Sat. Feb 4th, 2023
Bring one
Welcome to Ars Cardboard, our weekend overview of table games! Check out our full board game coverage here and let us know what you think.

Who would have thought that being locked in a room would become so popular?

“Escape rooms” are so hot that even my sleepy Chicago suburb has one. Just put down $30, and you too can be locked up for an hour in a medieval foam stone “dungeon” right next to a butcher’s shop. Each group of ten guests must find a way out of the room before the hour expires. This usually involves solving cooperative puzzles, parsing clues, figuring out a mystery, and breaking open a giant lock.

Good escape rooms offer great live experiences, but they are expensive, have limited hours, and may not be suitable for those with claustrophobia. So game designers are now trying to bring in similar time-limited, puzzle-filled stories. A well-known entry in the “home escape room” genre is the recent one Escape the Room: Mystery in the Stargazer’s Manor from Thinkfun. It can play from three to eight people, lasts up to 90 minutes, and is suitable for anyone over the age of 10. Pieces include a wonderfully intricate solution wheel and an intriguing set of stuffed envelopes.

On a recent night with my game group, everyone showed interest in Escape the room, including my six- and nine-year-olds, who made an embarrassing attempt not to go to bed at their usual time. I was immediately happy to have them come to us – this title is not intended for seasoned gamers.

A collection of puzzles

After reading the instructions, I set a timer for 90 minutes and we read the first “scene” card, which described our journey to a spooky Victorian mansion and ordered us to tear open the first envelope. As we watched the first puzzle and solved it in about 30 seconds, the adults looked at each other.

Close-up of the
Enlarge / Close-up of the “solution wheel”.

“Maybe we should let the kids take a shot first,” someone suggested.

Without going too much into the details of the game or the puzzles, let me say that there are star maps, mysterious symbols, strange bookcases, tangrams, mazes and even a small machine to assemble. And all the while there’s that elaborate spinning wheel that solves some of the puzzles by lining up symbols and colors in the game. Solving puzzles leads to new envelopes being ripped open, revealing more puzzles – and sometimes pieces that aren’t needed until later in the game.

My kids loved it. They couldn’t get enough of the wheel and enjoyed the physical elements of the puzzles. The puzzles entertained the adults without being too challenging, and it was easy to guide the kids when they got stuck. We solved the game’s most successful ending in 50 minutes, after which it was really bedtime for the kids.

My game group discussed Escape the room before moving on to a heavier rate. Everyone agreed it would be a hit with their kids, and it could also play well with adults who don’t do a lot of games or puzzles. (If you’ve ever seen the popular The room series of iOS games, you will find Escape the room easy. But if you never mess around with codes and symbols and clues, maybe not.)

Playing kids Escape the room should still have an adult on hand in case they get frustrated. Even six-year-olds can do that to do most puzzles once they understand the goal, but they may need a hint to understand the concept of each puzzle first.

The game itself is unusually “gentle”, which is great for lighter gatherings and families. For one thing, Escape the room fully cooperates. For another, the story opts for soft mystery rather than genuine creepiness. (Compare this with the atmosphere in The room iOS games, which are great for families…apart from some startling visuals and creepy music that sometimes freaked my kids out.) Even if you fail completely and have to open the dreaded “timer runs out” entry, no one dies ; this outcome is not even traditionally ‘bad’.

If you fail, this flap will reveal your result.

If you fail, this flap will reveal your result.

The artwork and components in this pack are solid; each envelope has an illustrated front that is often part of the puzzle, while the items you find inside the envelopes are sturdy and new.

In other words, this is a well-produced, lighter experience that might disappoint hardcore gamers, but is perfectly suited for family gatherings or groups of bright kids. And at $22, it’s way cheaper than taking your whole family to a real “escape room.”

User reviews of the game on the Board Game Geek website confirm this opinion:

“Very fun, but easy co-op. I hope future releases are a bit harder.”

“Great experience. Not too difficult and makes for a fun evening with the family.”

“A nice little collection of mini-puzzles that aren’t too challenging for gamers (we completed everything plus an optional final puzzle in about 50 minutes), but it’s probably fun to play with family or dinner guests who aren’t much into gaming.”

“Great fun for all the family! Our kids (ages 5-13) loved this game and hate that it can only be played once and then passed on.”

“This makes for great family fun. Works great with kids 8 or older.”

Is Escape the room replayable? Sure, but you probably won’t want to play again after beating it. What you can well, is it passed on to a friend or another family. While the envelopes are torn open, all puzzle pieces can be easily taken apart and put back into their respective packages.

The trick is knowing what goes where, and my only complaint after beating the game was that this information was not included. Were the designers trying to make repackaging the game difficult to get people to buy more copies? But when I checked Thinkfun’s website, I did indeed discover that they do provide instructions on how to reassemble the game and pass it on. Kudos. (The company also offers mood music and costume suggestions for use during gameplay.)

This won’t be for everyone, but Escape the room does what it’s designed to do – and a sequel is coming soon. And the fact that innovative titles like these are increasingly available at mass retailers like Target is a good sign for a growing hobby.

By akfire1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.