Introducing Escape the Room: Mystery at the Stargazer's Manor
Room escape video games
In the last number of years, my family has really taken a liking to "Escape the Room" style video games, also known popularly as "Room Escapes" or "Escape Games". Many of these are available for the iPad, with "The Room" and its sequels being notable big successes at the top of the iTunes charts when they were first released. It's a popular genre, with many variations. Typically these games are a sub-genre of the classic point-and-click adventure game, and players are required to solve a series of logical and other puzzles in order to escape imprisonment from a room or house. Most of these games require you to interact with objects in the room by clicking on them, to use stored items to unlock things, and to gather clues that will help solve more complex puzzles.
Room escape physical games
The popularity of these online games has sparked another phenomenon: real life escape rooms, which apply the same concept to a physical room with actual puzzles. After enjoying a wide array of escape-the-room video games over the years, often solved by siblings working together on a case, my family recently had opportunity to try a real world escape room while on vacation. These escape rooms follow the same basic premise and concept of the video games, but put players in a physical adventure setting where they need to solve actual physical puzzles, and so escape a very real locked room. These have been growing in popularity over the last half a dozen years, and the establishment we visited as patrons had several scenarios you could choose from, each with their own room, thematic setting, and level of difficulty. Typically they charge an entry fee of $20+ a player, and give you around an hour to escape.
Room escape board games
My family enjoyed the real life escape rooms enormously, and as proof of their love for it, they went back several times to try different scenarios, despite the high cost! So when I heard about the Escape the Room games from ThinkFun, I just knew right away that they would be a hit with my clan. Currently there are two titles in ThinkFun's series, Mystery at the Stargazer's Manor and Secret of Dr. Gravely's Retreat. In this review I'm covering the first of these, and a follow-up review on the other time to come later.
These ThinkFun games take the same escape room concept, but apply it to the next level, by bringing it to a boardgame that a family can complete together within a time limit. The concept is that 3-8 players are working cooperatively to solve a series of puzzles, styled much like the video games and real life escape rooms, and they must successfully complete these puzzles within an allotted amount of time in order to win. Despite being only playable once, it's enormously fun, and still a whole lot cheaper than paying to go to a real life escape room. And the beauty is that you can do it in the comfort of your own home, and then pass it on to your friends to enjoy. Let's show you more about Escape the Room: Mystery at the Stargazer's Manor!
The cover artwork features a mysterious looking manor, which will be the setting for this particular escape game. The small print gives some notion of the idea:
"A party event for gatherings of 3 to 8", "Take Home the World-wide Phenomenon" and "Spend an evening unraveling the mystery. Find clues, solve puzzles and escape before time runs out!
The back of the box gives some important information worth repeating here, especially for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the "Escape the Room" genre:
"What are Escape the Room games? Escape the Room games began as digital adventures and quickly turned into real-life events all around the world. In both versions, players are locked in a room and must uncover clues and hidden objects to escape. ThinkFun’s version of Escape the Room allows you to bring home all the excitement of this experience, without actually locking anyone in a room, of course!
"The Objective: Work with your guests to unravel the mystery at Stargazer's Manor by finding clues and solving puzzles. But be careful, in the story the doors ahve shut and locked behind you. Will you and your guests solve the mystery and escape the room before time runs out?
The Mystery: It’s 1869 and the town’s well-respected astronomer has not been seen since the untimely passing of his wife. Recently, strange things have been happening at his manor – loud and unfamiliar noises, an unpleasant smell, and smoke billowing from the observatory. It’s up to you and your guests to solve the mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor! "
The box features a rather unusual opening design - it's somewhat of a puzzle to actually get the thing open!
Inside the box we find the following:
● Instruction Manual
● Scene Card
● 5 Sealed Envelopes
● Secret Items (inside the 5 sealed envelopes)
● Solution Wheel
The main instruction manual just gives an overview of how the game works. In less than half a dozen pages, it introduces what Escape Rooms are, how to plan an event and what materials are needed, how to set-up the game, how to use the envelopes and solution-wheel, and introduces the back-story. The concept is not difficult to understand or follow, so you can easily skim and master these instructions in 5-10 minutes. You can download a copy from the publisher here:
This card just gives players the instructions for starting the game, with a brief story to set the scene, and some initial directions for a puzzle to solve that will allow you to open the first envelope.
There are five sealed envelopes, each corresponding to something in the room:
● The Dressing Table
● The Telescope
● The Filing Cabinet
● The Bookcase
● The Steam Panel
The initial instructions give you the clues needed to open the Dressing Table envelope, and inside here will be instructions for other puzzles that will eventually let you open another envelope.
Inside each envelope will be a new Scene Card with further instructions, and components for various puzzles that you'll have to solve in order to get access to the next envelope.
For example, here's the bits and pieces you'll find in the Filing Cabinet envelope.
The Solution Wheel is a manual device that the game cleverly uses to have players enter and check their solutions.
To begin with, if you wish you can share the following story in advance with your guests, as background to the puzzle:
"It’s 1869 and you are the recently-dismissed caretaker of the Stargazer’s Manor. You will be inviting your friends to join a secret investigation into the behavior of the well-known and respected astronomer in your small seaside town. The astronomer began acting very strangely after the passing of his wife several years ago, eventually disappearing into his estate. And now, strange things seem to be happening outside of his home—loud and unfamiliar noises, an unpleasant smell, smoke billowing from the observatory. You and your friends are on a mission to find out what is going on at the Stargazer’s Manor. But be careful, in the end, you may be the ones that need saving…"
Not a lot of preparation is required in advance, aside from some obvious things like having paper and pen available to help solve puzzles if needed. The instructions even give some suggestions to help set the mood, such as possibly inviting participants to come dressed in period attire, and having appropriate background music to fit the scene. These are certainly not necessary, however, although they may help some people get into the right spirit. A timer is the only other real requirement (any stop-watch method will work fine), as a way of challenging yourself, but even that is somewhat optional. It's important not to open any of the five envelopes in advance, or even to read the Scene 1 Card - leave that until all the players are gathered together.
To get things rolling at the start of a game, read the following back-story aloud:
"It has been over a year since the caretaker (your host) was dismissed by Richard Harrison, the retired astronomer who the townsfolk all knew so well. After the death of his wife three years ago, the astronomer began acting quite strangely— sending away all of the help at his manor except for the caretaker and the cook, refusing visitors, withdrawing more and more inside his observatory. And then one day, quite suddenly, forcing the caretaker and the cook out the door as well. "
"As an employee at the manor for over twenty years, the caretaker had developed quite a fondness for the quirky astronomer. Recently the caretaker made the long journey up to the old manor to persuade the astronomer to let his friends help fix things up. The gate was locked, the mail had piled up, but the caretaker was most alarmed by the strange noises, the unpleasant smell and the smoke coming from the observatory. The caretaker wrote letters asking for the help of a few friends in the town to join in an investigation of the manor. Thankfully, they have all agreed and have gathered tonight outside of a side entrance and will soon venture inside to investigate…"
Together as a group, it's now your job to solve the mystery of the astronomer, and to escape the room. To do this, you'll solve puzzles, with each envelope containing clues you'll have to solve using the puzzle wheel before proceeding to a new envelope. From time to time new Scene cards will give you further instructions and add to the story-line as you proceed. Sometimes clues from within an envelope are needed for later puzzles.
Occasionally there are smaller envelopes (e.g. a Lock Box, a Control Panel) inside the large envelopes, with their own puzzles to solve. For example, here's the bits and pieces you'll find inside the Telescope envelope, which includes a smaller Lock Box envelope:
But, since these are supposed to be secret, I won't share too many more details about the actual puzzles, except to give you a sneak peak of the kinds of things you'll be doing. Hopefully what you see here will just whet your appetite to try these puzzles yourself!
Using the Solution Wheel
The ingenious Solution Wheel is easy to operate: For each puzzle, first note the white symbol, and then rotate the four coloured wheels (red, yellow, green, blue) below that according to the solutions you find for each puzzle. You can open a new envelope whenever you've correctly solved the puzzle indicated on that envelope. For example, opening the Dressing Table envelope would require you to use the Mirror symbol, and align below that the symbols you come up with when solving the four coloured clues.
To illustrate, let's say you are solving a puzzle relying on the Crown symbol. If you have found the correct solution and rotated the four coloured wheels to make the icons corresponding to your solutions line up below the Crown symbol, you should see the Crown symbol appear in two of the windows in the center of the wheel. This indicates a correct solution, and is the green light for you to open the next envelope. Needless to say, you shouldn't cheat by trying to find the solution through a trial-and-error method of spinning the coloured rings!
If you really get stuck, hints are available at the official website here: http://www.thinkfun.com/escapetheroom/stargazer/home
Once you've solved the entire puzzle, check the timer to see how quickly you've completed the escape - then give the game to your friends to try, and see how your times compare!
What do I think?
Escape Room: While this game doesn't actually put you in a locked room, it does simulate the locked room experience quite well, especially when the clock is ticking. If you enjoy the Room Escape puzzles from the video games or the physical room escapes, you're certain to enjoy this too.
Puzzles: The whole room escape genre relies on an enjoyment of puzzles. My wife and children just love that kind of thing, and it's also the reason my family really enjoyed this Escape the Room game from ThinkFun as well.
Solution Wheel: While the "technology" of the puzzle solution wheel relies on manipulating an old-fashioned manual device, it works very well for this game.
Cooperative: One thing I really appreciate about these room escape puzzles is that it requires players to work together. Everyone is in it together!
Group size: Although the box suggests that up to 8 can play, I think that's too many. With a large group, some participants will be relegated to the side-lines, especially when it comes to parts of the puzzles that require moving actual pieces (e.g. tangram style pieces). We played with groups of 3 and 4, and that seemed to be ideal. With larger groups, I'd be concerned that players wouldn't participate, although it can still be a fun experience to watch. I suppose you could even play this game on your own, although you might run stuck, and need to resort to the official hints.
Online help: I really like the fact that hints and solutions are available online, to assist people if you really get stuck. This prevents the game from becoming an exercise in frustration, in the event you do come to a complete roadblock. We didn't need to use any of the online help, but it's good that this is there for people who really need it.
Reassembly: We were concerned that it would be difficult to remember how to put everything together again afterwards, so we took photos as we went along. Then we discovered that the official website has complete reassembly instructions here - brilliant! Using this at the conclusion of a game, it's easy enough to put everything back in the correct envelopes, and set up the game for someone else to do.
One-time: Once you've solved the puzzle, there's no real point in doing it again, because you already know the solution. That does make this game somewhat of a one-trick pony. Compared with other board games, which can be played over and over, many gamers might find the price quite high. However, personally I think this is excellent value for several reasons. Firstly, the price is much cheaper than bringing a family to a physical escape room - compared with how much we were spending per person for each real life room escape challenge ($20+), this game is a bargain. Secondly, you can play this game multiple times with different groups. In our family, we had a group of three play it the first time, and then the rest of the family tried it on another occasion, and now we'll give it to friends/family to try. It's a unique experience they are sure to enjoy as much as well, so we'll get good mileage out of it that way. Thirdly, it provides a good hour or so of entertainment for a group.
Length: Our first group took about 40 minutes to solve the puzzle, while the second group (quite experienced with room escapes!) managed to get the thing done in about half an hour flat. From what I've seen online, about an hour seems typical for most groups, especially when children are involved.
Difficulty: We didn't find the puzzles overly difficult, but even so it was still great fun, because there's a sense of an unfolding story. The last part was perhaps the most challenging part of the puzzle, and there are a few aspects that require logical and lateral thinking. We have since played the second game in the series as well, and I'm glad to report that it proved to be more of a challenge, taking considerably longer to solve - look for a separate review of that in the near future.
Ages: The game is rated as suitable for age 8 and up. Our youngest player was aged 12, and based on that, I think that with some help this game should be accessible for children aged 8 and up. Having said that, even the adults who played this enjoyed it. The puzzles were fairly straight forward, but still offered enough of a challenge to make it interesting, and it is satisfying to figure out the story-line as you go. So while this probably geared towards children, teens, and families, even older folks can get enjoyment out the experience.
Family-friendly: This really is ideal for a family experience, because there's a story-line, and you're working together to solve something. Plus there is nothing in the least objectionable or offensive. It would make a great gift for a family.
Series: This style of game does lend itself well to a series. While there are currently only two games in the series, I'm pleased to learn that ThinkFun is planning to develop more follow-up titles. They should be well-received!
What do others think?
Generally speaking this title has received positive reviews, but there have been some criticism as well. The biggest criticism voiced is that the puzzles were too easy or obvious, even with just 2-3 players. My sense is that this was the experience of some adults, many of whom had some experience with puzzles of this sort, or were hard core gamers. Some critics were hoping for a stronger story-line, and also noted that the lack of replayability does limit the usefulness, and that this isn't really very suitable for groups of more than four players. I can understand where these sentiments are coming from - it confirms that this game is most suited for the family market, and with groups that include children or teens. With adults who are skilled puzzlers, you can expect to solve it without too many challenges.
Notwithstanding these concerns, a lot of praise has also been showered on this game, including positive comments like these:
"We had so much fun playing this short, one-shot game. I loved it and can't wait for the next adventure." - chronicdichotomy
"With my kids, this was a 10 experience." - Patilian
"Really had fun with this. Excellent theme was set up well with each scene card. The puzzles were also good." - shouting man
"Great fun. Would highly recommend, very kid friendly, and will pick up the next one!" - tribalsoul
"This provides great family fun. Works great with kids 8 or older. Well worth the price. You get an experience in a box. Pass it on when you ate done!" - atsgamer
"Does what it does very well. Suitable for 10 years+ with adults, good family game." - norkle
"A unique and very fun experience with wife and kids. Some of the puzzles aren't very hard, but they were perfect for the 10 and 13 year olds. I don't care that you can only play once." - dmadison
"Fun little 'Escape Room' experience for play at home. Well done and a great value for the price." - rainydaysteve
"Great experience for us two (!) players (hardened in real-life escape rooms), though most of the (mostly spatial) puzzles were easy to solve." - Michel
"Fantastic level of difficulty, perfect for families, I thoroughly enjoyed playing with my wife and kids (age 7 and 9) and we are now passing it along to many friends and family." - IceWeasel007
"One play only but can pass it on. A great evening of fun." - ckneeland
"A lot of fun. I could see this being a really engaging and challenging experience for a family." - shigadeyo
"Overall, very happy with this and hope the series gets harder." - stevelabny
"Went over perfectly with my wife and two boys (12 & 8). Solved it in little more than an hour, never felt completely stuck. The puzzles were interesting and thought-out. This is a perfect family escape room. Reset it so I can give it away to friends." - osodani
"This is a series of puzzles rather than a game, but it's a fun way to spend time with the family." - JamesT
"We had a lot of fun! Challenging but manageable. Creativity and logic required." - slickdpdx
"Great experience. Not too hard and provides a good fun evening with the family." - Boogus
"Great family game! Everyone enjoyed the experience." - Green Machine
"Really good fun! I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the components and the cleverness of the puzzles." - Craigus69
So is Escape the Room: Mystery at the Stargazer's Manor for you? My own experience with this game confirms the consensus of opinion: this is a fantastic family game. While it can only be played once, you can reset it and give it to another family to enjoy once you're done, or divide your family/friends into two smaller groups and get a couple of plays out of it first.
Adults who are experienced puzzlers can expect to solve it fairly easily, and I would suggest them to play with only 2 or 3 players. It certainly is still enjoyable that way, but this game is going to be best enjoyed when played with the target family market, with which I'd recommend a group size of 3 or 4 at most. When played with older children, it creates a wonderful experience that should keep everyone involved and entertained for an hour of puzzling fun. Even though you can't play it again, it's not difficult to repack everything, and pass it on for another family to enjoy.
This is one of those unique games that has the potential to create a memorable evening of fun for everyone involved. I look forward to trying others in the series and highly recommend it, especially for families.
Want to learn more?
Official publisher website for the game: http://www.thinkfun.com/products/stargazer
The complete list of Ender's pictorial reviews: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/37596
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If you made it to the end of this review and found it helpful, please consider giving a thumbs up at the very top of the article, to let me know you were here, and to give others a better chance of seeing it.
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- B C ZUnited States
Some of the pictures are a bit spoiler-iffic, so unlike previous reviews where I studied the pictures, I tried to avert my eyes on most of these.
I'd love to see your assessment of some of the other Escape Room In a Box experiences, like Escape Room: The Game in particular.
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- John McD(BlackSpy)Scotland
byronczimmer wrote:Some of the pictures are a bit spoiler-iffic, so unlike previous reviews where I studied the pictures, I tried to avert my eyes on most of these.#
I'd love to see your assessment of some of the other Escape Room In a Box experiences, like Escape Room: The Game in particular.
Yeah, a whole series and final which is best sort of mega review would be great.
I totally agree with your summary on this one, really successful with families.
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byronczimmer wrote:I'd love to see your assessment of some of the other Escape Room In a Box experiences, like Escape Room: The Game in particular.
I do plan to review Escape the Room: Secret of Dr. Gravely's Retreat, which is the next in the series. It is a similar concept of course, although the level of difficulty is ramped up a bit, and it took us longer to solve. It's just as good as this one, maybe even better.
I do own Escape Room: The Game, which is by Spin Master, and am really looking forward to that one too. Unlike the ThinkFun games, it has four scenarios in the box. From what I can gather, it's also geared towards a slightly older crowd, rather than a family audience. It also sounds terrific.
There are more games in the Escape Room Games genre, but not all of them are readily available or easy to get. In addition to the ThinkFun and Spin Master titles already mentioned, the "EXIT: The Game" titles by Kosmos also seem quite good, but I haven't been able to get my hands on any of those yet.
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- Pas L(lamaros)Australia
My main criticism of this game is that the puzzles are very samey, and mostly about matching or looking things up.
A better game would include a greater variety of types of problems, such as word puzzles, puzzles that build on other elements, puzzles that are spatial on other ways, deductive and inductive puzzles, etc.
Essentially these puzzles are boring and repetitive, which makes the experience fade quickly after an interesting start.
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- Jack SpirioAustria
- Exactly what we felt, it was way to easy and to short
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