Unlock! The Formula
- Designer: Cyril Demaegd
- Publisher: Space Cowboys
- Players: 1+
- Ages: 10+
- Time: 60 minutes or more
- Times played: 1 time, with a group of five gamers
As you’ve likely noticed, in the past two years, there has been a flurry of puzzle/escape room games. Though it’s hard to say which game specifically started the trend, many people (including myself) say that T.I.M.E Stories from Space Cowboys was the one that got them interested in them.
As Space Cowboys was one of the innovators at the start of the puzzle game movement, I was definitely interested in seeing their take on the escape room game genre. Unlock! had been released in Europe earlier in the year, and it has taken a few months to make it over here in an English language version.
As with all the other escape room games, you really only get one chance to play it – so I needed to wait for the game to come out in my native language to get the optimal experience. Also, as I am fearful of spoilers which would ruin the game experience, I essentially didn’t read anything else about the game other than the official press releases. I figured that Asmodee wouldn’t “spill the beans” on any of the big secrets in the game.
Given that I didn’t know much about it other than the fact it was coming out soon from Space Cowboys, my anticipation grew with each passing month. When I got my first look at it, I also got a copy of the tester/intro mini-scenario called “The Elite”. This small adventure is freely available as a print-and-play, but I had not looked into printing it as I couldn’t figure out any way to construct the game without spoiling it (as there’s no way I could do the whole thing with my eyes closed!) If you want to try it, it’s actually available for only $5 from the BGG store, and that’s not a bad way to get a more meaty introduction to the series.
At this time, I’ve now played two “intro” scenarios and two full scenarios – and they all follow the same format so far. I feel safe in describing it to you as all this information is also clearly laid out in the rulebook – so, no spoilers here… Most of these rules are also nicely explained in the ten card Tutorial scenario included in the box.
Each scenario is self contained within the sealed card deck. When you open the game, you can unwrap the cards, but you are instructed to not look though the card deck (either side of the cards). Before you get started, you’ll have to download the free Unlock! app to run on your phone or tablet.
The top card of each scenario that I’ve played so far has one side which lays out the rules and goals for the specific scenario, then it instructs you to flip over the card and start the timer on the app. Once started, you have 60 minutes to achieve the goal.
Generally, the back of the first card is a location card. You’ll see a location with a bunch of circled numbers on it. You now flip through the deck, looking ONLY at the backs, and find cards with the matching numbers on the back. They are removed from the deck and placed face up on the table. Any time that you find a location card, you will then rifle thru the deck to find the matching cards.
You are not allowed to spread the deck out (to learn what numbers are on the back) nor should you really rifle thru to peek. Though, I’ll have to admit, it’s hard to not read and remember the numbers as you have to dive thru the deck searching for particular numbers…
As you flip the cards over, you’ll find a couple of different card types that are helpfully color coded. There will be red and blue puzzle piece objects. These are objects that interact with other objects. In general, you will always be combining a red object with a blue object. Often, you end up adding the numbers together – so if you take a piece of bread on card 12 and combine it with a toaster on card 45, you would look through the deck for card 57 (12+45) – and if this was the correct move, you’d find that card in the deck, and likely there would be a piece of toast on the back of it. If you had made an incorrect move, let’s say that you were really supposed to make a sandwich with the peanut butter on card 30… you might find a card 57 which would then have a penalty shown on the other side telling you that you didn’t do the correct thing. OR, you might not find card 45 at all in the deck – which tells you that you weren’t supposed to combine those two things together, but you don’t suffer a penalty for the error as you didn’t reveal it on a card.
You will also find Yellow cards – these cards refer to codes. As you play the game, you’ll eventually figure out when you’ve generated a code. Whenever you get to that point, you go to the app, hit the “Code” button and input the code that you think that you’ve found. If you’re correct, the app will do something (tell you to find a specific card to reveal, tell you that you’ve won the game, etc). If you’re incorrect, the app will tell you that you are wrong.
There are also Green Machine cards. These cards are never used directly with red or blue puzzle cards but they often provide modifiers to those numbers to help you find new cards to explore.
Penalty cards come up when you make incorrect deductions. The penalty cards tell you how many times to hit the penalty button on the app, and each hit will take a few minutes off the clock.
As you reveal new cards from the deck, you might see some numbers struck-through at the top of the new cards. When you see this, you can remove the struck thru numbers from play. Those cards can be returned to the box, you will not need them any longer. All other cards remain in play for you to examine and read until you are told to discard them. Do NOT get rid of any cards until you are specifically told to do so!
As you play the game, you might find that you are stuck or not sure what you should be doing next. The app has a helpful hint system. You simply hit the Hint button on the app and then type in the card number that you’re stuck on – and the system will (hopefully) give you some help to get you on your way.
The rules also make clear that there are hidden objects on the cards. There may be hidden numbers or letters disguised in the card art. If you think that you see a hidden number or letter, you then look thru the deck and see if you find a card with that number. If so, you reveal the card and add it to the table.
That’s pretty much it. You have to get through the entire scenario within 60 minutes in order to “win” – though even if the time runs out, you can continue playing and using the app – you just won’t be able to score any points for your game.
My thoughts on the game
In general, I love this sort of game. We have tried just about every version of the puzzle/escape room game that we’ve been able to get our hands on, and in general, we have enjoyed this whole genre. Each take on the escape room game has brought different puzzles and gimmicks to the table, and Unlock! is no exception. I have always liked the complexity of the puzzles seen in T.I.M.E Stories, and I feel that the Unlock! puzzles share that same level of trickiness. The games themselves are categorized from one to three locks in difficulty – and this can easily be seen on the box.
The app is a nice touch as it centralizes the clock and hint system. It also acts as an infallible judge as the app definitely tells you when you get a code right. If you want, you can also use the app to play some nice mood music. While many of the others in my group liked the music, I found that it just made it difficult to hear conversations going on at the other end of the table – and with some of these puzzles, you never know when a random observation from another player will suddenly trigger you to solve something.
The hint system is mostly well designed, but I do wish that it was a bit more robust. What I mean by this is that sometimes you just don’t get what the hint is trying to tell you to do… and, if you were resource limited (i.e. number of physical cards), I get that you might only be able to have one hint per card. But, as the hints come from an app, I really think that it would have made for a better experience to have multiple hints available for particularly tricky cards. It would have only taken a few more lines of code to do that – but the game can get seriously frustrating, or in fact can completely stall, if you are unable to solve a particular puzzle.
And, I’m sure that the couple of hints that our group didn’t get were perfectly fine. But, the system seems to be set up to help you when you get stuck, and I don’t think that Space Cowboys has done all that they could here. If they’re worried about the “integrity” of the timing or score, just levy a time penalty with the advanced hints. That would give gamers a much better experience with the game overall than being frustrated for 20 minutes.
Also, without giving a direct spoiler, let me strongly recommend that you enable the automatic Hidden Object notification in the app – it’ll ask you this when you start a scenario. It won’t change your experience in really any way, but it will prevent you from getting stuck at a critical point. There are a number of threads online at BGG for each module complaining that the game is broken – so it’s not an uncommon problem. You only get one chance to experience the scenario, and if you get into a roadblock – especially at a chokepoint in the scenario – it can lead to a very unfulfilling and unsatisfying experience. Our group got stuck at a particular place, and when I loaned out my copy to another group, they would have also been irrevocably stuck (though they called me to ask if the game was broken and I was able to give them a small clue – which would have been dead simple to add into the app – which got them back on the rails.)
(IMHO, this is another place where Space Cowboys could have done better. Rather than having this separate button which could lead to an awful experience, they could have written their hints in a different way such that the appropriate hidden object hint would come up when you needed it…)
Having constructed a few puzzle hunts myself, I know first hand that it can be extremely difficult coming up with the right balance of puzzle difficulty and/or help via hints in order to make your puzzles challenging enough for the veterans while remaining accessible enough for the novices – so I don’t want this to sound completely negative. Sometimes, you just don’t know how something is going to do in the wild until you get it out there for people to do! Trust me, I had a near epic failure with one of my Gathering of Friends puzzle hunts that turned out to be too obscure and complex for the audience.
All that aside though, the puzzles are really good. The Space Cowboys team has not let me down in that department, and there has been at least one “Wow” puzzle or solution in each full Unlock! module that I’ve played thus far. I would have to say that the level of puzzles presented here is amongst the best (if not simply the best) in the genre. I fear, though, that they may be too clever for less experienced puzzle solvers, and the less than optimal hint system (at least in my opinion) can lead to some less-than-awesome experiences… and the sheer number of posts and comments on BGG seem to say that my fears have at least some basis in truth.
The other weird thing about the game is that it’s possible to generate a number for a card which you can actually find in the deck but isn’t the right answer and can really confuse you. This arises from the green machine cards. Some of them have multiple possible modifiers on them which you have to figure out which is the right ones to use. And, if you have a lot of puzzle pieces available – this gives you a whole bunch of possible combinations, and it’s bad planning to have any of the combinations that aren’t correct to also be available. Sure, it’s hard to figure out all the possibilities – but it’s something that can cause some confusion when you suddenly get a card that makes no sense at all (we ended up making two different valid but incorrect combinations in our play of the Formula as we were completely stumped at one point with the only clues from the app being “there is nothing of interest” – so we were left to simply try any possible red+blue combination –modified by a green card with 5 or 6 possibilities — that we could come up with.)
I am still most definitely looking forward to the other scenarios in this series as I do love the Space Cowboys puzzle construction – I still stand by my assertion that the puzzles are amongst the best in the genre. With the fact that the app can always be digitally updated… I’m hoping that the hint system can get a slight upgrade to help out the people that need it. After all, the best puzzle solvers should never need to see the hints, so it won’t affect their experience of the game in the slightest – but for those who do need the hints, there has to be enough there to make sure that they can get through the game. You can’t be too difficult or too clever so that the gamers can’t finish the game or have such a frustrating time with it that they are reluctant to come back for another one.
ADDENDUM 6/28/17, noon – I have corresponded with the designer today after the review initially posted, and Cyril gave me this news:
By the way, we improved the app.
Now you can have several hints per card (sometimes the solution). Also there’s a new mechanism for machines (directly in the app, which avoid addition problems) and the possibility to play without timer (with an evaluation based on errors).”
[I had not realized that the app had been updated as there isn’t usually a need/desire to re-play a scenario, so I hadn’t ever used the app again after finishing the scenarios that we had…] I have since had a chance to look at the Formula scenario again with the new clues in the updated app, and it definitely improves my outlook on the game and on future scenarios. Most of my misgivings about the app version that I played were remedied. Hurrah for technology! The updating of the app certainly bodes well for the responsiveness of the Space Cowboys team and for the overall reception of the game now. I have upgraded my rating of the game from Neutral to I like it as a result of the app change.
Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers
Andrea “Liga” Ligabue: I’m not used to play a lot of Escape Room but I really like this card versione. The rules, format and the story are really nice. I’m using this game a lot as a tool in formation activities both with kids and adults and it works really well.
Craig V: Before playing through Unlock!The Formula, I was introduced to the series and Unlock! system by getting to try Unlock! The Elite first. The experience was pretty good and my initial impressions were favorable and I felt excited to play through the full Unlock! The Formula scenario. So, our group read through the instructions, fired up the app, and started solving puzzles, but it didn’t take long before we got stuck, really stuck and the hints weren’t helping. This was very frustrating and my enjoyment and interest with the Unlock! system in general and The Formula scenario in particular dropped rapidly. By the end of the game, it felt like the the entire thing was rushed through development as it felt clunky and unrefined – especially since Deckscape implemented a similar card-only escape room concept that was better since it provides multiple puzzle threads and it’s mechanism doesn’t drive obvious decisions during the game. Looking for red and blue number cards to combine in Unlock! detracts from the theme. In addition, it shouldn’t be possible to combine two cards to get a result that actually exists in the deck but is NOT something related to the objects combined. The result is a huge continuity error that spoils parts of the game yet to come while also adding to the confusion and frustration of actually trying to play the game. Also, the clue system in the Unlock! app is not helpful and seems to be incorrect since some cards actually necessary for solving puzzles are reported as being “nothing of interest” when querying the app for a clue about the card. It’s not really clear how a completely misguided “hint” is useful or adds to the experience and enjoyment of the game play. In the end, our group failed miserably due to a missed hidden item even though one group member decided to sacrifice himself and look through the deck and was still unable to backtrack through the scenario to figure out what we had missed. We eventually resorted to consulting an online resource to understand what went wrong. That should not happen in a good game design or production. In looking back for the hidden item, it’s definitely there on the card, but the graphic design and choice of number is questionable since all five of us looked at the card at least four times each and nobody ever saw it. There is apparently a hidden item function in the app that we didn’t know about or use, so maybe that would have helped since the one hidden item pretty much ruined the experience. I really love puzzle and escape room games, but so far I am extremely disappointed with the Unlock! series after the problems encountered while playing Unlock! The Formula. I have now played sixteen or seventeen escape room scenarios spanning eight different series and Unlock! is my least favorite so far.
Jeff “Gameguythinks” Myers: I’ve played both The Formula and Squeek and Sausage adventures and I enjoyed the experience. I wish we had known about the Hidden Object indicator that Dale mentioned, because that was a bit of a problem. If your eyes aren’t quite as young as they once were, I also recommend that you have a magnifying glass so that you can get a better look at the cards. The price on these wasn’t so high that I was bothered by the one-and-done experience. I do think that they are best played with three or four at most. More than that becomes a little frustrating.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it!
- I like it.: Dale Y, Andrea “Liga” Ligabue, Jeff “Gameguythinks” Myers
- Neutral. Craig V
- Not for me…