Introducing Escape the Room: Secret of Dr Gravely's Retreat

Escape-the-Room 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 two 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.



Escape-the-Room 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, earlier this year my family had opportunity to try a real world escape room challenge. 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.



Escape-the-Room 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 second of these titles. The two games are separate stories and challenges, so there's no need to have completed the first before trying the second. They are simply two different games and puzzles, and give people a choice, much like two unconnected books written by the same author.

These ThinkFun games take the 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: Secret of Dr. Gravely's Retreat!



NB: This review is on the second game in ThinkFun's "Escape the Room" series by ThinkFun. Even though these games are completely independent from each other, and there is no need to have played the first game in the series before attempting the second, this review does contain some overlap with my review on the first game (here), because they do work in a similar manner. I have included some overlap deliberately for readers who are entirely new to this genre, or who know nothing about the first game.

COMPONENTS

Game box

The cover artwork features a living room scene with a pipe-smoking gentleman. All appears to be normal, until you notice that the gentleman in question is gesturing to a couch where some hands appear to be desperately grasping - setting the scene for the intrigue that lies within the box. 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 uncovering the secret. 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 discover the dark secret of Dr. Gravely's retreat by finding clues and solving puzzles. But be careful ... in the story the doors have shut and locked behind you. Will you and your guests discover the secret and escape the room before time runs out?

The Mystery: The year is 1913 and you are the lucky winner of a free stay at Foxcrest Retreat, where the famed Dr. Gravely has improved upon the latest in spa treatments and relaxation for those of high social standing. You take a long all-expense-paid train ride to the retreat. Upon your arrival, however, you and your fellow guests may find the `health retreat' is not what it seems... "



The box features a rather unusual opening design - it's somewhat of a puzzle to actually get the thing open!

Component list

Inside the box we find the following:
● Instruction Manual
● Scene Card
● 4 Sealed Envelopes
● Secret Items (inside the 4 sealed envelopes)
● Solution Wheel



Instruction Manual

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:

http://www.thinkfun.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/EscapRetr...



Scene Card

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.



Sealed Envelopes

There are four sealed envelopes, each corresponding to something in the room:
● The Desk
● The Safe
● The Alcove
● The Laboratory Door



The initial instructions give you the clues needed to open the Desk envelope, and inside here will be instructions for other puzzles that will eventually let you open another envelope.

Secret Items

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 Safe envelope.



Solution Wheel

The Solution Wheel is a manual device that the game cleverly uses to have players enter and check their solutions.



It does use different icons than the Solution Wheel from the first game, so they are not interchangeable.

GAME PLAY

Set-Up

The official website even provides a fill-in form to create customized invitations for your guests - see here.



The instructions also give some suggestions to help set the mood, such as possibly inviting participants to come dressed in period attire, and having appropriate background music (e.g. harpsichord music or classical opera) to enhance the atmosphere. Detailed suggestions are provided online here, including various pre-selected Pandora and Spotify links you can use. These are certainly not necessary, however, although they may help some people get into the right spirit.

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. 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 four envelopes in advance, or even to read the Scene 1 Card - leave that until all the players are gathered together.



The Story

To get things rolling at the start of a game, read the following back-story aloud:

"The year is 1913 and you are the lucky winner of an all-expense-paid stay at Foxcrest Retreat. At the retreat, the famed Dr. Gravely has improved upon the latest in spa treatments and relaxation techniques reserved for those of high social standing. At the retreat, guests receive the best of new health care technologies set amongst beautiful, natural scenery that is well known for improving one's vitality. "

"You entered a contest and were elated when you received a letter of invitation from the director, Dr. Gravely himself, announcing your victory."

"During the long train ride to the retreat, you meet others within your party who have also won the same complimentary spa package. Attending Foxcrest Retreat as a guest of Dr. Gravely is a lucky break for all of you. But beware, you and your new friends may find the retreat is not quite what it seems..."



Solving Puzzles

Together as a group, it's now your job to unravel the secret of Foxcrest Retreat, 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. Blue Cell Door Envelope, Test Tubes Envelope) inside the large envelopes, with their own puzzles to solve. For example, here's what you'll find inside the Desk envelope:



Don't worry, the text of these documents is deliberately obscured in this picture, so I'm not giving anything away! And here's some bits and pieces you'll find amongst other things inside the Laboratory Door envelope:



But, since these are supposed to be secret, I won't share further 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 Desk envelope would require you to use the Desk symbol, and align below that the symbols you come up with when solving the four coloured clues.



To illustrate how this works, let's say you are solving a puzzle relying on a 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. In this second game of the series, they must also be oriented the same way as the same symbol on the outer white ring. 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/retreat/hints/

Game Over

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!



CONCLUSIONS

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. It's not quite as exciting as being in an actual room, but for an at home activity, we thoroughly enjoyed it and were impressed by what it offered.

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 both Escape the Room games from ThinkFun as well. It is the kind of thing that will appeal to anyone who likes logic puzzles in particular, or even solving mysteries.

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. The wheel used in this game has different symbols than the one from the first game, but the method is the same.

Cooperative: One thing I really appreciate about these room escape puzzles is that it requires players to work together. Everyone is in it together! This title did have some dexterity puzzles that could only be solved by one person at a time, but overall it is still a cooperative endeavour.

Group size: Although the box suggests that up to 8 can play, I think that's too many, especially with this second title. With a large group, some participants will be relegated to the side-lines, especially when it comes to parts of the puzzles that require solving dexterity puzzles (e.g. the string/rope puzzles). We played with groups of 3 and 4, and that seemed to work well; perhaps 2-3 is optimal. With 5 players or more, too many players will be left out at certain moments, 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: I love the fact that the official website has complete reassembly instructions here - brilliant! Using this at the conclusion of a game, it is easy enough to put everything back in the correct envelopes, and set up the game for someone else to enjoy.

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 Escape the Room game 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 just under an hour to solve the puzzle, while the second group managed to get the thing done even quicker. From what I've seen online, about 60-90 minutes seems typical for most groups, and when children are involved you can expect it to be around an hour and a half.

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. Having played the first game in the series, which we found to be fairly easy, we were glad that this was more of a challenge, and took considerably longer to solve.

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. For adults who only plan to buy one in the series, I'd opt for #2 in the series rather than #1 due to the slightly increased difficulty.

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!



How does it compare with the first title?

The big question for people who have played the first game in the series (Mystery at the Stargazer's Manor), will be how this second game (Secret of Dr. Gravely's Retreat) compares with it. The basic concept and idea is the same, so there are certainly more similarities than differences. If you enjoyed the first one, you will certainly enjoy this one too. Here are some differences we noticed:

1. Puzzles: The puzzles included in Dr Gravely's Retreat are all different than Stargazer's Manor. So there's absolutely no overlap between the two, and you'll be set for a whole new range of challenges.

2. Difficulty: Dr Gravely's Retreat is slightly more challenging than Stargazer's Manor. The level of difficulty isn't too high, and many people will still find it quite straight-forward and perhaps too easy. But we did find Mystery at the Stargazer's Manor a little too easy, so in comparison Dr Gravely's Retreat feels about just right, and was more satisfying. From what I can gather, this seems to be the experience of most people.

3. Dexterity: One change from the first game is the inclusion of physical/dexterity puzzles (e.g. with rope/string). This gives some welcome diversity from the logical/spatial puzzles. Just be careful to finesse them rather than force them, because otherwise there's a risk of breakage!

4. Cooperation: Due to the inclusion of some dexterity puzzles which can only be solved by one person at a time, there are more times in Dr Gravely's Retreat where just one player needs to work on something alone; this was less an issue with Mystery at the Stargazer's Manor.

5. Story: The theme of the story-line in Dr Gravely's Retreat is entirely different and completely unrelated to that of Stargazer's Manor. It is slightly darker than the first game in the series, and parents with younger children might want to take this into account, and for them Stargazer's Manor might be a better choice. It's still not objectionable, and in my experience all the ThinkFun products are inoffensive and family friendly, but it is something to be aware of and consider.

Both games are completely independent from one another; if you liked one, you are almost certain to like the other, because it applies the same winning formula to an entirely different story-line, and with entirely different challenges. Just be aware that Dr Gravely's Retreat has a slight increase in difficulty; I would recommend it for adults and families with teens due to the increased challenge (which is by no means extreme), whereas families with younger children will probably want to start with Stargazer's Manor. But you can't really go wrong with either game - they are both excellent.



What do others think?

The critics

Generally speaking Dr Gravely's Retreat has been reviewed positively, but there have been a few criticisms as well. Things raised included the following:
1. There's not enough to do for a larger group, with some puzzles less suitable for being done cooperatively as a group. My comment: I agree that the game is best suited with 2-4 players, and not with 5 or more.
2. There is limited replayability, because the game can only be played once. My comment: As mentioned above, it can be reassembled, so you can give it to others to enjoy; plus for the money, it gives an excellent experience, still much cheaper than going to an escape room attraction.
3. The puzzles are just too easy. My comment: The target audience is for families, so it is geared to that market. Even so, it is definitely more challenging than the first title in the series, and can still be enjoyed by adults.
4. The theme is darker than the first game in the series. My comment: There is some truth to this, but it will depend on your personal taste; many others actually preferred this one to the previous title.

The praise

But despite this, most people have positive comments to make about the game, including the following:
"A *very* good family level escape challenge in your own home. The variety of puzzles is good given the constraints of the format of the game." - superdupergeek
"I like that this one has physical (rope) puzzles to solve in addition to the regular logic / position puzzles." - cbrua
"The puzzles are all straight forward but the stuff in the game is great." - Bernhard N
"Slightly more interesting than Stargazer." - rubberbands
"More complex than the last one. Nice addition of the "string" puzzles. The design seems a little more polished this time." - Ajax
"Great for family and children, not too hard." - ckneeland
"When compared to live escape room experience, it was quite fun, taking full advantage of being able to build a better, more linear story than a live experience." - jdhchang
"This was a fun one." - Cheryllion
"Slightly better than the Escape from Stargazers Manor." - acedaryl1
"This was a vast improvement over the first game (which was also very good). This game offered some new dexterity-based puzzles that I though were very smart." - shawnchilliard
"Fun." - Gregus48
"It's even a bit better and a bit more challenging than the last one (Stargazer's Manor)." - bnordeng
"Had a really nice time with some friends, while drinking some beer and wine. Highly recommend this!" - MithrasSWE
"An absolutely lovey experience. A bit on the easy side, but still very satisfying." - thesleeper7
"Great time with the family working together to escape! Several of the puzzles are a step up in difficulty from the first." - dmadison
"I found it to be a really good experience and look forward to trying out its predecessor and any new titles that are subsequently released." - superdupergeek
"This is such a fun game. It has just the right amount of challenge. It is not replayable but certainly worth the price for the experience." - TWrecks

Here are some more positive comments from elsewhere on the web:
"While it doesn't fully replicate the escape room experience, the Think Fun games are an enjoyable way to solve escape room-type puzzles at home. It is cheaper than most escape room experiences for 2 people, and you can always pass it along to a friend afterwards." - J. L. Devendorf
"It was definitely worth the price for about an hour and half fun on a Friday night. I would recommend only playing with 2-3 people though." - rayleigh
"There were a variety of puzzles and the story was fun. I had played Stargazers Manor and I think this one is better." - glitter27
"This game is even better than the first one! Such clever puzzles in such a small box. Great experienece! Can't wait for the next in the series!" - Shawn
"If you love escape rooms you will love this series! "
"Our family had a blast playing this game. The challenges were a nice level of difficulty. Challenging but not to the level of frustration." - Mkrieg
"SOOOOO COOOL ! This is a real good game if you are fan of escape room games. We played it with friends and family and it was very fun and thrilling." - Vincent Leclerc
"All of the fun of an escape room but without the price. I really wish they made more." - Ryan



Recommendation

So is Escape the Room: Secret of Dr. Gravely's Retreat for you? My own experience with this game confirms the consensus of opinion: this is a fantastic family game. Adults who are experienced puzzlers will find this relatively straight forward; it's still challenging enough to keep it interesting and enjoyable, but not to the point where it causes frustration. For expert puzzlers, I would suggest playing with only 2 or 3 players at mest. 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. And fortunately if you do run stuck, there are online hints you can use to help you out.

People who found the first title too easy will be glad to know that this one is more challenging and arguably better than the first game of the series, so if you enjoyed that one, then this is a must-have. Just like the first title, this game can only by played once by the same group. But it's still good value given the experience it offers. You can always divide your family/friends into two smaller groups and get a couple of plays out of it first. Plus it's not difficult to repack everything, and you can give it to another family to enjoy once you're done.

The Escape the Room games by Thinkfun are part of that unique breed of games that have the potential to create a memorable evening of fun for everyone involved. I look forward to any new titles in the series and highly recommend these games, especially for families.

Want to learn more?
Official publisher website for the game: http://www.thinkfun.com/products/retreat

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Marc Nelson Jr.
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Thank you for the review!

Have you played Unlock! Escape Adventures, and if so, how does this compare? I like that this one doesn't require an app.
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marcnelsonjr wrote:
Have you played Unlock! Escape Adventures, and if so, how does this compare? I like that this one doesn't require an app.
I'm afraid I haven't played Unlock! personally, so I can't make much of a comparison.

From what I know of Unlock, it lacks physical elements that you need to manipulate or solve, because it just has pictures of rooms and objects on cards. Some have suggested that this makes it feel more like a game and less than an experience.

In contrast, the Escape the Room series from ThinkFun does have actual pieces you are putting together, and dexterity challenges you have to solve, so I suspect that it gives a feeling closer to an actual real life Room Escape experience.

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Are you able to compare this series against the Exit or Unlock or Escape Room series of games?
 
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abe18 wrote:
Are you able to compare this series against the Exit or Unlock or Escape Room series of games?
I've not played Exit or Unlock, so I can't make any comparative remarks about those besides the comments I already made about Unlock in my previous post.

I have played two scenarios from Escape Room: The Game, and that offers a more challenging experience. In contrast the "Escape the Room" series from ThinkFun is easier, and is more suitable for families and older children.

The ThinkFun games are also solo episodes, whereas Escape Room: The Game contains four different and entirely separate scenarios of varying levels of difficulty, so it has more replay value in a single box.

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EndersGame wrote:
abe18 wrote:
Are you able to compare this series against the Exit or Unlock or Escape Room series of games?
I've not played Exit or Unlock, so I can't make any comparative remarks about those besides the comments I already made about Unlock in my previous post.

That's a shame. It seems that BGG users prefer exit/unlock, while the other 2 series that you have played are more popular on amazon.
 
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abe18 wrote:
That's a shame. It seems that BGG users prefer exit/unlock, while the other 2 series that you have played are more popular on amazon.
As far as I know, the two series I played were among the first generation escape room type games. When I acquired them, Exit and Unlock hadn't yet hit the English market.
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Brian Aurelio
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I'm looking at this for a teambuilding exercise at work. Would a larger group be able to play this by working on all 4 folders at once, just like a larger group spreads out to solve different puzzles in a real escape room? Or do puzzles from later folders require information from prior ones?
 
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bjaurelio wrote:
Would a larger group be able to play this by working on all 4 folders at once, just like a larger group spreads out to solve different puzzles in a real escape room? Or do puzzles from later folders require information from prior ones?
It's a progressive story, and as you go along you discover more about what is going on, so you couldn't really do it in the way you suggest.

Team building exercise yes, but not for more than four people.
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Brent Grover
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Great review! Prompted me to pull it out for our next family gathering
 
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