Escape Room Games and Why I Don’t Like Them

The Exit box sitting on top of a game shelf.

I actually considered not writing this review. I had bought two games and played them and found the experiences so dull, so unengaging, so utterly meaningless that I came to believe that I was so far from the target audience that I had no right to an opinion. But then I changed my mind. These are games, after all, something that I’ve been dedicating part of my life to since 1995. And they are advertised as games that can be played by one player – just what I’ve decided to focus my writing on. On top of that, these games caught my attention, I decided to buy them, and I looked forward to playing them. After giving it some thought I think I have every right to share my absolute dissatisfaction with Deckscape: Test Time and Exit: The Game – The Polar Station as solitaire games.

This review has a question-response structure, just like the Dialogues of Plato. Since I’m keeping it spoiler free I will be a bit vague about some details, again just like Plato.

Introduction

Do you even like escape rooms?

I have no opinion. I’ve never been in one. I don’t care to try it either. But then again I tend to avoid conflicts but I love games like Blood Rage, Warhammer Underworlds and Inis; I’ve deliberately made sure not to have a family to feed and not to do much manual labor but I enjoy playing Agricola; and I’ve never had even the tiniest smidgen of interest in economy but I like Power Grid a lot.

So why did you decide to buy these games and review them?

I had watched and read several positive reviews of these games. They are advertised as soloable and I’ve read favorable solo reviews too. I thought that the prospect of pretending to be locked in a mad scientists lab or in a polar research station and trying to get out could be fun. I also often like games that feel like a puzzle of sorts, and escape-room games are often referred to as puzzles.

But why are you reviewing both games in one review? Isn’t it disrespectful to just lump them together?

It might be that this is a review not as much of two games as of a gaming concept that I’ve investigated by playing two specific games. You may choose to look at it that way. The games have differences, sure. The main one is probably that the games in the Deckscape series are not disposable – the Exit games will get ripped, cut and folded as part of the playing procedure, whereas you could play Deckscape and then give the game to somebody else and they could play it and then give it to somebody else and then they could play it and give it to somebody else and they…

Stop it!

Sorry!

The back of the Exit box.

So there are some differences between the games. To me the actual gaming experiences were similar, though. Very similar. Just like the vacuum between Pluto and Charon is indistinguishable from the vacuum between Styx and Kerberos to a person in a swimsuit, the two gaming experiences felt…

Will you stop it?! It seems like this is becoming quite a diatribe, so just get to why you don’t like these games and get it over with!

OK! I’ll sum it up for you. Who are you, by the way?

You? Me? What?

Yeah, you! You’re a distracting presence! And before I give you the juicy details about the gaming experiences, don’t you think I should explain what this kind of game is all about?

Yeah, sure. Go ahead.

Escape Room Games

Both Test Time and The Polar Station start by giving you some premises, a very short backstory explaining why and where you’re locked in, and what you need to do to get out. In Test Time you’re stuck in the laboratory of a mad scientist. In The Polar Station you’re stuck in a research station in the Antarctic.

The contents of Exit: The Game - THe Polar Station spread out on a table.
This is what you get in the box. Yes – you actually get an English stoneware cup from the 70s! There’s coffee in there too!

The player or players are supposed to keep track of the time it takes to get out. This is a means of adding tension and providing a basis for scoring. As long as you get out, though, you have succeeded.

The contents of the deckscape box - a deck of cards.
This is what you get in the Deckscape box – a deck of cards.

Finding your way out is a matter of solving puzzles, riddles and brain teasers. For example, the game might have you try to figure out the three digit code to a combination lock on a briefcase, and you might be on the verge of tears when you realize that a card you saw earlier showed a picture of a teddy bear that wore a t-shirt that said 014 on it. You decide that that has to be the code. You check, and the game will tell you if you were right or wrong. If you were right you will be instructed to look at a different card, and that card might say that you’ve found a postcard in the briefcase. The postcard has some text on it. It says “xob neerg” and you feel remarkably clever when you realize that you can read the text backwards. And so on…

The Polar Station set up to start playing.

You keep doing stuff like that until the game tells you that you’ve managed to escape.

THe Deckscape cards set up on a table to play.
Test Time set up to start playing.

The two games have different ways of telling you if you’re right or wrong, different ways of handling player input and some different components, but the basic idea is the same. I’ll describe some of the differences later.

I see! So will you please just get to the actual review now?

I will. Here it goes…

Why I Don’t Enjoy These Games

Both of the games offer an arbitrary selection of riddles, puzzles and deductive challenges that are very loosely connected by a thin veneer of a theme. The gaming experiences wouldn’t have been any different if the themes were exchanged for other themes, or if the riddles and puzzles were different. This makes for disjointed experiences without any sense of logical progression or story. If you find a Sudoku puzzle to be a good substitute for a vacation in Japan, you might find this kind of game an immersive and exciting experience.

For games with so little theme and so little story, they feel VERY scripted. There’s one way of doing things, and apart from giving up before it’s over (which I did in the case of Exit since it was just as unengaging an experience as Deckscape), there’s only one way it can end.

Have you ever known somebody who uses the expression “guess what!” and seriously expects you to guess what she did last night or had for lunch yesterday, over and over and over and over again, until you finally find the right answer?

Sure!

Do you like that?

Love it!

When you miss that friend – pull out an escape-room game! Although there is some logical deduction in both of these games, some of the challenges feel like a Rorschach test with one correct answer only.

Mysan the cat chewing on the Exit cards.
At it, Mysan! Its supposed to be shredded to pieces!

Don’t assume on the grounds that you are into board and card games, that you would enjoy an escape-room game. These games differ from most games I’ve played in that there’s no strategy or tactics involved, just patience, some brainstorming, some logic and some associative thinking. There’s nothing to learn about the game and then implement, there are no meaningful decisions, there’s no sense of narrative…

If your idea of playing a game is opening the fridge, checking how many veggies can be thought of as pointing to the left, writing down that number and turning it upside down to see if it reminds you of any shape you’ve seen in your bathroom lately, then you might enjoy the kind of challenge these escape room games bring. Neither Test Time nor The Polar Station felt more like a game than opening a book of riddles and deciding that you’ll win once you’ve answered 10 of them correctly.

But would I like the games?

Does your mind tend to wander on weekends, to drift away, leaving you almost unaware of your quiet living room and your comfortable couch, to finally linger on the fond, warm memories of all the lovely corporate team-building exercises you’ve had the pleasure and privilege of being part of through the years?

Indeed it does!

Then this kind of game is for you. Because that’s what it feels like, in the end. Even the solitaire variant. Not like the Antarctic. Not like the mad professors lab. It feels like a corporate team-building exercise for one.

With both games I had to really struggle to care at all. Despite this, I still managed to notice some positive things about the games.

Positives

You never saw that coming, did you?

No, I didn’t expect any positives. But wait! You didn’t even finish The Polar Station, yet you find it appropriate to dismiss it alltogether?

No, I didn’t finish it. Let me continue sharing my experiences here!

OK...

So these games are not for me, that’s for sure. But I’ll have to point a few things out before I’m done. I want to look at some of the positives first, and then at some of the dissimilarities between the two games.

She’s not even meowing. That’s the kind of game this is.

Both games are easy to grasp, easy to learn, and planned and produced in such a way that they make sense in themselves – I felt no need to consult BoardGameGeek with rules questions or anything like that. Both games offer clues when you’re stuck. This is very good, since without a little nudge in the right direction once in a while these games would probably be very frustrating even to some people who enjoy them.

In the same sense that a riddle is only a challenge before you know the answer, these games are one-time experiences. They are affordable, though, so if you enjoy corporate team-building exercises or find it intriguing to figure out how many of your socks have an odd number of stripes on them and how that correlates to the angle of a ruler dropped on the floor, either of these games might be worth your money.

Dissimilarities

There are three things that make me dislike Deckscape: Test Time a little less than I dislike Exit: The Game – The Polar Station.

Firstly, Test Time is just a deck of cards in a small box, and from looking at the top card you’ll know how to get started. The game will teach you as you go. This is clever. The only other game I’ve played that teaches the rules in this way is the wonderful fantasy co-op Legends of Andor. This way of teaching the players how to play the game is very suitable for a one-time game. The Polar Station, on the other hand, has more of an ordinary rule book. It’s short and well written, though, so it’s not a problem.

Secondly, neither game is replayable, but Test Time is reusable. You can sell it or give it to somebody else when you’re done. Although you could probably play some of the Exit games without tearing them to shreds, doing that seems to be part of the concept. And on several occasions I felt like tearing Test Time to shreds as well.

Thirdly, the Deckscape series games are cheaper than the Exit series games.

She’s meowing, on the other hand…

Another major difference between the Deckscape system and the Exit system is how they handle the input of the players’ answers to the riddles and puzzles, and how the games respond if you’re wrong. Deckscape uses cards only, and once you think you have an answer you flip the riddle card and see if your answer was right. Exit uses a decoder wheel, so in the end all riddles and answers concern numbers in some way. If you’re wrong in Deckscape the right answer is still disclosed to you and you make a mark somewhere to detract from your end score. If you’ve come up with the wrong code in exit the encoder wheel will direct you to a card that says so, and perhaps gives you a hint on how to continue. I don’t prefer one system over the other. Deckscape has a more flexible system than Exit, but Exit gives you another go at it if you were wrong.

Finally, if this review has you convinced that you should buy one of the two games, it might be good to know that The Polar Station is a little more challenging than Test Time, but just as much fun!

Summary

If you like escape rooms you might like this kind of game I guess, even as a solo experience. If you enjoy television game shows and have always dreamed of being on one, I guess you might enjoy these games. Also, if you truly enjoyed the old Lucas Arts adventure games and didn’t find them the least bit frustrating, these games might offer a challenge that’s somewhat reminiscent, but the experience will not be story-driven or immersive in the least.

However, don’t assume that you’ll like escape-room games on the grounds that you’re a gamer who tends to enjoy a puzzly challenge. The escape room game experience is very far from anything I’ve ever enjoyed in a game. Both games feel choppy and incoherent. The challenges feel WAY more artificial and arbitrary than anything I’ve ever encountered in gaming before.

Both game systems are cleverly constructed, but they offer an experience I don’t care for. After learning what these games are all about, I’m quite sure that I’d never expose my gamer friends to this kind of thing – I definitely wouldn’t enjoy it cooperatively and I don’t believe they would either.

To be fair, an activity like this could be suitable as an icebreaker at some social event or as a way of doing something together on a family reunion or something, but I’d rather play a game, and that’s my verdict: neither Test Time nor The Polar Station offer anything that I’ve ever looked for in a game.

And that’s my dismissal of escape room games in general and for solitaire play in particular.

So that’s your review?

Yeah!

Aren’t you supposed to do your “other peoples opinions” shtick?

Right! Thanks for reminding me!

Other People’s Opinions

If you want a second opinion about Exit: The Game for solitaire play you should have a look at Liz Davidson’s review of the series over at Beyond Solitaire. Her reviews are clear, to the point and well composed. And in this case she disagrees with me on most accounts!

If you want a second opinion about Deckscape: Test Time, read Jonathan Schindlers detailed review on BoardGameGeek. He’s not completely enamored with the game, but unlike me he offers the perspective of somebody who enjoys an escape room game once in a while. He also writes about the differences between the Deckscape series and the Exit series. His review is not focused on solitaire gaming.


I hope you found this review useful. Thanks for reading.

I also hope you enjoyed…

Shut up!

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