The Gate Escape – The Observatory [Review]

A revolution & revelation

Location: Leominster, Massachusetts

Date Played: December 17, 2018

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

Duration: 90 minutes

Price: $33 per player

Ticketing: Public

REA Reaction

Don’t let the description of The Observatory fool you. This wasn’t just another room escape. This was something special.

The Gate Escape designed The Observatory for experienced players; it presented a stiff but fair challenge. They managed to nail this rare combination while putting a unique spin on their game.

This game made us feel so smiley.

If you find yourself in Boston, and you love escape rooms, it’s worth the hour drive to The Gate Escape. The Observatory is a must-play.

If you’re a newbie, we suggest starting with The Gate Escape’s other delightful games before you attempt The Observatory. This is a special game, and you’ll want to level up your skills so that you can truly appreciate it.

In-game: the wood walls of an observatory with orange galaxy paintings on the wall.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Best for players with at least some experience

Why play?

  • Ridiculous design choice… that works so well
  • Strong puzzles
  • High value (90 minutes for your $33!)

Story

The Observatory was a sequel to The Gate Escape’s first game, The Assistant.

While at a conference, Dr. E R Bridge had called upon us, his trusty assistants, to enter his lab and retrieve his hidden research notes. He needed us to get them to him before he made a fool of himself on stage before his peers in the scientific community.

In-game: a desk with assorted items and a strange wire running from it.

Setting

Nothing was as it seemed.

We entered a seemingly mundane office-like environment. The space was sparsely decorated with graffitied notes and equations left behind by Dr. E R Bridge.

This was one of those rare times where I want to tell you what’s special about the set of a game. I want to paint a picture that sells you on it… but you’re going to have to take me at my word that it’s special. Once you see it, you’ll understand why spoiling it would be tragic.

In-game: a star chart with unusual mathematical notation on it.

Gameplay

The Gate Escape’s The Observatory was a standard escape room with a high level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around observing and puzzling.

In-game: The number "2 5 8" mounted to the floor.

Analysis

➕ With The Observatory, The Gate Escape introduced a unique twist on the escape game format. When it dawned on us what was happening, we turned giddy.

➕ As we played The Observatory, we built mastery over the game flow. This escape room taught us how to play it without ever feeling heavyhanded. We were enthralled as we discovered how this game wanted to be played.

➕ At first glance, The Observatory felt overwhelming. As we became comfortable with the puzzle design, however, we recognized instead a creative thematic aesthetic choice.

❓ If you aren’t comfortable puzzling, this will be an especially challenging game.

➕/ ➖ The Observatory looked handcrafted. There was a charm in this aesthetic that worked with the setting and story. We could tell how much love went into this build. That said, we expect some players will find handwriting variation challenging, or simply less appealing. There was opportunity for aesthetic refinement.

The puzzles flowed beautifully from one to the next. They were largely tangible, satisfying solves. For the most part, we had to work process puzzles through to completion before seeing the solution, but these didn’t feel tedious. They felt like continual discovery. There was never a boring moment.

➖ One pivotal moment could have used additional cluing to refocus the players on… well, it’s an observatory.

➕ There was an incredible late-game teamwork-driven sequence.

➖ We didn’t feel particularly invested in the characters. There was a villain in this story, but that plot point was completely lost amongst the rest of the experience. The Gate Escape could also add character building to the protagonist to more fully connect the story and the puzzling.

➕ The Gate Escape brought us down from the climactic sequence with a humorous little puzzle that brought the escape room full circle.

➖ Although this escape room was fantastic, its marketing was not enticing. The Gate Escape’s website and game description simply don’t do it justice. If one were to casually look at The Gate Escape’s website, it would be easy to write this off as “just another escape room” and it isn’t.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.
  • Take the elevator up and walk down the long hallway to The Gate Escape.
  • 435 Bar & Grille is conveniently located in the same building.

Book your session with The Gate Escape’s The Observatory, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: The Gate Escape’s comped our tickets for this game.

Boda Borg Boston Revisited – Potions

After two and a half years we finally returned to Boda Borg Boston… and there were some new games.

What’s The Same?

For the most part, Boda Borg was as we’d left it and discussed in great detail in our previous review.

It was still:

  • an automated physical challenge/ puzzle facility (now with 17 games instead of 16)
  • rough on the knees (kneepads recommended)
  • worth spending at least half a day exploring

Boda Borg's logo beside some of the militaristic props from their game Platoon.

What’s Different?

Some of the games had changed:

  • Infrared had dropped from the Boda Borg spectrum, replaced by the affirmational and strangely puzzley Awesome. We won this one quickly and seemed to have surprised the staff by doing so. It was a weird, low-budget game that we got a kick out of.
  • Rock & Roll had died, replaced by the communicative Shapes. We loved Shapes even when we encountered what we’re confident was a technical glitch.
  • Step Up had stepped down, replaced by ball-based Boll Koll. This was a fantastic addition to the Boda Borg lineup. This teamwork/ physical challenge/ puzzle mashup had a phenomenal ending.
  • Potions was entirely new. It’s the main topic of today’s discussion.

Boda Borg is a Strange Beast

I love and hate Boda Borg; I mostly mean this as a compliment.

The hybrid of challenging gameplay, automation, and some basic flaws in the human brain makes Boda Borg both brilliant and messy.

Players learn how to puzzle through each game with trial and error. Failure isn’t just inevitable; it’s how you learn to play in a Boda Borg game.

This gameplay is overseen by automated systems. The systems work really well, most of the time. Occasionally, some of them seem janky. We’ve lost for seemingly no reason in rooms that we knew how to solve. Sometimes this was just a fluke; sometimes it shattered our trust in a game. There is a real opportunity, and need, for Boda Borg to clean this problem up as it can break otherwise fantastic experiences.

This leads to what I call Boda Borg superstitions: situations where we more or less know how to solve a room, but because we don’t quite have it all figured out, we try not to change anything from what had worked before, resulting in us adding an extra step or constraint that has nothing to do with the proper solution to the room.

This play structure is complicated by the occasional unexpected and barely-clued psychotic spike in difficulty.

Boda Borg offers some beastly challenges that would be a nightmare in an escape room because of time constraint and limited freedom. In an escape room, you cannot abandon a puzzle that you aren’t enjoying or cannot solve. In Boda Borg, you can. That’s why this is more than acceptable; it flat out works.

Boda Borg isn’t meant to be fully won. It can be done, but the photos of teams that have successfully completed all available challenges are shockingly few.

Potions

Potions is one of the new games, and one of the most – if not the most – aesthetically pleasing installments in Boda Borg Boston (rivaled only by Alcatraz).

In-game: Boda Borg's Potions, interior. A Harry Potter-esque wizard's lab.
Photo by Ronald Batista

Set

Potions was a Potter-esque wizard’s laboratory where each phase took us on a journey to best a dragon. The set had that earthy, medieval vibe that immediately conveyed fantasy.

Room 1

The first room was a purely cerebral puzzle. It was smart, challenging, and fairly well clued.

When we knew what we were doing, it was possible to complete this first room incredibly quickly.

Room 2

The second phase of Potions was a mostly self-evident dexterity puzzle. We got to a place where we worked through this challenge with military precision.

There was one massive oversight in this room. The conclusion seemed like it had originally been designed as a far more complex puzzle and Boda Borg had smartly simplified it after play testing. Unfortunately, the remaining infrastructure for the more complicated version was still there and its presence was confusing as hell…

which brings me to room 3.

Room 3

The third room turned everything that we thought we had learned on its end and presented what I think is the most difficult twist that I’ve ever seen in a puzzle game. It was a total brain melter. (It was also unnecessarily and obnoxiously complicated by that left over puzzle infrastructure from the end of room 2.)

We killed ourselves to figure out the first trick to room 3… but we did it, in part thanks to short lines at Potions and in part thanks to helpful hinting by the friendly staff.

We kind of figured out the second half, but ultimately couldn’t sort it out. We ran out of time and patience before we could complete Potions.

Trial & Error Learning

I don’t think players will trial and error their way through the third room without some form of redirection.

Boda Borg has conditioned players how to think and learn from these games. Potions offered a genius twist on the parameters of gameplay. It expanded what Boda Borg gameplay can be. It was brilliant.

It also wasn’t clued. The solve was clued. The twist was not. Not even a little bit. We didn’t have a fighting chance. We also weren’t going to get lucky. Boda Borg superstition couldn’t help us here.

Wrap Up

Potions was a fantastic case study in how Boda Borg is interesting, infuriating, and wonderful; it vacillated among all three.

Boda Borg is pushing the envelope. Potions is pushing that even more. We hope Boda Borg can refine the clue structure just a bit more. We didn’t want to walk away from this one.

The root of what makes Boda Borg special is the freedom to explore, the expectation of constant failure, and the openness of the facility.

If we stopped deriving pleasure from a game, there were always 16 others for us to attempt.

Room Escapers – Organized Chaos [Review]

Accurately named.

Location: Boston, MA

Date Played: July 14, 2018

Team size: up to 12; we recommend 4-6 (more for a different experience)

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $30 per ticket

Ticketing: Public

REA Reaction

Organized Chaos was all about collecting evidence of crimes. There was a silly number of crimes to solve and a massive heap of evidence to collect in our attempt to collate the evils of an organized crime family… and doing so was chaotic.

While Room Escapers introduced innovative gameplay and some fun moments, the entire experience felt uneven. The quality of the puzzles, cluing, story, and set were all over the map. Some of it was great. Some of it fell short of what we know Room Escapers is capable of producing.

Organized Chaos is worth playing if you’re looking to keep a large group occupied or are interested in exploring an innovative approach to escape room design… even if some of it doesn’t quite gel.

In-game: the inside of a Boston bar covered in Massachusetts license plates, Red Sox banner, and a Budweiser advertisement.

Who is this for?

  • Searchers
  • Armchair detectives
  • Any experience level
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • A massive amount of content
  • Deliberate chaos
  • A couple of memorable moments
  • A few strong puzzles

Story

It was the 1990s and organized crime was running rampant through Boston. Our agency had finally caught a break in our investigation and we had a brief span of time to investigate Spanky’s Pub, a notorious front business. Our goal: find evidence to close as many unsolved cases as we could before we were stopped by the mobster’s lawyers and their rolls of red tape.

In-game: The exterior for Spanky's Pub with a gated window, and no parking signs.

Setting

The starting area of Organized Chaos was split in two. Spanky’s Pub, a Boston bar complete with a beautiful old beer tap and New England sports insignias took up about two thirds of the gamespace. The remaining third of the gamespace was dedicated to evidence collection with a whiteboard-painted wall, evidence bins, case files, and a listing of missing evidence for each case.

In-game: a large game corner covered in white board paint, case files, and goals for each case.

The level of set detail fluctuated depending upon where we looked. Some portions were on point; others were a bit on the bare side.

Gameplay

Room Escapers’ Organized Chaos was an atypical escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

The goal was to find the evidence needed to close as many cases as possible. There wasn’t a traditional win/ lose scenario. We were given a score based on our case close rate. Closing a case required the recovery of three pieces of evidence per case.

Core gameplay revolved around searching, puzzling, and remaining organized.

In-game: close up of a beautiful old beer tap.

Analysis

+ Room Escapers’ new School Street location had a spacious, comfortable lobby where they opened up the experience.

+ Our objectives were crystal clear and much of what we needed to accomplish was accessible to even the greenest of escape room players.

In-game: criminal case files in the Room Escapers lobby.

– While waiting for our game to start, we were presented with a selection of case files that would be relevant to the gameplay. While more competitive players might want to familiarize themselves with the material ahead of time, many teams will likely find these files dense, overwhelming, and filled with red herrings. We liked the concept, but as it was set up, the pre-game felt like homework and didn’t build up energy for the main event.

+/- There wasn’t any reason to read the case files; we could solve almost all of the crimes with just the evidence checklists. On the one hand, this made the gameplay itself less tedious than if we had had to read the case files. On the other hand, we were sitting on books of needless red herring detail.

– One puzzle couldn’t be solved without either a thorough case file reading or specific outside knowledge. This opened us up to a entire file of red herrings. It also deviated from the pattern learned throughout gameplay that we didn’t need to read the case files.

+ There was a lot to tackle in Organized Chaos. Players were never lacking things to do.

– We didn’t get a sense of the characters or the crimes from the focused search for evidence. Even after solving all the cases, we left with no emotional investment in any of characters or the crimes.

+ Room Escapers provided a dedicated evidence organizing workspace. We especially enjoyed the whiteboard wall.

? Successful teams will likely designate an “evidence cataloguer” to manage the chaos. This person likely won’t experience the rest of the gameplay. Depending on your group, this could be the perfect role for someone… or no one.

+ Room Escapers built a number of fun puzzle interactions and releases into thematic set pieces.

– The point system felt anticlimactic and tacked on because we were only truly introduced to it after the clock had stopped. As a result, the concluding moments of the game felt muddy.

Organized Chaos was aptly named. It could keep a large group busy. It was utter chaos managing all that we needed to do. Organizing it was the goal.

Tips for Visiting

  • Organized Chaos is at Room Escapers’ School Street location.
  • It is easily accessible by subway. Get off at Park Street or Government Center.
  • If you’re driving, the Pi Alley Parking Garage is right nearby.

Book your hour with Room Escapers’ Organized Chaos, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Room Escapers comped our tickets for this game.

Complexity – The Mall [Review]

The Complex City Mall

Location: Farmington, CT

Date Played: June 29, 2018

Team size: 4-8; we recommend 4-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $25 per ticket on weekdays, $30 per ticket on evenings and weekends

Ticketing: Private

REA Reaction

The Mall represented a big step forward for Complexity in a number of categories: puzzle complexity, set design, technology, and humor.

While a few of the puzzles could have benefited from a touch more clarity, and there’s room for additional growth in set design, The Mall was challenging, entertaining, and worthy of a visit if you’re in the area.

In-game: The Pizzeria Pie mall Italian restaurant.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Players with at least some experience

Why play?

  • Punny mall store names
  • A humorous and light-hearted justification
  • Some really good puzzles
  • Interesting opportunities for teamwork

Story

Wow… I’m unreliable. After a day of shopping at the mall, we were getting ready to leave when I realized that I had lost my wallet and car keys! According to Google Maps, we had one hour before we had to hit the road to make our dinner reservations at our favorite restaurant.

The stakes had never been higher.

In-game: Sign for "Yellow House Orange Market."

Setting

Complexity created a scaled-down approximation of a mall. Each nook, corner, and room in the space represented another store. Each store was given a punny or joke name referencing common mall-based businesses.

In-game: Sign for "Things Forgotten Art Gallery."

Gameplay

Complexity’s The Mall was a standard escape room with a higher level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching, observing, and puzzling.

Analysis

+ The set was almost like a cartoon. We never felt like we were in a mall, but we always knew exactly what they were striving for. It was charming and engaging.

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

+ Complexity justified our presence in The Mall and our goal to escape with a delightfully humorous backstory.

– While the premise justified the experience, it didn’t justify the puzzles. The justification devolved into a puzzle room pretty quickly.

+ The puzzles were challenging and engaging.

– The Mall had a rough difficulty curve. Some of the earlier puzzles seemed particularly challenging and the balance of effort-to-reward felt a bit off.

– We missed a few tech-driven opens. Added springs and directional audio or light cues would help turn reveals into events, reducing confusion and adding drama.

+ Complexity’s Apple Store was as white as it was enjoyable.

+ Multiple puzzles required teamwork and communication.

The Mall was entertaining. Every time we opened a new space, we delighted in the witty reveal.

Tips for Visiting

  • There is a parking lot out front.
  • We recommend Cugino’s for Italian cuisine nearby.

Book your hour with Complexity’s The Mall, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Complexity comped our tickets for this game.

Boxaroo – Conundrum Museum [Review]

The best security in escape rooms!

Location: Boston, MA

Date Played: July 1, 2018

Team size: 4-10; we recommend 4-8

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $29 per ticket

Ticketing: Public

REA Reaction

Boxaroo is back in business after a long hiatus. Conundrum Museum was a puzzle-driven escape room that one of our teammates described over drinks as, “the most challenging escape room that I’ve ever played.” This was a difficult escape room in an elegant, but not particularly exciting, environment.

If you’re in escape rooms for the puzzles, Conundrum Museum is top-notch and worth playing if you’re anywhere nearby.

In-game: An art gallery with three framed Jackson Pollak-like non-objective paintings behind a red velvet rope.

Who is this for?

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

Why play?

  • Good opening
  • Challenging and interesting puzzles
  • A great late-game reveal sequence

Story

We were framed! We had been visiting a renowned art museum when a number of pieces went missing. Thankfully the police response time left us an opportunity to unravel the mystery before we could be arrested.

In-game: an art gallery with a very large wooden crate in the middle.

Setting

Conundrum Museum was an art gallery escape room with the white walls and assortment of art displays-turned-puzzles that we’ve come to expect of the genre.

The aesthetic twist: Boxaroo added a massive and intriguing crate in the middle of the room, along with a number of hidden interactions and technology.

In-game: closeup of two crates, one labeled, "Universal Shipping and Crating," the other, "Handle with care."

Gameplay

Boxaroo’s Conundrum Museum was a standard escape room with a high level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching and puzzling.

Analysis

Conundrum Museum had a strong opening sequence that established the story.

+ One set piece grabbed our attention from the early moments. Late game, it delivered on built up intrigue.

– Conundrum Museum started off slowly. Although the majority of the gameplay was nonlinear, there was only one starting puzzle. It would be easy to flail around for a while before figuring out how to start in on anything.

+ Boxaroo designed a variety of puzzles, many of which required or benefitted from teamwork. This dynamic was the heart of Conundrum Museum.

+ At its best, Conundrum Museum brought about fantastic aha moments where it felt like the lights suddenly turned on and everything suddenly made sense.

– One puzzle felt a bit too dense. We took multiple hints on this puzzle, each hint confusing us more.

+ While Conundrum Museum included a lot of locks, it was generally clear where to input any derived code.

+ Our team enjoyed – and I loved – the inventive meta puzzle. It has forever secured a place in my heart.

? While not a problem for us, one significant sequence of Conundrum Museum required above-average command of English. There was a mechanism by which people could learn the necessary words… but if one were resorting to it, then they probably wouldn’t enjoy it all that much.

– Conundrum Museum was emotionally level. The grand reveals and more intriguing moments struggled to get our hearts pumping because we were still in a white-walled, calm, environment.

+ Our gamemaster was a character in our story. Even when we experienced some technical difficulties at the start of our game, our gamemaster remained in character and improvised. Boxaroo handled the technical troubles as gracefully as possible.

Conundrum Museum was puzzle-driven adventure. It was not epic or overly dramatic, but it was a cerebrally satisfying team experience.

Tips for Visiting

  • Boxaroo is easily accessible by subway. Get off at Park Street or Government Center.
  • If you’re driving, the Pi Alley Parking Garage is right nearby.
  • At least 1 teammate needs to be able to crawl a short distance.

Book your hour with Boxaroo’s Conundrum Museum, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Boxaroo provided media discounted tickets for this game.