Alex and I are big fans of escape rooms. During lockdown, or just when we don't have easy access to a babysitter, escape-rooms-in-a-box are a good substitute. Here are some we've played. (We've also played a couple of remote escape rooms - physical escape rooms via webcam - during lockdown; I might review those in a separate post.)
Game: Test Time
This one is contained entirely within a deck of cards. This is good and bad: good in that it's elegantly designed and not "cheating" by using an app, but bad in that it's not much different from just a book of puzzles. The game was definitely towards the easier end (although it got slightly harder as it went along; when we were 3/4 of the way through I thought we were on course to finish in about 20 minutes, but in the end it was closer to 40) and the time travel theme was fun.
There is no code wheel or app or anything for checking if your answer is correct; you just turn over the card and see if you're right or wrong.
Being just a deck of cards with puzzles printed on them, it's completely reusable, so you can pass it on to friends.
Reusability: Yes, easily
Series: Exit: The Game
Games: The Secret Lab; The Forgotten Island; The Forbidden Castle
I didn't have very high hopes for these, because there are lots of them in the series and they are on sale in the foyer of most escape room venues, so I thought they would be very basic and lowest-common-denominator.
I was very wrong. They have been the most challenging and satisfying ones we've done so far.
We've done the Secret Lab, Forgotten Island and Forbidden Castle ones. All of them took us over an hour. On the Lab and Island ones we got stuck a couple of times and needed to use hints (which we don't normally), and when we got the answers it was a case of "Yes, of course, we should have got that" rather than "What? That doesn't make sense." We didn't need any hints for Forbidden Castle but still found it very challenging. I have a lot of respect for the creators of the series (a married couple in Germany) - they are evidently very clever and very sneaky. Many of the puzzles are quite ingeniously designed. Some of them leave us with a sense of "Ooh, that was evil - but fair" and I now feel quite emotionally invested in trying to not let them defeat us :)
The games in this series consist of a deck of cards, a booklet, a code wheel for checking solutions, and a few miscellaneous bits of cardboard. One slight downside of this series is that some of the puzzles involve cutting or drawing on the cards and booklet, so it's single-use - you can't pass it on to a friend afterwards. That makes it seem a bit expensive, but still cheap compared to going to an actual escape room.
I think Forbidden Castle is the best of the three we've done (although they're all good), but my one criticism of it was the graphic design: it was quite dark and monochrome and relatively difficult to distinguish things in images, and here were lots of monochrome symbols distinguished only by shape, where the other two games in the series distinguished them by shape and colour.
Definitely planning to play more in this series.
Games: Timeless Adventures; Heroic Adventures; Secret Adventures; Mystery Adventures
We've done several of these (4 sets of 3). They consist of a deck of cards, sometimes a few miscellanous bits of cardboard, and an app.
They have an interesting mechanism that's reminiscent of point-and-click adventures, where you can "use item A with item B". All the cards have a number, and some of them represent objects which can be combined with other objects. To do this, you add the card numbers of the two cards you want to combine, and look in the deck for a card with that number. I think this is quite a good mechanic, and they've implemented some interesting twists on it as well.
The app is for things like entering codes and checking they're correct, rather than using a code wheel or something. It also implements some "machines", so that you can manipulate moving parts in a way that you couldn't with just cards. It also keeps track of the time limit, and serves hints.
However, some of the games in the series rely too much on the app, in my opinion. For example, in one of them, you could visit a location and the app would say there was nothing there, but then later in the game you could visit it again and there would be something there. In another one, there was a voice recording that contained vital information, and it only started spontaneously playing when the app thought it was the right time. I find this very unsatisfying, because if the designers are using the app to control the flow of the game and implement logic based on the game state, they may as well go all the way and make a computer game. Implementing an escape game using a deck of cards (and optionally a code wheel etc) is a constraint and a challenge, and if they're going to circumvent that then there's no reason not to avail themselves of all the extra functionality that a computer game offers. Also, it sort of feels like they're not holding up their end of the bargain, if they allow themselves the possibilities a computer game opens up but still expect the player to go to the bother of adding numbers and hunting for cards in the deck rather than just going "use X with Y".
The puzzles are really variable. Some of them are straightforward, some of them are clever and ingenious, and some of them seem stupid and frustrating. Some of the puzzles deliberately subvert the card-finding mechanic by telling you "now find card X" in a non-obvious way, but on the other hand sometimes you think the game is telling you in a non-obvious way to find card X and it's actually not, so you find card X and accidentally skip to a different part of the game that makes no narrative sense at this point.
Sometimes we got stuck and needed hints, and (unlike with Exit Games) the revealed solutions often left us thinking "But that doesn't make sense." One time we got horribly stuck and couldn't even find how to get a hint; I think the app was assuming we'd have done something by now which we hadn't, and so was not playing the sound wave with the information we needed, and there was nothing in the hint structure to tell us where we'd gone wrong.
These games say they're for 1-6 players, but I wouldn't recommend them for more than 2, because you wouldn't all be able to gather round and see the cards, and most of you wouldn't have anything to do.
The games are easy to reset and reuse, since they're usually just a deck of cards and an app. They're also quite good value in that you get three different games in the box, and odds are that even if one of them is unsatisfying, one of them will be good and probably have some enjoyable puzzles.
Reusability: Yes, easily
Series: Escape the Room
Games: Secret of Dr Gravely's Retreat; Mystery at the Stargazer's Manor
These were the first ones we tried. They are the closest to a real escape room, in that they are packaged as a series of envelopes (which you can only open when you correctly solve the corresponding puzzle) with puzzle pieces and further envelopes hidden inside, so you actually feel like you're trying to open, say, a safe inside a wardrobe inside a room. (The way Exit Games does it is isomorphic but feels less realistic, with the doors and boxes depicted in a drawing, and it's possible to lose track of what you have and haven't opened.)
The puzzles are high-quality, and make impressive use of the medium. For example, one of them had effectively a linking-rings puzzle made out of cardboard. Again, this helps it feel more like an actual escape room. The puzzle components are very diverse, not just a one-size-fits-all deck of cards (they presumably have to be custom-produced, which is probably why there are so few games in the series).
The puzzles are very good, although maybe not quite as satisfying as Exit Games.
The games can be reused, but it's fiddly to reset them (like a physical escape room) - it's not just a case of shuffling a deck. They come with instructions for which things to put back in which envelope, and how to re-thread the linking rings puzzles, and it would be possible to make a mistake in the resetting process and spoil the game for the next player.
I would like to play more of these but I think they've only made two and we've done them both.
Reusability: Yes, but fiddly