EXIT: The Game – The Secret Lab Review

 EXIT: The Game – The Secret Lab Review

You may have noticed a surge in the number or Escape Room style board games appearing over the last few months.  Fresh on the heels of cooperative puzzle games like TIME Stories comes a whole range of one-time puzzles based on the escape room phenomenon that is gripping the world.  If you are like me, and live at the arse end of nowheresville you will most likely not have had an opportunity to visit one of these experiences.

Thankfully system like Unlock, Escape the Room and EXIT allow you to experience these cooperative puzzle sessions at home. We were lucky to receive a copy of EXIT The Secret Lab from Kosmos and so the opportunity of a bank holiday weekend meant I was able to lock ourselves into the dining room after a Sunday roast and see if the Tudor family was clever enough to escape a devious laboratory.

We were not.

Exit the Secret lab escape room board game review

Before we begin in earnest let’s take a moment to talk about Spoilers. Kosmos's EXIT range of games can be played once and once only.  Not only will you be aware of the answers to the puzzles, Exit requires you to rip up, write on and scribble notes all over the supplied materials.  Although we found that you could probably re-do around 90% of the puzzles it meant that on a whole the system had already been completed. This straight away is going to present a problem to some gamers. I’m sure with some fastidious photocopying you could save most of the destructible components, but like using post-it notes in a Fighting Fantasy book, it’s kind of missing the point. Exit works best when every player comes into it completely cold, which is ruined if one player has already been through the deck to work out which puzzles need scanning and printing.

It’s for that very reason that I aim for this review to be spoiler free - as even the slightest hint of a spoiler will ruin the experience.

So on the very loosest of terms, Exit the Secret Lab has you locked into a laboratory and to escape you will need to solve a number of puzzles, each more fiendish than the last.  With this being a lab there are a few science based puzzles but you don't need to have a degree in biochemistry to get the answer.  There was one puzzle that we half solved before the clues were revealed because of our knowledge of chemistry but that was about all.

exit the scret lab review contents

The entire game is handled via a deck of riddle cards, answer cards and a rather nifty code wheel.  If you think you’ve solved the riddle, you enter the solution into the code wheel which directs you to a particular card in the answer deck.  The puzzles themselves are a good mix of logic, reasoning, visual interpretation and manipulating bits and pieces. If you have trouble with any of the puzzles a clue deck is at hand to provide pointers, the first card always being the one that tells you what information you need to solve that puzzle. Use any of these cards though and your final score will be reduced.

Unfortunately this presented our first problem with Exit the Secret Lab. Several of the clues for each puzzle where drip fed to you, to the point that you didn’t know if you had all the information to solve the puzzle or where just plain dumb. As I said I’ve never played a real Escape Room, so this may be part of the style, but there’s nothing worse than thinking you’re bloody stupid only to give in, grab a clue card and find not all the pieces of the puzzle have been revealed.

exit the secret lab riddle and clue cards

Because of this drip feeding of clues, not all the puzzles are available at once; in fact you will generally be required to solve the puzzles in order.  To me this was the major downside of the system.  It would have been nice if there were several instances where we could solve multiple puzzles at the same time.  As it was we found that too many of the puzzles had to be completed one after another and so players felt left out while other players solved the puzzle for them. Even when one player had solved the puzzle, other players wanted to have a go themselves, which got everyone involved but slowed down the entire game. 

In theory, Exit can be played by up to 6 players. We played the game with 5 players and felt that this was stretching the game a far too thin.  In order to keep costs down the components in the box are scant, as well they should be, but it was difficult to share the main book of clues between all the players. Stealing Bilbo Baggins’ analogy, it didn’t feel like the butter was spread thin over too much bread, but more like one or two players got freshly baked bread and real butter, but the rest of the players had to suffice with a stale Morrison’s cob with industrial grade margarine. It’s for these reasons that although Kosmos says the game can be played with up to 6 players I think a sweeter spot would be around 3 or 4 at most.

exit the secret lab escape room game review

And those really are my only criticisms, just like our previous review of the latest TIME Stories module; each person is going to have a different experience with Exit. What may be a fiendishly difficult puzzle to one person will be a walkover to another.  To me I felt there was a good spread of puzzles in The Secret Lab giving you that awesome feeling of being oh so clever when you genuinely come up with the solution but also plenty of times when we felt we had to reach for the clue cards to point us in the right direction.

And these are genuine puzzles. It’s not the old board game trope of collect three clue tokens to solve the mystery.  You genuinely have to interpret the clues, use sound reasoning and convert your solution into a clever code, which results in elation and joy when you discover the answer is correct and are rewarded with the next puzzle.

To those that are bothered by such things there is a score you are given when you complete the final puzzle, based on both the time you took to escape the lab and on the number of clue cards you used.  Our final score was three stars out of a possible 10 so we hardly feel like the smartest family going, but we did manage to get out of the room in a little under two hours.

It may seem I have been overly critical of Exit the Secret Lab, but apart from a lack of concurrent puzzles we all thoroughly enjoyed the experience and want to try a few more in the series.  So much so that I think I will be purchasing the rest of the Exit series at the UK Games Expo in a couple of weeks, we will just limit the number of players in future.

This review is based on a full retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.
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