Duck & Cover Classroom demonstrated an alternative model for how to build escape rooms. Nearly every element in the room was recycled or sustainably sourced. Especially for the 1950s classroom theme, this set design aesthetic looked fantastic. And while this game was built a good few years ago, it had visually aged quite well.
At a time when the budgets to build escape rooms continue to rise rapidly and most rooms use new materials and props shipped from far-off places, Escape Artistry has shown that sets can be both lower budget and more environmentally sustainable without necessarily sacrificing on appearance.
The gameplay in Duck & Cover Classroom felt similarly creative and appropriate for the theme, with many puzzles that naturally emerged from the items one would find in a primary school classroom. Most props were decently maintained, with the exception of two interactions that were in need of a significant face lift and required gamemaster assistance to function.
Escape Artistry got their start with The Railcar, and continuing in a recognizably theatric style, Duck & Cover Classroom was an admirable step up in terms of scenery cohesion and streamlined puzzle design. If you are in the Chicago area, Duck & Cover Classroom would make an enjoyable addition to your itinerary.
The Last Defender was a 16-player escape game/ puzzle hunt hybrid set against the backdrop of Cold War nuclear annihilation. It had a delightfully odd and ever-present sense of humor. The puzzles ranged in intensity and intrigue. The world of The Last Defender was whimsically serious. The elegance of the on-boarding and gameflow was on a level that we rarely encounter.
The Last Defender was a hell of a production.
As amazing as its on-boarding was, our biggest gripe with the game was that it served up puzzle hunt-style puzzles, but never really taught the players how extractions worked. We stepped in and helped with that, but a lot of our teammates weren’t getting there by themselves.
Additionally, The Last Defender leaves a few key things to chance. The mix of teammates will make or break the experience. There were far more puzzles to solve than any one player will be able to experience. If you find yourself solving a string of puzzles that don’t speak to you, it probably means that you’re missing out on the ones that would have.
Sadly The Last Defender closed in Denver the night after we played it; its original run in Chicago ended long ago. While at the moment it isn’t playable, should The Last Defender return – and, oh boy, do we hope it returns – this is a must-play for both escape room fans and puzzle hunters.
If given the chance, we would replay The Last Defender without hesitation if only to explore the puzzles that we didn’t get to solve.
Who is this for?
Team players who are comfortable with randoms
Any experience level, but experience really helps
Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle
It was hilarious
The puzzles were challenging and engaged a large group
Really cool 8-bit cabinets
The black rabbits
Great player costuming
An incredible overall experience
It was 1983 and the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in the Cold War. The strategic approach of both sides was nuclear deterrence through a policy of mutually assured destruction (MAD).
As members of The Defenders, our job was to work alongside an artificial intelligence put in charge of America’s nuclear arsenal. We had to ensure that if the Soviets nuked the United States, it would end the world even if no one was around to order the strike.
What could go wrong?
The Last Defender began in a comfortable lobby where we signed in and gathered awaiting the beginning of the game. (Oddly, the lobby had seating for 14, maybe 15 people, but the game played 16.)
At game time, the hosts entered, introduced the rules, and then put on their black rabbit costumes. From that point forward they only communicated in gestures. They ushered us into a locker room.
In the locker room we each received a bright orange flight suit that fit our measurements (which we provided during ticket purchasing). Once we suited up, we entered the game world.
The Last Defender’s game world was a hybrid of 1980s arcade and colorful parody of a Cold War nuclear command center. It had a playful vibe which beautifully juxtaposed against the apocalyptic nature of the story.
As great as the set looked, the 80s video game-inspired sound effects were the detail that truly sold the world to me.
The Last Defender was an immersive puzzle hunt. It was difficult compared with most escape rooms and easy when judged as a puzzle hunt.
Core gameplay revolved around teamwork, communicating, puzzling, and some searching.
➕ The Last Defender was both serious and entertaining. The writers struck a nice balance in tone with the instruction, presentation, and tasks/ puzzles. It was hilarious yet poignant, with mission-focused gameplay.
➕ As players, we were assigned characters and outfitted in jumpsuits with the appropriate insignia. These were cleverly designed with Velcro patches so that costumes could be easily reconfigured for each group. We each had a personalized uniform that fit us well enough. By costuming up, we were stepping into our roles and naturally taking the experience more seriously. Simultaneously, these were ridiculous outfits, which made the experience that much more entertaining.
➕ Our black rabbit gamemasters directed the gameplay brilliantly. They didn’t speak, but their body language was emotive. They gave direction to individuals and to the group, but they never gave us solutions.
➕ The puzzles were seriously challenging. They were largely tangible and relied on different types of thinking and communication. They could also engage multiple people at once. The Last Defender showcased a breadth in puzzle design.
➖ Not all the tasks and puzzles were of equal value. Some were more fun to solve than others.
➖ It would be easy to get stuck grinding on puzzles we didn’t like or weren’t good at. In an escape room this isn’t a big deal. In The Last Defender you could potentially bad luck yourself into a series of bland challenges and miss the great stuff.
➕ There was plenty to do at all times. Every one of the 16 players in our group was engaged almost the entire time. The Last Defender would certainly be replayable, as there were so many things going on at all times.
➖ When our group played well, the end bottlenecked. When there were only a few puzzles left to solve to save the world, not all 16 people could be actively involved in them.
➕ The set, tech, and sound effects were fantastic. There was a whimsy to The Last Defender that cut its seriousness. Also, the arcade cabinets were too cool.
➕ The Last Defender had smooth on-boarding that set up the group for success. Our early tasks introduced us to the space and to the necessity of communication. Things that seemed utterly useless at the time proved critical later on.
➕ The pathing worked well. As a group, we progressed from structured to unstructured activity without missing a beat. The gameplay built us into a team remarkably quickly.
➖ While The Last Defender taught much of the gameplay through play, it didn’t teach the puzzle hunt concept of “extraction.” It was crucial that players solve a puzzle all the way through to the extraction, which was a novel and challenging concept for newer puzzlers.
❓ Individual experiences at The Last Defender will vary. Not all puzzles were equally as interesting. Not all teammates were equally as fun or as competent as others. Some of your experience is the luck of the draw – what role you and others are assigned to. Some of your experience is what you make of it, or where you find yourself needed.
Tips For Visiting
The Last Defender is no longer running in Denver.
If The Last Defender comes to your city, book your hour and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.
Disclosure: The Last Defender comped our tickets for this game.
Disclosure: Our trip to Denver was sponsored by the Denver escape room community. Contributions were anonymous.
“You get a clock! And you get a clock! EVERYBODY GETS A CLOCK!”
Location: Oak Park, IL (metro Chicago)
Date played: August 11, 2016
Team size: up to 10; we recommend 4-6
Duration: 60 minutes
Price: $32 per ticket
Story & setting
We fell through a grandfather clock and became stuck in the trap of a crazy clockmaker… or something like that. There were a ton of clocks.
The story didn’t make a lot of sense, but it didn’t take itself too seriously, so it worked well enough as the setup for a room escape.
There were clocks everywhere. All shapes, sizes, and types of clocks. In fact, the game consisted entirely of clocks, except for the furniture and various containment objects.
Escape Factor turned an escape room cliche into the entire game, which made it not feel cliche in the slightest.
Not surprisingly, The Timekeeper’s Trap relied heavily on clock-based puzzles.
Base 60 calculations can prove surprisingly challenging, especially to those of us who aren’t of the math-y persuasion.
This was a puzzle-heavy game.
Escape Factor managed to fill the game entirely with clocks and avoid the standard cliche clock puzzle: “The clock is stopped on 9:15. Try ‘915’ on all of the three digit locks.”
They created impressive variety with the clock concept. This game was a lesson in creativity: The Timekeeper’s Trap was designed around something we see constantly and repetitively, but Escape Factor pulled new puzzle experiences out of it.
The volume of clock math became tedious.
The room had plenty of clocks, but the scenery was weak. In fact, it was a bit of a clusterfuck to look at and sift through. There was a lot of stuff in this game… and the reset for our gamemasters seemed pretty hellish.
Should I play Escape Factor’s The Timekeeper’s Trap?
This room escape consisted of solid nuts and bolts. It was puzzle-focused and challenging.
In their first game, Escape Factor zeroed in on a concept that lent itself to puzzles. They worked it creatively into a complete, thematic game that sidestepped cliche clock usage. It’s rare to see a company keep to a theme and vision as closely as they did, especially on their first attempt.
The Timekeeper’s Trap wasn’t outstanding, but it was successful. We anticipate good things in their future.
This would be a challenging game for new players, but a good introduction to escape rooms. More experienced players will have fun tackling this theme. Bring a few people who love math.
We were investigating embezzlement in the office of a poacher. The Office was loosely safari-themed, but only as a backdrop. The setting didn’t matter. It was an embezzlement investigation in an office that looked like an office.
The puzzles were standard introductory escape room puzzle types. The Office relied on searching and locks. The puzzles drew on a variety of skill sets, but weren’t particularly challenging.
The Office was centered around an incredible wooden desk. (It just so happens that David’s great aunt owned an identical one, so he knew its dark secrets.) Challenge Accepted built puzzles into this beautiful set piece. One particular mechanical puzzle was especially fun.
Our gamemaster gave a thorough and hilarious introduction. It was very well done. The folks who run this place are some of the sweetest owners we’ve met.
The ending of this game was adorable and we celebrated the win in front of their elaborate photo booth.
The Office was an unremarkable game. There wasn’t any excitement in playing it.
It was a basic puzzle game in an uninteresting setting. There wasn’t any scenery and the back story didn’t contribute to the experience. The back story was unique, but it barely factored in. This felt like a missed opportunity.
Should I play Challenge Accepted’s The Office?
This was a basic game from a company that was targeting a non-escape-room-educated mall audience.
If you’re a new player and you’re in the mall, this would be a great choice of activity. It won’t offer much to experienced players.
I’d love to see Challenge Accepted push their ideas farther. There was a brilliant mechanical puzzle in this game. There was unique story setup. However, they need more of these crafty puzzles and they need to work their themes into the game at every opportunity.
This shouldn’t have been a mundane office. It should have been the workspace of eccentric international criminals. Challenge Accepted, please accept our challenge of injecting more drama into your games.
Full disclosure: Challenge Accepted provided media discounted tickets for this game.
Price: $99 for 2-3 players, $132 for 4 players, $165 for 5 players
Story & setting
This escape room took place in a standard prison setting. It was as gray, sparse, and unwelcoming as one would expect.
Some benefactor started a riot in another cell block to provide us time and opportunity for a daring escape.
The puzzles in The Prison were generally standard room escape interactions.
The early puzzles were stronger and relied on manipulating the environment of the prison.
Later in the game, the quality fell when unexciting interactions that were detached from the environment became the norm.
The game started with the team split between two prison cells. This forced teamwork and communication.
The first half of this game included some nifty interactions.
I adore the name Fox in a Box. It’s memorable and clever.
The Prison was brutally uneven. At one juncture in the game, half of our divided team had far more game play opportunity than the other. There was no game mechanism to ensure that both groups would continually participate throughout that portion of the experience.
At one point we stopped making progress and received a series of truly useless hints that actually led us further from the solution. Thus we spent a large portion of our game doing nothing. The fact that our gamemaster couldn’t read how miserable we were from our not-at-all concealed body language was a massive miss.
The second half of the game wasn’t up to the standard set by the first half.
Additionally, this game didn’t live up to Fox in a Box’s own standard. We had played Zombie Lab and Cold War Bunkerat this company’s Los Angeles location, under the less creative name Room Escape Los Angeles. Those two games set higher expectations.
Should I play Fox in a Box’s The Prison?
The standard room escape puzzles weren’t particularly challenging or exciting, but the early game utilized the stark environment in some fun ways.
For players to truly enjoy this game, Fox in a Box needs to dramatically improve their gamemastering: the gamemaster should work to maximize the team’s fun. In our experience, the gamemastering was at best incompetent and at worst antagonistic.
If you visit The Prison, we recommend a team size of four, since you will be split into two groups, in an uneven setting that puts pressure on any player working alone. Choose a team of players who will ensure that everyone has a good time.
That said, regardless of your skill level, we recommend Cold War Bunker and Zombie Lab over The Prison.