Palace Games – Escape The Palace [Review]

Puzzle Palace

Location:  San Francisco, CA

Date Played: June 2, 2019

Team size: groups of 30 to 125 players with 4-7 players per group; we recommend 4-5 per group

Duration: up to 2 hours

Price: contact Palace Games for pricing

Ticketing:  Private

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock Exit

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

We’d really wanted to play Escape The Palace, Palace Games’ large format escape room/ puzzle hunt hybrid, for some time. Since they don’t typically open tickets to small groups, we assembled a large group by bringing our escape room tour to Palace Games.

Not only did Escape The Palace live up to the hype; as a puzzler, it exceeded it in quite a few ways.

Exterior of the gorgeous Palace of Fine Arts.

Palace Games struck a balance between challenge and fair that we rarely encounter. While Escape The Palace was noticeably more difficult than most escape rooms, it never strayed deep into frustration territory. Some of that was the high quality gamemastering, but most of it was the satisfying way in which the puzzles came together. The puzzle play also felt heavily escape room-inspired, which we enjoyed.

It wasn’t perfect. It fell short of conveying narrative (although the main character was utterly delightful), and the imposing Palace of Fine Arts building didn’t feel that essential to the game.

Wide shot of all of the players gathered.

If you’re looking for a large-group intellectual challenge in San Francisco, this is a fantastic option. This made the very short list of games designed for corporate groups that are legitimately fun in their own right, and not simply “good enough for mandatory fun.”

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Players with at least some experience

Why play?

  • Challenging but fair puzzles
  • Hybrid of puzzle-hunt and tangible inputs
  • Fun mechanisms

Story

We were assisting a renowned professor with scientific research in the Palace of Fine Arts when the Professor left, locking us in. We needed to solve our way through his experiments to escape the palace.

The game's main character in a labcoat and goggles.

Setting

Escape the Palace took place in the Palace of Fine Arts from the 1915 World’s Fair. It was a large open space with tables in the middle.

The puzzles were spread out around the room, at tables and on the walls, and in an adjacent room with some nifty props. There were multiple identical stations containing each puzzle so different groups could solve simultaneously.

An "Escape the Palace" Banner hanginging over a stairwell with my team under it.

Gameplay

Palace Games’ Escape the Palace was an escape room-style puzzle hunt for groups of 30 to 125 players.

Playing in teams of 4-7 people, groups moved together from station to station, solving the puzzles and collecting answers that resolved to a final metapuzzle.

Escape the Palace had a high level of difficulty relative to escape rooms, but was easier than a typical puzzle hunt.

Core gameplay revolved around observing, making connections, puzzling, and moving about the large gamespace.

Lisa and Drew surrounded by other players.
Sorry mom. I joined a puzzle gang.

Analysis

Escape the Palace kept a large number of people engaged throughout the game. There was plenty to solve and the puzzles required teamwork, always engaging multiple players at once. There was room to move between the puzzle stations as a group.

➕ The puzzles varied a lot. We relied on different types of thinking to solve different puzzles. What one person struggled with clicked for someone else.

➕ The puzzles solved cleanly… straight through to the metapuzzle. Palace Games gave us enough to chew on, but nothing took too long to work through. Escape the Palace was challenging, but fair. It rewarded us with satisfying solves.

➕ While many of the puzzles were paper-based, Palace Games included more active solves using tangible inputs and a bit of tech. In this way they blended escape room gameplay with a puzzle-hunt framework. We enjoyed interacting with these props as a group, inputting information to solve puzzles.

➖ The space felt underutilized. Although it was neat to be in the Palace of Fine Arts, it felt like these puzzles could have been placed anywhere.

➖ The story and puzzles didn’t feel connected to Palace Games or The Palace of Fine Arts beyond the science-y theming.

➕ The staff for Escape the Palace were phenomenal. They were engaging characters. They floated around providing hints, as needed. This hint system worked well and kept teams from falling too far behind the others.

Tips For Visiting

  • Parking: There is parking at Palace Games.
  • Food: There are lots of good options on Chestnut Street.

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

Disclosure: Palace Games provided media discounted tickets for this game.

Clockwise Escape Room – The Incredible Machine [Review]

Steampunk AI

Location:  San Francisco, CA

Date Played: May 31, 2019

Team size: 4-8; we recommend 3-4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $27-35 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like there’s something inherently charming about steampunk. Clockwise Escape Room built an escape room around a really interesting concept in The Incredible Machine. It was cute, fun, and played well.

In-game: A brain in a with a hat on.

The core idea of the game – which I won’t spoil – was fantastically clever. I found myself wishing, however, that Clockwise Escape Room did just a little more with it. That’s the core criticism of the room. This was a great game that could have pushed its best ideas, its set design, and its puzzles just a little further.

I absolutely recommend The Incredible Machine for all experience levels. I think that Clockwise Escape Room has something great here, but it could be amazing.

Who is this for?

  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Steampunk fans
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • A fantastic concept
  • Some wonderful moments
  • Steampunk goodness

Story

We’d opened our eyes in a strange workshop within a steampunk dimension. With no idea how we’d arrived, we had to find a way back to our reality.

In-game: a mechanical, clockwork eye.

Setting

Clockwise Escape Room’s The Incredible Machine was set within a steampunk workshop and had all of the clockwork gears and mechanical mechanisms that one would expect to find in such a place.

The set was a little uneven, with some incredible setpieces, some blander elements, and one or two elements that were on the bubble as to whether they belonged in the game at all.

In-game: A desk with design schematics covering it.

Gameplay

Clockwise Escape Room’s The Incredible Machine’s was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

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

In-game: A brain in a jar hooked up to a bicycle by a glowing red cable.

Analysis

➕ There was a good physicality to the steampunk props and interactions that Clockwise Escape Rooms worked into this game world to make it come to life.

➖ Although we liked the aesthetic, much of the space felt bare. We wanted Clockwise Escape Rooms to do more of the same with the look and feel of The Incredible Machine.

➕ We had to power up our brains early on to solve this escape room.

➕ We relied on different senses as we puzzled through The Incredible Machine. This worked well in the context of the game.

➕ Clockwise Escape Rooms created a character as part of The Incredible Machine. As we solved, we became more connected to this character.

➖ The Incredible Machine fizzled in the third act. These late-game puzzles were generally weaker and felt largely random. In this act, we lost the feel, story, and character of The Incredible Machine.

➕ / ❓ The Incredible Machine included substantial audio cluing. This was clear and justified by the game design. It worked well and even added to our experience. Our gamemaster mentioned that not all audio clues could be replayed. We didn’t struggle with this, so we don’t know if this could be severely problematic for some teams.

➕ The Incredible Machine had a phenomenal ending. This was teed up early in the game. We were eagerly anticipating the concluding sequence and it lived up to expectations.

Tips For Visiting

  • Parking in San Francisco is limited and expensive. Take the subway to Civic Center or take the surface tram (F line).

Book your hour with Clockwise Escape Room’s The Incredible Machine, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Clockwise Escape Room comped our tickets for this game.

EscapeSF – Escape from Blind Tiger Bar [Review]

Assembling the naughty list.

Location:  San Francisco, California

Date Played: February 21, 2019

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

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: from $89 for teams of 2 to $179 for teams of 6

Ticketing:  Private

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock 

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

Escape from Blind Tiger Bar has been a regional favorite among San Francisco escape room players for a few years and we understand why. It had some really unusual and exciting elements. Had we played this game a couple of years ago, it absolutely would have wowed us… Today, we simply enjoyed it.

EscapeSF’s speakeasy-inspired escape room was solid. While its middle segment could have offered something a bit more interesting, it had an impressive opening scene and some wonderful concluding moments.

All in all, this was a good game as long as you control your expectations. While visiting San Francisco, we strongly recommend that you play EscapeSF’s Space Bus, a fantastic game that shows where this company is headed.

In-game: The Blind Tiger Bar with a beautifuly antique cash register.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Players with at least some experience

Why play?

  • An interesting start
  • An explosive conclusion

Story

It was the height of Prohibition and we wanted to acquire a speakeasy. Instead of funding our own illegal business, we’d decided to sneak into an existing one with the goal of finding the names of its owners and stealing their ledger. After that, the police would take care of the owners and we’d have ourselves a new illicit drinking establishment.

In-game: a worn Colt M1911 pistol.

Setting

Escape from Blind Tiger Bar began with us in an alleyway surrounded by doors for all sorts of businesses. Initially, we had to determine which door hid the speakeasy. From that point, we spent the duration of the game within the illegal bar surrounded by liquor bottles and the various props that one would expect to find in a bar.

This escape game had been around for quite a few years when we played it. It was showing its mileage.

In-game: Liquor bottles on a shelf.

Gameplay

EscapeSF’s Escape from Blind Tiger Bar was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching, observing, and puzzling.

Analysis

➕ We enjoyed the structure of Escape from Blind Tiger Bar. EscapeSF sandwiched standard escape room gameplay between inventive opening and closing sequences.

➕ The themed set was charming. We especially loved one pivotal prop. It was a true antique and a ton of fun to engage with.

➖ Escape from Blind Tiger Bar was an older game and the set and props were a bit worn.

➖ There was a lot to uncover. We found the searching to be varying degrees of boring and fuzzy. These solves generally felt uninteresting and arbitrary.

➕ We enjoyed the more puzzley puzzles.

➖ One puzzle could be solved out of sequence with just a bit of common outside knowledge.

➕ The gameplay had consequences. Our choices through one sequence determined how our experienced resolved.

➖ In the moment, we made a conscious decision, but not a knowing one. It wasn’t clear as we played that there would be consequences.

➕/ ➖ As we played Escape from Blind Tiger Bar, we couldn’t help but feel like there were missed opportunities in this game. We believe this is a matter of timing and perspective. When Escape from Blind Tiger Bar was introduced, it pushed the envelope. Today it isn’t as surprising as it was a few years back. That doesn’t take away from the game EscapeSF built, but it does change the way it feels to a well-traveled escape room player.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a paid parking garage across the street.
  • We enjoyed dim sum at the nearby Great Eastern Restaurant.
  • There were steps down from the lobby to Escape from Blind Tiger Bar.

Book your hour with EscapeSF’s Escape from Blind Tiger Bar, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: EscapeSF provided media discounted tickets for this game.

EscapeSF – Space Bus [Review]

Ride on the Magic School Bus

Location:  San Francisco, California

Date Played: February 21, 2019

Team size: 4-8; we recommend 3-6

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: from $155 per team of 4 players to $275 per team of 8 players

Ticketing: Private

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock 

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

The aptly named Space Bus was exactly as its name implied: a retired school bus transformed into a spaceship… and a beautiful one at that.

In-game: The Space Bus' exterior with the Transamerica Pyramid in the background.

When we heard “converted school bus” we pictured a rundown hacked together mess… not a slick Star Trek-esque setting.

In addition to looking good, Space Bus performed where it counted: strong puzzles.

While there were a few aspects and moments that could have been smoother, EscapeSF’s mobile sci-fi game was a solid escape room through and through.

If you’re in San Francisco, this should be among the escape rooms that you play.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Sci-fi fans
  • Best for any experience level
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • Great puzzles and flow
  • An elegant spaceship set
  • Space Bus can come to you (within reason)

Story

We boarded the Space Bus bound for Space Academy. While in transit with our fellow cadets, the bus was damaged. We needed to figure out how to get everything running properly before the system failure became terminal.

In-game: A wide angle view of the starboard side of the Space Bus.

Setting

Space Bus was set in a converted school bus. From the outside it was incredibly clear that this was a bus, but once inside, we were in a spaceship.

The glowing lights and sleek sci-fi design greatly exceeded anything that I had ever imagined I’d see in a school bus. The only details that gave away the gamespace’s original purpose were some rooftop emergency exits, air conditioners (all painted silver), and the exit door leading to the front of the bus.

In-game: The glowing thermal control system routing console.

Gameplay

Escape SF’s Space Bus was an atypical escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

It was unusual because it was on wheels.

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

In-game: The glowing energy consumption level by sector console.

Analysis

➕ EscapeSF turned a classic yellow school bus into a spaceship. The bus had been through an impressive metamorphosis. It was jarring – in a good way – to see a school bus look so futuristic and beautiful.

In-game: The Space Bus school bus with the Transamerica Pyramid in the background

➕ The physical interactions in Space Bus were immensely satisfying. This spaceship had great button-y buttons.

➕ We enjoyed the structure of “turning puzzles on” and then returning to them when we were ready to solve them.

In-game: The Space Bus Flight Manual

➕ Space Bus was a successful checklist-style escape room. Although we were following set instructions, it wasn’t exactly a runbook. We had to correlate instructions with puzzles, which added a reasoning element, and the gameplay wasn’t strictly linear. Additionally, the checklist made sense in the scenario. We could imagine a larger world where we’d be completing a different set of tasks should our spaceship have encountered a different sort of trauma.

➖ For the most part, the instructions were in small booklets. Although we had multiple copies, one was pretty worn, the text was small, and we couldn’t remove the pages to correlate them with the physical puzzle elements. We were constantly flipping through these books trying to find something we knew we’d seen before, which was frustrating. Even adding section tabs would make a big difference.

➕ The puzzles were intelligent. In some cases, they had multiple possible solutions. EscapeSF had programmed the technology to recognize multiple correct solves, and all correct solutions, even if the solutions were – as happened in once instance – input out of order. EscapeSF also had bypasses ready should anything not function properly. The tech was fun, forgiving, and fair.

➖ Space Bus started strongly, but lacked a finale. The last scene was the weakest in terms of both set design and puzzles.

In-game: The front of the Space Bus filled with post-game signs.

Tips For Visiting

  • Space Bus is mobile. You can play it parked outside of EscapeSF or book it to come to you.
  • You will need to go up a few steps onto the bus.

Book your hour with Escape SF’s Space Bus, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: EscapeSF provided media discounted tickets for this game.

Real Escape Games by SCRAP – Spellbound Supper [Review]

Puzzle pre fixe

Location:  San Francisco, California

Date Played: February 21, 2019

Team size: 3-10; we recommend exactly 5 or exactly 10

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $32 per person weekdays, $33 per person weekends

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock 

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

SCRAP once again created a unique escape game structure clever enough that it could be a genre unto itself.

The entirety of Spellbound Supper happened in our seats around a dinner table.

In-game: Team B surrounding their white table.

SCRAP used a combination of real life objects, projection, and a Microsoft Kinect to allow us to gesture and interact with the projected items. It was “magical” in the Steve Jobs sense of the word.

Spellbound Supper was an amazing concept and a remarkable experience. At the same time, the game felt unfinished. There were many little places where added refinement would have made all the difference.

We would love to see more games in this style. SCRAP could and should push this idea even further. It was mind-opening and entertaining. Throughout the experience, despite the imperfections, I couldn’t help but marvel at how much fun it was.

If you’re in San Francisco, this one is absolutely worth checking out. Much like The Popstar’s Room of Doom it wasn’t perfect, but its cleverness and novelty greatly outweighed its flaws.

Who is this for?

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

Why play?

  • The brilliant use of technology
  • The dramatic yet simple setting
  • Unusual gameplay, challenges, and puzzles

Story

We’d heard legend of a risky dinner served by a powerful witch. Those who had attended, if deemed worthy, had been rewarded with wonderful magical abilities. Everyone else who had dined with the witch had vanished.

In-game: Team A surrounding their white table.

Setting

Spellbound Supper was an escape room played entirely at a dinner table. All of the puzzles and components were either delivered by our server or projected onto the stark white table cloth.

The projected graphics were beautiful.

The room itself was elegant and slightly intimidating, but not in a frightening way. Its minimalist intensity combined with the demeanor of our server to create an imposing vibe.

In-game: A neatly folded green napkin on a white plate and white tablecloth.

Gameplay

Real Escape Games by SCRAP’s Spellbound Supper was an atypical escape room with a high level of difficulty.

The unorthodox environment added challenge. We had to solve different types of puzzles – printed and projected – from our seats at the table.

Core gameplay revolved around observing, making connections, puzzling, and using the magical tools we were provided.

Analysis

➕ The dinner table theme was novel. This was our first puzzle feast.

➕ Although we didn’t move from our seats at the table for the duration of the game, Spellbound Supper kept our attention focused on the meal. SCRAP used projection mapping to reveal the gameplay. It was magical and visually intriguing.

➖ The courses progressed rather nonsensically. There didn’t seem to be any reason – story-driven or puzzle-driven – supporting this progression.

➕/➖ The technology could be finicky. We were torn about it. On the one hand, straight video games do some of this better. On the other hand, it was entertaining to be playing a video game with real props, in real life.

➖ We became impatient with the mechanics. We had to wait for long voiceovers to finish. When we made mistakes – which we did often as we pieced together how to solve puzzles – we had to finish a failed cycle repeatedly, which became tedious and took away from the magic feeling magical. We spent a fair bit of time waiting to get back to puzzle-solving. A reset interaction would have been a big improvement.

➕ Spellbound Supper assigned us roles. These were pretty even. You couldn’t draw the short straw. Additionally, the roles were vital to the experience. (For this reason, we recommend you play with a group of exactly 5 or exactly 10 people.)

➖ There weren’t a whole lot of props and the ones they had felt chintzy. With a few more details, dinner would have been classier, and the game more polished.

➖ There was a lot to read. Seated at a table, we had to pass cards around in low light. We would have preferred this part to be better incorporated into the projection mapping or the physical gameplay.

➖ We played with 2 groups of 5 players each. The two groups played the game simultaneously around separate tables without ever interacting, or even seeing each other. We finished at different times, which lead to confusing, anticlimactic endings. The audio kept playing while we tried to figure out if we’d won it or if there was more.

➕ As is typical of SCRAP games, there were a few twists. These were mostly fair challenges that mostly made sense, well… it was still a difficult SCRAP game with an obligatory logic leap or two.

Spellbound Supper was fun. Even in moments of frustration, I was eager to try again, see the next challenge, and explore the interactions. It was so unlike any other escape room we’ve played and the novelty was part of the fun.

Tips For Visiting

  • The Japantown parking garage is across the street.
  • There are lots of great restaurant options in Japantown.
  • There is no real food served as part of this game.

Book your hour with Real Escape Games by SCRAP’s Spellbound Supper, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Real Escape Games by SCRAP provided media discounted tickets for this game.