Thursday, June 16, 2016

GJJG Game Reviews - Escape the Room: Mystery at the Stargazer's Manor - by ThinkFun

Escape the Room: Mystery at the Stargazer's Manor
Designers: Rebecca Bleau, Nicholas Cravotta
Publisher: ThinkFun
GJJG Game Reviews - Escape the Room: Mystery at the Stargazer's Manor - by ThinkFun

Game Overview:
In the last few years a new social experience has emerged in cities around the world.  Instead of meeting friends for a movie, rounds of miniature golf, bowling, or any one of other countless other group activities, people have been choosing to lock themselves in a room with several of their closest friends and then try to figure out a way to get out.  Usually these escape rooms are filled with puzzles that must be solved before the door can be unlocked.  There is usually a time limit as well, and sometimes a story to go with the experience. Sometimes the bonds of friendship are strengthened and sometimes those who went in as friends come out questioning everything they thought they knew about each other.  Escape rooms can be a great team building experience as well.

Well, ThinkFun wants to bring that experience to the living room for families to enjoy at a fraction of the cost of a real escape room experience.  Escape the Room: Mystery at the Stargazer's Manor is the first in a planned series of self contained escape rooms in a box.  Instead of actually being locked in a room you are part of a narrative where the characters you and your fellow players represent are locked in a room they must escape from.  Through solving a series of puzzles you'll work your way through the story and hopefully escape before your time runs out.
The design veers from ThinkFun's usual blue and white color scheme,
but the game still fits well with their line of simple puzzle games.
The box states the game is for 3-8 players ages 10+ and takes two hours, although for me it played fine with two players (I'd actually recommend two or three players, and no more than four) and should be fine as a solo game as well.  The time estimate is very generous and really depends on how quickly players solve the puzzles - my wife and I finished in under an hour at a very casual pace.  The age is probably right if there are no older players, but with some adult guidance players as young as six should be fine (my six year old son played with his brother and friends, ages 9, 10, and 13, but felt left behind and lost interest after a bit).  MSRP for Escape the Room: Mystery at the Stargazer's Manor is $21.99, however it can really only be played once by any one person (it can be passed on and played by someone else though).  I suppose if you happen to not escape in your first game you can try again, but a lot of the intrigue and mystery will be lost on a replay.

NOTE: To avoid puzzle spoilers I blurred parts of some of the images.  Your game won't have the swirly blue parts, but will have cardboard puzzle pieces instead!

Components & Packaging:
Escape the Room isn't designed to be a game that gets a ton of play.  You can really only play it once.  After that it will either sit on a shelf or get passed on to someone else to play.  Chances are it'll get passed on, hopefully to friends, but possibly to a thrift store.  At any rate, if one copy sees more than five plays it'll have had a pretty long life.  So the game components don't need to be super high quality.

And the box isn't super high quality.  It's a corrugated cardboard box that flips open to reveal the contents.  If the game was going to see a lot of play this box probably wouldn't hold up very long, but it does its job and is sturdy enough.
Inside the box is everything you'll need to host an Escape Room at home.
The rest of the components are pretty nice though.  They're not super high end, but they're not flimsy paper either.  Pieces are thicker cardstock (not quite chipboard, but thicker than standard playing cards) and the various envelopes feel strong enough to easily handle several plays.

And the artwork is very nice.  Again, not the best artwork I've seen in a game, but definitely better than it needed to be.  The nice artwork just added to the theme and fun.
Five envelopes contain all the puzzles needed to solve the mystery, and the artwork is pretty fun, too!
I only have two very minor components complaints.  First is the circle tape seals that keep each envelope closed.  They are very sturdy.  If you are not careful it's very easy to rip an envelope.  That's not a huge deal since that doesn't affect the game, but if you intend to pass on the game it's nice to not pass on ripped components.  We had a pair of scissors handy to cut the tape without tearing the envelopes. Perforated tape would have been great, or a resealable double stick tape, even better.  I've read that this is something ThinkFun will be at improving in future editions, though.
We used scissors to cut the tape seals to avoid ripping the envelopes.
My other component issue is even more minor.  One of the puzzles involves two small dowel rods that act as axles that other pieces spin around (don't worry, that's not a spoiler of anything).  But little plastic pegs with a mushroomed head would have been much easier to use.  The dowels kept popping out unless I held them in place.

Overall though the components were good enough and the artwork was nice.

Score: 7/10 x1

Rules & Setup:
This game was super easy to get going.  When you open the box there's a small booklet that you can start to read before your guests arrive.  The assumption is that you will make an evening of the game, much like a murder mystery.  The first few pages of the booklet tell you a little bit about the game, tells a bit about what escape rooms are, and gives you enough background of the story for you to set the mood for the evening.  There is a web address listed where you can go to find suggestions for mood music (links to Spotify albums and playlists), costumes, and more.  After that there's a message that you shouldn't read any further until your guests arrive.  Since my first game was with just my wife and she was already there, we just jumped right in (after starting up some period music - we skipped the costumes though).
Music all set and ready to begin!
Once you move on to the section to read with your guests the game starts.  There are about two pages that instruct you to remove the envelopes and puzzle wheel from the box, teach you how to use the puzzle wheel to see if you have solved the puzzles, and begins the story of the Mystery at the Stargazer's Manor.  

So, the rules and setup are super simple, super fast to get started, and get you into the fun fight away.

Score: 9/10 x2

Well, one thing is for sure... The player count on the box is completely wrong.  ThinkFun recommends three to eight players.  Two players works just fine, and even playing the game solo would work OK.  The only thing you lose with lower player counts is the social aspect of the game, however I'm not really sure the game would work well with more than four players.  The puzzles in the game are very linear and serve well to tell the story, but they don't allow for much teamwork.  There's no opportunity for part of the team to be working on one thing while another part of the team works on something else.  Instead the players are presented with one puzzle at a time.  So I think two or three players is the sweet spot for this game.  Four can work with younger players, but more than that would feel like too many cooks in the kitchen.  This is fine (I actually prefer to play this type of game with just my wife), but is at odds with the bigger social experience that ThinkFun seems to want for the game.

So, how did the game play with two adults?  It was actually pretty fun.  The game starts out with a story.  You were, until your recent dismissal, the caretaker for an eccentric astronomer.  But a short time ago he fired all his staff and locked himself in his manor where strange sounds and lights have recently been seen.  Out of concern, you decide to gather a few friends and see if you can determine what the old astronomer has been up to.  Shortly after entering the mysterious manor you get trapped in a room with no apparent escape, except through the heavy door that just locked behind you.
The first card introduces you to the story and guides you through the first super simple puzzle.
And thus begins the adventure of trying to figure out how to escape the room.  You are instructed to start a timer at this point and must figure out how to escape before time runs out.  Depending on the number of players you have either two hours or 90 minutes.  Since we had only two players we set the time for two hours and were off.

The story guides you through the first very simple puzzle, which is really just a means of demonstrating how symbols on the game components are used in conjunction with the puzzle wheel to determine if you solve the various puzzles.  It also allows you to open the first envelope, which contains a continuation of the story and the pieces of the first real puzzle.  Solving the first puzzle allows you to open the next envelope, which contains more story and another puzzle.  This continues until you reach one of several conclusions to the story, depending on how successful you were at solving the puzzles.  

Some envelopes contain additional envelopes with other puzzles, so it's always a surprise to see what you're facing next.  It was pretty neat how the story allowed for these subcomponents to really keep you unsure how far from the game end you were.  You have some idea how far you've progressed by how many main envelopes you've opened, but you're never sure if the next envelope is going to have another envelope inside it, or maybe two!
As you solve puzzles you get to open envelopes and find more puzzles to solve!
Overall the story is very linear.  You only have one puzzle at a time to work on and for the most part none of the puzzles built on each other.  The puzzles did seem to increase in difficulty somewhat, but there was no sense of the puzzles building on each other.  Not until the last puzzle did we have to go back and use any of the previous components, and even that was pretty basic.  It would have been cool to have puzzles that relied on using components from a previous solution.  Or even puzzles that might have two possible solutions, but only one actually fits in the context of the story, so the incorrect solution leads you to a dead end.  There was never any uncertainty about if you solved the puzzle correctly or not.

At one point, toward the end of the story after you've unlocked the door you are given the opportunity to end the game or keep working to solve another problem.  If you choose to keep going you have 30 minutes to complete the last portion, regardless of how long the first part took.  So it's possible to spend about 2.5 hours to play the entire game.  My wife and I took about 54 minutes, working at a very leisurely pace to complete, including pausing to take a few pictures and a few interruptions from the kids.  We never felt challenged or pressured and the longest we spent on a single puzzle was less than ten minutes.  So while we had fun, we definitely didn't find it challenging.
Though simpler than we expected, we did have fun with the game and my sons had a blast.
My original plan was to play the game with my whole family.  My boys are six and nine and both are avid gamers, so I was really looking forward to playing this with them.  But they asked to have their very own game day with some friends of theirs, so that's when my wife suggested we play Escape the Room with just the two of us and let the boys play later with their friends.  This sounded like a great idea and an opportunity to see the game played a second time and by younger players.  

So a few days after my game, my sons' friends came over to play.  The group consisted of four boys, aged 6, 9, 10, and 13.  I got them started and explained how to use the solution wheel and set them off to play.  Initially they were excited, but quickly it became less of a cooperative game and more of a taking turns trying to solve the puzzle game.  And then shortly after that it turned into just one boy (the 10 year old) working to solve the puzzles while the others lost interest or got frustrated because they didn't feel like they were contributing.  They did make it through five of the eight total puzzles (only seven are required to escape) in about 90 minutes, but the Steam Panel puzzle was the straw that broke the camel's back.  They spent about 30 minutes on just that puzzle before finally quitting for the night.  (To be fair, my wife and I also found this one to be the most challenging puzzle of the batch.)  I offered a bit of help when they asked, particularly with the Steam Panel puzzle, but it wasn't enough to salvage the evening.

I think the combination of the wide age range and too many players wasn't the best idea.  They all seemed to like the idea of the game, and even said they enjoyed the puzzles, but the collaboration part of the game just wasn't working for them.  I felt the same way when I played with my wife, although with just two it wasn't as big of an issue.  But even when we played there were plenty of times where I would see a solution and do the puzzle, or she would figure out the answer and wrap up the puzzle.  In our case it was because the puzzles seemed pretty simple, but in the boys' case it was because the puzzles were challenging but didn't offer enough parallel tasks to keep four players busy.

I think the game would have worked well for two boys roughly the same age.  But four was too much (even though my 6 year old was mostly an observer).  I think the game could work well as a family game, too, but only if the kids run the game and the parent(s) mainly observe and help the kids as they need it.  Too much disparity in puzzle solving ability is going to frustrate some and alienate others unless those that are good at solving the puzzles are willing to take a step back and only provide assistance as needed.

Overall though, each boy said they did like the idea of the game and liked the game itself, just not how it was being played.  So it's something I think they're all willing to revisit, just on their own terms instead of as a group.
The game started out enjoyable, but quickly devolved into just one boy working
on the puzzles and the others getting frustrated or losing interest.
Score: 7/10 x3

Escape the Room is not meant to be played multiple times by the same person.  Once you've solved the puzzles and completed the story the mystery is gone.  If you have a really bad memory I suppose you could play again in a few years, but the puzzles are so simple that it'd be pretty unlikely that they'd pose any challenge, especially after you've solved them once.  Or, if you fail to escape the first time you play you can try again, but in that case you'll already know the answers to all the puzzles you completed previously.  There's no puzzle generator or anything, so every time it's played the puzzles are exactly the same.

But it is pretty easy to pack the components back up so that the game can be passed on.  This isn't a game like Pandemic Legacy where components are altered or destroyed throughout the course of the game, so there's no reason the game can't be passed on to someone else.  So even though one person won't likely play the game more than once, the game is able to be enjoyed again by someone else.
Once everything is packed back up you can put it all in the box and pass the game on to a friend.
Score: 4/10 x1

General Fun:
Overall we found the game to be pretty fun.  It wasn't as challenging as my wife and I would have preferred, but for kids the difficulty was perfect.  I wouldn't highly recommend this for just adults, but I also wouldn't tell adults to avoid it either.  Adults should just be aware that this isn't going to be two hours of brain burning puzzles.  But if you are looking for a casual set of puzzles and a fun story experience that can be completed inabout an hour, this fits the bill.

For families or kids though, this is a blast!
These five envelopes contain an abundance of puzzles!
Score: 7/10 x2

Overall Value:
Escape the Room sells for about $20, and compared to other $20 games you do get about the same number of components.  But replayability is where this falls short.  You'll probably get an hour or two of fun out of Escape the Room, maybe a bit more if you get two or three plays by different family members, but that partially defeats the social aspect and family friendliness of the game.  But then you'll get to pass the game on for anyone else to enjoy it.  Compare that to other $20 games that may take an hour to play, but you can play over and over and the value isn't that high, but you likely won't be willing to pass on those games to others either.  If you compare that to the cost of going to see a 90 minute movie for a family of four or the cost of an actual escape room experience, and $20 for a night of fun doesn't seem all that bad, especially if you can then pass that fun on to others at no additional cost.

Score: 7/10 x1

Final Thoughts:
While not the challenge I was hoping for, I did enjoy my time at the Stargazer's Manor.  I'm excited for the next installment in the Escape the Room series, Secret of Dr. Gravely's Retreat, coming soon.  I'd love to see a whole line is Escape the Room games with varying levels of difficulty.  And while the replayability of any one game is limited (which hurt the score in my rubric), the game can be passed on to friends so others can also enjoy the game. There is a ton of potential in this format that I really hope ThinkFun explores with future games.  
All ready for an evening of fun!
As a family game or for just a couple of kids, I think Escape the Room: Mystery of the Stargazer's Manor is excellent.  If you are looking for an excuse to have a fun, relatively cheap night at home, this is an excellent choice.  It would also make an excellent gift for tweens and younger teens.  I just caution against playing this with groups that are too big or that have a wide range of puzzle solving abilities.  A small group of one to four players is good with two probably being the best.  ThinkFun is on to something great here and I look forward to many more escape adventures!

Overall Score: 71/100

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GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends.  Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some are print and play versions of games.  Where applicable I will indicate if games have been played with kids or adults or a mix (Family Play).  I won't go into extensive detail about how to play the game (there are plenty of other sources for that information and I'll occasionally link to those other sources), but I will give my impressions of the game and how my friends and family reacted to the game.  A score of 1-10 (low-high) is given to each game in six categories: Components & Packaging, Rules & Setup, Gameplay, Replayability, Overall Value, and General Fun.  Rules & Setup and General Fun are weighted double and Gameplay is weighted triple.  Educational games have an extra category and Gameplay is only weighted double. Then the game is given a total score of x/100.

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