Escape Hunt – Houston, We’ve had a Problem [Review]

“Okay, stand by, Thirteen, we’re looking at it.”

Location: Houston, TX

Date played: October 8, 2017

Team size: 6-12; we recommend 5-7

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $38 per ticket

Story & setting

Inspired by the events of the Apollo 13 malfunction and rescue, Houston, We’ve had a Problem split the team into two groups:

  • Up to three players put on the orange jumpsuits of Apollo astronauts and played in the capsule.
  • The rest of the team worked from Houston’s famed NASA Mission Control. Within the Mission Control group, one player wore the white vest of Gene Kranz and played Flight Director, another player was cast as CAP-COM and held sole responsibility for communication with the astronauts.
In-game: A team of astronauts and Mission Control high fiveing after a successful mission
Image via Escape Hunt, Houston

The Mission Control set looked Mission Control-y. With large banks of computers and stacks of binders, it had that functional-yet-space-age-made-for-TV aesthetic that still defines NASA Mission Control’s look.

In-game: Three astronauts strapped into their seats with an intricate dashboard in front of them.
Image via Escape Hunt, Houston

The Apollo 13 capsule set ranged heavily in quality and realism depending upon which direction you were looking. Parts of it captured the cramped and complex feel of the spacecraft. Others, like the floor and ceiling, felt like office space.

Puzzles

The puzzling varied dramatically based on role.

The players in Mission Control solved more cerebral puzzles that varied in complexity. These were mainly paper-based and only occasionally tangible. We then needed to communicate these puzzle solutions.

The astronauts recreated these solves onboard the ship through set interaction. Their gameplay was more task oriented. It required calmness under pressure, coordination, and communication.

CAP-COM’s puzzle was 100% communication.

Standouts

What could be more “Houston” than Apollo 13? Escape Hunt simulated that historical moment through gameplay. It was an ambitious undertaking that added layers of complication beyond the typical escape room. It was impressive.

We appreciated the split-team design. Since any given teammate played either at Mission Control or aboard the capsule, we relied heavily on impeccable communication through the entirety of the escape room. This was an added challenge around which we had to strategize.

The set looked great. Mission control had stations with button and lights. Parts of the spaceship felt cramped and realistic. This added a little bit of intensity and intimidation that escape rooms frequently don’t offer (and I mean that in a good way).

Houston, We’ve had a Problem instilled emotion. We were frantic and at times frustrated with the limitations of our ability to communicate. This felt like an accurate simulation of a historical event. It made us reflect.

Due to the split design of the game, it was possible to play this escape room twice. Two of our teammates had played before and barely had to hold back in order to participate a second time. I wouldn’t replay it immediately, but if you wait a couple of months and swap roles, it works well.

Shortcomings

The gameplay was uneven. Some players were busy every second. Others felt useless much of the time.

The set was intricate and captivating, but it didn’t factor much into the gameplay. The majority of the puzzle solving took place on laminated sheets of paper rather than through the buttons and dials on the consoles. This was disappointing.

Parts of the capsule’s set looked unfinished. There remains a lot of opportunity for small improvements that would have a big impact.

Furthermore, Houston, We’ve had a Problem followed a run book. This made sense, given the scenario. That said, it too was laminated paper rather than integrated into the set. In the end, at Mission Control, we spent more time poring over laminated sheets than interacting with the space… or the people in space.

Fun level correlated to engagement level, which was dictated by roles. Those of us at Mission Control who solved a few paper puzzles, but largely felt useless, didn’t have that much fun.

In the capsule, the astronauts had been granted access to one set of game components far too early. This caused them to circumvent a puzzle and damage the flow of the game.

One particular puzzle went on forever. We had to communicate and repeat the same series of actions in three places. It was a serious time burner. It seemed unnecessary and diminished the excitement of players in both gamespaces.

Another puzzle did not solve according to the puzzle documentation. In fact, the way it ultimately worked rendered Mission Control, and all the time we had spent determining how we intended to solve and communicate it, utterly worthless.

Communication was an important puzzle, but it was hindered by headset difficulties and background noise. We had to open a channel to communicate, but we could hear each other in the background anyway. There was a lot of shouting in additional to regular communication channels.

Should I play Escape Hunt’s Houston, We’ve had a Problem?

Houston, We’ve had a Problem was a challenging game. We won with a mere 17 seconds on the clock. It was also a test of communication and calmness under pressure.

The overall concept was awesome. The game’s structure made puzzles that would be simple in many escape rooms far more challenging due to the strained flow of communication.

The execution was good. It’s tough to create a fully split escape game and keep it entertaining and balanced. Escape Hunt didn’t quite achieve that. The escape game just wasn’t that fun from Mission Control because most of the action was happening next door.

Note that success hinges on role assignments. The people you put in the capsule should be calm, able to communicate well, and willing to take direction. They must be prepared to crawl and get a little physically involved with the set.

Additionally, the entire game hinged on the player in the role of CAP-COM. This individual spent the entire game as the only conduit for communication for all of the players in the game. Make sure your CAP-COM player can communicate effectively, even when frustrated or stressed. If you cannot tell the difference between giving orders and effective communication… this job isn’t for you.

I don’t think that Houston, We’ve had a Problem is for everyone. The divide has less to do with escape room experience than it does temperament. If pressure really gets to you, or you struggle to communicate, this escape game will quickly spiral out of control. It’s amazing how impactful a minor miscommunication could be. You have to be cool.

Houston, We’ve had a Problem was different from other escape rooms we’ve played in that it created new challenges and different types of pressure. While it didn’t nail every aspect of the gameplay, it certainly delivered a memorable experience unlike any other.

Book your hour with Escape Hunt’s Houston, We’ve had a Problem, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

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

 

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