If you don’t have anything else to do this Friday night, why not pay a complete stranger to lock you in a room for an hour?
If that sounds like fun, you are either a total weirdo or a fan of escape rooms. Commercial escape rooms have popped up in cities everywhere in the past decade. When you visit an escape room, you and a group of friends are locked inside a room—with your full consent (you did read the waiver you signed, right?)—and given an hour to escape by solving a series of puzzles.
Decipher a code to get a combination to unlock a cabinet that contains a record that when played gives you a clue that leads you to a key that unlocks…yet another room with more puzzles to solve before you escape. You paid money for this?
Escape rooms are a lot of fun and a great bonding experience. They test not only your puzzle-solving ability but your ability to work together as a team. It’s an experience that allows a group to share the adventure and sense of accomplishment you feel when you unlock that last door with seconds to spare.
But if you would prefer to stay in this Friday night, you and your friends can still have the escape room with one of dozens of escape room board games available today.
What Are Escape Room Games?
Escape room board and card games recreate an escape room at your dining room table. The games confront players with a series of puzzles, riddles, cyphers, and codes. There is usually a story that, at a minimum, establishes the theme, the setting, and a rationale for how you came to be trapped in a sinking steamliner… which may or may not be haunted.
Escape room games as a genre share many elements in common. They all focus on solving puzzles. The answer is often a short combination or code that has to be confirmed by entering it into an app or by checking a card with the same number.
The games are often timed, pitting players against a clock, just like real escape rooms. Usually, solving the puzzles relies on logic and general knowledge. These aren’t trivia games; if a game is set in an Egyptian pyramid, it won’t require knowledge of actual hieroglyphics or Egyptian mythology.
Almost all these games can be played solo but putting your heads together with a group is more fun. The publishers often claim their games can be played by up to six players, but realistically, most of these games are best with 2-4 players. The clues and puzzles often consist of pictures on a card. It can be difficult for a large group to simultaneously examine such a small item. And solving one of these puzzles can require prolonged scrutiny.
Although escape room games have a lot in common, they also have many differences in the way they play. In this article, we break down some of the best escape room board games to help you decide which game is right for you.
Exit: The Game
One of the most popular tabletop escape room experiences is the Exit: The Game series, from Kosmos. The first games in the series were published in 2016 and there are now over 20 titles available in English.
A Heads Up
Exit games can only be played once, and not just because those who complete it will know the solutions to all the puzzles. Players will be folding, cutting, tearing, and writing on the game pieces. Because you often destroy portions of the game, they cannot be shared with others or given away to those who have not played it yet.
You may be apprehensive about buying a game that can only be played once, but each game only costs about $15 and can provide 1-2 hours of entertainment for up to four players; that’s a lot cheaper than a real escape room.
How Exit Games Work
Exit games lead 1-4 players through a cooperative, tabletop, escape room experience lasting about one to two hours. In most Exit games, you find yourself trapped somewhere, like an abandoned cabin or a spooky laboratory. Solve puzzles to find your way to freedom.
Opening the box reveals a booklet, some small items, a decoder disk, and a deck of cards. Start with the booklet for the story setting and your first clues. There are three types of cards: Riddle cards, Answer cards, and Help cards.
An illustration in the booklet may direct you to a Riddle card. Once you think you have solved the puzzle on that card, use the decoder disk to find the correct Answer card. If you get it right, the Answer card will inch you closer to escape. If you are wrong, try again.
When you get stuck, you can consult one of the Help cards. The first card will give you a nudge in the right direction. If that’s not enough, another Help card will give you the solution to the puzzle so that you can move on and complete the game. You will never be so stuck that you can’t finish.
Solving all the puzzles and escaping is sufficient reward, but if you want to score your performance, scoring is based on elapsed time and the number of Help cards you used.
Exit games can be played solo, but they are more fun with a group of players who can bring multiple perspectives and ideas to the table. There are no game mechanics to prevent playing with more than four people, but some of the game components are small and with a larger group it becomes more difficult for everyone to see everything at once.
You will need to share and pass around clues to give everyone a chance to participate. If you have one puzzle-solving genius in the group who announces the solution before everyone has a chance to contribute, it may become frustrating for players who are essentially reduced to spectators.
Exit games do not require a digital app to play, but the Kosmos Helper App offers a tutorial and a timer with ambient background noise appropriate to the theme of each game.
Which Escape to Choose First?
With over 20 Exit games available, where should you begin? You can choose a theme that is intriguing to you: Mississippi riverboat or haunted amusement park? Or you can choose based on the difficulty rating or the Board Game Geek ranking.
Each Exit game is assigned a difficulty rating of one to five. If you want an easier experience for your first game, choose a game with a low difficulty rating. The Haunted Roller Coaster, The Sunken Treasure, and The Enchanted Forest are all rated for novices.
The top-rated games on the online board game database Board Game Geek are: The Abandoned Cabin, Dead Man on the Orient Express, and The Pharaoh’s Tomb.
Kosmos has also released three games in its newer Exit: The Game + Puzzle series, including The Deserted Lighthouse and The Sacred Temple. This series replaced the deck of cards with four jigsaw puzzles players must complete to find clues. Kosmos has even published Exit: The Game Advent calendars to help puzzlers count down the days until Christmas. Expect to see those start appearing sometime in late-summer this year!
Space Cowboys has published over two dozen games in its Unlock! series. Each cooperative escape room game can be played by 1-6 players in 60 minutes.
How Unlock! Escape Room Games Work
Unlock! games contain a deck of cards representing items and locations. A card may portray a room with numbers labeling furniture or items. To search, for example, a desk numbered with a 12, find the number 12 card in the deck and examine it. Opening the door numbered 45 will lead you to the next room, shown on card 45.
Red and blue cards can be combined to use items. If card 15 is a lock and card 5 is a key, add them together and look for card 20. If there is no card 20, then that key does not fit that lock.
Things to Know First
Playing the game requires a free smartphone app. The app functions as a timer, gives hints, and provides optional sound effects. Solving puzzles on the cards may also give a code that must be entered in the app. Correct codes will unlock new options to explore and incorrect codes will reduce your score.
There is one drawback to the Unlock! games for the bifocal crowd. Some cards have a tiny number hidden on them to represent a difficult-to-find clue. These can be difficult to see, especially if a player’s eyesight is not good. It’s one thing to be stumped by a clever puzzle. But it can be frustrating to be stuck simply because you couldn’t see a small, faint number.
Starting with Unlock! Games
Unlock! is one of the best escape room games for larger groups. There are usually multiple cards on the table. This makes it easier to pass them around and give everyone a chance to examine them for clues.
Unlock! games do not require you to destroy any of the game components. Once you finish an adventure, you can pass it on to a friend.
If you are looking to try your first Unlock! game, Unlock! Squeek & Sausage and Unlock! Tombstone Express are highly-rated titles. The games are also now available in boxed sets of three games, like Unlock! Star Wars and Unlock! Heroic Adventure.
Deckscape is a series of puzzle-solving card games from publisher dV Giochi. This cooperative game uses a deck of 60 cards. Starting a game is easy: open the box and read the first card. All rules will be given as you play. Don’t look at any other cards until told to do so!
Things to Know First
A large group will likely have difficulty studying the puzzles on the cards simultaneously. The publisher says the game will play with 1-6 players, but we wouldn’t play with more than three.
This is one of the lighter games in the escape room genre. It is impossible to get stuck, because the answer to every puzzle is on the back of the card. If you want intricate logic puzzles or ciphers to crack, this is not the game for you.
How Deckscape Works
Some of the cards will be items you set aside to use later. Most cards will give players a puzzle to solve. Unlike most games in this genre, there is no code to check. Once you think you know the answer, flip the card and see if you are right. If you did not solve the puzzle correctly, you continue with the game, but you take a penalty. Get too many penalties and you lose.
Getting Started with Deckscape
Deckscape is a good choice for someone just getting into the genre. Games take about 60 to 90 minutes. They are cheap and no app is required; everything you need is in the small, highly portable box. And you don’t destroy anything. When you finish a game, you can give it to a friend.
There are currently 10 games in the Deckscape series. Not all of them are escape room puzzles. If you don’t want to escape from a pyramid or Dracula’s castle, you can go on a treasure-hunting adventure through the Amazon or rob a casino in Venice.
For your first Deckscape games, we recommend Deckscape: Behind the Curtain or Deckscape: Escape from Alcatraz.
Decktective games—also from dV Giochi—are similar to Deckscape, but focus on solving crimes by deduction rather than puzzle-solving and escaping.
If you want more of a story in your escape room games, try The Escape Tales series from Board and Dice. You must still solve puzzles, but the game centers on the story and the mysteries it holds. Multiple endings are possible.
Games are much longer than other games on this list and can take 3-6 hours to complete. The game uses both a storybook and a web-based app. Searching a room may direct you to read a paragraph in the storybook. Use the app to check puzzle solutions.
Which Escape Room Games Should I Get?
How do you know which room to intentionally lock yourself up in? We’ll break it down into categories to help you decide.
1 Best For Beginners
Our pick for the best escape room game series for beginners is Deckscape. These games are simpler than the other games and the mechanics are very easy to understand. Even if you get a puzzle wrong, you won’t be stuck.
2 Best For Large Groups
Our pick for the best escape room game for larger groups is Unlock! When there are multiple cards in play, it is easier to share them among multiple people.
3 Best for Replayability
None of these games can really be replayed unless your memory is bad and you keep it long enough that you forget the solutions to all the puzzles. But all the games except for the Exit games could be played by others. Exit games cannot be played a second time.
4 Best for Traditionalists
The Unlock! and Escape Tales games require an app to play. If that’s an issue for you, the Exit and Deckscape games do not require a digital device to play.
5 Best for Puzzlers, Codebreakers, and Detectives
All of them! Most games in this genre are cheap, so don’t be afraid to give any of them a try. If you don’t like it, you are out less than $15—much less than you would spend on a night out at a real escape room!
Solving a complex puzzle can be very satisfying, especially when you do so as part of a team. Bring the excitement and satisfaction of an escape room to your next game night with a selection from our picks of the best escape room board games!
Written by John David Thacker
John David is a freelance writer specializing in board games and the board game industry.
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