Wow. “Escape the Room: Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor” is an absolute marvel of game design. It is easily one of the most refreshing gaming experiences I’ve had in recent memory.
Escape the Room (ThinkFun, 2016) is sort of half game, half puzzle. It does a great job of faithfully translating escape room games into a tabletop format. With a playtime of about 90 minutes, the game works best with about 4 players.
At the beginning , players read the introduction to the game’s narrative: Creepy 1860’s house, owned by a recently-widowed astronomer. Owner has mysteriously disappeared, and players are investigating. They are then presented with the first puzzle, which is incredibly easy to solve, but acts as a kind of tutorial for how the solution wheel works.
Ah yes, the solution wheel. This is a very neat component. It is essentially five concentric dials, and it’s used to tell players if they have the correct answer to a given puzzle. Each puzzle will require you to identify four things (symbols). When players believe they know the correct symbols, they enter them into the wheel by rotating the dials to line them up. If a certain icon appears in two windows of the dial, players have solved the puzzle and may open the corresponding envelope. If not, they must keep trying.
The real meat of the game is the 5 sealed envelopes, each containing bits and pieces used to progress the story. Printed on the envelopes themselves are visual puzzles that players must solve in order to open them. If players have opened all the envelopes and completed all the challenges before the timer runs out (90-120 min.), they win. It’s difficult to comment on the contents of the envelopes without spoiling stuff, but suffice it to say each one gives you new challenges.
I was recently reading a game design blog about mechanisms that don’t get used much. One of them was the notion of “minigames.” This game is full of them, and most of them are done very well. Some are extremely simple, some are more difficult. One puzzle in particular was a bit frustrating, because it seemed to come down to trial-and-error guesswork, but we eventually figured it out. One of the later puzzles was much too easy, leaving something to be desired. All in all, though, the game seems to have a nice balance of difficulty.
Occasionally, there is a particular game component that really catches my attention, something that impresses me just because of how long it must have taken to design. The dice in Mice and Mystics, the board in Tobago, the Force die in Star Wars: Edge of the Empire RPG. The level of design behind these is astounding. The solution wheel in Escape the Room is my latest component crush. It’s not flashy, but it amazes me how it just… works.
This game almost feels like a legacy game. It’s not, don’t get me wrong, but it feels like one. It has that same excitement of wondering what’s in those envelopes, the same kind of ongoing narrative that you unravel bit by bit. If you like games with surprises, this one is definitely worth checking out.
Escape the Room: Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor is a standout of 2016. It’s limited by the fact that it’s not replayable, but that one playthrough you get is worth it. From start to finish, I was actively engaged in the game, constantly excited to see what goodies were in the next envelope. Our group finished the game well before the timer ran out, so we never felt the tension of time ticking away. If you’re playing with all adults, I recommend shaving 15-30 minutes off the suggested time limit. The puzzles are fun, though you may wish some were more challenging.
At just over $20, the game is a good value. It’s a satisfying evening of entertainment. If you’re on a budget, I suggest either getting two or three other people to split the purchase, and/or buying it used. When you’re done, you can sell it and recoup some of the cost.
Despite being a “one-and-done” kind of game, I thought Escape the Room was fantastic. I can’t way to play the second one.