Saturday, March 11, 2017

Boardgame - Unlock! - Space Cowboys



Publisher:
Space Cowboys / Asmodée
Designers:
Alice Carroll, Thomas Cauët, Cyril Demaegd, Arnaud Ladagnous, Fabrice Mazza, Sébastien Pauchon, Billy Stevenson, Arch Stanton
Artist:
Florian de Gesincourt, Arnaud Demaegd, Legruth, Pierre Santamaria, Sergio
Languages:
French, English, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese
# of Players:
2-6
Age:
16+ (10+ in my opinion)
Duration:
60 min (typically)

BoardGameGeek References (big boxes only):

Game Design & Mechanics
  • This game sets itself apart by its mandatory use of an app (made available for free, on iOS and Android, weeks before the game came out). The app knows each of the available scenarios, tracks the time remaining, provide hints on demand, and is also used whenever a numerical combination needs to be entered, or when a card instructs you to do something.
  • As for what's in the box, every scenario is made of a single deck of cards - nothing else. Those cards have very different content, however. Some of them will show a puzzle or a lock, others an item (often a key, but not always). Some cards will show you a small map, or an image of an object found in the room itself.
  • The cards have a unique code (a number or a letter) on their back. This allows for a number of different mechanics like "combining inventory" (as if you were playing a computer adventure game), visual puzzle solving (reminescent of some gamebooks of yore) and even room searching (if you see a number hidden in a picture, you're allowed to reveal the card of that same number).
Pros
  • As others rightly pointed out to me, of all the other boxed games out there, this one is the best at conveying the uncertainty of standing in a real Escape Room. How far have you gone? Is this really the last puzzle? Are those remaining cards red herrings and penalties? You can't know for sure until the app tells you it's over.
  • With some non-linear puzzles and all those scenery cards you'll want to pick up and scrutinize, there are plenty of opportunity to "multitask". Your players shouldn't have to fight over cards, unless there really is a lot of you.
  • Since each scenario is essentially a deck of cards, this might be one of the cheapest offer out there. And with the English scenarios being sold separately, it's even easier to give in.
Cons
  • Well, you know, they're cards. Cards are small, and two people can't really look at the same card at once. Even though I understand the whole rationale, I really, really wish they had included a few foldable maps along with those cards.
  • If you're familiar with games like T.I.M.E Stories (also from Space Cowboys) or Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective (a 30 year-old game which has just been reprinted by - guess what - Space Cowboys!)  you might guess what my next complaint will be: the game is hard. And I don't mean "fun hard", where you feel challenged yet encouraged to keep trying your best. I mean "cocky hard", where the game almost seems to take pleasure in making feel inferior. (Then again, those games are among my favorites, so I guess I'm a masochist. 😧)
  • After playing most of the available scenarios, I noticed that the game has an "anti-pattern" of sorts. You see, it punishes players harshly for trying, but scolds them lightly for asking for help, which is the downright opposite of pretty much any Escape Room out there. Think about it, when was the last time a real-life room took 5 minutes off your chronometer just because you tried the wrong key on the wrong door? Oh, of course the game will (vehemently) explain that the key clearly wasn't meant to go in there, but many of these cases seemed quite subjective to me. Check out my personal results below. Notice how the same group performed way better in S&S than in The Formula? I believe that's because we learned from our mistakes and became more cautious - but once again, I don't see any fun in that.
    • In fact, as I keep thinking about it, I believe that the whole "card matching" mechanic should have been dropped. I wouldn't be surprised if it was one of the very first game mechanic the designers came up with, possibly predating the use of an app.
      But there is an app, and it's a mandatory part of the game, so why not use it to validate all the players' attempts at combining stuff? Why waste all that cardstock just to write "No, these things don't together, you're a moron, lose 5 minutes!"
      I know I'm ranting a bit more than usual here (especially for a game that'll keep getting my money for sure), but I believe a few changes could make a great game even better.
UPDATE - Fall 2017
  • A whole category of cards - machines, the cards I mentioned above as "visual puzzle solving" - have been heavily revamped. Instead of showing numbers that you must add up to solve a puzzle, you're now being asked to enter the card number in the app, which lets you play the solving part directly in there. The 2nd wave of scenarios have this from the get-go, and it looks like older ones will be retroactively made that way.
UPDATE - Spring 2018
  • The latest series of adventures ("Secret Adventures") starts including some non-card components. For instance, the Oz scenario has a folded map you acquire at some point. I must say I've been impressed at Space Cowboys' talent at making every iteration better than the last.
House Rules & Suggestions

Should you play this and want to compare your performance with friends, I suggest you do the following:
  • 5 players max
    Otherwise there's too many of you fighting over a dozen cards.

Scenario Results

(NOTE: When I started playing Unlock!, I saw that the app would give you a score (out of 5 stars) but I decided that I wouldn't care for those, and would focus only on the overall success and the completion time. In retrospect, it was a bad idea. Some scenarios have variable duration, multiple endings, and so on. I suggest you stick to those scores, dear reader.)

Tutorial
(Print & Play version)
Official difficulty: 0 / 3
Played with: 4 players
Made it? YES - Less than 5 minutes remaining

The Elite
(Free Print & Play module)
Official difficulty: 2 / 3
Played with: 4 players
Made it? NO

The Formula
Official difficulty: 2 / 3
Played with: 5 players
Made it? YES - More than 10 minutes remaining

Squeek & Sausage
Played with: 5 players
Official difficulty: 2 / 3
Made it? YES - More than 25 minutes remaining

The Island of Doctor Goorse
Official difficulty: 3 / 3
Played with: 7 players
Made it? NO

The 5th Avenue
(Free Print & Play module)
Official difficulty: 1 / 3
Played with: 4 players
Made it? YES - More than 11 minutes remaining
One anecdote, though. We first played an aborted game where we spent 12 minutes completely and utterly stuck, until we figured out that poor printer quality had made some hidden numbers completely invisible. We kicked off another session with the PDF sitting nearby. Seems the recently updated version of this module isn't nearly as bad.

Doo-Arann Dungeon
(From Ravage magazine - Later released as a Print & Play)
Official difficulty: 2 / 3
Played with: 3 players
Made it? YES - Less than 3 minutes remaining

Temple of Ra
(Free Print & Play module)
Official difficulty: 3 / 3
Played with: 5 players
Made it? NO

The Tonipal's Treasure
Played with: 5 players
Official difficulty: 3 / 3
Made it? YES - More than 15 minutes remaining

The Nautilus' Traps
Official difficulty: 2 / 3
Played with: 5 players
Made it? YES - About 6 minutes remaining

The House on the Hill
Official difficulty: 1 / 3
Played with: 4 players
Made it? YES - More than 12 minutes remaining

Tombstone Express
Official difficulty: 2 / 3
Played with: 3 players
Made it? YES - Less than 3 minutes remaining

A Noside Story
Official difficulty: 1 / 3
Played with: 3 players
Made it? YES - Less than 10 minutes remaining

The Adventures of Oz
Official difficulty: 3 / 3
Played with: 3 players
Made it? YES - 3 seconds remaining - side quests completed

William and the Boogeymen
Official difficulty: 1 / 3
Played with: 5 players
Made it? YES - Less than 10 minutes remaining

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