Last year the “Exit” games published by Kosmos won the prestigious Kennerspiel des Jahres, or also known as the Connoisseur Award. While these games have received a great deal of attention since winning, they are by no means the only puzzle-based games doing well. Space Cowboys released two different styles of puzzle games that have seen a great deal of popularity despite not being acknowledged by the Spiel committee, T.I.M.E. Stories and Unlock!. The question is, which one is worthwhile playing. Each has their strengths and weakness. I want to briefly look at what each game offers and try to help you through the murkiness.

Exit- The Game:

Designed by Inka Brand and Markus Brand these little games will take you around and an hour in general, give or take. Playing them reminded me of the old puzzle books I could get as a kid, and follow that sort of logic puzzle style. You are essentially looking for number combinations to find the correct card to progress the game and need to solve puzzles to discover the correct numbers. You can think it out, but if you cannot see the logic you can usually force it by trial and error. Pressure is applied to you via the time element as you rush to beat the game as quickly as you can.
Exit- The Game is highly susceptible to alpha gamers. This does not even have to be due to arrogance or from a problematic gamer. The time pressure will naturally benefit people who are used to these sorts of puzzles and to beat the time those people may hurry team members along or make decisions for others who need to trial and error problems.
These games are strictly one time only. You pay for the game but you only get the hour of gaming as you must physically destroy the booklet to make your way through the puzzles.
Do not worry about the theme. It is very thin and only provides some context for solving puzzles. These are entirely abstract puzzles and do not require any knowledge of the world in which there are set to solve.
All this did not mean it was not fun. Ultimately I was happy with the experience, but I was not left enamoured. A solid game and worth giving a try.

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Unlock! Designed by Alice Carrell and Cyril Demeaged. Unlock! utilises a combination system to find cards in much the same way that the Exit games. However, there is not such a strong emphasis on logic puzzles and a far greater emphasis on story. You will get provided a scenario and you will need to consider the different elements of the story as you try and work out how to find number combinations. The artwork is very clever and a vital element for these games.

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The solutions to these puzzles can sometimes be a matter of simply looking at a picture and finding a set of numbers, but they do get more complex as the game progresses. However, while they do not quite feel as abstract as Exit, Exit clearly requires more thinking.
The time element is vital. You will be using an app to check answers and wrong answers will result in a time penalty. In Exit, you will be competing for a score based on your time, in Unlock! you will be competing against the clock.
These games are also single use, but as you do not destroy any components you may try them again, or if you fail the time challenge can continue working to the end. You may also pass the game to a friend to have a go giving the game another life. This does not make as much financial sense for the company, but I do appreciate that I could share it with others afterward.
My biggest complaint was one of the puzzles was very meta and drew me out of the game. This was disappointing because the rest of the game worked so hard to draw me into the story. Yet it was one puzzle and did not ruin the overall enjoyment of the experience.

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T.I.M.E. Stories. This game is all about the story. The world setting during the introduction is a bit hoaxy sci-fi, but you can swallow it and get on with the game. You are essentially in an Animus style machine that transports you through time to different events like a mix between Assassin’s Creed and Quantum Leap (Google it kids). This game is also single use, but no destroying the pieces. That’s important because you will need to reset this game a few times to get to the end.

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The general flow of the game is that you are expected to go live through an event but with a limited amount of time to solve a mystery. You will gather clues and solve puzzles as you go but you will not be able to get enough info on your first play through the scenario. You are expected to fail and try again, but when you reset all the pieces some information remains revealed meaning you have more info to start and do not have to repeat yourself. You will also find players taking notes to avoid red herrings or in an attempt to find the quickest route during the next attempt.

There is a time pressure in this game that uses actions and turns to control game length. While the clock is not a factor you will be considering how every move impacts your ability to solve the mystery in time. Once you have failed a few times and gathering new information each time you will eventually solve it. On our first scenario, our team took 5 attempts at the game. This is not a stellar performance by the way, just what it took. This meant playing the game five times, setting up the board five times, and trying different things each time to find the quickest route to the victory. There are ways of saving your game and I expect the designers planned for you to play a game and then come back to it. We just played it through we won. It made for a long night but we didn’t particularly fancy the idea of trying to remember everything we had learned.

This game is strongly thematic and story based. Excepting the sci-fi scene-setting at the beginning, I really enjoyed the story and writing. I liked how the game unfolds and reveals things each time. It is a lot of set up and resetting of the game so be prepared to manage a lot of cards as you play.

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Trying to compare the three is difficult as they aim to serve different audiences. Exit and Unlock! are the most similar as they are trying to be cheap one time puzzles to solve. T.I.M.E. Stories is a far more in-depth game requiring a bigger commitment and has a price tag two to three times the amount of the others. However, you get a comparable amount of gameplay for your dollar. Overall I felt Exit was not as engaging as the other two. I really liked the story elements to Unlock! and T.I.M.E. Stories, but the puzzles were much tougher in Exit from a puzzle perspective. But the puzzle complexity really didn’t matter to me. In the end I wanted a fun gaming experience with puzzles rather than a puzzle passed off as a game and Space Cowboys delivered that. While I loved the art and fun of Unlock! it was T.I.M.E. Stories that had the better engagement and gameplay, but I just could not fathom dragging any scenario out over several weeks. I would have to be ready to play the T.I.M.E. Stories scenario in full in one night or not at all. This limits me in my commitment to playing it but is worth it when I do. I have to say I was really skeptical of the puzzle games when I saw them, but they have pleasantly surprised me. In the end, it is not my ideal game but on occasion, I can still see myself giving them a go and having some fun.