Escape rooms are all the rage right now. They are popping up everywhere and your social media feed is undoubtedly peppered with group photos of folks holding signs declaring their successful (or unsuccessful) escape.
Capitalizing on the craze, Space Cowboys | Asmodee brings us the Unlock! series of games. The Unlock games set the stage with a scenario, then place players on the clock as they use their eyes and minds to navigate a series of rooms riddled with clues to escape!
Each Unlock adventure consists of a deck of cards that break down into four categories (of my own naming):
- The tutorial cards. Each box comes with a ten card tutorial so you can get a feel for the mechanics of the gameplay quickly and easily.
- The setting card. On face of this card you’ll receive the setting for your adventure in a paragraph or two.
- Scene cards. These are specific rooms or environments you’ll find yourself in as you progress. They will display obvious clue card designations as numbers or letters in gray circles, and will occasionally sneak in a hidden clue for the sharp eye to discover!
- Clue cards. These come as red and blue object cards (which can be combined to unlock further clues), green machine cards, yellow code cards, and grey cards that serve as pieces to puzzles, new locations, penalties, and more.
Each of the cards is labeled with a letter or a number and is revealed from the deck once its corresponding clue is discovered during play.
All of these cards are beautifully designed; boasting a card size that dwarfs your standard deck of poker cards without feeling like humongous flashcards. The art is really detailed and necessarily so as the art itself provides most of your means of progress. Your eyes don’t run over these cards, they dwell upon them, so the art’s quality is a huge win.
And something not included in the box but required for play: a free app! The app is simple and a little flawed, but definitely adds to the experience with tactile interaction and sounds.
I played The Nautilus’ Traps with three of my friends. Here’s a recap of our experience!
Escaping the Sea Monster
We quickly ran out of air (you begin in scuba gear) troubleshooting the first scene’s clues; one of which we felt was a total troll by the makers and came with a three minute penalty.
Yes, you are timed! But the good news is you can continue your progress even if you go over time, it just affects your ranking (1 to 5 stars) upon completion.
A bit rattled by the first leg of the adventure, we tackled the interior of the submersible with determination. Some of the puzzles were quickly solved, while others stumped us frustratingly. Even more frustrating was hitting the Hint button in the app only to receive no new and useful information.
But, hey, we muddled through, conversing and cooperating all along the way. We even had some fun combing cards that we knew would cause us to incur a penalty (using the wrench on the cracked porthole and then on the sea monster’s tentacles, for instance). We totally dug that the game allowed for that ridiculous string of combinations!
Review: Unlock! The Nautilus’ Traps
I polled the group after we completed the game. Our pros and cons:
- Lots of variation in the puzzles. Even though many of them lead to a 4 digit code, you received or deduced this code using all kinds of different reasoning skills. You might need deductive reasoning to pair a journal entry with a map and then spatial reasoning skills to use a compass correctly to solve the puzzle. You used lots of different types of reasoning without needing any specific knowledge to be successful.
- Plenty of cooperation. We were constantly talking to one another. In a lot of other co-op games, each person gets their turn. Not so in Unlock! There are no turns; just constant communication and problem solving.
- The game has really simple mechanics but plenty of challenge is provided within the confines of that system. It is super easy to learn how to play Unlock! The designers then provide a solid challenge without complicating the rules one bit. This is easily one of the best features of the game.
- Occasionally we incurred penalties for troubleshooting that felt excessive. Typing in the wrong 4 digit code slapped us with a penalty that cost us minutes when it only took seconds to attempt, for instance.
- Cards…cards everywhere! The Nautilus’ Traps consisted of a deck of 60 cards, most of which ended up in play. While many cards are kind enough to indicate when you can safely discard some of the others, the playing space still felt really cluttered and chaotic. At times we were looking at two or more locations and all of the clues contained within them. We spent a notable amount of time just trying to keep things organized.
- Replayability is almost zero. The rating system implies you could try again to improve your score, but the second play through wouldn’t be an honest one. There is no variation inherent in the puzzles. This is definitely a “burner;” a game you play just the one time.
Unlock! Final Thoughts
Even though we had some frustrations, my teammates’ first question upon finishing The Nautilus’ Traps was, “Are we going to play the hard one (The Tonipal’s Treasure) now?”
That is a heck of an endorsement for the game.
And as the holidays are upon us, I’d suggest that you could take the last Con and turn it into a huge Pro: the Unlock! games make the perfect white elephant gift. Buy it for yourself, play it, then gift it to someone else! Buy yourself another installment, then rinse and repeat.
The escape room experience is well replicated in this card game. The simple system makes it easy to learn for people of all ages, and the difficulty spectrum (easy, medium, and hard) means there’s an appropriate challenge rating for kids and adults.
Put yourself (the games can be played solo) and your friends to the test with one of the Unlock! games. You can peek at all six titles on the Unlock mini-site or pick them up at your FLGS.
[Disclosure: Asmodee provided Nerds on Earth with copies of the Unlock! games for review.]