Trapdoor UNLOCKED: Controversial Escape Rooms

Does Trap Door’s newest escape room, Witch Hunt, portray controversial subject matter?

Promo image for Witch Hunt shows a pair of hands holding a noose.

After we’d just hanged a woman for witchcraft, we sat down with Tone and Jess of Trap Door to discuss Controversial Escape Rooms for this episode of Trapdoor UNLOCKED.

The 15-minute video covers the following topics:

  • Is it common sense to avoid controversial topics?
  • Political relevance
  • Escape rooms as education on a topic
  • Trap Door’s Witch Trials
  • Advertising
  • How close are you or your players to the topic?
  • Prepare for the backlash
  • Abortion as a theme
  • Holocaust room escapes
  • Branding and marketing
  • Make purposeful decisions around controversial topics.

For more on this topic, read Genocides, Serial Killers, Tragedies, & Edgy Escape Room PR Nightmares.

Wicked Escapes – The Great Museum Heist Caper Job [Review]

The Great Heist Caper at the Marginal Museum.

Location: Saugus, MA

Date played: April 9, 2017

Team size: up to 12; we recommend 4-6

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $30 per ticket

Story & setting

Our first night as rent-a-cops guarding the Kuddelmuddel Museum of Marginal Curiosities got off to a rough start: a cat burglar made an attempt to steal the Museum’s most prized artifact, The Sultan’s Lock. After removing it from its display, he stashed it elsewhere in the museum, triggering a security lockdown. We had an hour to find the lock and return it to its display before the crime was pinned on us.

If it’s not clear from the description, The Great Museum Heist Caper Job was a funny room escape. Set within a modest museum, the game looked and felt the part.

In-game: An engraved human skull rests in front of a stone wall with symbols carved into it

Puzzles

The puzzling centered on the various exhibit displays; they looked great. They were large and they felt it. Everything was tangible and responsive.

Wicked Escapes used technology thoughtfully throughout the puzzling and did a great job of breathing life (and humor) into the various interactions.

Standouts

The Great Museum Heist Caper Job was full of hands-on interactions. We picked things up and moved them around. These items had heft, size, and polish.

The puzzles were responsive. With every correct solution, the set revealed new objects or information. This design built forward momentum.

The setup was humorous. Everything from the premise to the exhibit names to the display descriptions made us laugh, if we read closely enough.

Shortcomings

While the reading was entertaining, at times a substantial block of text would halt the flow of gameplay.

The initial set was not particularly impressive or interactive. Fortunately it quickly opened up. The starting area felt like underused space.

Should I play Wicked Escapes’ The Great Museum Heist Caper Job?

The Great Museum Heist Caper nailed so much of what makes for an excellent escape room. The puzzles were big, built into the set, and had gravity. Moreover, accomplishing things felt like an accomplishment.

The Great Museum Heist Caper is a fun and worthy room escape for newer and experienced players alike.

If you play escape rooms because they bring you to new places and give you puzzling you can’t recreate at home, you will enjoy The Great Museum Heist Caper.

Book your hour with Wicked Escapes’ The Great Museum Heist Caper Job, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Wicked Escapes comped our tickets for this game.

Bane Escape – Maritime Grave [Review]

This may shock you, but the room only has 60 minutes of oxygen.

Location: Livingston, NJ

Date played: April 23, 2017

Team size: up to 8; we recommend 5-6

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: from $30 per ticket

Story & setting

While we were aboard a submarine-turned-military museum, the vessel experienced a systemwide malfunction. If we couldn’t right the systems, we would sink to an ocean grave.

Maritime Grave looked part submarine, part museum. Bane Escape constructed a set that felt like an imaginative naval vessel and used the museum-ification of the old boat as pretense to incorporate puzzle-laden displays and plaques. The execution was artfully done.

In game: The ornate interior of the vessel has a large bench in the middle and large copper doors with green walls covered in large rivets.

Puzzles

The puzzling took place largely through keen observation, which then translated into tactile inputs. The challenge was primarily in locating information and making the right connections. That shouldn’t give you the impression that Maritime Grave was an easy escape room.

There was ample room for parallel puzzling.

Standouts

Bane Escape committed to this quirky scenario and delivered. The set struck the right balance between naval vessel and museum. Its unified and polished aesthetic was both impressive and fun.

In-game: A glass display with an bronze octopus inside. Beyond the glass, a porthole is illuminated blue.

So much of this game was custom construction. It looked great and functioned well.

The information-meets-input design unfolded across the large gamespace. This facilitated teamwork well.

Shortcomings

At times, the gamespace felt empty, despite ample puzzles. Large spaces held few interactions.

One area of the submarine remained poorly lit throughout the experience. We were expecting some dramatic lighting to turn on when the area became relevant, but it remained dimly lit.

There were a few instances where the removal of clue ambiguity could dramatically elevate the experience.

Should I play Bane Escape’s Maritime Grave?

Bane Escape is a spinoff of Bane Haunted House. Although the designers have a haunt background, Maritime Grave was not a frightening game. It is approachable for a general audience. Furthermore, Bane Escape’s experience building haunts shines in the artistic and durable set of Maritime Grave. 

This would be a fun, but challenging escape room for new players. There are a lot of dots to connect. Teamwork and parallel puzzling are crucial.

Experienced players will find this a worthy opponent and likely appreciate this unorthodox rendering of a sinking submarine scenario.

Book your hour with Bane Escape’s Maritime Grave, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Escape Room Design: Safety Basics

We recently received a question from a public official in Pennsylvania who’d been asked to approve the construction of an escape room in his community. He wrote in asking:

In the event that a person in the room becomes disoriented to the point that they are unable to cope, how is that situation normally handled? Also, if there were an emergency outside of the room which required the occupants to be evacuated, how would they be notified? How would the company immediately end the scenario and open the door?”

We appreciate public officials who do their research, so we’re here to help.

Lock In Safety

There are a number of different ways that escape room designers secure players in rooms.

Lock In; No Emergency Exit

In the early days (a whole 3 years ago) escape rooms simply locked the players in the rooms. The player objective was to find the door key and escape.

This was problematic from a safety standpoint. It was also limiting from a creative perspective. We rarely see this anymore and strongly discourage it.

Lock In; Emergency Key

The first safety backup system was the addition of an emergency key next to the door. In this scenario, an emergency key is attached to the door on a chain next to the door lock or put inside of an easy-to-open pouch beside the door lock.

In the event of an emergency, any player can grab that key, open the door, and exit the room. The team doesn’t win, but at that point, nobody cares.

Lock In; Magnetic Locks

Next, companies began using mag locks, where the door is held shut with a powerful electromagnet.

Mag locks are common in escape rooms. They are great for both game design and safety. In rooms using mag locks, players usually win by tripping a sensor that triggers the door to open. It feels pretty magical.

If the power fails, mag locks open automatically because electricity powers the magnet.

A large green button labeled: "push to exit"

This scenario offers easier safety releases than a typical door lock. The company can install a big “push to exit” button right next to the door. In an emergency, there is no need to fumble with a key. Any player can open the door with a moment’s notice. These doors are our preferred method of lock in.

No Lock In

Some “escape room” companies create excellent experiences where the players are never actually locked in a space. In these games, the designers build win conditions or objectives that don’t involve unlocking a door.

As the escape room industry diversifies, this is becoming increasingly common.

Surveillance & Gamemastering

Escape rooms should have thorough camera and microphone coverage.

A gamemaster can oversee the entire experience from a nearby space. This enables the gamemaster to keep an eye on the players and end the game if there is an emergency (inside or outside of the escape room).

We recommend that the cameras be placed so that the gamemaster doesn’t have blindspots.

A stylaized image of a security camera hanging from a ceiling.

We recommend good microphone coverage of the entire gamespace. The audio is actually more important because it’s easier to identify an impending problem by listening to what the players say than it is to determine what is happening by viewing their behavior.

The gamemaster should also have a method of rapidly communicating with the players. The most effective methods of communication are a speaker system in the room or a television monitor that displays typed messages.

While the communication method is usually used for delivering hints, it is occasionally used for delivering player behavior warnings. An attentive gamemaster can notice malicious players breaking props or misbehaving and put a stop to the behavior.

We also encourage escape room companies to have a dedicated gamemaster for each game. The gamemaster should devote their undivided attention to the team’s experience.

Safety Precautions

If the escape room has exposed electrical outlets, the game should never require players to interact with these. Furthermore, players should be explicitly instructed that these outlets are real and out of play. If building code allows it, the electrical outlets should be completely covered and removed from the gamespace.

Escape rooms should include smoke detectors. Players should be instructed that all emergency equipment is real and not part of the game. Moreover, it should never be tampered with.

Are escape rooms safe businesses?

A safe escape room has the following features:

  • an emergency exit
  • video and audio surveillance
  • an attentive game master
  • smoke detectors
  • clear player instruction regarding safety

These precautions should adequately inform players of a crisis inside or outside of the gamespace and allow them to extract themselves from the game should they need (or want) to leave.

These experiences can and should be safe. We implore escape room owners to design thoughtfully around safety.

Big Escape Rooms – Outbreak [Review]

We have another puzzle outbreak.

Location: Atlanta, GA

Date played: April 3, 2017

Team size: up to 12; we recommend 4-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per ticket

Story & setting

A government super soldier program went wrong and unleashed a horde of zombies. We had to find a cure for their mindless rampaging before they broke down the door to our lab and ate us.

Set within a stark research facility, the aesthetic ranged from mundane doctor’s office to grim lab.

Big Escape Room's maze logo. Captioned, "Can you escape?"

Puzzles

Outbreak was search-heavy with clumsy puzzling.

Many of the puzzles ultimately came together in laborious processes that didn’t require so much reasoning as they did working through tasks.

Standouts

Big Escape Rooms created a humorous introductory video to set the stage for Outbreak. 

In one instance, we encountered an error-tolerant design adaptation of a puzzle trope that is frequently misused. It was refreshing.

Shortcomings

One unfortunate side effect of the implication of this puzzle was that it caused some team members to have mild allergic reactions to the environment.

When the cluing was particularly tenuous, the rest of the props quickly became distracting red herrings.

The set wasn’t particularly interesting. It was a large space, but not purposefully designed or well used.

Should I play Big Escape Rooms’ Outbreak?

If you don’t care much for setting, there are a few thoughtful and fun puzzle designs in this escape room. Outbreak is a generic early escape room design from a company that is learning the ropes.

While we think there is a more fun and interesting game in Clownedif you’re looking for something different, or you just don’t like clowns, you could do far worse.

Book your hour with Big Escape Rooms’ Outbreak, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

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

Team vs Time – Save the Queen [Review]

God speed.

Location: Berlin, CT

Date played: April 8, 2017

Team size: 2-8; we recommend 3-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $30 per ticket

Story & setting

In 14th century England, we discovered a plot to unseat our beloved Queen. We infiltrated the castle to uncover information and thwart the overthrow.

Team vs Time constructed a space that brought us back in time. From the woodwork to the real church stained glass windows installed in this castle, their attention to detail brought the set to life.

In-game: A beautiful chapel set with incredible stained glass windows.

Puzzles

While the initial puzzles weren’t particularly interesting, as the game progressed, the puzzles became increasingly dynamic.

For most of Save the Queen, we worked through large tangible puzzles that interacted with built-in set pieces.

Standouts

Team vs Time constructed a castle into their run-of-the-mill building. The walls, windows, furniture, and smaller details brought the space to life.

In-game: A closeup of a wooden statue of a king backlit by beautiful orange stained glass windows.

Many of the puzzles made use of the castle decor. We manipulated “ancient” tools and investigated substantial props and set pieces.

A tiny gamemastering detail added a great dramatic moment to Save the Queen.

With Save the Queen, Team vs Time constructed an interactive, engaging, logical, and fun puzzle game.

Shortcomings

The narrative of Save the Queen didn’t carry our experience. In the end, we searched for specific information, as instructed by the game, but without any story-driven understanding of why.

In one late-game puzzle, the input mechanism seemed out of place. Given the historical setting, any modern interaction broke the fiction created by the set design. All tech should to be well hidden and seemingly magical.

Occasional double cluing proved more confusing than helpful.

One set puzzle was completely useless and threw us off track.

While the set looked great, it (and by it, I mean we) suffered from a significant splinter problem. We both picked up wood splinters from the game, and other players whom we have spoken with have as well.

Should I play Team vs Time’s Save the Queen?

Team vs Time creates impressive escape room sets. Save the Queen is no exception. We enjoyed our hour in a 14th century castle.

With Save the Queen, Team vs Time has improved their puzzle chops, designing interactive, challenging, and interesting puzzles into the set pieces. There is room for refinement, but the underlying structure and construction is solid.

As much as we loved puzzling through the castle, we didn’t feel like the hero and heroine of a narrative-driven adventure in the same way as we did in Gangster’s Gamble.

Save the Queen would be an exciting escape room at any level. Newer players will find it challenging, but not unmanageable. More seasoned players will be able to appreciate the experience that much more. If you’re traveling through Connecticut, this one is a must visit.

Book your hour with Team vs Time’s Save the Queen, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Team vs Time provided media discounted tickets for this game.

Escape Zones – Imprisoned [Review]

Why do we keep ending up in puzzle jail?

Location: Auburn, AL

Date played: March 31, 2017

Team size: up to 8; we recommend 4-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $22 per ticket

Story & setting

During the prison warden’s lunch break, we broke into his office to find evidence of our imprisoned friend’s innocence.

Unlike many prison room escapes, we weren’t locked in cells looking to escape, we were breaking in and seeking evidence. As a result, Imprisoned still looked like the typical drab prison. However, we began the game within an office setting.

In-game: A shelf with a camera, a pair of glasses, and a detective's shield.

Puzzles

Imprisoned was first and foremost a searching game. While there was some puzzling, the experience hinged on finding exceptionally well-hidden objects.

Standouts

As far as search-centric games go, uncovering many of the hidden objects was surprisingly satisfying.

In one instance, there was a fun and surprising open.

Escape Zone has designed an unnecessary, yet very appreciated personalized touch into Imprisoned.

Shortcomings

Imprisoned included some unnecessary red herrings.

One particular puzzle had a flawed set-up. It lacked continuity. It was also easily destructible, which would render it unsolvable.

Other puzzles were double-clued such that elements of the experience could be bypassed. This led to some confusion as to the flow of the room escape.

Should I play Escape Zones’ Imprisoned?

Imprisoned leaned heavily on searching over puzzling. The searching wasn’t easy, but it was generally well designed.

I cannot recommend that experienced players get locked up in Imprisoned, unless they are open to a game that feels a little more like a scavenger hunt than an escape room.

If you’re a newer player looking to get into escape rooms, Imprisoned would be approachable. It will teach you to be observant. You won’t be over your head in complicated puzzles.

Book your hour with Escape Zones’ Imprisoned, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Escape Zones comped our tickets for this game.

Update from The Netherlands

Greetings, Breda! A few months ago we didn’t know you were a place (sorry), and now we don’t want to leave.

Trip To Do List:

✔ Talked our way onto an earlier, nonstop flight… thanks Delta!

✔ Completed flight without violent re-accommodation… thanks Delta!

✔ Admired Van Gogh paintings

✔ Consumed too many stroopwafels

✔ Played 10 wonderful escape rooms

❒ Reviewed 10 wonderful escape rooms… stay tuned!

✔ Debated game design and the definition of art over beers

✔ Escaped with owners and enthusiasts from around the world

✔ Played a real life game of Ticket To Ride

❒ Presented to an audience in Breda about The Perspective of the Player’s Experience

❒ Spoke on a panel about the role of bloggers in the escape room industry

If you happen to be in the area, help us with these last two checkboxes; we’re on our own for the reviews. 

Refuge: Prologue [Review]

“Oh shit! We’re competing against each other… and I know how smart my friends are.”

Location: New York, NY

Date played: April 14, 2017

Team size: 4-8; we recommend 6-8

Duration: 90 minutes

Price: $38-43 per ticket

Story & setting

Refuge: Prologue was an immersive, narrative-driven, competitive puzzle game.

Set in a dystopian mirrored reality where humanity’s decisions have caused an environmental apocalypse, we were competing for coveted spots in billionaire Alex Ayers’ prosperous Refuge. Our lives depended on proving our worth.

Refuge: Prologue took place in The Mist, an immersive entertainment space in Chinatown. The various rooms were staged for different challenges, each stylized, some more intriguing and involved than others.

At any given point, our group was divided up, competing against each other in different challenges. As Alex’s recorded voice narrated the instructions for various activities, we also learned the extent of the plight of Earth and human society, a narrative that unfolded over the duration of the experience.

In-game: a player looking upon a picture hung on a wall in a hallway.
Image via Refuge.

Puzzles

Refuge: Prologue pitted us against each other as we each vied for a future in Alex’s Refuge.

The puzzles took different forms: understanding the objective and context of any given contest, puzzling our way through, and strategizing against each other.

During the various puzzle challenges, we used logic, riddles, math, intuition, deductive reasoning, reaction time, agility, luck, strategic thinking… and more.

In-game: A hand interacting with glass bottles containing rolls of paper.
Image via Refuge.

Standouts

Refuge: Prologue painted a compelling dystopian parallel reality. Its message provoked thought about our world.

Refuge: Prologue meticulously designed printed materials and set dressing. It was deliberately crafted and looked polished.

The puzzles and games were challenging. For most interactions, each individual had to rely on their own understanding, make quick decisions, and continually strategize.

My favorite challenge was physically involved and lots of fun. The story unfolded through the escalating complexity of the puzzle. It was clever.

Without spoilers, the website for Refuge: Prologue was as clear as possible about what this experience entailed.

Shortcomings

The tech in Refuge: Prologue was repeatedly buggy. Even before we accidentally knocked something a little too forcefully, it was finicky. The set was delicate, and the tech even more so. Much of the set and technology needs modification in order to stand up to repeated use.

It wasn’t entirely clear how points were calculated, and therefore which actions and decisions mattered most. It also seemed like luck played a substantial role in some of the games.

The challenges varied in quality. One slow-paced game seemed to drag on. In another puzzle, the order of activities seemed to create a markedly unfair situation for the players.

Throughout the experience, there was a lot of information to take in in short amounts of time. Sometimes it was reading on top of audio instruction. Other times it was comprehensive reading while searching for other information. While this was part of the challenge, it was also more frustrating than it needed to be.

Should I attend Refuge: Prologue?

Refuge: Prologue was not a room escape, but it was an immersive, narrative-driven puzzle adventure. It was challenging and interesting.

In Refuge: Prologue, you will be competing against the others in your booking. You will be alone, vying for your own spot in a better future. If you usually count on others to pull some of the weight, you’re in for a rough ride.

Your adversaries are the others who’ve booked into your session. We recommend that you bring a group of people you know are equally competitive, skilled, and engaged. All the better to strategize against them… Also, leave the sore winners and losers at home.

While the technology implementation and set design had flaws, the folks behind Refuge: Prologue were attentive to detail.

Note that the website gives the following warnings, all of which matter: Don’t be late. Wear comfortable shoes. Also, one puzzle uses the full spectrum of color; colorblindness will be problematic.

If you like quick-paced puzzle competitions where you work on your own against opponents, and you don’t mind that the game, the rules, and the points will be a bit opaque, then we recommend visiting Refuge: Prologue.

If you’d rather work as a team or you don’t want to compete without a clear picture of what’s going on, you might want to sit this one out.

Win or lose Refuge: Prologue offers a new form of immersive puzzle adventuring. We’ve seen a lot collaborative gaming, and a little head-to-head team-based gaming, but Refuge is its own beast. Battling your friends by yourself offers a new style of interactive intrigue.

Book your spot in Refuge: Prologue, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

 

Accomplice The Show – The Golden Spork [Review]

Like the spork, this event was a hybrid.

Location: New York, NY

Date played: March 25, 2017

Team size: 7-30; we recommend 7-8

Duration: ~2.5 hours

Price: $185 per ticket

Story & setting

We embarked on an interactive dinner theater and puzzle adventure though Greenwich Village. We’d been invited by Mysterio to become members of the Secret Dining Society. If we could solve our way through dinner, we would be initiated in the presence of the Society’s precious Golden Spork.

The humorous pretext for the excursion set the tone that lasted throughout the show.

At each location, we enjoyed one course of the meal. Before leaving, we puzzled out our next destination. We’d occasionally run into actors who interacted with us in both alarmingly natural and ridiculously strange ways.

The Society of the The Golden Spork Logo

Puzzles

Against the background of a secret society initiation, Accomplice could put more emphasis on the puzzling than in some of their other productions. We spent more time puzzling as a group and less time bantering with actors.

The puzzles were mostly challenging enough for us to mull over through a course, but not so challenging as to keep that treasured Golden Spork out of our grasp.

Along the way, we unlocked information from various tangible objects, the majority of which were set out as centerpieces, or delivered through an interaction. We didn’t need to investigate every oddity in Greenwich Village.

Standouts

The Golden Spork was an engaging and humorous production. We enjoyed the light-hearted mission, complete with its jokes and puns.

This show balanced theater with escape room-style puzzling and time with friends. While we were sometimes interacting with an actor, more often we were interacting among ourselves. We puzzled intensively and collaboratively, but without a strong sense of time pressure. We were relaxed and enjoyed a meal as a group of friends.

The actors were skilled at blending seamlessly into their environments. In that way, the restaurant setting too became part of the show.

A have eaten plate of food including varies cheeses, greens, fruit, and meat.
I don’t usually take photos of my food… so I got to it a little late.

The food and wine were delicious.

Shortcomings

We’re dessert people and the dessert course left us wanting more. While tasty, it didn’t live up to the rest of the meal in terms of experience.

Two of our guests do not consume alcohol. They missed the final toast with the cast while someone looked for an alternative beverage. This made the end fizzle for them as they felt left out.

The show was marketed for 7-30 people, but the puzzling wasn’t optimized to engage such a large audience. The puzzling couldn’t even stretch enough for our group of 10. Whereas a skilled actor can command an entire theater’s attention, it’s a different challenge to design puzzles that do the same, even more so to make puzzles that rely upon numbers. With small changes, Accomplice could iterate on the puzzles such that they engage more of the audience.

Should I play Accomplice The Show’s The Golden Spork?

The Golden Spork is a hybrid puzzle / immersive theater / dinner theater / walking tour. It’s a lot of experiences rolled up into one and it works. It does this by rotating through phases of puzzling, theater, dining, and walking. It’s also an excuse to enjoy dinner in the company of friends.

If you expect the show to entertain you with puzzles and actors the entire time, you’ll be disappointed. If you understand those elements are a revolving door of entertainment through your dinner, you’ll be quite pleased.

While $185 per ticket felt high, upon reflection, The Golden Spork was almost a deal. Manhattan ain’t cheap. Here, three courses with a fair amount of wine could easily cost over $100 per person. Given the few hours worth of actors, puzzles, and entertainment, that price felt fair to our group.

We truly enjoyed our quest to behold the revered Golden Spork. It was an honor to bask in its untarnished radiance.

Contact Accomplice at info@accomplicetheshow.com for a private booking of The Golden Spork, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Accomplice the Show provided media discounted tickets for this experience.