Saturday, 18 November 2017


Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

I have just written about the escape room game series Exit. Now it is the turn for Unlock. Unlock is an award winner too - the French Golden Ace award (As d'Or Jeu de l'Année), for 2017. I have only played one game in the series - The Formula.

Playing Unlock requires using a smartphone app. It acts as a countdown timer. Sometimes you are required to enter a passcode and it tells you whether it is correct. You can ask for hints. When you make mistakes, you may be penalised. You apply the penalty using the app - it reduces the time you have to escape the room.

Other than this app, what you use is just a deck of cards. There are different numbers and alphabets on the card backs. You start the game with just one scenario card. You read the scenario description aloud, start the timer, and flip the card over to see the room you are in.

This is the room. Those numbers and alphabets you can see mean you get to draw and reveal the cards from the deck with these numbers and alphabets. They are the objects you see in the room. The information on the cards are further details of the objects.

Your end goal is to escape the room in which you are locked. To do that you need to enter the right passcode into the app. To get to this final passcode, you need to solve a series of puzzles and riddles. You need to picture yourself in the room as depicted on the scenario card. There are many objects in the room. All of them will help you escape. Your task is to decipher the clues, and to make use of the objects to get more clues and more objects, until you eventually find the final passcode. Some objects combine to give you another object. Most objects are associated with a number, e.g. a lock is #10, and a key is #11. You may try to unlock this lock with this key. You do it by adding up the two numbers. The total is 21. You look through the deck for card #21. If the #11 key is indeed the right key for the #10 lock, the card #21 will tell you so, and give you a new clue, or a new riddle. If it is not the right key, the card #21 will tell you too, and you will be penalised. Usually you are asked to press the penalty button at the app, which shortens your remaining time. Because of this penalty, you must not randomly combine objects by summing up their numbers, hoping to eventually get a right answer. When you try to combine two objects, it has to make sense. You should only do it if you are confident and you have a logical explanation why the two objects should be combined. Sometimes the sum for two objects don't exist in the deck. Then you know for sure these two objects do not combine. Don't waste your breath.

You need to look closely at the cards. Sometimes there are hidden numbers or alphabets. Some cards require you to enter a passcode. This can happen in the middle of the game and not only at the end. Some cards require you to solve a puzzle where the answer is a number, and this number can be added to the number of another object. Some riddles can only be solved when you have all the necessary data, and the data is spread across many cards. Before you reveal them all, the partial information is not enough. There can be multiple riddles and puzzles at the same time. You can't be sure whether you already have all the necessary information. You need to work smart. If one path looks blocked for the moment, try something else and revisit this path later when you have more information.

You will not know which piece of information is for which riddle. In fact sometimes you may not even know whether a piece of information is a riddle or a clue for a riddle. You need to sort these out yourself. You always have a pool of information, and you need to keep breaking through to learn more, to get more riddles and to solve them too, and eventually get to the final passcode. Sometimes some cards will tell you you can discard specific cards, because the information on them is no longer needed. This helps keep you sane. If you feel stuck and need help, you can ask the app for hints. Naturally, it is most satisfying if you can solve everything without using any hints.

This is what the app looks like.

The Play

I played The Formula with just Allen. Han taught us the game. He had played before and couldn't join us. Allen and I managed to beat the game quite quickly, well under the 1 hour mark. We didn't use a single hint. That was satisfying. Han did help us along the way. He didn't directly give hints, but he did remind us to look at the cards closely, and also sometimes when he saw us spend much time checking things which he knew would yield no result, he told us flatly not to bother. So he did save us some time. Afterwards my children tried the game, and a group of friends too. I didn't give them any hints, only minor nudges, and it took them much longer to beat the game, about one and a half hours. What I find interesting is different people get stuck at different riddles. There are some which I found difficult and took long to solve, but others managed to solve quickly. Some which I found easy took others a long time to solve. Most riddles are logical in nature, as opposed to needing general or specific knowledge. In the cases of those which do require general knowledge, it is common knowledge that almost everyone should know. This is a good thing. There is little cultural barrier.

10 Sep 2017. The children struggled with the game, because it was just the two of them playing. I couldn't join them because I had already played it.

Halfway through the game Chen Rui gave up and left the table. They were stuck at the same riddles for a long time so Chen Rui was fed up and decided to go do something else. Shee Yun was determined to solve the riddles, and eventually did manage to beat the game.

There is time pressure when playing Unlock. You do need to use the app quite often, so you can't help noticing the timer. Each time you make a mistake and are penalised, you are reminded that time is running out. Exit has the same one-hour time limit, but in Exit you don't bother with the stopwatch until you are done with the game. You only check it after you are done to see how long you took. In Unlock there is no buzzing when time is up. You play on until you finally solve the final riddle, just that the app will tell you afterwards that you have done poorly.

The pleasure in Unlock is in analysing the wealth of data before you and sorting out which are the riddles, which are the clues, and which clues are for which riddles. You need to work out how to piece together the clues to solve the riddles. Step by step you solve the riddles and get more information, until you manage to reach the final passcode. There is always discussion at the table, throwing out ideas and bouncing hypotheses off one another. Due to the time penalty, before you reveal a new card you often need to think twice whether it might be a mistake.

The Thoughts

If you like riddles and IQ tests, I think you will like Unlock. In fact, to me, it feels more like an elaborate set of interdependent riddles than a boardgame. It is very different from what you'd expect a boardgame to be. When you work together with a group of friends to solve a difficult puzzle, you get a strong sense of comradeship.

If you ask me to compare Unlock and Exit, Unlock feels more thematic because it tries to make you imagine you are in that room, and the cards are actual objects you find there. The puzzles in Exit are more creative. Some of them downright amazed me. In Exit you may need to write, tear, fold, destroy and irreversibly change game components, so there is more freedom in coming up with puzzles. Unlock does make use of the app, so it has some elements which Exit is not able to support. If forced to pick which is better, I favour Exit slightly over Unlock. That said, I find these two series similar in the kind of experience and fulfilment they give you. If you like one, I'm confident you'll like the other.

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