Refining the At-Home Escape Room Model with Flashback
Two years ago, I wrote a brief introduction to the world of escape room in a box games for Boxing Day after playing Wild Optimist’s Escape Room in a Box: The Werewolf Experiment. Juliana Patel and Ariel Rubin initially funded production of their game through a Kickstarter campaign, before partnering with Mattel to produce a mass market version of the game that includes one particularly devious puzzle that still sits as a trap on my desk for unwary coworkers. The Wild Optimists have partnered with Mattel once more with Escape Room in a Box: Flashback, a game that manages to create the most elegant narrative and puzzle-based experience I’ve seen in the space.
New Retro Packaging, Same Lycanthropic Focus
While the retro ’90s design aesthetic of the box and Flashback title might imply this game is a throwback to the electronic board game era of Dream Phone and Electronic Mall Madness, the Wild Optimist’s newest escape room in a box is actually a direct sequel to The Werewolf Experiment. In the first installment, players were tasked with facing off against the mad scientist Doc Cynthia Gnaw, rushing to avoid becoming a casualty of her latest experiments. For Throwback, Doc Cynthia Gnaw is back with a vengeance, and players need to dive into her history to get out intact.
Because the narrative framing is so straightforward, these games don’t have to be played in sequence: the group I assembled to play this game had never played The Werewolf Experiment before, and at no point in the 90-minute experience did I need to stop and explain what happened in the previous chapter.
Puzzles in Three Acts: Letting Players Choose Their Puzzling Fate
In The Werewolf Experiment, the solving process was largely a linear one. Upon opening up the box, a series of puzzles became available. By solving puzzles, players would figure out the combinations for a series of plastic combination locks or receive hints to explore unexpected places to uncover additional puzzles until they figured out how to open up the final locked box.
Flashback refined that model by splitting gameplay into three separate rounds: a word-puzzle round themed around Doc Gnaw’s childhood friend Doctor Lisa David, a science-oriented puzzle round themed around Doc Gnaw herself, and a childhood round themed around their friendship. If smaller teams are tackling the escape room, these rounds are probably best tackled sequentially so everyone can appreciate the full breadth of the experience together. However, larger teams may find it easier to get everyone more consistently engaged by splitting up into smaller groups, and tackling the themes that speak to them while also making it harder for a single person to dominate the solving process.
This is where the game’s strong theming steps up to become the hero: because each of the rounds have distinct theming and color-coding, it’s possible to have all the game’s pieces splayed out on the table at the same time without getting confused about which puzzles are tied to which theme.
A Brief Aside: Sequence Jumping and the Strength of Good Design
While playing Flashback, the group I played with stumbled into one of the game’s surprises before we were intended to find it. In a recent article on Room Escape Artist David Spira refers to this practice as “sequence jumping”, and notes that dealing with these practically inevitable moments is the defining characteristic of an advanced escape room player.
For escape room in a box games, moments of unexpected discovery run a heightened risk of leading to a sequence jump, and there are a handful of moments in Flashback that run the risk of “sequence jumps.” What’s brilliant about the design of Escape the Room in a Box is that every potential sequence break that didn’t involve a technological failure I could identify after our playthrough was engineered to minimize disruption to play.
Part of what makes this work is the three-act structure Flashback adopted, with its puzzle and meta-structure acting almost like an entry-level puzzle hunt. Each section’s thematically and structurally distinct puzzles feeds into a broader meta-puzzle to access the final McGuffin. Since these visual and structural indicators create a sense of “place” for each puzzle, the most likely result of a sequence jump here is occasionally solving a puzzle that delivers a nudge to pay attention to something players already noticed.
A Game in Conversation with Itself
While The Werewolf Experiment and Flashback can be played separately and out-of-sequence, doing so risks missing my favorite part of the experience: in their Escape the Room in a Box games, the Wild Optimists created an experience that is in conversation with itself. Similar to how Doctor Lisa David’s name is an easter egg inserted into the game referencing to Room Escape Artist owners Lisa and David Spira for those in the know, puzzles in Flashback reference back to puzzles in The Werewolf Experiment in unexpected ways.
A puzzle in the Kickstarter version of The Werewolf Experiment asked players to prepare a glass of hot water. In Flashback, players need access to a glass of ice water or a freezer. Optional puzzles allow players to unlock free hints, but the method of discovery has changed. Players might even stumble across familiar items, only to learn they don’t work quite the same, the second time around. The game is familiar in form and function to feel familiar, but throws in subtle twists to keep returning players on their toes even more than newcomers to the series.
The Perfect Introduction to the Space, But One Heck of a Repack
Since writing my initial review two years ago, I’ve played and guided players through dozens of escape the room in a box gaming sessions, ranging from branded franchise games to Italian imports. And no other game delivers as reliable an introductory experience as Escape Room in a Box. And in an ideal setting, either The Werewolf Experiment or Flashback would be the game I pull out for that introduction.
The game is also fully replayable: the only pieces of this game that are consumed in a session are pieces of paper, and printing and repacking instructions are available on the game’s website. However, the game suffers a bit from the repack: standard paper stock doesn’t have the same feel as Mattel’s print run, and the onus is on the future facilitator to get every detail of the repack perfect: getting a detail wrong could lead to sequence breaks or even a broken playthrough. Both games are also sizable, so it’s often tempting to use one of the more accessible Unlock! games as a portable introduction to the genre.
Having said that, for the vast majority of players none of that matters because desperately trying to get friends and coworkers hooked on these puzzle games by starting in-office escape room clubs isn’t normal. The game is designed to deliver an exemplary experience for players once, and resources are provided to continue to do so without having to pay Mattel a second time.
To give Escape Room in a Box a try, go over to escaperoominabox.com and pick up a copy of The Werewolf Experiment, Flashback, or both and run a marathon double-feature night this Halloween. And if you do end up running a double-feature, send pictures to ARGNet! You can also get a taste of the types of puzzles the Wild Optimists make if you follow them on social media – they’re currently working on a puzzle trail for Prodigal Son.
Note: ARGNet received a review copy of this game