Puzzle Theory – The Experiment [Review]

99.99% puzzles.

Location: South Windsor, Connecticut

Date played: July 8, 2017

Team size: 4-10; we recommend 4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $27.50 per ticket

Story & setting

Following the story of The Missing Doctor, we volunteered to participate in the amusingly mad Dr. X’s experiment… but first we had to figure out what we’d even signed on for.

The Experiment didn’t really have a set. There was a clearly defined space within which the escape room took place, but it was basically walls, doors, puzzle components, and a few random pieces of furniture.

In-game: A bland room with a plant a coffee table, and a few lab coats hanging on the wall.

Puzzles

The Experiment revolved around discovery and experimentation.

We relied heavily on keen observation and communication.

Standouts

The Experiment was frequently un-hackable. Each time we thought we could skip a step, Puzzle Theory thwarted us. They clearly gave information dissemination and gating considerable thought.

We generally loved the puzzles that were presented to us in The Experiment.

Their character, Dr. X, was amusing. I rarely read a non-required long-winded thing… but I wanted to read the funny conclusion Dr. X presented us.

The stories of The Experiment and The Missing Doctor link brilliantly. If you don’t get the story or couldn’t remember the story (like me), ask your gamemaster to explain it afterwards.

Shortcomings

The gamespace had an odd layout that was occasionally frustrating. We frequently found ourselves maneuvering around each other in cramped spaces.

The Experiment was more physically demanding than it needed to be due to the awkward positioning of a crawlspace and the repeated transition through it. There was also one more active puzzle in a hard-to-reach location.

The Experiment didn’t look like much at all. There really wasn’t a set; it was simply a space to contain the puzzles.

Should I play Puzzle Theory’s The Experiment?

The Experiment was fully puzzling with a side of humor. Dr. X is amusing and his experiment ridiculous and entertaining. If I had to guess, the folks from Puzzle Theory are probably pretty big fans of Futurama and Rick & Morty… It’s just got that vibe.

If you play escape rooms for the puzzles, you’ll enjoy The Experiment. It required us to think in different ways and work through concepts that resulted in satisfying solves.

If your enjoyment of an escape room requires a beautiful set, The Experiment won’t be for you. Not at all.

The Experiment would be challenging for newer players, but is nevertheless approachable for the puzzle-minded at any level of experience. Make sure that you can crawl or that you have a few people on your team who can.

Book your hour with Puzzle Theory’s The Experiment, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Puzzle Theory provided media discounted tickets for this game.

Xscape The Room – The Classroom [Review]

School askew.

Location: Media, Pennsylvania

Date played: June 24, 2017

Team size: 4-10; we recommend 4-6

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per ticket

Story & setting

We entered a bad dream where we had to take a test… but we hadn’t studied for it. Could we reason our way through our classroom dreamscape?

The Classroom was a cartoonish, dream-like school environment. Instead of being locked into a room that looked like school, we were in a charmingly odd school-esque setting where lessons and meaning required crafty interpretation.

In-game: A little hula girl statue sits in the foreground with a twisted and askew classroom in the background.

Puzzles

Everything in The Classroom was a little funky and the puzzles were no exception. In keeping with the classroom-in-a-dream environment, the puzzles generally involved a convergence of seemingly unrelated things.

Standouts

Classroom settings aren’t inherently exciting. I spent a couple of decades in classrooms and they all basically looked the same. I loved Xscape The Room’s dreamy, funky take on a classroom. It made a setting that could have been boring into something fun, weird, and joyous.

The Classroom was built around a series of puzzles and moments that were all simple, yet brilliantly executed.

The Classroom made us laugh.

Shortcomings

Color was used in a lot of different ways, some of which were red herrings and may even have been unintentional distractions.

Some recurring props seemed like they should have had meaning, but didn’t. There was a lot of unnecessary stuff and a little too much searching. I would have preferred an extra puzzle or two and fewer distractions.

The Classroom lacked a climax. When we emerged through the exit door, we weren’t quite ready for the escape room’s conclusion.

Should I play Xscape The Room’s The Classroom?

The Classroom was playful, charming, and funky. It exemplified a standard escape room executed well.

I highly recommend The Classroom for newbies; it will be a tough but satisfying game.

Experienced players will also enjoy The Classroom. The puzzling works well and it offers something refreshingly different. Stop by if you’re in the neighborhood.

The Classroom was the seventh and final game of an escape room marathon day and we emerged feeling energized and delighted… That’s high praise.

Book your hour with Xscape The Room’s The Classroom, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Xscape The Room provided media discounted tickets for this game.

 

REA Weekly Roundup – August 20, 2017

Greetings from Minneapolis! And for anyone curious what this market has to offer… the reviews will start publishing in September.

REA Round Up logo with an up arrow atop the letter d.

Announcements

Join us November 3-4, 2017 for Escape Immerse Explore: NYC 2017, a tailored tour through many of New York City’s best escape rooms. Tickets are on sale now.

Featured escape rooms

Part escape room part obstacle course, F5 had us fleeing from a tornado.

Something different

At the Chicago Room Escape Conference last year we met Jason Richard of Steal and Escape in San Diego. At the time, Jason was struggling to keep his escape room business afloat. Tone from Trapdoor Unlocked recorded an impromptu, late-night, slightly alcohol-fueled video featuring a number of folks giving Jason advice. We checked in with him a year later to see which he changes he has implemented and where he is heading. 

Featured products

Illuminating Wood is a pretty nifty trick. Read more about this and other puzzles available from Riddlefactory.

From the community

A year and a half ago we reviewed the Escape Room in a Box prototype, and had a great time. We’re happy to hear that Juliana and Ariel have a new partner to help them bring future games to market.

Christine Barger, The Haunt Girl, is a professional ventriloquist and member of the Magic Castle. Over the last couple years she has taken us to the Magic Castle as her guests, and once used David and me as her dummies. This week she posted a spoiler-free video reviewing a popup escape room in the Magic Castle… we’re super envious and wish we’d gotten to play.

Think twice before you jab that fork into an electrical outlet: If you die in an Escape Room, you die in real life.

That’s all folks… and remember, you can never build a set too rugged:

One Year Later: Jason Richard talks about opening his escape room business [Interview]

At last year’s Room Escape Conference in Chicago, we participated in a impromptu Trapdoor UNLOCKED recording session about operating an escape room. This roundtable discussion covered a ton of ground as we all tried to help Jason Richard of Steal and Escape in San Diego, CA, a company we haven’t played but have heard many great things about.

One year later, we caught up with Jason about the changes he made to set his business on a sustainable path.

… Just know that the audio quality wasn’t amazing as this was an unplanned recording in the middle of a bar.

Room Escape Artist: When this video was shot in August of 2016 – at the first Escape Room Conference in Chicago – how many customers were you seeing each month?

Jason: Things started very slow. Not counting customers who had purchased Groupons, we were only seeing about 10-20 customers a month.

A year later, in August of 2017, how many customers are you seeing each month?

With the constant fluctuations in our market (we’re in a tourism location), it is hard to gauge, but the average is around 300 customers for our one room.

What was the most important tip that came out of the round table discussion?

The two tips that stuck with me were:

  1. Reach out to other businesses and don’t try to do everything yourself.
  2. Apply the 80/20 rule to time management.  80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts.

It’s not that we didn’t know these things, but we weren’t practicing them. Since then, my wife/partner and I have decided where to focus our own efforts.

For example, we hired professionals to redesign our website and help with programming and construction. Also, we aren’t trying to do our business taxes ourselves.

Regardless of how simple these tasked seemed, it was the time that it took to learn and implement them that was the true cost.

The founders of Steal And Escape in front of their logo; they are a very pretty couple.

Besides focusing your own efforts, what other changes did you implement that improved your business?

My favorite change was extending the time between groups. It takes away a time slot, but it lets us comfortably reset the room and interact with the customers.

At the conference in Chicago in 2016, Andrew King from Flummox’d Escape Rooms in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, gave a presentation on getting five-star reviews. It was hands down my favorite presentation from the conference because it went into the psychology of the experience. Before we had a great room, but now we have a great experience from beginning to end.

We start things off with a 10-minute lobby game that I designed around a small box. I also offer strategies for success in the room, such as communication. After the 60-minute game, we talk about the puzzles (likes and dislikes) and listen to suggestions. We also ask about other escape rooms our customers have played and we recommend other local rooms they would enjoy. We want to help grow a sustainable player base for the escape room industry here.

Secondly, we’ve expanded our social media presence. Previously we only posted pictures of winning teams. Now we also post pictures and videos from other angles of the business such as puzzle construction. I build and program all the technology myself and it can take a long time, so I show the progress along the way, as well as lessons I learned while constructing. I don’t know exactly how much direct impact this guerilla marketing has on the business, but it does generate interest in when the next room will be ready.

Finally, we switched from public rooms to private rooms. In the roundtable discussion I explained how much I love public rooms, but I understand that most customers do not. We are consistently told by customers that they booked with us because we host private rooms, which eliminates the fear of half the group showing up late and strangers that don’t get along. Bummer for me, but great for business.

You mentioned social media. What other new marketing techniques have brought in more business?

We’ve devoted more time to marketing. For example, we look for high performing Facebook posts to boost, which leads to customers. We also followed advice from Anthony Purzycki of Trap Door in New Jersey and approached at least 20 different business in the area. Some led to nothing, but the process isn’t instant and we see results weeks and months later.

Did you consult business resources from outside the escape room community? Which ones were most helpful?

“Escape room community” is a broad term. The Facebook groups (Escape Room Owners and Escape Room Start-ups) are fun to read, but they are also very similar to Stack Overflow.  You need to research everything and then ask your question or get crushed by experts. That being said, I wish I had known about these groups from the start because they provide a lot of  good information.

In terms of business books, I recommend How to Win Friends & Influence People. It shows the benefit of empathizing with the customer. I use this principle whenever I design a puzzle. I consider it from the customer’s perspective to make sure it is challenging rather than frustrating.

Instructables.com is great for ideas. It’s a website with user-created and uploaded do-it-yourself projects. I don’t type “puzzles” in the search bar, but I scan through it. When I look at the various projects, I ask myself, “How can I incorporate this sensor or project and turn it into a puzzle?”

The NPR podcast Hidden Brain deals with the way people think, which helps with creating fun puzzles and offers an insight into a way of thinking that is different than my own.

Finally, I joined an Arduino Enthusiast Meetup. These folks have helped me with so many projects. Now  I’m at the meetings helping other people with Arduino questions!

How has the San Diego escape room community changed since last summer? How does the community support your business?

The San Diego escape room community has grown. I believe there are now around 30 escape room companies operating in a 50 miles radius of San Diego.

Furthermore, the community is now cooperating more. After the convention in Niagara Falls last summer, a number of owners in San Diego got together to discuss cross-promotion. One of our first initiatives was to create a pamphlet advertising the various escape room companies around San Diego. Now we meet once a month in person or through video chat. We have created guidelines for the group and we work on joint initiatives such as organizing events to inform the wider San Diego community about escape rooms.

These meetings have also led to new relationships with other owners. Through this community, I’ve become friends with Edwin from Unlockables. We send each other customers and help each other with everything from puzzles to marketing.

What’s next for the growth of Steal and Escape?

We hope to have our second room completed by December.

In terms of marketing, we also are working on a commercial and we are considering adding a blog to our website.

I also want to offer a lockpicking class and incorporate lockpicking into our of our escape rooms.

I’m developing an 18-player scenario, for 3 teams of 6, geared toward team building.

What’s your current most pressing business challenge?

It’s wonderful if you can find your passion and make it your job. My wife and I have found our passion in escape rooms and we love our business. We don’t mind working until three in the morning because we love this business and we are invested in it.

However, I still have a full time  job that takes me out of the state for weeks at a time. I don’t get to spend as much time as I’d like working on the business. When I’m in town, I want to do everything and I have to think carefully about how to spend my time.

We’ve come a long way since last August. We’ve hired for certain skills and we have more community resources to draw on. We aren’t on our own for everything including finance, electronics, carpentry, marketing, customer relations, creativity… the list goes on. That said, we haven’t met anyone who is as passionate about and dedicated to our business as we are. It’s still a challenge to balance our own time wisely.

Escape Room South Jersey – The American Embassy [Review]

Nixon needs our help!

Location: Collingswood, New Jersey

Date played: June 23, 2017

Team size: 4-10; we recommend 3-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $25 – 28 per ticket

Story & setting

An American bureaucrat sold out to the Soviets and planted a nuke on American soil. President Nixon personally assigned our team the duty of saving the United States and the world.

Staged in an embassy office, we searched through the belongings of an eccentric government official in hopes of tracking down the nuke that he had stolen and learning how to disarm it.

In-game: The Assistant secretary's desk in a wood paneled 1970s bureaucrat's office. A photo of Richard Nixon sits on his desk.

Puzzles

The puzzling in The American Embassy felt a little like escape room default mode, but with a clean and fun execution. There were some subtly clever moments hidden within the escape room. In the couple that come to mind, we nearly called for a clue, and were extremely satisfied when we pushed through to earn the solves ourselves.

Standouts

The American Embassy was hilarious from start to finish. So many of the interactions were built around jokes and they landed.

Escape Room South Jersey’s imitation of Futurama’s Richard Nixon imitation was perfect and fit the tone of the room escape.

I don’t love red herrings, but The American Embassy had one of the funniest ones that I’ve encountered.

While an office environment wasn’t the most exciting place to escape, Escape Room South Jersey committed to the 1970s vibe, which worked well.

The American Embassy wasn’t all laughs. It had a strong series of layered puzzles with seriously satisfying solves.

Shortcomings

The first puzzle was a rough and ambiguous start. While it might have been a good puzzle later in the experience, as the jumping off point, it was difficult to even identify where to begin.

There were too many combination locks available at the start of the game. It ultimately became fairly intuitive to identify which puzzles paired with which locks, but early on, this made the puzzle flow bumpier than it should have been.

The set was inconsistent. While parts of it looked great, other sections came directly from Ikea.

Should I play Escape Room South Jersey’s The American Embassy?

Not enough escape rooms are funny; that’s what made The American Embassy shine. By injecting humor and building the escape game around satisfying puzzles, Escape Room South Jersey made what would have been a fairly standard office-based Cold War escape room into something memorable.

The American Embassy is suitable for players of all skill levels because it’s approachable and thoughtfully designed.

There are prettier games out there, but The American Embassy had solid flow, and it made us laugh… I’d take that over many escape rooms.

Book your hour with Escape Room South Jersey’s The American Embassy, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Escape Room South Jersey provided media discounted tickets for this game.

Trap Door – F5 [Review]

Puzzle storm.

Location: Morristown, NJ

Date played: July 31, 2017

Team size: up to 6; we recommend 3-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $35 per ticket

Story & setting

As a tornado approached, we needed to navigate a corn field and secure ourselves in the barn’s storm cellar to survive.

Trap Door created a ominous atmosphere for F5. An abundance of corn stalks rustled in the dim light and loud wind of the impending storm. We were equipped with only a handheld radio, our strength, and our wits.

In-game: A kid's bicycle with a teddy bear in the basket abandoned beside a gate. An ominous corn field is beyond it.

F5 was part escape room and part obstacle course. A pair of massive fans blew and the projections of a tornado drew closer as we climbed, crawled, and moved heavy objects to navigate the corn maze towards the safety of the barn’s storm cellar.

Puzzles

F5 was both mentally and physically demanding. We determined how items interacted and then we exerted the strength or dexterity necessary to accomplish each feat.

F5 also included some more typical escape room-type puzzles that did not require feats of strength, agility, or dexterity.

Standouts

We loved the premise of F5. We don’t often escape into shelter and we had never been chased by a killer storm before.

Trap Door constructed a compelling Midwestern landscape into their suburban building. They minded the set details. The lighting, sound, and giant fans added dramatic effects. We could easily imagine the impending tornado barreling toward us, which motivated us to move swiftly.

The hint system was funny and served to further the fiction.

There was an incredibly satisfying Zelda-inspired puzzle. David was a little sad that the Zelda puzzle sound didn’t chime when we solved it… until one of our teammates sang it herself.

The physicality of Trap Door’s puzzle-by-way-of-obstacle course design intensified the experience. These integrated challenges made F5 special.

Shortcomings

The final act of F5 abandoned the obstacle course aspect of the game’s design for a more typical escape room-style series of puzzles. In doing so, it shifted away from what made it exciting and the tension cooled before we made it to the finish line.

Toward the end, the puzzles relied on “escape room logic” rather than continuing to work within the environment as the previous puzzles had. The puzzles worked, but they didn’t feel natural within the game.

Should I play Trap Door’s F5?

F5 was unlike any other escape room we’ve visited to date. It was an obstacle course and a puzzle game, dramatically staged, and integrated into one complete adventure. It was more escape room than Boda Borg and more strenuous than… most other escape rooms.

If you like both physical and mental challenges, you will enjoy this.

While you don’t have to be physically fit to succeed in F5, you will need to climb over and crawl through obstacles. Your teammates can assist you, but they can’t do these things for you. I recommend bringing at least one teammate who actively seeks this type of activity.

Do not wear a skirt, heels, or other impractical clothing to F5.

Trap Door has taken necessary safety precautions in designing and constructing F5. It was a safe experience. That said, you could certainly get hurt, especially if, in the excitement of the moment, you aren’t smart about how you move through this adventure.

The gymnast-kid in me loved F5. The decidedly indoor-kid in David loved F5 too. We each tackled it in our own way and left smiling.

Book your hour with Trap Door’s F5, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Trap Door comped our tickets for this game.

Riddlefactory – Puzzles For Escape Rooms [Review]

Riddlefactory is a company out of Copenhagen that produces laser cut/ laser etched puzzles and props for escape rooms.

They asked if we’d be interested in writing about them, and we said “only if we can review the puzzles.” A day or two later a box filled with puzzles showed up. I’m still not clear on how they got it to us so quickly.

Spoiler warning

If you’re an escape room player, it is possible that you may see these props in an escape room at some point.

If you want to preserve the mystery, stop reading now.

General prop buying advice

When purchasing props, always think through why the item appears in your escape room. Don’t buy props and then shoehorn them into your designs.

The illuminating wood puzzle. It looks like a wooden frame around another piece of wood.

Illuminating Wood

$50

This item looks like a piece of wood held within a wooden frame. When held up to a reasonably strong light, however, it reveals a hidden message.

Animation of the Illuminating Wood puzzle with a light behind it. A hand moves it and the "CODE 5723" illuminates as the light passes by.

If you look at it on an angle, you can vaguely tell that something is weird about it, but it’s hard to see the message. This thing does its job.

Riddlefactory is able to customize this item at no additional cost; it simply adds a few days to delivery.

If I were using this in an escape room, I would produce a strong hint structure that directs players towards holding the thing up to the light. More likely, I’d mount it to a set piece where it looked inconspicuous and design an interaction to turn a light on behind it.

I think this item is a cool concept. Its effectiveness will depend on how it’s used. Think that through carefully and the Illuminating Wood puzzle could be an interesting addition to an escape room.

Transparent Digit Puzzle with all pieces stacked. It reads, "CODE 5724".

Transparent Digit Puzzle

$40

The Transparent Digit Puzzle is composed of 4 identically shaped pieces of clear acrylic. Each piece has a different portion of a code. Stack them one on top of the other to reveal the complete code.

When viewed individually, no one piece betrays the code. In the puzzle that I have, however, depending upon the pairings, it is possible to guess most of a code with 2 pieces. With any combination of 3 the code becomes pretty clear.

For escape rooms, I recommend placing the lock with that code on something that could be opened early without harming the game flow. Alternatively, I recommend giving the players the final three pieces at the same time.

This puzzle could be improved by adding a little visual noise that prevents the player from simply filling in the gaps.

Riddlefactory is able to customize this item at no additional cost.

The acrylic plastic is reasonably durable, I took these pieces to a local park and subjected each of the 4 to a different form of torture to simulate the beating they’ll take in an escape room (15 drops from 5 feet in the air onto concrete, 15 slams on the ground, 15 swift strikes against a concrete bench, and abrasive rubbing against 3 different surfaces). During the impact tests, they got roughed up a bit, but survived… I did get some funny looks from passersby. The abrasive test caused more damage; acrylic scratches badly.

A piece of the Transparent Digit Puzzle scratched badly.
Left: medium abrasive, 10 seconds. Middle: harsh abrasive 10 seconds. Right: light abrasive, 10 seconds.

If you’re designing a puzzle-centric room, and you aren’t concerned about abrasion, this could be an interesting prop. I’m having a hard time imagining these in a narrative-driven game, but if you can dream up a way to do it, the Transparent Digit Puzzle works well.

Riddlefactory - Freemason's Cipher Decoder - Closeup

Freemason’s Cipher Decoder

$35: Wood, $45: Acrylic

This one is not a puzzle; it’s a representation of the Freemason’s cipher key, also known as pigpen. It’s etched onto 4 pieces of either acrylic or wood.

All 4 pieces of the Riddle Factory Freemason's Cipher key.

With this prop, note the advice in Better Ways to Handle Letter Codes in Escape Rooms.

As with the previous items, Riddlefactory is able to customize this product at no additional cost, but allow a few extra few days for delivery.

Pigpen is used all too often in escape rooms where it doesn’t make a lot of sense. If I were designing an escape room set in the 1700s or built around the American Revolution or Freemasonry, I’d absolutely use pigpen and I’d consider buying these in wood; acrylic feels way too futuristic for a 200+ year-old cipher key. I would also either scramble the letter positions or make sure that the players receive the key before the cipher.

 

Sliding Lock

$45

The Sliding Lock is a mechanical puzzle. Although shaped like a lock, it is actually a semi-blind maze. You have to shift the sliding blocks around in order to slide the puzzle open and release the wooden shackle.

As a mechanical puzzle, I like the Sliding Lock. As an escape room puzzle… I can’t imagine it surviving for long under true play conditions.

The puzzle is reasonably complex. It took me a few minutes of focus to solve. It’s a one-player experience; it cannot engage a team of people.

The wooden shackle could easily be twisted and snapped. I didn’t break it (it’s too nice), but I know for certain that I can.

The body is held together by screws that I was able to open with my fingers. From there, taking the entire puzzle apart was trivial.

Sliding Lock puzzle with the screws and back removed. The intricate pieces are exposed and loose.

Of the puzzles we’ve received from Riddlefactory, this has been my favorite puzzle to hand to friends to solve (outside of a room). It’s fun, satisfying, and aesthetically pleasing. I would purchase it as gift. I cannot see the Sliding Lock lasting in an escape room.

Viking Box - Closed. This intricate metal, wood, and acrylic box looks pretty.

Viking Box

$85

The Viking Box is a complex puzzle box that measures 7 x 4.25 x 2 inches. Riddlefactory clearly states that this product is best as a lobby puzzle and I wholeheartedly agree that this should not be used in an escape room.

It took me 3 focused attempts to open this box and it would have been hell in an escape room. The Viking Box has a few deceptive attributes that require focus and attention to detail. Each time I sat down and worked at it, I realized something that I had missed the previous time. It’s clever.

It’s also breakable. The corners are beautifully laser cut to allow for rounding, but they are a physical vulnerability. Much like the Sliding Lock, the Viking Box is closed with screws that I could release with my fingers. Especially considering how challenging it is to open, I could easily see players destroying it in an escape room, which would be a tragedy.

I would use this box as a gift… or to stash a gift. I felt truly satisfied when I got it open. Please don’t put it in an escape room.

Riddlefactory

Riddlefactory has a number of additional products to explore and they offer customization. If any of this interests you, check them out.

Bates Motel Escape Rooms – The Tomb [Review]

Beauty and the beast.

Location: West Chester, Pennsylvania

Date played: June 24, 2017

Team size: 2-10; we recommend 3-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $29.95 per ticket

Story & setting

Having just found the belongings of the long missing archeologist, E.A. Budge, we sought to use his research and our wits to uncover the hidden tomb of Ani, high scribe of Ramses II.

Bates Motel Escape Rooms’ The Tomb presented a sandy and beautiful glimpse of Egyptian antiquity. The set was a work of art.

In-game: An Egyptian sarcophagus in the middle of a sandstone tomb.

Puzzles

The Tomb felt like a set-driven room escape. By that, I mean it seemed like Bates Motel Escape Rooms designed the set and large interactions, and then backfilled puzzles into it. This meant that there were some beautiful interactions, but it wasn’t always smooth to achieve them.

Standouts

This was by far the most beautiful Egyptian Tomb set that I’ve seen. I imagine that I will one day see other sets on its level, but I cannot imagine finding anything that looks substantially better.

The hidden and triggered interactions looked fantastic.

Shortcomings

One of those triggered interactions would cycle every few minutes, triggering a closure and then an opening all on its own. This was confusing because we kept thinking we’d triggered something else. It was also distracting.

While one interaction was constantly and loudly triggering itself, other triggered events did so with little indication. This meant that we sometimes missed having completed things or didn’t realize that we had gained access to something new.

The puzzle design relied heavily on written materials that served as a bottleneck and were, at times, incredibly confusing.

Sporadically throughout the set, pieces had fallen off. Aesthetics aside, these particular missing pieces related to an earlier puzzle, which left us wondering if the missing pieces were relevant; they weren’t.

The tomb was too dimly lit for some of our teammates to see and phones/ flashlights were not permitted. (This was made aggressively clear prior to the escape room beginning.) When we asked our gamemaster to clarify something during a post-game walkthrough… he pulled out his phone and turned on his flashlight to show us, because he seemingly couldn’t see it either. Empathy, people!

All of these complications were exacerbated by Bates Motel Escape Rooms’ use of the Escape Room Boss automated hint system, which felt like it was the unholy offspring produced by a threesome between a business efficiency consultant, the findings of the Milgram Experiment, and an app developer. In order to “automate” the hinting, we had to lug around an iPad and scan QR codes to get canned hints. This was crazy for a few reasons:

  • We weren’t allowed to have our phones, but we were carrying around a tablet.
  • Bates Motel Escape Rooms elected to ugly up their beautiful creation with hideous QR codes.
  • The hints were canned and taking one docked 2 minutes off of our time. This was particularly painful when it gave us a hint that told us something we already knew. Our only recourse at that point was to use the app to take an additional 5 minute penalty to receive the puzzle’s answer.

Should I play Bates Motel Escape Rooms’s The Tomb?

The Tomb desperately needs a puzzle designer. Bates Motel Escape Rooms produced a phenomenal environment, but the gameplay, rules, and hint system were all deeply flawed.

I truly hope that the folks from Bates commit to improving their player experience because their set is simply too good for the escape room that they have within it.

If you want to explore one of the finest Egyptian tomb escape room sets out there, then you should check out The Tomb. Otherwise, there are better escape rooms to play.

Book your hour with Bates Motel Escape Rooms’s The Tomb, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

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

Quandary – Son of the Zodiac [Review]

Quandary owes us $100,000. We’ll wait for it.

Location: Wallingford, Connecticut

Date played: July 8, 2017

Team size: 4-8; we recommend 4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $25 per ticket on weekdays, $27 per ticket on weekends

Story & setting

In the late 60s and early 70s, “The Zodiac Killer” terrorized the San Francisco Bay area murdering somewhere between 5 and 28 people. He celebrated his slayings by sending 4 enciphered messages to authorities. He was never identified or caught and only 1 of the cryptograms has been solved.

Decades later in Connecticut, a Zodiac Killer copycat had started taking lives and a $100,000 reward had been offered for information leading to his capture. As a group of college students taking an investigative journalism class at a local university, we’d decided to look into the killings… and we’d tracked a suspect back to his home. What could possibly go wrong?

In-game: A creepy apartment living space with green walls. A sofa, and television sit in the background. A set kitchen table in the foreground.

The “serial killer” escape room genre generally comes in three flavors:

  • Horror murder house
  • Children’s haunted house of party store props
  • Creepy house of slightly intimidating death iconography

Son of the Zodiac firmly fell in the third category. The set was essentially the killer’s creepy living room puzzle confessional. It more than adequately staged Quandary’s puzzles, but didn’t contribute any dramatic flair.

Puzzles

Son of the Zodiac shined in the puzzle department. A few of the puzzles were pretty damn brilliant. Quandary did a good job of embedding their puzzles into the set and providing challenges with more than one layer of complexity.

Standouts

Quandary’s story was detailed and established the set, as well as our reason for being there. Through a smart game design element, they managed to keep the narrative alive throughout the entire game right up to the conclusion. This is a rare feat in an escape room.

When we asked each teammate their favorite part of the Son of the Zodiac, damn near every puzzle was listed individually by at least one person. The puzzling was varied, complex, fair, and satisfying.

Shortcomings

Two big puzzles were set up for parallel solving, but were mounted to the set in a way that resulted in a lot of crosstalk. The two groups that had split to tackle these challenges ended up tripping over each other both verbally and physically. This added tension to the escape room… but not the desirable kind.

The set didn’t look great. It was clearly put together with love and care, but there was plenty of room for improvement.

Should I play Quandary’s Son of the Zodiac?

Son of the Zodiac’s creepy-not-scary, horror-lite gameplay was fairly clearly stated on their website: “While the theme of this room is menacing, there are no “scares”: no one jumps out at you, no strobe lights, no loud noise.” They also made it clear that Son of the Zodiac would be more challenging than your average room.

This was not a room escape for people who get really into the scary, set-driven aspects of some serial killer games. It wasn’t frightening and in its climactic moments it only flirted with intensity.

While not an overwhelmingly difficult escape room, I’d recommend having played a room or two before taking on Son of the Zodiac. It’s not for total newbies, but it’s approachable with a bit of experience. You’ll want to know your way around an escape room before you go in because the puzzles in Son of the Zodiac were killer.

Book your hour with Quandary’s Son of the Zodiac, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Quandary comped our tickets for this game.

 

Escape Entertainment – Time Trap [Review]

Time looped.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Date played: June 25, 2017

Team size: 2-10; we recommend 4-6

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $29 per ticket

Pre-review note

In a first for us, the creators of this escape room reached out shortly after we played to acknowledge that we surfaced a number of issues while playing the game. They have assured us that they have remedied them. While we’re publishing the review of the escape room as we played it in June of 2017, it seems like future players should have a better experience.

Story & setting

Our team of time cops had to chase a Carmen Sandiego-style nemesis into Philadelphia’s past. Could we identify where he was going and catch him?

Time Trap had two profoundly different acts and sets to go with them. The escape room began in a time ship and continued in a historic setting. The ship had a sterile look about it, like Apple was suddenly selling time machines. The mystery historical setting had a warm and homey feel.

In game: A stark white, lit blue time ship with astrological symbols on the walls.

Puzzles

Time Trap’s puzzling was in keeping with what we’ve come to expect from Escape Entertainment: a focus on reasoning and challenging puzzles, with a few of them built around large, tangible set pieces.

Standouts

There were some strong physically interactive puzzles that encouraged teamwork.

The time travel component worked well and the different sets elegantly juxtaposed against one another.

We spent some time working through a pair of great big set pieces. These were satisfying to solve.

Shortcomings

Escape Entertainment lost power just before we began our game, and things were… off (including our start time). At the beginning of the game, nothing worked, so we exited, and restarted. Once things got rolling, we still had a tech failure mid-game.

Not all of the big set pieces had sufficient camera coverage, so our gamemasters were blindly dropping useless hints to us. Then, because they didn’t have microphone coverage, they didn’t even know that they were feeding us useless information or that we were becoming frustrated by them.

There were parts of the set that were falling apart and the Time Trap had only been operating for a month.

One early puzzle left us completely baffled. We ended up deducing our way through it using an alternative method of solving it. Even after getting the description of the proper way to solve the puzzle during the post-game walkthrough, we were happier with our workaround.

One of the big set pieces could have used a better set of controls to make manipulating it easier.

Should I play Escape Entertainment’s Time Trap?

There were some great ideas at play in Time Trap, beautiful set pieces, and strong puzzles. Unfortunately, during our playthrough, these were outweighed by flaws in execution.

With a stronger, more resilient set, and better in-game surveillance, Time Trap could be a strong room escape. In its state when we played, it was a mixed bag.

There were puzzles worth solving and plenty worth experiencing in Time Trap. I think these elements would be an approachable and challenging for all skill levels. When we played, however, it felt like Time Trap was in public beta testing, and that’s was not acceptable. I’m glad that they’ve fixed the technical and construction issues.

Book your hour with Escape Entertainment’s Time Trap, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Escape Entertainment comped our tickets for this game.