Room-in-a-box, Mar 2017
See the review of Exit’s Abandoned Cabin game for more information on the base game mechanism – Secret Lab follows the same structure very closely. There is again a code wheel, a leaflet of clues, and a deck of cards for Puzzles, Answers and Hints.
Instead of a maniac filling an old cabin with puzzles, here some persons unknown have… filled a laboratory with puzzles. Where Cabin’s code wheel allows you to enter a three-value sequence of numbers or colours, here the code wheel shows pictures of differently shaped vials containing coloured liquids. You subsequently discover a way to map numbers to the shapes, so this is equivalent to their other games, but lightly re-skins the mechanism to match the theme while also adding scope for shape-based answers in addition to ones that use colours and numbers.
While your mileage may of course vary, we found the difficulty level of this game to be more consistent than that of Cabin, and on average very slightly easier, meaning playing through it was a smoother experience. Part of that was not the puzzles themselves but the linking structure, which here gives clearer guidance for what to focus on at each step.
There are a few fun touches (spot the Breaking Bad reference!), and most of the puzzles make cursory reference to the laboratory theme. It is again a lightly themed collection of puzzles though, with an entirely perfunctory plot leading to a damp squib of an ending. But the Exit games aren’t about the story, they’re about the puzzles.
And the puzzles are pretty great. There’s plenty to challenge the players, and some creative ideas that make many physical escape rooms look derivative and lazy. While again there are points that feel like completing puzzles in a newsagent puzzle magazine, it manages to go beyond that to be a lot more involving and hands-on. However – as before, the ‘hands-on’ style is achieved by writing on cards and destroying components. This is simultaneously the game’s strongest and weakest point.
We again refused to play ‘properly’, and used tracing paper (plus our mad visualisation skills!) to solve it without damaging anything. It’s slower and takes something away from the game, but can certainly be done. It’s not so much about value for money; the game is a reasonable purchase even if only ever played once, at least for escape room fans.I dislike it more because it seems a waste of a perfectly good set of components, only a few of which are affected by the play-through. I’d probably mind this a lot less if they sold re-fill packs, so you could happily destroy and replace just those parts.
As it is, it’s my biggest reservation in recommending what is in other respects a clever, challenging and entertaining box of puzzles. Leaving that aside, the three Exit games share plenty of similarities and if you like one you’ll enjoy the others too; but if you were to buy only one, Secret Lab is my personal favourite of the three.