Outside the room
Way back in February, I came across a reference to ThinkFun’s escape-room-in-a-box offering, “Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor“. This was just after I found out about the crowdfunding project for the Werewolf Experiment and so, unsurprisingly, I couldn’t help but compare them. At around a third of the price, it couldn’t possibly be as good, especially when I saw that the contents of the box appeared to be a few envelopes. “No, this definitely isn’t going to be good enough”, I thought to myself and, after emailing exitgames.co.uk to let them know of its existence, I promptly forgot all about it.
That is, until I saw a review appear from the Room Escape Artist. And not just a review but a positive review. In fact, to quote: “It’s a better, more creative game than at least 50% of the escape rooms I’ve played.”. Five minutes later I’d found a UK games site that would allow me to pre-order and promptly forgot about it again. When it arrived on my doorstep three months later, I excitedly ripped the box open, read as much as I was allowed before the actual event and then arranged for four of us to meet up and play it.
It’s 1869 and the town’s well-respected astronomer has not been seen since the untimely passing of his wife. Recently, strange things have been happening at his manor – loud and unfamiliar noises, an unpleasant smell, and smoke billowing from the observatory. It’s up to you and your guests to solve the mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor!
Inside the “room”
After reading through the rule book which explains the game, we unpacked it on to the table. Five envelopes, some sort of code wheel and an introduction. Yes, the artwork was quite nice, and the envelopes were a little thicker than you’d expect for something that just contained paper, but fundamentally I was really, really concerned that this was going to be a total washout.
Aside from the first puzzle, which is trivially easy and there just to make sure you know how to use the code wheel, all the puzzles in the game felt like just the sort of thing you’d find in an escape room. In fact, if you took these puzzles, scaled them up and replaced the code wheel solution with a padlock, I think it would translate to a real escape room very reasonably. (The code wheel, in case you’re wondering, is just a mechanism to let you check your solutions to each puzzle and get your permission to open the next envelope.)
But they’re paper puzzles right? Well, yes and no. I’d expected these to be things like word searches, cryptograms or sudokus, where you’d have relatively few ‘aha’ moments but a lot of process, puzzles where you just had dull legwork to do once you’d worked out the method. But actually they weren’t that at all: These were interesting puzzles with relatively little in the way of handle turning – and, in contrast to so many escape rooms, when you found the solution, you were confident it was the right answer. On the downside, some of the puzzles were a little bit too easy for my liking, but not so many as to be a significant issue.
The puzzles were also on theme, and there was a reason given for why you had to solve them (although they’d converted the real world elements to cardboard game pieces in a way that worked here but in a proper escape room would have been disappointing). They were nice game pieces too, varying in quality but never flimsy. One in particular felt like a really nice centrepiece to the game (although the Room Escape Artist was less impressed).
Between puzzles, there was a little segment to read out that helped to develop the story. I quite liked these snippets of information because they were small enough to take in quickly and not interrupt the game flow but still progressed the story nicely.
There was a decent online clue system, with two clues and an answer for each puzzle. I felt the initial clues could have done with being a bit more subtle, but they were good enough. Having to access the clues through a website would probably break the flow of the game slightly, but I think you have to accept that as a limitation of playing at home.
There’s a supposed time limit on the game, although obviously unenforced, of two hours for a group of four (down to ninety minutes for a team of 8). That was way too long – I’d suggest you should be aiming for no more than an hour to complete the full game.
How you complete the game is also interesting. I’ve talked recently about “non-binary win conditions” and how I wish more escape rooms would integrate them, so I was surprised to see that a room-in-a-box had such a feature. Obviously, it’s only relevant if you’re sticking to the time limits (otherwise you might as well complete all the challenges), but it still felt like a nice touch.
We took it fairly easy and escaped with 45 minutes gone having completed all the puzzles and not taken any clues. While the instructions allowed up to two hours, 45 minutes appears to be pretty typical from reviews (although another set of friends finished it in just over 30 minutes…).
It’s hard to compare this against other escape rooms. The Room Escape Artist was correct – this is a better and more creative game than many real escape rooms. Indeed, if you scaled this up to be an actual room, converting the envelopes to cupboards, doors and boxes and the pieces to real props, I think you’d have a thoroughly enchanting game. Any rating I give the room has to take the fact that it’s a boxed game into account – you’re never going to get a fully immersive theme or a game with a lot of moving parts, but for under £20 you get a really fun set of puzzles that, in our case, engaged the four of us for 45 minutes.
I’d recommend playing with two to four people for the best experience. More than that will get frustrating and, while in theory you could play it as a single player, I think that misses the point of escape rooms.
Resetting the room!
Thinkfun have a set of instructions online for resetting the game, which were both clear and straightforward. Since our initial game, we’ve played again with our children and I’ve taken it out for some of my other team mates to play – while the condition of the envelopes will slowly deteriorate, so far it seems to be holding up well. If you’re interested in keeping it in tip-top condition, I’d recommend carefully cutting the tape on the envelopes with a craft knife as it’s nigh on impossible to remove without damaging the paper slightly.
We invited ourselves over to a friend’s house and they made us fajitas. I’d highly recommend :-).
Detailed Room Ratings
I nearly picked this up at the UK Games Expo as it was on sale for £13.50. In fact had I not walked round to see if it was cheaper elsewhere, and then returned to find the only remaining copy had been opened, I definitely would have. So now I’m even more disappointed that I missed out.
I’m particularly interested in the ‘in between puzzle segments’. This sounds like the type of thing I’ve been calling out for in escape rooms. Not so much as to lose all momentum; just a little to explain/reinforce what’s going on. And the story possibility space of seeing things again in a new context must be huge. How did the pauses affect your experience? Could you see something similar working in an actual room?
It’s only another pound or two on Amazon. Don’t be too disappointed!
The only problem with the story segments is that often the other players started working on the next puzzles before you’d finished reading the card. For the easier puzzles that might mean you missed out entirely. That’s OK as long as you take turns reading the extra bits though.
Would it work in a real room? In theory, yes. In practice – the trick would be fitting it in naturally. I think you could probably put small hands written notes in each locked area. If you then back references a piece of info on each in a later puzzle to ensure people had taken them in properly, you might be able to make it work. The room would have to be pretty linear though. Hmm – another good reason for linearity?
I’m so glad that you enjoyed it. Long after playing it, I continue to be impressed by the quality and creativity that ThinkFun crammed into this inexpensive little box.
Looked for it at the Expo but didn’t see it. Wondering if it can be turned into a drinking game (because most real sites won’t let you do that…)