RATING: 4.5 STARS (Out of 5)
Escape: Murders in the Speakeasy is a murder-mystery box from the Escape the Crate subscription service. Their boxes, which vary widely in theme, ship out every other month. They have subscriptions starting as low as around $30, but here’s an awesome feature that sets them apart: they offer many of their retired games a la carte, essentially, meaning you don’t need a subscription to order a lot of their more popular ones as one-offs. This is how I ordered Murders in the Speakeasy, although I was so impressed that I will be subscribing (the subscription offers a better value; Speakeasy was $35.99 by itself).
Each box is completely self-contained so they can be played in any order. There does appear to be an over-arching narrative of time-travel that link the games month-to-month, but not so much that it affects the gameplay or even the story at all.
Out of all the mystery and puzzle boxes I’ve been through, Escape the Crate seems to have by far the tightest handle on just what they’re doing. If Speakeasy was anything to judge the other crates by, this company is head and shoulders above the rest.
This particular game was broken up very clearly into two distinct parts. Each part took us about an hour to complete, with the very useful option of an “intermission” of sorts in-between. There is enough of a clear break (and clear instructions) that the two parts can even be played over two different days should you wish.
The instructions, made available along with the narrative on a password-protected website, were crystal clear…like, almost overly so. So many games can leave you scratching your head even after reading the manual, but not this one. Painstakingly detailed instructions, with illustrations, photos, and videos are given so you know exactly how to set things up and how to proceed.
This box has something for everyone, no matter your experience level. It was, for seasoned puzzlers, on the easy side—but not so much that it took away from the fun. The puzzles were engaging and difficult enough to keep us happily occupied throughout. Someone new to this type of game will likely be just as satisfied as veteran gamers. We didn’t end up having to use any hints, but plenty were provided on the website, helpful prods without giving away the solution.
The variety of puzzles were good too…not too heavy on one type or another. The first part was a very fun game of deduction, as you “interviewed” witnesses and suspects. It’s left up to you which questions to ask as you interrogate them, and depending on what you choose, you may end up having a harder or easier time fleshing out who everyone was and how they connect to each other and the victim. The deduction and interview tactics in this section reminded me a bit of the L.A. Noire video game, in the best way.
The second part was more (entirely) puzzle based. There were various codes to crack, clues to find, and links to make. Everything is used, often more than once—the various included papers, a handful of physical objects, and even the box itself comes into play.
There were a few things about this box we thought could have been improved…but honestly most of it were faults of ours, not of the creators. I’m anxious for our next Escape the Crate now that we know how it works and can prepare better.
For one, the physical layout was a bit difficult. Because each section has to be set up in a VERY specific way (wonderfully detailed to make it easy), set-up time was a bit more than just opening up the box and having at it like other boxes. All of the paper items were double-sided (yay for being eco-friendly), but only one side was used at any time, which resulted in a great deal of flipping back and forth between puzzles. It holds the potential of getting confusing, particularly to those casual gamers who, say, may be drinking while gaming…it is a speakeasy, after all. But the drawback for me on this was there was simply no way to just lay out and see everything at once. Not that you ever need to, but I think maybe numbered envelopes would have been an easier way to reveal the papers in a specific order.
This game, as I suspect all of the Escape the Crates are, is very linear. Like, undoubtedly the most linear mystery box I’ve ever played. This could be a “con” rather than a “pro” if you’re expecting something typical of these boxes (like Hunt-a-Killer, Curious Correspondence, or Cold Case Files), where a bunch of information is dumped at the beginning of the game and it’s up to you to sift through everything and decide which order to tackle the puzzles. Instead, this game follows a narrative very closely through the website, which makes it feel more like an actual story. There’s a beginning, middle and end arc to your experience, with actions happening to you in real time rather than just “you’re a detective hired to solve a case, so solve it.” There are twists, turns, plot twists, and plenty of action.
It's admittedly refreshing, going along for the ride. The story was cheesy (but in a good way), and although often humorous, none of the puzzles felt like they were just crammed in—they all fit the narrative in a way that made sense. Sense in this particular world, anyway. The corny dialogue and over-the-top characters fit right in to the hard-boiled detective melodrama theme. One thing particularly of note is the quality of the videos—the voice acting of the de-facto narrator was some of the best I’ve heard in this type of game. It definitely added a certain something to the whole experience.
The downside to the linear narrative, however, is that it meant only one puzzle could be worked on at a time. The format was consistently narrative-puzzle-narrative-puzzle, each one leading to the other, leaving you unable to progress out-of-order. With a group of six, it became challenging making sure everybody had an opportunity to work on something—in other brands with more than one puzzle or mystery, the work can be divvied up amongst everyone, even in a larger group, and part of the fun is coming together to share what everyone’s learned and discovering how it pieces together. In Speakeasy, there were times that a couple of eager players had a puzzle completely solved while everyone else was watching/listening to the story narration leading up to it.
Another drawback for playing in larger groups (by larger I mean probably 4+) is just the overall logistics of the game. We made the mistake of playing Speakeasy like we do Hunt-a-Killer and others—seated around a table. This not only made it difficult for everyone to be involved in the (at times necessarily hands-on) puzzles, but in the cases where the actual box was used, involving everyone was literally impossible. Sitting around the game meant someone was inevitably sitting behind the box, unable to see and participate.
Our seating arrangement also caused problems with the narratives. Not knowing how much the multimedia on the website would be used, we had one laptop (later turning into one cell phone after some connectivity issues on my part). Again, sitting around a table made it hard for any one of us to watch the many videos required to participate in the game, let alone all of us.
This problem I’m willing to chalk up to my mistake, not the game’s. For my next Escape the Crate, I think we’ll be seated semi-circle in the living room, with the game set up in front of us, and stream the media to a television behind it. This should ensure everyone gets a better view. And if each box has more-or-less the same format as Speakeasy, I think I’ll also wait and set up the puzzles after each piece of narration instead of before as instructed, to keep any over-eager puzzlers at bay. These changes should, hopefully, make the game more enjoyable for a larger group. It’s either that or lose some friends, but I kinda like these folks.
Again, I don’t hold these issues against the gamemakers, this is just a heads up if you’re interested in playing this series with more than a couple of people—your set-up matters. And be prepared to have to use (and make sure everyone can see) the online portal a LOT…way more than other games.
One other really cool feature about this game, and Escape the Crate in general: Replayability. The super-duper helpful website has options to print out game pieces should your crate be missing any (because again, most of this game uses papers). This also means any pieces that have folded, written on, crumpled or lost can be reprinted, and the game can be reset for you to either play again with another group or give it away to someone else. This is an INCREDIBLY rare feature of boxed games of this nature, and very, very welcome.
Who would I recommend this box to? Honestly, anyone. Whether you’re a family looking for something for game night, or seasoned hardcore escape room veterans, Speakeasy really does have something enjoyable for anyone.
Several members of my group commented how Speakeasy was their favorite out of all the many puzzle boxes we’ve played. My rating of 4.5 stars is based on an aggregate score by my group of six, judging the game in over a dozen different categories. Thank you so much for reading, and happy puzzling!
Escape the Crate: Murders in the Speakeasy is available here and at other fine retailers.