Escape the Room: Card Games vs Real Life Experience
My girlfriend and I are huge fans of Escape the Room games. We first got introduced to the concept mid-last year, when my girlfriend’s boss gave her two tickets to Escape Live in Birmingham (UK, not Alabama). We took part in a horror experience, called Room 13 which involved escaping from a haunting hospital room.
Last Christmas, having done a couple more, we gave three tickets to Escape Live to the other three original members of our gaming group. They also loved it and this got us into playing the card game versions.
The card game versions are becoming somewhat famous amongst the gaming community. Games like Unlock and the Exit: The Game series are being played more and more, to the point where now there are loads of iterations of the common theme. Like games like TIME Stories these are, what is known as, decksploration games. In other words, you have a clue which leads you to uncover more cards, exposing more story, and so on. The Unlock games are purely decks of cards; however, the Exit: The Game series strays closer to the real life games in regards to they have referral books and “strange objects” to use.
Of course, both originate from the point-and-click video games, which in turn originate from locked room mysteries…but that is a story for another time.
The thing is – looking around the blogger-sphere I have noticed a lot of articles talking about what Escape the Room is like and what Escape games are like, but I haven’t found any comparing the two. This is where I thought I would pop up. Hello.
Escape the Room vs Escape the Room
The concept of both the real life experience and the card game is very similar. Both are themed experiences around different concepts. In real life, I have played three of the live experiences, based in a creepy hospital, a Victorian office, and a time machine (which explored a few different rooms). In game form I have explored a laboratory to a mad professor, an abandoned Mayan island, and the tomb of an Ancient Egyptian king. None of them have overlapped, and this is because so long as there is a concept for being locked away, there is a concept for a game. The possibilities are endless.
How they differed, however, was in how they played. In real life, you are in a room that you need to escape from and you do that by finding clues. These may be in the form of CDs, or clock faces, or photographs you find. In one case it involved a black light being shone on a wall to reveal numbers. This is generally to get codes to open locks, which lead to more clues.
In the card game version, you have a deck, which have letters of numbers on one side and a series of clues or answers on the other. By cross referencing cards and solving puzzles, or by using additional clues found in the box or booklet that comes with it (in some cases) you find references to the back of other cards. Cards J and P may lead you to card F, as an example. This, when turned over, will be a clue or a puzzle part. The cycle continues.
The Real Life Experience of Escaping A Room
The real life experience of escaping the room is a thrilling experience. You are always on a timer that keeps you focused, but also makes you nervous enough to ensure that you always have adrenaline coursing through your system.
Being in an escape room means that you have immersed yourself in the environment. The clues can be varied and fit well within the room. Of course, the quality of the room can vary, but generally speaking, these companies have refined the experience so it is an enjoyable one.
What the games do really well is instill a sense of panic. They are very strictly confined to one hour, meaning there is always a ticking clock on the wall somewhere to let you know how much time you have. This means you, and your friends, need to work together to get out as quickly as possible. Although you know it is against the law for them to lock you in forever, there is always that part of you thinking “but what if I never get out?”.
Most of the time the clues will make sense. More often than not they can be thought through completely logically (hey, around twelve groups go through in any given day so they need to have it work) and so it is incredibly satisfying when everything slots into place. On occasions, however, they don’t and you just end up trying everything. Such is the nature of the game. If you get really stuck, then the staff will find some way of getting you a hint (through a TV or iPad or radio in the three I have done).
Playing the live games with friends is an experience. It’s really that simple, with teamwork and urgency playing a real part.
Leaving aside the fact that occasionally you can get stuck on a really illogical clue, the main downside with the Escape the Room experiences is the cost. Typically they cost around £10 to £15 per person per hour, which isn’t a great return on investment (read my blog about ROI in gaming here). Ironically, because you want to get out with as much time as possible, you actually want to get out in less than an hour so it can be pretty costly.
It also requires a room. This may sound obvious, but you can’t do it in your living room.
The Card Game Experience of Escaping A Room
What Escape Rooms have, over the real life experience, is they can be done at home or with a gaming group. They are great for playing with a group of friends, gathered around a table, eating Pringles (or whatever).
The nature of the card game means that tasks can still be delegated, and this is something that really comes across well. You can split into teams with a group working on one puzzle and a group working on another. The team element is still there, and this is something that could have so easily been lost but which is usually preserved pretty well.
Escape Room card games tend to also be affordable, costing around £15 for a whole game rather than per person. This cost means it is possible to have themed evenings which go through a few games. Last International Tabletop Day we played through a few, splitting into two teams to do two at a time (there were nine of us). We then raced each other. It was great fun.
The great thing about these games, especially the Unlock series (not really the Exit: The Game one I have played) is that, although they can only be played once, they can then be passed on. You complete the game and you pass it on as a gateway game to someone else. This introduces new people to the wonderful tabletop game world in which we live.
To put it simply, escape card games do not have the atmosphere. This is not a fault of the game, but rather it is a fault of the environment. You play them around a table and this means you are not in the room you are escaping from. This means it can sometimes be hard to go along with the theme.
Going along with the theme is also difficult to do when the puzzles are not theme based. We have played two of the games now (one Unlock and one Exit) where the puzzles, in order to make sense within the physical game, took away from the theme. This included colour puzzles to do with paint splats in the Ancient Egyptian tomb, for instance. It took us out of the theme, making us very aware it was a game.
Oddly, the game we played that didn’t try to be realistic did the best job in keeping us enthralled. It was about a mad scientist and great fun to play.
The other con is that more guesses have to be made as the puzzles are harder and, often, open to interpretation. In one of the games, we had one puzzle where we had to use the box insert to solve the puzzle which was a cool concept, but again took us out of the game. There was also no clue to the fact we had to use the box, which had us searching for ages as it hasn’t been used thus far. It was a new concept, brought into the game with zero explanation. We had to use hint cards to understand what it is we needed to do.
Finally, there is no timer to some of the games, and others use an app. This means the adrenaline doesn’t flow and it, generally speaking, isn’t as exciting. Where it was exciting, the app stopped working and glitched. This was hugely frustrating.
As I mentioned at the start, I have done three Escape the Room live experiences now and three Escape card games. I have to admit, I enjoyed 3/3 experiences, but only 1/3 of the games. They are an acquired taste, but I would have to recommend the experience over the card game.
That being said, the card games have their place. They can be very fun and they can be a great team experience in and of themselves. They can also act as a gateway game. The problem is they can also be very frustrating and that is irritating. This is because they don’t always represent the puzzles in such an obvious way to make it known they are solutions. Images aren’t always clear. Boxes aren’t always pointed to (yes, I am dwelling on that).
All in all, everyone will have their own preference and I am very aware of the fact I am speaking my own opinion.
I would be interested to hear from other people who have played either the card game or had the live experience, and what you thought of either/both. Let me know in the comments below.
I’ve done around 5 real life escape rooms, and I’ve also done four Unlock! games with my girlfriend. I’ve enjoyed all but one of the real escape rooms, and I had good times with two of the Unlock! games, with the other two being great.
Ultimately, I agree that escape rooms offer much more immersion than do the board game versions, but they come at a substantially higher price (around three to four times more expensive than an Unlock! game in Australia, and that’s if you only go to the room with two people!). As you’ve also pointed out, escape rooms involve travel too, and sometimes this can be a large inconvenience.
I think there’s more than enough room for both, and I for one welcome this new wave of games. On a side note, have you tried out T.I.M.E Stories?
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Yeah, similar problem here. Four of us can play a game version for £12, but it costs £44 to go for the experience version for the same number of people. I’m actually toying with the idea of buying one to play solo, just as a kind of evening brain teaser.
I have played TIME Stories, and I loved it. We played the first one, just myself and my partner, before buying the first expansion. Since then however it has sat on our shelf and we haven’t played it yet.
I guess it is because, as amazing as it is, it can be a mentally draining game to play.
I’m guessing you’ve played it. What’s your take on it?
My girlfriend and I have played the first two, and we had a blast both times. We certainly did feel that the first one was stronger, but the second one has its charms as well. It certainly can be both time and mentally consuming though.
I’ve not heard of this sub-genre before. Are the EtR games able to be played more than once each? It sounds like they’re “one and done” due to the nature of puzzles and puzzle solving, or is there enough (presumably) randomised content to play through more than once?
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Ahh a good question and point. No, they tend to be fire and forget. Namely, each game can be played once and once only. Unlock has three games in the box. Exit games tend to have just once, and also seems to include tearing up components/drawing on things.
What this has done is create a culture around Escape games where they are played and then passed on. They can be an interesting way of getting non-gamers into gaming, and the right one can turn someone into a gamer for life. Unfortunately, the wrong one can put people off for life. It’s a tricky balance.
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My wife did an escape room for her bachelorette party and really enjoyed it but I’ve never done one. Oddly, I imagine the board game wouldn’t be as fun but I’d be more willing to try it than an actual escape room. Escape rooms don’t look all that fun to me, but maybe it would be different if I was actually there.
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