Cards Against Humanity & Escape Rooms?

Last year we played and reviewed The Last Defender at the end of its run in Denver, Colorado. We absolutely loved it and awarded it a Golden Lock Award.

Promotional art for The Last Defender.

The Last Defender blended elements of escape rooms, puzzle hunts, and immersive theater into one 16-person game. Exploring Cold War nuclear deterrence and the notion of mutually assured destruction (M.A.D.), The Last Defender was as challenging as it was grimly hilarious.

One of the most impressive aspects of The Last Defender was that while we played it in late 2019, it debuted in 2016. We had been hearing about it for years. It was clearly ahead of its time.

In-game: 3 players in orange flightsuits working at the Operations cabinet.

After we published the review we learned that The Last Defender was returning home to Chicago, and the team behind it was launching a new game – Nova To Lodestar, and both of these games were going to live inside of a boardgames cafe funded by Cards Against Humanity.

We recently spoke with the folks behind this incredible collaboration:

  • Nathan Allen, Writer & Director
  • Sandor Weisz, Puzzle Designer
  • Max Temkin, Cards Against Humanity co-founder

Cards Against Humanity’s Board Game Cafe’s Intentions

Temkin: “The boardgame cafe is Cards Against Humanity’s ambitious plan to provide a community center of sorts for Chicago’s gaming community,”

Tables at the beautiful Chicago Game Cafe

The venue has everything that you’d expect from a boardgame cafe plus a small event space for talks, learn-to-plays, and other gatherings… and it has room for 2 permanent escape rooms by The House Theatre.

The Last Defender’s Success Wasn’t Overnight

Allen: “House Theatre has its name because ‘the house’ is the audience and we were trying to find ways to make the experience of being an audience member more vital and exciting. We were called immersive long before immersive theater was a thing.”

In-game: a character in a black rabbit costume standing before a multi-colored world map.

The Last Defender’s Goals & Ambitions Drove Its Success

The House Theatre’s aspirations when creating their first foray into escape rooms were to:

  • Translate narrative into game design.
  • Build empathy through characters and story.
  • Make the players themselves the protagonists, so they relate to one another.

Cards Against Humanity Wanted To Collaborate With Theatre People

Temkin: “We went to SCRAP in 2012. I had just been chasing after escape rooms. I felt like escape rooms needed theatre people because they bring in sound, light, actor, narrative, and prop design. They understand that this is really about story.”

Nova to Lodestar is a response to the lessons of The Last Defender

Weisz:The Last Defender was my first attempt at building something that immersive and complex. I’m really happy with where we landed, because while the puzzles on a whole are difficult, I feel like the puzzle design is elegant, which is the quality I value most.”

“As we approached Nova To Lodestar, we both wanted to stretch the bounds of what we know an immersive game to be, and to focus less on any kind of conventional puzzle format. With every design decision, we’re asking ourselves how this affects the emotional stakes and emotional payoff. Everything is in service of that.”

Nova to Lodestar preview poster art depicts a doomed space crew.

Allen:Nova to Lodestar is a response to what we learned. To further deepen the connection of the player and their agency.”

“We’re doing things like eliminating the clock, I hate clocks in games. It is inherently destructive to didactic feeling. In The Last Defender, skilled players race the clock, rather than trying to prevent the missiles from launching. In Nova To Lodestar, you can’t see the clock – it’s resource management that is the time limit, but you’re never confronted with time. The clock is a resource of ore – which keeps the players in a constant state of decision making – not just winning or losing. Nova To Lodestar is also less puzzle-based and more focused on a broader notion of gameplay.”

“We’ve turned the game from tactical to strategic. It should feel very different in the way you play.”

The House Theatre Is Avoiding Binary Win/ Lose Conditions

Allen: “I want to make experiences that aren’t so binary. Did you get out?”

Initially The Last Defender had binary win/ lose scenarios, but they added a third in-between scenario and it made the game far more interesting. We didn’t experience this particular conclusion, but I personally loved the threat of it while playing.

The Last Defender May Continue To Tour

I cannot confirm particular locations, but The House Theatre is hoping to tour The Last Defender to different parts of the country with Chicago as its home-base.

Cards Against Humanity is Far More Than A Board Game Company

Temkin: “Cards is weird as a company and a game. None of us are game designers, I dabbled in it but never thought that it would be a career. Our goal isn’t to make a lot of board games, our goal is to make people laugh. Not gamers, just people. A lot of Cards Against Humanity is just sitting around with your friends laughing and not on your phones.”

“We aren’t always thinking that we need to make another comedy card game to create that feeling.”

“Cards is a catharsis of laughing at something you aren’t supposed to laugh at… and The Last Defender is the same way.”

Back in 2016, Cards Against Humanity made a 6,000 person month long escape room/ ARG… is that happening again?

Weisz: “When that game ended, I was so high on the goodwill of this little community we had built that I couldn’t imagine not doing it again and keeping that community going. But it turns out it didn’t need me; it kept itself going on its own. The Slack communities from that game are active to this day!”

“I’ve since built another ARG — for Field Notes — that was smaller in scale but had the exact same effect: a really lovely, and loving, community of solvers, who are still friends today. To me that’s the best possible outcome of an ARG game like that.”

“I love making ARGs and definitely want to do it again. It’s just really hard to start one up on my own. I have no idea if there’s a model there where I can charge people to participate. If I get enough encouragement from the community, maybe I’ll give it a shot.”

Closing Thoughts

Speaking with these guys, I felt a strong connection to their goals and approaches.

I’ve always seen the rise of escape rooms and tabletop gaming as part of an equal and opposite reaction to the shift of socialization largely happening on a screen.

Additionally, their theatrical approach to game design is completely in line with our larger vision for the future of escape rooms and immersive gaming. The ideas that we talked about are among the many concepts that are underpinning the RECON, the Reality Escape Convention that we’re hosting in Boston this August. I hope that you come join us and help build a stronger community and future for escape rooms and immersive games.

Learn More

Escape Rooms & Survivor Season 40 [Podcast]

Prior to Survivor Season 39 I sat down with former Survivor contestants and escape room fans Peih-Gee Law and Anthony Robinson (also of No Proscenium) to discuss the upcoming season and talk about escape rooms.

With the start of Season 40 on the horizon (ok, now 1 episode in), we recorded another conversation in the same vain.

We talked the messiness that was Season 39… and we dug into what’s happening in the “all winners” Season 40… and we talked escape rooms/ Survivors playing escape rooms.

No Proscenium – Episode 236 – 20 Years of Survivor

Survivor Season 40 Winners at War logo

Timestamps

  • 0:00 – Housekeeping
  • 7:15 – Anthony introduces the episode
  • 8:40 – Introductions of Peih-Gee and David
  • 10:00 – What has David been up to since last podcast with Anthony + what are escape room tours?
  • 14:27 – What has Peih-Gee been up to since the last podcast?
  • 16:25 – How selling jewelry is like playing Survivor
  • 19:00 – What escape rooms have Peih-Gee and Anthony played recently that they liked?
  • 22:36 – David praises Doldrick’s Escape Room in Orlando, FL
  • 23:35 – Peih-Gee chats playing an escape room with other Survivor players for charity
  • 27:00 – Talking the most escape rooms ever in 24 hours + how many could you play in a row?
  • 29:15 – Peih-Gee talks longer-format weekend-immersive games
  • 31:35 – The ugliness of Survivor season 39
  • 36:45 – Peih-Gee talks how her time playing compares to the season 39 situation
  • 40:25 – Other dark times in Survivor history
  • 45:48 – Using bullying and negativity as a game tactic
  • 48:45 – Survivor season 40 initial thoughts
  • 50:00 – Survivor season 40 winner picks + who would you go after first?
  • 54:10 – Preexisting relationships + how much pregaming happens?
  • 58:15 – Getting back to season 40 winner picks – dark horses
  • 1:03:10 – More season 40 winner picks – bigger threats
  • 1:10:45 – Talking fire tokens and edge of extinction
  • 1:14:00 – What Survivor challenges do you want to see again?
  • 1:18:15 – The classic Survivor family visit
  • 1:20:10 – Last thoughts on season 40
  • 1:20:45 – What are Peih-Gee and Anthony eager to play?
  • 1:23:40 – Closing housekeeping

Thank you to REA reader and Survivor fan Greg Marinelli for the timestamps.

Riddle Room – Vanishing at The Velmont [Review]

Vexing Vacation

Location:  Warwick, Rhode Island

Date Played: December 15, 2019

Team size: 4-8; we recommend 3-6

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $29 per player

Ticketing: Public & Private

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

Vanishing at The Velmont was a delightful, beginner-friendly escape room filled with clever puzzles and interactions.

In-game: An abstract representation of the hotel's lobby.

The biggest drawback to this escape room was that throughout the game nearly every prop, wall, and surface felt unfinished. It was generally clear where we were and what we were interacting with, but few items were built to a degree that sold Riddle Room’s fiction.

Ultimately, this is a fun game – and for us, that’s what matters most. We’re glad that we played. We think that this would make a phenomenal initial introduction to escape rooms for newbies. The issues of polish didn’t change the fact that Riddle Room crafted some incredibly cool moments. If you’re in Rhode Island, this game is worth playing.

Who is this for?

  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Any experience level
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • Great, beginner-friendly game design
  • A number of fun interactions
  • Clever and unique puzzle design

Story

We had always wanted to spend a night in the legendary Velmont Hotel, but it was always far too expensive for us. After a series of strange disappearances occurring in a particular room, the rates had come down… so we figured, why not?

In-game: the front desk with an old phone and slots for the room keys.

Setting

Vanishing at The Velmont took us through a few different spaces within the Velmont Hotel. Each space had a unique look and feel and progressed along a logical path.

The overall build quality was heavily variable. The setpieces ran the gamut from really cool and solidly constructed to flimsy and shoddily built. Most everything in this game had a neat concept behind it. We wished that the level of construction was more consistently strong.

In-game: Astatue in the wall of a hallway within a hotel.

Gameplay

Riddle Room’s Vanishing at The Velmont was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

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

Analysis

 Vanishing at The Velmont had lot of content, but a progressive difficulty curve. The first act was straightforward and taught us how to play the game.

➕ Riddle Room constructed multiple unique puzzles into Vanishing at The Velmont. They generally involved custom-built mechanisms. They were unusual and satisfying to interact with.

➖ There was opportunity to add finish and polish to many of the props. For example, cut down on handwriting, except where justified by the story, and refine some associated audio in cluing. Additionally, too many setpieces looked unfinished.

➖ Although Vanishing at The Velmont had a lot of excellent puzzle content, it relied a little too much on key-for-key-style solves.

 Vanishing at The Velmont provided opportunity for collaboration and sharing. When we repeated an interaction with an interface, instead of feeling tedious, it was a moment for another teammate to have a go at a nifty prop.

➕ Riddle Room justified a classic hint system with one sentence of story.

➖ In order to follow the story, we needed to read quite a bit. We couldn’t feel the story arc through gameplay alone.

➕ We moved through multiple sets in this game. We enjoyed the variety in layouts, set designs, and puzzle types.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.

Book your hour with Riddle Room’s Vanishing at The Velmont, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Riddle Room comped our tickets for this game.

Trap Door – The Greatest Freakshow [Review]

“Better than Award Winning Musical CATS!” -David Spira

Location:  Morristown, New Jersey

Date Played: December 17, 2019

Team size: up to 16; we recommend 4-6

Duration: 120 minutes

Price: $40 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

What do you do when you’re an escape room creator with a small child who watches Disney movies on endless loops? You make an escape room musical; that’s what you do.

In-game: Trailers and tents lit with strings of lights.

When I heard the concept I didn’t know what I was getting into. Were there going to be actors? Was this a show? Was this an escape room?

The answer: It was an escape room through and through. While it had actors artfully projected and displayed, and included recorded performances, it was a 2-hour escape room in a large space, as Trap Door is known to build.

This was very much a Trap Door production. By that, I mean it was innovative, big, thoughtful, and in need of much stronger puzzle content.

This escape game was lovable in so many ways, but the one that mattered most to me personally was the emotional message and a moment that tied into it. It was honestly innovative. The level of commitment and investment in this game was undeniable; just the square footage alone is costly. It just needed much stronger gameplay.

If you’re in the area, I recommend The Greatest Freakshow because it does a lot of truly interesting and unusual things… and I love that… even though it’s frustrating how regularly this escape room undercuts brilliant moments that are unlike anything that I’ve seen from any other escape room company.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Story seekers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Carnies
  • Players with at least some experience
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • It’s quite large and contains many different scenes
  • The escape room as a musical concept was clever
  • There were some compelling moments

Story

Xunder’s Freakshow was ensorcelled by the song of the evil siren Atina. We had to free the minds of the freaks and team up with them to put a stop to her sinister serenade.

In-game: The ringmaster standing center stage.

Setting

Dating back to their first game, Trap Door has always created big escape games (in terms of square footage). A small Trap Door game is still big… and The Greatest Freakshow was big compared with their other big games. I think it might be smaller than Cure Z: Quarantine, but they are both at a size where it just doesn’t matter which is larger.

The Greatest Freakshow’s world included a stage, fair grounds, carnival games, and dressing rooms or trailers for nearly all of the main characters. There was no shortage places to visit. Throughout, Trap Door minded plenty of details. They covered the ground in convincing rubber wood chips. They used a large television and projections selectively to add life to the space. As a timer, they had the various scheduled stage performances by the Freakshow’s characters. It was a novel and cool space to explore.

A few of the spaces felt too empty or underdeveloped, but on the whole, Trap Door filled the large space.

In-game: The mermaid's tent adorned with a compass and ship's wheel.

Gameplay

Trap Door’s The Greatest Freakshow was a standard escape room with a large set and musical interludes. It had a moderate level of difficulty.

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

In-game: The mermaid's tank, she is laying in it sleeping.

Analysis

➕ Trap Door’s commitment to large scale is admirable. It is undeniably fun to traverse a sprawling gamespace.

➕ On a conceptual level, I absolutely loved the escape room musical as a genre. I also truly respect the way that Trap Door brought this concept to life in an affordable, repeatable way through video and projection.

➕/➖ The use of the performance schedule and musical numbers as the game timer was a great idea. This was undercut by the lack of audio in the space where we spent all of the second act. This is a fixable problem.

➕/➖ The emotional climax of The Greatest Freakshow was brilliant and the cinematic execution was smart. From a gameplay standpoint, this interaction suffered because most of our team was struggling to see the information that we were supposed to work with. Again, this is fixable.

❓ The opening interaction left our whole team baffled, but we tried to play along. We weren’t sure what the game wanted of us, or if there was a point to the performance… or why it ended when it eventually did.

❓ While I’m no theater critic, and I am certainly no singer, to me, the performances felt more like spirited community theater than a professional production. Most of the performances were charming, not wowing.

In-game: A picnic table in the fairgrounds.

➖ The funhouse was undercut by either unclued challenges or janky tech.

➖ The puzzles were painfully lacking. For the most part, they involved identifying information in one place and more or less transcribing it into a corresponding input mechanism.

➖ A key setpiece in the concluding sequence was visibly unfinished and bludgeoned an otherwise great moment to death.

➕ The Greatest Freakshow contained a great sequence that carved itself into my memory.

In-game: A cage decorated with knives and lit with a string of lights.

Tips For Visiting

  • EPILEPSY WARNING: There are flashing lights used during this game to simulate circus stage lighting.
  • This is at Trap Door’s Morristown location.
  • There street parking and a parking garage nearby on Cattano Ave.

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

Disclosure: Trap Door comped our tickets for this game.

Red Fox Escapes – The U-Boat [Review]

Crushed it

Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Date Played: December 13, 2019

Team size: up to 10; we recommend 3-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $32 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

Everything about U-Boat makes it abundantly clear that this escape game was made with love.

The set was meticulously designed with props chosen because they fit the environment, or modified so that they would feel like they belonged.

In-game: a view into the captain's quarters through a pill shaped doorway.

The story was carried throughout the game, and driven home with a brilliant effects sequence.

For us, the puzzles were a mixed bag. We loved a few, were fine with most of them, and felt like a couple of them were too sloggy and similar for our tastes.

Overall, this was a strong escape game that we think it will be a crowd-pleaser for a wide variety of players. We preferred Red Fox’s The Heist, but honestly believe that more players will want to dive into U-Boat. If you’re in Boston, you should check it out. This is a new and mighty company.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Players with at least some experience
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • A strong set
  • Fantastic and challenging puzzling
  • One killer late-game event

Story

It was 1941, World War II was raging, and a linchpin in the war effort was cracking the German Enigma. British intelligence already had an Enigma Machine, but we needed a codebook… and that’s where we came in.

We had placed a spy on a German U-boat, but the boat was going down, so our spy had hidden the book, and abandoned his post along with the rest of the crew. We needed to sneak aboard the vessel and capture the codebook before it was crushed and consumed by the ocean’s depths.

In-game: a map in the middle of a navigation room.

Setting

Red Fox Escapes built a good-looking submarine. The walls were curved, the doors were ovals, the general aesthetic was steel, and everything felt like it belonged – even if it didn’t actually belong. The prime example of this was the directional lock that Red Fox Escapes had painstakingly modified to make appropriate for the space.

Above all, Red Fox Escapes used their environment to create an iconic and memorable moment in this game.

In-game: A periscope with a red illuminated sign that reads, "enemy vessel detected."

Gameplay

Red Fox Escapes’ The U-Boat was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

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

In-game: a large wooden workbench with a light.

Analysis

➕ The set and props looked great. The curvature of the walls really sold the look and feel of the space. Red Fox Escapes went to great lengths to make the hardware and props look like they belonged.

➕ The story of the The U-Boat had depth.

➕ The puzzles solved cleanly. One flowed especially well. We also enjoyed the different interactive mechanisms and their solve-state indicators.

➕/➖ The puzzles were a mixed bag. Although we enjoyed many of the puzzles (we adored 2 of them), some of them were not especially exciting. In a couple of instances, they felt a bit repetitive.

In-game: speed controls.

➕ The U-Boat had an unforgettable moment of transformation. Red Fox Escapes choreographed this impeccably so that every team member was able to experience and appreciate this.

Tips For Visiting

  • Red Fox Escapes is easily accessible by T. Take the Red Line to Central.

Book your hour with Red Fox Escapes’ The U-Boat, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Red Fox Escapes comped our tickets for this game.

The Conundrum Box – Christmas Seasonal Escape Room Box [Review]

‘Twas the month after Christmas and REA was catching up

Location:  at home

Date Played: January 11, 2020

Team size: 1-6; we recommend 2-4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: about $89

REA Reaction

We have a stack of games from The Conundrum Box to play, but one of them stood out to us: the oversized one labeled, “Christmas Seasonal Escape Room.” We cut the box open and found an assortment of tiny, hand-wrapped gifts… and then this thing was bumped to the front of the review queue.

The Christmas Seasonal Escape Room delivered exactly what we wanted out of it: approachable puzzles, oodles of adorableness, and a final output that will thaw even the iciest of hearts.

While we think The Conundrum Box could have introduced more creative puzzles and further integrated the puzzling into the overall experience, the setup was undeniably special.

An assortment of bagged and wrapped christmas gifts.
How cute is this?

We aren’t usually people who enjoy small objects that don’t contribute significantly to the puzzling in our tabletop escape games… but the Christmas Seasonal Escape Room proved the exception to the rule.

This box is sold out. The Conundrum Box hasn’t announced plans for next year’s Christmas game, but based on my conversation with them, they will likely iterate on this concept next Christmas. If this sounds like your kind of a good time, keep your eye on their website for this and other seasonal games.

Who is this for?

  • The Christmas cheerful
  • Puzzle lovers
  • People who love physical objects in their tabletop puzzles
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Utterly lovable presentation
  • Straightforward, well-constructed puzzling
  • What you’re left with at the end
  • Holiday cheer

Story

A collection of beautifully wrapped, mysterious Christmas gifts arrived at our door.

The game's shipping box labeled, "Christmas Seasonal Escape Room Box"
The shipping box.

Setup

We cracked open the box and removed an assortment of wrapped gifts. Following the instructions we opened up a website that verified solutions and provided hints… and then we were off.

We puzzled through each gift sequentially. Getting started was straightforward.

An assortment of bagged and wrapped christmas gifts.
Seriously… isn’t this adorable?

Gameplay

The Conundrum Box’s Christmas Seasonal Escape Room Box was a standard play-at-home escape game with a lower level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around puzzling and embracing the adorableness of this experience.

Analysis

➕ The Conundrum Box sent us a box full of wrapped gifts!

➕ It was easy to get started. Christmas Seasonal Escape Room Box opened with a straightforward puzzle that taught us how the gameplay worked – how to interact with the gifts and the website interface.

➖ The puzzles were functionally solid, but none of them were memorable. They felt pretty random. Although the props were Christmas-y, the puzzles themselves weren’t particularly thematic.

➖ The inconsistency in solution styles was bizarre. It made the puzzles feel like they didn’t belong to the same game.

➕ The Conundrum Box turned a collection of tchotchkes into a complete experience. This was an effective and meaningful way to make the items into far more than the sum of their parts.

➕ With each puzzle presented as a gift, the gating was especially fun. We could unwrap each new challenge in turn.

➕ The puzzle types were varied. We especially enjoyed the final puzzle, which was implemented such that it pulled all the components of the game together, and facilitated group participation.

End Game Spoiler

A tiny christmas tree with gifts gathered around it on a small table.
Surrender to the cuteness.

➕ We assembled a tiny Christmas tree!

[collapse]

Tips For Players

  • Space Requirements: a table
  • Required Gear: pencil, paper, and an internet-connected device
  • While not necessary, access to a wall outlet is recommended for optimal play conditions

Buy your copy of The Conundrum Box’s Christmas Seasonal Escape Room Box, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: The Conundrum Box provided a sample for review.

Are Escape Rooms Locked?

No, you aren’t truly trapped in an escape room.

Every modern escape room should always allow players to free themselves in the event of an emergency.

If you visit an escape room company and they insist on locking you in without an emergency exit, you should demand a refund and leave.

Closeup of a beefy squire padlock securing a door.

Common Types of Emergency Exits

There are 2 ways that escape rooms typically handle emergency exits. We explored these more thoroughly when we established our basic escape room safety evaluation guide.

No lock at all

The door is always open. You can come and go as you please. When your gamemaster explains this to you, 1 of 2 things will happen:

  • Your gamemaster will explain that you can come and go as you please, “but using the door as an emergency exit doesn’t count as ‘escaping.'”
  • In the event that your gamemaster doesn’t explain this, inevitably someone from your team will jokingly ask if “using the emergency exit is a way to win.” When your teammate makes that joke, they will be fully confident that no other person has made such a clever joke.

Push To Exit

Many escape rooms use magnetic locks, also known as maglocks. Maglocks use an electromagnet to hold a door shut. In this case, the locks should open automatically if power is cut to them. There will also be a big button near the door that will release the lock.

Maglocks are easy and quick to use. This has become the industry standard, should the game designer feel that a “locked door” is necessary to the escape game’s design.

Emergency Key

A minority of escape rooms will hang an emergency key beside the door knob.

This isn’t really an ideal emergency exit system because it requires a little bit of time and coordination. It does, however, provide a means for players to free themselves.

An old rusty master lock and a disk lock securing a door.

History

In some regions, locking players in used to be quite common in escape rooms. As escape rooms gained popularity, however, this started changing rapidly due to many factors.

First, locking players in wasn’t a great idea and a lot of escape room creators realized this. It added an element of unnecessary danger. It was also impractical. It was easier to just let people go to the bathroom if they needed to. $#!% happens… it’s best to let it happen in the toilet.

The second factor that drove escape rooms away from lock-ins were laws. Throughout the United States many states and municipalities do not allow a business to lock customers into any space. Sometimes it’s fire code; sometimes it’s false imprisonment laws. Either way, a lot of places don’t allow it.

The third influence away from locked games were insurance companies that weren’t keen on that aforementioned unnecessary risk.

Finally, escape room creators realized that mission-based play was far more compelling than pure escape. “You’re on a quest for the Holy Grail” is almost always more interesting than “You’re locked in a room; figure out how to unlock the door.”

Even with all of these clear and good reasons to avoid lock-ins, there were still some holdouts. Essentially everyone was convinced that lock-ins were bad when a fire in a Polish escape room claimed lives. In the wake of that event, the industry as a whole responded swiftly. Now it’s rare to find locked games anywhere in the Western world.

The Bottom Line

Escape rooms should not lock you in without a quick and easy emergency exit.

If you encounter a company that is locking you in without providing an emergency exit and explaining how it works prior to the game beginning, ask for your money back. Tell that company that this is unacceptable and unsafe. Then go find a better company to visit.

Have a safe and fun time on your escape room adventure.

Are Escape Rooms?

This post is part of our on going series, “Are Escape Rooms?…” We’re digging into questions, concerns, and curiosities that are common among new players.

Support Room Escape Artist’s Mission

There are lots of ways to support Room Escape Artist, like buying from Amazon after clicking into the links included in this post or backing us on Patreon.

The money that we make from these helps us to grow the site and continue to add more value to the community that we love so much.

The Bare Metal Directional Lock at Red Fox

We recently visited Red Fox Escapes in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they did something that I had believed impossible:

They made a Master Lock directional lock look both thematic and aesthetically pleasing – in a U-boat escape room.

They did this by stripping down the paint and exposing the bare metal with a Dremel and a file.

A Master Lock directional lock filed down to bare steel.

What Does This Fix?

Stripping a directional lock down to bare steel made it look cool – and like it belonged – even if it wasn’t period accurate.

Personally, I rarely ever think that period accuracy of mechanisms matters in an escape room. It’s huge just to make the room feel like everything belongs and nothing looks out of place.

Peeling away the ridiculous candy colored shell and “Master” branding transformed this from a silly escape room-y lock into a cool, curious object on a submarine.

What Doesn’t This Fix?

UI Challenges

This doesn’t make the directional lock more intuitive; it’s still a clunky contraption that requires explanation. Nothing is going to change this.

Breakage?

This isn’t going to improve the durability issues that directional locks have. They break, or at least, some large percentage break. There is a portion of the owner population that swears that they have never had to replace their directional locks… so maybe some are winning the manufacturer’s lottery?

Almost perfectly mirrored star ratings on both the high and low side for directional locks on Amazon.
Amazon

The directional lock that I own doesn’t work so well after casual use with proper operation in a clean environment. I honestly cannot account for the varied opinions, which are split evenly on 2,500+ Amazon reviews. The only thing that makes sense to me is inconsistent production on a manufacturing level.

The Bottom Line

Red Fox Escapes made an escape room cliché cool with a small alteration. They thawed my heart towards the directional lock. I’m thankful for this experience.

A different Massachusetts escape room owner from Outside The Box in Webster had said to me of his game The Body Shop that “nothing went into this game untouched.” They roughed up and patinaed everything in the game.

This is a smart way to build compelling escape room environments without breaking the bank. While it doesn’t cost that much more money to build this way, it does require a lot more thought, effort, and care. I truly respect it.

Visit this Lock

Buy your ticket to RECON, our escape room industry convention taking place in Boston in August. Red Fox Escapes is the closest escape room company to the Boston Marriott Cambridge, where we are hosting RECON.

RECON eye & penrose triangle logo.

Come visit Boston this summer for outstanding speakers, meaningful conversations, and new perspectives on escape rooms… and add in your own directional lock tourism!

Support Room Escape Artist’s Mission

There are lots of ways to support Room Escape Artist, like buying from Amazon after clicking into the links included in this post or backing us on Patreon.

The money that we make from these helps us to grow the site and continue to add more value to the community that we love so much.

Mass Escape – Ice Station Zero [Review]

Government jobs are stressful

Location:  New Bedford, Massachusetts

Date Played: December 12, 2019

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

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

Like all of my favorite Cold War anti-nuclear proliferation fiction, Ice Station Zero was funny and grim.

In-game: A very large green computer with many lights, buttons, and switches. It is labeled, "Ice Station Zero."

Focused on a few specific characters and an impending nuclear apocalypse, Mass Escape got really personal. We had to dig into the lives of the people responsible for this base just as much as we had to sort out the operations of an intercontinental ballistic missile… and that’s what made Ice Station Zero shine. Disarming a bomb is normal in an escape room; getting to know the people who made it tick is something special.

This is a nifty game with a flavor and play style that is, in our experience, unique. If you’re in or around Boston and have access to a car, I strongly recommend finding your way to Mass Escape for Ice Station Zero as well as their other games.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Players with at least some experience
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • The humor and character that underpinned this game
  • Some fantastic setpieces

Story

The world was caught in the grasp of the Cold War and all communication had been lost with the incompetent staff of nuclear missile silo Ice Station Zero. We had been deployed to investigate.

In-game: A metal desk in the middle of an old nuclear bunker.

Setting

Ice Station Zero looked really good – with one small exception – the starting area was pretty weak. Once we had advanced beyond this small dark space, the nuclear silo looked fantastic. Mass Escape struck a balance between Cold War nuclear control room and government bureaucratic hell. We’ve never seen an escape room that looked like this one before.

In-game: a small dim room lit by a red alarm light.

Gameplay

Mass Escape’s Ice Station Zero was a standard escape room with a high level of difficulty.

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

In-game: Closeup of a nuclear launch button.

Analysis

 Ice Station Zero had characters and character. (Mass Escape even armed us with a joke.) The place felt lived in, by actual people, whom we learned about. We liked the mechanism for learning more about the plight of the people at this station. It was clear and concise, with a great interface.

➕ Mass Escape commits to their characters. The gamemaster who introduced us to Ice Station Zero really sold himself as a government bureaucrat. He was entertaining and quippy.

➖/➕ We struggled with some input mechanisms. In one case, the mechanism was barely functional. In another the directions seemed ambiguous. Clean and clear inputting would help with game flow. That said, our in-character gamemaster marched in and handled this in a way that actually improved the experience.

➖ At any given time, we had a lot of papers. We were continually referring back to paper instructions, and some of the puzzles were paper-based as well. Although clipboards made sense thematically, it would have been more fun to be interacting more with the room and less with the paper.

➕ The gameplay flowed well. It was challenging, but we could also figure out how to solve our way forward.

➖ One imposing set piece felt underused, we would have liked to play with this thing a bit more.

➕ Mass Escape turned one wall of an office set into something unexpected that also fit right in. They really dialed this set up a notch.

➕ Mass Escape’s method for adding in bonus content truly shined in Ice Station Zero. They use a similar structure in all of their games, but it felt most relevant and engaging in this one.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is metered street parking.
  • Mass Escape’s escape rooms all have a main quest and bonus quests. You can choose whether or not to spend your time on the bonus quests; they are clearly delineated as such.

Book your hour with Mass Escape’s Ice Station Zero, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Escape Room Owners: Bathrooms & You

Escape room owners, it’s time for the talk.

Now some of you don’t really need this talk, but more than a few of you do… so I am going to try to add at least one or two thoughts to this that will help those that aren’t doing a stinky job managing their facilities.

Dan Egnor standing in an outhouse labeled "The Shitter" looking into the toilet.
Escape Room Guinness World Record Holder Dan Egnor peering into the abyss.

This 💩 Matters

A significant portion of your players – both experienced and inexperienced – are judging you by the quality and state of your bathrooms.

For years people have written in asking us to include bathrooms in reviews. For years we’ve elected not to – not because we don’t think that they matter – they sure as 💩 do.

Anecdotally, I believe that there is a correlation between the condition of an escape room company’s bathroom and the quality of the games and customer service. If someone isn’t cleaning up the 💩, what else is being neglected?

The Tale of the Smelly 💩

About a year ago we visited a company with one of Lisa’s oldest friends, Deb.

Now Deb will be quick to tell you that she “isn’t an escape room player” even though she’s probably played 40 games by virtue of being friends with us. Plus Deb manages a sports recreation business that is considerably larger than any escape room company in the United States. She knows stuff.

We played a fine, low-budget game in a small town. The game was clearly made with a lot of love. We all enjoyed it.

When we left, we went to dinner and took notes on the game. After we finished discussing the game itself Deb looked at us and said, “That guy doesn’t want to run a business.” One of us asked why she thought that. She pointed out that the bathroom hadn’t been cleaned in weeks and it smelled like something had died in it. There was only one bathroom in the small facility, so he had to know, and chose not to do anything about it.

To Deb, it seemed like this owner just wanted to design games, which he was pretty good at. He didn’t want to run a business. If he couldn’t take the time to clean the 💩, there must be other parts of his business that were starting to smell.

Within a few months, he closed his doors.

Give Your 💩 Some Love

A few pieces of actionable, tangible advice:

Clean Your Bathroom Regularly

Have a schedule. Make sure people are held accountable. Remember that in a small business, no one should be above cleaning the 💩.

If You Aren’t Responsible For Your Bathroom

Plenty of escape rooms are in buildings where someone else is responsible for the maintenance and cleaning of the bathroom. There are limits to what you can do here.

If you are thinking about renting in such a place, I strongly urge you to do two things:

  1. Check out the bathrooms every time you visit before leasing. Make sure they are being cared for.
  2. Put it in the terms of your lease that the bathrooms will be cared for. If the landlord is already taking care of such things, it won’t be a hard ask. If they are being negligent about the state of their facilities, then they’ll throw a fit. Either way, you have an answer.

Elevate The 💩 Experience

Design your bathroom. Make it thematic, make it elegant, make it something special.

A basket with floss, maxipads, tampons, mouthwash, and mints in a bathroom.

Also, you can do what we saw at Riddle Room in Rhode Island: leave a care basket with feminine hygiene products and other comforts. Most will probably never use these items, but if someone truly needs them, you probably just made their day.

Closing Thoughts

Running a business – any business – comes with some 💩 tasks. So much of the difference between success and failure is the willingness and discipline to just do that 💩.