The agency has asked you to investigate the laboratory of a genius chemist to find evidence of a truth serum he invented. Can you find The Formula and escape?
Space Cowboys, Unlock! series
How We Played
12 May 2017
Hints: Quite a lot
Unknown final time
Unlock! is yet another escape-room-in-a-board-game, much like the Exit and Escape the Room series I previously reviewed. The Formula is the first full scenario of the three-scenario set, though it is a good idea to play through the 10-card tutorial scenario, as the game’s mechanics take some getting used to. Space Cowboys has made a few shorter scenarios available to download for free as well.
The Formula uses a card-based system and accompanying smartphone app. Players start with a 60-card deck, identifying numbers on each card to turn over more cards, which then allow further progression and the completion of various puzzles.
This system is the closest to simulating an actual escape room I have played so far. The starting card represents a room, and the numbers on that card reveal new cards that represent features of that room. Adding two cards together simulates using two objects together, revealing new cards that allow further progress. Occasionally a card represents a puzzle that must be completed using the app, though in The Formula these are limited to four digit codes.
Though the narrative is very simple, The Formula does a good job of emulating the progress made in a regular escape room. Solving puzzles has visible consequences in the game’s diegesis, including discovering new spaces, opening drawers and more surprises. The Formula supports this sense of progress with exceptional artwork that both draws players in and often has gameplay implications.
The Formula’s use of an app creates immense opportunity for innovative puzzles, so it is disappointing that it is used solely for four-digit codes. I hope that future scenarios in the Unlock! series use the app integration more creatively.
Otherwise, puzzles are remarkably like those found in regular escape rooms, though adapted for the card system. It is a little reminiscent of an old-school PC adventure game, as players need to combine different items in the room to progress. Other puzzles involve identifying clues in the artwork and using them to find solutions to depicted mechanisms – again, always something it is easy to imagine doing in an actual escape room.
The Formula even simulates searching for hidden objects, though this is the weakest element. Hard-to-see numbers represent these hidden items, and it is frustrating to have progress blocked due to a barely-visible image you missed. I also disliked the game’s decision to punish experimentation with lost time. Occasionally two items will seem to go together, but after matching them the game informs you that you made an error, forcing you to press a penalty button on the app and losing three minutes. Though I have no issue with silly mistakes earning a penalty, it is a little unreasonable to have apparently viable paths do so as well.
The Bottom Line
The Formula is great for anyone looking for a small, portable game that simulates the experience of an escape room. Though it does not fulfil its potential with app integration, there is promise for future instalments in the series. The Unlock! system works well, and I hope to see future scenarios that build on its strengths and avoid some of the frustrations.
If you enjoy this game, I also recommend T.I.M.E Stories, a similar board game from the same company that is a little more complex and narrative-driven.