Unlock! Secret Adventures is a set of escape room style board games, from publisher Space Cowboys. Designed by Thomas Cauët, Lewis Cheshire and Arch Stanton, this set comes with three card and app based adventures – designed to be played with 1 – 6 players. The first two lasted slightly less than 60 minutes, with 90 on the clock for the third. However, does this provide players with the satisfaction of completing real-time puzzles? Let’s find out!
Each adventure is its own standalone deck of cards, with Tombstone Express and The Adventures of Oz coming with additional components. While the core of the puzzle revolves around the cards the app is a required element. The free to download app has the countdown timer, handles players’ guesses at number combinations, and more. Plus, it can give out hints if players want them.
Each adventure starts with a setting the scene card. Reading the text and turning the card over, the timer and the escape room adventure begins. Cards fall into a few main types. Blue and Red cards are typically items or things that can be combined. Combining a red with a blue card, seeing players add the numbers together and finding that numbered card in the deck, will see players progress. However, some of these are effectively boobytraps and are not supposed to be combined, causing the team to take a penalty. Pressing the penalty button on the app sees the time left reduced, making it harder for the players to successfully beat the adventure.
Players will also encounter yellow lock cards. These present the team a need for a 4 digit code. This is inputted into the app, via the locks section, when the team thinks they have cracked the code. Incorrect guesses will result in a penalty, with correct guesses rewarding players with the information on the next card or cards to find in the deck. Green machine cards also come into play, with the app handling these unique puzzles. Included in the box is the quick “2.0” tutorial, which features in the majority of Unlock! boxes. It is a shame for fans of the series, looking for a quick refresher, that this is an identical tutorial. Nevertheless, this should help get new players up to speed.
Rated by difficulty of 1 to 3, the easiest adventure in Unlock! Secret Adventures is A Noside Story. Using Unlocks! own original theme, as seen in the Squeek & Sausage adventure from 2017, players enter Noside’s lair. Exploring the unusual house, there were lots of items to combine logically – making this a pleasant escape room experience. There were times of working things out but things never felt out of reach, with progress consistently being made. Taking just over 40 minutes with two players chances are this won’t trip up fans of the series. It does a great job of variety though, with some use of puzzles such as hidden numbers and pattern matching.
Things get a little more interesting aboard the Tombstone Express, the middle difficulty rated adventure. Theme wise the adventure gets you fully into thinking you are a sheriff on the train – almost making you want to grab the train from Colt Express and barge down it with the cards. As you are setting out on a train journey the timer counts up, a slight twist from the norm.
Events will occur outside of players’ control that’ll pause the on-going puzzle, but not the timer, as they need to be solved immediately. This is great for disrupting the flow of thoughts and the puzzle – keeping players on their toes – something that is frustrating but in a good way. Without spoiling what occurs there is a single minor dexterity element to the adventure. At the time players just want these side puzzles to stop tripping them up but it makes the adventure different.
Tombstone comes down to a choice and therefore it is possible to fail the scenario. However, upon failing players are simply greeted by an end screen. It would have been much better to give players the option between the end screen and having the answer revealed – playing through a second time is simply not as enjoyable.
The hardest rated adventure of Unlock! Secret Adventures is The Adventurers of Oz, which oozes in the fantasy theme. This certainly has some thematic elements that would have tripped us up, if it weren’t for my wife’s knowledge of Oz. While it may have been possible to hint, that always feels like a minor cheat when you can attempt combining cards. If I were to be soloing the experience I’d have certainly caused a few penalties, with the Oz knowledge saving us that time. This may have made the adventure feel more in line with Tombstone Express difficulty wise than it otherwise would feel.
A non-reflective “truth” mirror and a map come as additional components – alongside the deck of adventure cards. Neither were overused, becoming useful periodically throughout the adventure – at times obviously and others not so. The way there were incorporated showed both items were a needed addition and not only there for flair sake. The only aspect of concern for this adventure is there is a section which involves splitting the four characters between players. This worked incredibly well with 2 players. Alas, if you were wanting to solo the experience or play with the upper end of the player count spectrum (6 players) this may not work as smoothly.
The artwork that adorns the cards throughout the three adventures is stunning. Each adventure has its own fitting artstyle. Noside’s is cartoony, Tombstone’s has a more realistic, serious, tone and Oz’ has that touch of magical flair. Hats off to the three artists that made these adventures shine; Legruth (Noside), Arnaud Demaegd (Tombstone) and Mahulda Jelly (Oz). Even with such great art the UX of the cards is not forgotten, with each number (that is meant to be clear) extremely readable.
None of the adventures felt unachievable. Previous sets have had one adventure that has stumped every group of players – which while offering a challenge is a frustrustating. Combine this with the mixture of themes, and uses of components, and Unlock! Secret Adventures is easily one of the best sets of the escape room board games to be released. It might not last on my shelf, due to the one time play nature of the genre. It is however an experience that is easy to recommend, plus with no components being torn up it isn’t as if others won’t be able to enjoy the game.
(Editor’s Note: Unlock! Secret Adventures was provided to us by Asmodee for the review. The game is currently available from local board game stores, some of which are running dropoff services, find your local store here.)