Brain Code – Funeral of Aristocrat [Review]

Polish title: Pogrzeb Arystokraty

Location: Wroclaw, Poland

Date played: October 26, 2017

Team size: 2-5; we recommend 3-5

Duration: 90 minutes

Price: 160 złoty per group (approximately $45)

Funeral of Aristocrat is only available in Polish. Critical puzzles required fluent Polish.

Story & setting

Funeral of Aristocrat was the middle segment of an escape room trilogy. We were at a funeral… and beyond that I’m not really sure what was happening. Part of this may have been because I only experienced the middle chapter. A lot of it was because I don’t understand Polish. It didn’t matter; Funeral of Aristocrat was fun.

A ceiling of cotton clouds with old lanterns hanging from it. The clouds are illuminated like lightning.
Brain Code’s lobby.

Funeral of Aristocrat’s took place in an elegant, wood-adorned funeral parlor. This was a beautiful place to puzzle.

Puzzles

Funeral of Aristocrat was a truly challenging and enjoyable puzzle game with a broad range of puzzle-types. This escape room hosted the semi-final of the 2017 Polish Escape Room Championship and it was appropriately difficult.

There were a few puzzles that required speed or dexterity. These could potentially stop a team from advancing, so come prepared to work through them.

Standouts

The set looked great.

Funeral of Aristocrat used technology to present challenging, interesting, and unusual puzzles.

There was a sequence of puzzles in the second half of the escape room that I absolutely loved. The interactions felt so satisfying.

There was a fantastic and somewhat crazy late-game moment.

Shortcomings

Prior to the game beginning, one player volunteered for a mystery mission. That player really needed to listen carefully to instructions. If they don’t, they could hurt themselves doing something that is really cool… and you likely won’t see in the United States.

One of the tech puzzles that appeared early in the escape room seemed out of place in the environment.

There were one or two brutally challenging process puzzles that hints could not really assist with. You simply have to do them. I can imagine teams burning a significant amount of time on both. Luckily they were presented at the same time.

We didn’t know when the game had ended. We had won, but we didn’t realize it. This wasn’t just me. My teammates who spoke Polish were equally unaware.

Should I play Brain Code’s Funeral of Aristocrat?

Funeral of Aristocrat was a fantastic escape room filled with challenging puzzles and elegant set design. The physical interactions were the highlight. One such interaction would be unlikely in an escape room North America.

I highly recommend visiting Brain Code and playing Funeral of Aristocrat if you have some experience playing escape rooms. It’s smart, different, and refreshing. Iyou have limited escape room experience, however, I recommend that you play something easier and more typical.

If you’re a tourist, know that you must have a player who reads Polish fluently. There were puzzles that were written in the Polish equivalent of Old English. You won’t be able to interpret them with only minimal grasp of Polish.

Book your game with Brain Code’s Funeral of Aristocrat, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

 

Escape Game Enterprises – The Enigma Files [Review]

Puzzlegram shark.

Location: at home

Date played: October 8, 2017

Team size: 1-4; we recommend 1-3

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: £19 (+£2.50 Shipping) UK, €22 (+€4 Shipping) Europe, $25 (+$10 Shipping) Worldwide

Story & setup

When a great white shark washed up on the shore of South West England, investigators found several documents inside its stomach. We were called in to help investigate.

In-game: An assortment of photos, maps, and articles from Escape Game Products.

The Enigma Files was a play-at-home tabletop puzzle game. Escape Game Enterprises mailed us a collection of paper puzzles. This was about as straightforward as tabletop escape games get.

Puzzles

The Enigma Files contained paper puzzles. We determined which pieces connected to others in order to begin solving the puzzles. These puzzles all had at least two layers to them.

While paper-based, it played in the style of an escape room.

Standouts

There was minimal setup and it was easy to get rolling. The puzzle structure was straightforward. It soon became clear how these pieces would ultimately fit together, which gave us a finite goal.

The Enigma Files had a clear objective. It was also immediately apparent when we’d solved the game.

Although entirely paper based, the puzzle components interacted in fun ways and solved cleanly. We enjoyed the more involved puzzles.

The puzzles felt well tested.

Shortcomings

The Enigma Files was well made, but homemade. It didn’t have the polish of many of the other play-at-home games.

Some of the elements in the box seemed unnecessary. If they were puzzle pieces, we didn’t need them. If they were story elements, we didn’t get that from them.

The solution didn’t mean anything. It didn’t have any bearing on the brief staging. We were left wondering why that was the solution… and for that matter, why the setup mattered at all.

Should I play Escape Game Enterprises’ The Enigma Files?

The Enigma Files was an escape room-style puzzle game to play at home. While the setup and solution weren’t meaningful, the puzzling was clear and satisfying.

Note that you can request hints for The Enigma Files over email. We did not try the hint system and can’t speak to its speed or efficacy. Honestly, this was a mistake on our part.

The Enigma Files was entirely paper-based. It was well made, but not as polished as many other escape room-style play-at-home games.

If you’re just getting into these types of games, there are more exciting ones on the market for less money (consider that this one is shipping from the UK).

If you enjoy this type of hour-long, at-home puzzle game and you’re looking for another one to sink your teeth into, The Enigma Files would be a good choice. You’ll likely enjoy the gameplay.

Buy your copy of Escape Game Enterprises’ The Enigma Files, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Thank you to Amanda Harris and Drew Nelson for sharing their copy with us.

 

THE BASEMENT – The Elevator Shaft [Review]

Crushing upgrades.

Location: Sylmar, CA

Date played: December 1, 2017

Team size: 2-6; we recommend 3

Duration: 45 minutes

Price: $34 per ticket weekdays, $38 per ticket weekends

Story & setting

The Elevator Shaft was a new Chapter 2 in THE BASEMENT trilogy. This new game completely replaced The Boiler Room.

Following the events of Chapter 1, The Elevator Shaft, like The Boiler Room operated under the pretense that your team failed the first game. You were gassed and your unconscious body was delivered to Edward Tandy’s one of a kind body disposing, Death Star trash compactor elevator shaft.

Tandy did not know, however, that the engineer that he had enslaved to build the elevator had also hidden an override sequence. Could we uncover it and save ourselves?

In-game: The hyper detailed wall of an elevator shaft with a large steel elevator car above.

In keeping with what we’ve come to expect from THE BASEMENT, The Elevator Shaft had a dark, detailed, and badass set. Moreover, The Elevator Shaft environment felt alive. The set was always doing something different… whether you wanted it to or not.

Puzzles

The Elevator Shaft was a horror adventure where the interactions were born of the environment and necessity. It also had the most refined puzzle game of THE BASEMENT trilogy.

Close up of the wall, "Are you listening?" is painted in blood.

Standouts

The Elevator Shaft had an incredible set. It was detailed and believable, but it wasn’t busy. It worked.

THE BASEMENT created phenomenal and ever-changing practical effects for The Elevator Shaft. These kept us on edge for the entire experience.

The combination of set and effects delivered a true adventure game. It was exhilarating. There were incredible badass moments… both solo and team.

THE BASEMENT installed a couple of serious puzzles within this adventure. These layered, team-effort solves were fair and satisfying.

In-game: A closeup of a large old lever padlock against a gross and worn wall.

Shortcomings

THE BASEMENT sells 6 tickets to The Elevator Shaft, but it’s a 3-player escape room, 4 tops… unless you have teammates who primarily want to watch. Even with 3 players (which I think is ideal), at certain times The Elevator Shaft bottlenecked when only a single player could truly advance the game. THE BASEMENT should make this a flat-rate, privately booked experience.

While most of the set and props were high quality, one prop looked so fake and party-store-esque that I was shocked to see it in a game from THE BASEMENT. The good news… this could be effortlessly replaced with something more appropriate.

THE BASEMENT fully commits to using electricity as an interaction in their games. I’ve written about this in past reviews and I’m not going to rehash my feelings on electricity once again. The Elevator Shaft had something that made a lot more sense than previous electric interactions. It was perfectly safe in this escape room, but had it been “real life,” under the circumstances we were in, this would have likely killed everyone in the room. Given that THE BASEMENT’s product is effectively horror realism, this turned me off.

It sounded like The Elevator Shaft had a dramatic conclusion around a fail state. The win-state conclusion that we saw, however, was anticlimactic, especially considering the thrill of the whole experience up until that point.

Should I play THE BASEMENT’s The Elevator Shaft?

I was sad when I heard that THE BASEMENT was closing The Boiler Room, as it was hands down my favorite game that the notorious horror escape room company had to offer. I am thrilled to report that The Elevator Shaft isn’t just a worthy successor; it’s a vastly superior one.

The Elevator Shaft was intense and smart. It contained a ton of cool moments. If you win, you’ll feel like a hero. I suspect that if you lose, you’ll really feel like a victim.

If you played and enjoyed The Boiler Room, you should revisit The Elevator Shaft. While you will instantly recognize a few key features, the gameplay, set, and overall experience is improved in all but one way: capacity.

The Boiler Room capped out at 4 players. While The Elevator Shaft has a much larger physical footprint, that physical capacity does not come with enough interactions to keep half a dozen engaged players active for most of the time. With only 3 players, we still had people standing around waiting for substantial periods of time.

If you like horror and are seeking set-born interactions, then you’re in for a treat with The Elevator Shaft. Bring the smallest team you can. Buy out the game if that’s a financially viable option or book at odd hours / last minute in the hopes that no one else will crash your game.

Note that you should wear clothes and shoes that you don’t care that much about to The Elevator Shaft. This goes for all THE BASEMENT’S escape rooms, but especially this one. Your stuff likely won’t be ruined if you don’t heed this warning, but there is some risk.

If you want nothing to do with horror, this clearly won’t be your escape room.

If you’ve never played an escape room, The Elevator Shaft will likely deliver a spanking to you and your team; this was a hard game. It’s winnable, but challenging. You should probably level up your skill before attempting it, or go in looking for a messed up adventure that you won’t “survive.”

Book your hour with THE BASEMENT’s The Elevator Shaft, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: THE BASEMENT provided media discounted tickets for this game.

AdventurEscape – Raiders of the Lost Room [Review]

Damn treasure hunters!

Location: Windsor Locks, CT

Date played: November 12, 2017

Team size: 2-15; we recommend 5-8

Duration: 60 minutes (can be extended for small groups)

Price: $29 per ticket

Story & setting.

We embarked on a treasure hunt for pirate gold. We entered a local cabin where we hoped former treasure hunters had left behind enough clues that we would strike it rich.

Raiders of the Lost Room was based on the true story of Pirate David Marteen who, according to legend, buried treasure nearby in East Granby, Connecticut. The folks from AdventurEscape told us that they had been kicked out of the local historical society for asking questions about the legend. (It seems the historical society gets a lot of wannabe treasure hunters.)

In-game: A large escape room space set up as a study.

The large gamespace felt vaguely like a cabin with old eclectic furniture and a fireplace.

Puzzles

Raiders of the Lost Room was an old-school escape room. There was a lot to puzzle throughIn this non-linear room escape, there was a lot available to work through at any given time.

These puzzles involved search, observation, spatial reasoning, riddling, ciphering, and dexterity.

In-game: A large study. There is a sizable metal furnace against the wall.

Standouts

Raiders of the Lost Room was inspired by local Connecticut lore. AdventurEscape built their escape room on top of an existing treasure hunting legend. This was a great idea.

The puzzles in Raiders of the Lost Room would keep a larger team entertained. For the majority of the game, there were plenty of different puzzles to work on, many of which could engage a couple of people working together.

We enjoyed AdventurEscape’s implementations of more common escape room puzzle types. They added intrigue without tedium.

There were some unusual puzzles in here too; they were generally a good time.

We appreciated one late-game puzzle that relied on different skills and contrasted with the earlier puzzling. It was refreshing and exciting.

Shortcomings

While we enjoyed the interaction in this puzzle, it lacked in-game feedback. We continued trying to solve it long after we’d succeeded.

In one instance, Raiders of the Lost Room suffered from a gating problem. One puzzle was open from the first moments of the game and we spent a lot of time approaching it incorrectly before we received enough information to tackle it appropriately.

Raiders of the Lost Room needed polish. AdventurEscape could make interactions more precise, clean up wear, and add more aesthetic flair to the cabin.

Should I play AdventurEscape’s Raiders of the Lost Room?

Raiders of the Lost Room was packed full of fun and challenging puzzles. These were enticing and approachable.

AdventurEscape has continued to iterate and refine Raiders of the Lost Room. While at times this leads to choppiness, it generally means that the clue structure exists if you persist in finding it.

There is a lot of find, as is the nature of most large-team games.

Players of all experience levels can enjoy Raiders of the Lost Room. We recommend that newer players especially bring a larger group and communicate well. For more experienced players who won’t be overwhelmed by the volume of challenges to approach, Raiders of the Lost Room would be a lot to tackle as a small group, but doable.

If you have a large group looking for adventure, we recommend this search for pirate gold.

Book your hour with AdventurEscape’s Raiders of the Lost Room, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

 

Haribo Gold-Bears Mystery Flavors [Review]

These don’t suck.

Manufacturer: Haribou

Team size: A 4-ounce package contains 54 bears. Recommended team size… depends on how much you like gummy bears.

Story & setting

Haribo has 5 mystery flavors in their limited edition Gold-Bears Mystery Flavors package.

We love food and we love mysteries… so for better or worse, we’re doing this.

Haribo mystery flavors packaging. A bear holding a big question mark.

Could we guess the flavors for the following 5 bears: yellow, blue, pink, red, and orange?

With each correct guess, we were entered to win a mystery box of HARIBO® swag and treats. The more correct guesses, the more contest entries. And with stakes like that, who could possibly say no to this challenge?

The packaging and bears looked pretty normal.

Puzzles

The mystery bears looks like regular gummy bears, but in slightly different colors. They had the same feel and consistency. The puzzle was in the flavor.

There was an extra puzzle to tell the difference between the yellow and orange bears.

The 5 colors of gummy bears laid out. The orange and yellow bears are very similar.

Standouts

There are 5 mystery flavors in one package. It’s a fun group solving activity.

If you like gummy bears, you’re going to like these. While these aren’t typical gummy candy flavors, they aren’t the types of flavors that you’d want to keep far from gummy candy.

Once you submit your answers on the Haribo website (given multiple choice options), you’ll receive immediate feedback whether you guessed correctly. This isn’t a brain buster.

The maroon bears were especially enjoyable.

Shortcomings

The yellow bear and the orange bear look remarkably similar, but are distinct flavors. If you don’t set up your tasting session under a light source, you’ll be at risk of mixing up the colors.

I haven’t seen the prize, but it sounds lame in comparison to the prize for the Limited Edition Mystery Oreos contest.

Should I eat Haribo Gold-Bears Mystery Flavors?

David and I aren’t huge gummy bear fans. Our candy of choice is always chocolate. However, friends who like gummy bears think that these are pretty delicious.

Back in 2013, I made a gummy bear birthday cake. I dissolved the gummy bears and turned them into frosting. I added gummy bear flavors into the cake batter. This cake was overwhelmingly one flavor. It was a huge hit with the birthday girl, but to me, it just tasted like artificial lime. This is all to say that more variety is a good thing.

I commend Haribo for making palatable and guessable mystery flavors. We didn’t love them all, but they worked.

It’s pretty fun mystery game for a small group and it provides immediate feedback.

If you’re a gummy bear fan, or you can’t resist a mystery, order yourself a package of Haribo Gold-Bears Mystery Flavors.

(If you purchase via our Amazon links, you will help support Room Escape Artist as we will receive a very small percentage of the sale.)

 

Piwnica Quest – Midnight Killer MK II [Review]

Polish title: Midnight Killer MK II

Location: Wroclaw, Poland

Date played: October 26, 2017

Team size: 2-5; we recommend 3-4

Duration: 77 minutes

Price: 160 złoty per group (approximately $45)

Story & setting

A man who went by the pseudonym Midnight Killer was arrested in 2016, convicted of many murders, and sentenced to 25 years in prison. The man denied involvement in the killings, but all evidence pointed to him. The slayings have started once again, all following the same pattern established in the Midnight Killer murders. Is this a copycat? Did the killer have an accomplice? Or does he have some means of killing from behind bars? We had to investigate.

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

Midnight Killer MK II had a large and intricate set; some of it was pretty intense. At the beginning our gamemaster split the team into captives and rescuers. The opening minutes of the escape room differed dramatically for the players depending upon their roles.

Puzzles

The puzzles within Midnight Killer MK II were rooted in the theme and narrative. Some of these puzzles tied in literally; others were more metaphorical.

Piwnica Quest integrated tangible puzzles into the set.

In-game: A street sign.

Standouts

Throughout Midnight Killer MK II, the themed puzzles represented both abstract and literal ideas.

The set design was carefully, deliberately, and cleanly executed.

Piwnica Quest included phenomenal, original illustrations in this escape room. We greatly appreciated this unnecessary detail.

Piwnica Quest implemented technology well in Midnight Killer MK II. The tech interactions facilitated the puzzles. They had purpose.

I’ll never forget one early moment when I looked upon a portion of the set… It was strange, a little messed up, and surprising.

The ending added a lot of depth to the experience. It was as fun as it was unexpected.

Shortcomings

The split beginning was too uneven. One group had a lot to do; the other could accomplish almost nothing until the group reunited.

Our gamemaster warned us before the game that a puzzle would “require patience.” They really understated how much patience we needed. This interaction took a silly amount of time.

The ending, cool as it was, went on for one too many interactions. Piwnica Quest added one final completely unnecessary step that killed the momentum of an otherwise brilliant and dramatic finish.

Should I play Piwnica Quest’s Midnight Killer MK II?

I loved Midnight Killer MK II. Piwnica Quest built this escape room with love and care.

The puzzles were designed with intention. The set was built well. The technology was interesting. The escape room was creative. But above all, the Midnight Killer MK II was fun.

I strongly recommend that experienced escape room players visit Midnight Killer MK II. If you haven’t played any escape rooms, play a few so that you can visit Piwnica Quest and truly enjoy Midnight Killer MK II. This escape room was fantastic.

Book your game with Piwnica Quest’s Midnight Killer MK II, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Escape Room Center – Blackbeard’s Brig [Review]

Battle the true enemy: scurvy

Location: Bridgewater, NJ

Date played: November 13, 2017

Team size: 3-8; we recommend 2-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $200 per team

Story & setting

We had been taken captive and brought aboard the dread pirate Blackbeard’s ship. It was time to escape.

Escape Room Center’s spacious location inside a strip mall has a corporate and family-friendly aesthetic. Their 6 escape rooms are adjacent to one another, with walls reaching 3/4 of the way to the ceiling. This was a structure that we’ve seen before and hated… However, Escape Room Center makes it work.

Escape Room Center's facility. with 3/4 cubical wall structure.

Blackbeard’s Brig was a pirate ship-inspired, simply constructed and sparsely decorated gamespace. It was light and airy. It represented a pirate ship, but never pretended to be one.

Puzzles

Blackbeard’s Brig included a selection of nautical- and pirate-themed puzzles. They ranged in complexity and tangibility. There was a lot of puzzle variety.

In-game: A skeleton beside a chest leaning against a wall.

Standouts

Blackbeard’s Brig included a few satisfying layered puzzles. These complex interactions were a lot of fun to work through.

The set decor provided a little nudge toward one potentially more challenging solve. It was a subtle touch.

Later in the escape room, a few unexpected props facilitated more interactive puzzling.

Escape Room Center designed some funny puzzle solutions that nodded to our captivity aboard this brig.

The puzzles and props were all thematically connected to the pirate ship setting. Escape Room Center built a particular pirate ship aesthetic for this puzzle game and it worked.

Shortcomings

One early puzzle seemed unnecessary. It was likely meant to be an on-ramp for uninitiated room escapers, but it was uninteresting and entirely grounded in “escape room logic” where an item had meaning that was neither logical nor earned.

The wear on one puzzle added unnecessary confusion for a brief while.

Blackbeard’s Brig was a pirate ship-themed puzzle room. We enjoyed the thematic puzzles, but we never suspended our disbelief. While this was Escape Room Center’s deliberate design decision, Blackbeard’s Brig was still escape room first and pirate ship second.

The walls were far too glossy. Had they been matte finished, they wouldn’t have glistened and seemed so out of place.

Should I play Escape Room Center’s Blackbeard’s Brig?

Escape Room Center is a bright, open, and inviting escape room facility. Blackbeard’s Brig had approachable puzzles and unintimidating surroundings. It belonged here.

Blackbeard’s Brig was primarily about the puzzles. These varied in challenge level, puzzle type, and interactiveness, which made this escape room more interesting than it originally appeared.

At Escape Room Center, we weren’t meant to believe we were on a pirate ship. We were meant to share a collection of seafaring solves and a few chuckles. That’s exactly what we did.

Blackbeard’s Brig would be a great choice for new escape room players, families, and corporate groups. This is a wonderful place to learn the basics of escape room puzzling.

This would also be a fun playthrough for more experienced players who prefer puzzles to set design. It won’t be too challenging, but it will probably surprise you. Escape Room Center certainly surprised us a few times.

Book your hour with Escape Room Center’s Blackbeard’s Brig, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Escape Room Center provided media discounted tickets for this game.

 

The Puzzling World of Winston Breen [Book Review]

If only puzzles became hunts for real treasure.

Author: Eric Berlin

Year: 2007

Page Count: 209

ISBN: 978-0-399-24693-7

Price: ~$8 in paperback

Synopsis

Winston Breen is a teenager who loves puzzles. When he inadvertently gives his sister a birthday gift containing a mysterious puzzle, Winston, his family, and his friends find themselves in the middle of a treasure hunt.

The Puzzling World of Winston Breen is written at a middle school reading level.

The cover art for the first volume of The Puzzling World of Winston Breen.

Puzzles

The Puzzling World of Winston Breen is full of puzzles. These are mostly word, number, or spatial puzzles. They are presented on paper and solvable without any additional tools. (At times, however, a writing implement is helpful.)

Some of the puzzles support the narrative. I could solve them alongside Winston and the other characters or continue reading to learn the solutions.

Other standalone puzzles are peppered throughout the book. I could stop and solve them if I felt inclined.

Standouts

Winston is a likable and relatable character. I was immediately drawn to this puzzle-loving kid. His adventure is fun and entertaining.

The main narrative revolves around solving a puzzle. This puzzle is challenging and engaging. I wanted to solve it almost as much as Winston and the other characters did. In the end, the solution was satisfying.

Berlin interjects standalone puzzles throughout the book. Because they are presented by Winston and the other characters to each other, they feel like they belong. These puzzles are strategically presented at breaks in the action. I never felt that I was creating my own cliff hanger by stopping to solve something,

Shortcomings

Some of the standalone puzzles feel like homework. Winston likes any sort of puzzle. I’m a bit more discerning. Sometimes I could see how to solve a puzzle, but I wasn’t interested in going through the motions.

Should I read The Puzzling World of Winston Breen?

The Puzzling World of Winston Breen is a fun read.

I particularly recommend it for preteens or teenagers who enjoy puzzles. They will enjoy Winston and solving along with him.

The puzzles can be easily enjoyed as a family. As they popped up, I would occasionally offer them to David too. He could engage in the puzzling with me even though he wasn’t reading the story.

If you just want to solve puzzles, this won’t be for you.

If you’re intrigued by puzzles, but you find that a book of them lacks the context and meaning you need to want to solve them, then The Puzzling World of Winston Breen might be just the story you need to get puzzling.

Order your copy of Eric Berlin’s The Puzzling World of Winston Breen from Amazon using this link, and a small percentage of your purchase will go towards supporting Room Escape Artist.

SparkFun – The Prototype HARP [Review]

“This is a strange device.” -Barry2 in The Prototype HARP’s comments

Location: at home on Windows 10, macOS, & Linux

Date played: Fall 2017

Team size: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯; we recommend 1-3

Duration: Solved in 3 sessions that span 1 to 3 hours

Price: $60 + ~$6.50 in additional components

Story & setup

Electronics store SparkFun sent us a mysterious board containing an artificial intelligence and a dark secret.

The Prototype board plugged in and resting on an anti-static bag.

HARP stands for “hardware alternate reality puzzle” and that’s an accurate description of The Prototype. The package we received from SparkFun contained a board, a microSD card, a microSD reader, and a cable. Those were the puzzle components.

Puzzles

The Prototype was a test of electronics skill and puzzling know-how. The game was a strange merger of traditional puzzle hunting and bringing up and debugging a board.

You absolutely must be competent with electronics in order to solve The Prototype. You should be comfortable soldering, working with Arduino (or something similar), and reading chip datasheets.

The Prototype board with all of the other components. They are sitting on top of a cipher wheel.

Standouts

The Prototype was exceptionally strange and we interacted with it unconventionally.

Puzzling generally follows predictable patterns, even when the solutions are hard to derive. Due to this unusual and open-ended medium, this puzzle could ask all sorts of unexpected things of us.

The puzzle accurately replicated the exciting feeling of exploring a prototype piece of hardware with sometimes flaky behavior.

As we progressed through the game, the board had an interesting mechanism for indicating our current stage.

Solving these outlandish puzzles was enormously satisfying. When we took an action, we were confident that it would work, but seeing it work was still surprising.

I wasn’t expecting it, but this thing actually carried us through a narrative… and it was funny.

The ending was enjoyable.

Shortcomings

This was not a game for casual puzzlers. It also required at least one player who is comfortable with electronics. Lisa and I absolutely could not solve this on our own. My dabbler’s level knowledge of electronics was insufficient. Thankfully we recruited an electronics-savvy teammate who had the necessary pieces on hand and knew what things like “SPI” meant.

The puzzle accurately replicated the frustrating feeling of exploring a prototype piece of hardware with sometimes flaky behavior.

If you aren’t equipped for working with electronics, there’s a solid $45+ worth of additional gear you’ll need including (some spoilers can be implied from this):

Minor Spoiler - Equipment List

You’re going to need a soldering iron, solder, assorted resistors, wire, a multimeter, X-Acto knife (or something similar),  an Arduino, and breadboarding kit.

This kit has a low-cost soldering iron, solder, and a few other tools that might be useful.

This kit has an Arduino and all the other pieces you’d need, plus some extras if you want to explore Arduino programming beyond what you’ll need for the HARP.

[collapse]

It is not possible to solve The Prototype in a single sitting. It will require you to purchase something inexpensive along the way. No, I cannot tell you what you will need to buy. Don’t bother writing in and asking.

The Prototype was designed for Windows 10, macOS, and Linux. Older Windows systems (including 7 and 8) do not have the proper drivers to talk to it. While you may be able to make virtualization work, the hardware implications are complex and I wouldn’t bet on it.

While the narrative worked, some of the writing and delivery was hokey.

There was a major red herring that seemed to be due to a puzzle being removed, but the associated clue documents still being included.

There were several points where we knew the correct thing to do but had to attempt it multiple times to get it to work. This was especially frustrating in the final resolution of The Prototype. It took us 50 minutes to trigger the end sequence after we had already solved everything. This was further complicated by the aforementioned red herring that we essentially turned into a puzzle that it wasn’t. It was a rough way to end the journey.

Should I play SparkFun’s The Prototype HARP?

The Prototype HARP is an odd, fun, and difficult beast to conquer. It also has a hyper-specific audience.

Is The Prototype for you? Well that depends on the answers to these questions:

  • Do you like puzzles?
  • Are you competent with electronics and comfortable with things like connecting chips to Arduinos?
  • Do you have a puzzle-loving friend who is competent with electronics?

If you love puzzles, but electronics are completely out of reach, I recommend almost any other product that we’ve ever reviewed ahead of The Prototype. You simply will not be able to participate, let alone solve this thing.

If you answered at least two of these questions affirmatively, then you should buy The Prototype. It’s a wild ride. I hope they make more HARP products.

Buy SparkFun’s The Prototype HARP, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: SparkFun provided a complementary media copy of this game.

13th Gate Escape – Death Row [Review]

Ride the lightning.

Location: Baton Rouge, LA

Date played: October 6, 2017

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

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per ticket

Story & setting

We were scheduled for a seat in the electric chair in one hour. Due to overcrowding in the prison, the warden moved us to the old and previously abandoned Cell Block E. Some say that it was shutdown for safety reasons; others because there was an unexplainable escape. We were hoping for the latter because we had to find a way to break out.

In-game: An incredibly realistic of an old, rundown prison cellblock hallway.
Image via 13th Gate Escape.

Death Row nailed the concrete and steel prison aesthetic in another of 13th Gate’s hyper detailed sets. Death Row looked like someone had turned the set of The Green Mile into an escape room. It felt real.

Puzzles

Death Row combined keen observation with mechanical interactions. We needed to parse out which components of our unadorned gamespace would enable us to work the various machinery we encountered.

Death Row included one difficult strength and dexterity challenge… and it was luck of the draw who’d needed to execute on it.

Standouts

We’ve seen a lot of prisons, but 13th’s Gate’s Death Row overshadowed the others. Its high ceilings and deliberately barren walls rendered the cells dramatically unwelcoming. In its depths, we found heavy metal bars and pipes, which completed the aesthetic.

We used the few tools we had to craft an escape with the objects we found. This felt thematically appropriate. One late-game use of a standard item really drew us in.

The final action was fantastic. 13th Gate combined lighting, sound, and other effects to deliver a dramatic and exciting prison ending, unlike any other we’ve played to date. It was a little unsettling, as it should have been.

Shortcomings

Death Row started with each of us in a different cell. There was only so much we could accomplish before freeing ourselves from the cells. Unfortunately, due to the physical layout of the space, the gameplay came to a halt as we all waited for the player with the appropriate vantage point to complete a challenging action. Our inability to help each other, or do much of anything, was frustrating.

Death Row leaned a bit too heavily on journal reading. The gamespace was exciting and engaging and we would have liked to uncover more from the space itself and less from the written word. The most engaging puzzles were those that were fully integrated into the set.

In one instance the cluing in Death Row led us astray, down a frustrating and time consuming path.

All of 13th Gate Escape’s rooms use Escape Room Boss for automated hints. If you’re curious about the details, feel free to read this post on the subject. Beyond that I’ll say that 13th Gate’s gamemasters were fantastic and I wish that they had more direct control over the experience.

Should I play 13th Gate Escape’s Death Row?

Death Row looked and felt like a prison. Creating hyper-realistic environments in large scale is 13th Gate Escape’s bread and butter. They make it look easy… like they hadn’t so much built the set as found it.

I’ve said many times that prison escape games are not my favorite because they generally look and play the same. Death Row was very much a prison escape game, with a lot of the tropes that come with it, but it also had a look that was undeniably cool, and an ending that was anything but common.

The puzzling in Death Row was a little bumpy, but it all came together.

Regardless of your level of escape room experience, Death Row is playable. Some parts pack a lot of challenge. Just approach it calmly, observe what’s at your disposal, and an answer will present itself.

If you’re into the prison escape game concept, you won’t find many that can rival the stunning visuals and feeling of Death Row.

Book your hour with 13th Gate Escape’s Death Row, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: 13th Gate Escape comped our tickets for this game.