Dale Yu: Review of Star Wars Unlock! (Spoiler Free)

Star Wars Unlock!

  • Designer: SPACE Cowboys
  • Publisher: SPACE Cowboys
  • Players: 1-6
  • Age: 10+
  • Time: 60 minutes per scenario
  • Times played: once, finishing all three scenarios in a combined 115 minutes

The Unlock! franchise was one of the first to hit the scene in the escape room/puzzle game genre. The initial editions of the game were highly anticipated – prior to Unlock! The Formula – the majority of the puzzle games came in big sized boxes (see T.I.M.E Stories, Escape Room: The Game, etc), and getting a small format was super cool. Since then, the EXIT series as well as the Deckscape series have also provided more portable versions of these puzzle-y games.

This set is now at least the seventh set of games in the series, and this one gets its own smartphone app. This one comes in a larger box, more like a Carcassone box, but the three scenarios contained within still follow the same general format. I have liked the way that there are multiple different franchises in the genre, and each of them brings their own style to the party. Here, the catch is obviously the tie in to the Star Wars Universe.

I can explain how the game works using cards and ideas from the original tutorial (in part because our previous reviews have used the same examples) – the game can be learned through a 10 minute mini game that uses just a few cards (which are included in the game):

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 Star Wars Unlock! app to run on your phone or tablet.

The top card of each scenario 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.

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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. Our blog has over 30 reviews now on games of this type. 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 front page of the instructions. This set leans to the simpler side, with the first two scenarios being 1 out of 3 in difficulty and the last scenario being 2 out of 3.

My guess (and this is clearly my supposition only) is that these three scenarios were built with the mass market in mind. Given the tie in to the Star Wars franchise, this will likely appeal to all levels of gamers, including non-gamers, and a simpler puzzle will make this game much more accessible to those who end up with a copy of it. I think this is also why this game has a standalone app – so that there is no confusion on which scenarios are in play. Finally, this game comes with a sixteen page booklet that is a full walkthrough of the solutions to the three scenarios. This is something I don’t remember ever being included in the previous Unlock boxes…

There is one other addition to this series – Advantage cards. The intro card on each deck instructs you to find the 6 Advantage cards for the scenario, and using only the titles on the back, choose three of them to use in this game. Per the rules: “They may provide hints, clues, shortcuts, or other benefits”. I won’t tell you more to prevent spoilers, but I will say that if you are a veteran puzzle gamer, you probably won’t need them. We read them in the first scenario as we weren’t sure what they were, but we picked them out and never read them for the final two scenarios.

The app works pretty seamlessly. I have had complaints in the past about some wonky interactions with the app, including the built-in hint system, but we did not have any issues at all with the new Star Wars Unlock! app. While we did not require any hints along the way, we did occasionally check out the hints (after we had already felt we had solved a puzzle) to see if the hints were useful, and by-and-large, they were on the spot.

The Android app for this game is around 60 MB, and it does a good job in centralizing 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, the app can play some nice mood music which matches the scenario. 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.

As with the more recent versions, you can now auto-enable the automatic Hidden Object notification in the app – it’ll ask you this when you start a scenario. Your group will have to decide what to do about this. In one way, it will prevent you from getting stuck at a critical point – because the app will remind you (at approximately the right time into the game) that you should have noticed a hidden number by now. This way, you’ll not get stuck in a scenario because you haven’t found the hidden number disguised in the background art – which happens to be THE ONLY WAY that you can get a particular card that you need to progress in the story.

There are a number of threads online at BGG for early modules complaining that those game are broken – because people couldn’t find the hidden numbers. 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.

That being said, it can be somewhat frustrating to have the app tell you that you need to be looking for a hidden object when you weren’t ready to give up yet and ask for a hint! Yes, I know you can’t have it both ways. For now, we choose to turn off the automatic hidden number hints and we know to hit the clue button for it when we feel like we’re stuck. But, generally, you get a feeling for when you need to looking for a hidden number when you get to a point in the game where you have a bunch of cards laid out on the table and no obvious path to move forward. As a hint, make sure that you clearly discard cards as instructed as this will limit the number of cards you have to scrutinize for a hidden number. Also, don’t be afraid to use your zoom function on your smartphone camera as an impromptu magnifying glass…

The puzzles, while on the easy side, are still clever as always. I think that we had a great time playing through these three scenarios, and I can definitely see this being a great introductory box for non-gamers. I have had a report that my 7-year-old niece was able to mostly work through the first scenario in around 56 minutes, only needing minimal prompting from her dad – but she did need help with the final puzzle as she didn’t quite understand what it was asking for.

Overall, I still very much like this series, especially because it is a non-destructive game. While I haven’t kept previous episodes in the series, choosing to trade them or gift them away, I plan to keep these three in the collection to use when folks who are new to these games want to try one. They are small in volume, loaded with fun, and they can be played over and over. Even if I really wouldn’t be able to play, I’d be happy to shepherd them thru the game and be in charge of the app – and I’m sure I’d still enjoy the chance to introduce others to this type of game which I have grown to love.

My rating remains a strong I like it. As the apps improve (and the hidden number shenanigans become less of a problem), this very well could move them into the I love it! Category. The lower level of difficulty is fine by me, and I think that this, combined with the uber familiar Star Wars tie in, will allow this box to be a great introduction to the genre… I suspect that plenty of people will get their first taste of this sort of game at the holidays this year through Star Wars Unlock!  I would highly recommend this set of adventures to those new to the genre or those gamers who are big Star Wars fans!

Until your next appointment,

The Gaming Doctor

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.
This entry was posted in Essen 2020, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Dale Yu: Review of Star Wars Unlock! (Spoiler Free)

  1. Joel says:

    The Star Wars Unlock box is excactly the same size as the other Unlock boxes.

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