There’s a reason escape rooms, a somewhat unorthodox activity, have become a global phenomenon. Working together with friends to solve a series of puzzles against a ticking clock is engaging in a way few social endeavours manage.

There are some drawbacks, however. You need to book in advance, get everyone to commit to a time, and hand over quite a lot of cash for the experience. That’s all changed however – now you can do it for cheap, at home, whenever you damn well please.

Enterprising board game publishers have recently cashed in on the escape room boom, with multiple single-play puzzles that give you and your friends a similar experience for a lot less money. And like most good ideas, everybody wants in on it.

Now we have Escape Room: The Game, the Escape the Room series, the Unlock! series and the Exit series. It’s a little hard to keep track of them all and even harder to know which one you should get. As the resident board game enthusiast, that’s where I come in.

Unlock!

Alright, let’s look at the first of the two small box, single play options that are available locally.

Unlock! is Asmodee’s attempt at breaking into the escape room craze, an unsurprising move considering they’re the biggest hobby boardgame publisher in the world.

In spite of just being a deck of cards, it makes for an attractive, polished package. There’s no real story or narrative here, but the puzzles are very well put together. You’ll be revealing colour-coded and numbered cards and solving the puzzles on them to reveal more cards and progress further into the game.

Since the game is just a deck of cards, you can also pass this one on to another group when you’re done with it, which is always a bonus.

This process is assisted with an app that you’ll be punching codes into. An important thing to note about this game is that somewhat controversially includes hidden puzzles. This means certain cards will have minute hidden details on them that you need to pick out.

Some find this interesting and challenging, while others simply find it frustrating. It’s a different kind of puzzle in that it doesn’t utilise logic or deduction but rather your ability to be really good at a Where’s Wally microgame, except you don’t know what it is you’re looking for.

If peering at a card in good lighting and possibly with a magnifying glass in order to look extra-sleuthy appeals to you, then this may be worth a try. If that does not sound like your jam, turn your attention to our next entry.

I feel like this box could have been smaller.

Exit: The Game

Exit manages to do a lot with a little. While also mostly a deck of cards, Exit also includes a small booklet that sets up the scenario and is filled with various pieces of the puzzle – such as drawings, notes and pictures. It also contains a code wheel that points you to specific cards in the deck.

Unlike Unlock!, there’s no sharing this one when you’re done – components will be written on and cards will be cut up; you have to go to town on this one in order to unlock its secrets.

That being said, out of all the escape room games this one has racked up the most critical acclaim. It’s designed by veteran game designers, and more significantly it’s been nominated for the German Kennerspiel des Jahres award, or “Enthusiast Game of the Year”. This is, to put it simply, the Oscars of boardgaming, and Exit is one of just three nominees.

If you wanted a good place to start, this would be what I would recommend. It’s available locally and the cheapest option at R250, it’s beautifully put together and elegant in its design and it has the critical acclaim and designer power to match.

There are three scenarios currently available – The Secret Lab, The Abandoned Cabin and The Pharaoh’s Tomb, with the most highly rated being The Abandoned Cabin.

Escape the Room

This one is a less attractive option simply because it’s not widely available in South Africa. Luckily, I’m not sure it’s your best one either.

What Escape the Room does well is make the whole experience a bit more immersive with some baked-in narrative, and it also includes an interesting gimmick for solving puzzles – a coloured code wheel that you line up in order to see if you’ve done it right.

As the puzzles unfold in this game, so does the story, which makes you feel more a part of the plot. There have however been concerns about some uneven gameplay and the puzzles being a little too easy – something the real-world escape rooms certainly aren’t.

This takes a pretty different approach – there’s a lot more in this box than a deck of cards.

Escape Room: The Game

Another one that is unfortunately not available here, this is the most overproduced and expensive of the bunch. The game comes with a big plastic box with an LED display.

This one has four puzzles in it, which use plastic keys that you put into the four slots on the box. Get them right and you’re rewarded with an audio cue to tell you as much.

You’ll be destroying some of the game’s components in your quest to solve the puzzles, but the publisher has helpfully put up printable cards on their website that can replace the ones you destroy so you can pass this off to a friend when you’re done. If you try some of the other, cheaper, options on this list and love them, then it may be worth tracking down this one when it becomes available – especially considering expansions are being released. Until then, however, I’d recommend trying one of the small box options first.

Conclusion/TL;DR

Escape room games offer a unique and exciting experience for a family or group of friends, at a fraction of the cost of the real thing. If you’ve never looked into the wide world of hobby board games before, this is a great and accessible place to start.

If you scrolled here looking for answers without having to wade through the wall of text, welcome. Here’s the cliff notes:

Escape rooms costs around R200-R300 a person. The board game versions cost R250 for Exit and R300 for Unlock!, and can accommodate a whole group of people.

The two options available locally right now are Unlock! and Exit, both single-use games that are primarily driven by cards. Of the two, Exit is the more acclaimed and well-designed, and the cheaper option as well. Of the three Exit games currently available, the most highly rated is The Abandoned Cabin.

You can pick up your own copy at local game shop Timeless Board Games or over at Raru.

More stuff like this: