An odd but intriguing entertainment phenomenon has risen in popularity in recent years. The “escape room” concept doesn’t always go by that same name, but it has a consistent structure. Grab a group of friends, get locked in a designated space, and solve puzzles under a time limit to try and figure out an often convoluted path to getting out. A good escape room demands lateral thinking, careful observation, and often, cooperation. But it can also be a pricey evening of fun, or it can be hard to find one near you.
Unlock! is one of a few in a growing collection of games that aims to eliminate those latter concerns, offering smartly crafted puzzles and intriguing scenarios, but suitable for a game at any time and in any place – and without breaking the bank. While nothing is going to replace the visceral thrill of a location-based puzzle experience and its real physical props and features, Space Cowboys and Asmodee’s card game, Unlock!, is a surprisingly exciting, challenging, and accessible way to wile away an hour.
For game design enthusiasts, Unlock! is worth checking out purely for its innovative core mechanic. Everything is handled through a deck of numbered (sometimes lettered) cards, and a separate free app that can be downloaded on your mobile device. One of the cards sets up a scenario, from escaping the clutches of a mad scientist’s rat maze, to a crash landing on an enigmatic tropical island and its ancient ruins. From there, you start a timer on the app, and deal out the starting cards for the story. The game is structured to allow instant play – reading the included instruction pamphlet isn’t really necessary, as a brief tutorial scenario establishes how to proceed without any reading.
Cards reference other cards in the deck, sometimes with clear numbering, and sometimes through puzzles
The cards themselves feature beautiful art, but they also often contain hidden objects and clues. Perhaps the image of a wallet you uncovered on one card actually hides a number that corresponds to another card in the deck – and that numbered card is a photo (that was hidden in the wallet) with a crucial visual clue to the next puzzle. In other cases, the numbered cards can be added together, but different sums lead to different results. For instance, after being told to be discreet in your investigations, you might combine the crowbar (8) and the locked bookcase (58) to pull card 66 (8+58), but the bookcase won’t yield, and you are penalized time on the app. But be more careful (as you were instructed) and use the hairpin (15) to pick the lock on the bookcase (58), and suddenly the door slips open, revealing a crucial piece of paper on card 73 (15+58).
As you pour over the cards and their clues, the app also layers in complexity. In addition to offering a countdown on your investigations, it also allows you to enter code number sequences, often in concert with clues drawn from the cards. For instance, maybe you need to hack a password on a computer, but you don’t know what it is. The password screen shown on one card reveals a picture of a young boy, perhaps the target’s son. A separate card is a snapshot of that same child’s birthday, tagged with the year 2009, and showing seven birthday candles. Enter the code 2002 (which you have deduced as the boy’s birth year) in the app, and sure enough, you’re given the card showing the unlocked computer desktop.
The app acts as a moderator of sorts for the gameplay. It plays optional music and sound effects, provides clues (and even solutions) if you simply can’t figure out how to progress, and when the scenario concludes, it offers a scoring screen. Thanks to the app, the tedium is skipped over, and instead, everyone can focus on the fun part of solving the puzzles.
Unlock! is currently available in three scenarios in the United States: The Formula, Squeek & Sausage, and The Island of Doctor Goorse, but more are on the way soon
Unlock!’s puzzles can be downright befuddling. Without spoiling any specific challenges (all the situations described in this article are from demo scenarios), I can say that the core scenarios demand constantly fresh perspectives and ways of thinking. Pure logic puzzles, deductive reasoning, pattern recognition, and even listening-based audio cues from the app, all combine in surprising ways. The reward is a potent version of those “aha” moments that help a puzzle game to shine. Figuring out how one card combines with another in a surprising way can lead to a lot of cheers, and I am continually impressed by the way the designers keep players on their toes with new concepts.
Unlock! has some drawbacks. Most significantly, unlike most tabletop card games, Unlock is really only good for a single playthrough. The low cost of purchase ($15 or less from most retailers) for a single scenario is certainly a reasonable deal, but the game is over in about an hour, at which point that scenario is best used as a gift to pass to other friends or family who didn’t play with you. There’s not much point to resolving puzzles you already figured out.
While Unlock’s box suggests that it can be played with up to six players, my experience suggests that large teams like that don’t work as well as I might have hoped. The details on the cards are tricky to observe for larger groups, there’s too much chaos to consider the clues carefully, and frustration can arise as one or more players gets left out of the loop. Instead, I enjoy the game more with smaller cooperative teams of three or four people. In fact, most Unlock scenarios can play great with just two people (ideal for gaming couples), or even solo – making it a great option for a quiet evening of games at home. One notable exception is Unlock’s most challenging scenario – The Island of Doctor Goorse – which demands two independent teams, and so it can’t realistically be tackled by a solo player.
The free app is required in order to complete a scenario
Even with some caveats about replayability and player count, I was fascinated by my time with Unlock. The mechanics are incredibly simple to grasp, but very original, which makes the clever twists inherent to the various puzzles all the more fiendish. When you can’t progress, it’s not because you can’t figure out the way the game works – you just aren’t figuring out the latest puzzle presented by the current layout of cards. Multiple scenarios are available for purchase independently, and each has its own difficulty setting so you can further cater your experience. While the sometimes tricky card-based puzzles might not be for everyone, I found new things to like about Unlock! with each new scenario I tried, and I’m looking forward to subsequent releases in the line as Asmodee and Space Cowboys continue to publish new scenarios.
If the whole idea of escape puzzles stresses you out, worry not. I’ve got a bevy of tabletop gaming recommendations for you over at the Top of the Table hub, which you can reach by clicking on the banner below. I’m also happy to offer some personal recommendations; if you can’t figure out the right game for your group, drop me a line via email or Twitter (through the links below), let me know what you’re looking for, and I’ll shoot you some ideas.