ThinkFun Escape The Room: Secret of Dr. Gravely’s Retreat

Room-in-a-box, Dec 2016

Rated 3.5 out of 5
There are now several boxed escape games on the market, but this is the first one our group had tried, so we weren’t entirely sure what to expect. The first and most important question is: does it work as a substitute for an escape room? The answer, for me at least is – kinda.
Naturally, the game is limited by what it can fit into a box, and by keeping the costs to a level that allows mass production. Despite that, the game includes some puzzles that were unexpectedly and pleasingly physical. Other than those, the puzzles use a common system for you to determine whether you’ve solved a puzzle or not, with a mechanism that is clever and works well.
In theory this system could be brute-forced if you had some parts of a solution but not the whole thing. However, all the puzzles are designed so that you either have all of the code or none of it, meaning there’s no temptation to brute-force a section.
The difficulty starts off very easy and gradually increases as the game goes on. The game includes an optional bonus track, which is a nice idea, and combined with the win/lose outcomes means there are four different possible endings to the game – though I can’t really see why you’d ever choose to not play the bonus track.
It also has a very clear narrative and story progression, much more so than any physical escape game. After each section is completed, there is a ‘scene’ card with text to read out to advance the plot. I can’t imagine anything of the sort working in a physical escape room, but here it fit well and helped make the game more involving than simply sitting around a table solving a series of puzzles together.
And that’s the unavoidable weakness of this game, and any room-in-a-box: it can’t help but be less involving than an actual room where you can move around and explore. The clues have to be fairly small, the players have to be sedentary, and there’s nothing to look for or find – it’s all right there. Even so, although at the beginning there was far less of the energy of beginning an escape room, near the end as the deadline ticked closer the excitement ramped up.
This is a case of getting what you put into it – I strongly recommend finding a suitably suspenseful soundtrack to play the game to, having a nice big timer counting down, reading the scene cards aloud in an over-dramatic fashion, and doing anything else you can to ramp up the atmosphere. (They missed a trick here. While their website does provide audio links, these are just Spotify playlists – it surely wouldn’t have been too hard for them to provide an audio track for the right length of time, and designed to gradually build tension through the game.)
There are a couple of other flaws worth noting. Firstly, it’s a linear game. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but there are only so many people who can crowd around the clues, and the more physical puzzles can really only be attempted by one person at a time, while the others sit and watch. Although the box claims the game is for 3-8 players, we had three, and I wouldn’t want to play with more than that.
Secondly, while the physical puzzles were great, they’re implemented with cardboard components that are easily bent, and it’s not completely obvious what’s allowed and what’s cheating. I’d far prefer a more expensive box with higher-quality components, ideally using metal, but failing that a little more guidance up front in how to approach these puzzles would be helpful.
However, limitations aside, it’s much cheaper than a normal escape room, particularly since you can pack it up after playing and let friends try it too. Within the confines of the format it’s designed well, and there’s a decent amount to sink your teeth into. I’d rather do a physical room, but as a substitute it’s satisfying enough. 3.5 / 5

Want another opinion? This room has also been reviewed by the following fine blogs:

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