Room-in-a-box, Sep 2017
With the ever-increasing number of play-at-home escape games coming onto the market, I guess it was a matter of time until someone tried a subscription-based version – and that’s exactly what Escape The Crate have done. You sign up in advance to a two, four or six month subscription, and since a new game is available every second month, that corresponds to one, two or three episodes.
Why buy them on subscription instead of purchasing individual games from the series? Well, firstly they’re linked into an ongoing story – although each episode works well enough stand-alone. More importantly, some physical elements are carried over between episodes and re-used. If you buy an episode individually, it comes packaged with everything it needs; if you get it as the second or third part of a subscription, then it assumes you have certain items from previous episodes, and comes at a lower price.
The series was initially only available to US subscribers, and the company added an international shipping option ahead of the fourth episode. Back episodes are only available in the ‘stand-alone’ form at the higher price, so anyone who missed the initial launch and wants to catch up from the beginning of the story needs to pay more and get duplicates of some items.
Despite the name, don’t expect a big chunky wooden crate – the episodes arrive in slim cardboard boxes, with a printed paper stuck on to brand them. (From photos, the US version may be a little more nicely presented than the international version.) Inside you can expect a set of envelopes, one to be opened immediately, the rest to be opened on solving the appropriate puzzle.
Progress through the game requires an internet connection, with much of the game being driven from their website. The box contents are largely puzzle components, comprised of some printed paper and some physical objects, and the website provides the connecting narrative and a solution verification mechanism.
If you’ve played the ThinkFun games, the system here is similar to that, except with the webpage for verification instead of a codewheel. While that external dependency is a little clunky, it allows for a wide variety of solution types (a word, a number, a phrase, or anything else that can be typed into an input box). It also allows for an excellent hint system, with multiple levels of progressive hints for each puzzle, concluding with the solution if you need it.
The linking narrative is that you’re an agent of a time-travelling organisation trying to prevent unexpected changes to history, and he first theme is set just before the US civil war, with a confederate assassination plot to foil. The story is more than just an excuse for some puzzles: there’s plenty of text provided to set the scene and give context to everything, with an audio version provided if you’d prefer to listen than read.
Escape The Crate go considerably further with their first episode in providing physical objects, and making them integral to the puzzles, than the vast majority of home escape games. That’s a big part of its appeal, which would otherwise feel overpriced for a set of decent but in no way stand-out puzzles. The more physical puzzles are very much the high point of the game, with a simple observation puzzle and a riddle being its weaker moments. And the final reward for reaching the end is a small but genuinely nice object, as an satisfying payoff.
Be warned that one otherwise perfectly good puzzle arguably involves a little outside knowledge, of a sort that’ll be more obvious to players outside the US – though I suspect most players could deduce it correctly with common sense in any case.
I’m writing this having now played three of the episodes, and episode one appears to be middle of the road for the series. That means the main reason for purchasing it would be if you’re the sort of completionist who wants the entire series; otherwise you’re probably better off starting a new subscription with the forthcoming episodes. That’ll be cheaper than ordering back episodes, and you won’t have much problem picking up the plot partway through.