Room-in-a-box, Mar 2017
The Unlock! games continue to surprise and impress me at how much they manage to do purely with a deck of cards. First they managed to re-introduce search as a major part of the game (though there’s much less of that here than in the first two), and with their third scenario they add in communication-based puzzles.
This is done by a card introducing new rules at the game’s start, stating that the players must divide into two teams, each with a separate deck of cards, and must work separately. We promptly added in a table divider cannibalised from a different game, but you don’t need to be particularly careful – there’s no danger of one half of the group overhearing spoilers from the other half.
As the game progresses the two teams gain the ability to communicate, and then eventually are reunited. The middle stage causes a lot of patient (or not so patient) back and forth describing card illustrations, in a way that will be familiar if you’ve ever played an escape room that splits players into multiple groups. Unlock’s play-at-home version recaptures that dynamic precisely, with I suppose the added advantage that if you really hate this sort of task, you have the option of cheating by sharing cards before you’re officially allowed to.
As with apparently every boxed escape game other than those by ThinkFun, the story is illogical and largely ignored; and better not to ask why a Mayan pyramid exists on a Caribbean island, let alone why it contains Egyptian hieroglyphics. But I was having too much fun to notice. While experience with the other Unlock! games, particularly The Formula, had left us apprehensive of penalty cards and incorrect combinations, this game felt entirely fair in the way it applied them. We did receive a couple, but in both cases we’d been over-hasty, and sufficient information had been available to keep us on the right track. And in one instance where something was incorrect but a pretty reasonable thing to try, the resulting card gave a warning instead of a penalty.
Because of the split team structure, this game works well with four; and in fact it’s so far the first and only boxed escape game that I’d recommend playing with more than 2-3 players. Even once our team had been reunited the game worked well enough, with enough cards in play to keep all four of us occupied, mostly without fighting over the same cards.
The first two Unlock! games had flaws (too trigger-happy with the penalties in one case, and a particularly frustrating puzzle in the other) but worked well nonetheless. The Island has the same strengths without any major weaknesses, and also adds the novel challenge of starting with a divided team. It shines in the variety and creativity of its puzzles, which gave our team some deeply satisfying eureka moments. One of the other games is probably a better starting point for getting familiar with the Unlock! system, but by putting this scenario third they’ve saved the best for last.