Escape the Estate – The Gamble [Review]

Our night was on the house.

Location: Syracuse, NY

Date played: January 20, 2017

Team size: up to 10-12; we recommend 4-6

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $23 per ticket

Story & setting

We arrived at Hotel Whitmore and stepped into the 1920s. Our bellhop led us to the manager’s private gaming parlor where we needed to escape with evidence of the sinister behavior taking place there.

Escape the Estate repurposed a former Petco in the Shoppingtown mall into its Hotel Whitmore attractions. Guests were greeted at reception and escorted back to the gaming parlor or any of the hotel’s other attractions.

The Hotel Whitmore’s gaming parlor brought us back in time with its wall-papered walls, framed artwork, and old furniture. While The Gamble’s staging – including walls reaching almost to the ceiling – did not quite remove us from 2017, the props and puzzles were captivating enough that we could suspend our disbelief for the hour of gameplay.

In-game: A scrabble board sitting on an animal pelt table cloth. A bellhop stands beside the mantle in the background, hands folded in front of him.

Puzzles

The Gamble offered a lot to puzzle through. These included words, numbers, ciphers, and perspectives, among other challenges.

While most puzzles led to a lock, some also included more tech-driven interactions.

Standouts

Our experience in the Hotel Whitemore began even before our time did.

Our bellhop greeted us in character and remained in character throughout our experience. When we rang for their services, the bellhop would appear and deliver appropriate hints without ever intruding on our game. The bellhop character was a wonderful and intriguing part of the The Gamble.

These gangsters had no shortage of secret hiding places. These were surprising and fit in the Prohibition-era setting.

Escape the Estate got their start in haunted houses. While The Gamble wasn’t scary, the designers found ways to lean on their haunt skills to add depth to the room escape without derailing the experience. It worked well.

There were some great puzzles and a memorable moment in two in The Gamble.

Shortcomings

Some of the puzzles overstayed their welcome.

There were too many boxes – even if most were luggage – and it quickly got old to check multiple possible inputs with similar digit structures each time we derived a solution. Furthermore, we would have loved to see more antique keys rather than modern combination locks.

One puzzle seemed riddled with red herrings. We spent a long time working through it, only to have the solution become clear immediately upon a late game reveal.

The ending didn’t live up to the drama of earlier parts of the experience.

Should I play Escape the Estate’s The Gamble?

The Gamble was Escape the Estate’s first room. They played to their strengths in experience design to build the world of The Hotel Whitmore that extended beyond the timer for any one game. The delightful and unobtrusive gamemaster navigated the intersection of theater, immersive experience, and puzzles.

The Gamble was a puzzler’s room escape, but an approachable one. There was a lot to unpack, but it flowed smoothly. Both new players and experienced players should find the puzzling enjoyable.

While much of this room escape was by the books, Escape the Estate brought their own point of view and charm to the overall experience. Check in to Hotel Whitmore and…

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

Full disclosure: Escape the Estate comped our tickets for this game.

The next Room Escape Conference is taking place in Niagara Falls, NY from May 1-3, 2017. The conference organizers sponsored our trip to Buffalo, New York, Niagara Falls, New York, and Niagara Falls, Ontario, to play this game and others in the region. We strive to help conference attendees visit the room escapes that are best for them.

Real Escape Games by SCRAP – Defenders of the Triforce – Los Angeles [Review]

It’s dangerous to go alone…but awfully crowded in groups of six.

Location: Los Angeles, CA*

Date played: February 12, 2017

Team size: 6; we recommend 6

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $30 per ticket early bird, $35 regular price, $40 at the door; might vary by city

Story & setting

The story was reworked from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time: As the titular Defenders of the Triforce, our job was to work as a team to find the legendary Master Sword in order to free Princess Zelda and defeat the evil Ganondorf.

SCRAP Zelda Defenders of the Triforce poster featuring silhouettes of Ganondorf and Link.

The gamespace was a hotel ballroom with a couple dozen tables seating teams of six. Stations around the room represented locations in Hyrule, but most of the gameplay took place at the tables.

The decor was minimal—it felt precisely like being in a hotel ballroom—but staff members were dressed for the occasion and interacted with us in character.

Like SCRAP’s other large-scale events, the game was introduced by an emcee and the story was delivered through an intro video, with the gameplay loosely following the story.

Puzzles

In typical SCRAP mass event fashion, we spent most of the hour at the table solving paper puzzles. These were a bit more inventive than past SCRAP pencil puzzles, but familiar to those of us who had played their games before. Some were moderately challenging, but others would not be out of place in a children’s puzzle book.

The more dynamic moments involved basic items reminiscent of the Zelda series, as well as certain tasks that required us to interact with staff members.

At first glance the puzzle flow appeared linear, but it turned out to be more complex. We were given a way to organize our progress, but we still struggled to keep things straight at times.

Solving the puzzles and reaching the ending demanded close attention to the clues we had available. We never had to guess or make logical leaps.

Standouts

The puzzle flow was elegant. Defenders of the Triforce kept our interest and provided an increasing challenge. The first task was simple enough to be almost like a videogame tutorial, and the hardest tasks were last, which made the ending feel like an accomplishment.

We enjoyed the physicality of wearing Link hats and manipulating various props. The final sequence was fun, especially for Zelda fans. We were all delighted by one particular prop interaction that felt unexpected and exciting even though it was low-tech.

In-game: A ballroom full of seated players all wearing green Link elf hats.

Our success in the game depended on teamwork and attention to detail, rather than an insight that could make or break the ending. This was a welcome departure from past SCRAP games, which have notoriously relied on unintuitive leaps of logic in the final puzzle.

Shortcomings

Having approximately 150 people in the same space was a challenge. It was hard to concentrate in a room full of adventurers; waiting in lines to access certain clues created significant bottlenecks.

Because some elements of the game were accessible out of order, we ended up doubling back and uncovering clues we no longer needed. We also spent several minutes fiddling with a (probably) unintentional red herring that could have been prevented with a small design tweak.

We would have appreciated a hint when we got stuck, but there was no discernible hint system.

Due to the venue and the focus on pencil puzzles, we never truly felt like we were adventuring through Hyrule, despite all the references to the Zelda series.

We didn’t get to keep the hats, which was a letdown for some of us (and also made us wonder if they’d been laundered between games).

Should I play SCRAP’s Defenders of the Triforce?

Defenders of the Triforce was lighthearted and not terribly difficult—unlike most of SCRAP’s large-scale games, the majority of the teams made it all the way to the end.

The more physical elements of the game were especially cool for those of us who were Legend of Zelda fans, but non-fans could enjoy Defenders of the Triforce without a knowledge gap.

Because of the theme and difficulty level, Defenders of the Triforce would be a safe bet for younger players, families, and less experienced puzzlers—with the understanding that this game format is missing the sense of mystery and exploration of a typical escape room.

Defenders of the Triforce is a fun game with lots of references for Zelda fans, but the videogame series has so many story and gameplay elements that could be great fun in an escape room, and this implementation only scratched the surface.

If you’re looking for an immersive adventure or a puzzling challenge, Defenders of the Triforce is probably not going to be your thing, even if you are a Zelda superfan. At its heart, it was a low-tech opportunity to put ourselves in Link’s shoes (…or hat) and be the heroes of a real-life Zelda legend.

If you’re looking for an hour of Zelda-themed fun (and there are still tickets available in your area), Defenders of the Triforce is worth your time.

Book your hour with SCRAP’s Defenders of the Triforce, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

*Defenders of the Triforce is coming to Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Diego, Seattle, San Francisco, Houston, Chicago, New York, Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. The event dates and ticket sale dates vary by city.

Lisa & David will be playing in New York on May 4 at 9PM. Look for them there!

 

15 Locks – Lab Rats [Review]

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

Location: Austin, TX

Date played: January 8, 2017

Team size: 8-18; we recommend 7-11

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $25 per ticket

Story & setting

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

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

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

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

Puzzles

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

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

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

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

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

Standouts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shortcomings

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

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

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

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

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

Regular alarm buzzing became irritating.

Additional thoughts about perception of color

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should I play 15 Locks’ Lab Rats?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Locked-Up Escape Games – Escape The Serial Killer [Review]

Killer game.

Location: Cheektowaga, NY

Date played: January 21, 2017

Team size: 4-10; we recommend 4-7

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $30 per ticket

Story & setting

Captured by a psychopath and locked up, we had to survive his death trap.

Locked-Up is the escape room section of House of Horrors & Haunted Catacombs. They are a haunt company and that background influenced their escape room design. Escape The Serial Killer was intense, disturbing, and dark in tone as well as lighting.

For those who had visited THE BASEMENT in Los Angeles, it was clear that Locked-Up took inspiration from that game for look, tone, and approach. (Note, however, that Escape The Serial Killer did not have any actors in the room.) This was a murder house.

In-game: A man with a bag over his head at a grimy desk.

Puzzles

Escape The Serial Killer worked puzzle content and puzzle flow into the terror-based setting. They pulled off both aspects of the experience.

The puzzling was grounded in the props and set, occasionally dipping into more task-based interactions to keep the game flowing.

Standouts

Escape The Serial Killer’s set was badass. Gritty, grimy, and occasionally grotesque, it was an intense horror experience done right. Locked-Up clearly put substantial time and effort into the design and buildout. Locked-Up minded the details; the escape room environment frequently felt real.

There were a couple of solo moments for the bold. These  varied in intensity. They were certainly cool experiences.

The puzzling and interaction design enforced teamwork and fostered a superb player dynamic.

Shortcomings

Beware of loud moments. Noises over 85 decibels are considered harmful to the human ear. My ears physically hurt at one point, so, whatever the exact volume, it was too loud. Locked-Up should consider adjusting the loud moments so that they are within a safe and comfortable range. The pain took me out of the experience.

Mind the splinters. Because many surfaces needed a good sanding, a few of us left with teeny-tiny bits of the game in our fingers. Additionally, a few surfaces ought to be cleaned. There’s a different between dirty and dirty-looking.

The early game was frustratingly choppy. This was augmented by challenging lighting that didn’t work well with the puzzle design. All of this conspired to slow the beginning of Escape The Serial Killer a little too much. I suspect that this prevents some teams from seeing the room escape’s excellent mid- and late-game moments.

Should I play Locked-Up Escape Games’ Escape The Serial Killer?

Escape The Serial Killer was the closest thing I’ve seen to THE BASEMENTit’s impossible to have played both companies without making comparisons. The set design was on par with THE BASEMENT, while the puzzles and game flow were stronger than what I saw from the famous Los Angeles company. Where Locked-Up fell short was in the fine-tuning. Additionally, two iconic moments from THE BASEMENT’s games show up in lesser implementations than the originals.

Escape The Serial Killer was an awesome game that would hold up in the most competitive of markets. So long as you and your team are excited to experience the frights, then it’s a must-play.

If you’re afraid of the idea of an escape room, then this is not the game for you.

If you don’t want to feel fear, then this is not the game for you.

If you don’t cooperate well with your friends, then this is not the game for you.

Escape room first timers will enjoy this room, but likely will not fully appreciate this experience. I would strongly suggest playing at least one more typical escape room before diving into the adrenalin-filled deep end.

Those bold enough to play ought to do so.

Book your hour with Locked-Up Escape Games’ Escape The Serial Killer, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Locked-Up Escape Games comped our tickets for this game.

The next Room Escape Conference is taking place in Niagara Falls, NY from May 1-3, 2017. The conference organizers sponsored our trip to Buffalo, New York, Niagara Falls, New York, and Niagara Falls, Ontario, to play this game and others in the region. We strive to help conference attendees visit the room escapes that are best for them.

 

The Crux Escape – The Night Before Cruxmas [Review]

A heartwarming tale of bureaucracy and Christmas cheer.

Location: Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada

Date played: January 22, 2017

Team size: up to 7; we recommend 2-5

Duration: 45 minutes

Price: 20 CAD per ticket

Story & setting

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through… Santa’s office we searched for the correct clearance codes for the Big Guy to take off. An elf had given him the wrong code and Santa’s sleigh was on its launchpad waiting for a green light to liftoff. No clearance codes, no presents. Welcome to post-9/11 air traffic regulation.

Santa’s office felt appropriately like a holiday living room combined with a mailroom. Considering that the business concerns of his occupation are primarily correspondence, this felt like an apt representation. It was also the right amount of adorable coziness to put us in the holiday spirit.

In-game: A mantle with stockings, and gifts, a lit Christmas tree with presents beneath in the background.
Image via The Crux

Puzzles

Santa’s elves packed a lot of puzzles into a small space. There was a lot to do.

The puzzles involved organizing and ciphering, among other skills.

Standouts

We loved the premise of this Christmas mission, and the idea of government bureaucracy wrapping Saint Nick in red tape.

Although The Night Before Cruxmas was a temporary installation, it was designed with care and attention to detail. The space had a holiday cheer about it that set the appropriate mood. We also loved the mailroom interpretation of Santa’s Office.

The Night Before Cruxmas was an excellent example of room escape design and construction on a budget. The environment and puzzles came together delightfully without any bells and whistles… except for the bells on the tree.

One particular puzzle unfolded throughout the entire game. It was well designed so as not to be brute-forced too early, and its continual unraveling heightened our anticipation of a solution. Upon reception of the final components, the solution was satisfying and lots of fun.

Shortcomings

While most of the puzzles came together clearly, we found one to be rather ambiguous, and therefore confusing.

Everything in Santa’s office was locked shut with similar locks. Similar digit structure inputs unnecessarily halted the game’s flow.

Should I play The Crux Escape’s The Night Before Cruxmas?

The Night Before Cruxmas was a puzzler’s Christmas adventure. The small space was jam-packed with puzzles that all came together in an adorable conclusion to the room escape’s original and delightful setup.

The temporary installation was perfectly decorated to set the mood and portray a vision of Santa’s office, which must be adjacent to that hectic workspace portrayed in all the movies.

We recommend The Night Before Cruxmas to both newer and more experienced players who are in the mood for the combination of puzzles and holiday cheer. This would be good family fun.

Book your game with The Crux Escape’s The Night Before Cruxmas, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: The Crux Escape comped our tickets for this game.

The next Room Escape Conference is taking place in Niagara Falls, NY from May 1-3, 2017. The conference organizers sponsored our trip to Buffalo, New York, Niagara Falls, New York, and Niagara Falls, Ontario, to play this game and others in the region. We strive to help conference attendees visit the room escapes that are best for them.

Puzzle Out – Architect’s Studio [Review]

Make it big. Bigger. Bigger still. Ok that will do.

Location: Jersey City, NJ

Date played: January 16, 2017

Team size: 2-6; we recommend 3-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $25-34 per ticket

Story & setting

We were hired by an architect attempting to build the largest skyscraper in the world. We were dispatched to sneak into a rival’s office and determine the height of the skyscraper he was creating. If we were successful, our client’s tower would surely be taller.

Points for originality.

The set was an architect’s studio. It looked like it was going for the minimalist Apple Store aesthetic, but didn’t quite get there.

In-game: A drafting table.

There were 5 building models set atop filing cabinets. Each model presented a unique set of puzzling challenges.

The setup, while relevant to completing the final puzzles, was ultimately more theme than story.

Puzzles

Most of the puzzling in the Architect’s Studio centered on the aforementioned building models. While none of them were simple, they ranged broadly in complexity, and each employed smart counter brute-force elements.

All puzzles ultimately led to a lock and key, but it didn’t matter because the building puzzles that led to the combinations were all compelling, tangible or mechanical interactions.

In-game: A series of filing cabinet pedestals, each with a different building model puzzle atop it.

Standouts

The building puzzles felt heavily inspired by The Room video game series, and they pulled it off well. Everything had weight to it, and solving the individual puzzles felt immensely satisfying.

The puzzles fostered a ton of teamwork and collaboration. Every puzzle had at least two people work on it together.

The overall collection of puzzles was superb.

Shortcomings

There were a few instances where the puzzle construction could have benefited from refinement. One of the buildings had some exposed screw tips that should be ground down, and generally didn’t function as smoothly as it could have. A different puzzle would have benefited from better magnets. Another puzzle had pieces that fit together a little too snugly. I shouldn’t have had to use as much force as I did to make it work.

The layout of the room led to some serious cramping. The puzzle stations all looked good in a row, but moving them around a little could open up the space and allow for more players to get involved with them.

Aesthetically, the space didn’t feel on par with the level of puzzle quality. While the filing cabinets thematically fit with the space, they didn’t add to the experience.

Should I play Puzzle Out’s Architect’s Studio?

Architect’s Studio was Puzzle Out’s sophomore game, and it has come a long way. They shed the throwaway puzzles, and presented an original, unified concept. The puzzles were great, and I had a smile on my face the whole time.

Architect’s Studio should be enjoyable for both experienced and novice players. It was both approachable and had depth to it.

Where Puzzle Out left room for improvement was in aesthetic execution and narrative. The gameplay and flow were excellent. Our team had a ton of fun while playing Architect’s Studio. When Puzzle Out nails the look and construction of their games, they will be one hell of a competitor.

Book your hour with Puzzle Out’s Architect’s Studio, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Puzzle Out comped our tickets for this game.

Out of the Box – The Seventh Room [Review]

Truth in advertising: It was honestly out of the box.

Location: Austin, TX

Date played: January 8, 2017

Team size: up to 8 for online booking; we recommend 2 – ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $29 per ticket

There’s no shortage of escape room companies that claim that they are different. Usually, “we’re different, you’ve never seen anything like this,” means that it’s a standard escape room with a small twist.

Out of the Box was legitimately different.

On their website they claim, “The Seventh Room is the most unique escape room concept in Austin.” I’ll endorse that claim, and add that The Seventh Room as unique an escape room concept as I have encountered to date.

But was it fun?

Story & setting

Here’s how Out of the Box describes their own game:

The Seventh Room mixes room escape games, choose-your-own-adventure stories and interactive theater to create a real-life puzzle solving experience for attendees. To make the experience even more memorable, a cast of improv-trained actors are armed with riddles, back-stories and cryptic clues to help guide participants through the puzzles. During the challenge, participants explore several theatrically-designed rooms to look for clues where they will encounter lock boxes, riddles, hidden compartments and colorful characters.”

I would describe it as an eclectic house of puzzles, curiosities, and intrigue.

The game began with a self-administered puzzle in the lobby. Upon completion, we were led into the first space where an actor in the character of a librarian explained the rules and structure for us.

Essentially, we experienced 4 quarter-hour segments in different rooms within Out of the Box’s facility. The librarian ushered us around, chose the rooms in which we would play, and provided a curated experience.

Whimsically designed, yet detailed, the various rooms were created to identify our comfort zones and then give us a gentle shove out of them.

In-game: An actor standing at a mysterious bar.
Image via Out of the Box

If there was a story embedded in The Seventh Room, we never caught so much as a whiff of it, which was fine.

We saw a lot of the facility but played in only about half of the spaces. Each individual space had a distinctive look and feel. While each looked great, some were more compelling and polished than others.

Rather than escape or stop some calamity within 60 minutes, we aimed to maximize our points. In that regard The Seventh Room was like Epic Team Adventures’ Volcano God, but it didn’t take place in a single room or allow individual players to lean on their strengths to maximize the score, because at the end of a 15-minute segment our guide chose the next set of challenges.

The Seventh Room was a points-driven room escape with 5 very different games (counting the lobby), broken out into exceedingly different spaces, all guided by an actor.

Puzzles

Your experience will vary, but we enjoyed many tavern puzzles, riddles, and wordplay, as  bit of well as some decipherment and problem solving.

We also had a few non-puzzley interpersonal challenges to tackle.

We succeeded in a big way in The Seventh Room. So much of this game and our success in it depended on collaboration, team dynamic, and a no-ego approach to the game. It was clear in each section which teammates had the right skills to thrive. Once that was established, the rest of the team shifted to support those players.

In our case, we experienced a high puzzle density game because we solved things so rapidly that our dear librarian was at times falling behind our solve rate. Note that we brought an incredibly puzzle-experienced team.

Standouts

The adaptive experience worked well and kept us busy throughout our hour with Out of the Box.

Our guide/actor was exceptional. She was in character throughout our time in the facility and she was great fun to play with.

Each room had its own set of rules. Those rules were delivered upon entry to the space and without the clock running. It made it easy to take them in and abide by them.

In-game: an actress sitting in a window surrounded by a variety of brightly colored symbols.
Image via Out of the Box

There was continual mystery as we never knew where we were going next, or what would be demanded of us.

This led to some moments that really did force some of our teammates out of the comfort zone.

The Library set was awesome, brilliant, and so impressive.

The Seventh Room was honestly replayable, for at least a few playthroughs. When I am next in Austin, I will, without hesitation, return to play again.

Shortcomings

Not all rooms within The Seventh Room were created equal. We found ourselves in one space that wasn’t particularly compelling. Once we had solved the puzzle in the room, we found ourselves stuck completing the same task over and over for additional points until the end of the segment.

More than with most escape rooms, I would not want to play The Seventh Room with strangers.

In the optimal presentation of The Seventh Room, each individual room has a different actor who presides over it. We had the librarian lead us through the entire hour on her own. She was superb, but a fraction of what we imagine Out of the Box could deliver under the best of circumstances. I imagine the full experience would be costly, but the website and marketing promised more than it delivered.

Should I play Out of the Box’s The Seventh Room?

Yes!

If you’re a newbie, the actors can help make the experience more approachable.

If you’re a seasoned puzzler and escaper, Out of the Box is truly different and will fill your hour with puzzles. For those of us who are accustomed to playing through an average game in roughly half of the allotted time, that’s a pretty big deal.

If you’re a serious puzzler, give Out of the Box a heads up before you book and ask them to put together a tougher game for you. The librarian told us that they will accommodate that request.

The only folks who might not be keen on The Seventh Room are those who are seeking a cohesive narrative. If that’s the case, Out of the Box likely won’t be your thing.

Our team size recommendation was: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. This is a first for us, but we’re fairly certain that the game would be adapted to accommodate as few as 2 and many more than 8 without sacrificing the experience in anyway. Out of the Box allows for custom bookings over the phone for parties larger than 8.

Out of the Box’s sets were great, the actor we saw was wonderful, and the puzzles were non-stop.

Book your hour with Out of the Box’s The Seventh Room, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Out of the Box comped our tickets for this game.

 

The Crux Escape – Dead Air [Review]

It’s the end of the world as we know it.

Location: Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada

Date played: January 22, 2017

Team size: up to 7; we recommend 3-6

Duration: 50 minutes

Price: 21-26 CAD per ticket

Story & setting

The rock n’ roll zombie apocalypse had arrived. Most of humanity had been transformed into herds of mindless brain eaters. A local radio station had become the last stronghold of humanity. To earn our safety, we needed to prove that the zombie virus hadn’t impaired our cognitive abilities by solving puzzles.

Our gamemaster accurately described the game as more Scooby Doo than Walking Dead. The playful take on zombies was devoid of frights and filled with playfulness and impeccable worldbuilding. We were playing a rock n’ roll room escape with the idea of zombies functioning as the game timer.

In-game: Door art of a zombie at a turntable. It reads "DEAD AIR"

The radio station set looked awesome. Loaded with posters for bands, concerts, and promotions, every little component of the escape room had been custom made for the game world. The album art and band names were particularly memorable. The room escape’s rock n’ roll soundtrack made sure that we never forgot where we were.

In-game: Album art shows 4 zombies and read's "Assist! Please Dearest"
The album cover we had to hold up to call for a hint.

Puzzles

There was a little something for everyone in Dead Air. There were plenty of puzzles available in largely open spaces with minimal searching required.

While each puzzle offered its own challenge, Dead Air went out of its way to make sure that we could easily identify puzzles and related puzzle components. This allowed us to keep our focus on the overall experience without having to constantly search for obscure connections.

Standouts

Everything made sense. And I mean everything. The story built a world. The set was the embodiment of that world. The hints were delivered by the radio announcer over the radio station. When the hints weren’t coming in, the station was playing music or plugging upcoming events. Above all, it actually made sense to be trapped in a radio station solving puzzles in the midst of Armageddon.

In-game: A studio with an "On Air" sign illuminated. Band art hangs on the walls.
Image provided by The Crux

The set was fun and compelling.

The game was legitimately funny.

The puzzling was satisfying.

The custom album art was fantastic. The custom art and bands kept our focus on the game world. Had there been album art from real bands, the game would still have been wonderful, but this added detail kept our minds from drifting back to the real world.

Shortcomings

The name Dead Air, while brilliant, implied that the game was frightening. The Crux’s description of the game on their website doesn’t do much to dissuade anyone of that judgment:

“The dead have risen up and are roaming the streets. You and your small band of survivors discover that the local radio station is still broadcasting, so you brave your way down to the studios to investigate. Will you find shelter or will the zombies overtake you? Test your wits in a rock’n’roll apocalypse!”

I am willing to bet that they are losing customers who think that this game will be scary.

Dead Air was missing a satisfying climax. It had so many great little moments, but I wish that it had that climactic moment that no player would ever forget.

Should I play The Crux Escape’s Dead Air?

Absolutely.

If you’re a newbie, Dead Air would make a fine first game. If you’ve played a few hundred escape rooms, Dead Air feels fresh, fun, and grounded.

Game design professor and escape room community celebrity Scott Nicholson put out a paper titled Ask Why: Creating a Better Player Experience through Environmental Storytelling and Consistency in Escape Room DesignDead Air was the living embodiment of “ask why.” Everything was grounded in the fiction of the game. Mix that with some great puzzles and the result was a phenomenal experience from start to finish.

Book your game with The Crux Escape’s Dead Air, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

The next Room Escape Conference is taking place in Niagara Falls, NY from May 1-3, 2017. The conference organizers sponsored our trip to Buffalo, New York, Niagara Falls, New York, and Niagara Falls, Ontario, to play this game and others in the region. We strive to help conference attendees visit the room escapes that are best for them.

 

Escape Haus -Egyptian Mysteries [Review]

The name “Isis” has been seriously ruined.

Location: New Braunfels, TX

Date played: January 7, 2017

Team size: 6-12; we recommend 2-8 (depending upon experience level)

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $25 per ticket, $20 per ticket if booking for 5 or more players

Story & setting

A renowned egyptologist had made a key discovery and was promptly abducted by individuals who wanted to keep his discovery a secret. We had an hour to piece his work back together in order to learn his discovery before those who had captured him reached his office and destroyed his work.

If the Egypt section of a children’s history museum had a baby with a Franklin Mint store, it would be Egyptian Mysteries. Made up of display cases of artifacts, a massive wall mural, and a Sphinx that was larger than the smallest escape room I’ve ever played, Egyptian Mysteries was vibrant, inviting, and academic yet playful.

In-game, the walls are painted in hieroglyphics, small locked boxes lay about, and a massive sphinx statue sits in the middle of the room.

Puzzles

Egyptian Mysteries was a large game that was designed for player friendliness. There were a ton of straightforward puzzles to solve. None of them were particularly challenging nor did they overstay their welcome.

This was Escape Haus’ style for their large games: Everything was eminently solvable, so long as we observed the room carefully and kept organized.

Standouts

The mural and sphinx were pretty damn cool.

The puzzling was fun and uncomplicated.

Everything was thoughtfully designed.

The Escape Haus facilities and staff were caring and friendly.

Shortcomings

Egyptian Mysteries felt a little heavy on boxes. It would have been great to see more of the game built into the set.

Similarly, a lot of the puzzles felt small and disconnected. A few more puzzle interactions involving the large set pieces would have gone a long way.

The story lacked gravity and had nearly no impact on the game.

Should I play Escape Haus’ Egyptian Mysteries?

Escape Haus was located between Austin and San Antonio, Texas. We had to go out of our way to visit them, 50 minutes in each direction from Austin. Amanda Harris (who played her 400th escape room on this trip to Texas) and I did it twice because we wanted to go back to Escape Haus for more.

Egyptian Mysteries was simple, but we left the game feeling joyful and energized. Everything from the waiting room, to their games, to the staff felt welcoming.

I am legitimately not sure how many people would make an ideal team size for Egyptian Mysteries. Amanda and I plowed through everything in approximately 40 minutes, but this wasn’t a company designed to accommodate seasoned room escapers.

It was, however, an exceptional game for newbies. On the drive back to Austin, I told Amanda, “It wasn’t hard, and I wouldn’t recommend someone fly across the country to play it… but I would be happy if that was everyone’s first game. It would be good for the industry.” New Braunfels, Texas. Who knew?

Book your hour with Escape Haus’ Egyptian Mysteries, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Escape Haus comped our tickets for this game.

Reality Rooms Niagara – Wine Cellar [Review]

A rare vintage.

Location: Lewiston, NY

Date played: January 22, 2017

Team size: up to 8; we recommend 3-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $20 per ticket

Story & setting

In the wine cellar of an eccentric collector, we had to search for the legendary million dollar bottle of wine.

While the story was simple, the set was not. We were in a beautiful wine cellar. There were faux stone walls, barrels, crates, and large racks with bottles. The Wine Cellar looked authentic.

In-game: A wine cellar with stone walls, barrels, and large racks of wine behind an iron gate.

We were mentally prepared for the Wine Cellar to turn into a vaguely horror game with organs in the wine or whatever… but Reality Rooms Niagara resisted that trope and played their adventure clean. It was refreshing.

Puzzles

There was a solid mix of puzzles in the Wine Cellar. We ran into some trouble with the puzzling due to a need for outside knowledge to draw a few key conclusions.

Throughout the game, the environment, props, and embedded technology played a regular part in the puzzling experience, which helped to keep our attention on the excellent set.

Standouts

The set was pretty fantastic. It looked and felt like a wine cellar.

I had seen an image of a wine cellar in Reality Rooms Niagara’s brochure at a local restaurant prior to our visit. I cynically thought that it was a photo of a real wine cellar and not the game. (A fair number of companies pull that kind of move in creating the marketing materials.) I was dead wrong. That was an in-game photo and I could not be happier about it.

The use of the various props was clever and felt natural in the game’s environment.

The conclusion of the game was entertaining.

Shortcomings

While the puzzles themselves were plenty sound, a few of them required outside knowledge due to weak clue structure. We were pretty caught off guard by this and thought we were missing information within the room. The requirement of outside knowledge is a cardinal sin in escape room design and was by far the biggest opportunity for improvement in the Wine Cellar.

There was a puzzle that triggered technologically before we had completed the interaction. We were utterly baffled by this. In fact, we thought we had broken something or that it happened by accident. As a result, we spun our wheels for a while not sure what to do. It turned out that everything behaved as expected, suggesting that the tech in the room could benefit from a little bit of iteration.

Should I play Reality Rooms Niagara’s Wine Cellar?

The Wine Cellar was a wonderfully low-key adventure. It never attempted to add hefty stakes or turn dark. It was simply a beautiful environment in which to puzzle through to an incredibly sensible conclusion.

It had its flaws in the form of outside knowledge and a finicky technological implementation, but both of these flaws are fixable. I hope that Reality Rooms Niagara addresses them because while the Wine Cellar was a lot of fun, it could be pretty magnificent with a little bit of adjustment.

I recommend experienced players stop by to enjoy the atmosphere and puzzling.

Beginners could take on the Wine Cellar, but I suspect that they would need to use hint liberally to make progress because the clue structure got a bit tenuous at times. It was a good game, but its more confusing elements could sour the experience for less unseasoned players.

On my next trip to Buffalo, I am eager to return to Reality Rooms Niagara. Cheers!

Book your hour with Reality Rooms Niagara’s Wine Cellar, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Reality Rooms Niagara comped our tickets for this game.

The next Room Escape Conference is taking place in Niagara Falls, NY from May 1-3, 2017. The conference organizers sponsored our trip to Buffalo, New York, Niagara Falls, New York, and Niagara Falls, Ontario, to play this game and others in the region. We strive to help conference attendees visit the room escapes that are best for them.