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.

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.

 

Bottle Lock Roundup [Review]

When a friend needed to lock up liquor bottles as part of an escape room for a bachelor party, he asked us which of the 3 commonly available bottle locks would be best.

All three bottle locks laid out beside one another.

While bottle locks aren’t common in escape rooms, I could see a place for them in some games. So, here’s a roundup:

There was one clear winner both for escape room gameplay and liquor security: the Tantalus Wine and Liquor Bottle Lock.

Tantalus Wine and Liquor Bottle Lock secured perfectly over a bottle of port.

Tantalus Wine and Liquor Bottle Lock

~$15

This hard plastic spring-loaded sheath slips over the mouth and neck of a bottle. It seals shut using strong spring tension and locks shut with a key.

I was shocked at the breath of bottle necks that the Tantalus Wine and Liquor Bottle Lock fit over, both narrow and wide.

There are two downsides to this lock:

Aesthetically, it’s unattractive.

Given its plastic construction and the surprisingly strong spring tension, I suspect that it might give out with repeated use. That being said, I’ve opened and closed it a few hundred times and it’s still working like the day I removed it from the package. At $15, it’s also pretty disposable.

GOCHANGE Black Plastic Wine and Liquor Bottle Locks secured over a port bottle.

GOCHANGE Black Plastic Wine and Liquor Bottle Locks

~$9

This is another hard plastic spring-loaded sheath that slips over the mouth of a bottle… except this one is junk.

Due to its narrow diameter and exceedingly inflexible design, this lock cannot fit around most of the bottles that I attempted to secure.

When it does fit, it looks aesthetically pleasing.

It opens with a customizable 3-digit numeric combination. With the correct digits in place, it snaps opens with the push of the silver button on the top of the lock. Its operation is self-explanatory.

It feels so flimsy that I continually worried that I might have broken it while trying to put it onto a few bottles. I didn’t break it, but I wouldn’t bother with it for an escape room because it almost certainly won’t be durable enough, even at $9 per lock.

Wine or Spirit Bottle Lock - Combination Lock Bottle Stopper securing a beer bottle.
Looks aren’t everything.

Wine or Spirit Bottle Lock – Combination Lock Bottle Stopper

~$20

Now for something different… and really weird.

This metal 4 digit numeric combination lock looks good and feels great. On initial inspection, it seemed like a real winner. Then I saw how it worked:

This lock completely replaces a bottle’s existing top/ cork/ stopper.

With the correct code in place, it inserts into the mouth of a bottle like a cork or stopper. Then you start twisting the top of the lock. In doing so, it slowly expands the stopper until it fills the mouth of the bottle and cannot be removed without unwinding it.

It takes a lot of spinning to expand or contract it. This would be baffling in an escape room.

It also didn’t fit most of the bottle mouths that I attempted to close with it. The bottle mouthes were too wide and the stopper ended up distorting in shape.

This lock is clunky, weird, and decidedly user-unfriendly. Absolutely skip this thing.

A word on security

Escape rooms aside…

While locks like these could function as a deterrent to thieves lacking motivation, none of them would adequately secure liquor from a motivated thief. All of them are breakable with enough force or some basic tools.

The 3 digit lock only has 1,000 possible combinations; that wouldn’t take all that long to test.

The 4 digit lock has 10,000 possibilities, but it has some pickable weaknesses.

Tantalus Wine and Liquor Bottle Lock is pickable, but due to its heavy spring tension, it was pretty difficult to pick. It is my choice for both escape room gameplay and bottle security.

Cheers!

(If you purchase via our Amazon links, you will help support Room Escape Artist as we will receive a very small percentage of the sale).

Escape Room Challenge – Pharaoh’s Revenge [Review]

There’s gold in this tomb.

Location: Evesham Township, New Jersey

Date played: June 23, 2017

Team size: 2-10; we recommend 4-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per ticket

Story & setting

Trapped within an ancient Egyptian tomb, we had an hour to lift the curse we’d unleashed or lose ourselves in its ancient depths.

Escape Room Challenge’s Pharaoh’s Revenge was grim, gritty, and compelling. Designed for people 15 years and older, it wasn’t a horror game by any stretch of the imagination, but the set would likely spook a youngling with its believable take on a tomb.

In-game: A decaying mummy behind a broken wall.

Puzzles

Pharaoh’s Revenge’s puzzling revolved around the set and large set pieces. When this worked well, it was brilliant. When it didn’t, we needed hints to push us in the right direction.

Standouts

There were a few brilliant interactions in Pharaoh’s Revenge. They made for great puzzles and felt perfectly at home in an Egyptian tomb escape room.

The set looked pretty damn great. It had clean construction and appropriate scale. We were surprised when we walked in.

Pharaoh’s Revenge made us feel like we were on an adventure.

Shortcomings

There was a searching puzzle that I cannot imagine anyone ever solving without a hint or a lot of dumb luck. This interaction needed some iteration.

A significant late-game interaction was implemented with a material so cheap and ignorable that we didn’t even notice it. It ultimately felt out of place.

There was a massive tech-driven interaction that simply did not work well. Once we had a sense of what to do, our gamemaster needed to intercede a few times to coach us through the clunkiness.

Should I play Escape Room Challenge’s Pharaoh’s Revenge?

In Pharaoh’s Revenge, Escape Room Challenge has built a beautiful game that is 3 or 4 tweaks away from masterful.

When we visited, Pharaoh’s Revenge was a fun puzzle adventure with a couple of stalling points where it would take either incredible persistence or luck to complete the interactions without gamemaster intervention. I truly hope that Escape Room Challenge makes these changes because there is gold in this tomb.

Pharaoh’s Revenge is a fantastic escape room for experienced players. However, as you work through the second half, don’t be stubborn; take a hint or two.

Newbies will likely find Pharaoh’s Revenge an impressive but daunting room escape. It’s doable, but you’re going to have to work well as a team to make it through in one hour. My recommendation is to get a couple of room escapes under your belt so that you can truly appreciate the things that make Pharaoh’s Revenge special.

Book your hour with Escape Room Challenge’s Pharaoh’s Revenge, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

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

BrainXcape – The Haunted Hotel [Review]

Haunted McKittrick Hotel.

Location: New York, NY

Date played: July 24, 2017

Team size: 2-8; we recommend 4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: varies by number of players per team and day of the week

Story & setting

Locked in a hotel in the midst of a haunting, we had to find our way out.

BrainXcape created another beautiful set for The Haunted Hotel. It looked and felt like an older living space – maybe from the 1950s – had been ensnared by an angry spirit. It was detailed and dramatic.

In-game: A Ouija board in the foreground, a aged hotel with an old television in the background.

Puzzles

The Haunted Hotel was a challenging puzzle game. The puzzles individually required their own unique detective work with all solutions leading to a lock (and usually a 4-digit number).

Standouts

BrainXcape began The Haunted Hotel in a clever, unusual, and immersive manner.

We enjoyed the set and atmosphere. It was spooky, but not scary. Once again, BrainXcape hired a set designer from the famed immersive theater experience Sleep No More, and this room escape’s set felt like it could exist within that experience. That is to say, it looked fantastic.

All of BrainXcape’s room escapes are booked through private ticketing. This is on the very short list of New York City escape rooms that will never pair you with strangers.

The puzzling in The Haunted Hotel was challenging. We felt like we had earned our win.

Shortcomings

While the puzzling in The Haunted Hotel was fun and challenging, it was still missing a fair amount of clue structure. We were fed a lot of unrequested hints, especially early in the escape room, and frankly, we needed them. While we thought we’d received a lot of hints, we learned in the post-game that compared to most teams we used relatively few. The Haunted Hotel could be significantly improved by baking the most commonly required hints into the experience. Finding a clue always feels far more satisfying than receiving a hint.

Our team of 4 felt severely hindered by the dim lighting and limited number of flashlights. We regularly had someone acting as light holder and other players asking for lighting. Additionally, the flashlight that we had was player powered and required regular squeezing of a lever to get any light at all. More lighting would eliminate an unnecessary source of frustration. It could be added strategically to facilitate puzzling without aversely affecting the ambiance.

In one instance, The Haunted Hotel stumbled because it required precision, but the puzzle wasn’t designed in a way that we could know the exact way to execute it.

Should I play BrainXcape’s The Haunted Hotel?

The Haunted Hotel had an exciting start, a gorgeous set, and challenging gameplay. Additionally, all of BrainXcape’s experiences are private; they will not lock you in a room with a stranger.

Upon entering the room, the set will feel a touch scary to more jittery players. Note that there are absolutely no jump scares or actors in this room escape. It was not a terrifying game. If you can make it through the door, you can make it through The Haunted Hotel.

Newbies will likely struggle through The Haunted Hotel. It will be hard, but playable. Use your hints and don’t be shocked if you lose. If you need to win, try something easier.

Experienced players will find a beautiful set containing a challenging and slightly frustrating opponent. If you love escape rooms and are up for something more difficult than the norm, look no further.

The Haunted Hotel was a big step up from our first visit to BrainXcape. We are looking forward to seeing what they create next.

Book your hour with BrainXcape’s The Haunted Hotel, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

 

Ghost Ship Murder Mysteries – Western [Review]

Howdy stranger.

Location: at home (either New York City or Boston area)

Date played: July 30, 2017

Team size: 10; 5 Women, 2 Men, 3 Any Gender

Duration: 90-150 minutes

Price: $40 per guest, $30 per guest student/artist

Story & setting

Eleven folks from all walks of life found themselves in the same Old West saloon right after a murder was committed.

Ghost Ship’s Western was not an escape room. It was an Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery game filled with tawdry scandal, plot twists, and betrayal… and all acted out by our friends in our small apartment.

Ghost Ship's logo of a ghostly white galleon set against a black background.
I really like that logo.

Ghost Ship co-founder Dylan Zwickel surveyed us about our friends, assigned roles, sent each person their backstory, and then showed up at our home in character bearing 3 large pitchers of mixed drinks. She set up everything for us.

All we had to do was clean up our home and get into character.

Interaction

The game proceeded over the course of 3 acts. It concluded with a vote to decide whodunit and send them to the gallows.

Each person was given a backstory, a secret, and an objective. From there, the game was a fairly free-form improv experience. Dylan played a character within the game. She provided information to each character at critical times as well as approached players who were struggling to engage, bringing them back into the narrative.

There was also a searching component. During the setup, Dylan hid evidence in our home.

Standouts

The story was engaging. Every character had their own arc and each person was consequential to the narrative.

The gathering of our friends post-game. Each person's costume has varied level of detail.
Sadly some of the best costumes are hidden. We may not have thought this photo through.

The mystery was complex. In the end, we “hanged” the actual killer, but only by a plurality. Not everyone had gathered enough evidence or made the proper connections to conclude what had actually happened.

Ghost Ship kept the backstory lean and manageable for all players.

Dylan’s role facilitated the gameplay effectively without breaking the narrative. The player-gamemaster helped pace the game and keep everyone engaged.

The included mixed drinks were pretty damn fantastic. We’d bought liquor to serve and forgot to even take it out.

As a couple who regularly hosts stuff, it was amazing to not have to worry about the logistics of running the game.

Our apartment is now incredibly clean because we had to make every room presentable for gameplay. I’m not sure that this is really a standout of Western, but it was a great byproduct.

Ghost Ship had a simple series of indicators to mark things and spaces in our home as out of play.

We had a fantastic time. Ghost Ship’s Western is a game where you get out of it what you put into it…

Shortcomings

Our friends who struggled with the roleplaying aspect of Western still had fun, but absolutely didn’t get the same level of enjoyment.

On that note, the person who was the killer in our group truly did not want that role, but was stuck with it. There were other people in our group who would have embraced being the killer, but this individual would have had a lot more fun without having to lie. Ghost Ship could easily fix this by emailing every participant a one question survey: “Would you feel comfortable being the killer and lying to your friends for a couple of hours? Y/N.”

Most of the characters had some level of history with at least one other character and were frequently confused when they learned something about themselves from another player. Ghost Ship did a great job of keeping the backstory lean, but a little more detail could smooth out some of the “Oh… I didn’t know that we did that together” moments that made many of our friends break character.

The searching component got a little strange because all of the items were hidden in our bedroom. This meant that Lisa and I were the only ones who were truly comfortable rummaging. I found things just because I could easily recognize what was out of place.

Should I play Ghost Ship Murder Mysteries’ Western?

We’ve hosted boxed murder mysteries in the past and been disappointed in them. Ghost Ship’s Western did not suffer from the many flaws and shoddy storytelling of those boxed games.

Western was a fun engaging game that gave each participant the freedom to make their character their own.

$40 per player felt more than fair for a multi-hour experience, including great drinks, all of which was delivered to our door.

Since each character is important, it’s key to gather a group of people who are ready and eager to be their characters. There is no passive play in Ghost Ship. Additionally, the game requires exactly 10 players. Remind your friends that flakiness is weakness of character. If someone bails last minute, you’re screwed.

We had a ton of fun playing Western and would eagerly invite Ghost Ship to dock in our home in the future.

Book your session with Ghost Ship Murder Mysteries’ Western, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Ghost Ship Murder Mysteries comped our tickets for this game.

 

Lock Museum of America – Lock Museum Adventure [Review]

They have real treasure chests… and they are so much cooler than in the movies.

Location: Terryville, Connecticut

Date played: July 8, 2017

Team size: up to 8; we recommend 4-6

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $23 per ticket (adults), $15 per ticket (teens)

The museum

Located at the site of the long-closed Eagle Lock Company, Lock Museum of America is a small non-profit museum dedicated to the history of locking devices.

Eagle Lock King Bee padlock.
Each of those little divots on the lock’s face was added by hand. Think about that.

The Lock Museum of America is a no-frills museum with a pretty amazing collection and a knowledgeable staff. They have well over a thousand padlocks, mortise locks, and safes. They have brilliant demonstrations of the inner workings of some of history’s most important lock designs, a gorgeous collection of bank time locks (which have an incredible and dark history), and a pair of over-500-year-old functioning Spanish Armada treasure chests with some of the most amazing closure mechanisms that I’ve ever seen.

The locking mechanism in the lid of a Spanish Armada treasure chest. It is incredibly complex.
That’s the exposed locking mechanism of a treasure chest lid. Seeing it function in real life and knowing that its mechanisms were made by hand was seriously humbling.

My love of locks and lockpicking is well documented; I loved this little museum.

Within the museum they had an escape room style game… Should you play it?

Story & setting

The initial concept of the pin tumbler lock dates back to Egypt circa 4000 BC and the Lock Museum of America’s ancient Egyptian lock had been cursed. We had to break that curse or the bad things that happen when you don’t break an ancient Egyptian curse within an hour would set in.

The set was the second floor of the Lock Museum. They had set up a table in the middle of the main room which held many game components. The escape room included a series of lock boxes, puzzles, and hidden items within the museum displays.

A century old bank time lock. It's beautifully designed with gold and chrome trim.
The precision and detail in these bank time locks is pretty crazy when you realize that almost no one ever saw them.

Puzzles

Part museum scavenger hunt, part puzzle hunt, Lock Museum Adventure was less an escape room and more a puzzle-driven way to explore the Lock Museum. This was not a fancy room escape by any stretch of the imagination. However, it was fair and reasonably challenging.

Standouts

Lock Museum Adventure included some items that no other escape room in the world could even dream of incorporating. Lock Museum Adventure was at its best when it physically involved items that were part of the museum itself. This came in two different forms:

  • Incorporating locking devices that were part of the museum
  • Creating puzzles from the existing museum displays

The Lock Museum did a good job calling out what was and was not part of the escape room, which was important because there was a lot to look at.

A complex warded key within a cutaway lock. It shows the key passing through the wards.
This is an old warded key set within a warded lock. All of that was handmade.

The setting within the Lock Museum was a ton of fun. I found myself shifting between room escape player and museum observer. The escape room was a great way to help visitors take in the many magnificent items on display.

Shortcomings

While Egypt was significant in lock history, it wasn’t really the point of this Lock Museum. The “curse” story felt forced and disconnected from the space we were actually occupying. I would have loved a story that felt more connected to what we were seeing… or even no story at all. The Lock Museum was nifty on its own.

Most of the lockboxes that made up the core of the room escape were sealed with junky, uninspiring modern locks. It would have been more fun if these had been secured with less valuable older locks or even unusual modern ones.

Lock Museum Adventure gang locked boxes shut with a Master Lock Lockout Hasp. Gang locking kills any sense of forward momentum because solutions don’t reward players with new information.

I left the room escape wishing that more of the history and the space within the Lock Museum had been integrated into Lock Museum Adventure. This escape room could be an incredible way to learn experientially within an unusual museum. It does a little of this, but there is potential for so much more.

Should I play Lock Museum of America’s Lock Museum Adventure?

There are two pieces to parse here: Lock Museum of America and the museum’s escape room, Lock Museum Adventure.

If you’re even remotely intrigued by the design and history of locking mechanisms, Lock Museum of America is pretty damn cool. It isn’t fancy, but they display amazing things. I’ve been to museums that have more photos than genuine artifacts, where an hour or two on Wikipedia is more fulfilling… This isn’t one of those museums. The displays are tangible and the staff knows their stuff. I know this because I geeked out with them and asked all sorts of esoteric questions that probably bored my patient teammates to death.

I thought Lock Museum Adventure was a fun way to interact with the exhibits. It felt more like a scavenger hunt mixed with a light puzzle hunt, but it all worked. It could, however, do more to shine a light on what makes this museum special. I hope that it gets there because it has so much potential.

Between exploring the museum and playing the escape room, we spent about 2 hours in total at the Lock Museum of America and it was well worth the visit. It’s a convenient stop between New York and Boston. We learned a lot, saw some interesting and unusual things, and puzzled. If this sounds like a good time then I recommend a visit. I plan to return.

Book your hour with Lock Museum of America’s Lock Museum Adventure, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Lock Museum of America comped our tickets for this game.

(If you purchase via our Amazon links, you will help support Room Escape Artist as we will receive a very small percentage of the sale.)