15 Locks – Dead Man’s Cove [Review]

Worth the doubloons.

Location:  Austin, Texas

Date Played: February 1, 2019

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

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $33 per player

Ticketing: Private

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

Dead Man’s Cove combined puzzles and adventure into an epic sea voyage. Through the decor, sound, and effects 15 Locks delivered incredible and memorable gameplay moments.

In-game:A jolly roger flag hanging on the wall of a pirate ship.
Image via 15 Locks

While we struggled with the dim lighting, we enjoyed the puzzles. This little ship was jam-packed with them.

Dead Man’s Cove was a highly creative take on the traditional escape room. 15 Locks added tons of details and transformed a game that could have felt like a basic escape room into something magical.

If you’re anywhere near Austin and you’re looking for an escape room adventure, regardless of experience level, you’ll find a lot to enjoy aboard this vessel.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle pirates
  • Scenery snobs
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Exciting moments
  • Detailed set
  • Excellent puzzles
  • The hint system

Story

Our ship was trapped somewhere between the land of the living and the land of the dead. We had to battle mystical evils and navigate ourselves out of troubled waters.

In-game: A locked door and a powder keg inside of a pirate ship.
Image via 15 Locks

Setting

15 Locks staged Dead Man’s Cove inside of a cursed pirate ship. The setting was appropriately dim. It used a variety of effects to convey the various ghosts from the ship’s past that we needed to appease or defeat.

In-game: The captain's desk and a locked chest aboard a pirate ship.
Image via 15 Locks

Gameplay

15 Locks’ Dead Man’s Cove was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

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

In-game: The inside of a pirate ship There are ropes and chains running from the ceiling and walls, and number painted into a beam.
Image via 15 Locks

Analysis

➕ 15 Locks’ introduction worked really well… and revealed a charming and fun hint system. We enjoyed taking hints.

➕ Dead Man’s Cove looked exceptional. The wood paneling combined with heavy wood furniture, lantern lighting, choice of locks, and nautical props transported us to these troubled waters.

➖ The gamespace was unbalanced. Since so much of it was beautifully crafted into a specific aesthetic, a latter set felt under-designed in comparison. There was opportunity to do more with this part of the gamespace.

Dead Man’s Cove wasn’t a large space, but it packed a lot of gameplay.

➕ The puzzles flowed smoothly and solved cleanly.

In-game: A table with a map on it inside of a lantern-lit pirate ship.
Image via 15 Locks

➖ The dim lighting was frustrating. Especially given the reliance on combination locks and short passages written in a small font, we struggled with lack of light. A few spotlights on one or two work surfaces would have made a world of difference.

➕ 15 Locks used light and sound to surprise us. Dead Man’s Cove continually delivered exciting, interactive moments. We enjoyed experiencing these as a group.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.

Book your hour with 15 Locks’ Dead Man’s Cove, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: 15 Locks comped our tickets for this game.

15 Locks – Call of the Ancient [Review]

The Call of Cthulhu

Location:  Austin, Texas

Date Played: February 1, 2019

Team size: 2-6; we recommend 4-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $33 per player

Ticketing: Private

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

Call of the Ancient, a game rooted in the lore of H.P. Lovecraft and centered around the rise of the elder god Cthulhu, was an especially challenging escape room with an optional roleplay element and a “sanity” game mechanic.

If a player lost all of their sanity points, then there were unknown consequences. And we lost sanity… frequently. This completely shifted how we played the game. This was approximately our 690th escape game… so it’s saying a lot that Call of the Ancient made us immediately shift our approach to gameplay.

In-game: a cryptex an unrolled scroll, a locked box and an idol.
Image via 15 Locks

Looking back, I found myself wishing that one or two puzzles were a little clearer, and that the sanity system was more refined. I wanted to feel more consequence.

In true Lovecraft fashion, Call of the Ancient was difficult, with some deliberately frustrating puzzles. This was brilliantly in-narrative and I enjoyed it quite a lot.

This was a really interesting game for Lovecraft fans and puzzle nerds. It was challenging and steeped in its source material. If that sounds like you, then this is a must-play. If you don’t fall into one of those categories, this game might drive you to madness. 15 Locks really went crazy on this one.

Who is this for?

  • The Lovecraft-familiar
  • Adventure seekers
  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Players with at least some experience
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle
  • People looking for something challenging and different

Why play?

  • Unusual gameplay that forced us to change the entire way we approach playing escape rooms
  • Optional roleplaying opportunity
  • Challenging puzzles
  • Connection to the source material

Story

A secret society had summoned a great evil. They had arrogantly believed that they could control it and harness its power for their own gain… but they were wrong.

We had to investigate the ritual that they had conducted and determine how to contain the menace that they had released.

In-game: A bookcase filled with old books and trinkets.
Image via 15 Locks

Setting

Call of the Ancient was set in a study-like room with a decidedly creepy Lovecraftian feel.

15 Locks included a beautiful animated painting and an animated portrait. The former served as an elaborate game clock, the latter as the hint system. These embellishments added a ton of atmosphere.

In-game: A faux rotary phone on a desk in an old study.
Image via 15 Locks

Gameplay

15 Locks’ Call of the Ancient was an unusual escape room with a high level of difficulty.

Call of The Ancient introduced character cards, special abilities unique to each character, and “sanity points.” If a player lost all of their sanity, then they triggered a new, adverse effect within the game. The fear of losing sanity was real. It quickly shifted how we approached playing.

Core gameplay revolved around searching, puzzling, unraveling complex problems, and making connections.

In-game: an old study with a bookcase, phonograph, and a mesmerizing clock.
Image via 15 Locks

Analysis

➕ The animated clock and hint system were fantastic.

➕/➖ The puzzles in Call of the Ancient were intense and in a few instances, a bit maddening. They felt at home in a Lovecraft game, which was amazing. For those who didn’t like or appreciate this stylistic choice, however, it was a bit maddening.

➕ There were some really unusual interactions that completely belonged within this strange, chaotic world.

➖ We were pretty sure that one puzzle had an incorrect solution.

➕ The sanity system was really cool. All sorts of normal escape room actions could result in a loss of sanity. This quickly changed the way that we approached puzzling, which was so damn amazing.

➖ The sanity system functioned on the honor system. If a player didn’t want to go insane, they could simply pretend that they hadn’t triggered a sanity loss. On the one hand, this meant that an individual player could have whatever experience they desired. On the other hand, it meant that a big portion of the game could be essentially ignored, and one player’s decision did impact everyone else’s experience. It was also possible for players to honorably follow their own interpretation of portions of the sanity game. The mechanics weren’t entirely clear.

➖ Partway through the game, I decided to try to go insane while following the rules. There were too many powers at play, however, that allowed my teammates to “save” me. I wish that I could have fairly triggered insanity; it would have been a jolly good time… for me.

➕/➖ The character cards were an interesting addition. The characters’ powers injected another dynamic to the game. Unfortunately, nearly all of the powers were focused on preserving sanity points. This turned the entire power section of the game into a sanity preservation side-game.

➖ There was variation in LED color in the final puzzle, which lead to a fair amount of unnecessary confusion.

➖ We didn’t have enough light. This was maddening… and maybe rightly so… but we much preferred that feeling to come for the game itself.

➕ 15 Locks used space in crazy ways.

➖ The initial spatial reveal was clunky. We loved the concept, but the execution needed more work.

➕ The environment looked and felt designed. 15 Locks chose appropriate locks, which added a lot to the aesthetic.

Call of the Ancient rewarded familiarity with Cthulhu and Lovecraft in a profound way. If those names mean nothing to you before you enter this game, you’re missing out on a significant chunk of the experience.

➕ The conclusion was brilliant and perfectly fit the narrative.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.
  • This is a challenging game. Bring a team that is ready for it.
  • At least one person will have to crawl.

Book your hour with 15 Locks’ Call of the Ancient, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: 15 Locks comped our tickets for this game.

15 Locks – Escape the Manor [Review]

Haunting darkness.

Location: Austin, TX

Date played: January 8, 2017

Team size: 2-8; we recommend 3-4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $25 per ticket

Story & setting

Elrich, a polite and friendly ghost, had been cursed and trapped in his manor. We had to work our way through the darkness, armed with just a few flashlights, to free him from his imprisonment.

Set in a Victorian-esque office, Escape the Manor’s defining characteristic was darkness. It was mildly creepy, but not frightening or threatening. With 6 players, we found fewer light sources than we had teammates.

In-game: A dimly lit room with a large victorian desk.
Objects in image are better lit than in-game.

Puzzles

The greatest challenge we faced was lighting, particularly scavenging without it. The puzzling felt more like a secondary obstacle. That said, most of the puzzles were fun to work through… once we found them.

A fair amount of Escape the Manor was technology-driven, which is 15 Locks’ focus. Those interactions were the most satisfying parts of the game.

Standouts

The opening moments of the game were innovative.

The atmosphere worked well and accomplished its mission.

The tech was satisfying.

An in-character hinting system added ambiance and fun to the Escape the Manor.

Shortcomings

Lighting was a problem. Having to find our light sources, and then not having enough throughout the game, brought down the energy of the entire team. Players with lights felt like they were robbing others of a good time. Players without lights struggled to feel useful. In the end, it led to a lot of light exchanging which prevented anyone from achieving a solid flow state.

One particularly misleading puzzle looked like a logic puzzle, but was not. It seemed like a great opportunity to offer two different paths to a solution.

Should I play 15 Locks’ Escape the Manor?

Escape the Manor nailed so much. The setup and opening of the game, in particular, were exceptional.

The trouble with Escape the Manor was that it became pretty player-unfriendly at times, especially with 6 people in the room. I cannot even imagine how frustrated we would have been at the game’s ticket capacity of 8.

Escape the Manor was at its best when it leaned on technology-driven puzzling and the atmosphere created by the set. I think it would have been incredible if the lighting challenges were greatly reduced and another serious puzzle or two were introduced.

In its current state, I recommend it to beginners and experienced players alike… so long as the team is small. There’s a smart game in Escape the Manor, but it cannot adequately support a large group.

Book your hour with 15 Locks’ Escape the Manor, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: 15 Locks comped our tickets for this game.

15 Locks – Lab Rats [Review]

“Gee Brain, what do you want to do tonight?”

Location: Austin, TX

Date played: January 8, 2017

Team size: 8-18; we recommend 7-11

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $25 per ticket

The 2017 Golden Lock-In award, the REA logo turned into an open padlock with a golden ring around it.
2017 Golden Lock-In Award winner

Story & setting

We were the subjects of a psychological study; solving puzzles would lead to our escape. While the final challenge alluded to rats trapped in a maze, there wasn’t any pretense of story. The excitement was in solving unusual challenges to earn our freedom.

In-game: The Yellow Room features a variety of interactions colored yellow. A blue locked box is mounted to the wall in the foreground. The Red Room is through a glowing doorway in the background.

Composed of three rooms, each in a different primary color, Lab Rats used big color blocks and toy-like interactions to create a children’s tube and ball pit aesthetic (without the tubes or the ball pit). These rooms were laid out such that players in any given room could interact with players in any other room. Most of the puzzles were constructed around the perimeter of a room, or at a station in the center, leaving plenty of space for maneuvering.

Lab Rats unfolded in three rounds of puzzling. While we remained divided throughout the hour, we weren’t necessarily trapped with the same few individuals or puzzles. 15 Locks included a mechanism for the transfer of players between rooms upon the completion of each stage (should they choose to transfer).

Puzzles

The puzzles in Lab Rats were largely themeless. They were simply fun challenges to conquer. This was a puzzler’s escape room.

Much of the puzzling was hands-on, constructed into the rooms. In this way, many of the challenges involved spatial reasoning. However, that was by no means the only type of puzzling available.

In-game: The Blue Room features a variety of interactions. Through a barred window, the Red Room is visible.

Lab Rats forced collaboration and teamwork both within and between the rooms. In fact, some of the puzzles were rendered difficult mostly by the need to properly communicate.

Many of the puzzles, as well as the game mechanics, were tech-driven. There was no shortage of ways to interact with this room escape.

Standouts

We loved the concept for Lab Rats: a puzzle-focused, collaborative experience for a large group in an abstract environment.

15 Locks steered into their color-block aesthetic. While Lab Rats didn’t look like something specific, or transport us to a fictional world, it did immerse us in a world unlike our own.

The combination of the almost child-like set design, continual puzzling, and collaboration across environmental barriers created this frenetic energy that lasted throughout the experience. We were excited and amped up.

In-game: The Red Room features a variety of interactions pained shades of red.

Lab Rats relied on technology-driven puzzles and game mechanics. We were “locked” in our rooms by an invisible barrier that sounded an alarm should anything pass through it incorrectly. Players could check in and out of the various rooms at specific times using an RFID bracelet. The game knew how many players were in each gamespace.

With players separated and so much action taking place all at once, our gamemaster had plenty to do. 15 Locks designed both audio and visual feeds, such that we could communicate with her from any of the three rooms and understand when she was preoccupied with our teammates. Gamemastering Lab Rats was a tall order, but the communication and hint system worked well.

Given the three-room structure, if a player chose to spend their entire game in only one room, they could pretty much replay Lab Rats 3 times and only have to hold back on a few puzzles.

Shortcomings

We didn’t fully understand the game mechanics at the onset of the game. This was particularly true of the room transfer check in/out mechanic.

The game was structured in 3 phases, but we didn’t realize this at first. Each room had to complete phase 1 before the game would move to phase 2. However, we couldn’t always understand when we had completed everything available to us at a given time, and kept checking back in with the gamemaster for clarification. There was a light system meant to alleviate this confusion, but since colored lights could mean multiple things, we weren’t all able to follow these indicators.

The three-phase structure provided order to what might otherwise have been chaotic puzzling and player transfer. However, when one room struggled and fell behind during a phase, the rest of us could only look on from behind a barrier as our teammates flailed. This occasionally became frustrating.

Similarly, the final challenge was exciting for those involved, but wasn’t inclusive enough for a game of this size that had generally succeeded at keeping everyone thoroughly involved throughout.

The technology seemed occasionally buggy. In one instance a broken light made a puzzle vastly more difficult than it ever should have been.

Regular alarm buzzing became irritating.

Additional thoughts about perception of color

In designing these large, color-blocked rooms, 15 Locks used shades of color – light blue, medium blue, and dark blue, for example – to keep it from feeling flat. While this worked well aesthetically, in a few instances, this actually confused our team.

A few of our teammates couldn’t understand what pink meant. We owe our confusion about pink to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which holds that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ perception of the world. Because we say “pink” rather than “light red” we perceive pink and red to have a different relationship than that of light blue and dark blue, even though both pink and light blue are composed of a primary color plus white. Our knowledge of the word “pink” caused us to continually ask “what does pink mean?!” 15 Locks isn’t to blame for the English language, but they might want to head off this confusion in their introduction to the use of color.

Additionally, the choice of lighting made orange particularly hard to differentiate from certain shades or red, yellow, and pink.

While the primary colors signaled the rooms, the use of purple, orange, and green signaled interaction between the rooms. This was clever, but sometimes confusing. It wasn’t necessarily clear whether a secondary color meant that we would be receiving or giving information. This became part of the puzzling.

In some tech-driven puzzles, a green light could indicate “correct” but players wondered whether that indicated a forthcoming inter-room interaction instead.

Lab Rats relied on our perceptions of colors for everything from aesthetic, to puzzle design, to game mechanics. In some ways, perception of color was an additional layer to puzzle through. It certainly made us think, long after we’d escaped the room.

Should I play 15 Locks’ Lab Rats?

You need at least 7 puzzle-lovers to play Lab Rats. Because of the game’s reliance on communication and collaboration across barriers, ideally, in order to succeed, you should collect a team of puzzle-lovers that are collaborative and cooperative.

That said, we haven’t seen many games that can entertain and excite a large team as well as Lab Rats did. Whether or not you escape, you will enjoy the fun set, tech-driven game design, and intense puzzling.

This would be an incredibly challenging game for newer players. We recommend that at least the majority of the team be versed in escape room puzzling so that they can help with the communication that is vital to a team’s success.

Note that given Lab Rats’ reliance on color for communication and collaboration, this game would be particularly challenging for colorblind individuals.

I’ve expounded upon many concepts in the shortcomings above, much of that is because Lab Rats explored so much exciting and new territory. While it wasn’t perfect and at times felt a little like a highly functional prototype, it managed to deliver an incredibly fun experience for all 10 of our teammates, new and more experienced alike. It was truly a joy to escape this room.

Book your hour with 15 Locks’ Lab Rats, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: 15 Locks provided media discounted tickets for this game.