An Open Letter From a Puzzler to the Scientific Community

Dear Scientific Community,

There is a grave error that must be dealt with at your earliest possible convenience:

There is no “E” on the Periodic Table of the Elements.

A periodic table of the elements.

Don’t come at us with Helium (He), Beryllium (Be), Neon (Ne), Iron (Fe), Selenium (Se), Tellurium (Te), Xenon (Xe), Rhenium (Re), Cerium (Ce), Europium (Eu), Erbium (Er), and Einsteinium (Es).

Puzzle designers really need a straight “E” for their designs. Now, look… we’re not unappreciative of Erbium and Einsteinium. Er and Es certainly are useful in crafting messages.

We’ve already got I, O, and U from Iodine, Oxygen, and Uranium… why no E? And while we’re at it, T, R, and A would be extremely helpful.

So please go find another element or 4 and give them symbols that the puzzle community could really work with. And while you’re at it, quit doing shit like abbreviating Ytterbium with Yb. That kind of passive aggression doesn’t help anyone.

6-2-68-16

David & Lisa

Escape Room Management in the Time of Quarantine

For weeks we’ve been speaking to owners and monitoring conversations in the various escape room communities… and for weeks we’ve been asked to put together our thoughts, observations, and recommendations.

We didn’t want to do this unless we felt that we had something substantive to add to the dialog… so here we are.

We’re going to cover a lot of ground, starting with the basics, but I’m betting that we hit on at least something that will be new to you.

Disclaimers

Let’s make this very clearly up front.

  • I’m not a lawyer. I’m not giving you legal advice.
  • Nor am I an accountant or financial analyst. I’m not giving you tax or financial advice.
  • However, I am a web designer, and you can take that $#!% to the bank.

You should seek whatever professional counsel is appropriate to set your own survival strategy. This is all here to give you vectors for attacking the many problems in your business.

CARES Act & Small Business

For those of you in the United States, Haley & Cameron Cooper of Strange Bird Immersive did a lot of research into the implications of the CARES Act for small businesses.

The benefits include loans, grants, and payroll protection programs. These are significant. They can go a long way towards relieving burdens on both your business and your employees.

They key is that you must act rapidly. Do not dawdle on this.

We worked with the Strange Birds to pull the information into a single document for you.

Comic book art of hands signing a document.

Reduce

There are two ways to improve margins. Sell more or spend less. We’re going to dive into a few ways to potentially earn more money, but I suspect that your average escape room company will benefit more from cutting costs than attempting to drive revenue.

Rent abatement

If you have no money and no means of generating any, there’s no way to pay the rent. The math is as sad as it is simple.

Your first and best option is to try to speak with your landlord. I recommend that you think about who your landlord is and what they want. The better your understanding of their personality, the more you can tailor your messaging to them.

Andy Bauch (Morty) shared this sample rent abatement letter with me and contingency plan with tips for negotiating with landlords among other things. This were written by his friend with restaurants in mind, but it’s the same idea. This might be a good starting place for you.

Contract Law & Force Majeure

If a soft approach fails, the murky swamp of contract law might be your salvation.

I may not be a lawyer, but this guy is a lawyer. He explains a wide variety of legal options specifically pertaining to contract law in the pandemic.

I’m not going to comment more on this because I’m not qualified to. Contracts are messy. Good luck.

Cancel or Freeze Nonessentials

This should go without saying, but cutting costs wherever you can might not stop the bleeding, but it can slow it.

Communicate

Communicating in a crisis is key. This does not mean that your small business needs to send a formal, “Here’s how we’re dealing with… we care,” message.

However, you do need to stay on top of your own customer communication.

Vibrant filtered image of a Polycom telephone resting on a wood and leather desk.

Email, Social Media, Phone

I’ve heard quite a few stories already from players who had bookings that they wanted to cancel or move and the company’s response was crickets:

  • no one answering the phone
  • a full voicemail box
  • a generic auto-responder on email
  • radio silence on social media

Be responsive. Encourage your customers to simply move their booking. This allows you to solve their problem and keep their money… which doesn’t solve your problems, but it doesn’t hurt.

The worst-case scenario is that you refund them and maintain your reputation.

The problem with not answering your customers’ communication or refusing to reschedule/ refund is that your customers are just going to get pissed off and flag the transaction with their credit card company. In this situation, you still don’t get their money and your credit card processor is probably going to hit you with extra fees.

Just communicate and handle things responsibly. Your business is already suffering. Don’t get hit with extra fees, bad reviews, and a diminished reputation on top of it.

Gift Cards

Gift card sales might soften the blow. It’s a nice way for your customers to effectively provide a microloan for future services.

A lot of folks have been touting gift cards as a way to save escape rooms… and we’ve been quiet on the subject. We feel that this is a kindness, but it’s far from salvation.

Unless Elon Musk wakes up tomorrow and buys a few weeks’ worth of bookings from a couple thousand escape room companies, this isn’t going to save very many businesses. Getting through the outbreak as quickly and efficiently as possible, though, can.

By the way, Elon… is it ok if I call you Elon? I’ve heard from a few owners that you like escape rooms. I know that you’re busy pumping out ventilators (and that’s truly appreciated), but if you feel like saving the escape room industry… it’s totally an option.

Improvements

While forced non-operation is wretched, there are a few things that you can do that might have been more challenging while you were busy serving customers.

Refurbish

Almost every escape room that I’ve ever set foot in can benefit from refurbishment. Sometimes this is just a coat of paint and the replacement of some locks. Other times it’s completely rebuilding something that didn’t work right.

A paintroller with white paint.

If you have the skills, it is probably a good idea to fill some of your time with this work.

Website Improvement

There are a lot of ways that an escape room business could benefit from a better website. This is my actual line of work and something that I’ll write about in more detail soon.

I highly recommend using this time to improve your website’s SEO. Improving your natural search ranking can pay massive dividends once your business is up and running again. There’s a lot of snake oil in the SEO world. If you need an SEO person (and have budget for this), contact us. I can put you in touch with some good people. There are also plenty of freely available online resources as a starting place.

Make a Play-at-Home Game

We’ve been covering tabletop and streaming escape rooms for years now.

This had always been a niche thing that didn’t necessarily appeal to the entire escape room community, but we’ve wanted to cover it, nurture it, and watch it grow. It’s another medium for play and storytelling.

As with real-life escape rooms, there are great and terrible ways to pull off a play-at-home game. If you’re thinking about making any kind of play-at-home game, I’ll urge you to give our 11 Principles of Tabletop Escape Room Design post a read. This post isn’t particularly well read in the escape room community, but it’s been shared and reposted quite a few times in tabletop game design circles.

Red/blue 3D glasses, a cipher coin, and a joker card.

If you’re going to make a play-at-home game, put your all into it, even if you don’t have a lot of resources available. Figure out a special angle that you can take. Create a moment that makes sense for the medium that you’ve selected, something that you couldn’t do in a real-life escape room.

If you’re producing something for fun and want to circulate it for free, go for it. That said, I honestly believe that everyone would be better served with you putting a little more love into it and charging a few dollars for your effort. We all want quality entertainment these days and there are a lot of folks who are willing to pay a bit for something worthy.

An Offer from Escape This Podcast

For a limited time, during this period of social distancing and quarantine, Escape This Podcast is giving permission for escape room owners to run their virtual/audio-only escape rooms commercially. They hope this will help you keep your business afloat and maintain a relationship with your customers.

They have 50+ virtual/audio escape rooms completely designed and ready to go, which can be run by a single gamemaster over the internet for groups of any size (and those players can all be remote from each other).

These escape rooms are all currently available on the internet for free, but Escape this Podcast is offering that you can have customers pay for you to run the escape room (like a professional DnD Gamemaster). They ask only that you credit Escape This Podcast, direct people to their show, and (if you have the means) make a donation to their PayPal account.

Please contact Escape This Podcast for additional information: escapethispod@gmail.com

Closing Thoughts

I’m not going to pretend that any of these ideas are a magical solution that will solve the challenges ahead.

Our hope here is to provide some ideas and direction. If anything that we’ve provided makes it even a little easier for someone to sort something out, we’ll consider that a win. It’s times like these when everyone will benefit if we help one another. To that end, please feel free to use our comment section to share anything that you’ve learned.

My only asks are:

  • Please leave politics out of it. There’s a time and place for that, and it’s neither here, nor now.
  • Read what we have already provided and make sure that it hasn’t already been covered.
  • Be confident that what you’re posting is fact-based.

Good luck.

Escape Rooms & Empathy for Conspiracy Theorists

I can’t stand conspiracy theories.

Believing your typical conspiracy theory requires a faith in governments and massive corporations that I cannot fathom.

Closeup of a peron's eyes as they hide in the shadows.

To put it bluntly, the most powerful government in the world, at the height of its power, couldn’t successfully cover up a blowjob. The events of the past 3 months have reinforced that the wheels of governments and machinations of corporations couldn’t even successfully stave off global pandemic, even when it seems there were plenty of people in powerful positions warning of the dangers beyond the wall.

When I look at the world as it is today, or dust off my history degree and turn an eye backward, I see chaos: fortune for some, tragedy for others. Certainly some people have had plans at different points in time, and maybe even seen them through to completion. In the long run, however, even the smartest, most successful of humans turns to dust. The constant is chaos.

So, I don’t believe that there are evil geniuses invisibly pulling the strings of the world, silently sacrificing some portions of humanity to achieve some nefarious long game. But I have been wanting to understand, even if I don’t believe.

Empathy

About a decade ago I was one of the earlier people in the tech community hopping on the “design with empathy” bandwagon.

Empathy is not sympathy.

Sympathy is feeling for someone. Empathy is feel with someone. The difference might seem semantic, but it is far from trivial.

Sympathy is your friend describing to you what it’s like to ride an incredibly tall and fast roller-coaster.

Empathy is hopping in and riding.

One drives distance while the other fosters connection.

Conspiracies & Escape Rooms

Now more than ever, I’ve wanted to empathize with conspiracy theorists. I’ve wanted to understand what they feel when they look at something like a global pandemic and believe that it must be a weapon that was deployed against humanity.

So, what does this have to do with escape rooms?

When you leave an escape room, most people seem to experience a heightened state of awareness. It feels as if everything that you look at has meaning. We call this “post-escape room hyperawareness.” You feel this after an escape room because during an escape room, everything does have meaning.

Escape rooms are deliberately designed games so that (usually) everything is there for a reason. There is a grand mystery, and it is solvable. When an escape room is well designed, there is so much beauty in knowing that if you just put more effort in and observe a bit better, the truth of the situation will reveal itself.

Each escape room is a giant conspiracy to unravel.

They send you back out into the world primed to see meaning where there is none… because the rest of the world isn’t that deliberate.

The world is scary and it’s more comforting to think that a person, or group of people, is behind the suffering. If a human is causing this, then someone is still in control. Few notions are more comforting right now than the idea that someone – anyone – is in control, even if they are a villain.

Escape Game Adventure Books [Overview]

Puzzling happily ever after.

Location:  at home

Date Played: February 2020

Team size: we recommend 1-family

Duration: 15-60 minutes

Price: about $10

REA Reaction

Escape Game Adventure books were family-friendly puzzle books with bold, beautiful illustrations and a light narrative. Each book represented an adventure through time and space to right a fantastical wrong.

The covers of both the Last Dragon & The Mad Hacker Escape Game Adventure books.

We’re in favor of anything that helps kids find a love of puzzling and using their minds to have fun. The Escape Game Adventure books comfortably fit that description.

They weren’t long or challenging. Their thorough approach to hinting and solution descriptions meant that anyone who wants to understand how a puzzle works can learn. Learning is what these books were all about. They would be a fantastic first step on a young puzzler’s journey.

Series Installments

  • The Last Dragon (Buy Now) (Review Coming Soon)
  • The Mad Hacker (Buy Now) (Review Coming Soon)

Who is this for?

  • Kids & families
  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Adorable
  • Gorgeous illustrations
  • Kid friendliness
  • Straightforward, but real puzzling

We’re going to publish short reviews of each book in the series. For the sake of simplicity and repetition reduction, we’re covering the basics in this overview.

Setup

Escape Game Adventure books were play-at-home escape games in a book format designed for kids ages 8 to 12.

While the individual Escape Game Adventure books each offered a unique story and puzzle set, they all followed the same structure.

Each book opened with a:

  • 1-page history of escape rooms, that references our data (but doesn’t cite us… we’ll live)
  • 2-page spread with the rules
  • 1-page narrative lead-in

To play, you’ll need:

  • One of the books
  • Something to write with
  • A pair of scissors

Gameplay

The core gameplay of the Escape Game Adventure books revolved around observing, making connections, puzzling, and scissor skills.

Each book was broken down into pages labeled in 3 colors:

  • Puzzles – Green
  • Hints – Red
  • Solutions – Purple
Green puzzle page indicator.

Puzzles – Green

While this escape room was presented in book format, we didn’t flip through the pages in order like we would with a traditional storybook. Each puzzle resolved to a page number, thus taking us to another page in the book.

Closeup of a graphical dogear.

If a puzzle took up more than one page, this was noted in lower corners with a graphical dogear.

At the back of the book there was an answer validation grid mechanism to verify that we were moving to the correct page, but we didn’t use it after the first puzzle. (Kids probably will use it.)

Hints – Red

Each puzzle had between 2-5 hints (usually 4) presented in order. The hints were well-structured and granular. If you need help, the hints will provide good nudges.

Solutions – Purple

The solution pages were graphical and outlined each puzzle step-by-step. Even if you cannot solve the puzzles, the Escape Game Adventure books will not leave you hanging.

Analysis

This analysis refers to the structure of play, which was standard across the Escape Game Adventure book series. Refer to the individual reviews for the analysis of the content of each book.

Dooz beside a time portal.

➕ We loved Dooz, the robot friend that aided us throughout our escape. His speech bubbles added character to the cluing and the hint pages. Dooz reminded me a lot of Babbage from the original Time Run games.

➖ The books opened with a text-heavy description and light history of escape rooms before leaning into the rules. This felt a little too long for the audience and gave us the bad impression that the books would overwhelm us with prose. Fortunately, they weren’t.

➕ The answer validation grid was an elegant mechanism to help kids confirm that they had solved the puzzle correctly and keep them on the right track.

❓ With the solution always a page number in the book, that limited the structures of answers (and would make back-solving easier.) This wasn’t inherently a problem, but may make the solutions start to feel repetitive over time, as the book series expands.

➖ The graphical dogeared page corner indicator that a puzzle continued on the next page was not eye-catching enough. We regularly struggled to notice them.

➕ The hint system was easy to find and clear to follow. The solution pages were separate from the hint system and just as easy to locate. Both hints and solutions were thorough and clear.

➖ The instructions did not mention that we’d need scissors. We definitely needed them.

➕ The Escape Game Adventure books included vocabulary lessons on many of the pages. A “Did You Know?” bubble told the reader some basic information about a thematic word that will likely be unfamiliar to kids.

Tips For Players

  • Space Requirements: a small table
  • Required Gear: pencil, scissors
  • Note that these books are single-use.

Buy Them Now

  • The Last Dragon (Buy Now) (Review Coming Soon)
  • The Mad Hacker (Buy Now) (Review Coming Soon)

Buy your copies of the Escape Game Adventure books, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: we received media samples for review.

Immersia – The Piccadilly Cabaret [Review]

A haunting performance.

Location:  Laval, Canada

Date Played: February 1, 2020

Team size: 2-6; we recommend 3-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: from 25.99 CAD per player

Ticketing: Private

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

The Piccadilly Cabaret was more than the sum of its parts.

The puzzles were completely forgettable, but the overall experience was so very memorable.

In-game: An old bar after closing time.
Image via Immersia

I have a longstanding fascination with simple things executed beautifully; The Piccadilly Cabaret really spoke to that.

With games like The Grand Immersia Hotel, Immersia has greatly advanced the complexity and intensity of their escape experience design. If you only have time for one game with Immersia, it probably should be The Grand Immersia Hotel. That said, their earlier lineup offered so much subtle beauty that I must recommend playing at least one or two of them. Immersia’s roots are strong and deserving of appreciation.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Story seekers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Phenomenal yet subtle atmospheric moments.
  • A brilliant approach to story and set design.

Story

It was the 1930 and we were devoted fans of the late diva Emma Albani. It was the anniversary of her death and the cabaret that she had made famous was scheduled for demolition. We’d decided to take a crack at sneaking into the old, condemned building to see if we could find her dressing room before everything was destroyed.

In-game: the piano and microphone on the stage of an old cabaret.
Image via Immersia

Setting

The Piccadilly Cabaret was minimal yet effective. Everything in this game felt right, even when there wasn’t a lot of detail. This really speaks to how smart Immersia was when deciding upon the setting for The Piccadilly Cabaret.

Additionally, the most memorable moments of this game were born of Immersia’s set design.

In-game: Closeup of an old bar's cash register.
Image via Immersia

Gameplay

Immersia’s The Piccadilly Cabaret was a standard escape room with an easier level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching, observing, making connections, and puzzling.

Analysis

➕ The story behind The Piccadilly Cabaret was original and clever.

➕ The set for The Piccadilly Cabaret was minimal, but it felt right. It had enough details to sell the scene. The lighting was atmospheric and functional.

➕ Immersia created a character who doubled as a hinting and timekeeping mechanism. The set up made sense with the scenario. While not flashy, it was well-executed. It was also entertaining. Through our interactions with this character, Immersia could also deliver our team a more personalized experience, crafting the interactions to meet our needs.

➕ We enjoyed the transition from act 1 to act 2.

➕ In the second act, Immersia enhanced the atmosphere was a few well-timed interactions. These were subtle, but powerful moments.

➖ Many of the puzzles felt dated. These included multiple searching and counting puzzles that felt “set atop” rather than integrated into the experience.

➖ Although the gameplay worked, the puzzles were largely forgettable. This was in part because much of the cluing was paper-based, rather than a built into the set and props. The puzzles weren’t native to the gamespace.

➖ While The Piccadilly Cabaret didn’t require any outside knowledge, one key late game challenge would have been rough without it.

➕ The final sequence was illuminating.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is parking lot.
  • This game is entirely bilingual (French and English).
  • For the full experience, players must be able to climb up and over a small obstacle.
  • Note that this game is at Immersia’s Laval Location.

Book your hour with Immersia’s The Piccadilly Cabaret, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Immersia provided media discounted tickets for this game.

Trust Thresholds in Escape Room Play [Player Tip]

There is an art to taking hints that even experienced escape room players struggle to balance.

Lisa and I find that the art to taking hints is built around trust.

A sign with a person walking, a sign over its face reads, "Trust." The symbol is encircled in red.

How do you trust a game?

When we start playing an escape room, we don’t just solve the first few puzzles, we silently evaluate how cleanly they resolve. Was the solve fair?

Escape games can build trust quickly by presenting good “on-ramp puzzles.” Obvious, eye-catching challenges that solve quickly and cleanly establish how the room wants to be played.

Trust breaks easily when an escape room lacks an on-ramp and the players are unable to gain momentum. Trust also breaks if the players spin in circles for long stretches of time without a clear sense of direction.

We’re pretty good at escape rooms at this point, so we are capable of solving a fair number of puzzles that we don’t necessarily think are well crafted or fair. As we play, we are mindful of the flow of the gameplay.

Subconscious Evaluation

When we play an escape room, we usually just play. We don’t like to think as reviewers while we play. At the outset of a game we rarely begin writing in our heads or meta gaming. We prefer to simply exist in the moment and enjoy the game.

That said, for us, this mental state comes to an abrupt halt if the game breaks our trust.

When The Trust Breaks

If the gameplay seems to require leaps of logic, then this has a couple of effects on the way that we approach the escape game:

First, we try “bad ideas” more readily.

An extreme example (that we’ve seen more than once): if we derived the code “1234” and for no good reason we needed to input it in reverse as “4321,” then we’re going to encourage our team to try all manner of silly bullshit ideas. We do this because the game has broken our trust. All bets are off.

We would never do this in a game where the puzzles had clean, elegant, and clued solutions.

Second, and more important, we’ll take hints more quickly if we don’t trust the game.

This method isn’t foolproof. We’ve seen a bullshit puzzle show up in a game made by someone who had otherwise designed a great escape room. It happens.

If you’re aware and keeping a mental trend line of fair/ unfair puzzles, this will help you and your team adjust your approach.

Trust is like a shower.

A stylized image of a showerhead spraying water.

When the water is the right temperature, you’re simply immersed. If the temperature spikes or plummets momentarily, it’s annoying, but fine. If the temperature starts shifting up and down haphazardly, it not only yanks you out of the moment, but it changes your entire approach to even touching the water.

Vortex – Nightfall [Review]

Shelter Skelter

Location:  Montreal, Canada

Date Played: February 1, 2020

Team size: 2-6; we recommend 2-4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price:  29.99 CAS per player

Ticketing: Private

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

Nightfall was a strong escape room with an interesting approach to hinting.

The set looked good. The puzzles were entertaining and broadly varied.

In-game: A bloodied water well outside of a cabin in the woods.

As hinting, Vortex had included extra information lying around the room in obvious places. If we wanted to access that additional layer of information, we could do so freely at any time. This was interesting because it created as many problems as it solved – mostly because some of the bonus hints were kind of essential. This was needlessly frustrating, but quite fixable.

All in all, Nightfall was one of the strongest games that we played in the city of Montreal (bearing in mind that a lot of the action in the Montreal escape room community is happening in the suburbs). If you’re in Montreal and looking for an escape, Vortex’s Nightfall is a strong option.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Sci-fi fans
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Fun set and prop interactions
  • Puzzle variety

Story

While hiking through the woods in the late 1960s, one of our friends had fallen and broken his leg. We had found refuge in a cabin and radioed back to town. We were told that rescuers would be dispatched if we could determine our location. As we settled in and began looking for the necessary information, we started hearing harrowing noises in the woods around us… and the sounds kept getting closer.

In-game: 2 people operating a chamber occupied by a third person.
Image via Vortex

Setting

We found ourselves outside of a strange cabin in the woods. The setting was dimly lit, but we were able to see what we needed to see. Exterior scenes have generally proven difficult to sell, but Vortex did a pretty good job of building the right vibe. It certainly showed its seams, but felt solid enough.

As we entered the cabin, the scene shifted dramatically and Vortex maintained their level of quality.

In-game: Closeup on a firepit with a fire glowing within.

Gameplay

Vortex’s Nightfall was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching, observing, making connections, and puzzling.

Analysis

➕ Vortex built a compelling outdoor set for Nightfall. It was dark, but with enough light that we could see what we needed to see. It created a sense of eeriness appropriate for the scenario, without becoming scary.

➕ The gameplay flowed cleanly. We enjoyed the wide variety of puzzles and how they linked together.

➕/❓Nightfall gave clear feedback when we solved a puzzle. We always appreciate this aspect of escape room design. It’s debatable whether Vortex’s choice of feedback notification made sense in this experience. It probably depends on how playful versus realistic your escape game preferences lean… Vortex leaned into playful. Our team was split on the subject.

➕/➖ Players could choose to make this game easier by reading the additional paper cluing that Vortex left within the game. These clues were clearly marked as optional. We appreciated the intent: that players could get the clue structure entirely from within the experience, but could choose to read additional cluing for any given puzzle.

That said, we found a few instances where we couldn’t glean the information we needed without reading the extra papers. It didn’t exist anywhere else. For example, we needed to read the printed material to know that there was a bonus puzzle available within the game. Also, the papers explained how to activate an entire critical sequence.

➖ We found one process puzzle inelegant. It ended up coming down to trial and error.

➖ One large, intriguing set piece built up to an uninteresting reveal. That moment was begging for a more engaging interaction.

➕  Nightfall had a climactic ending. Vortex created a prop that sold the moment. It was campy, but it worked well with the vibe of the set and the game. This ending was unusual, funny, and quite memorable.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is metered street parking. Download the P$ Montreal parking app to pay the meter.
  • This game is entirely bilingual (French and English).
  • All players need to be able to crawl a short distance.

Book your hour with Vortex’s Nightfall, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Vortex comped our tickets for this game.

Free Online Tour of the Winchester Mystery House

Because of COVID-19, the bizarre Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California is presently closed. They have published a 40-minute video tour of the mansion.

Exterior of the Winchester Mystery House mansion decorated for Halloween.

Firearms heiress Sarah Winchester designed and built this baffling home. She allegedly built it to escape the spirits of those killed by the weapons that financially fueled her.

The sprawling home has staircases and doorways to nowhere… and serves as a prime example of how there’s no crazy quite like wealthy crazy.

Watch the tour, while you can.

One of these days, I’d like to see the Winchester Mystery House in real life. I expect that many escape room fans would as well.

Sauve Qui Peut – Vortex Future [Review]

The future is really hard.

Location:  Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Canada

Date Played: February 3, 2020

Team size: 3-8; we recommend 4-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: 30 CAD per player

Ticketing: Private

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

We lost in Vortex Future. It wasn’t even close. That doesn’t mean that it was a bad game.

Like Sauve Qui Peut’s Vortex Past, Vortex Future was a compact, puzzle-centric experience in a beautiful setting. However, stylistically the two games played completely differently from one another. Where Vortex Past felt like solving a puzzle box, Vortex Future felt like solving a puzzle hunt without the meta puzzles.

In-game: Wide view of a futuristic spaceship.

Vortex Future was a puzzler’s game in the purest sense. There wasn’t any searching; each puzzle was presented and labeled at its own station. They varied broadly in complexity. While there were 2 or 3 that we didn’t care for because of execution or style, they were generally high-quality challenges.

So, why did we lose? Well, knowing nothing about Vortex Future, we played too lackadaisically. We burned too much time on a puzzle in the main game before finally taking a much-needed hint. We probably needed 10 to 15 minutes for the final puzzle, which we didn’t have. The final puzzle was totally solvable, but it was also one of the most, if not the most, challenging puzzles that we’ve ever faced in an escape room. As soon as we recognized the challenge for what it was, we knew we were doomed.

If you’re a strong puzzler, there’s a lot to love in Vortex Future. We lost and still enjoyed ourselves quite a bit. I think that we could have won this game if we had realized what we were up against and had approached it with the respect that it deserved.

If you’re a newbie or you’re more into the scenery and adventure aspects of escape rooms and aren’t crazy about games that present heavy puzzling… then try out some of Sauve Qui Peut’s other offerings.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Puzzle hunters
  • Scenery snobs
  • Sci-fi fans
  • Experienced players
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • Innovative, challenging puzzle design
  • Clean and beautiful presentation
  • If you’re looking for a hard escape game, this was a very hard escape game

Story

It was the year 2089 and we had to board a disabled space station designed to detect threats to Earth. Humanity was counting on us to restore the station’s power and functionality.

In-game: A big red button glowing on the wall of a futuristic spaceship.

Setting

Vortex Future was a beautiful, compact space station lined with cleanly presented puzzle modules. Each station had the same 1 through 8 number inputs and took up the same amount of wall space.

The artistry in Sauve Qui Peut’s design was how they used this same structure to present so many different challenges.

In-game: The power and engine computers in a futuristic spaceship.

Gameplay

Sauve Qui Peut’s Vortex Future was a standard escape room with a high level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around puzzling. Every puzzle was clearly presented without any searching. We simply had to figure out how to solve them.

In-game: Two different puzzle stations.

Analysis

❓ Vortex Future was a puzzler’s escape room. This was one of the hardest escape rooms that we’ve ever played.

➕ The spaceship set of Vortex Future looked clean, sleek, and polished.

➕ In Vortex Future, Sauve Qui Peut demonstrated just how much a puzzle designer can accomplish with a simple input interface. While these stations looked similar, and resolved with a consistent interaction, the paths to solve them were incredibly varied.

In-game: A sealed doorway in a futuristic spaceship.

➖ One puzzle felt light on cluing. We spent too long thinking we were making progress, only to find that we hadn’t learned anything about the puzzle at all. Coupled with the puzzle’s harsh sound quality, this was especially frustrating.

➖ One puzzle had a misleading visual interface, given the ultimate puzzle resolution. This puzzle really dashed our expectations.

➖ In one puzzle, the only viable solving method (that we found) was tedious and trial & error-y.

➕ Vortex Future required us to learn the logic of the game world, but think outside the box to solve the puzzles. This resulted in immensely satisfying puzzle solves.

➖ In a few instances the inputs were finicky, which caused us some confusion.

➕ While we got hung up on a few puzzles, overall they were fair, inventive, and unusual escape room puzzles that we enjoyed solving.

❓ The final puzzle was probably the most challenging puzzle that we’ve seen in an escape room to date. It was tangible, team-centric, and the type of thing many experienced puzzlers would know exactly how to approach… but it was a beast of a puzzle nonetheless. I think we would have been able to solve it if we got to it with at least 10 – maybe 15 – minutes on the clock.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is metered street parking.
  • This game is entirely bilingual (French and English).
  • This game would be extremely difficult for colorblind players.

Book your hour with Sauve Qui Peut’s Vortex Future, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Sauve Qui Peut comped our tickets for this game.

Deckscape – Behind the Curtain [Review]

Card magic

Location:  at home

Date Played: February 12, 2020

Team size: 1-6; we recommend 2-3

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: about ~$15

REA Reaction

Deckscape games are consistently fun and playfully designed.

In recent installments, the games’ creators have put interesting and engaging spins on the gameplay. That was true of the stage magic-themed Behind the Curtain.

The stage magic box art for Deckscape - Behind the Curtain.

Since their first installment, however, Deckscape has always included a couple of gotcha “puzzles” that feel more like a game of “guess what I’m thinking” than a fair, solvable puzzle. I keep getting the impression that Deckscape’s designer feels that a game needs something that lots of people get wrong. While Behind the Curtain would have been more satisfying if every puzzle felt fair, thankfully we pushed through our early moments of frustration to reveal a truly satisfying play-at-home escape game.

From our perspective, Behind the Curtain was one of the strongest games in Deckscape’s respectable stable.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Solid puzzle play
  • Clever use of simple concepts from magic
  • This is one of Deckscape’s stronger products

Story

We had received an anonymous envelope with free tickets to a magic show performed by the legendary Lance Oldman in New York City… so we went to the show…

The deck of cards and a mysterious envelope.

Setup

Behind the Curtain followed the same structure as all previous Deckscape games. We explained this in detail in our first Deckscape review of their original games Test Time & The Fate of London.

The only key difference in Behind the Curtain was the inclusion of a mysterious envelope.

Gameplay

Deckscape’s Behind the Curtain was a standard play-at-home escape game with a moderate level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around observing and making connections.

Early puzzle cards introducing the main character, magician Lance Oldman.

Analysis

➕ Deckscape created magically thematic puzzles for Behind the Curtain. They would obscure, change, and misdirect. We appreciated how the gameplay style made sense with the story.

➕ In Behind the Curtain, Deckscape included props that allowed them to do more than they could otherwise have accomplished with only the deck of cards. They employed these in thematically relevant ways to add intrigue and deliver satisfying solves. They stretched these few additional props remarkably far.

➖ We encountered a few puzzles that felt like “gotcha” moments. One early puzzle was so egregiously obnoxious that we thought about quitting. Deckscape always throws in a couple of garbage puzzles and we hate that they do it.

➖ It wasn’t always clear – from the wording or the illustrations – when you needed an object or what you needed to understand about an object in order to solve a puzzle. This led to a couple of choke points where it was difficult to use the hint system to even figure out where to focus our attention.

➖ Although you should be able to solve through multiple stacks of cards at once for the bulk of the game, we broke sequence at one point due to some confusion born from the game’s art.

➕ We enjoyed an artistic late-game solve and the finale.

Tips For Players

  • Space Requirements: a small table
  • Required Gear: just the game

Buy your copy of Deckscape’s Behind the Curtain, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.