Does Trap Door’s newest escape room, Witch Hunt, portray controversial subject matter?
After we’d just hanged a woman for witchcraft, we sat down with Tone and Jess of Trap Door to discuss Controversial Escape Rooms for this episode of Trapdoor UNLOCKED.
The 15-minute video covers the following topics:
- Is it common sense to avoid controversial topics?
- Political relevance
- Escape rooms as education on a topic
- Trap Door’s Witch Trials
- How close are you or your players to the topic?
- Prepare for the backlash
- Abortion as a theme
- Holocaust room escapes
- Branding and marketing
- Make purposeful decisions around controversial topics.
For more on this topic, read Genocides, Serial Killers, Tragedies, & Edgy Escape Room PR Nightmares.
Looking for some escape room design inspiration?
Lose yourself in the Control Panel flickr group.
Established in 2006, this group has more than 1,200 members who have posted more than 2,300 photos of control panels, many of them gorgeous.
There are some handsome interactions in here and I have no doubt that they could provide inspiration for both puzzle and set design.
The Great Heist Caper at the Marginal Museum.
Location: Saugus, MA
Date played: April 9, 2017
Team size: up to 12; we recommend 4-6
Duration: 60 minutes
Price: $30 per ticket
Story & setting
Our first night as rent-a-cops guarding the Kuddelmuddel Museum of Marginal Curiosities got off to a rough start: a cat burglar made an attempt to steal the Museum’s most prized artifact, The Sultan’s Lock. After removing it from its display, he stashed it elsewhere in the museum, triggering a security lockdown. We had an hour to find the lock and return it to its display before the crime was pinned on us.
If it’s not clear from the description, The Great Museum Heist Caper Job was a funny room escape. Set within a modest museum, the game looked and felt the part.
The puzzling centered on the various exhibit displays; they looked great. They were large and they felt it. Everything was tangible and responsive.
Wicked Escapes used technology thoughtfully throughout the puzzling and did a great job of breathing life (and humor) into the various interactions.
The Great Museum Heist Caper Job was full of hands-on interactions. We picked things up and moved them around. These items had heft, size, and polish.
The puzzles were responsive. With every correct solution, the set revealed new objects or information. This design built forward momentum.
The setup was humorous. Everything from the premise to the exhibit names to the display descriptions made us laugh, if we read closely enough.
While the reading was entertaining, at times a substantial block of text would halt the flow of gameplay.
The initial set was not particularly impressive or interactive. Fortunately it quickly opened up. The starting area felt like underused space.
Should I play Wicked Escapes’ The Great Museum Heist Caper Job?
The Great Museum Heist Caper nailed so much of what makes for an excellent escape room. The puzzles were big, built into the set, and had gravity. Moreover, accomplishing things felt like an accomplishment.
The Great Museum Heist Caper is a fun and worthy room escape for newer and experienced players alike.
If you play escape rooms because they bring you to new places and give you puzzling you can’t recreate at home, you will enjoy The Great Museum Heist Caper.
Book your hour with Wicked Escapes’ The Great Museum Heist Caper Job, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.
Full disclosure: Wicked Escapes comped our tickets for this game.
This may shock you, but the room only has 60 minutes of oxygen.
Location: Livingston, NJ
Date played: April 23, 2017
Team size: up to 8; we recommend 5-6
Duration: 60 minutes
Price: from $30 per ticket
Story & setting
While we were aboard a submarine-turned-military museum, the vessel experienced a systemwide malfunction. If we couldn’t right the systems, we would sink to an ocean grave.
Maritime Grave looked part submarine, part museum. Bane Escape constructed a set that felt like an imaginative naval vessel and used the museum-ification of the old boat as pretense to incorporate puzzle-laden displays and plaques. The execution was artfully done.
The puzzling took place largely through keen observation, which then translated into tactile inputs. The challenge was primarily in locating information and making the right connections. That shouldn’t give you the impression that Maritime Grave was an easy escape room.
There was ample room for parallel puzzling.
Bane Escape committed to this quirky scenario and delivered. The set struck the right balance between naval vessel and museum. Its unified and polished aesthetic was both impressive and fun.
So much of this game was custom construction. It looked great and functioned well.
The information-meets-input design unfolded across the large gamespace. This facilitated teamwork well.
At times, the gamespace felt empty, despite ample puzzles. Large spaces held few interactions.
One area of the submarine remained poorly lit throughout the experience. We were expecting some dramatic lighting to turn on when the area became relevant, but it remained dimly lit.
There were a few instances where the removal of clue ambiguity could dramatically elevate the experience.
Should I play Bane Escape’s Maritime Grave?
Bane Escape is a spinoff of Bane Haunted House. Although the designers have a haunt background, Maritime Grave was not a frightening game. It is approachable for a general audience. Furthermore, Bane Escape’s experience building haunts shines in the artistic and durable set of Maritime Grave.
This would be a fun, but challenging escape room for new players. There are a lot of dots to connect. Teamwork and parallel puzzling are crucial.
Experienced players will find this a worthy opponent and likely appreciate this unorthodox rendering of a sinking submarine scenario.
Book your hour with Bane Escape’s Maritime Grave, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.
We spent the opening days of May at the Niagara Falls Escape Room Conference. This gathering of over 1,000 people from across the escape room world was a wonderful experience.
Transworld, the show organizer, was completely prepared for the crowd this year. With their full staff, the lines, bottlenecks, and confusion that frustrated so many show attendees in Chicago in 2016 were, as far as I could tell, not present this time around.
With that out of the way, here are a few of my observations from this year’s show:
We saw an insatiable thirst for technology. It was off-putting how often we heard people say something along the lines of, “I have a gen 1 game and I’m looking to make a gen 2 game.”
When we interviewed Shawn Fischtein of Escape Games Canada last year and published that discussion about his generational definitions, we were publishing an interesting conversation. No one involved intended for this to become industry-wide jargon.
At Room Escape Artist, we have never referenced “generations” once in a review or commentary. These generations are a basic construct for thinking about technology, but technology in an escape room does not have inherent value. There are brilliant room escapes without tech and there are terrible room escapes with tech-heavy builds costing over $100,000.
We were surprised to hear so many owners reference these technology generations as if they were incremental steps in escape room progress, and therefore something to strive for.
Our message has always been: focus on fun and gameflow. Tech and set design are tools to help with these. The core mechanics must be present, however, or all you have is a very pretty, very expensive room with a crappy game built into it.
Marketing & differentiation
More than at last year’s conference, we heard a lot of angst about market definition and differentiation. As local markets fill with similarly named companies, it has grown increasingly difficult to stand out.
Our panel on collaboration across companies within local markets was abuzz with discussion about how to better work together and how to deal with bad actors within the a local community.
Our hope is that more companies will focus on providing an exceptional player experience, co-promote other great companies in the region, and grow strong, eager player communities. Ultimately this industry will live or die based on everyone’s collective ability to foster regular gameplay.
In the words of Benjamin Franklin:
“We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
Still no puzzles
I still wish that there had been a greater focus on puzzle design and game mechanics in the talks and on the tradeshow floor.
On the other hand, we didn’t have tons of people approaching us and expressing their total dislike of puzzles, which happened a lot last year. #Progress
In Chicago last year there were a number of owners and prospective owners who heckled speakers and were painfully cynical in conversation. This year that wasn’t an issue. I think I only spoke to one person who was looking at escape rooms as a cash grab opportunity.
The attendees at large felt a lot more calm, thoughtful, and mature, which made our many conversations so much fun.
It is possible that the cynics just avoided us… and that’s fine too.
How to support Room Escape Artist
Last year a lot of owners asked how they could support us; we didn’t have an answer. While we would happily accept money, we don’t want to know where it comes from, as this could compromise our commitment to neutral review. This year we showed up with a solution that we have been beta testing for 6 months.
If you want to support us, simply use our Amazon link to purchase goods for your escape room (or anything else). It has zero effect on your Amazon experience and we pick up 4-10% of the sale depending upon the item.
We don’t know who’s buying what, so we cannot be in a position to play favorites. This solution allows escape room owners as well as enthusiast readers to support us without direct financial relationships.
If you’re willing to favorite this link and use it in the future, please know that we will never know who you are, but we deeply appreciate the support.
If you’re in Canada, we’re working on a link for you. Stay tuned.
Props 4 sale
Like last year, there were a lot of prop makers selling Arduino and Rasberry Pi driven props. They looked great and cost a pretty penny.
I continue to worry about the lack of a substantive service model for these devices. The folks buying ready-made props lack the technical know-how to build these things in the first place, so I don’t understand what they plan to do when these props fail.
Every single escape room operator should have at least one backup plan for every single element of the player experience. Shit happens. Please be ready for it.
At our booth this year we set up a pair of lock trees to demo many interesting padlocks. We ran little crash courses on the finer points of lock design, as well as how to identify locks that will be less likely to break. For those who are interested, these are some of the crowd favorites from our booth:
Trick Lock (which we strongly discourage you from using in an escape room, but could be a nice lobby puzzle)
The strange but entertaining line of Mindy Locks
Stay tuned, we’ll be writing reviews of each of these and more over the coming months.
Seeing old friends & making new ones
Over the past few years, we’ve met so many wonderful people through this industry. These conferences are like reunions.
To all of the people that we spoke to (except for that one cynical dude), it was a pleasure chatting with you. We were so insanely busy, but we had so much fun.
Also, we extend a special thank you to our regular teammates and dear friends Jason Lisnak and Lindsay Froelich for running our booth and making sure that we could eat. We could not have done this without you two.
The next conference location and date have not been announced yet, but we are looking forward to it nonetheless.
Until then, we wish everyone a productive, fulfilling, and profitable year.
(If you purchase via our Amazon links, you will help support Room Escape Artist as we will receive a very small percentage of the sale.)
A puzzling withdrawal.
Location: Atlanta, GA
Date played: April 2, 2017
Team size: up to 10; we recommend 5-7
Duration: 60 minutes
Price: $28 per ticket
Story & setting
Our notorious crime syndicate was robbing another bepuzzled bank.
Our goals were to steal as much money as we could within an hour and escape.
The set looked like a bank: a bland lobby and teller counter, along with a vault, which was absolutely the highlight of the set.
The Bank Heist was tangled with puzzles and locks. There were plenty of puzzles to solve, but it wasn’t always clear what was a puzzle.
Additionally, once a puzzle had been solved, it wasn’t easy to determine where to input the solution as there were many similar input mechanisms.
There was one well designed, dramatic moment.
One repeated interaction was lifted straight from banking hardware and protocol. This was a clever puzzle-esque design.
Something that originally seemed trivial, even out-of-place, turned out to be useful in a particularly satisfying way.
There were a lot of numbers and all numbers led back to a lock. These locks were almost all identical. It was a lot of similar information to keep track of.
Much of the puzzling in Bank Heist was accessible before we’d derived all of the necessary cluing or components. Strategic puzzle-gating would save teams from spinning their wheels attempting to solve without complete information.
In one area, the puzzles weren’t well distributed across the space. We spent a lot of time tripping over each other in one small corner of a rather large set.
One critical piece of tech was worn and badly beat up. It needed refurbishment.
Bank Heist had a self-service, QR code-based hinting system that was immersion-breaking. Because the QR codes were beside input mechanisms, not puzzles, we had no idea which puzzle a clue would hint at.
We never understood whether it mattered how much money we stole in our heist.
Should I play Mastermind’s Bank Heist?
Bank Heist had a number of great and satisfying moments. It also had a lot of damaged props and weak use of space. It made nearly no effort to help clue players towards the correct input mechanism for solved puzzles.
This was a game that had promise, but was ultimately too choppy.
While there are a number of moments to enjoy, I think that beginners would find themselves pretty lost in Bank Heist and experienced players will be frustrated by its seemingly incomplete execution.
As I reflect back on the game, parts of it make me smile. Other aspects make me wish that Mastermind had seen this design all the way through to something special. It has the potential and I hope that they get there.
Book your hour with Mastermind’s Bank Heist, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.
Full disclosure: Mastermind provided media discounted tickets for this game.
“What gear should I bring to an escape room marathon?”
Does a full day of escape rooms sound both thrilling and a little frightening?
A good way to limit the jitters is to show up prepared.
We try to travel light, but depending on the day’s schedule, here are a few things that we pack when we’re taking on a full day of adventure puzzling:
Snack & drinks
If you or your teammates are the hangry sort, snacks are a must.
Snacks are even more important if you’re:
- Playing with strangers (who might push your buttons)
- Playing unfamiliar games (without strong recommendations, you might find some duds… which I promise you will feel far worse on an empty stomach)
- Not leaving enough time between games for meals
Here are some snacks we frequently pack:
And don’t forget to bring your hydration and caffeination of choice.
This auto-sealing, insulated travel mug is amazing. It comes in 16 & 20 ounce sizes and all of the colors.
Sometimes it’s tough to get the back-to-back-to-back bookings to work exactly as you were hoping for, and you might have some dead time in the schedule.
Here are a few fun-sized games and puzzles that can entertain your group during the down time:
- Love Letter (our go-to travel game)
- Manifold – The Origami Mind Bender Puzzle (lightweight and deceptively complex)
- Deck of cards (pedestrian but it works)
If you’re anything like Lisa, cold is your archenemy. Bring your favorite hoodie or sweater for heavily air conditioned escape rooms.
Charger & battery
Don’t forget your phone charger. If you are depending on your phone to handle navigation (or car hailing), a good battery pack can provide extra juice.
Notebook & pen
If you’re marathoning escape rooms, you might also be the type of person who likes to take notes on the games. When it comes to notebooks, we have a bit of a Moleskin addiction, and we like these retractable-tip pens.
Finally, don’t forget to find a bag to carry everything. I have a strange weakness for hyper-organizable backpacks. This Peak Design backpack has become my go-to for work and all other things. It’s decadent, but I use it daily.
Enjoy your marathon!
(If you purchase via our Amazon links, you will help support Room Escape Artist as we will receive a very small percentage of the sale).
For more tips like Packing for an Escape Room Marathon, check out our Player Tips section.
On May 5th, our team played The Legend of Zelda: Defenders of the Triforce by Real Escape Games (aka SCRAP) in New York City.
We previously published a review of this game from its time in Los Angeles, California. Our friend and regular teammate Sarah Willson did such an amazing job of guest reviewing it that most of our readers didn’t realize that someone else wrote it.
Looking back at her review, we completely agree with her assessment and will not write an additional review. I’ll add that of the various mass escape events that we’ve played by SCRAP, The Legend of Zelda: Defenders of the Triforce was the most fun and cohesive.
Unlike most escape games, The Legend of Zelda: Defenders of the Triforce received a lot of media attention. This came in the form of pre-game hype, followed by a lot of mixed and disappointed post game reports:
Zelda has withstood the test of time, sticking around for 30 years. It has transcended generations. A number of its installments are some of the finest video games ever created. Since Zelda is one of the most beloved video game franchises in history, this disappointment was inevitable for a number of reasons that I’m going to explore.
SCRAP doesn’t highlight the fact that their mass escape events bear little resemblance to modern escape rooms in North America (especially the high end). Upon further probing, however, they are quick to point out that their mass events are not “escape rooms.” They call them “escape games.” Ironically, this is the same sort of hair-splitting that makes their mass escape events so frustrating.
As an escape room player and reviewer who simply wants more people to become aware of all of the magnificent escape rooms out there, this drives me up the wall.
Given Zelda’s popularity, this event was an incredible opportunity to introduce more mainstream players to modern escape rooms… but this event didn’t do that.
My very first escape room review was of a SCRAP mass event, Escape From the Werewolf Village, in mid-2014. I left that game legitimately worried that first-time escape game players would think that a SCRAP escape event was indicative of the larger industry (which at the time was admittedly tiny and underdeveloped). I feel the exact same way about Defenders of the Triforce.
It was a fun mass escape event, more fun than any of the other SCRAP events that we’ve played. It was fun when considered as a short puzzle hunt. However, it was neither a good representation of modern North American escape rooms nor an exceptional Zelda game.
SCRAP was founded in Japan in 2007. They were also the first escape room company in the United States when they opened in San Francisco in 2012.
At Up The Game 2017, Yu-lin Chiu, writer of ASIA.EscapeGames, spoke about the escape room markets in East Asia. She explained how escape room design in Japan differs profoundly from other countries in Asia, as well as from Europe and the United States.
Japanese escape rooms are primarily paper-based events with minimal set design or story. They are more similar to short puzzle hunts than what we in the United States commonly think of as escape rooms.
This has confirmed for us what we have long believed to be a fundamental expectations gap between the games that SCRAP brings to the United States and the general market trends within the American escape room scene.
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Possibly the biggest difference between Sarah’s playthrough of Defenders of the Triforce and mine was the release of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on Nintendo Switch… the game that Defenders of the Triforce was essentially advertising on its North American tour.
In February, Sarah played SCRAP’s Defenders of the Triforce in anticipation of the release of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
By the time we played Defenders of the Triforce in May, I had been playing Breath of the Wild for 6 weeks or so, sneaking it in between work and running Room Escape Artist. I am loving this game and taking my time to milk it for everything that it is worth. Going into Defenders of the Triforce I had been immersed in one of the Zelda franchise’s most magnificent specimens. This greatly elevated my expectations and set Defenders of the Triforce up for failure.
I’m glad that Sarah wrote the review without having just played Breath of the Wild. She could more easily separate SCRAP’s escape event from the video game expectations.
Actual Zelda room escape
I wish that Defenders of the Triforce were not a mass escape event, but a full blown, large-budget escape room. The material lends itself to an incredible escape room and I can think of a number of escape room companies that could build mind-blowing experiences with the concept.
SCRAP put on a fun mini-puzzle hunt. They leveled up their storytelling and set design. They made the puzzling generally more accessible. They navigated logistics well. Defenders of the Triforce was a huge step forward in meshing Japanese-style escape room events with North American preferences.
That said, SCRAP is simply not equipped to fully realize the potential of this franchise for a North American audience, especially in the mass escape format.
Defenders of the Triforce paled in comparison to the best permanent escape rooms in the cities that it visited; most of them cost less than the $40-50 per ticket price of this game.
For now, Zelda escape rooms will go dormant for some time. I hope that one day the concept is resurrected and able to become the immersive real-life puzzle adventure through Hyrule that escape room lovers know that it can be. That it should be.
(If you purchase via our Amazon links, you will help support Room Escape Artist as we will receive a very small percentage of the sale).
We recently received a question from a public official in Pennsylvania who’d been asked to approve the construction of an escape room in his community. He wrote in asking:
“In the event that a person in the room becomes disoriented to the point that they are unable to cope, how is that situation normally handled? Also, if there were an emergency outside of the room which required the occupants to be evacuated, how would they be notified? How would the company immediately end the scenario and open the door?”
We appreciate public officials who do their research, so we’re here to help.
Lock In Safety
There are a number of different ways that escape room designers secure players in rooms.
Lock In; No Emergency Exit
In the early days (a whole 3 years ago) escape rooms simply locked the players in the rooms. The player objective was to find the door key and escape.
This was problematic from a safety standpoint. It was also limiting from a creative perspective. We rarely see this anymore and strongly discourage it.
Lock In; Emergency Key
The first safety backup system was the addition of an emergency key next to the door. In this scenario, an emergency key is attached to the door on a chain next to the door lock or put inside of an easy-to-open pouch beside the door lock.
In the event of an emergency, any player can grab that key, open the door, and exit the room. The team doesn’t win, but at that point, nobody cares.
Lock In; Magnetic Locks
Next, companies began using mag locks, where the door is held shut with a powerful electromagnet.
Mag locks are common in escape rooms. They are great for both game design and safety. In rooms using mag locks, players usually win by tripping a sensor that triggers the door to open. It feels pretty magical.
If the power fails, mag locks open automatically because electricity powers the magnet.
This scenario offers easier safety releases than a typical door lock. The company can install a big “push to exit” button right next to the door. In an emergency, there is no need to fumble with a key. Any player can open the door with a moment’s notice. These doors are our preferred method of lock in.
No Lock In
Some “escape room” companies create excellent experiences where the players are never actually locked in a space. In these games, the designers build win conditions or objectives that don’t involve unlocking a door.
As the escape room industry diversifies, this is becoming increasingly common.
Surveillance & Gamemastering
Escape rooms should have thorough camera and microphone coverage.
A gamemaster can oversee the entire experience from a nearby space. This enables the gamemaster to keep an eye on the players and end the game if there is an emergency (inside or outside of the escape room).
We recommend that the cameras be placed so that the gamemaster doesn’t have blindspots.
We recommend good microphone coverage of the entire gamespace. The audio is actually more important because it’s easier to identify an impending problem by listening to what the players say than it is to determine what is happening by viewing their behavior.
The gamemaster should also have a method of rapidly communicating with the players. The most effective methods of communication are a speaker system in the room or a television monitor that displays typed messages.
While the communication method is usually used for delivering hints, it is occasionally used for delivering player behavior warnings. An attentive gamemaster can notice malicious players breaking props or misbehaving and put a stop to the behavior.
We also encourage escape room companies to have a dedicated gamemaster for each game. The gamemaster should devote their undivided attention to the team’s experience.
If the escape room has exposed electrical outlets, the game should never require players to interact with these. Furthermore, players should be explicitly instructed that these outlets are real and out of play. If building code allows it, the electrical outlets should be completely covered and removed from the gamespace.
Escape rooms should include smoke detectors. Players should be instructed that all emergency equipment is real and not part of the game. Moreover, it should never be tampered with.
Are escape rooms safe businesses?
A safe escape room has the following features:
- an emergency exit
- video and audio surveillance
- an attentive game master
- smoke detectors
- clear player instruction regarding safety
These precautions should adequately inform players of a crisis inside or outside of the gamespace and allow them to extract themselves from the game should they need (or want) to leave.
These experiences can and should be safe. We implore escape room owners to design thoughtfully around safety.
We have another puzzle outbreak.
Location: Atlanta, GA
Date played: April 3, 2017
Team size: up to 12; we recommend 4-5
Duration: 60 minutes
Price: $28 per ticket
Story & setting
A government super soldier program went wrong and unleashed a horde of zombies. We had to find a cure for their mindless rampaging before they broke down the door to our lab and ate us.
Set within a stark research facility, the aesthetic ranged from mundane doctor’s office to grim lab.
Outbreak was search-heavy with clumsy puzzling.
Many of the puzzles ultimately came together in laborious processes that didn’t require so much reasoning as they did working through tasks.
Big Escape Rooms created a humorous introductory video to set the stage for Outbreak.
In one instance, we encountered an error-tolerant design adaptation of a puzzle trope that is frequently misused. It was refreshing.
One unfortunate side effect of the implication of this puzzle was that it caused some team members to have mild allergic reactions to the environment.
When the cluing was particularly tenuous, the rest of the props quickly became distracting red herrings.
The set wasn’t particularly interesting. It was a large space, but not purposefully designed or well used.
Should I play Big Escape Rooms’ Outbreak?
If you don’t care much for setting, there are a few thoughtful and fun puzzle designs in this escape room. Outbreak is a generic early escape room design from a company that is learning the ropes.
While we think there is a more fun and interesting game in Clowned, if you’re looking for something different, or you just don’t like clowns, you could do far worse.
Book your hour with Big Escape Rooms’ Outbreak, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.
Full disclosure: Big Escape Rooms provided media discounted tickets for this game.