Key Enigma: Hack Forward [Spoiler-Free] [Mini]

Base price: $52.
1+ players.
Play time: 4 – 8 hours.
BGG | Board Game Atlas
Buy directly!
Logged plays: 2; we split the game up into two sessions.

Full disclosure: A review copy of Key Enigma: Hack Forward was provided by Key Enigma.

I’m not entirely sure how this happened, but there’s a veritable stack of escape room / mystery / puzzle games sitting on my table right now. Apparently a handful arrived while I was out at GAMA, so now it’s time to start digging through them. This is a growing category of games, though! I mean, I haven’t even touched the Unlock series (basically), but there’s still so many new types of these escape room / puzzle games. I’m always excited to see the variations and differences between them and share them with y’all. Let’s dig into Hack Forward and see what’s up!

In Key Enigma: Hack Forward, you have been called in to deal with a massive data leak. Data, you know; it’s just everywhere, now. You have to figure out what caused it and what the perpetrators want. That said, something seems … odd about all of this. What’s the goal, here? You’ll have to dig deep if you want to find out, but prepare for the unexpected. Unlikely allies and foes await in the depths of this hacker’s paradise. Will you be able to survive long enough to find out who’s behind it all?


Player Count Differences

I’d probably keep Hack Forward focused on the lower end of the player count spectrum. It’s nothing against the game itself, but even when playing it with a tablet, it feels like it’s mostly optimized for one player. The nature of the game is fairly linear (with a few exceptions), and even in the exceptional case, you have to go off onto that branch and can’t really solve too much in parallel. This isn’t too bad, though; my escape room partner and I mostly found that it was easiest to alternate a few puzzles so that one person is the primary solver and the other player is the secondary solver. This way, we also didn’t torch our puzzle-solving stamina and could keep moving at a good clip until we got tired and wanted to trade off. If you’re taking breaks in between the chapters, then it might not matter for a solo game, anyways. I’d probably warn y’all off of playing the game with six people; it almost makes more sense to play it as a group of three and then pass it off to another group of three to start again. General preference for two players, but one or three works fine as well.


  • Use all the resources at your disposal. You have the whole internet at your fingertips (assuming you’re playing with an internet connection, which you need). Use Google Maps, your photo editor, some weird audio manipulation websites, Google Translate, whatever you can think of! The people making this game had access to the same tools that you did, and frankly, I didn’t even think of some of the ones they used. It made it pretty funny.
  • Ask for hints if you’re not sure! I like to think I’m pretty smart, but I needed help sometimes to get ahead. There’s no use sitting around and stewing if you’re genuinely stuck. Sometimes asking for a hint is exactly what you need to get unstuck. That said, you can always jump ahead if you think you’ve made some progress already; usually hint 2 or hint 3 or hint 4 will just give you a later hint instead of making you sit through the first few.
  • Keep in mind what the format of the expected answer should be. The game is somewhat fault-tolerant in that if you enter in the wrong format of the answer it will still sometimes accept it, but it’s a lot easier to make sure you’re right if you match it correctly. If they want a URL, enter a URL; if they want an address, format it in the way they recommend.
  • You shouldn’t immediately put everything away once you’re done with it; you might need it later! This can lead to some sprawl, but, you know, there’s a lot going on here. I can say with some certainty that some objects and tools come back around later, so putting everything away, while nice, means you end up having to find it and dig it back out. Nothing wrong with that, provided you remember where it was.
  • Taking notes helps a lot. I ended up forgetting something that we definitely needed later. I’d recommend an online document of some kind, just to make it easier to copy and paste. You can even have multiple players using their laptops and one player with the primary control that you can ping solutions to, if that’s helpful.

Pros, Mehs, and Cons


  • The theme is a lot of fun! Hackers are kind of silly. Not because a malicious hacker can’t mess up your entire life, but because of like, stuff like this. I appreciate that the game leans into it a bit and starts off a bit intense and gradually gets a bit campier as it crosses the boundary into science fiction, but it’s a fun journey.
  • The actual modalities of how you, the player, engage the puzzles is pretty cool. A lot of the game is presented as a text chat that you’re engaging with, but you’ll also hop around to a bunch of bespoke websites created for the sole purpose of the game. I also appreciate the accessibility options; they’ll send you information or generate it if your phone isn’t working or if you’re not getting what you’re supposed to. I even had to send a few emails! It’s a lot of fun.
  • Also there’s just an unbelievable variety of puzzles; so many different types and styles! I list more of them below but there’s an impressive range that tests a variety of different skills. Certain puzzles were my speed, others were perfect for my housemate, and some were us just putting our heads together or trying to look at the puzzles in new ways. I was very impressed, and this is coming from someone who’s played basically every EXIT game that currently exists in the states.
  • I never felt overwhelmed by the puzzles, though there were a couple that gave us more trouble. It was a good range of difficulty, I think. Not as challenging as something like The Emerald Flame (still my standard-bearer for Hardest Escape Game Box), but around the difficulty of the harder EXIT games. We got tripped up a few times and occasionally needed a hint for grounding ourselves.
  • I like the whole “interact with real webpages and use the internet as a resource” escape room style; it’s pretty cool. I’ve seen a few places play with this to some degree, and I’ve liked most of them. This one does a really good job since it keeps the game mostly contained in its own ecosystem, but even then it still does a few things that surprise and delight me. There’s one particular puzzle that I genuinely wasn’t expecting, even with a fairly comprehensive knowledge of internet tools.
  • It’s reusable, as well, which I appreciate. There’s a part that you can write on, but we ended up just taking a picture and writing it on my housemate’s iPad. We may loan this out to a friend once we’re done. I love the EXITs, but destroying them every time bums me out, a bit.
  • The hint system is pretty robust, as well. There are a lot of good hints! They do a nice job directing you along and helping with steps of the problem, as well as giving more locally-specific hints for certain aspects of the challenges as they come up.
  • There’s an option to “Give Up” at the end of the game, which leads to a Non-Standard Game Over. Bit funny. I’m not entirely sure why you’d just choose to quit and let everything fall apart, but I’m grateful that the game gives you the option.


  • There’s the occasional spelling / grammar mistake, but it honestly doesn’t detract from the game in any meaningful way. Honestly, nothing too major. Readability isn’t hampered, understanding isn’t really, either. It would just add some additional polish if everything had another pass taken.
  • I do wish that the chapters did a better job saving your progress; if you accidentally reset the page, you have to start from scratch. This one’s a bit more annoying; an accidental refresh / reload forces a chapter restart. Plus, the site times you out after a certain point in time, so you end up having to log back in when you open a new tab. Thankfully, the site doesn’t time you out of your current tab, but a Remember Me button or something would be kind of nice.


  • This doesn’t always follow the “tolerant on inputs, strict on outputs” design style, which can lead to some puzzles that are occasionally a bit clunky. There were a few puzzles that gave us trouble just because we had something that was correct but poorly formatted or close to correct but with a minor logistical error that the game wouldn’t give us a nudge on. When that happens, it usually means we solved the problem the right way but made a calculation mistake or something, so the hints aren’t necessarily going to help, either. I think we ended up having to use the Solution twice as a result, which wasn’t an ideal outcome.

Overall: 9 / 10

Overall, I think Key Enigma: Hack Forward is pretty fantastic! My major gripe with it is mostly that the puzzles can be occasionally clunky, format-wise, just because it’s not always clear exactly what the puzzle wants from the solution. Sometimes it’s an off-by-one error that isn’t caught by the game and hinted around, which, to be fair, it’s hard to account for every possible error. Other times, it’s a quirk of the writing or a misinterpreted clue due to some element that just wasn’t quite clear. Some clarifications / FAQ / errata would probably help a lot, especially on a per-chapter / per-puzzle basis. This is one of their older titles (relatively speaking), though, so I’m interested to see what improvements they’ve made to some of the newer stuff (which I’m trying soon!). In the meantime, there’s a lot of great stuff to say about this game! I found it particularly immersive, which is cool. I never felt like a white-hat hacker fighting on the side of good or anything, but the various challenges that I needed to solve used a lot of real-world tools and techniques and the way that I interacted with the game and its characters was very engaging. I liked it a lot. Plus, I like the hacker theme a lot; it’s a bit silly, but it’s fun. The game gets a bit more campy as time goes on, and frankly, it ends up being a bit funnier as a result, which I enjoyed. I do wish that the chapters didn’t do a full reset if you refresh the page, however; I accidentally refreshed my housemate’s iPad when I was scrolling upwards to look at a picture and we lost like, 10 minutes or so getting back through all the old puzzles. A bit frustrating. I do think that the game would also benefit from another pass of proofreading, but the occasional error / linguistic strangeness we saw didn’t actually detract from our experience; it just seemed like something that, if fixed, would make the game feel even more polished. Even the length wasn’t a problem! We took two days to get through all eight chapters, and I appreciate the game telling us to take breaks (even if we’re up against a time-sensitive scenario in-game). Not sure why it took me so long to get to the puzzles themselves, but they’re also incredible. Lots of variety, lots of different interaction types and modalities. Everything from word puzzles to number puzzles to immersive online puzzles to a web game to something with wires to a thing I needed my fridge for? And that’s not even half of them. You’d best be prepared. I think Key Enigma has something very special here with Hack Forward, and if you’re looking for a lengthy and intense escape game experience that’s challenging but engaging or you just want to test your skill as a white hat hacker, I’d definitely recommend checking this one out!

If you enjoyed this review and would like to support What’s Eric Playing? in the future, please check out my Patreon. Thanks for reading!

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