By Louis Sylvester
I love a good escape room challenge. There are few activities as enjoyable as gathering with a large group of friends and spending an hour solving puzzles. As time ticks away, everyone works together trying to decipher clever clues and hidden mysteries in hopes of discovering how to unlock the door before the clock runs out. I have done a few escape rooms and whether my group succeeded or failed to escape, we always had a delightfully memorable experience.
But escape rooms can be pretty expensive and it is not always easy to pull together a large group of friends. Fortunately, if you are in the mood for a night of brain-burning puzzles, there are a number of card games that provide the challenge and thrill of an escape room for a reasonable price.
My favorite style of puzzle game is the Unlock! series (1-6 players, 60 min., Age: 10+), a cooperative game that uses a deck of cards to simulate the escape room experience. Players must first download a free companion app that acts as a timer, checks codes, and provides hints if players get stuck. The game system is quite simple and the first few cards provide a 10-minute tutorial to help players understand how the cards and app are used.
When ready to play the full game, start the timer and flip the top card which provides a thematic story. Working together, players examine cards that depict location scenes. Numbers on the card will lead the team to reveal more cards. For example, a number next to a desk drawer will reveal a card that shows the interior of that drawer. As players search images for clues, solve riddles, and combine cards to open up new scenes, they will occasionally make mistakes and draw incorrect cards that instruct them to tap the mistake button on the app and deduct valuable minutes from the timer. As players correctly solve puzzles, they will enter codes into the app which will direct them to the next location and a new set of cards. If players ever get stuck, there is a hint button on the app that will offer help in solving their current puzzle, so players never have to worry that they won’t make it to the end of the deck (they just might not complete the deck in time.)
There are at least 15 Unlock! adventures available and new boxes are released every couple of months. A few of my favorites include Unlock! The House on the Hill and Unlock!: Squeek and Sausage, but every set has been great fun. Each individual box contains a complete adventure and costs less that $20. Of course, once players have solved the deck, the game cannot be played again, but the cards can be put back in order and gifted to friends. While some might balk at the idea of buying a game for a single play, keep in mind that the price is much lower than an actual escape room and the game is a great investment for a fun evening with friends.
Other escape room style games include Deckscape (1-6 players, 60 min., Age: 12+), a simple deck of cards much like the Unlock! system that does not use an app and Exit: The Game (1-4 players, 80 min., Age: 16+), complete with a set of cards and a booklet that requires players to bend, fold, and cut up components to solve the mysteries held within (Warning: unlike the others, Exit: The Game cannot be gifted after it has been played.).
Sylvester is an associate professor in the creative writing program at Lewis-Clark State College. He is the co-author of “Legends of the Lost Causes” series, a rip-roaring adventure set in the fantasy West, available now. You can send him your questions about tabletop games at firstname.lastname@example.org.