Escape Room Gameplay at Home: Unlock! and Exit: The Game

mind bender escape room

[Image courtesy of The Portland Press Herald.]

In yesterday’s post, we discussed different ways you can enjoy escape room-style puzzling at home. We covered books, apps, and audio formats, but we left the largest category for today’s post: escape room games.

There are a myriad of games that try to encapsulate the escape room experience — searching the space, finding clues, interacting with the environment, solving puzzles, and experiencing the narrative — with varying degrees of success.

Escape Room: The Game, Escape Room in a Box, Escape from Iron Gate, Escape from the Grand Hotel, and Escape Tales: The Awakening are just five examples that turned up with a cursory search. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, of course, when you consider games that incorporate escape room-style or timed elements, like Mission X-Code, Cut the Wire, Bomb Squad Academy, Fuse, and Two Rooms and a Boom.

But all of those games are dwarfed in the marketplace by the industry leaders — based on sheer number of available puzzly experiences, anyway — so we decided to sample those and explore escape room gameplay from.

I solved three games from the Exit: The Game franchise and three games from the Unlock! franchise.

Let’s dive in, shall we?


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[Image courtesy of Meeple Mountain.]

Exit: The Game products create an escape room experience by combining a deck of cards, a guidebook, a sliding decoder ring, and miscellaneous items to be used throughout the game. The deck of cards is divided into red riddle cards (labeled by letter), blue answer cards (labeled by number), and green help cards (labeled by symbol).

There is an app as well that hosts a tutorial, your timer, atmospheric sounds and music, and a star-based scoring mechanism rating your performance at the end of the playthrough.

In the easier games, the guidebook progresses page by page, and you’re meant to go no further until the answer cards tell you to do so. You’ll use what’s on each page, along with the information on the riddle card to solve each puzzle.

Most of the puzzles will result in a three-digit number, which you enter into the decoder wheel. The decoder wheel will reveal a card number, which you will pull from the answer card deck. If you’re completely wrong, you flip the card to reveal a red X and go back to the drawing board. If you’re on the right path, the answer card will have different card numbers for each of the different puzzle symbols. You find your symbol, then go to the card in the answer deck indicated.

For instance, if you’re solving a puzzle with a triangle symbol, you solve the puzzle with a three-digit code, and enter that code into the decoder wheel. It sends you to, say, card 29. On card 29, you look for the triangle symbol, and you go to the card number listed. If you’re correct, you move forward in the game with new riddles, rooms, and in the easier games, the next page in the guidebook. (In harder games, the entire guidebook is “in play” the whole time, and you must figure out which pages connect with which puzzles and riddle cards.)

Some of the riddle cards and guidebook pages must be cut, manipulated, or destroyed in order to complete the various puzzles, so each Exit game is a one-time play experience. Each also requires some outside-the-box thinking (sometimes literally!) in order to crack various riddles.

I found each game to be an enjoyably interactive experience, and it felt like many of the above activities associated with escape rooms were replicated nicely. (One of the harder games not only had the puzzles and riddles to solve, but a murder mystery as well, which really kept me on my toes, because I wasn’t just thinking about the next riddle and discarding the bits and bobs I’d used. I had to pore over every detail in order to solve the murder!)

In case you’re interested, the three games I tackled were The Haunted Roller Coaster (difficulty: 2/5), The Abandoned Cabin (difficulty: 2.5/5), and Dead Man on the Orient Express (difficulty: 4/5).


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[Image courtesy of Escape Games Canada.]

Unlike the Exit series, Unlock! games consist of entirely of a deck of cards and your app. But that doesn’t make it any less interactive. Instead of the guidebook, decoder ring, and riddle cards being manipulated, more of those experiences are handed through the app.

The cards provide locations, challenges, helpful items, solutions, and warnings, all identified with numbered or lettered cards in the deck. So you can end up with quite an array of cards in front of you while you solve.

The app, on the other hand, hosts your timer, atmospheric sounds and music, a penalty button (which removes time from your timer!), a hint button, a machine button, and a code button. Any codes you unravel are entered into the code screen (instead of a decoder ring), and certain puzzles are mechanical, which you manipulate in the app. The app then tells you what number/letter card(s) to draw from the deck to proceed.

The number system for the Unlock! cards is interesting. Each card representing a puzzle to be solved or an item to be used has a number associated with it; to see if you solved the problem correctly, you add its two numbers (one for the challenge, one for the solution).

If you combine a helpful item’s card number with a challenge’s card number, the total equals another card in the deck. If you’ve solved the challenge correctly, the card matching that sum reveals something: an opened lock, a new room, additional puzzles and helpful items, etc. If you’ve combined items incorrectly, the card matching that sum reveals a time penalty. (For instance, if you have a key on card 16 and a keylock on card 25, you’d go to card 41 in the deck.)

There is no destroying cards or anything here, so if you wished, you could reshuffle the deck and allow someone else to try the game. (It wouldn’t be much challenge for you, since you know all the riddle solutions now. But it’s nice to know I could walk less experience escape room solvers through the game on a replay, enjoying their efforts. That’s not possible with an Exit game.)

In case you’re interested, the three games I tackled were The Night of the Boogeymen (difficulty: 1/3), The House on the Hill (difficulty: 1/3), and Squeek & Sausage (difficulty: 2/3).


Each brand has its pluses and minuses.

While the guidebooks in Exit are more detailed than the location cards in Unlock! games — and the miscellaneous items are a nice touch — I found I had to do more searching with the location cards. I would scrutinize every nook and cranny, because some numbers were hidden in shadow, or written at odd angles so your eye slides right past them. Exit is less devious with that aspect, but only because it has more space to play with for puzzles in the guidebook.

Both game systems had red-marked cards to indicate your failure on a given puzzle, but in Unlock!, you were penalized twice over, because you’ve already lost the time on the clock you spent on that dead end, and then you get the timer penalty as well.

Unlock! definitely makes greater use of its app. Honestly, except for the star-ranking system and some nice atmospherics, you could do without the Exit app. (Particularly since group solving can be pretty noisy, so the atmospherics are mostly lost unless you’re in quiet contemplation.)

I was thoroughly impressed by how both systems tried to recreate so many aspects of the escape room experience. Searching the space, finding clues, interacting with the environment, solving puzzles, and experiencing the narrative were all included to some degree, and I felt genuine pressure watching the minutes and seconds tick away as a particularly vexing puzzle left me baffled, if only momentarily.

I would recommend games from either series to anyone trying to recapture that escape room spirit in these trying times. But they’re also terrific icebreakers for people who have never tried an escape room, but don’t want to feel the pressure of being on-location, instead solving from the comfort of home.


I hope this brief look at these two puzzly franchises — I purposely stayed light on actual puzzle or scenario details to avoid ruining the experience for anyone — offered yet another avenue for you to explore as you enjoy escape room solving from home!

Don’t forget, tomorrow is the finale of Escape Room Puzzle Week, as we review ThinkFun’s latest diabolical creation, Escape the Room: The Cursed Dollhouse!


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