Interview with Cyril Demaegd, creator of Unlock!

We were delighted to have the opportunity to put some questions to Cyril Demaegd who is the creator behind the massively successful Unlock! series that we adore. We wanted to find out about his motivations, game creating journey and what might be next for Unlock! – hope you enjoy our interview! Any questions or feedback for us please email

Cyril Demaegd Portrait
Cyril Demaegd

Q1 – What got you into board game design to begin with? Follow up: You’ve a history of creating other games prior to Unlock!, as far back as 2004 with Ys, which are of a different genre. What led you to designing the first Unlock! and what was the inspiration for this type of game?

Actually, I’ve designed boardgames all my life, my first boardgames were designed at school (maybe around 10). Those first tries were not glorious of course, mainly weird skins of other pirate or cowboy games. But I always had this will in me to create things around the boardgame universe.

Earlier work by Dyril Demaegd
Amyitis (2007) and Ys (2004) – earlier games by Cyril

Then I got interested in RPGs, played them a lot. In between those games we used to play the big board games of that era (like Civ or Res Publica Romana). Those games were not exactly fillers (about 15h) but we were young and had the time. Then one day I crossed…came across Catan and it changed my life – a game filled with tactics and strategy, playable in 40 minutes? You must be kidding?

Catan introduced me to the German boardgame universe, soon followed by El Grande (Wolfgang Kramer is the master). When I discovered those simple concepts. I was like ” Why haven’t I thought about it?” and it drove me create Ys, and then to Ystari Games, and then ultimately to Unlock!

For Unlock, the story is a bit different. One day in 2015 , me and my friend decided to try this new concept of live Escape Games – it was a total blast! Right after the exit I thought that there was probably a way to translate this feeling to a boardgame. But I don’t like to sit in front of a blank page so I decided to play a lot of escape games and let the idea seed its way through my mind. And, maybe one year later, my brain found the solution.

“…designed Unlock! in about 30 minutes…”

I was having my coffee when I had the vision of the main system of Unlock!. I saw a card with a Door labelled “10”. A card with a key labelled “15” and thought “Ok, 10+15=25 so card 25 is an opened room”. I went to my computer straight away and designed Unlock! in about 30 minutes, solving the problem (code, locks, hints) as they where came. In fact it was so easy that I realized it was probably quite a big thing. When you’re a game designer, you search for those really simple mechanisms all your life. Doing complicated things is easy. Doing simple things is tricky.

Q2 – How do you sit down to design an Unlock? Do you first come up with a story or scenario and then design puzzles themed around that or do you first think of puzzles and then build them into a story?

A bit of both but we’re more story oriented. We receive a lot of proposals and we like a good theme better than a good riddle. More importantly we prefer a nice riddle which is linked to the theme than a wonderful mathematical riddle. 

“… I see Unlock as a sandbox…”

I see Unlock! as a sandbox. Or at least I designed it as such. Not many “core rules” giving us the liberty to do anything, in any universe. This gives us the freedom to have real stories, with events and surprises rather than a simple list of riddles.

We can’t make you feel the things you feel in a real escape room, tied with handcuffs, but we have the power of player’s imagination. We can tell you: you’re at the top of a mountain and let you imagine it.

So, our job is to complement a good story with good rhythm and good thematic riddles.

Q3 – How do you feel unlock has evolved since you started creating it in 2017 and what further changes are there in the future (that you can tell us about)?

Just as i said, we broke the walls ! First Unlock! was really an escape room emulator. You’re locked somewhere, you’ve got an hour to breakout. But soon we realized that you don’t really have to be locked. It could be a landscape instead of a room. you could meet characters, there could be events and all that stuff.

So, since 2017, we’ve worked on improving our storytelling, and trying to surprise people (which is not an easy task when you released more than 50 adventures in 6 years).

Q4 – What’s the hardest part of putting together an Unlock! game for you? What do you do if you’re stuck?

It is different for every adventure. Most of the times it’s the story because it’s important for us that players understand what’s going on. During test sessions, I often interrupt players to ask them question like “where are you now? What is your actual goal? What do you want?” just to be sure that they’re understanding the story, and not just trying to solve a riddle.

But basic things can sometimes be complicated too, like setting the number for cards. Sometimes it’s a breeze, sometimes a nightmare (for example when you do a black and white adventure where every card can be Red or Blue).

So it’s a new and different challenge each time but maybe that’s a blessing because we don’t feel like we’re doing the same thing over and over again each year.

Q5 – What’s next for Unlock!, can you tell us about any projects in the works or any releases our readers can look out for in the near future?

Well, games about riddles mean secret projects 😉

“…collaborations coming with comic artists…”

But I can you tell that we just released a new box in French with 3 great adventures (about Super Heroes, Dia de Muertos and Vikings) and that we have several collaborations coming with comic artists, or with “weird inventors”. Rather mysterious, sorry! 🙂

Q6 – Can you tell us of your most memorable moment with a fan about the Unlock! series and what impact that’s had on you and your game design after that point if any?

Honestly, I think the fan did not even realise 😉

For this most memorable moment, I was walking in the street right behind two guys, and they had a passionate talk about Unlock! (and I must say that it happened several other times since)

What are the odds? But at this moment I realized that Unlock! was huge. Huge enough to the point I can come across people talking about it in front of me. This was cool, but weird. You never really understand the impact of the things you do.

About the game design, I don’t really know but I hope it didn’t change anything. I’ve always had this love for pure mechanisms. Even when we were doing resource management boardgames with Ystari we did not favour games with 50+ different resources. You can give players a game with complex and vast amounts of resources but you can also do something deep without them. Spyrium, for example, has one resource (!) but there are many ways to play and win. That’s what I like. 

Q7 – What’s your favourite Unlock! Game and more specifically do you have a favourite puzzle you’ve put together that you are particularly proud of?

Way too difficult to answer!!!

I like stories so probably things like Robin Hood, because there are good memories linked to it. For example when we did this one, we watched a lot of movies about Robin Hood (like the Errol Flynn version, or the Costner one) and I love those movies! Seriously we do this, just to be “in the mood” but it helps.

Unlock! Legendary Adventures Robin Hood
Unlock! Legendary Adventures Robin Hood

I loved the “Hollywood Confidential” because I tried to designed it as a mini RPG and also because it gave me the opportunity to play guitar (my main hobby) for the Jazz Club scene. We really wanted to pay this homage to Jessica Rabbit but the original song (from the 30s) was too quick to give this smooth feeling. So we had to record it ourselves and I had to grab the guitar. What a blast (and what a singer)!

But it’s unfair for the other adventures. I like them all. Some were difficult to finish, but that’s satisfying too in the end.

Q8 – Lastly what are your favourite games to play? Have these had an impact on how you design your own games?

I love most games by Wolfgang Kramer and if I had to pick one it would probably be Princes of Florence.

Actually now I realize I tend to favor classics. Old Wolfgang Kramer (Tikal, Torres and so on), old Reiner Knizia (Euphrat & Tigris, Amun Re). Puerto Rico of course and probably my most played game is Race for The Galaxy (short and so addictive).  Sometimes I just play an Ystari just to re-discover it 😉

For “recent” games, I play Wingspan quite a lot cause it’s refreshing. Played a lot of Terraforming Mars too. But I always come back to the classics above because they made me what I am. It’s a shame those games are now a bit in the dark. It was the golden era of German boardgaming and, even if the quality of new releases is undisputed, those guys paved the way for everyone !

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