Dale Yu: Review of Escape the Room – Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor (Spoiler Free)

 

Escape the Room – Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor

  • Designers: Nicholas Cravotta & Rebecca Bleau
  • Publisher: ThinkFun
  • Players: 3-8
  • Time: 90 minutes
  • Ages: 10+
  • Times played: 1, with review copy provided by ThinkFun

EscapStar-7351-PB01-Bb-CS6-Cor. outlined logos

Escape Rooms have definitely become part of the social landscape in the past few years. These escape rooms seem to be in most major cities – if you haven’t seen them, just google it… Here in Cincinnati, we’ve had three or four different firms pop up in just the past two years. The puzzle room has also made a splash on (admittedly small) cable TV in the show Race to Escape, a weekly show on the Science channel. http://www.sciencechannel.com/tv-shows/race-to-escape/ They are currently offering a preview of a full episode to watch online at – http://www.sciencechannel.com/tv-shows/race-to-escape/race-to-escape-video/the-explorer-s-study/

Escape the Room – Mystery at Stargazer’s Manor attempts to package the real life “escape the room” game concept into a box that can be played by a group at home rather than having to pay to go to a commercial “Escape Room” or “Breakout” location. Not familiar with this type of game? No problem; here is some background…

“Escape the room” or “room escape” or “escape games” began as video games as far back as 1988 in which the player must exploit their surroundings, use objects, find hidden clues, and/or solve puzzles in order to break out. Myst is the probably one of the more noteable computer games of this type from back in the day, but this type of game quickly gained popularity as app implementations were made available for mobile platforms. Around 2006, the escape game idea jumped from the virtual video game/app environment into the real world. There are now escape rooms all over that offer the real life game experience. The concept is still the same though: A group of people are physically locked in an actual room and they must work together and use the contents of the room to find clues and solve mental and physical puzzles in order to find keys/codes to unlock the exit and escape from imprisonment.

In general, each escape room game scenario has a theme and some have a storyline, sometimes with subplots. There is also a time limit in which the players must escape, otherwise they lose. There are usually hints available in some way and sometimes there are ways to get more time. For some groups, the goal is simply to finish the puzzle room in the allotted time, while for others, the goal is to try to solve the puzzle as quickly as possible to be able to put their name up on the all-time leaderboard for the room.

The same dichotomy holds true with the board game – for some groups, the challenge will just be to finish within the time limit while others will go for the fastest solve time possible. One advantage of the board game version is that if you are unable to finish in time, no one is going to kick you out of the room and possibly leave you hanging about the solution… you could always take as much time as you need to complete the puzzles in the game!

There are different types of puzzle hunts – some rely on physical puzzles and repositioning of equipment, some rely upon traditional pen and paper puzzles (usually revolving around wordplay), and I have participated in a few that even required mechanical manipulation to solve puzzles. Escape the Room – Mystery at Stargazer’s Manor gives you a pretty good feel for the varied sorts of puzzles that you might see in a real puzzle room.

Of course, there are some limitations based on the overall format. The box itself is a small affair, a 10.5 x 8 x 2 box. According to the box, the contents include an instruction manual, scene card, 5 sealed envelopes, secret items (inside the 5 sealed envelopes) and a solution wheel. Obviously, you can’t have super complex puzzles that require you to look at the wallpaper pattern differences on all four walls of the room, but there are definitely a lot of challenges hidden in those five sealed envelopes.

The game itself describes the game as an event. They suggest that the “host”, i.e. the game owner, invite over guests for the experience. The online materials for the game even include a email form that you can use to invite your friends –

December 2, 1869

Dear

I am writing to ask for your help.

It has been over a year since I was dismissed by Richard Harrison, the retired astronomer who you know so well. After the death of his wife three years ago, the astronomer began acting quite strangely—sending away all of the help at his manor except for me and the cook, refusing visitors, keeping to himself inside the observatory. And then one day, quite suddenly, forcing me and the cook out the door as well.

As the caretaker at the manor for over twenty years, I developed quite a fondness for the brilliant astronomer; an affection I know you share. Recently I made the journey up to the old manor to see if I could persuade Mr. Harrison to let his friends come back and help fix the place up. But when I arrived, the gate was locked, the mail had piled up, but most of all I was alarmed by the strange noises, the unpleasant smell and the steam coming from the observatory.

I beseech you to join me in an investigation of the Stargazer’s Manor. I am familiar with a side entrance that is often unlocked, but I dare not go inside alone. I hope you can accompany me.

Sincerely,

Caretaker of the Stargazer’s Manor

Costume suggestions are provided, as well as suggested mood music to be played during the game to heighten the mood and atmosphere of the game. The rest of the game materials are sealed – not even the host can see anything other than the necessary things needed for setup (a large table, some paper and pencils, mood music, etc).

At the appointed time when everyone is present and ready to start, you are then allowed to start reading the rest of the rules and get started on the case. At this point, I will essentially not tell you anything more about the types of puzzles, level of difficulty or really anything else for fear of spoiling the experience. The reason for this is that Escape the Room – Mystery at Stargazer’s Manor is essentially a one-time use game. Once you have seen the puzzles and their solution, you’ll probably never forget those solutions, and thus, you’ll never have the same fulfilling experience as the first time when everything was a new discovery.

But, trust me, you’ll have a good time with the puzzles presented in the game. If you end up getting stuck, never fear – there is a nice website (which can be easily accessed with a smartphone) that gives you hints appropriate for your current progress in the overall puzzle. This online hint system is feasible/possible because the story line here is very linear – that is, you are generally working on one puzzle at a time. Thus, the hint system just needs to know what you have most recently solved, and it can give you appropriate hints on your current challenge.

I have specifically not provided any pictures of the components also for risk of any spoilers. The one picture I will show is taken straight from the ThinkFun product web page:

escape components

The purpose of showing this is to highlight the Solution Wheel. This is a very clever way for the players of the game to ensure that they have the right answers to the puzzles. Compared to some other DIY puzzle hunts where the only way to really know if you have the right answer is to look up the answer in a separate answer key (and possibly accidentally spoil other answers) – this wheel is an elegant way to have the players check their own answers without giving anything away. Sure, you could use it to brute force backsolve a puzzle, but that’s really against the spirit of the puzzle hunt… The use of this wheel though does give the solvers direct and immediate feedback on their solutions, and it’s a great way to provide an automatic adjudicator in the box.

For this first edition of the series, we had a group of five gamers assembled to play, and we solved the puzzle well under the time limit given in the rules. (Admittedly, our group contained two veteran puzzle solvers who have in fact constructed their own puzzle hunts). Despite our fairly quick solve time, we thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The different puzzles required skills from all four of us, and at least I was surprised at how little time had passed when we checked the stopwatch after the final solution as I had become engrossed in the process of solving the puzzles.

One huge advantage of this particular game is that there are instructions available to “reset” the game – as far as i can tell, they’re only available online  http://www.thinkfun.com/escapetheroom/stargazer/home/

 As I mentioned earlier, it’s probably not feasible to participate for a second time – but you can either pass the game on to allow others to have a fun experience, or you can simply act as the host and possibly serve as a real life hint giver for the participants.

After our first game, I did reset the game and then watched a group of high school aged boys give the game a try. The five of them were also able to solve the entire puzzle, though they were much closer to the overall time limit. In the end, there was only one puzzle which seemed to stump them, and right when I was about to give them a hint (after watching them mentally wrestle with a particularly tough puzzle for about 15 minutes), one of the boys finally made a breakthrough and the group was able to collectively figure out the puzzle afterwards.

Based on the website, it appears that this is the first in a series of similar games – there is already a sneak preview of a second game on the website, and I am looking forward to the challenges that the second game will present us.

This game should be available at mass market outlets (the website has the Target Logo on the product page) – and I hope that this gives people a good puzzle experience as well as a good reason to come and see what’s on the shelves in the boardgame section of their local big box store.

 

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Craig: Escape The Room: Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor was a lot of fun. The story line is a bit tenuous, but it’s whimsical, cohesive, and family-friendly. The puzzles weren’t very difficult, but that really depends on the skill level of players involved. I could see this being a really engaging and challenging experience for a family with younger kids as the game allows plenty of time to play and figure it out. The game components are nice and I like that there are actually no “pen and paper” puzzles typically found in these types of “puzzle hunts in a box.” Instead, the puzzles are a nice mix of the typical escape room types of hidden clues, logic puzzles and hands-on activities. That having been said, this game was very linear and puzzles had to be completed one at a time. This means that some players might not have much to do and therefore not necessarily fully engaged the entire time because with only one puzzle to solve at a time, it just isn’t necessary or practical to have everybody participating at once. I prefer when there are multiple puzzles that need solved simultaneously so that everybody has something to do. Again, this configuration is probably okay though since it may actually be necessary for some players to help others during the game depending on skills.

For what’s in the box (both the components and game play experience), Escape The Room: Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor is a fantastic value and the publisher even includes free game reset instructions online so that the owner can host a game night for others or the game can just be passed along to be played by another group. The Solution Wheel is a really clever “unlock” mechanism that provides the extra little bit of tension as the code is dialed in and everybody awaits the result. My only real “complaint” is that the stickers used to seal the envelopes are EXTREMELY stuck on, so trying to remove them inevitably damages the envelopes which is disappointing since the game can be reset to be played again. I wish that the publisher would have used some other type of enclosure such as metal hasps, string ties, Velcro, double stick tape or even REMOVABLE stickers so that the game components could remain undamaged after the initial play. If the plan is to keep the components nice, then I would suggest using an Exacto knife to carefully slice all of the sticker seals open first and then use removable labels (e.g. Avery brand removable) to reseal them.

Overall, I really enjoyed the game experience and would highly recommend Escape The Room: Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor to people that enjoy puzzles or “escape the room” games. This and other games like it have been great additions to the different kinds of games available and more like them will become available as escape rooms continue to grow in popularity. To that point, ThinkFun has already announced the next game in their Escape the Room series titled, Escape The Room: Secret of Dr. Gravley’s Retreat, and I’m already excited about it and am really looking forward to playing!

 

Eric Edens: If you are reading this, you should go to an Escape Room. I assume, possibly incorrectly, that you are an avid gamer with lots of experience in solving Euro games various point gathering math strategies. You also may enjoy thematic storytelling in your games. If that is the case, you will be able to solve these puzzles without difficulty and also be bored at the attempted story. This is a fine introduction to Escape Rooms but does not compare to the real thing. You could introduce the idea of Escape Rooms to a non gamer with this but it might sour you on the real thing. Now, to give you a little insight on me. I have, with my wife, completed 14 different Escape Rooms. With various companies, styles, and quality levels, I feel I can speak well to this game in comparison to real life Rooms. It is a poor substitute, but an admirable attempt. It also is way cheaper so this might entice you as a try before you buy(the real room).

 

I conclude that if you want to try an escape room but never have, you can give this a try. But just know the real thing is going to be different and maybe more appealing. If you have children that love puzzles, this may be fantastic for you to play as a family night to first gauge if they would like a real room and also watch their little gears spin as they solve. But if you have done 14 rooms like me, I can’t count this one as number 15.

Chris Wray: I agree with Craig’s comments above. I solved this with my sister and brother-in-law in an hour and four minutes, and we enjoyed the experience. The puzzles were exceptionally well crafted and the production value was solid. The game was family friendly — the puzzles really aren’t that difficult, so the kids can join in — and the theme was fun. I think it would be better in smaller groups, and our group of three seemed perfectly sized to me.

 

We will certainly buy future cases. Our copy cost $22, and while that might seem high for an hour of fun, we were able to reassemble and gift our box to a friend. Given that he’ll likely do the same, there will be several plays out of that one copy.

 

That said, I also fully agree with Eric when he says, “This is a fine introduction to Escape Rooms but does not compare to the real thing.” Having done a few escape rooms, they’re far more intricate and involved than this. Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor was very linear, whereas most escape rooms aren’t. But for the price, this was a decent substitute.

 

Dan Blum:I agree with comments above that if you have any puzzle experience this will be too simple overall. I think it would in general be fine for people without such experience, although I do wonder a bit about the variance in puzzle difficulty. Most of the puzzles were simple, one was of moderate difficulty, and one was actually somewhat complicated and had potential for frustration since there seemed to be two possible answers, only one of which the wheel said was correct. (It’s of course possible we made a mistake, but “we” included one of the top puzzlers in the world.) I wonder how the average group of novices would handle it.

 

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:

  • I love it! Dale Y
  • I like it. Craig V, Chris Wray, Dan Blum (considered for the target audience, not me)
  • Neutral.
  • Not for me… Eric Edens

 

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About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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2 Responses to Dale Yu: Review of Escape the Room – Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor (Spoiler Free)

  1. Matt J Carlson says:

    Curious of what age range folks are thinking… “kids” is a pretty broad category…

    • Dan Blum says:

      As in most such cases it depends on the kids in question. The box says 10+, but I wouldn’t give this to 10-year-olds unless they were really into puzzles and I thought they could handle the (relatively) complicated bits. Older teenagers should be fine.

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