Ever since the increasing popularity of escape rooms, board game designers have been adapting the formula to create various “escape at home” scenarios. I’m sure everyone is familiar with EXIT: The Game, probably the most popular one by Inka & Markus Brand, that boomed enormously during the global pandemic: at the time of writing, are 30+ different scenarios to explore, including lovely advent calendars for the holiday period!
The idea of those EXIT games is, just like real escape rooms, to get out of a situation within a limited time frame using a bunch of easy to (very) hard puzzles. At the end, you’ll be graded on how well you did, depending on the time and amount of hints taken. Of course, it’s difficult to replay the game, as you know the scenario: these are play-once games; where sometimes even scissors and tearing is required to get to the bottom of things, which is a cool idea. Thankfully, the games themselves aren’t very expensive or big and consist mainly out of cards and a 3-in-1 spinning wheel. If you’ve played one of them, you know what to expect with all of them. The different versions with distinct themes feel unique enough to warrant another buy.
But the EXIT games aren’t the only enjoyable and affordable ones out there. Last year, we tried out a few different games with slightly different formats I’d briefly like to share here, beyond the ubiquitous Escape Room: The Game with its never-ending range of expansion sets.
In Pocket Detective, you’re not trying to escape, but trying to solve a murder, yet the premise of the card/board game is the same: it’s one set scenario that’ll become useless after you’ve played it, and it’s based on cards that contain clues and/or hints. You can only take a certain number of clues each round that gradually increases, which means you’ll inevitably miss out on important cards—that just as well could be false leads. After you’ve cycled through the cards, it’s up to you to declare the murderer, the murder weapon, the location, and the motivation—in true Cluedo-style.
I like the fact that it uses the box to make a clever “board” where the murder took place, as seen in the above photo. The bridge towards the mansion is a folded card, and each picture contains a lot of hidden clues, of which some will get replaced later on as you learn more about the case. It’s also a very cheap game, regularly less than
Unlock! Escape Adventures
The Unlock! series, by various designers, are available in both bigger board game box (again, mostly cards) and in book format. We played the latter version. Each version has three scenarios, and most of those are comparable to the EXIT games: hey, you’re in a secret laboratory, but a bomb is about to go off in an hour, hurry! If you play using the book, a lot of flipping back and forth is required, which increases the chance that you see something you’re not supposed to see. Also, some obscure hints in the artwork was a bit too far-fetched for our taste, but the games are generally well-received.
I’d still pick the card-based ones, of which there are more than 10 boxes available with three scenarios each, even a specific Star Wars themed one! I wonder what you’ll be escaping from there? Each box is about
€30, but again, you’ll get three games out of it. For the ones we played, there’s less out-of-the-box tearing and thinking required than in the EXIT scenarios.
Ravensburger Escape Puzzles
Here’s an interesting idea: what if your escape room wasn’t card game based but consisted out of actual puzzle pieces? Ravensburger did just that with their (again, quite large) Escape Puzzles collection. We tried the 759-piece greenhouse one. The artwork of these puzzles are beautiful, but our version was devilishly hard—not to put together, but to “solve”. Hints are available online, and we had the feeling that we needed almost all of them!
Once the puzzle was completed, we had no idea where to start looking or what to do. The instructions were vague and even if we could piece together odd things happening in the image, we had little idea of what to do with them. This was probably our fault: the box rated our version’s difficulty 5 out of 5. Whoops. The more seasoned escape roomer will probably enjoy these.
Another card game-based murder mystery clue searching theme, the UNDO games by popular designer duo Michael Palm and Lukas Zach opt for a different approach: cards contain events that work up to the murder, and you can decide which ones to believe. The cards are laid out in a grid and the story is played out in reverse, where you can “undo” events. For instance, if someone picks up their daughter at the airport, do you: want them to be friendly, want them to start arguing, or don’t want them to meet at all? Depending on your decision, the story will branch off.
While I liked the idea and mechanical execution, during game play, the concept falls a bit flat. We had the idea that, for the scenario that we played (the Cherry Blossom Festival), in the end, our decisions didn’t matter at all, and the game ultimately failed to captivate us. Like all the others, once you know the story, there’s little to go back to. That said, if you happen to stumble across one in a bargain bin like we did, I’d still recommend it.
Sherlock Holmes: Four Investigations
The last variant we tried out was Sherlock Holmes: Four Investigations, another book form, this time drawn in graphic novel format. As the title implies, there are four murder mysteries to uncover as either Sherlock or Watson, and both offer other play styles. The choices you make guide your progress, and it’s more of a choose your own adventure style book than a typical escape room.
The comic screens are beautifully drawn and the book is properly bound, giving it a premium quality feel. Each panel is numbered, and some give little clues as which panel number to investigate next. You can go back to suspects you’ve encountered to ask them questions—these are unique per playable character—and the difficulty per case gradually ramps up. There are hidden extra puzzles to solve and things to collect, which is a nice bonus. The Unlock! booklet is more of an EXIT escape room in book form, while the play style in Four Investigations is different, and perhaps a bit more coherent. The illustrations are nice and the mystery was something up my wife’s alley, but at
€25 and the easy to moderate difficulty, it’s perhaps a bit on the expensive side.