The Escape Game significantly leveled up their set design, technological capability, and narrative chops in Special Ops. This replacement for one of their original games, Classified, blew its predecessor away.
Special Ops played out in two acts: the first set in a Middle Eastern market and playing like a more traditional escape room, the second set in an evil bunker and focused heavily on narration and adventure. This made Special Ops feel like two games.
We loved the overall experience and preferred the second act, both for how dramatic it was and because the puzzles seemed just a little more refined than in the opening act.
All-in-all, this was an undeniably great game and well worth playing if you’re anywhere near Nashville or The Escape Game’s other locations.
Who is this for?
Any experience level
Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle
Fantastic assortment of puzzles
Our team had been assigned to a routine investigation of the Ansar market. Our late night inspection of this criminal hotbed unexpectedly turned into a crisis of global proportions. It was up to us to stop it.
Special Ops was an escape room in two acts. Similarly to Classified we began in a Middle Eastern market and progressed into a villain’s lair. With Special Ops, however, the Escape Game has dramatically leveled up their set design and construction abilities (which weren’t shabby in their earlier games).
The Escape Game noted every construction detail. They even chose specific buttons that would enhance the player’s experience.
The Escape Game’s Special Ops was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.
Core gameplay revolved around making connections and puzzling.
+ The two sets of Special Ops were detailed, beautiful, captivating… and so different from one another.
+ One of Special Ops opening interactions brilliantly broke with escape room tradition.
– The accessories for sale in the Middle Eastern market created strangely frustrating interactions. In one instance, we had a puzzle solved long before the input was available. In another instance, the game trained us to interact with it one way and then required us to take a different approach.
+ The first act included some phenomenal, tangible solves.
+ The second act delivered incredible visual feedback for a variety of tech-driven solves.
+ The Escape built clear clue-structure and user interfaces into the second act. The puzzles were challenging for all the right reasons. We felt like knowledgable, badass, world-savers.
– A video segments dragged… enough that we broken out of the moment and felt our time ticking away while we waited to get back to the game.
+ Special Ops included one puzzle type that repeated across both sets, with completely different implementation. At first we were unimpressed with the repetition. Upon reflection, we were impressed that the game built mastery, as the second implementation was more challenging.
? Special Ops started off typically escape room-y, albeit in an atypically beautiful set, and evolved into a story-driven, mission-centric game. Depending on gameplay preferences, you will likely enjoy one half more than the other. This made Special Ops feel uneven… but considering how much different folks like each part, also rather impressive.
+ The Escape Game’s quality of set and interaction design was phenomenal; especially in the second act. There was a keypad that was so satisfying to push. This may seem like a minor detail, but it really underscored how above and beyond they went to produce a deliberate experience.
+ Special Ops final puzzle was fantastic.
Tips for Visiting
Special Ops is at The Escape Game’s East Iris location.
The Bunker was a wild ride of an immersive game. It mashed up roleplaying, tabletop gaming, puzzling, and storytelling into a sprawling post-apocalyptic epic that was both compelling and funny.
We loved The Bunker, but caution that people should only book tickets if they are willing to embrace whatever the game throws at them and play. If you’re too uncomfortable or too cool to play in The Bunker’s fiction, then this experience is decidedly not for you.
Similarly, if all you want are puzzles, or an elegant story presented to you… there are plenty of escape rooms or immersive shows that will scratch that itch; The Bunker is not what you’re seeking.
Your mileage will vary based on whom you’re playing with and the choices that you make. By total happenstance found ourselves teamed up with Kathryn Yu from No Proscenium & Michael Andersen of ARGNET, which was the most amazing random teammate assignment possible.
For those that showed up with their imagination and a willingness to play, The Bunker presented countless opportunities to explore within a strange world and build our own unique story.
Who is this for?
Best for players who are willing to embrace the game
Players who don’t need to be a part of every scene
Open-ended interactive storytelling that relied heavily on player decision
Unique moments for every player who desires them
Opportunity to leave your mark on your group’s story
Brilliant game mechanics
Each group receives a unique ending
As backers of a crowdfunding project to create a series of apocalypse survival bunkers, we had gone for a tour of one of the facilities when the world ended. The bunker had locked down and the shelter’s AI DeBUNK had put us into stasis for over a century.
When DeBUNK revived us, things weren’t so great. The world had been transformed into a post-apocalyptic wasteland of familiar yet legally distinct horrors, our bunker’s life support systems were starting to fail, and we were low on food.
The Bunker was staged in Wildrence, a NYC experiential space and consulting studio that helps provide other creators with an immersive space and the tools necessary to bring their experiences to life. Previously this facility has hosted Refuge, Contagion, and Six Impossible Things (which is an exceptional close up immersive magic performance. Get tickets if you can!).
Our bunker and homebase was staged in the Wildrence kitchen set. Leaving the safety of our bunker required a hazmat suit (holding a hazmat suit card). Outside our bunker, we met a character who facilitated our exploration of the rest of the game’s expansive world.
The Bunker was an immersive game with a variety of game mechanics, a tabletop crafting game, some puzzles, and a lot of free-form roleplaying.
In the bunker we could ask questions of our AI DeBUNK (a gamemaster character over Google Hangouts), attempt to build things via the crafting tabletop game, use the tablets that we found across the wasteland to communicate (text) with other bunkers, and manage our resources.
Resources were drawn playing cards: rations, Twinkies, hazmat suits, tools, medicines, and whatever else we found while exploring the world. Some resources were reusable; others burned as soon as we committed them.
Exploration involved going out into the wasteland and telling the character which direction we wanted to go. Along the way, he told us which structures we had encountered and we made choices about which to visit. Once we had made a selection, he described the encounter and we decided how to react using only our wits and whatever resources we had on-hand.
When the exploration ended, our gamemaster informed us of how everything had resolved. This included what resources we had found and what terrible physical and psychological afflictions we had picked up along our journey through the hellscape… and some strikingly bad things happened to our people.
When things happened to us, we received stickers depicting our abilities or afflictions. Some stickers gave us additional powers to help us; others represented physical or psychological damage that diminished our abilities. Some of these afflictions could be cured; others couldn’t… and some we simply didn’t want to cure because they were amusing.
Ultimately, each player had to take responsibility for their own good time.
+ The Bunker had a massive amount of story content and opportunities for us to explore, create drama, or stumble into trouble.
+ More than just about any immersive game that we’ve played, the choices that we made in The Bunker had immediate and logical consequences. We were never totally shocked when something happened because it flowed out of a decision that we had made either in that moment, or earlier.
+ The more each of us put into the game, the more the game gave back to us. Many of us had some wild experiences. The Bunker rewarded those of us who embraced the game and its fiction.
+ For us, the best parts were the adventures that we had when we left our Bunker. The game world, the choices, and the implications were endlessly entertaining.
+ The stickers signifying afflictions and abilities were brilliant and amusing. The illustrations on them were funny. It was especially clever that they could be quickly applied or removed (if cured).
+ The gamemasters were interactive, funny, and effective at facilitating the game. Their mastery over their own story and content was perpetually evident.
– There was a 3-person staff managing the entire game. As the scope of the world grew, it became a bit chaotic. They were surprisingly adept at wrangling everything that was going on, but there were times where it was clearly a bit too much.
– Our teammates who hung out in our bunker and made no effort to embrace the experience clearly didn’t enjoy themselves. On one hand, during the game I was annoyed with them because it seemed clear to me that they were doing themselves a disservice and all that they would have needed to do was volunteer to do anything at all to jumpstart a better experience. On the other hand, there truly was no mechanism for pulling these wayward players into the experience if they failed to show initiative. This really was a flaw in the game.
+ Broken Ghost Immersive had created some really smart afflictions to prevent strong personalities from overpowering the game. I saw this happen in real time at least once and knew exactly what was going on. I was dumbfounded by how brilliantly and elegantly our gamemaster used the mechanic.
– While we didn’t have any problems, I am confident that one hyper aggressive player could severely damage the entire The Bunker experience for all involved. Although the same could be said for escape rooms, since The Bunker was entirely social, the human element was even more critical.
– Lisa and a few of our other teammates spent a lot of the game off on their own journey away from the main story. While Lisa enjoyed her experience and the part she played in that narrative, by the time her narrative reconnected with the main story, too much had happened in the bunker for her to even begin to follow what was going on. She was pretty confused by the events of our end game.
+ The puzzles, for those that encountered them, were solid and thematic.
– The level of physical immersion was spotty and required a lot of suspension of disbelief and a willingness to embrace imagination. Broken Ghost Immersive delivered storylines that were clearly less immersive with a wink and a nod and a dose of humor, but sometimes it wasn’t necessarily enough.
+ At the end of the game we were given the opportunity to choose a longterm strategy for our bunker. Based on that decision we immediately received an epilogue describing the conclusion to our story. It was intriguing, deeply rooted in the decisions that we had made throughout the game, and sensical. The epilogue put a lovely bow on our apocalypse.
Tips for Visiting
Show up willing to interact, explore, and play.
Bring a group of people who all want to play.
When you’re playing, be bold, imaginative, and decisive. Great and terrible things will happen to your group regardless.
It’s not an escape room. Leave your searching skills at home.
Price: £7.50 per single issue, £20.00 per seasonal (three issues) subscription, £70.00 per annual (twelve issues) subscription. International shipping is available.
Cryptogram Puzzle Post was an art-and-puzzle hybrid that delivered a story in monthly installments. While it was made of only paper and ink, it never lacked for narrative, aesthetic, or puzzle depth.
Due to its linear nature and lack of self-service hint system, when it stalled, there was no graceful way to make any forward progress. The puzzle content was uneven, but when it was on, it was magical.
We give away or throw away all of the play-at-home games that come our way. I am absolutely keeping everything we’ve received from Cryptogram Puzzle Post. It’s so beautiful that I may frame it all.
Who is this for?
Players with at least some puzzle experience
The illustrations are bonkers
Some of the puzzles are fantastic
This monthly subscription followed the cryptic and epic journey of the mysterious protagonist Anna on her journey thorough witchcraft, alchemy, and the arcane.
Each monthly installment told Anna’s tale through:
a poem to set the tone
a musical playlist to establish the mood
a bit of prose to present the story
puzzles to take us on the journey
Each mailing came in a beautifully illustrated envelope (which was not part of the puzzle) and 8 sheets of paper. The first sheet contained the poem, playlist, and a bit of explanation, none of which played into the puzzle.
From there, we tackled each of the 7 puzzle pages sequentially. The answer from one page fed into the puzzle on the following page until we reached the conclusion of the installment.
Cryptogram Puzzle Post was an at-home puzzle game with a variable level of difficulty from mailing to mailing and puzzle to puzzle. The challenges ranged from straightforward to complicated.
Core gameplay revolved around observing, making connections, and puzzling.
+ I’m going to keep raving about the illustrations on the envelopes because they are so damn beautiful.
+ When the puzzles flowed, they flowed really well.
– When the puzzles didn’t flow, Cryptogram Puzzle Post ground to a halt.
– There seemed to be no rhyme, reason, or indicator for the difficulty. We would have appreciated a more deliberate difficulty curve.
– While we could request a hint PDF and an answers PDF, Cryptogram Puzzle Post really needed a structured, self-service hint system. When we got really stuck, I had to stop puzzling, look at the PDFs and then essentially gamemaster the experience for Lisa and our friends.
– One month was printed in yellow ink… and it basically made the content invisible. We found ourselves shining a blacklight on the pages to better reveal the content.
+ Cryptogram Puzzle Post was really creative with the puzzles, especially considering that everything was purely paper and fairly limited in size.
+ I am not much of a poetry person (humorous haiku notwithstanding), but I enjoyed the tone set by the poems at the start of each package. Similarly, the playlists were an unnecessary and welcome addition.
+ While the components were all paper, we felt good about the price and value of these mailings because they were so beautifully created.
Welcome adventurers! It’s time to test your ability to share a single book between 8 people, follow explicit directions to the letter, and maybe even interpret vague imagery. Have fun!
Let’s set some scenes…
You’re on a space ship attempting to resolve some terrible crisis before the countdown timer runs out. The “good news” is that there’s a process to follow to stop the impending crisis… if you are cunning enough to follow all of the directions on a screen.
Missouri Smith and the Plunderers of the Forgotten Book Club
You’re in an ancient temple, seeking some fantastic artifact, and you’re being “guided” by the journal of some archeologist who basically figured out everything you’re going to need to know to attain the Holy McGuffin.
Both of these scenarios are driven by runbooks.
In escape rooms, a runbook is a procedure or routine, presented as a document, which will tell you step by step how to solve all or most of the game.
This is a word that we’ve been using for a few years now. We co-opted it from the runbooks in the information technology world. The original definition is:
“In a computer system or network, a runbook is a compilation of routine procedures and operations that the system administrator or operator carries out… Runbooks can be in either electronic or in physical book form. Typically, a runbook contains procedures to begin, stop, supervise, and debug the system. It may also describe procedures for handling special requests and contingencies” (Wikipedia).
Origins of Runbooks in Escape Games
I have no idea which escape room first used a runbook, but I am certain that Henry Jones’ deus ex machina journal from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade had inspired a lot of escape room creators to include runbooks in their ancient ruins games.
I suspect that this normalized the concept within escape rooms.
Nowadays, we see variations on runbooks all over the place… and it would be great if we could see fewer of them.
Why Are Runbooks Weak Clues?
If there is one book and multiple players, then the runbook is a bottleneck. The more critical the runbook is to the success of the team, the more that bottleneck binds up the gameplay.
“Well, I have multiple copies in my game,” you say. Read on…
Hypothetically, I am going to assume that we are talking about a really great escape room with a runbook. The set is beautiful and the interactions are memorable.
Why on earth would I want to have my head in a small book for half of the game?
If the gamespace looks great, I don’t want to constantly be forced to leave that world and bury my face in a little book. This defeats the purpose of having built that amazing environment in the first place.
The size and tangibility of escape room puzzles is one of the critical factors that differentiates them from other forms of puzzle-based entertainment.
I can buy a great puzzle book for far less than the cost of one escape room ticket and get far more than one hour’s worth of enjoyment out of it.
Book-based interactions, especially book-based interactions that span most of a game, are missing the point of escape rooms.
To Do List
All too often, these runbooks become to-do lists. Teams are rewarded for following the list and not really thinking about it.
Where’s the fun in that?
On the other extreme, the runbook has only a few useful bits and a ton of sketches and phrases that are meaningless red herrings.
This is at least as frustrating as following a to-do list… and maybe even worse because you never know when you can stop staring at the pages and start enjoying the physical environment that you paid to visit.
Glossing Over Weakness
When I see a runbook in an escape room, more often than not, I think that the runbook has been added to fill in gaps in the game design and clue structure.
It usually seems like someone designed a beautiful set and cool interactions, but struggled to fill in that pesky gameplay part of the design. Instead of reworking the set and the interactions, they found a justification for stuffing a journal in to fill all of the gaps in clue structure. Runbooks are a cheap and easy way to duct tape a broken game together.
Loving Games with Runbooks
I don’t love runbooks… but I will openly admit to having loved a few escape rooms that contained runbooks. Some, like 13th Gate’s Tomb of Anubis, have even won Golden Lock-In Awards.
Is a runbook game-shattering? No.
Would a great game with a runbook be better without it? Yes.
How Do I Runbook-ectomy?
A general rule for escape room design: scale everything up.
Make every interaction big enough that everyone can experience it.
With that in mind, our advice on runbook elimination is to work the clues into the set itself:
Embed iconography into the set to convey the clue.
Plaques, engravings, painting on the set… just get it out of the book.
Strategically light the game to draw attention to critical information.
Use sound to convey the clues.
If it must be on paper, make it one sheet of paper for one puzzle. A page from a journal is better than a whole journal.
Be creative. Make sure that your players aren’t stuck with their noses in a book for your entire escape game. I guarantee that it will make for a better, more fulfilling experience.
Price: $25 per ticket on weekdays, $30 per ticket on evenings and weekends
The Mall represented a big step forward for Complexity in a number of categories: puzzle complexity, set design, technology, and humor.
While a few of the puzzles could have benefited from a touch more clarity, and there’s room for additional growth in set design, The Mall was challenging, entertaining, and worthy of a visit if you’re in the area.
Who is this for?
Players with at least some experience
Punny mall store names
A humorous and light-hearted justification
Some really good puzzles
Interesting opportunities for teamwork
Wow… I’m unreliable. After a day of shopping at the mall, we were getting ready to leave when I realized that I had lost my wallet and car keys! According to Google Maps, we had one hour before we had to hit the road to make our dinner reservations at our favorite restaurant.
The stakes had never been higher.
Complexity created a scaled-down approximation of a mall. Each nook, corner, and room in the space represented another store. Each store was given a punny or joke name referencing common mall-based businesses.
Complexity’s The Mall was a standard escape room with a higher level of difficulty.
Core gameplay revolved around searching, observing, and puzzling.
+ The set was almost like a cartoon. We never felt like we were in a mall, but we always knew exactly what they were striving for. It was charming and engaging.
+ Complexity justified our presence in The Mall and our goal to escape with a delightfully humorous backstory.
– While the premise justified the experience, it didn’t justify the puzzles. The justification devolved into a puzzle room pretty quickly.
+ The puzzles were challenging and engaging.
– The Mall had a rough difficulty curve. Some of the earlier puzzles seemed particularly challenging and the balance of effort-to-reward felt a bit off.
– We missed a few tech-driven opens. Added springs and directional audio or light cues would help turn reveals into events, reducing confusion and adding drama.
+ Complexity’s Apple Store was as white as it was enjoyable.
+ Multiple puzzles required teamwork and communication.
+ The Mall was entertaining. Every time we opened a new space, we delighted in the witty reveal.
Vampire Hunter Room was a puzzle-driven escape room. With a fairly standard study-like set, and dim lighting, the intrigue was in the puzzles. These offered a number of fun solves.
If you’re in the area and looking for puzzles over environment, we recommend stopping by.
Who is this for?
Any experience level
Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle
Some cool puzzles
Antoine Devillier, an ancient, wealthy, and powerful vampire, had but one weakness: the stake of Van Helsing. Devillier had acquired and hid his one weakness away. Our plucky band of vampire hunters set out to find the legendary weapon and give it a new home in Devillier’s chest.
Vampire Hunter Room was slightly dim and study-like. The initial set was functional, but lacked excitement and polish. The escape room gave way to a more interesting set later in the adventure.
Clue Carré’s Vampire Hunter Room was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.
Core gameplay revolved around searching, puzzling, and making connections.
+ Vampire Hunter Room was a puzzle-driven escape room. It had a lot of content. We enjoyed many of the puzzles.
– The decor was standard study fare with a vampiric twist. It was not particularly inspiring.
– Vampire Hunter Room was unnecessarily dim. While the dim lighting provided some ambiance, it made solving puzzles more frustrating than they should have been. The trade-off didn’t seem worth it.
+ We enjoyed how Clue Carré wove the bloodlines into the escape room.
? Vampire Hunter Room was a solid, themed escape room, but nothing more. We hope that Clue Carré can build on this in the future to develop a cohesive world of puzzles, set, and story.
+ Vampire Hunter Room came to a pointed conclusion. It was predictable, yet enjoyable.
Boxaroo is back in business after a long hiatus. Conundrum Museum was a puzzle-driven escape room that one of our teammates described over drinks as, “the most challenging escape room that I’ve ever played.” This was a difficult escape room in an elegant, but not particularly exciting, environment.
If you’re in escape rooms for the puzzles, Conundrum Museum is top-notch and worth playing if you’re anywhere nearby.
Who is this for?
Players with at least some experience
Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle
Challenging and interesting puzzles
A great late-game reveal sequence
We were framed! We had been visiting a renowned art museum when a number of pieces went missing. Thankfully the police response time left us an opportunity to unravel the mystery before we could be arrested.
Conundrum Museum was an art gallery escape room with the white walls and assortment of art displays-turned-puzzles that we’ve come to expect of the genre.
The aesthetic twist: Boxaroo added a massive and intriguing crate in the middle of the room, along with a number of hidden interactions and technology.
Boxaroo’s Conundrum Museum was a standard escape room with a high level of difficulty.
Core gameplay revolved around searching and puzzling.
+ Conundrum Museum had a strong opening sequence that established the story.
+ One set piece grabbed our attention from the early moments. Late game, it delivered on built up intrigue.
– Conundrum Museum started off slowly. Although the majority of the gameplay was nonlinear, there was only one starting puzzle. It would be easy to flail around for a while before figuring out how to start in on anything.
+ Boxaroo designed a variety of puzzles, many of which required or benefitted from teamwork. This dynamic was the heart of Conundrum Museum.
+ At its best, Conundrum Museum brought about fantastic aha moments where it felt like the lights suddenly turned on and everything suddenly made sense.
– One puzzle felt a bit too dense. We took multiple hints on this puzzle, each hint confusing us more.
+ While Conundrum Museum included a lot of locks, it was generally clear where to input any derived code.
+ Our team enjoyed – and I loved – the inventive meta puzzle. It has forever secured a place in my heart.
? While not a problem for us, one significant sequence of Conundrum Museum required above-average command of English. There was a mechanism by which people could learn the necessary words… but if one were resorting to it, then they probably wouldn’t enjoy it all that much.
– Conundrum Museum was emotionally level. The grand reveals and more intriguing moments struggled to get our hearts pumping because we were still in a white-walled, calm, environment.
+ Our gamemaster was a character in our story. Even when we experienced some technical difficulties at the start of our game, our gamemaster remained in character and improvised. Boxaroo handled the technical troubles as gracefully as possible.
? Conundrum Museum was puzzle-driven adventure. It was not epic or overly dramatic, but it was a cerebrally satisfying team experience.
Tips for Visiting
Boxaroo is easily accessible by subway. Get off at Park Street or Government Center.
If you’re driving, the Pi Alley Parking Garage is right nearby.
At least 1 teammate needs to be able to crawl a short distance.