Unlock! Is a new series of card-based puzzle games from Asmodee and Space Cowboys that tries to port the concept of an escape room into a boardgame, using a free app that gives the players 60 minutes to solve the clues in the cards and win the game before time runs out. The general structure works well, and the stories are all tightly written, but some of the critical clues are so abstruse that I think the puzzles would be too difficult to solve without using the Hints function in the app. There are currently three scenarios available plus a downloadable fourth module, The Elite, available on the official Unlock! site; for this review, we played The Elite plus two of the three scenarios for sale, The Formula and Squeek & Sausage.
Each Unlock! box is its own self-contained puzzle, comprising a unique deck of cards that players will turn over as they solve riddles or discover new clues, with the eventual goal of finding four-digit codes that advance them in the game or finish the entire module. Players enter those codes into the app and will either get an instruction to reveal another numbered card or will get a loud buzzer for entering an incorrect code and lose three minutes off the timer. Some cards represent rooms and direct players to turn over a handful of additional cards. Some cards represent partial clues that can only be combined with other cards of specific colors—red cards with blue cards, exclusively, and only if you can add their card numbers to get a sum of 99 or less, which sends you to another card in the deck. Some cards are “machines” that ask you to figure out a visual or logical puzzle, add up certain figures on the card, and then treat the result as a red card with the sum as its value, which you then get to combine with the value on a blue card to get to yet another card in the deck.
The puzzles are mostly linear—there is one solution to each, meaning you can’t go around any clue you can’t solve, and by and large have to hit the clues in order. If you get to a clue that stumps you, you have two options (other than just continuing to work on it as the timer counts down): you can enter the card number into the app’s Hint feature to get a sentence or two to get you unstuck, or you can pause the damn timer and take as much time as you need. I suppose the latter is cheating, but once the timer hits 0:00, your phone doesn’t self-destruct, and the app still functions to allow you to solve the game without scoring points for it. Since it’s a co-op game, though, I don’t see how the points matter; because you can only play each module once, it’s not like you can try to beat a previous score.
Unlock! has two flaws, one minor and one major. The minor one is an error of accessibility. Many cards in the game have “hidden objects,” card numbers that players have to work to find on other cards, often printed in tiny text, or in a color very similar to the background, or in a strange font. Once we figured out that looking for those numbers was essential—you can’t solve any of the cases without them—we found most of them in a minute or two, but doing so requires good eyesight; my wife, the only member of my immediate family who wears glasses, didn’t see any of them. Adding an accessibility mode to the app or designing the numbers so that they don’t blend so well into the cards’ backgrounds would help make the game better for all players.
The major flaw, however, is how obscure some of the clues are, a function of game writing that isn’t self-contained. Difficulty is in the eye—or brain—of the beholder, but each of the three modules we played had at least one clue that I thought was too difficult, and in all cases it was a clue that required knowledge or recognition of something from outside of the game itself. Solving “Squeek & Sausage,” the goofiest and most fun of the three we’ve tried, requires players to recognize a pattern that has nothing to do with the remainder of the puzzle, something from the real world that feels non sequitur-ish, and even after we got the Hint from the app still didn’t seem like a good enough representation. (If you get to that clue and are stuck, but don’t want the Hint to give the whole clue away, here’s my half-hint: Look at the pattern of spaces under the microwave. I only know of one common numeric code that goes 1-6-6-1 the way those spaces do.)
Unlock! says it’s for players aged 10 and up, and my daughter, now 11, enjoyed playing along but was at a disadvantage in the logical aspects of the game—she figured out several of the clues herself before we did, but was frustrated by the seemingly random decisions of what extra-game factors she could consider and what factors she couldn’t. We also would have needed more than the hour given for these modules had we eschewed the hint function, so either you accept you’re going to need some hints or you budget about 90 minutes per module. I think the core structure here is bang on for a puzzle game, but the puzzle masters have to hone their writing to make the games challenging without relying on players recognizing patterns or symbols that have nothing to do with the rest of those modules.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.