Room-in-a-box, Jul 2018
The Unlock! series of escape games is now up to nine games, with another three about to be released, plus various mini demo games. In Europe the main games are sold as boxed sets of three, and in each such set I’ve found the third game in the box to be the most complex, interesting and successful. That goes double for their Oz game, which I found hands down the most satisfying and well-rounded game they’ve produced yet.
This game is of course based on the Wizard of Oz – specifically, on the L. Frank Baum book not the movie, probably for copyright reasons, for which reason you can expect Silver Shoes not Ruby Slippers. (Cocktail party trivia: Dorothy’s magic shoes were turned into Ruby Slippers for the movie so as to show off its new Technicolour technology.) It follows the plot of the book fairly closely, and knowledge of the story is sometimes useful though never essential.
Perhaps my biggest ongoing gripe about the Unlock! games is that it’s built around a mechanism for combining cards which then slaps you with nasty time penalties whenever you try something incorrect. That’s bearable as long as the puzzles are sufficiently clear, but too often my experience has been that it’s quite arbitrary whether an idea is rewarded with progress or punished with a penalty. That was blissfully absent in Oz, which has very few penalty cards and uses them in mostly very reasonable ways.
In addition to the normal deck of numbered (or lettered) cards, Oz adds a map, a cardboard token for the ‘Mirror of Truth’ which is used as part of multiple puzzles, and some special double-sided cards. Some of those special cards are story characters, such as ‘Dorothy & Toto’ and ‘The Scarecrow’, and are used in a way that helps build the narrative.
Oz also differs from the other Unlock! games by making only a small number of cards at a time. It makes only very light use of the core Unlock! mechanic, that of combining a blue card with a red card, and instead uses a variety of other ways to hint at what card you should take next. A game that repeatedly introduces entirely novel one-off mechanisms really should be a recipe for hopeless confusion, but instead worked beautifully. Figuring out how to use the latest set of prompts to generate the number for the next card turned out to be a highly satisfying form of puzzle, each time hitting that ideal difficulty level where it initially seems baffling but then yields to a sudden insight.
Several times we had moments of doubt, such as whether a big obvious number meant we were allowed to take that card (it did) and whether we were allowed to look at both sides of the six special cards after receiving them (we were). But each time the game turned out to work in the way that seemed most plausible. One unfortunate exception was a step that is perhaps the game’s sneakiest clue, where we guessed wrong in a way that led us to the card after the right one, meaning we thought we’d done the right thing but were lacking a critical piece of information that we needed to continue.
With a 90 minute time limit Oz is intended to be longer and more complex than the other games in the series, and includes a set of bonus puzzles that you can choose to play or skip (although why would you skip them?).
If you haven’t played an Unlock! game, this is not the right one to start with. It combines all the various game mechanisms of the series (hidden numbers, combining cards, codes, ‘machines’) and adds several more of its own, and encountering all of that at once would be a bit overwhelming. But after trying one or two others in the series, I recommend grabbing this one even if you weren’t impressed with the others. With its clever, fair puzzles and rapid-paced story it takes the Unlock! card system and captures what’s best about it while avoiding its weaknesses. It’s my new favourite not just of the Unlock! games but possibly of all the ~50 home escape games I’ve tried so far.