Escape rooms are becoming more and more of a big deal around the world. Along with that popularity has come a wide variety of tabletop escape room games, for an escape room at home. Today I’m going to look at one of these escape room board games: Exit The Game: The Secret Lab.
This is actually my first time playing any of these boardgame escape room games. I intend this review to be as spoiler free as possible. Anything I talk about or share pictures of are things you are going to see in the first moments of playing the game. They won’t contain any hints or clues of what is to come later.
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The EXIT The Game series is one of the most well known Escape Room in a Box brands.
There are a number of different companies putting out these puzzle based board games. There is the Escape Room in a Box series from mass market board game publisher Mattel. There is also the Escape Room The Game series from Spin Master. While the Unlock! series of games from Asmodee seem to be very popular with hobby board gamers. Then there is the EXIT The Game series from Thames & Kosmos.
The EXIT Series, to me, seems to be the most popular with gamers. EXIT the Game: The Secret Lab was the first game in the series and it won the 2017 Kennerspiel des Jahres award. It’s also the series I hear the most about on podcasts and other board game media that I consume. For me, it seemed like the best place to check out these style of games was with The Secret Lab.
So what do you get with an EXIT The Game escape room in a box board game?
Opening up The Secret Lab I found a short rulebook, another booklet I was warned not to look at until told to, two thin cardboard bunch boards and two stacks of cards (which I was also told not to touch). The final component is a clue wheel that gave me a flashback to old software anti-piracy efforts of the 80s.
These games come in small boxes and the components were pretty much what I expected. The game is mostly made up of cards, though interestingly isn’t a card game really in any way. The cardboard punch out is rather thin, but it works for what the components are. The cards are of very good quality. The artwork is well done and fits the theme. The instructions are 99% clear. The only thing I found missing was that fact that nowhere does it tell you to actually punch out the punch board. Which I guess is pretty obvious but with how literal the game is about everything else, I thought it was an odd omission.
The instructions are written so that you read them as you play the game for the first time. It starts off with the setup. You apply for a job at a lab and once there are drugged and wake up in a locked room. You have to solve a series of puzzles in order to get out.
Setup is very simple. You separate the two sets of cards into a variety of decks. The two main ones are the Riddle Cards that are sorted alphabetically and the Answer Cards that are sorted numerically. There are also a number of clue decks with symbols on them. The game also came with some “tools” that are on the included punch boards that you are told to leave in the box until you are told to get them out. There is also a pamphlet that you get access to right from the start. The last thing you need is the code wheel that you just keep on hand for when you think you have solved a riddle.
This pamphlet very clearly leads you to your first clue which leads you to your first riddle. When you get a riddle you flip over the riddle card and do what it says. This should lead you to a three digit number. If you can’t figure out how to get this number you can start drawing cards from the clue decks. The first clue in each clue deck just makes sure you have everything you need to solve the riddle available. Some riddles can only be solved after solving a number of previous ones. The second clue in each deck actually gives you a hint. The third clue gives you the full solution and how you should have gotten to that solution.
Once you have your three digit number you use the code wheel and enter it. That gives you another number which indicates which Answer Card to draw. This will either tell you that you are wrong or lead you to do one more lookup that leads you to a final answer card. This final answer card, if correct, will either end the game or unlock new cards from the riddle deck.
The Secret Lab has ten puzzles for you to solve before you can escape. After escaping you fill out a score sheet to see how well you did. You score is based on how long you took as well as how many clue cards you had to use.
My thoughts on EXIT The Game The Secret Lab after playing with two players
I initially bought EXIT The Game The Secret Lab to play with my Monday night gaming group. I knew that it played up to six players and thought it would be perfect for a night when we couldn’t play our planned game due to one or more of the players being absent. Then I heard that this particular escape room in a box was actually best with two players, so it wouldn’t actually be good for my regular group.
Instead, I decided I would save it for a night to play with just Deanna and I. That night happened last Monday on Canadian Thanksgiving. My plan was to take her out to a coffee shop and sit there and have some great coffee (actually a cappuccino for her) and play through this small box. I had looked online and had seen that the game basically had a two hour time limit, so I made sure to pick a coffee shop that would be open that long.
Sadly that plan failed, since the coffee shop we went to decided to close early for Thanksgiving. Due to this, we started playing the game at the cafe but then packed up and finished it at home. All told I think the game took us about two hours and fifteen minutes. That included having to read the rulebook, sort the cards, pack everything up mid game and set it all back up at home. For this reason, when we scored ourselves we went with two hours and I think that was being a bit harsh.
As for the actual play experience, it started off a bit rough. Having never played one of these games before we had no idea what we were looking for. While I can’t be certain I’m pretty sure that now having discovered the “flow” of how an EXIT The Game game works we would be much quicker at getting moving next time.
One of the things that took us a bit to get going was trying to identify something in a picture. You do this a lot in this game (and probably all of the other EXIT games). The problem wasn’t that the clue wasn’t obvious, it was that it was quite small. Deanna and I are both in our forties and that means our eyesight isn’t what it used to be. We spent a lot of time staring at an obvious clue trying to figure out what number was on it only because it was so small.
This was an ongoing issue with playing through The Secret Lab. The text on the cards is small. The images on the card are tiny. The symbols on the cards and in the images are small. It was bad enough that once we got home we actually broke out a magnifying glass.
The actual riddles in the game are all quite clever. None of the riddles were overly simple, where we got it the instant we looked at the card, and none of them were truly hard enough to stump us. We finished our game only using one clue and we only used that one very reluctantly. There were some puzzles we got stuck on for a while but between the two of us given enough time we solved them all. The riddles themselves were a great mix of logic puzzles, pattern recognition, reading comprehension, deductive reasoning and process of elimination. I have to say I really enjoyed the variety.
One of the problems we did find was that with these puzzles mostly being on cards and in a book, it was hard for two people to work on one puzzle at once. It often felt like one of us was looking over the other’s shoulder. I can see this being an even bigger problem with more than two players. Had we had our regular group of five, I think three of us would have just been sitting there waiting for something to do.
We also ran into one actual misprint on a card. Now that misprint totally confused us though it didn’t actually have an impact on solving the puzzle. If anything it sent us off in the wrong direction for a while. That card was a clue card and there’s a chance you will never see it, but if you have an early printing of The Secret Lab it’s worth looking up an errata online. Again, this misprint doesn’t make the riddle unsolvable, so it doesn’t ruin the game in any way.
Overall Deanna and I had fun playing through The Secret Lab. We scored six stars out of ten which I think was pretty good for our first experience with one of these kinds of games. I was extremely impressed by the ingenuity of the game, both in the way the various decks of cards worked and in how clever the code wheel is. Part of me feels that I wanted something a bit more from the experience, but I’m not sure exactly what. Despite that, playing The Secret Lab was a fun way to kill a couple of hours. I think it was a good, fun, experience but not an amazing one.
A note about the destruction of components in the EXIT The Game series of puzzle board games.
One of the most controversial aspects of the EXIT The Game series of games is that they are one and done games. Not only can you only play them once, but each game can also only be played once ever. That is because, while playing the game, you will end up marking, damaging and destroying components.
Many blogs out there will tell you that you don’t have to destroy anything to play one of these EXIT series games. I can’t say I agree with this. While I guess it is technically possible, it would require you to make duplicates of most of the components in the game in order to preserve the originals. While you can use paper to take notes certain puzzles require you to cut up and or fold components. Unless you are going to exactly duplicate those components somehow (tracing them, drawing them out, photocopying them) you are going to end up making your copy of the game unplayable for anyone else.
I have seen some people claim that they were able to solve all of the puzzles due to having players who were able to “just imagine how the components would fit together.” I personally can’t see it. If true, good on that group, but that’s not going to be the average group of gamers. There was no way Deanna and I would have solved one of the puzzles without being able to physically manipulate the components.
For the low cost of these games (under $15 US MSRP and they can often be found cheaper), I just don’t think it’s worth the time or effort to make a replayable copy. I personally took the staples out and took apart the one book, folded things, cut things up, traced things, used both pen and paper to draw on things, used cards as rulers and basically made sure that no one is ever playing my copy of The Secret Lab again.
I think that if you are buying an EXIT The Game series game you should go into it knowing that things are meant to be written on, folded, cut up and destroyed. It’s all part of the experience.
Have you played through EXIT The Game: The Secret Lab? What did you score? Did you do better than Deanna and I? Have you played any other escape room in a box games? What did you think of them?