series is quite novel and should be commended.

The difficulty ratings assigned to the games seem a little odd if I have to be honest. That's because the 2 Padlock games (in the first trilogy of titles at least) felt about spot on, so a 1 padlock difficulty rating would be all too easy I think. Perhaps they are saving those for children's titles (which would be neat). That would make sense actually.
As mentioned above, the 3 padlock rating does feel suitably difficult though. I also recognise that it must be incredibly difficult to create a singular experience that offers the perfect challenge for people of all types, experiences and IQ levels. It really is an almost impossible challenge and for that reason it is hard to say if they got it perfect or not as each gaming group is likely to have their own thoughts based on their experience.

Another positive of the Unlock! series is that the games are completely re-playable (this first series is anyway), as the cards simply go back in the box and nothing is cut, folded or damaged in any way.

In the end we look forward to buying anything released in this series and trying them out. One of the real pros of this series is that they are available for a really reasonable price. Here in Australia, each of the first 3 were only $25 dollars, so they must be worth peanuts in the USA I'd imagine.

Given I will put 3-4 different game groups through the experience, the cost to play ratio is pretty great. Given they are re-playable...who knows...in 5-6 years I may have forgotten enough to play them again! (I can see others trading them on however).

Till next we meet may your brains keep hurdling the next barrier and your group beats the buzzer!

Review Links

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Links to Other Escape Room\Puzzle\Deduction Game Reviews


d10-1 Escape Room: The Game
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Re: Unlock! The First Trilogy - A Detailed Review (No Spoilers)
Great review - I enjoyed the games and overall would place them slightly higher than Exit as they are a little more thematic/immersive, better art, more variety of puzzles. However they are "vulnerable" in that it is easy to just get stuck, not see a hidden object clue, not realise you need something else to solve a puzzle etc. The hint system in Exit works better but the clever thing about the app system is they can retrospectively change and modify the hints they give out (and indeed that has already happened) so it may not be a long term problem.

There is probably more bang for your buck in something like Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective but the barrier to entry here is so low its easy to get it played and then if you wish trade it on.
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Re: Unlock! The First Trilogy - A Detailed Review (No Spoilers)
Thanks for the comments.

I look forward to trying our first EXIT game in the next few weeks.
 
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