This is the return…
There are some publishers which are well known for churning out good games, much of the “same stuff, different genre” *cough cough Cool Mini or Not* but good games all the same. Then you have publishers which turn out games which turn genres on their head.
Whilst I didn’t like the game much, when AEG released Mystic Vale, it caused some waves in the community for the boundaries it pushed. When Mindclash Games released the beast that is Trickerion, the community pricked their ears up at their ingenious ideas for themes in otherwise saturated genres (and have since followed up with the tremendous Anachrony, which has also blown my mind). However, the most innovative game company to catch my attention in recent time is Space Cowboys.
No, not THOSE Space Cowboys. I’m talking about the Space Cowboys of T.I.M.E Stories fame.
If you have not played T.I.M.E Stories, firstly I am surprised. Then again, you could be like me and are turned off of games if there’s too much hype surrounding them (true story. I am one of the lucky people which has a copy of Gloomhaven, but I just can’t bring myself to play it yet). In a nutshell, in T.I.M.E Stories you do a “Quantum Leap” in controlled circumstances and transport yourself into a period of time to stop the universe from breaking somehow. Although the scenarios are “one and done” affairs, I have enjoyed it all the same. But, how could Space Cowboys live up to something like that? Well, I’m glad you asked! They can release Unlock.
Escape the room games are nothing new. There’s a list of them if you care to do the research and as with anything, some are better than others. So what makes Unlock special?
First things first, this review is going to be mostly spoiler free. I say mostly since I like taking pictures and couldn’t go for a whole review without taking any. So, I am using the tutorial “mission” of Unlock to explain the premise and everything else. One big thing to remember though, is that the tutorial takes 10 minutes or less whilst the other scenarios all have a limit of an hour.
No lock on this box
Let’s talk about first impressions. When Unlock arrived I was quite surprised by the size of the box. Considering at its most layman’s, it’s 3 and a bit decks of cards. However, it looks really neat if a bit more space intensive than it needs to be. That being said, from some of the research I have done, we’re pretty lucky to get all 3 missions together, as in the USA they have to buy them all separately.
The cards (as you’d hope) are of a fantastic quality and a pretty odd size, but it’s not necessary to sleeve them since they only get handled for short periods of time, so that’s something which will save me a little bit of money.
The artwork for each of the separate missions you get in Unlock is fantastic as well as thematic. The art for “Squeek and Sausage” is tremendously cartoony and so is the theme (you are trying to foil an evil genius from blowing up the world with missiles). In “The Formula” the art is very sombre and serious to go with the theme of recovering a mystery serum which has been developed in an underground lab and lastly in “The Island of Dr Goorse” the artwork is very… well… James Bond-y. Your mission (once you have chosen to accept it) is to escape the titular island without succumbing to its many traps.
The potentially most integral part of Unlock though, is the app which helps to run it. The Unlock app is mostly used as a timer for the game, but in several places, it is needed to input specific codes to open doors and other things, and can punish you with a time penalty should you do something wrong. The Unlock app can also be used to provide hints on one of the many many times you’ll be looking at something and scratching your head and thinking “WHAT?!? WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME!?!”. OK, maybe that’s just me (but likely not- you have been warned).
Unlock plays in quite a unique way too. Since you’re only armed with an app and a load of cards it’s actually tremendously cleverly done. You get the “starting card” which will have a lot of card numbers on it. You then place these cards around the starting card and then that’s it. You’re off! There are 4 different coloured cards: red, yellow, blue and green.
Red and blue cards are object cards. However, most of the time they’re used together to play the game. All of the cards have a number in the top left and the red and blue cards can be combined to give you an answer to something else. For example, if you have a key with card number 10 and a lock with 12, when added together this will make you go and look for card 22, and this if you have done it right will help you to progress further on in the game.
There are also green and yellow cards. Green cards are used to represent machines, and yellow ones are cards which require a code. So they’re used for exits or places you might need to break in to. The machines have to be circumvented to get you further through the mission you’re attempting. Honestly, it’s pretty difficult to explain without spoilers so you’ll have to check it out for yourself to get more of an understanding. There’s a print and play scenario which you can try from here if you think it might tickle your fancy.
Game on (get me out of here)
So how well does Unlock play? Well, the box advertises that it plays from 2 to 6 players, but I don’t agree. Like many things (golf clothing, fish counters in supermarkets, and low hanging jeans) just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should. We played our second mission with just 2 of us and it wasn’t as captivating as the first mission we played, and it made it tremendously more difficult. Out first Unlock mission (Squeek and Sausage if you’re wondering) we had 4 people but only played with 3, and that was a great way to do things as someone was our “card keeper”. I think if you had the full complement of players, there’d be a bit too much disagreement, and you’d not be able to take time to look at the cards to see everything you need. I also suspect that Darwin would be at work and the person which is the worst at these kind of games would be left in the dust of the other gamers. So for me, I think 4 players is the sweet spot for Unlock. Also, the Island mission needs at least 4 people because *small spoiler* you start off separately…
Freeing your mind
The best way I can describe how I was feeling when we were playing Unlock, and what sprang to mind while we were playing was that it felt like T.I.M.E Stories with tonnes of pressure; like I was trying to bash through a T.I.M.E Stories mission on a time limit with the real possibility that the earth was going to be blown up by an evil genius if we all took too long.
I have to admit that escape the room apps and games have never been my cup of tea. I don’t think that my brain is wired the same way as other peoples and this can cause issues when you’re trying to crack puzzles whilst under a time limit. However, I really enjoyed Unlock. Whilst there is enough pressure to make the game interesting, it’s not overwhelming so that everyone is on a downer if you don’t succeed. There’s also enough variety between the 3 missions that they all feel like you’re doing something fresh and different each time. We finished a mission in over an hour (67 minutes) but this was more luck than judgement, but despite being really confused, all of the players still had a good time and that’s what the experience is about.
The key to a good game
This isn’t to say that there isn’t a downside to Unlock though. For all intents and purposes, it’s a “one and done” game. Once you have done it once, then you’ll need to leave it a really long time before you’d want to go back, purely because you’ll remember what to do and how to win. Maybe that’s something you like to do, but it’s not really for me. On the other side of the coin though, Unlock’s predecessor is also a one and done game, but it has lots of expansions and I am interested in delving into the game as much as possible so it goes to show that it’s not the end of the world. The fact that Space Cowboys have announced Unlock 2 and have also announced a couple of print and play missions to keep people occupied is a nice touch too. It proves that they’re not just money grabbing like they could be.
It’s also worth a mention that our “card keeper” had already played Squeek and Sausage with a different group of people, but he had a blast watching us stumble our way through Unlock. He found that it was interesting to see how different people work through puzzles and the speed with which it’s done, so even if you’re letting a new group have a go, there’s an almost voyeuristic pleasure to be had from Unlock still. Good thing he also had a pretty good poker face!
I think that you will have to be pretty selective about the people you choose to play Unlock with. Any players which suffer with analysis paralysis should be given a wide berth because there’s just not enough time for hesitation. However, you also need to play with people which don’t think in the same way you do as it will give you a different way to attack puzzles. Although great minds may think alike, it’s not always helpful.
Score on the (locked) doors
Now, scoring Unlock is a little bit of a challenge as I think this one is going to fall down to personal preference. For transparency, I thought that I was going to hate Unlock, but that couldn’t be further from the reality of it. I had a whale of a time. The thing which tips the scales for me, is that despite knowing that once we finish the last mission there’s not much more to be done, I don’t actually care. I have spent equal amounts of money for less from other games, and not enjoyed it the same amount. I also love the social aspect that Unlock brings to the table. It gives you insight into the psyche of your gaming buddies and admittedly, now I’m not going to offer mine back again since it’s too much of a scary place!
So, I firmly endorse the fact that you should play Unlock; even if it’s not your kind of game. I had a wicked time and it would be worth the money just to have the experience of it. For me, camaraderie and bringing people closer together over a bonding experience is worth any price tag. As such, despite being one and done, I give Unlock a sausage-in-a-locked-box releasing 8.5 out of 10.
I have moved away from this recently, but I have to go for a little bit of subliminal messaging for Unlock….
GO AND BUY IT!
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I am just a regular guy that fell into board gaming. That's why I am no longer allowed in my local Toys R Us. I'm a huge fan of deckbuilding games and games with unusual themes or mechanics. OK, maybe I'm not that regular after all.