Unlock! The Formula… You Can’t Escape the Experience

Base Game Review

Player/s: 1-6

Play Time (Box): 60mins

Play Time (Goof): 60mins

Producer/s: Asmodee & Space Cowboys

Designer/s: Cyril Demaegd

SPOILER FREE REVIEW

I thought I’d better open with mentioning I won’t be giving away clues, hints or answers in the following review and the only photos with anything particular on them are from the brief tutorial which comes in every box (even then I was careful). If I gave anything about Unlock away, it would detract from your experience. And Unlock is as much of an experience as it is a game.

In recent years, there’s a relatively new trend regarding limited play games. Most popularly, games such as Pandemic: Legacy. This scares some people away as they look at the lifespan of a game as something they can have forever. Firstly, it’s not true (check out my Goof’s Guide on this particular falsehood HERE), but secondly they shouldn’t be feared. What you’re paying for is not just a game but an experience. Knowing what you’re doing is finite makes it more exciting, more thrilling, and makes your decisions hold more weight. In the case of Unlock, you’re looking at $24.95 per game. Or about $6 per person for a four player game (if you’re purchasing from Gateway to Games. And they’re willing to do a 5% discount!). We played The Formula at four players, and I personally think it was the perfect amount. It was enough for everyone to make an important contribution without feeling like there were too many cooks.

Escape rooms are one of those things I’ve been interested in for a while but haven’t had the chance to getting around to physically doing one. I wasn’t sure how it was going to translate into a board game. If it’s any indication – the moment we finished running through The Formula I added the other two games to my wishlist.

Celebrating Victory

Celebrating Victory

 

Gameplay (10/10)

When I say Unlock is an experience, I am in no way being metaphorical. The adrenaline and excitement at the table during our play was almost tangible (which for those of you following at home, IS a metaphor). At one point we had to vocally slow ourselves down to contemplate the clues in front of us because we were going too rapidly and got stuck.

At the beginning of the game you find yourself at a location with several points of interest. And you’ve got one hour to work out how they fit together. The mechanism for doing so is really clever -the cards each have a number or a letter on the back of them. And when you want to combine two objects you simply look for the card which is the total of those two numbers added together. Or you locate a letter object and grab the corresponding card. Be careful but, because a wrong answer costs you three minutes.

The way Unlock tracks the amount of time you have left is through a digital app. It’s pretty intuitive to use, although we wanted to test something out on it to see if we were doing the right thing and lost three minutes. So be careful, and maybe test those things out in the tutorial level. Unlike us.

The puzzles themselves aren’t overly complicated. Yet when you logic it out you get a spike of satisfaction. You can’t get complacent however. Depending on your group and the way you think, I’d argue there’s about three puzzles in The Formula which could really trip you up. One of which almost cost us the game. But those really hard moments just make it even more satisfying. If you’re a fan of “AHA!” moments then you’ll love Unlock.

One thing I’ll say, which is not a spoiler but gives you a small insight into the types of puzzles I’m talking about (skip to the next paragraph if even this is too much) is each of the answers in this scenario (and I have to imagine the others) is in front of you. Answers don’t require outside knowledge or special information you’d require Google for. You’re not going to get stuck because you don’t know some obscure trivia. You have all the pieces, you just have to work out how to interpret them correctly.

Each copy of the Unlock series comes with an identical tutorial. And I have to tip my hat the designer of it because I cannot imagine a scenario which would work better to prepare you for the different elements of the game in literally under ten minutes (all the time you have to complete the tutorial).

I think an inherent issue with games on a timer, especially with limited play games such as Unlock, is the risk of having a Table Captain develop. We were lucky with the game we had where people listened to each other, and were prepared to take a few risks even if we weren’t sold on the idea (turned out to be correct, so yay team!). I believe you have to be careful about whoever you choose to play games with, but some games just happen to lend themselves more to the possibility of being captained.

Pros: ++Exciting, +Clever Puzzle Mechanics, +App, +Interesting Puzzles, +Excellent Tutorial

Cons: -Open to Table Captaining

The first card from the tutorial. Not giving anything away, I promise.

The first card from the tutorial. Not giving anything away, I promise.

 

Theme

Unlock sets a very simple premise which you read off of a card. But the fact the premise is simple really allows you to feel like you’re a part of the story. The intensity of needing to complete your goal and leave is ever present. When we succeeded and got out I was thrilled in a real bittersweet way. Because I didn’t want the experience to be over. I wanted more.

I can only imagine physical real world escape rooms have the same feelings and sense of urgency and importance which is present in Unlock. What I think I enjoyed even more in The Formula and what has always been a sticking point for me with real world Escape Rooms, is the setting is more 1960s espionage and less horror. I enjoy a horror theme, and love games like Arkham Horror, Dead of Winter and Betrayal at House on the Hill but I don’t fantasize about what my life would be like being caught by a serial killing maniac. Most of us have thought about being a cool spy, or travelling to some mystical island. And Unlock absolutely gives you a high level of immersion.

Pros: ++Immersive, ++Sense of Urgency and Importance, +Simple Premise

Cons: None

unlock-2

 

Production (7/10)

I mentioned before I wanted more in the game. And when it comes to production, one of the questions you’ve got to ask is whether they put enough in the box to be worth your time. I think in terms of price point, they really have. And there are some print and play scenarios online I’m going to delve into as soon as I have some spare time (they’re located HERE if you’re interested). I’d like to have seen some sort of deluxe version where you get more adventures than just the one. But they’re cheap enough you can pick them up without too much hassle, or just try the one and see if you’re even interested in the others. I was spitballing with a friend after we played and we couldn’t think of a way to get any sort of replayability out of it and keep the same level of fun and immersion. If they ever come out with like a three hour insanely epic adventure, I’m in.

The card stock is excellent, and the artwork is simple enough to be understood yet detailed enough to hide some interesting clues. I was quite the fan. The whole experience could have been really bad if the way things were portrayed was of low quality, and I think we’ve established so far in this review I adored the game.

The production of the app is fantastic. One thing in particular comes to mind about a recorded message (I will not spoil) which blew me away and was such a freaking awesome damn cool excellent oh my god amazing idea and I want more of it in my life. Whooiee. Damn. I want to talk about it but I won’t.

Now for a bit of negative – Oh my gawd the music in the app is annoying. I started with it playing quite loudly to get everyone in the mood, but when I decided to turn it down I got a round of applause. What the hell were they thinking? It’s the furthest thing from mood setting or enjoyable. It’s just grating. Instead of working out the puzzle or having my heart pounding to the rhythm of the app, I was thinking about how stupid the noise was coming from my phone. I’ll be honest, I have no idea if it got any better as the adventure went along because I turned the damn thing off.

Pros: ++App Production, +Quality Components, +Functional Artwork

Cons: –App Music (can you even call the screeching music?)

unlock-3

Three different screens from the App.

 

Conclusion

The fact this is my first Escape Room experience may be causing some bias in me in this review. I’ll own that. Maybe there are better ones out there, I don’t know. What I do know is Unlock is an experience. It’s fun. And it’s fantastic.

I give Unlock: The Formula:

9/10

A big thank you to Gateway to Games for reaching out and providing a copy of Unlock! to review. You’ve given me another addiction and I’m super grateful for it.

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Gateway to Games are offering readers of TGR 5% off at checkout if you use the promo code GOOF5. So check them out HERE.

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