Dispatch: On the Run
Publisher: Breakout Games
Playing Time: 90-180 Minutes
Campaign Mode: 7 boxes, each shipped monthly via subscription
MSRP: $124.99 for entire series, or $24.99 per box
Logged Plays: Played and completed all 7 boxes
Copy Purchased By Reviewer
A growing niche within the tabletop hobby has been what could best be called “narrative tabletop puzzle experiences,” to steal the term from PostCurious. Part tabletop escape room game ala the EXIT/Unlock! series, part mystery game ala Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, part alternate reality game, these kind of games aren’t meant to be rushed through in an hour, but instead worked through at a more leisurely pace.
Breakout Games, the tabletop gaming branch of Breakout Escape Rooms (a large escape room company with locations all across the eastern United States), launched a subscription service in 2017 called Dispatch. Every month, Breakout Dispatch will send you a small box about the size of a book, filled with documents and objects that you must read through, find hidden clues, and solve puzzles within. Each box eventually leads you to a website where you typically must answer questions related to the mystery or puzzles contained in the box. Upon answering those questions correctly, a short video is played summarizing what you did in that box and sets up the plot for the next box, which you then anxiously wait another month to receive and play through.
“On the Run” is Breakout Dispatch’s first series (they are currently on their third series at time of writing, but you can still purchase/subscribe for any of them). Your best friend James has been wrongfully accused of murdering his wife (and copper mining heiress/socialite) Victoria on their honeymoon in Hawaii. Over the course of 7 installments, James will hop across the globe escaping authorities, sending you packages that you must decipher and solve to help get to the bottom of who killed Victoria. Some components and documents contained in earlier boxes may not make much sense at the time, and may be referred to in later boxes to solve puzzles, so make sure not to throw anything away.
I found that boxes took typically around 2 hours to work my way through solo. Some were a little shorter, maybe clocking in around 90 minutes, and some packages took closer to 3 hours to work my way through, depending on the amount and difficulty of the puzzles in a box. If you get stuck on a puzzle, you can email a character in the game, a private investigator, and he will give you hints/solutions in-character. They got back to me within pretty quickly during normal business hours, but if you were to get stuck during a game night, you might need to pack it away and come back to it another night.
Components are made to look and feel authentic. Newspaper articles are printed on newspaper, magazine articles are printed on magazine stock, etc. Over the course of the subscription, you will get props made of actual metal, wood, and more. Some of the props you could probably keep as souvenirs and/or use outside of the game when you are done. Compared to escape room games that are almost entirely just cards (EXIT, Unlock, etc) or even ones that may have some cardboard props in them (Escape the Room, Escape Room: The Game, etc), it was nice to play a game with higher prop quality.
Each box will also have you going online to looking for clues. Most are fictitious websites, but there are times where you’ll need to visit a character’s social media profile on Twitter/Instagram, research Wikipedia, or use other online resources to solve puzzles. There are even points in the story where you will need to make phone calls and text/email in-game characters (they’re just pre-recorded messages or bots). I enjoyed the blend of physical, digital, and augmented reality elements.
There are definitely puzzles in every box, but the quality and quantity per box varies. The first box in particular is very light on puzzles, and the shortest box to work through, as it focuses more on the backstory and narrative of the series. This may unfortunately give some players a false impression of what the game has to offer.
The game series relies a lot on using cryptographic messages that you will need to decode. Once you solve how to decode a message, it can be a bit tedious to actually decode the message. There is one cryptography puzzle in a later box that is incredibly slow and tedious to decode, and then they use the same exact cryptography puzzle in later boxes! This felt more like busywork than solving an actual puzzle in later boxes, and kind of lazy design on their part to re-use the same puzzle multiple times. But aside from those cases, I found the quality of the puzzles to be pretty good. I was able to solve all the puzzles on my own or with a few hints, I never had to brute-force my way through a puzzle or accidentally solve a puzzle without actually knowing the logic behind the solution.
The story for On the Run is serviceable. I think they were going for the feel of a globe-trotting thriller, but instead feels like the plot of a soap opera. This isn’t a turnoff for playing the game, as I was playing primarily for the puzzles, not the narrative, but it’s just a little unfortunate that sometimes puzzles took more of a backseat to the narrative in some of the episodes. You also have to suspend your disbelief a bit that your friend would go through all the effort of hiding his messages behind a series of puzzles that take the average person an hour or two to solve, as if that would be sufficient to prevent people besides you from decoding/intercepting it.
I should also bring up the cost of this game series. Given the production value of the props, and the fact that these boxes are probably assembled by hand by the Dispatch crew, the resulting costs are going to run higher than your average hobby game mass-produced overseas. Buying the entire 7-box series outright will cost you $125, or you can pay for a month-to-month subscription of $25/month. There are Groupons to get the first two months cheap and 6-12 month subscription packages that can bring down the monthly cost, but ultimately I can see the price point being a turn-off for some people. That said, the price-per-hour is comparable to hour-long escape room games that cost $12-$15.
I played through the whole series solo. I think it would work for couples to play together, but I probably wouldn’t recommend it as a group experience unless you are playing it as a group to split the cost. Like many other escape room games, the more people you play with, the few puzzles each individual is going to experience, and there may even be times where some players are sitting around doing nothing.
Overall, I really enjoyed my experience going through On the Run. It scratches a similar itch to escape room games, but introduces a narrative/deduction element that a lot of escape room games often lack. I also appreciated working through the box at my own pace without any sort of artificial time limit that similar escape room games impose. The high price point might be a barrier to entry for some people, so I would suggest trying the first month or two at a discount on Groupon and see if it’s something you enjoy before investing any more money into it.
Since finishing On the Run early this year, Breakout has released a 2 box mini-series called “Marlow’s Game”, and is in the middle of their next series “I, Spy” which will last a total of 5 boxes/months. I have played through Marlow’s Game, it was more puzzle-heavy than On the Run, so you may want to start with that series if you are looking for more puzzles and less narrative. I have not started I, Spy yet, but I can’t wait to get my first box in a couple of weeks!
REVIEW SCORE: 8 out of 10 (Great)
- Nice blend of mystery, narrative, and puzzles
- Prop quality is much better than a typical “escape room in a box” game
- I look forward to getting my next package in the mail every month
- Expensive to pay month-to-month, really have to commit to a longer subscription to bring down the price to something more reasonable.
- Repetition of some crypto puzzles from month-to-month felt tedious
- Some months were much lighter on puzzles than other months, especially the first box
- Plot was kind of cheesy