It’s Boxing Day! The day when thoughtful gifts from friends, family, and coworkers are exchanged for store credit, and when you start planning on how to convert that stack of gift cards into even more presents. Something to consider for puzzle fans: the escape room in a box.

Comparing escape rooms in a box against their traditional escape room counterparts is a bit like comparing a theatrical performance with its cinema adaptation. Paying a premium to see a performance of West Side Story live delivers an experience that can’t be completely translated to film, and attempts to directly lift the experience will make that absence noticeable. However,  in the hands of the right team, cinematic adaptations can do things that would be impossible on a live stage. This article explores how three different companies brought their own particular spins on bringing the escape room genre home.

Escape Room in a Box: The Werewolf Experiment (Mattel, ~$29.99)

Traditionally, escape rooms place players in a room and ask them to explore the room to find the relevant clues and puzzles, puzzling their way out of the room. Escape Room in a Box inverts that model, presenting players with a box to unpack, with success measured by the team’s ability to peel back the layers of the box by opening up a series of three locked boxes.

Escape Room in a Box’s debut narrative focuses on a box of the aptly named Dr. Cynthia Gnaw’s Secret Stuff, and delving into the story involves unpacking batches of largely pen-and-paper puzzles, liberally interspersed with more involved physical puzzles that make full use of the game’s hefty packaging. Due to the game’s pacing there’s almost always something physical to manipulate at every stage of the game, and one puzzle in particular was a stroke of thematic genius, consistently surprising and delighting players who stumbled across it on both playthroughs of the game I oversaw. The Mattel release of the game even has an Alexa Skill that plays suitable mood music and manages hints through the experience.

As Elan Lee explained on an episode of the Room Escape Divas podcast, there’s a difference between replayability and resettability in room escape design. To date, no one has found an effective way to make room escapes replayable whether it’s a live room or in box form, so once a player completes a room once that player can’t play again because they know all its secrets. However, many escape rooms are resettable, where the room can be returned to its original condition to allow for an additional group to play.

Every escape room in a box experience I’ve played so far has the potential to be resettable. But Escape Room in a Box was the only one to craft an experience designed to make the second playthrough an exciting experience if a player decides to assume responsibility for running the game. For the first time playing, one player is selected as the team leader, and gradually gains access to a series of hints and even puzzle solutions in case the team gets stuck. After finishing the game, a series of printable replacements are available online at the Escape Room in a Box website, along with repack instructions on how to restore the box to its original state. What sets Escape Room in a Box apart is its decision to provide a script for a player to assume the role of Doctor Cynthia Gnaw the second time around, supplanting the leader role with that of an in-character gamemaster.

Doc Gnaw is far and away the strongest part of The Werewolf Experiment experience. The strong writing from her notes serving as the backbone of the experience and drives much of the game’s theming, so giving players the opportunity to step into her shoes to guide a second group through the game encourages players to share the experience with others in a way that only escape rooms in a box could manage.

Ultimately, Escape Room in a Box’s The Werewolf Experiment does an incredible job of replicating the tactile feel of playing an escape room and manages to deliver a satisfying non-linear puzzle experience.

Unlock! Escape Adventures: The Formula (Space Cowboys, ~$14.99)

Space Cowboys’ Unlock! may be the most prolific entrant in the escape room in a box market, with six experiences currently on the market and another three scheduled for release. Unlock! adventures play out through a combination card game and app experience, and serves as the most intuitive replacement for exploring rooms.

Each game comes with a deck of cards labeled with letters and numbers, along with a scenario card. After reading the scenario card that sets the scene, players flip the card over to find themselves at their starting location – a picture, with a series of numbers and letters representing items on the map that can be explored. Some items have red puzzle pieces, while others have blue puzzle pieces – to use two objects together, add up the numbers on the cards and find the resulting card in the deck to learn what happens. Other cards have yellow locks on them, instructing players to input the resulting four digit numbers into the mobile app to find out what happens. .

While that might sound complicated, free 10-minute tutorial missions come with every box to familiarize players with the mechanics prior to starting the game, along with a print-and-play demo mission that gives players a chance to try the system before they even buy a copy. Once the fairly simple rules are internalized, the system provides a powerful framework for getting immersed in the world, simulating the experience of being in the rooms yourself.  And since Unlock games are driven almost exclusively by cards resetting the game is incredibly simple, only requiring sorting or shuffling the cards depending on how difficult you want to make it for the next group.

For The Formula, the experience involved rifling through Dr. Hoffman’s secret laboratory to recover his truth serum formula, following what has quickly emerged as an escape room trope. The game manages to craft a number of very satisfying solves within its self-imposed constraints, although the game’s reliance on hiding numbers and letters on cards worked better in the tutorial mission than it did in the live game. An in-game hint system allows players to request assistance on any puzzle by entering in its number, although some of the puzzles are open-ended enough that the game benefits from having someone familiar with the logical leaps required to offer more pointed hints if necessary.

The Unlock series excels at replicating the feeling of being physically present in a carefully crafted room, with exploration driven by simple game mechanics.

Exit the Game: The Abandoned Cabin (Thames & Kosmos, ~$14.95)

Like the Unlock! series, Kosmos Games’ Exit the Game series is primarily a card-based experience, although it takes a bit more of a hybrid approach by using a pamphlet to house illustrations of the rooms involved as well as elements of some puzzles, and including additional papercraft items to enhance the experience.

Instead of using an app to guide players through the experience, Exit the Game players use code wheels to input answers – most puzzles have a symbol associated with it, and lining up the dials correctly gives players the number of a card to draw. Using the code wheel adds a bit more flexibility in the form solutions take, which is refreshing while progressing through the game’s puzzles. If the answer is correct, the card will instruct players to draw a specified card based on which puzzle symbol they think they solved.  Puzzle hints are managed by a series of hint cards tied to each puzzle symbol. It’s an effective mechanism for preventing players from inadvertently discovering puzzle solutions (something that happened on more than one playthrough of Unlock!, but does so by adding in a fairly complicated step to the solution process that breaks the immersion.

Rather than treating the immersion breaking as a weakness, Exit the Game doubles down on the theme, with some of the most satisfying and surprising solves utilizing the box in unexpected ways. This is, however, the least resettable game of the bunch. While it’s possible to beat the game without rendering the pamphlet unusable, players need to be warned of that intent, since a few puzzles are considerably easier when keeping things pristine is removed from the picture.

Exit the Game sacrifices some of its immersion and resettability to hone in on getting the most out of the game’s puzzle elements, focusing on making that element of the experience as strong as possible.

Escape This Podcast (Escape This Podcast, free)
Technically Escape This Podcast isn’t an escape room in a box, but it’s a brilliant way of bringing the escape room format into people’s homes. The weekly podcast series takes a rotating cast of guests through escape room scenarios framed as role-playing game sessions. Players are provided with a scenario, thrown into a room, and are left to their own devices to complete their assigned task and find their way out of the room. Since the rooms are completely audio-based, the show’s creators have the freedom to design fantastical solutions to puzzles that would be prohibitive from the perspective of both cost and safety, making for an enlightening listen.

Every episode comes with a full room write-up allowing players to play through the room themselves before listening to the episode, although it’s just as enjoyable to mentally solve along with the guests as each episode progresses. The role-playing format for the show encourages the show’s guests to tackle solving the rooms in a playful manner, and many of the show’s most enjoyable moments come from players fully embracing the scenarios, testing the room’s limits and the hosts’ patience.

Escape This Podcast is just unadulterated fun, letting listeners choose how active they want to be in tackling the rooms.

A Big Win for Accessibility
One of the greatest strengths of the escape room in a box genre’s rapid rise in popularity is in enabling accessiblity to games. While companies like Escape the Room have expanded their geographic footprint to multiple cities, escape rooms remain tied to physical locations, so deep engagement with the escape room industry is aided by frequent traveling. And since physically exploring the rooms is a large part of the experience, physical mobility helps a lot for these experiences.

Escape rooms in a box remove both physical restrictions by shifting exploratory elements from the real world into players’ imaginations. And while Escape Room in a BoxUnlock!, and Exit the Game all require players to have good vision to catch some of the more difficult puzzles, Escape This Podcast managed to design a series of room experiences that can easily play out as an audio-only room or a text adventure.

To learn more about the games listed above, check out the following websites:

Escape Room in a Box
Unlock
Exit: the Game
Escape This Podcast

Note: ARGNet received a review copy of Escape Room in a Box: The Werewolf Experiment.