One of our most anticipated games for 2017 was Unlock! As an avid escape game fan, seeing someone bring that into tabletop gaming was something we were very excited to see. We were also very pleased that it was coming from Space Cowboys, who brought us T.I.M.E Stories, which implements new game mechanics very well.
Unlock! is a cooperative card game inspired by escape rooms that uses a simple system which allows you to search scenes, combine objects, and solve riddles. Play Unlock! to embark on great adventures, while seated at a table using only cards and a companion app that can provide clues, check codes, monitor time remaining, etc.
The time had finally come and we were excited to see how the game had been implemented. Unlock! arrived, and we began with the Tutorial game. Before starting, you need to ensure you have the app on your phone. The app is crucial to playing the games, and is required for a number of reasons. It keeps track of your time, provides hints if you get stuck, and confirms if you have the correct codes to unlock doors/padlocks etc. Thankfully the app is available for both Android and iPhone users! The Tutorial is just a quick 10 minute introduction with a small deck of cards designed to show you how each aspect of the game works. It’s good, but we felt that the explanation of the green, or machine cards was a bit lacking. I guess you can’t really learn how to play a game until you play it for real.
So how does it work?
You first choose the scenario you wish to play. The game comes with three scenarios (and a tutorial) and each scenario has a corresponding deck of 60 cards. There are several different ‘types’ of cards;
Objects (red or blue cards) – These cards are required to interact with each other to progress through the game. Each pairing must contain one red and one blue card, and will lead you to new information when paired correctly. Pair incorrectly, and you may be penalised.
Machines (green cards) – You need to work out the correct way to use a machine in order to progress. By completing other puzzles in the game you should find some instructions. Using the machine correctly will lead you to new information.
Codes (yellow cards) – These cards require a code to be entered into the app to progress. Use the other pieces of information available to find the code.
Other (grey cards) – These are places, results of interactions, penalties or modifiers.
Each game of Unlock! begins with revealing the top card of the deck. Any time a number is presented to you on a card (except machine cards) you search the remaining deck and also reveal the cards with those numbers. There are a number of ways to reveal more number cards. Some are obvious, such as on place cards, some are hidden within cards, and some are the result of interactions, either pairing red and blue cards correctly or working out how to use a machine.
For example, if I had red card number 35 showing a locked chest, and blue card number 11 showing a key, I can combine these together to obtain number 46. If I am correct, the deck will contain a card numbered 46, which when revealed, shows an open chest.
It is through these interactions that you work your way through the game, until ultimately, you solve the final clue.
The way this game has been designed to be played is bloody brilliant. You find yourselves searching room cards as you would an escape room, you study puzzles on cards as you would in an escape room, and you search for objects that can interact with each other, just as you would in an escape room. Sat at your dining room table playing this game creates just the same tension as being in an escape room. It can also replicate the same arguments between players, as your time ticks away, the team becomes stuck, and tensions rise.
After playing through the tutorial we dove straight in with ‘The Formula’;
The Formula takes you into the tunnels of New York’s subway system in search of an elusive chemist and the serum he’s been developing. Doctor Hoffman’s laboratory is full of traps and puzzles you’ll have to get past in order to obtain the serum and escape.
We made a couple of mistakes with The Formula. The first machine we came across confused us very much, and even as we progressed through the game, we didn’t feel as though we ever found the instructions on how to use it. Instead, we brute forced the result by working out which combination actually had a matching card in the deck. Although we escaped, it was a little confusing at the end how we should have actually worked this out correctly. We also heavily relied on clues, as it was difficult getting into the mindset of how the game worked first time round. We wished the tutorial pack had been a little more substantial, as in the end we felt as though we wasted our first run. It just wasn’t a ‘proper’ game for us.
However, we now had one run under our belt and so progressed to the next deck, ‘Squeek and Sausage’;
Squeek & Sausage is a cartoon adventure, in which you must try to stop the evil Professor Noside from activating his doomsday device. The Professor is very clever, though, and you must be able to evade his traps in order to save the world.
This game started out better for us. We understood more about how the game worked and progressed well. That is until we realised we had made a mistake. When combining objects, we thought we had revealed the next clue, as the number matched a card in the deck. After a little while, we realised that we had put two and two together and made five. Basically, we added up wrong, and took a card from the deck we should not have yet revealed.
Thankfully, it didn’t affect our game too much, and we did our best to correct our mistake as we continued. At the end of this game, we got completely stuck. In hindsight, I’m not sure of the direction of the last puzzle is clever or confusing, but regardless, by the time we had figured it out, the app had crashed and we couldn’t enter the final code without starting again. Something you can’t really do in this instance!
We began the third and last scenario, The Island of Doctor Goorse, hoping to finally nail this game.
The Island of Doctor Goorse is a complex and multifaceted mystery adventure set on a billionaire antique collector’s island. The crash-landing that got you there will separate players into two teams, adding yet another obstacle to achieving your brilliant escape.
I enjoyed this game the most! I think having done two already helps you as you already have a good idea of how the game and puzzles work. I also loved the twist at the start!
The clues were also much better in this game, although I feel as though I’m less keen on the penalty aspect now. If you try to solve a puzzle in an escape room and get it wrong, you won’t progress, but you don’t get penalised on time. I wonder if the penalty cards should be replaced with ‘sorry try again cards’ – or – a clue?
Losing time by making a mistake can be quite a hinderance, and the lack of game operator can have you stuck for quite some time anyway. Also, there’s nowhere to go if you get really stuck. Although I really enjoyed this game, we didn’t escape in 60 minutes, and we still haven’t worked out the final code. So if anyone has completed this one, please let me know how you escaped!
So, despite loving the way this game has been put together, I have one major issue with it. The clues are often crap. The clue element of the app is to replace the game operator in an escape room, but it’s flawed in a couple of ways.
- It’s too easy to request a clue. In an escape game, the operator determines when to provide clues, and they’re usually pretty good at knowing when to intervene. In Unlock! you’re not limited on the number of clues you can request, or how often, and you can go a little ‘clue mad’ if you’re rushing to solve the puzzles as quick as possible. It would be nice to see some restrictions placed on this, with the app perhaps deciding when you’ve worked on a puzzle for long enough before offering up assistance.
- The clues themselves are a bit rubbish. Simply stating what is pictured on the card is not a clue, we can see that perfectly well, we’re stuck because we don’t know what to do with it. Clues seem to range from stating the obvious to giving the answer away. A happy medium needs to be found, and also combined with the above suggestion, will make the game overall more realistic.
Other than that we have high hopes for this game! In a similar fashion to T.I.M.E Stories, the test of time will lay in its replayability. Of course as it stands, each scenario can only be played once, and to be honest, we wouldn’t go above four players in each game (even though the box says 2 – 6). In fact, we would go as far to say that this is a good alternative to escape rooms for two players. Escape rooms often have too much in them for two people to manage, whereas we feel larger groups playing Unlock! would struggle to all get involved. So the real success of this game will come with further expansions. We’ve been playing escape games now for over two years and we haven’t got bored, so if they do this right, Unlock! could have customers for a long time.
The RRP for Unlock! is £26.99, and it can be found at independent game stores, which can be found using this store locatorThank you for reading! GirlGeekUpNorth x
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