Unlock Escape Rooms – Private Eye [Review]

“Down here it’s just winners and losers.”
-Bruce Springsteen, Atlantic City

Location: Linwood, NJ

Date played: August 6, 2016

Team size: 2-10; we recommend 2-4

Price: $26 per ticket

Story & setting

We were detectives investigating a crime in Atlantic City. We were presented with an array of suspects and had to rule them out in an escape room version of Guess Who.

Our investigation took place in an office, which could have been located just about anywhere. It included regular office-y furniture.

A boring looking room. A chair sits beside a small table with a lamp resting on it.

Even as we narrowed down the suspects, the story, while present, never became compelling. It simply required detective work.

Puzzles

Private Eye relied on standard escape room puzzles. Within this, there was variety in puzzle type.

At times the puzzles – whether simple searching or complex indexing – were not particularly well-clued.

Standout features

There was a well-designed visual effect puzzle that we particularly enjoyed.

The game included a fun interaction with the world outside the office.

Shortcomings

Private Eye included a lot of reading material. The long passages culminated in an overarching, paper-based indexing puzzle. In the end, we were solving for both a suspect and an accomplice, which made the reading material and indexing that much more confusing and tedious.

The set had nothing special going on.

The gamemaster had trouble delivering appropriate hints, based on how we struggled with the in-game clues.

When we visited, Unlock had been open only one month, but Private Eye was already showing signs of heavy wear and poor maintenance. Unlocked allowed us to write on certain game materials with dry erase marker. We discovered marker residue from past players through the game. Clue elements were worn away and one lock was in such rough shape that even the gamemaster struggled to open it.

Should I play Unlock Escape Rooms’ Private Eye?

This was a basic, detective-themed room escape.

We were excited that the game was set in local Atlantic City. Unfortunately, nothing about the office setting or the clues brought this aspect of Private Eye to life. This felt like a missed opportunity.

Unfortunately, the tedious puzzles, poor clueing, and poor maintenance quickly diminished our fun. We also made some gameplay mistakes, but the staff didn’t help us turn around the experience when we asked for hints.

When we finished, they practically pushed us out the door.

There aren’t a lot of escape games in this area of New Jersey yet, but we can’t recommend this as an introduction to the genre.

Skip this game, hop in the car, throw on some Springsteen and drive farther north in New Jersey or south to Philadelphia to find something better.

Full disclosure: Unlock Escape Rooms provided media discounted tickets for this game.

 

Crushing Room Escapes

And now for something a little different…

The Hydraulic Press Channel is a YouTube series created by a delightfully insane Finnish couple, where they apply 100 tons of force to common and uncommon objects in their hydraulic press. It’s like “Will It Blend?” with far more interesting and unexpected outcomes.

A hydraulic press starting to crush a Rubik's Cube.

Let’s work our way through a collection of common room escape objects facing their beautiful and strange demise:

Padlocks

And it’s true: they know how to build a proper lock in Finland.

Playing cards and a Rubik’s Cube

Typewriter

It’s like modern art without the pretension.

Safe & art

No room is complete without a safe and a sculpture prop.

Clock

Time is almost up. We should deal with the clock.

Diamond

And for our final puzzle, no heist is complete without the mighty diamond.

For more of this silliness

Checkout the Hydraulic Press Channel. I imagine they will continue to make these things until they accidentally kill themselves. In the meantime, I’m addicted.

Mission Escape Games Queens – The Curse of the Pharaoh [Review]

Pharaohs & Queens.

Location: Flushing, NY

Date played: August 20, 2016

Team size: up to 7; we recommend 3-5

Price: $28 per ticket

Story & setting

By entering this tomb, our group of explorers disturbed the pharaoh and triggered his curse. We had to journey deep into the tomb to break our it and save our souls. Each player received an individual curse, symbolized by a lock on a bracelet, to unlock within the hour.

The Curse of the Pharaoh had a well-constructed, beautiful set with brilliant interactions. It was incredibly fun to move deeper and deeper into the tomb.

A series of egyptian organ jars resting on a shelf.

Puzzles

Throughout this tomb, we encountered challenging puzzles.

They involved physical interactions with the set and props. Many also leaned heavily on layering and logic. Because of these design features, as well as the proliferation of hieroglyphs, the puzzles required extensive communication.

Not every challenging puzzle felt fair. At times, we were foiled by large logic leaps coupled with opaque clueing.

Standout features

Mission Escape Games constructed an outstanding tomb set. It was interactive, detailed, sturdy, and fun. The set delivered the magic of the experience.

There were some strong, challenging puzzles that involved different types of set piece manipulation.

Through clever design, Curse of the Pharaoh delivered a few truly surprising moments.

Shortcomings

We were trapped in this cursed tomb with a few weak flashlights. I would prefer to bring adequate lighting to my explorations. This was a source of frustration.

In order to lift the curse, we relied on an important document. There was only one copy and it was not easy to use. Because of this, the game bottlenecked.

There were spotty locations in the scenery where exposed screw heads felt out of place.

A few puzzles included some less than clear associations and others demanded excessively drawn-out execution after we figured out what we needed to do.

Should I play Mission Escape Game Queens’ The Curse of the Pharaoh?

The Curse of the Pharaoh was a challenging and exciting game.

This was a set that everyone could love. It provided challenge through both puzzles and tasks.

It will surprise even the more seasoned players, who will truly appreciate the design and built quality of the entire escape room.

This would be an excruciatingly difficult first room escape.

While Mission Escape Games has pretty much nailed the environmental details, they could put a little more effort into gameplay and flow to further improve the experience. This game has a lot to offer, and with additional refinement, it could really be a masterpiece.

Book your hour with Mission Escape Game Queens’ The Curse of the Pharaoh, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Mission Escape Game Queens comped our tickets for this game.

 

Escape Factor – The Timekeeper’s Trap [Review]

“You get a clock! And you get a clock! EVERYBODY GETS A CLOCK!”

Location: Oak Park, IL (metro Chicago)

Date played: August 11, 2016

Team size: up to 10; we recommend 4-6

Price: $32 per ticket

Story & setting

We fell through a grandfather clock and became stuck in the trap of a crazy clockmaker… or something like that. There were a ton of clocks.

A bland wall with a number of differnt clocks hanging on it.

The story didn’t make a lot of sense, but it didn’t take itself too seriously, so it worked well enough as the setup for a room escape.

There were clocks everywhere. All shapes, sizes, and types of clocks. In fact, the game consisted entirely of clocks, except for the furniture and various containment objects.

Escape Factor turned an escape room cliche into the entire game, which made it not feel cliche in the slightest.

Puzzles

Not surprisingly, The Timekeeper’s Trap relied heavily on clock-based puzzles.

A wall mounted clock as art with large gears, a globe and other steam-punkish adornments.

Base 60 calculations can prove surprisingly challenging, especially to those of us who aren’t of the math-y persuasion.

This was a puzzle-heavy game.

Standout features

Escape Factor managed to fill the game entirely with clocks and avoid the standard cliche clock puzzle: “The clock is stopped on 9:15. Try ‘915’ on all of the three digit locks.”

They created impressive variety with the clock concept. This game was a lesson in creativity: The Timekeeper’s Trap was designed around something we see constantly and repetitively, but Escape Factor pulled new puzzle experiences out of it.

Shortcomings

The volume of clock math became tedious.

The room had plenty of clocks, but the scenery was weak. In fact, it was a bit of a clusterfuck to look at and sift through. There was a lot of stuff in this game… and the reset for our gamemasters seemed pretty hellish.

Should I play Escape Factor’s The Timekeeper’s Trap?

This room escape consisted of solid nuts and bolts. It was puzzle-focused and challenging.

In their first game, Escape Factor zeroed in on a concept that lent itself to puzzles. They worked it creatively into a complete, thematic game that sidestepped cliche clock usage. It’s rare to see a company keep to a theme and vision as closely as they did, especially on their first attempt.

The Timekeeper’s Trap wasn’t outstanding, but it was successful. We anticipate good things in their future.

This would be a challenging game for new players, but a good introduction to escape rooms. More experienced players will have fun tackling this theme. Bring a few people who love math.

If you’re visiting The Timekeepers Trap, stick around for the 20-minute game The Waiting Room of Dr. Awk C. Abmoor where you can let go of clock math.

Book your hour with Escape Factor’s The Timekeeper’s Trap, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Escape Factor provided media discounted tickets for this game.

Challenge Accepted – The Office [Review]

Poach me some drama!

Location: Bloomingdale, IL (metro Chicago)

Date played: August 11, 2016

Team size: up to 6; we recommend 4-6

Price: $29 per ticket

Story & setting

We were investigating embezzlement in the office of a poacher. The Office was loosely safari-themed, but only as a backdrop. The setting didn’t matter. It was an embezzlement investigation in an office that looked like an office.

A cheetah statue on a red clothed pedastal.

Puzzles

The puzzles were standard introductory escape room puzzle types. The Office relied on searching and locks. The puzzles drew on a variety of skill sets, but weren’t particularly challenging.

Standout features

The Office was centered around an incredible wooden desk. (It just so happens that David’s great aunt owned an identical one, so he knew its dark secrets.) Challenge Accepted built puzzles into this beautiful set piece. One particular mechanical puzzle was especially fun.

Our gamemaster gave a thorough and hilarious introduction. It was very well done. The folks who run this place are some of the sweetest owners we’ve met.

The ending of this game was adorable and we celebrated the win in front of their elaborate photo booth.

A collage of victory photos.

Shortcomings

The Office was an unremarkable game. There wasn’t any excitement in playing it.

It was a basic puzzle game in an uninteresting setting. There wasn’t any scenery and the back story didn’t contribute to the experience. The back story was unique, but it barely factored in. This felt like a missed opportunity.

In-game: A globe, a wooden chest, and an image of African animals.

Should I play Challenge Accepted’s The Office?

This was a basic game from a company that was targeting a non-escape-room-educated mall audience.

If you’re a new player and you’re in the mall, this would be a great choice of activity. It won’t offer much to experienced players.

I’d love to see Challenge Accepted push their ideas farther. There was a brilliant mechanical puzzle in this game. There was unique story setup. However, they need more of these crafty puzzles and they need to work their themes into the game at every opportunity.

This shouldn’t have been a mundane office. It should have been the workspace of eccentric international criminals. Challenge Accepted, please accept our challenge of injecting more drama into your games.

Full disclosure: Challenge Accepted provided media discounted tickets for this game.

Password Management For Escape Room Companies & Individuals

Information security and operational security are issues near and dear to my heart.

When I am not escaping rooms, I do digital strategy and user experience work for large web applications. I have designed some life or death systems.

Whether you’re dealing with a major organization’s mission critical software or an individual on the internet, basic password security is important.

A black & white closeup drawing of a computer keyboard.

Passwords & escape room companies

At the Chicago Room Escape Conference, Dave Ferrier of Trapped PHL gave a talk on the “nuts and bolts” of running an escape room. He dropped a ton of knowledge on the audience in a very informative talk.

One issue he raised, which I hadn’t even contemplated, was the volume of usernames and passwords that a room escape company needs to operate the business:

  • Email
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • Pinterest
  • Website administration
  • Ticketing system
  • Groupon / Livingsocial / other marketing platforms
  • Payroll system

Among many others.

He recommended that companies maintain a Google Doc with all of their accounts, usernames, and passwords.

I loved his talk and his point was well taken… but the recommendation to use Google Docs broke my heart. I don’t blame him; account security isn’t common knowledge. I regularly have to teach people who should know better about this stuff.

Storing account credentials unencrypted is never safe.

Why password security matters

“Hacking” isn’t generally what Hollywood portrays: the nerdy guy or the tattooed punkish sexy geek girl clacking away on a computer in a monitor-lit room, then saying “I’m in!”

Yeah, that shit is fake.

The easy way to do real damage and make money is through social engineering and exploiting leaked password data. This requires no technical skill and no code.

Here’s how it works:

Some asshat wants to seize an account and do some bad stuff (make fraudulent purchases, add a computer to a botnet, steal naked selfies, whatever…). All this nefarious putz needs to do is get their hands on one good username and password combination and they can generally own all of their victim’s systems.

Why? The tragic magic of password reuse.

Far too many people reuse passwords. When a major password leak happens — and they happen all of the time — these criminals can grab username/ password combinations and try them in other accounts. This works because the username/ password that many users use in Dropbox is the same as their Amazon or Gmail credentials.

As soon as a set of credentials works on an email account, the whole ballgame is over. They can reset passwords on your other accounts because password resets filter through email.

How to properly handle password security

First, stop reusing passwords. Every account you own should have a unique password.

But how are you supposed to remember all of this? Easy. You don’t.

Get yourself a password management system. I recommend:

These are systems that will generate large, random, alphanumeric, symboled passwords… and store them for you. As LastPass & 1Password’s names imply, you only need to remember one password to gain access to the system.

These things will allow you to:

  • greatly diminish the risks of password reuse
  • store your passwords in an encrypted format
  • privately share passwords with people who need access
  • allow easy access on desktop and mobile

They offer a lot of additional benefits. I use LastPass and 1Password (work and personal), and they are the best investment I’ve made in paid software (something like $12 a year).

LifeHacker has a great writeup of password management software. They also offer a superb starter’s guide for LastPass.

It’s really important that your password for your password management software is really good.

Please, take the time to handle your passwords properly.

Practice safe computing.

Take the Escape Room Enthusiast Survey

Escape Room Enthusiast Survey logo

Errol of the Room Escape Diva’s Podcast is fishing for some data on room escape player preferences.

He put together a fun survey covering a variety of subjects pertinent to the escape room experience.

You should fill it on out. We’ll write about the results after the survey closes.

Errol also recently wrote a great post on the difference between “Aha! and process puzzles.

 

Happy Birthday Puzzle [Reader Stories]

In writing this blog we’ve met a lot of people who love puzzles and go to great lengths to play them and create them.

Reader Melissa recently emailed us her sweet escape room-inspired birthday story. We let her husband Darren add his perspective.

Melissa: Darren surprised me by putting together a 10 puzzle “escape” game to find my birthday presents.

Two large locked boxes. One has a birthday card resting on it that reads, "To my beautiful wife... happy birthday."

Darren: Seeing how much Melissa was enjoying escape rooms, I wanted to make one especially for her as a birthday surprise. So, I spent some time brainstorming ideas and used a lot of personal touches in making the puzzles.

Melissa: To make it even more authentic, he used a program he had created with a 60-minute countdown timer and background music that he displayed on our TV. He offered clues for kisses, which I thought was super cute🙂. He even used an idea that we hadn’t come across in any other escape rooms before: a secret message that you need polarized sunglasses to read.

Darren: I found a MakeZine had a cool technique for making a message that can only be seen through polarized sunglasses. Since Melissa is much better than I am about identifying celebrities, I figured I could use these ideas together to make a unique puzzle for her.

Melissa: I was able to find my presents with 19 minutes to spare. It was also fitting that one of the presents he gave me was an escape room game in a box.

Darren: The hard part was keeping the whole thing a surprise until her birthday. I couldn’t talk about puzzle ideas with her in the meantime!

Melissa: It means so much to me that he spent so many hours putting such a thoughtful gift together for me. Of course, I’ll now be expecting more custom puzzle games on special occasions🙂.

Escape room companies are proliferating because creative individuals play these games and are inspired to create their own. Many of us aren’t about to enter the escape room business, but we are still inspired by the genre of entertainment and energized to put our own spin on it.

I certainly know how special it is to have a loved one create a custom puzzle experience just for me.

Do you have an escape room inspired personal puzzle story? We’d love to hear from you.

 

Fox in Box – The Prison [Review]

The puzzle prison with a sadistic warden.

Location: Chicago, IL

Date played: August 11, 2016

Team size: 2-5; we recommend 4

Price: $99 for 2-3 players, $132 for 4 players, $165 for 5 players

Story & setting

This escape room took place in a standard prison setting. It was as gray, sparse, and unwelcoming as one would expect.

Some benefactor started a riot in another cell block to provide us time and opportunity for a daring escape.

A line of gray lockers beside a prison cage. A pinup girl hangs on the wall.

Puzzles

The puzzles in The Prison were generally standard room escape interactions.

The early puzzles were stronger and relied on manipulating the environment of the prison.

Later in the game, the quality fell when unexciting interactions that were detached from the environment became the norm.

Standout features

The game started with the team split between two prison cells. This forced teamwork and communication.

The first half of this game included some nifty interactions.

I adore the name Fox in a Box. It’s memorable and clever.

Shortcomings

The Prison was brutally uneven. At one juncture in the game, half of our divided team had far more game play opportunity than the other. There was no game mechanism to ensure that both groups would continually participate throughout that portion of the experience.

At one point we stopped making progress and received a series of truly useless hints that actually led us further from the solution. Thus we spent a large portion of our game doing nothing. The fact that our gamemaster couldn’t read how miserable we were from our not-at-all concealed body language was a massive miss.

The second half of the game wasn’t up to the standard set by the first half.

Additionally, this game didn’t live up to Fox in a Box’s own standard. We had played Zombie Lab and Cold War Bunker at this company’s Los Angeles location, under the less creative name Room Escape Los Angeles. Those two games set higher expectations.

Should I play Fox in a Box’s The Prison?

The standard room escape puzzles weren’t particularly challenging or exciting, but the early game utilized the stark environment in some fun ways.

For players to truly enjoy this game, Fox in a Box needs to dramatically improve their gamemastering: the gamemaster should work to maximize the team’s fun. In our experience, the gamemastering was at best incompetent and at worst antagonistic.

If you visit The Prison, we recommend a team size of four, since you will be split into two groups, in an uneven setting that puts pressure on any player working alone. Choose a team of players who will ensure that everyone has a good time.

That said, regardless of your skill level, we recommend Cold War Bunker and Zombie Lab over The Prison.

Book your hour with Fox in a Box’s The Prison, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Fox in a Box comped our tickets for this game.

 

Clue Chase – Egyptian Tomb [Review]

Pharaoh! Let my teammates go!

Location: New York, NY

Date played: August 15, 2016

Team size: 4-8; we recommend 4-6

Price: $29 per ticket

Story & setting

In the Egyptian Tomb, we found ourselves trapped inside the puzzle chamber of a dead pharaoh. Beyond the staging and setup, the story didn’t factor heavily into the game.

The set, however, contributed a lot. Clue Chase constructed a beautiful, detailed, and solid tomb environment for this room escape.

A wall-mounted sandstone sarcophagus surrounded by hieroglyphs

Puzzles

This was a puzzler’s escape room.

Clue Chase has whittled away a lot of the frustrations from The Lost Spy  and zeroed in on a clear thread of gameplay composed of puzzles that count.

Be prepared for puzzles that layer as you work your way through this archeological exploration.

Standout features

The puzzles in the The Egyptian Tomb presented a fair, fun challenge.

The set included some incredible props and excellent, original construction. Clue Chase’s hard work delivered some great moments.

Our gamemaster delivered a light-hearted introduction about not “angering the gods” by destroying game elements and the like.

The ancient Egyptians created the first locks and Clue Chase built a brilliant homage to this.

Shortcomings

There were many locks in this tomb with similar digit structures. At times, there were a lot of possible places to input a potentially correct answer.

In some ways, the Egyptian Tomb felt uneven. While much of the design and decor created the stellar atmosphere, other locks and props didn’t seem to belong in the space. Some of the environment and game components could use additional refinement to bring them to the level of the rest of the experience.

Should I play Clue Chase’s The Egyptian Tomb?

In the months since we last visited Clue Chase, they’ve come a long way. They removed the tedium and extraneous material and refined their game mechanics.

We brought a highly experienced team to this game and powered through in record time, while still enjoying ourselves. That said, this isn’t an easy game. The puzzles will present a challenging obstacle to newer players.

As Clue Chase continues to refine their designs, we hope to feel more of a narrative from their future puzzle adventures.

Clue Chase is learning and iterating rapidly and we’re excited to see what they produce next.

Book your hour with Clue Chase’s The Egyptian Tomb, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.