Top Escape Rooms Project – Enthusiasts’ Choice Award [Announcement]

The Top Escape Rooms Project is an attempt to find the very best escape rooms in the world.

Top Escape Rooms Project: Enthusiast Choice Award 2018 logo. A gold ribbon made of keys.

Award Winners

I have linked to our reviews, if we have one.

Escape Rooms

  1. Ghost Hunter Ernie Hudson and the Wailing Woman – Skurrilum (Hamburg, Germany)
  2. Cutthroat Cavern – 13th Gate Escape (Baton Rouge, LA, USA)
  3. The Man From Beyond – Strange Bird Immersive (Houston, TX, USA)
  4. The Amsterdam Catacombs – Logic Locks (Amsterdam, Netherlands)
  5. The Edison Escape Room – Palace Games (San Francisco, CA, USA)
  6. The Lost Treasure of Alexander Humboldt – The Room (Berlin, Germany)
  7. Lab Rat – Hatch Escapes (Los Angeles, CA, USA)
  8. The Vault – Sherlocked (Amsterdam, Netherlands)
  9. The Lance of Longinus – Time Run (London, UK)
  10. Frankenstein: The Awakening – 60 Minute Escape (Nashville, TN, USA)
  11. Ghost Hunter Ernie Hudson and the Zoo of Death – Skurrilum (Hamburg, Germany)
  12. De Ramkraak [The Ram Raid] – Project Escape (Nijmegen, Netherlands)
  13. Catacumbas [Catacombs] – Golden Pop (Barcelona, Spain)
  14. An Avalanche of Oblivion – Claustrophobia (Escaldes Engordany, Andorra)
  15. The Secret Lab – Locked In Edinburgh (Edinburgh, UK)
  16. The Honeymoon Hotel – Escape Challenge (Zoetermeer, Netherlands)
  17. The Storykeeper – Locurio (Seattle, WA, USA)
  18. Stash House – Stash House (Los Angeles, CA, USA)
  19. Alien: El Orígen [Alien: Origin] – Escape Barcelona (Barcelona, Spain)
  20. Insane Paranoid – Quest-Art (Moscow, Russia)

Companies

  1. Skurrilum (Hamburg, Germany)
  2. Palace Games (San Francisco, CA, USA)
  3. The Room (Berlin, Germany)
  4. 13th Gate Escape (Baton Rouge, LA, USA)
  5. Time Run (London, UK)
  6. Escape Challenge (Delft and Zoetermeer, Netherlands)
  7. Sherlocked (Amsterdam, Netherlands)
  8. Cubick (Mataró and Madrid, Spain)
  9. Escape My Room (New Orleans, LA, USA)
  10. Locurio (Seattle, WA, USA)

By The Numbers

  • Only 1 company has 2 top escape rooms. That would be Skurrilum. Fittingly, it won top company.
  • 8 of the 10 top companies also had top escape rooms.
  • Escape Room Distribution by Country: USA (7), Netherlands (4), Germany (3), Spain (2), UK (2), Andorra (1), Russia (1)
  • Company Distribution by Country: USA (4), Germany (2), Netherlands (2), Spain (1), UK (2)
Image via Strange Bird Immersive

The Full Results

I encourage you to check out the Top Escape Rooms Project for more results, beyond the winners. Which room missed the podium at #21? Which room ranked #100? (Yes, there are more than 100 rooms ranked.) How many people ranked each room? There is a ton more interesting data available for you to pour over. It’s easy to get sucked in.

If not now, I highly recommend viewing this website when planning a trip. If your destination city – or a nearby city – has a room ranked by the Top Escape Rooms Project, even if it’s number 75, it’s probably worth a visit. (I’ve played #75 and it’s worth going just a bit out of your way for.)

Game 22 post-game photo features the Guinness judge presenting their certificate.

Background

Rich Bragg, one of the Guinness World Record holders, created the The Top Escape Rooms Project to crowdsource the best escape rooms from the people who know and love them the most, escape room enthusiasts.

Other contests for “best escape room” have used public internet-based polls that can be dominated by the companies with the biggest marketing budget and spammed by bots.

The Top Escape Rooms Project required the voters to have credentials as escape room players and allowed them each just one vote. It actively sought out the most experienced players in the world (mostly North America and Western Europe) to participate.

Methodology

In phase 1, the participants nominated up to 10 escape room companies and up to 20 escape rooms. Any company or room that received 2 or more nominations moved to phase 2. In phase 2 the participants ranked the companies (where they had played at least two rooms) and the individual escape rooms (that they had played).

The final, mathematically sound, unbiased final ranking, was based on the Perron-Frobenius theorem with an adjustment using the Wilson score binomial confidence interval. In short, it’s about comparisons and aggregating lots of people’s comparisons to stack companies and escape rooms in a definitive order.

For more details, visit The Top Escape Rooms Project.

In-game: a large stone wall with a massive skull carved into it. The skull's eyes glow with fire.
Image via 13th Gate Escape

Community

The participants were largely from North America and Western Europe. On average, they had each played over 300 escape rooms. They found each other and this project through the “Secret” Escape Room Enthusiast Slack Chat. Bragg set up a “top_rooms_project” channel there. Throughout the nominations and voting, there was lively discussion about what makes for the best escape room companies and the best escape rooms.

Challenge

David and I participated in the Top Escape Rooms Project.

Nominating wasn’t too challenging. We have favorites. Our nominations were almost identical.

Stacked rankings were… mind-bogglingly challenging. I’m positive that if I ranked the same companies and escape rooms again today, without looking at my previous rankings, I’d rank them at least somewhat differently.

I’m confident that in my own rankings the best companies and rooms are on top and the weakest ones are on the bottom. David and I ranked the top and bottom pretty similarly to each other.

The middle, however, gets murky. Most escape rooms don’t deliver on everything. I had to stop categorizing puzzle design, gameplay, narrative, set design, production value and the like and rank them all against each other, regardless of where they shined. I tried to focus on fun – my own fun – which had its own biases. It worked against games that are objectively brilliant, but not so much my style. In the middle – where David and I pitted these elements against each other to create rankings – our rankings looked pretty different from one another.

No… we’re not going to publish our rankings. 

Lance of Longinus

Travel Plans

While the exact rankings might be more fluid than this list would lead the viewer to believe, the top rooms project developed an incredible set of escape room recommendations. It turned the opinions of the most enthusiastic players into valuable data for escape room tourists.

Hamburg, Germany will have to be one of our next international destinations. I’m sure we aren’t the only ones thinking this.

We clearly need to visit Spain as well.

We’ve visited 5 of the 7 top escape rooms from the United States. For the 2 we haven’t played, we’ve been impressed by the company’s earlier room. Even before this data set came out we wanted to go back to these companies to see these newer rooms.

It’s been 2 years since we visited Seattle. We’d love to see Locurio’s The Storykeeper. I think people ask us on a weekly basis when we’ll finally review it. 

We played escape rooms in Nashville this summer, just days before the folks who ranked 60 Minute Escape’s Frankenstein: The Awakening. When we visited 60 Minute Escape, the game was almost ready… but not ready enough. We’re pretty sad to have missed that game and hope to return to Nashville again soon to see it.

When I look beyond the top 20 escape rooms or the top 10 companies, there are so many more incredible escape rooms to visit.

Hidden Gems

Over the 4+ years we’ve been writing Room Escape Artist, we’ve waved a flag for many escape room companies who are off the beaten path. We love that these games have been uncovered, visited, and now ranked by many escape room enthusiasts.

That said, the Top Escape Rooms Project’s Phase 1 dataset is loaded with hidden gems that only received a single nomination. 

In-game: Skulls nested in one another beside a hammer within a fireplace.

For instance, David was the only person to nominate Piwnica Quest’s Midnight Killer MK II from Wroclaw, Poland… probably because he was the only person participating who had played it (although he won’t shut up about it). 

We are confident that there are many more hidden gems out there that the well-traveled enthusiasts haven’t uncovered yet.

Bias

As with any data set, this one is biased. These are the top escape rooms of this community. It’s a group of people mainly in Western Europe and North America. This community listens to each other’s recommendations. That created a bit of a feedback loop. (That’s not a knock against this community. It happens in any community where people like and respect each other.)

Purity

The Top Escape Rooms Project was created for the love of escape rooms. It wasn’t about the clicks, links, or ad revenue. It wasn’t designed as a marketing ploy. It was simply about the joy of finding the best escape rooms in the world.

We have so much respect for this.

The Question of Best

At Room Escape Artist, we don’t focus on “best.” Our award, The Golden Lock-In Award (2017, 2016, and 2015), focuses on “favorites.”

We think about how escape rooms – both companies and games – succeed and how they could improve.

We think about what aspects of the games fit individual preferences. What is most fun for me isn’t necessarily right for you.

We analyze escape rooms in shades of gray. 

That said, the internet demands “best.” We search for the best this and the best that, for a shortcut to the superlative in any one thing. There’s a place for it. We commend the Top Escape Rooms Project on its incredible achievement in conceptualizing and delivering an outstanding list of best escape rooms.

Writing Within Escape Rooms

Should escape rooms provide writing surfaces?

Today, I’ll discuss the pros and cons of writing surfaces in general. Tomorrow, I’m going to review Boogie Board’s product line for use in escape rooms. 

Don’t Force Me To Write

Escape rooms play better when the puzzles do not require writing.

Successful escape room puzzles are tangible and rooted in the game environment. They engage multiple active participants and enable onlookers to see the action.

Writing is a small, isolated experience. When I’m forced to write in an escape room, it’s usually to work on a puzzle that is best suited to a single-person solve. We might pass that puzzle around the group until it lands in the right person’s hands, but that’s not really a team solving experience.

Writing usually takes me out of the gamespace; it focuses my attention on a piece of paper. If I wanted to solve paper puzzles, I’d buy a puzzle book for less than half the price of an escape room ticket.

There are exceptions where writing works well in an escape room, but I haven’t encountered this often.

"Writing in escape rooms" written across boogie boards and different paper.

Do Allow Me To Write

While I’m rarely excited about a puzzle that requires me to write in an escape room, I do appreciate escape rooms that provide a note-taking option. This is especially true of more challenging or complex games.

The most important reason to provide a writing surface is that our brains don’t all process and retain information uniformly. Providing a writing surface is a kindness to those who need it.

In addition, I sometimes want to jot something down in an escape room because:

  • There is complex math or logic that I need to write out to solve.
  • I want to keep track of portions of a solution.
  • I derived a code, but don’t have anywhere to input it yet.
  • I noticed something obscure and I want to remember it.
  • I’m struggling to solve something simple and sketching it will help.
  • I want to keep track of wrong answers so that we don’t continually try them.
  • I want to sketch out how I derived a solution to help a teammate understand it.
  • There’s nothing for me to work on; I want to doodle… this is a bad room problem.
  • I want to leave a funny note for the gamemaster to find when they reset the game.

Writing Surface Options

Here’s our preferred hierarchy of writing surfaces:

In-game: The "Daily Specials" white board.

1: Environment Integration

The writing surface is a part of the set and belongs in the gamespace.

For example, we used an integrated writing surface in The Mall at Complexity in Farmington, Connecticut. The shopping mall’s Italian restaurant had a “daily specials” whiteboard on the wall. This simple, elegant writing surface made sense within the context of the escape room.

This is the ideal setup, if and only if the gamemasters maintain it as a functioning writing surface, not just as static set decor. If the writing implement doesn’t write properly, the moment is spoiled.

A small boogie board.

2: Boogie Boards

LCD writing tablets work in escape rooms because they are lightweight, easy to use, and impressively reliable. They don’t come with extra rules or risk.

Traditional writing media always come with the additional stipulation: “Don’t write on anything other than the paper or dry erase board.” While this is a perfectly sensible rule, it’s broken all too often… and then we find the remnants of the sketches around the room. These are almost always wrong because the kind of person who draws on an escape room isn’t usually an all-star player.

Traditional writing media also require ink or sharpening. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve had to ask for a pen/ marker that actually works I could buy admission to an escape room or two.

Boogie Boards skirt these maintenance issues that plague traditional writing systems.

That said, it’s usually difficult to integrate Boogie Boards within the narrative. They require explanation and some models can erase easily.

Are you interested in which Boogie Board to buy? Come back tomorrow for a deeper discussion on Boogie Boards.

Dry erase markers on a whiteboard.

3: Dry Erase/ Chalk Board; No Integration

I’ve already discussed the cons. The pro is size.

Dry erase / chalk boards can be large enough that entire team can be involved in viewing them.

A notepad that reads, "Please ONLY write on this paper!"

4: Pen/ Pencil & Paper

It’s better than nothing.

Expectations

In escape rooms, writing is regional. Some players expect a writing surface. That’s what they’re used to. Others will be baffled why one would write on anything. Be aware of the local norms and make a conscious decision about how to integrate (or not integrate) writing in your escape room.

What Do You Think?

I’m curious what others prefer to write with. What are your thoughts on the best and worst writing surfaces in escape rooms?

YouEscape – Magnum Opus [Review]

Escape room video conferencing.

Location:  the Internet

Date Played: October 20, 2018

Team size: 1-4; we recommend 3

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $30 per team (regardless of player count)

Ticketing: Private

REA Reaction

And we have another new escape room format! 

YouEscape offers Internet-based escape games. The creator/ gamemaster pointed his camera at a table with puzzle props. We delivered commands that he executed. 

We didn’t know what to expect from this one and ended up having a good time. YouEscape is still exploring how to build games for this format, but they are off to a good start.

There’s an opportunity to create something unique this way. In its current format, it’s an affordable way to play an escape game from the comfort of your own home. 

If you’ve played all of the games in your area, want to play with friends who live far away, or really love escape room puzzles, give YouEscape a try. They are creating new games on a monthly basis. 

In-game: The revised set with a starscape backdrop and blue table cloth.
Magnum Opus after some iteration.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Friends who don’t live in the same place, but want to play together
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • A novel escape game format
  • The challenge of instructing interaction with physical objects
  • Cooperation across different physical locations
  • Fun puzzles

Story

The master alchemist had disappeared and it was up to us – his apprentices – to discover why.

Google Hangout: The initial game setup features many locked boxes and styrofoam cups, some with drawings on them.
Magnum Opus as we played it. 

Setting

Magnum Opus was an online escape game where we joined a video chat with our teammates and the gamemaster. The gamemaster’s camera was pointed at a table with all of the game’s props. We only saw a pair of hands reaching in around the camera and doing as we instructed. 

The physical props, puzzle components, and locked boxes resided with our gamemaster. Additional instructional materials and puzzle components were organized into folders in Google Drive.

We remained in our own homes, communicating with our teammates and gamemaster through Google Hangouts. We issued commands and he interacted with the props and delivered verbal hints. Repeat until solved. 

Google Hangout: The post-game image declaring that we escaped, and depicting the elixer.

Gameplay

YouEscape’s Magnum Opus was an atypical escape game played over the Internet by a remote team giving the gamemaster verbal commands. There was a moderate level of difficulty, some of which came from learning how to control the game.

Core gameplay revolved around observing, instructing, communicating, puzzling… and navigating different tabs and windows.

Analysis

➕ YouEscape’s format enabled cooperative gameplay through physical escape room components, across different locations and time zones.

➕ Playing via the gamemaster’s hands was deceptively challenging. In fact, we missed a critical detail in one puzzle for quite some time. I’m sure we would have seen this if we’d been handling the props ourselves. We appreciated how the format added different twists to puzzle solving.

➕ YouEscape designed some excellent puzzles. We particularly enjoyed the opening and closing challenges. Magnum Opus was at its best when we had to explore the props to solve the challenges.

➖ The physical props and puzzles looked like prototypes. There was plenty of room to craft more captivating game components. 

➖ Although YouEscape set Magnum Opus against a mystical alchemy theme, that theme was absent or unimportant for much of the experience. With the exception of a few physical components, most of the props and puzzles didn’t draw on alchemy.

➖ Much of the gameplay took place in Google Drive. While YouEscape shared well-organized folders, we found it burdensome to continually switch windows and tabs. We can solve puzzles in documents and browser tabs any time, without a gamemaster in a physical room of puzzles. This portion of this experience didn’t take advantage of what made YouEscape’s gameplay format special: the hands and props. It was also clunky to use.

➕ YouEscape offered a different spin on the escape room concept. We see potential in combining physical props and puzzles with Internet-facilitated player communication. We recommend YouEscape lean into the physical components, upping the intrigue there. Those elements made the format special and introduced interesting new gameplay challenges.

➕/➖ The Patreon subscription model is great if you want to play monthly… and a big hindrance if you want to experience a one-off game.  Additionally, the race to constantly generate new content could eventually hold YouEscape back from producing some truly wonderful games, as speed of development will ultimately be in the driver’s seat. 

➕ YouEscape is rapidly iterating. A day or two after we played, we received this image of the newly revised “set.” If YouEscape can continue working on this concept, distill their games down to the best interactions, and gather compelling props to facilitate the fiction, they will have a fantastic product. 

❓I think this format offers an opportunity to create delicate, messy, or dangerous interactions that are safe when handled exclusively by the game designer, but could never appear in a traditional escape game. 

Tips For Visiting

  • You will need a computer than can comfortably handle at least 6 browser tabs and a video chat without freaking out, a stable Internet connection, a microphone, and a notepad (physical or virtual, but we found physical to work best).
  • We recommend that each player use their own computer, from their own space, and communicate through Google Hangouts. This allows each player to move between the tabs/ windows as they’d like.

Book your hour with YouEscape’s Magnum Opus, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: YouEscape comped our tickets for this game.

Lockout – Europa [Review]

By Jupiter’s moons! (not available in English)

Location:  Antibes, France

Date Played: September 30, 2018

Team size: 3-5; we recommend 3-4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: 20-35 € per person depending on team size

Ticketing: Private

REA Reaction

Europa was a puzzle-focused escape room that offered some unusual interactions and puzzles.

At times this mission felt futuristic and spaceship-y. Other times, it felt like an escape room of locked boxes.

While I enjoyed many of the puzzles, as we escaped, I found myself wishing that the concluding story beats, puzzles, and interactions felt more like they had belonged on this spaceship.

Overall, if you’re in Antibes, France, and looking to play an escape room, this would be a fun choice with interesting puzzles.

In-game: A pilot's chair in front of a computer station in a spaceship.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Interesting and varied puzzles
  • Nifty moments

Story

The European Space Agency had received a signal from a missing ship that was returning with samples from Jupiter’s moon Europa. We had to board the ship and return with the samples.

Setting

Europa was set on a futuristic spaceship.

The set was uneven. Most of the game had a steel and space-y look. Some segments looked like a traditional lock-and-key escape game.

In-game: Closeup of a steel floor.

Gameplay

Lockout’s Europa was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

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

Analysis

➕ Lockout designed some excellent, layered puzzles.

➖ Europa presented us with a mission and detailed steps to follow to achieve it. It wasn’t clear, however, which puzzles fit with this series of objectives. We played a decent amount of this game in the dark because of this confusion.

➕ We especially liked the use of augmented reality in one puzzle.

➕/➖ One interesting puzzle concept missed a beat. We liked the inventive concept, but the solution was only partially clued.

➕ Lockout executed standard escape room puzzle concepts to facilitate teamwork. This worked well.

➖ Europa was a heavily padlocked spaceship containing a lot of locked boxes. It felt overly locked with props and locks that didn’t aesthetically match the game concept. This contributed to a general feeling that too many items in this game didn’t belong on a spaceship.

➖ The win was anticlimactic. Solving a complex puzzle yielded yet another key. We would have liked to see that solve integrated contextually into the story of this spaceship and our escape from it.

Tips For Visiting

  • You must be able to read and understand French to play Europa.

Book your hour with Lockout’s Europa, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

YULU – Fire Quest [Review]

🔥

Location: at home

Date Played: June 8, 2018

Team size: 1-4; we recommend 1-¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Duration: 15 minutes*

Price: $??.??

REA Reaction

Fire Quest torched our expectations. We set this DIY obstacle course up for my 11 year-old cousin at my brother’s 30th birthday party. Within a few minutes, 10 people spanning 3 generations were running around our makeshift challenge course competing for the best time.

Fire Quest can play well for young children or older kids with good motor skills. The players define the course, making it as easy or hard as they desire. With a bit of creativity, it works remarkably well for adults. Additionally, this could make for an epic drinking game.

While there’s room for improved variety in Fire Quest’s built-in components, consider this a strong recommendation for families, children, and adults who haven’t forgotten how to enjoy themselves.

In-game: The torch glowing blue on its cradle and the Fire Quest box.

Sadly Fire Quest was a limited release by YULU. It will not be distributed through their regular channels. This is too bad because it’s a fabulous game. At the end of the review, you’ll find links to a few marketplaces with limited quantities of Fire Quest available for purchase. Buy it now if you want it. This might be your only chance. We hope it gets a wider release some day.

Who is this for?

  • Anyone with a willingness to play
  • People with a bit of mobility
  • Fire Quest was designed for children

Why play?

  • It has appeal for players of all ages
  • The torch balances well but not effortlessly
  • It’s easy to set up, learn, and administer
  • Endlessly adaptable

Story

We entered a temple filled with obstacles and treasure. We had to carry our torch through the challenges in order to earn our prize.

Setup

Fire Quest was fantastically straightforward. We had a torch that cradled a fireball.

To start the game, one player picked up the torch from its base, starting the timer. Upon lifting, the torch randomly started glowing one of five colors. The colors corresponded to a challenge that we had setup around us. Whatever color the torch glowed was the challenge that required completion. That player cycled through all five challenges in the order the torch demanded, returned the torch to its cradle, and checked their time.

In-game: Lisa passing the red torch through a red ring.

Red – Hoop Challenge

We had hung three hoops with big clips on a book shelf. The player had to pass the torch through those hoops.

Yellow – Balance Challenge

Four paper disks each depicted a different task (step on the disk and touch it with your hand, pivot 360 degrees on the disk, etc). The player had to navigate a path of these disks following the instructions while traversing them and acting like the surrounding floor was lava.

In-game: the set of green cards and the green pad.

Green – Action Challenge

The player drew one of five cards. Each card depicted a trick that had to be done with the torch (pass the torch behind your back, between your legs, etc).

Blue – Rope Challenge

The player clipped the torch to a blue rope and had to lead the torch along the rope’s path.

In-game: Lisa placing the purple torch onto the purple pad.

Purple – Obstacle Challenge

This was my personal favorite challenge. Fire Quest asked us to create our own obstacle (climb over/ crawl under a thing, jump over something, etc).

Gameplay

YULU’s Fire Quest was a DIY obstacle course with a customizable level of difficulty.

Core gameplay – as defined by the instructions – revolved around balance, coordination, and dexterity… but you could use this torch to facilitate a wide variety of challenges.

Analysis

+ The torch and fireball were the core of Fire Quest. YULU nailed this. Balancing the fireball isn’t brutally challenging, but if you do something too difficult or stop paying attention, gravity will do its thing. They balanced the… balance. When the fireball dropped the player always knew it was their own fault.

+ The LED lighting of the fireball mixed with the sound effects and timer felt satisfying and drew in new people.

– There was one small problem with the torch: accidentally double-tapping on the slam pads. Less careful players could easily double press the button, effectively bypassing a challenge from the torch’s perspective. This could have been avoided by YULU disabling the button for a few seconds after it has depressed.

+ The baked-in timer made the game really easy to self administer.

+ The hoops fit together snugly but had built in break points. If impacted, they could separate without actually breaking.

– We found ourselves wishing that YULU had done a little more with the paper components like the yellow stepping stones and the green challenge cards. A few more of these items would have added a lot of depth to the challenges at minimal expense.

– The yellow stepping stones would be better laminated or made of a more durable material. They do get stepped on, after all.

Fire Quest brought together three generations for a little while to do something new.

+ By having the timer count up instead of down, it allowed everyone to play at their own pace and ability. It also allowed us to make increasingly lengthy and complex challenges without slamming into a limited timer.

Fire Quest was a game that begged for creativity. I think that YULU did this knowingly. The purple challenge was designed as a “create your own challenge,” which ensured that every player knew that creating challenges was an option. Fire Quest wasn’t rigid. It suggested how to play and then invited customization, silliness, and adaptation… It wanted us to play.

Tips for Playing

  • Batteries not included. Fire Quest requires 3 AAA’s.
  • Some of the torch colors don’t illuminate clearly in sunlight. Yellow was particularly difficult to see in the sun.
  • Use your imagination and feel free to reinvent the challenges as you see fit.
  • If you turn this into a drinking game, please do so responsibly.
  • For playground play or other simplified purposes, Fire Quest could be reduced to the torch and the cradle.

Buy your copy of YULU’s Fire Quest, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Fire Quest is available in limited quantities from Zulily and Ebay and Christianbook.com and Walmart.

Disclosure: YULU gave us a complementary reviewer’s copy of this game.

13th Hour Escape Rooms – The Grand Parlor [Review]

The Grand Parlor

Earn the urn. 

Location:  Wharton, NJ

Date Played: October 28, 2018

Team size: up to 10; we recommend 5-7

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $29 per player

Ticketing: Public

REA Reaction

The “grand” in Grand Parlor was not an overstatement. 

13th Hour Escape Rooms delivered a creepy interactive adventure, for a larger team, on a large scale. 

The Grand Parlor felt epic and delightful. 

In-game: The two story grand parlor featuring a door chained shut under a a large balcony.

While not every puzzle made sense in the experience, or was on the same level, the vast majority of the gameplay elevated the impressive gamespace… and the majority of our critique is about details that wouldn’t even get mentioned in our reviews of more average games. 

The big brother of the Hayden family with murder in his eyes.

We visited 13th Hour in October to experience the effect of actors on The Grand Parlor. We loved this augmentation, but your mileage will vary depending on your gameplay preferences (see below for a full explanation of the actors and how to get or avoid them).

If you are anywhere near northwestern New Jersey, and can enjoy an eerie and sinister vibe, we highly recommend an excursion to 13th Hour Escape Rooms. We’ve loved many of their escape rooms and The Grand Parlor was no exception. It rivaled The Great Room.

The big brother of the Hayden family choking David.
(Atypical customer service, David had this coming.)

Who is this for?

  • Fans of the creepy
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Best for players with at least some experience
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • Expansive and immersive set
  • Large-scale interactive puzzles
  • Epic and joyous moments

Story

The ashes of Bishop, a notorious killer and beloved member of the Hayden family, had gone missing. If we could help the Haydens find Bishop’s urn, then they would let us leave their parlor unharmed.

In-game: View over the balcony to a wooden box with a faint red glow emanating from it.

Setting

The Grand Parlor was set in the most spacious area of the creepy Hayden family farmhouse. From the dark and foreboding entryway, it opened up into a massive space with height, depth, and hiding places. The props ranged from parlor staples to farmhouse essentials.

In-game: A view atop the balcony, the railing is casting an intricate shadow.

Gameplay

13th Hour Escape Rooms’ The Grand Parlor was a standard escape room with a higher level of difficulty.

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

While the puzzles were not especially difficult on their own, the large gamespace and large-team dynamic raised the level of difficulty of the overall experience.

The older sister of the Hayden family with blood spattered across her face and dress.

Actors in October

13th Hour runs a haunted house in additional to their 5 escape rooms. On October evenings and weekends when the haunted house is operating (sometimes including Christmas & Valentines Day), the escape rooms have an added twist: actors. The 6 actors roam the 5 escape rooms providing character, hints, and the occasional jump scare. They are also the gamemasters.

The father of the Hayden family looking creepy in a torn up suit.

The set, story, puzzles, and gameplay do not change for October. The escape rooms are open year round.

We visited The Grand Parlor during October to experience the actors in the escape room. Our other reviews of other 13th Hour games do not include this discussion because we did not visit those games when the actors were in rotation.

The younger brother of the Hayden family with a large eye wound.

➕ The actors were impressive. They added character to the experience. They surprised us at well-timed moments. They were a ton of fun. If you’re looking for feels and immersion over focused puzzles, I highly recommend playing these escape rooms with the actors.

➖ At times, the actors were heavy-handed. They were the hint system as well as added character for the space. If you want focused puzzle-play, don’t visit in October. You’ll be frustrated by the interruptions. You’ll also have less control over the hinting.

A visit to 13th Hour in October is an individual decision. The actors don’t make the escape rooms better or worse. They make them different. We loved the creepy, playful horde roaming Hayden’s farm. They improvise and have fun with you. It’s also perfectly reasonable to have zero interest in that added layer. 

Animation of the younger sister of the Hayden watching TV while holding her dolls. She occasionally lunges forward and sticks her tongue out.

Analysis

➕ The set was impressive. It was detailed and designed. The vertical scale and the decor were captivating. It was an incredible environment to explore and puzzle through.

➕ The gamespace opened up over the course of play with exciting, grand reveals as well as more surprising, quiet opens.

➖ It was easy to miss the best moments if they triggered while we were elsewhere in the gamespace, working on something different. The Grand Parlor would have benefited from gameflow that guided all players into position to witness the most exciting moments.

The Grand Parlor was creepy, playful, and joyous. Note for the timid: it was creepy, but not scary.

➕ 13th Hour Escape Rooms produced layered, but approachable puzzles. We had to connect elements across the large gamespace, which forced communication and teamwork. This structure worked really well.

➖ The gamespace echoed a lot. With a large team of players – and the actors as well – the space was full of commotion. Communication became frustrating.

The 13th Hour Hallway
The entire facility is themed. This is their main hallway.

➕ 13th Hour Escape Rooms’ entire facility is themed. Their lobby and hallways look more aesthetically impressive than most escape rooms. 

➕ For one simple puzzle, 13th Hour designed an original take on a common escape room trope. It was phenomenal.

➖ We spent a lot of time trying to solve one puzzle before we had all the information. We would have appreciated additional gating here, especially because the eventual solution didn’t feel like adequate payoff for the wasted time.

➖ A few interactions seemed to belong in a different game. One in particular didn’t make sense – conceptually or aesthetically – in the Hayden family’s parlor.

➕ One standard parlor prop surprised us with an impromptu, silly, and playful interlude. It was delightful. 

➕ The large-scale interactions supported the grandeur of the set. These contributed to nifty and satisfying puzzle solves that felt great in the gamespace.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is parking available.
  • We recommend Hot Rods BBQ.
  • Most of the team needs to be able to climb stairs. While it is possible for a player or two to play The Grand Parlor without climbing any stairs, if you play this way, you’ll miss significant components of the game.

Book your hour with 13th Hour Escape Rooms’ The Grand Parlor, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: 13th Hour Escape Rooms comped our tickets for this game.

A special thanks to the Hayden Family for allowing David to photograph them and live.

New York Times Sunday Crossword Contest Escape Room

Yesterday’s New York Times crossword puzzle (November 11, 2018) was an escape room in crossword form. It was also a contest. Can you escape this crossword puzzle?

The grid for the NY Times "Escape Room" crossword puzzle.

Crossword Puzzle Contest

This crossword escape room puzzle was the 2018 New York Times Crossword Puzzle Contest.

To enter the contest, email your solution to crosswordcontest@nytimes.com by Tuesday at 6 p.m. Eastern time. You might win more puzzles… a whole years’ worth in the form of a calendar.

Escape Room Crossword Instructions

“This crossword represents an escape room, with four articles you’ll need hidden inside. After you complete the grid, follow the directions at 41-, 70- and 99-Across to find what to do next. Working correctly will lead you to a four-word phrase with a total of 12 letters. That is your answer.”

Subscribe to New York Times Crossword puzzles.

If you’re new to crossword puzzles, this is a difficult one. It’s not particularly challenging, as far as New York Times Sunday crossword puzzles go, but the trick is, well, tricky, especially for less experienced puzzlers.

Escape Rooms

In this blog post, puzzle creator Eric Berlin, writes a bit about his love for escape rooms. He also mentions how to find the good ones… spoiler… it’s us!

Turns out, it’s pretty hard to turn the Sunday crossword into an escape room. We think he did a great job!

At the end of the blog post Eric writes, “…if it encourages you to get your friends together to try a real escape room, all the better.” We couldn’t agree more!

Thank you for the shout-out Eric.

Update

The deadline for submissions to the contest has past. The New York Times receive almost 20,000 entries to this contest, which was a record number of entries. You can find the solution in this blog post.

7 Unexpected Tidbits from the 2018 Escape Room Enthusiast Survey

What do Escape Room Enthusiasts think?

Errol Elumir of The Room Escape Divas posted an escape room enthusiast survey, open during July – August 2018. Members of the community helped craft the survey. Lee-Fay Low compiled the results.

This is a really interesting data set… and I want to dig into some of my observations about it (even if this post is publishing a little later than I had intended).

An analytics dashboard.

First off, let’s get this out of the way…

Bias

As you read these tidbits, keep in mind that biases are inherent in the process:

(1) This was a self-selected group of respondents.

“Participants in this survey are not representative of escape room players at large. The sample is biased towards people who identify as enthusiasts, have played more rooms, and spend time on English language online enthusiast groups.”

(2) Many of the questions were multiple choice. Respondents ranked items in a list in order of importance. Lists are not exhaustive.

(3) Many of the words in the survey weren’t defined. Different players likely interpreted these concepts differently.

Bias isn’t a knock against the survey. (In fact, David helped write the survey.) Bias is, however, important to be aware of.

The survey results deliver interesting and valuable data for the community and the companies. Plus, this data will become more interesting over time as it starts to illuminate shifts in trends.

Here are a few tidbits that I found to be particularly interesting:

[1] 562 enthusiasts answered the survey.

There are a lot of us out there who want to spend our free time thinking about escape rooms and who will take time to fill out a pretty detailed questionnaire. We’re excited to see the enthusiast community growing.

[2] Discovery over immersion

When asked what motivates us to play escape rooms, “discovery” edged out “immersion.”

When I travel in industry circles, I constantly hear reference to immersion. Immersion seems to be this elusive gold standard that companies aim to achieve.

While the most enthusiastic players are certainly motivated by immersive experiences, they are more excited by discovery.

Discovery is an under-explored concept. As players, we seek the unexpected. It’s energizing.

[3] Subscription-based puzzle games aren’t speaking to us… yet.

When asked which escape room-related activities they’ve played, subscription-based puzzle games ranked below escape room board games, in-person puzzle hunts, immersive theatre, and online puzzle hunts.

The subscription-based market is younger than these other adjacent forms of entertainment. We’ve reviewed a number of subscription puzzle games and generally enjoyed the concepts, but found that the products weren’t mature enough yet. There’s a lot of room for creators to develop this idea.

Don’t discount this style of entertainment just yet.

[4] Theme matters, but there isn’t consensus around best themes.

When asked what’s most important when booking an escape room, theme ranked second only to personal recommendations. Theme mattered more than reviews, booking type, location, and price.

That said, no one theme out ranked the others. Tombs and space were the most popular themes, but so many others were almost as popular.

Escape room enthusiasts are searching out themed experiences, but theme is a personal preference.

Data on popular themes will be skewed because theme pervasiveness seems to be a fairly regional phenomenon. For example, much of the United States has tons of labs, zombie apocalypse, and prison break themes. These themes are barely present in our home market of New York City.

As we travel around, we often find pockets of similarly themed games. Is that regional similarity good or bad? I’m not really sure, but it is a thing.

[5] Use of technology is not very important.

For a well-designed game, the most important thing is puzzle quality. Of the 15 game characteristics listed in the survey, use of technology ranked 13th.

This data supports a common misconception that escape rooms need fancy technology.

Technology is not inherently valuable. It’s one tool in a game designer’s toolbox.

Our opinion has been that technology is usually best when it’s hidden and the player doesn’t think of the interaction as a tech interaction… it’s just a fun moment.

[6] There is a bias towards multi-room games.

Not a single person said they prefer single-room games over multi-room games. While about 12-15% of respondents are indifferent to this differentiation, the vast majority of respondents prefer multi-room games.

I would imagine that this has a lot to with transition reveals. Room transitions usually present an opportunity for a memorable moment… and for discovery.

Additionally, single-room games are often a sign of a cheap company cramming a game into the smallest space possible.

I’d guess, however, that this bias is correlation and not causation. As escape room companies have built more sophisticated escape rooms, they’ve also shifted toward multi-room design. Many of the best escape games we’ve played have been multi-room games, but they weren’t necessarily the best because they were multi-room games.

We’re indifferent to room count because we’ve seen some amazing tiny games and some horrible massive games. What matters most is how a designer uses the space they have.

[7] We love logic puzzles?!

When asked how important different puzzle types are, logic puzzles out ranked all the other puzzles types listed by a pretty wide margin.

I love logic puzzles! In my experience, however, more teammates shy away from these than embrace them. (More logic puzzles for me!) While my experience is anecdotal, this makes me wonder whether all of the respondents were operating with the same definition of “logic puzzle.”

As I think about a more broad definition of “logic” puzzle, however, I see an opportunity for escape rooms to stretch how we make connections and to reimagine logic for physical environments. This is an opportunity I’m really excited about.

Data

Read the full data summary here.

And check out the nifty interactive dashboard that our friend Randy Hum of Escape Rumors created with the survey data.

I Lock You – Meurtre à Hollywood [Review]

Murder in Hollywood (available in English)

Location:  Nice, France

Date Played: October 1, 2018

Team size: 2-6; we recommend 3-4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: 90-144 € per team depending on team size

Ticketing: Private

REA Reaction

From the premise to the gameplay of the second half, Meurtre à Hollywood was an unusual escape game. Our goal wasn’t to escape, stop a calamity, or find some special item. We needed to figure out how to arrange the set for filming a television show.

With this unusual setup, I Lock You’s second game started out as a traditional escape room and transitioned into something different. I Lock You used these differences to craft an interesting environment and unique puzzles to match it.

In-game: The chalk outline of a body at movie set of a crime scene around a poker table.

While the puzzle flow and set design quality varied heavily throughout Meurtre à Hollywood, the overall experience was memorable and worthy.

If you’re in Nice and looking to explore an escape room that does something a bit different with the medium, I strongly recommend Meurtre à Hollywood.

Who is this for?

  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Puzzle quantity, quality, and intrigue
  • Amusingly dramatic finale

Story

Our Hollywood careers were taking off; we landed roles on a popular crime drama staring Scarlett J. Unfortunately the crew that was supposed to arrange the set had been fired. If Scarlett were to show up at filming time and find the set in disarray, she would surely quit the show. We had to save our acting career and the production by reasoning out how to assemble the set before its star entered.

In-game: the desk and mirror in a movie star's dressing room.

Setting

Meurtre à Hollywood spanned two spaces: Scarlett’s dressing room and the crime scene set that we had to make right.

The dressing room was simple and plain, but had the right props to indicate its purpose. 

The crime scene was vibrant, with lively lighting. This segment of the game was unusual and interesting. 

In-game: A well lit movie set of a crime scene around a poker table.

Gameplay

I Lock You’s Meurtre à Hollywood was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

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

Analysis

➕ Meurtre à Hollywood delivered unique gameplay; the concept behind the second half was new to us.

➕ We especially liked the tangible interactions that facilitated deeply layered solves.

➖ The set and prop aesthetics varied a lot. While some elements had charm and quality, the gamespace mostly looked homemade and messy. Additionally, I Lock You included a lot of clue structure on laminated paper.

➕ Some of Meurtre à Hollywood’s best puzzle moments shed new light on the movie set and altered our perspectives.

➕/➖ I Lock You went 1 for 2 on transitions. In one instance, they surprised us with an unexpected open. In another, we wanted to move forward, but the cluing was tenuous for a puzzle that seemed a lame choice of gating.

➖ The puzzle flow was rough. It was easy to derive solutions without a place to input them or a clear way to keep them organized for later use.

➕ I Lock You’s destructible worked well. Their cluing on this was smart. 

➕ The final scene was dramatic and entertaining.

Tips For Visiting

  • This game is available in English.

Book your hour with I Lock You’s Meurtre à Hollywood, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: I Lock You provided media discounted tickets for this game.

Iris Game – L’affaire de la Malle Sanglante [Review]

The Case of the Bloody Trunk (available in English)

Location:  Monaco

Date Played: October 5, 2018

Team size: 2-6; we recommend 3-4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: 28-35 € per person depending on team size

Ticketing: Private

REA Reaction

We had a day in the south of France without any plans. When we saw that Monaco’s first escape room company had just opened… we felt compelled to play a room in our 12th country.

L’affaire de la Malle Sanglante was a small search-and-puzzle escape room created with a lot of heart.

At its best, Iris Game created tangible interactions that affected the gamespace. The set was decorated with high-resolution, large-format decals. It wasn’t the most immersive set we’ve seen, but Iris Game did a lot with a little.

We spent a large portion of L’affaire de la Malle Sanglante searching; it was a too much scavenging for our taste. 

If you find yourself in the Principality of Monaco and feel the need to play an escape room, Iris Game is the place to do it.

In-game: A bicycle locked up in an alleyway behind a gate.

Who is this for?

  • Searchers
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • A glimpse of local history
  • Charming staging
  • Interesting interactions

Story

Based on a true story: It was 1907 and a Mr. Goold was arrested with a bloody trunk filled with most of the remains of his neighbor Mrs. Lévin. Goold admitted to the murder, but our instincts as investigators told us that he wasn’t telling the full story.

We went to search his neighborhood for evidence and hunt down Mrs. Lévin’s missing body parts.

In-game: A weathered, white door addressed number 8 with a large mailbox hanging beside it.

Setting

L’affaire de la Malle Sanglante was set on the street in front of the crime scene at night. The dimly lit set was decorated with plants, detailed decals, and other items that one would find outside of peoples’ homes.

It was a small game, which wasn’t surprising; Monaco is a fun-sized country and property comes at a premium.

In-game: A hefty wooden door addressed number 10.

Gameplay

Iris Game’s L’affaire de la Malle Sanglante was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching and puzzling.

In-game: Closeup of the number 8 letterbox.

Analysis

➕ Iris Game based L’affaire de la Malle Sanglante in local history. We had traveled to Monaco for the day and as tourists, we especially enjoyed the escape game’s local flavor.

➕ The tourist in David was also excited to encounter a lock we’d never seen before.

➖ Much of the story unfolded in written materials. We would have liked to have felt the story through the gameplay instead.

➕ Iris Game built a lot into a small gamespace. They staged L’affaire de la Malle Sanglante in an alleyway, which gave them the ability to make it appear like there was more to the space then there actually was. It worked well.

➕ Iris Game used detailed, textured wallpaper to make the space feel bigger and more interactive than it was. This was one of the best uses of wallpaper that we’ve encountered.

➖ We recognized puzzle types quickly, as quite a few puzzles within L’affaire de la Malle Sanglante shared similar design. Puzzle diversity would improve this game. 

➖ L’affaire de la Malle Sanglante required too much searching.

➕/➖ Some of the searching was well clued through solving puzzles. These were satisfying solves. Other times we only knew we were missing a necessary component; we had to search the entire space without any direction. Hints for search fails proved unhelpful, giving us information we already knew or only vague direction as to where to search. This created frustrating moments that slowed our momentum. In one instance we spent close to 15 minutes and 2 hints searching for one item. 

➖ Given that this escape room relied heavily on searching and reading, the dim lighting was especially annoying. I ended up setting up a work station on the floor, in the place with the most light, which led us to continually trip over puzzle elements for the full hour. A spotlit workspace would have been a big improvement.

L’affaire de la Malle Sanglante included interesting interactions. We especially appreciated how these interactions connected within the space.

Tips For Visiting

  • Iris Game is located around the corner from the Starbucks. If you pass Starbucks, don’t start going up and down public elevators. You’re already on the correct level.

Book your hour with Iris Game’s L’affaire de la Malle Sanglante, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Iris Game comped our tickets for this game.