At the tail end of last month, I came across Escape Room in a Box: the Werewolf Experiment, a kickstarter project to fund a tabletop escape game. As soon as I heard about it, I was instantly intrigued, excited, concerned and contemplative. How was it going to work? What a great centre piece for a party! Can they really pack an escape room in a box? What would *I* do if it were me designing the game?
Portable escape rooms are nothing new obviously, Agent November runs one in London and there are several other people round the country with similar ideas. They still have a host with you though, whereas this is a shrink wrapped game, with all the restrictions that brings. Will they manage to make it work? I don’t know, but I’ve enjoyed contemplating the risks and challenges…
As will come up time and time again, there’s no game master for this game, so everything has to Just Work™. The description of the game suggests that there are three locks in the box. By the time you play a normal escape room, the locks will have been “tested” by tens of players, so unless the last one deliberately changed the code or the host switched the keys over, the lock is likely to work. You don’t have that safety net here, so their quality control is critical – have they confirmed that the lock opens correctly? I hope that they get two people to pack the boxes – one of them setting the locks and the other confirming that the correct code/key unlocks it. Similarly, if there’s a puzzle piece missing we’re in trouble. There’s no host to spot the missing item during gameplay, so you’ll be entirely stuck until you decide to take a clue, which brings me nicely on to…
There are lots of different models for clue giving in escape rooms, some good and some bad, but obviously there’s far less scope without a games master. Talking to the designers, they’ve gone down the route of including two booklets with each game. One is the hint booklet and gives you a hint for each puzzle that points you in the right direction, the second is the answer booklet which gives you the final answer to each puzzle. The rules of the game are that you’re allowed to look in the clue booklet three times and the answer booklet once, although obviously it’s up to you!
I think that works reasonably well, although in an ideal world I’d have like to have seen three levels of clues for each puzzle. My experience with games masters is that they often go too far with their clues, which takes a lot of fun from the puzzle. The best hosts just give you the tiniest push in the right direction to focus your mind, and it would be great if the booklet could emulate that.
As they rightly pointed out to me when I asked about this aspect, having that many clues might have made the booklet a weighty tome, and once you’ve played yourself, you can be the gamesmaster in the room, speaking of which…
If you’re into board games and you’ve read people’s comments about Pandemic Legacy then you’ll know this is likely to cause strong feelings. Like normal escape rooms, the Werewolf Experiment is a one time play game. In fact, it’s worse than that, because from what I’ve read, several of the parts are “used up” during the game, so you can’t even pass it on to your friends or run a party where you act as the games master.
The good news is that they’ve made an effort to address this. Firstly, if you back the kickstarter you get a refill kit, which will allow you to replace the parts that have been used up and host the game several more time for friends. Great! The other option they offer is that you can send back certain pieces for a rebate. That doesn’t really help those of us who live in other countries much, but for the North Americans, that’s at least an alternative to throwing it away.
I like to think that there might be other creative ways you can re-use it. Perhaps there’s a budding Breakout EDU angle here, where you make use of the reusable parts to create a custom escape room. Perhaps you could even buy a second game from the publisher with instructions on how to set up for round 2 (obviously giving the instructions to someone you trust to reset codes etc!). That’s a bridge to cross once the project is funded though.
This is probably the part where I think they’ll fall down most, although (having played plenty of escape rooms which were weak on this front), I don’t think that’s necessarily critical. Escape rooms all start off with a host, someone who sets the scene for a room and can really make you feel like you’re in the world that the designer created. Entering the room reinforces that – with decor, props and puzzles that fit the story.
Escape Room in a Box can’t do much on that front, but they can make sure that the puzzles align with the story, that the introduction (which we’ll presumably read out) is well written (and since one of them is a writer, you’ve got to think they’ll be successful). I’d really like to see a youtube video or similar produced, although I realise making that on a kickstarter budget would be difficult.
They also include some party planning advice in the box, to make themed snacks and decorations, but realistically I’m not going to do any of that, and I suspect I won’t be in the minority.
When I contacted them to ask about play testing, it was clear that they’d done plenty of work in that area, getting many people to play, including several board game experts. I was a little worried that there was a lack of escape room expertise involved though. The good news is that they’d just sent out a copy to the Room Escape Artist, which I pretty much think of as the Gold Standard of reviewing, and since then I’ve seen a tweet suggesting Escape Room Addict are also on the list. If they’re happy then it will certainly be good enough for me. [Edit: They’re happy].
It’s a difficult line to walk though. They need the enthusiasts to promote the game, because we’re the people who’ll buy it without much proof of how good it is, but long term it’s the non-enthusiasts that will make it successful. Those two groups expect very different things from an escape room, as anyone who’s read Trip Advisor reviews will know!
There are lots of challenges here, but I think they’ve risen to them as best as you can in this format. I’ve already backed this kickstarter project and will be running a game as soon as I get my hands on the box (with a review to follow soon after!). In all honesty, I don’t expect it to be as good as a normal escape room, but being able to run it in the comfort of your home, and the novelty factor, have convinced me that it’s well worth the $69 to back the project .
I encourage you to follow my lead so that we can make this crowdfunding project successful! If you’re still not sure, there are video reviews on their crowdfunding page – I recommend watching Board Game Replay’s spoiler free review as it really gives the feel of playing.
Usual caveats with crowdfunding – it’s a risk to back, although the video and external reviews make it clear that there is definitely a real product here! Note that I have no association with Escape Room in a Box and my only interest is that I love escape games and want to get to play this one!