This year, there has been an explosion of ‘escape the room’ games. Some have been better than others, but two series in particular have risen to the surface and really excelled: Exit and Unlock. Coincidentally, there are now exactly six games in each series, which were released in two groups of three.
While they both have a significant amount in common (both are co-operative games that require you to solve a series of puzzles in order to ‘escape’), there are also a significant number of differences between the two types of games.
Today we examine the two most prominent ‘escape the room’ games. And before you worry, this will contain no spoilers whatsoever. Which series is the best? Which one should you try first if you’ve never tried one before? Let’s have a look…
Before I launch into a detailed comparison of the two games, just realise that pretty much all ‘escape the room’ games involve solving a series of puzzles. That’s pretty much it. They usually try to provide some theme and story to go around the puzzles, but you really need to like solving puzzles if you’re going to enjoy any of these games. Fortunately for me, I love solving puzzles! So I think they’re great, but they’re not for everybody.
You actually destroy the game as you play it.
Alright, with that caveat out of the way, I’ll start with the Exit series as they are probably the most well-known having won the Kennerspiel des Jahres earlier this year. The main thing that immediately sets the Exit games apart from other ‘escape the room’ games is that they’re destructible: you actually destroy the game as you play it.
Any ‘escape the room’ game has, by its nature, zero replayability. Once you have solved the puzzles and escaped, you can’t play it again. You know the solutions to the puzzles, so unless you’re very forgetful you’re not going to get any satisfaction from playing it again.
In Exit though, solving puzzles might require you to cut, fold, tear or otherwise destroy components in the game. This means that, not only can you never play the game again – neither can anyone else. With many of the other ‘escape the room’ games, you can borrow them or lend them to a friend, but not with Exit.
This might be seen as a negative by some, but the potential to manipulate the components to such an extreme degree allows the Exit designers to be very creative with their puzzles. While it’s hard to compare the interest or ingenuity of the puzzles within each series directly, there are people who prefer the Exit games because they do things you just can’t do in any other ‘escape the room’ game.
They do things you just can’t do in any other ‘escape the room’ game.
The basic format for the Exit games is that you’re presented with a booklet at the start of the game. This booklet provides a story introduction, a starting location (one of the pages shows you a picture of what you can see at the start) and a whole series of puzzles.
Initially, you can’t necessarily solve all of the puzzles in the booklet. There may be other components or other pieces of information that you need before you can solve some of them. You are also provided with a deck of cards. Spotting certain things in the pictures may allow you to reveal some of the cards, which could provide more information, another puzzle or another scene for you to look at.
Each Exit game also typically includes some way to enter codes, which you are given as soon as you start. For example, you might be given a spinning disc that reveals different cards when you set it in different positions. You might enter a code by setting the symbols on the outside of the disc to certain values (the ones that you think are the solution to one of the puzzles) and if you’re right, you will be able to reveal another card from the deck.
There’s a clever system for making sure you don’t accidentally pick the wrong card as well so you don’t need to worry about someone getting lucky. It would be extrememly unlikely that you could find the correct solution (and it’s matching card) by accident.
The Exit games do contain relatively little story though. There is some for sure, but most of the time you feel like you’re moving from one puzzle to the next until you finish them all. It’s fairly linear as well. There might be a couple of puzzles that you have on the go at once, but generally, you solve one puzzle and then move onto the next until you have solved them all and you win.
What if you get stuck though? For each puzzle, there is a matching hint card (possibly several of them) and you can always use the hints if you’re completely stuck. Theoretically, you lose points at the end for using hint cards, but we don’t tend to worry too much about the final score. It’s the experience that counts.
You need a mobile device like a smartphone or a tablet.
So how are the Unlock games different? The first thing that sets them apart is their use of a mobile app. In order to play them, you need a mobile device like a smartphone or a tablet. Again though, this allows the designers to do things that you can’t do in other ‘escape the room’ games.
The Unlock games also contain a deck of cards that you gradually reveal as you go through the game. These cards contain the locations (pictures) that you move through, along with various kinds of items that you have to combine in order to solve the puzzles.
The Unlock games feel more like the old PC point-and-click adventure games. You flip over a location card, which might have several numbers on it. Each number corresponds to another card that you reveal from the deck. So you might see a number next to a brick on the table. You reveal the numbered card and it shows you a picture of a brick.
These item cards can be combined together. If you have an item card with a brick and an item card with a glass case (I’m making this one up), you might want to use the brick to smash the glass case and get inside. You add the numbers on the brick card and the glass case card and pull the matching card from the deck. If you got it right, the card might show you the item that was in the case, which you could then combine with something else.
If the time runs out, you lose!
So what does the app do? Firstly, it provides a time limit! There is a countdown timer that usually gives you about an hour to complete the game. If the time runs out, you lose! Although you could just carry on to see how long it takes you to finish all the puzzles. It really adds a sense of pressure though.
The second thing the app does is provide a way for you to enter codes. Rather than entering solutions to puzzles into a physical contraption (like the spinning disc from the Exit games), you type the codes into the app and if you’re correct, it tells you which card to reveal next.
However, if you enter the wrong code, it usually gives you a time penalty (it might take 3 minutes off the countdown timer)! This is to stop you randomly guessing solutions to puzzles, but I find it very stressful when this happens! This is the only thing I don’t like about the Unlock games actually. I find I’m reticent to try what we think is the solution to a puzzle sometimes because I’m afraid of the penalty buzzer going off!
Some of the Unlock puzzles are also done on the app. You might find some interactive device in one of the rooms that is then shown on the app. The device might have a whole series of buttons on it and you can tap on the buttons to turn certain lights on or off maybe (again, I’m making this up). Once you think you have the right solution (in this case the right combination of lights), you tap ‘Submit’ and if you’re right, it tells you which card to reveal next, but if you’re wrong that blasted buzzer goes off again and you lose some time!
Both Exit and Unlock contain some really clever puzzles and I would highly recommend either of them if you want to try an ‘escape the room’ game. I’m not quite sure why, but the Unlock games feel more thematic somehow. You are usually progressing from one location to the next in a way that clearly advances the story. Story progression is less evident in the Exit games.
For this reason, if it wasn’t for the time limit (and the penalty buzzer!), I would prefer the Unlock games. You’ll probably know if this is likely to bother you, but some people like the added tension that the timer adds – it certainly makes for an engaging experience!
Honestly, they’re both great!
So overall I probably prefer the Exit games for a more relaxed puzzle solving experience, but honestly, they’re both great! My all-time favourite episode is actually one of the Unlock ones though: The Island of Doctor Goorse. Without giving away any spoilers, there were some ingenious mechanisms and a magical “Ahhh!” moment that was really satisfying in that one.
Which one should you try first? I’d recommend The Abandoned Cabin (one of the Exit games) initially. It provides a nice introduction to the genre. I’d probably suggest trying The House on the Hill (one of the more recent Unlock games) after that. Then you can decide for yourself which series you prefer.
The latest batch of Exit games have difficulty ratings on them, which is a great idea. Some episodes are definitely much harder than others and you really want to work your way up to those. So to help you out, this is my (very subjective!) list of Exit/Unlock games ranked from easiest to hardest (although you might find a relatively easy one has a couple of nasty puzzles in it):
- Exit: The Abandoned Cabin
- Unlock: The House on the Hill
- Exit: The Secret Lab
- Unlock: Squeek & Sausage
- Exit: The Polar Station
- Exit: The Forgotten Island
- Unlock: The Formula
- Unlock: The Tonipal’s Treasure
- Unlock: The Nautilus’ Traps
- Exit: The Forbidden Castle
- Exit: The Pharaoh’s Tomb
- Unlock: The Island of Doctor Goorse
Have you tried any of them yet? Which series do you prefer?