The Escape Game – Escape from Iron Gate [Review]

Playing by prison rules.

Location:  at home

Date Played: October 26, 2019

Team size: 3-8; we recommend 4-5

Duration: 45-60 minutes

Price: about $44

REA Reaction

Escape from Iron Gate was quite the surprise and a breath of fresh air in a tabletop escape room scene that’s always riffing on the same “real-life escape room on your table” structure.

Escape Iron Gate's box featuring a prison and labeled, "The prison break party game."

The Escape Game’s take on the tabletop escape room was 100% competitive, not collaborative. It had a board-gamey feel to it. We moved our meeples through different areas of a prison, rolled dice, collected sets of item cards, and earned those cards through solving puzzles – and playing charades or Pictionary.

This was an approachable game. Whereas I find myself playing tabletop escape games mostly with puzzle people, I could play Escape from Iron Gate with almost anyone.

Moreover, as we played harder, we started to find more strategic depth than we’d expected.

The board set up, there are meeple in the cell block and a massive stack of puzzle cards.
There was no shortage of puzzle cards.

The main drawback to Escape from Iron Gate was that some (not all) of the puzzle types got stale. For example, if you’re an escape room veteran going in, substitution and pigpen ciphers aren’t going to throw you for a loop for even a second. We found ourselves disregarding these and drawing something else, which was fine.

I really enjoyed this game, and absolutely recommend it for families and friend groups. It was light-hearted, easy to learn, and varied. I truly liked that we weren’t just solving puzzles, or just playing Pictionary or charades. The constant flux of game modes kept things playful.

Moreover, this is a fully replayable game. We have replayed it and we will continue to do so. We’d love it if The Escape Game created an expansion with more challenging actions, puzzles, and a set of blank “create your own” action and puzzle cards. Personalization would add even more replay value to Escape from Iron Gate.

If you enjoy tabletop games, party games, and puzzles, you’ll enjoy their combination in Escape from Iron Gate.

Who is this for?

  • This is general audience tabletop game.
  • Avid puzzlers, talented drawers, and skilled pantomime actors will have some advantages.

Why play?

  • Humor
  • Flexible play
  • Some amusing puzzles
  • It had a lot more depth than initially appeared

Story

We had all been wrongfully accused of crimes and locked up in Iron Gate prison. Naturally, the only path to freedom was a puzzle prison break.

Close-up of The Yard with two meeple and a pair of large custom dice.

Setup

Escape from Iron Gate was a competitive tabletop game the blended a few genres into a unique experience with a party game vibe.

We aimed to collect sets of item cards that would allow us to bust out of different areas of the prison. We had to proceed from the cell block, to the yard, to the cafeteria, and finally to the warden’s office before achieving freedom (and winning the game.) Each area required each player to collect a unique set of items.

We earned item cards by solving puzzles, playing dexterity mini-games, and playing Pictionary or charades. Dice rolls and luck of the draw determined which games we’d play when.

The details are explained in this video:

Special Rules

If there was a gap in the rules or the group wanted to tweak the way things worked, we were encouraged to create our own prison rules. We quickly added our own rules and adapted the game to our play group.

The REA Rule: Whenever a player used a card set to break out of an area, that player had to tell the group a story about how they used each item to do the deed.

4 stages of gate cards.
Each player gets their own set of unique gate cards.

Gameplay

The Escape Game’s Escape from Iron Gate was a party board game with a puzzle-solving component and a moderate level of difficulty.

Unlike escape rooms, Escape from Iron Gate was a competitive (not collaborative) game.

The puzzles were drawn from a massive stack of cards and included a mix of spatial puzzles, logic puzzles, riddles, ciphers, and reasoning challenges. They were all contained on individual cards, so they were static.

Core gameplay revolved around rolling dice, playing charades, playing Pictionary, accomplishing mini dexterity challenges, searching, solving puzzles, negotiating, and planning ahead.

A gate card and its matching card set.
Accomplishing a gate card collection allows a player to advance to the next area.

Analysis

➕ The artwork looked great. We liked the matte aesthetic and the color scheme. Everything felt polished.

Escape from Iron Gate was easy to learn. The engaging rules video presented the game clearly. The rulebook included a full-page diagram of the sequence for a turn, which we found to be especially helpful while we got the hang of the gameplay.

Puzzle card examples including some wordplay puzzles, a cipher, and a reasoning challenge.
A few examples of puzzle types.

➕ The structure of actions, puzzles, and trading kept everyone continually engaged, even on other players’ turns.

Escape from Iron Gate was reasonably well balanced. For a puzzle game, it included quite a bit of chance, but that kept it interesting. Even with the chance, it felt fair.

➖ Some of the puzzles quickly became tasks (especially the ciphers). We could only have the aha moment the first time we encountered some of these puzzle types.

➕ Gameplay was funny. The whole concept was ridiculous. Escape from Iron Gate didn’t take itself too seriously… which encouraged us to laugh along with it.

Action card examples, including a pictionary card and a charades card.

❓/➕ Acting and drawing really didn’t fit the prison escape theme all that well. We debated whether the actions in the game were thematically relevant, but in the end it didn’t really matter to us because they were entertaining.

➕ The red filter hint/answer system was simple and effective. Additionally, hints mattered less in this game than most tabletop escape games because failure to solve a puzzle didn’t break the game.

➕ We appreciated how Escape from Iron Gate drew from escape room mythology, but stood alone as its own game. It was set in The Escape Game’s Prison Break. We enjoyed the nods to that game. In no way, however, did it feel like playing a rehash of that escape room (or any other tabletop game).

Tips For Players

  • Space Requirements: a small table
  • Required Gear: each player needs scratch paper and a pen
  • The Escape Game encourages players to make their own house rules. We embraced this whole heartedly. REA house rules included telling a story of how you used your items to pass each gate.
  • This would work well as a family game or a drinking game. We can see lots of great opportunities for adding drinking game rules.

Buy your copy of The Escape Game’s Escape from Iron Gate, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: The Escape Game provided a sample for review.

Support Room Escape Artist’s Mission

There are lots of ways to support Room Escape Artist, like buying from Amazon after clicking into the links included in this post or backing us on Patreon.

The money that we make from these helps us to grow the site and continue to add more value to the community that we love so much.

Ship of Theseus by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst [Review]

Meta masterpiece.

Author:  J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

Release Date:  October 29, 2013

Page Count: 472 plus inserts

Price: About $30

Publisher:  Mulholland Books

REA Reaction

Ship of Theseus, also known as S., is hard to categorize. Presented in book form, it’s an ambitious piece of experimental fiction with many layers of story and meaning. Ship of Theseus started with an innocuous central premise — who is the author V.M. Straka? — and infused it with unique storytelling to create an epic reading experience.

Ship of Theseus felt more like a novel than anything else, but its supplemental documents and many narrative layers made it more involving than passively reading a regular book. At times, the unusual format felt as exciting as a movie and as nonlinear and interactive as a game.

Ship of Theseus title page.

There were ciphers embedded in Ship of Theseus, and deciding how to tackle the layers of story required some strategizing. But mostly the point was to explore and gradually gain familiarity with its rich fictional world of academia and intrigue.

Due to its length and complexity, Ship of Theseus was intimidating. If you’re looking for a straightforward read or clearly delineated puzzles, the setup may feel overwhelming. Just like with certain other J.J. Abrams projects, not all the open questions got clear answers. But even without uncovering all of its secrets, Ship of Theseus had a lot to offer casual readers.

If you love the feeling of exploring someone’s communications and unlocking a grand story piece by piece, Ship of Theseus was made for you.

Who is this for?

  • Avid readers who enjoy being immersed in a story’s world
  • Cipher enthusiasts
  • Fans of experimental literature

Why Read?

  • Rich, intricate world building
  • Impressive construction of story layers
  • Mysteries at every turn

Story

V.M. Straka wrote many novels, but his true identity remains shrouded in mystery. His final book, Ship of Theseus, followed a man with amnesia journeying to distant lands to discover his true identity and motivation. Straka’s translator published the novel posthumously in 1949.

Decades later, two students at Pollard State University meet by writing notes back and forth in a copy of Ship of Theseus left at the university library. By delving into Straka’s web of associations and solving hidden messages in the book, Jen and Eric connect over a shared interest in discovering Straka’s identity. Along the way, they’re thrown into a conspiracy story of their own with life-or-death stakes.

Ship of Theseus book and slipcover.

Setup

Ship of Theseus was presented as an old hardcover book. It had copious notes written in the margins and an assortment of paper mementos interspersed throughout the pages. Besides the authors’ names on the box, the entire package appeared to be an artifact from the story’s fictional world.

The novel unfolded as a stand-alone narrative within the literary intrigue surrounding the associates and scholars of V.M. Straka. 

In the margins, Jen and Eric discussed research about Straka, goings-on in their corner of academia, and typical getting-to-know-you topics. They also shared theories about secret messages hidden in Ship of Theseus. They wrote in different colors in different time periods, so part of the reading process involved untangling the timeline of their findings and the events they described.

By perusing the novel, the translator’s footnotes, the conversations between Jen and Eric, and the documents slipped between the pages, I attempted to puzzle out the concurrent narrative threads and eventually solve the central question: Who is V.M. Straka?

Sample pages of Ship of Theseus, along with a postcard that says "Greetings from Brazil."

Gameplay

Ship of Theseus was primarily a nonlinear reading experience, but certain elements felt a bit like solving puzzles. Determining the timeline of Jen and Eric’s notes based on the color of their pens gave me logic puzzle vibes. Piecing together details from different timelines and different sources helped deepen my understanding of the story world.

Ship of Theseus included a number of ciphers within its pages. The margin notes frequently pointed out odd details about certain passages and theorized about possible hidden messages. Jen and Eric wrote out solutions to several of the book’s ciphers in the margins.

Because Ship of Theseus was presented as a found object, no other solutions were available. The creators initially published websites and social media posts dedicated to solving the mysteries of Straka, in the vein of an ARG. These are cryptic, however, and some of the links may have decayed in the ensuing years.

Reading and rereading Ship of Theseus and its supplementary documents created an increasingly clear picture of Straka’s life and legacy. I felt comfortable putting the book down when the story seemed complete enough. Hunting for puzzles to solve felt like a whole new dimension — one that, in my case, eventually became a burden.

Analysis

Ship of Theseus felt like an artifact with a rich backstory. The paper and binding were yellowed and worn like a real old book. Maybe I’d imagined it, but the pages even smelled a little musty. This authentic design set the stage for the story to come. It also meant I didn’t have to be careful with the book. If you scuff it up or accidentally splash tea on the pages, that only makes it more lifelike.

➕ Between the novel itself, the translator’s footnotes, the inserts, and the margin notes, Ship of Theseus contained at least half a dozen points of view from several different time periods, all presented at once. It blew my mind to imagine the work that must have gone into keeping all these layers straight and combining them to create an immersive, cohesive story world.

A sample footnote plus margin notes from Ship of Theseus.

➕ As a novel, Ship of Theseus stood on its own as an odd but engaging piece of fiction. The parallels between the novel and the side stories added to the intrigue.

➕/➖ The expansiveness of the mythology was impressive, even extending to seemingly official websites and social media posts. But the book came out in 2013, and certain links are no longer live (if they ever were). I found online communities dedicated to solving the book’s mysteries, but the conversation had died down since its publication. At that point, I felt like I was on my own.

➕ Because of all the simultaneous layers, the material appeared out of order and without full context, especially the margin notes. This structure may sound daunting, but in practice it felt empowering to make connections among all the story threads. After I’d spent a few months with Ship of Theseus, it felt like a major triumph to have gone from utter confusion to near fluency with the story’s literary world. But that doesn’t mean less patient readers will get lost: even without deep knowledge of what everything means, the story feels complete, and regular plot reminders help keep most things straight.

➕ Jen and Eric were strong, fleshed-out characters, right down to their distinctive handwriting. Because of Ship of Theseus’s nonlinear design, they developed over time in a unique way. The older margin notes reminded me of my own college days. The more recent ones illustrated how the characters have grown.

➕ Most of the ciphers in the book were pre-solved in the margin notes, but usually not on the same page. I appreciated being able to consider them as long as I wanted before reading on to find the code explained. Cipher aficionados might prefer to spend more time poring over the text before moving on.

❓Sometimes the notes indicated a seemingly important detail that might be part of a code, but never resolved the mystery. My internet research didn’t turn up any answers about the importance of these details. If they are secret messages, they’re extremely hard to decode. If not, they’re just red herrings.

➖ Ship of Theseus felt like it contained a multitude of hidden messages, but I didn’t find much to actually solve. Of the ciphers explained in the margins, the average puzzler couldn’t solve most of them without help. Not that they should’ve dumbed it down — but it hurt a little to solve literally nothing on my own.

➕ As a whole, Ship of Theseus presented a message of hope and perseverance. The conclusion of the various threads felt emotional and satisfying — though it never exactly felt like the end, because I can always pick up the book again and revisit Straka’s world someday.

Tips For Reading

Some of the margin notes refer to things that happen later in the novel, so reading the novel before the notes would be an efficient way to set out…in theory. However, it’s hard to ignore the eye-catching notes in the margins. See what feels right. You could read chapter by chapter, or go through the notes again after reading the whole book in order.

Even if you don’t attempt any extra sleuthing, Ship of Theseus is not a weekend read. Because it’s a longer narrative experience, it helps to keep notes, however you approach your readthrough. With all the out-of-context references, it might even be worth making an index. It all depends on how serious you want to get.

If you aren’t interested in rabbit holes, you can read casually and have most of the details doled out like a regular book. Without the extra trappings, Ship of Theseus is still a memorable, satisfying story.

Finally, don’t let the inserts fall out. But if they do, you can find guides online that describe where they all go.

Buy your copy of Ship of Theseus, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Support Room Escape Artist’s Mission

There are lots of ways to support Room Escape Artist, like buying from Amazon after clicking into the links included in this post or backing us on Patreon.

The money that we make from these helps us to grow the site and continue to add more value to the community that we love so much.

Golden Puzzle Room – The Lighthouse [Review]

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Location:  Lakewood, CO

Date Played: September 8, 2019

Team size: up to 6; we recommend 4-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price:  A 1 or 2-person team is $54. Additional players are $27 each.

Ticketing: Private

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

The Lighthouse was a solid, traditional escape room. The set was simple but scenic, and the puzzles worked well.

Our biggest gripe with the experience was that it lacked energy. Golden Puzzle Room could transform this game into something considerably more special if they added a little more drama to the experience.

In-game: An old Tandy computre in front of a large window with a ocean view.

If you’re in the area, The Lighthouse is a solid old-school game that can scratch your escape room itch.

If you have younger children, we especially recommend checking out Golden Puzzle Room because they are one of the few companies that has games designed specifically for the age group.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Lighthouse aficionados
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • The late game interactions
  • ASCII art!

Story

Stranded in an abandoned lighthouse in the 1980s with a wrecked boat, we needed to get the lighthouse up and running to signal for help.

In-game: closeup of a lighthouse model with a #3 on it.

Setting

The Lighthouse opened in a homey study-like environment. The most special item in this space was an old Tandy computer… which was used to good effect.

The set wasn’t particularly enticing, but there was one nifty set piece in the second act… I just wish that it did more.

In-game: A quaint roob with a chair, fireplace, and lighthouse statues.

Gameplay

Golden Puzzle Room’s The Lighthouse was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

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

Analysis

➕ Golden Puzzle Room designed scenery to portray the view out the lighthouse. This enhanced the experience.

➕ We loved the ASCII lighthouse art. It was a fun and unusual touch that gave this escape room character.

➖ Although the puzzles solved cleanly, they suffered from a lack of gating and digit structure variety. With so many open puzzles, we spent our time on items that couldn’t be solved yet. When we solved something we’d try to input a solution into many different possible locations. All this overlapping made it challenging to find and follow the thread of gameplay.

➕ The puzzles were generally sound. We especially loved the final puzzle. It was interactive and concluded the narrative.

➖ We felt like the story was missing a key final beat. Once we’d turned on the lighthouse, there was an obvious interaction that could have put a bow on the whole experience.

➖ Our playthrough felt one-note. The Lighthouse needed a memorable moment or two. It lacked energy.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.

Book your hour with Golden Puzzle Room’s The Lighthouse, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Golden Puzzle Room comped our tickets for this game.

Disclosure: Our trip to Denver was sponsored by the Denver escape room community. Contributions were anonymous.

21 Keys Escape Rooms – Project Iceworm [Review]

Operation Frozen Snake!

Location:  Colorado Springs, CO

Date Played: September 9, 2019

Team size: 1-6; we recommend 4-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $30 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

Project Iceworm was a good puzzle-heavy game set in the dark. Armed with headlamps, we puzzled our way through a quality old-school game.

For puzzle lovers, there’s a lot to enjoy in Project Iceworm. We really just found ourselves wishing that 21 Keys Escape Rooms would have built a puzzle that turned on the lights.

In-game: Closeup of of a pair of gas masks.

If you’re seeking a challenging yet fair puzzle game in Colorado Springs, look no further than Project Iceworm.

Who is this for?

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

Why play?

  • A challenging mix of puzzles
  • Strong, traditional escape room gameplay

Story

Project Iceworm, a covert 1960s venture by the US military, attempted to hide medium range nuclear missiles under the ice of Greenland. This was planned without the knowledge of the Kingdom of Denmark, of which Greenland is autonomous territory. The intent was to enable secret first strike capabilities against the Soviet Union.

The project was ultimately a failure and cancelled in 1966, its secrets lost beneath the ice… until now.

And yes, Project Iceworm was a real thing.

In-game: The entry way to the game, a restricted area with a lab beyond the door.

Setting

We entered Project Iceworm armed with flashlights or headlamps (our individual choice).

The gamespace was physically small, with an elegant wood and metal makeshift laboratory look. It had a unique aesthetic that was obscured a little too much by perpetual darkness.

In-game: Closeup of mounted box gloves for handling hazardous materials.

Gameplay

21 Keys Escape Rooms’ Project Iceworm was a standard escape room with a higher level of difficulty compared to other local games.

Core gameplay revolved around searching and puzzling.

In-game: Closeup of a control panel.

Analysis

➖ / ➕ Project Iceworm was unnecessarily dark. We wished we could have solved something that would have turned on the lights. That said, 21 Keys Escape Rooms provided headlamps, so we all had hands-free flashlights that illuminated whatever we were working on. This lighting situation, however, bumped awkwardly against a particular search puzzle.

➕ Project Iceworm was a puzzle-driven escape room. It had solid, layered puzzles with satisfying solves. These puzzles rewarded persistence, in a good way.

➖ Much of the clue structure was on laminated paper. Although this worked for the game, we would have liked the cluing to be more fully integrated into the gamespace.

➕ 21 Keys Escape Rooms built an interesting dexterity contraption into this game. It was a fun puzzle and we appreciated the extraction. It was unexpected.

➖ Project Iceworm was grounded in a story, but the story didn’t play a role in the escape room. Our experience didn’t have an introduction, conclusion, or dramatic event. The overall experience felt one-note and too emotionally level.

➕ The set was small, but it looked good.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.

Book your hour with 21 Keys Escape Rooms’ Project Iceworm, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: 21 Keys Escape Rooms comped our tickets for this game.

Disclosure: Our trip to Denver was sponsored by the Denver escape room community. Contributions were anonymous.

EscapeWorks – Beyond the Flower Shop [Review]

Prune and fertilize

Location:  Denver, CO

Date Played: September 7, 2019

Team size: up to 12; we recommend 3-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

It gives me no joy to tell you that we didn’t enjoy Beyond the Flower Shop. If I had to encapsulate the experience in one word, it would be “lifeless.”

The set had potential. Much of it looked good, but it had no spark of life… which is not how a speakeasy ought to feel.

In-game: A bar with beers, a mixed drink, and an ashtray laying atop it.

The gameplay felt utterly flat and was mostly a mixture of searching and the kind of static puzzles that show up in my Facebook feed. There was no intrigue, no mystique.

All of this was burdened by weak gating and hints that were only released at the gamemaster’s discretion… long after the death of the little momentum that we’d managed to build.

EscapeWorks was recently under new management when we visited, so I’m not writing them off yet. I think that there is potential in both this game and this company. I hope that it will be fully realized.

Who is this for?

  • Searchers and scavengers
  • Completionists

Why play?

  • You’re looking for a Prohibition-themed scavenger hunt

Story

It was 1926, Prohibition was in full swing, and we had gone off in search of a good time. A friend had told us about an establishment that was hidden behind a local flower shop.

In-game: shelves of flowers.

Setting

Beyond The Flower Shop was initially set in a flower shop before moving us into a speakeasy.

The flower shop portion did the bare minimum to set the stage as a flower store. The set was sparse and dominated by stark white walls.

In-game: an antique cash register on a tabletop.

The speakeasy portion was considerably better looking. I wouldn’t have minded having a drink at the bar. That said, it still felt empty and lifeless.

Gameplay

EscapeWorks’ Beyond the Flower Shop was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

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

In-game: closeup of a small tabletop on a barrel with a drink and lantern atop it.

Analysis

➕ Our gamemaster gave a strong introduction.

➕/➖ EscapeWorks put effort into this set. The brickwork looked brick-y and the music gave it a speakeasy vibe. That said, the space felt empty. It seemed like it was designed without a creative direction beyond generic speakeasy.

➕ One late game open was a fun reveal that brought us somewhere unexpected.

➖ Most of the gameplay resolved around search, observe, and connect. The only puzzle in the space was of the static “gotcha” variety that acquaintances post on Facebook.

➖ Beyond the Flower Shop struggled with gating issues. We spent a lot of time working on puzzles that weren’t fully available to us.

➖ We wasted a lot of time because of a tech-fail. When the obvious solution failed to trigger, we tried absolutely everything else in the space… and then tried to solve things that weren’t open to us yet.

➖ Many of these problems were complicated by the fact that hints were delivered entirely at our gamemaster’s discretion. The effect was that we spent much of our time frustrated and waiting for a hint that we knew we needed and would have asked for far earlier.

➖ The story logic was confusing. If we were looking for a good time. Why were we repairing the boiler? Everything in the space solved according to escape room logic.

➕ EscapeWorks staff was outstanding. Our game intro was especially well presented. 

Tips For Visiting

  • There is nearby street parking and public parking lots.

Book your hour with EscapeWorks’ Beyond the Flower Shop, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: EscapeWorks comped our tickets for this game.

Disclosure: Our trip to Denver was sponsored by the Denver escape room community. Contributions were anonymous.

Professor Puzzle – Escape from the Grand Hotel [Review]

A beautiful hotel with spotty service.

Location:  at home

Date Played: June 27, 2019

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

Duration: 90 minutes

Price: $24.99

REA Reaction

Escape from the Grand Hotel was Professor Puzzle’s first foray into tabletop escape games… and they got a lot right.

The printed materials and package design were beautiful.

The ornate and gilded box art for Escape From The Grand Hotel.

The gameplay took some clear inspiration from the ThinkFun tabletop escape games, using location envelopes and paper components to tell a puzzle-driven narrative. Their approach to answer verification was clever.

Professor Puzzle stumbled with hinting and editing. Bluntly, this game felt under playtested. There were too many little problems that were easily fixable. The hint system was innovative, but insufficient.

There are some interesting ideas and a lot of great execution in Escape from the Grand Hotel. If you really enjoy tabletop escape games, this one had a lot to offer. However, there were too many little flaws and gaps that got amplified by the limited hint system for me to comfortably recommend this to a tabletop escape game newbie.

Who is this for?

  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Players with at least some experience

Why play?

  • Beautiful game materials
  • The structure and gameflow
  • The answer mechanic
  • The opportunity to make an evening of a tabletop puzzle game

Story

The storied Grand Hotel was once the place for the rich and famous to visit. After decades of disrepair, the mysterious and wealthy Blossom family had restored the hotel to its former glory. We were invited to its grand reopening.

An invitation to the reopening of the Grand Hotel.

Setup

Escape from the Grand Hotel had an interesting structure.

The opened box reveals stacks of invitations and a map of the hotel.

Each player received an invitation. This included character information and encouraged costuming. (We didn’t really use any of this because we didn’t realize it was an option until we already had our friends over and the box open.)

The ornate white doorway card for our room.

Once we began, we unfolded the beautifully printed cardstock hotel settings. We could observe what was in each space. In many, we also found additional paper items (puzzle pieces).

Our room opened up, reveals an image of a luxurious white bathroom. There is a note and a portion of a photo.

If we solved a puzzle, it would resolve to a clue to the next location within the hotel for us to visit. Sometimes this meant that we derived a room number. Other times we uncovered a more cryptic clue like the color of one of the doors or some other descriptor.

9 different folded doorways. Each with a unique aesthetic.
The various doorways to open.

If we needed a hint, we could unfold one from the location. Interestingly, the hints were usually puzzles in and of themselves… puzzles without their own hints.

At the bottom of our room is a folded segment labeled "clue inside are you sure you choose to seek help?"

Gameplay

Professor Puzzle’s Escape from the Grand Hotel was a standard play-at-home escape game with a moderate to high level of difficulty. If you’re comfortable with tabletop escape room puzzles, this was moderately difficult. If you aren’t comfortable with the format, the limited hinting could make this game quite challenging.

Professor Puzzle also encouraged making the game into an event by providing character roles.

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

The instructions for the game revealed upon moving a stack of invitations.
The instructions were buried under the invitations… which really was the wrong order.

Analysis

➕ We enjoyed the structure of Escape from the Grand Hotel. Each puzzle led us to another room in the hotel. It was fun to explore the hotel in this way.

➕ The first puzzle worked well for onboarding players. It wasn’t too challenging. Through it we understood how Escape from the Grand Hotel wanted us to play it.

➕ The solution mechanism was fantastic. The idea that the puzzle solutions alluded to the next area of the game was a smart twist on the tabletop escape game format. This approach allowed Professor Puzzle to strip out artificial answer checking mechanisms and keep things in-world.

➖ We encountered some taxonomy inconsistencies within the in-game instructions. The way that it referred to things sometimes shifted. This got confusing.

➕ Professor Puzzle designed a beautiful product with high-quality printed materials. From the box to the game components it looked and felt great. We especially enjoyed the illustrations of the rooms in the hotel. We really loved the box.

An envelope labeled "Puzzle Solutions for emergencies only"

➖ Although the artwork was beautiful, it included a visual variance that factored into the gameplay. Cluing needed to match the artwork, or vice versa.

➕ Escape from the Grand Hotel included a variety of puzzles of different types and difficulties.

➖ In some instances, the puzzles needed additional cluing.

➖ In one instance, ambiguous wording turned the final stages of a complex puzzle into trial and error. This got old quickly.

➕ Professor Puzzle provided duplicate copies of one of the more tedious puzzles so that more players could participate.

➖ The hint for each puzzle was concealed in a pocket in each “room” we entered. Although we liked this presentation of hints, Professor Puzzle included only one hint per puzzle, which was insufficient. The hint system needed far more granularity. In some instances, the hints themselves were puzzles and they didn’t have hints for themselves.

➕ The story was hokey, but it came together well enough in the end. It worked for the game and made us smile in the end.

➕ Professor Puzzle encourages players to make an evening of Escape from the Grand Hotel. They included invitations to mail to guests, who can come in character and in costume. This would be a fun way to make a play-at-home puzzle game into a bigger event.

➖ While character roles were fun, they were not relevant to the gameplay.

➖ It wasn’t clear that those character invitations were even an option until we had started the game.

➖ Although the game can be played without destroying any of the components, it didn’t provide reset instructions. We were able to pack it up correctly by referencing the solutions guide, but without instructions, we had to repack one puzzle in the solved state. 

Escape from the Grand Hotel required only the materials in the box. It did not require an app download or internet connection.

Tips For Player

  • Space Requirements: a small table
  • Required Gear: pen and paper
  • To make a larger event around this game, mail out the enclosed invitations and have your guests arrive in character and in costume. Note, the character roles are entirely for fun and are not relevant to the gameplay.

Buy your copy of Professor Puzzle’s Escape from the Grand Hotel, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Professor Puzzle provided a sample for review. 

(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. We appreciate the support.)

Made You Think Escapes – Area 51 [Review]

.–. .-.. . .- … . / .-.. — — -.- / .- – / – …. . / .-.. .. –. …. –

Location:  Colorado Springs, CO

Date Played: September 9, 2019

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

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

We did it, guys! We stormed Area 51!

In-game: 2 aliens presrved and mounted to the wall.

What we found within the most secretive of facilities was a baffling duality. Everything within Area 51 was extreme. Made You Think Escapes’ hits were bullseyes… and their misses landed in a different zip code.

Half of the set was incredible and half was drab (frequently olive).

Some of the puzzles and challenges were great, while others were confusing or, in one lengthy instance, aggressively frustrating. I cannot recall a puzzle that made me feel this frustrated with teammates that I love.

I’ll add that the game introduction and lobby were categorically fantastic.

Area 51 was a strange game to review. When I think back, the stuff that I liked I loved, and the things that I disliked I hated. It’s difficult for me to understand the disparity on display in this escape game.

There were some really interesting things going on in Area 51. If you’re in Colorado Springs and can take the bad with the good, then there would be something worth playing here. Just don’t hold that first puzzle or two against your teammates.

Who is this for?

  • Communicative players
  • Scenery snobs (the early game notwithstanding)
  • Sci-fi fans
  • Players with at least some experience

Why play?

  • The lobby
  • The late-game set design

Story

Due to increased extraterrestrial activity, the governments of the world had been forced to admit the existence of alien life. The US government had decided to open up Area 51 for tours to help us better understand the peaceful beings that had contacted us.

While we were visiting, a sudden attack had commenced on the facility because the aliens had learned that some of our scientists had been experimenting on their brethren.

Caught between both sides, we had to find shelter.

The entryway to Area 51 S-4. The walls are metal, and there is radio active material off to the side.

Setting

Made You Think Escapes’ Area 51 had a confounding set. The two halves felt like they were built by completely different companies.

The lobby and final room were gorgeous, detailed, and unique.

The first actual room looked like the most basic of escape rooms from a few years back. The range of build quality was striking.

In-game: A pair of camo jackets beside an american flag.

Gameplay

Made You Think Escapes’ Area 51 was a standard escape room with a split beginning and a high level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around communication, observation, searching, and puzzling.

In-game: Closeup of a communications panel with multiple lights and a big red button.

Analysis

➕ Made You Think Escapes had a large, open lobby from which players could enter any of their games. Each game had a different aesthetic, clearly demonstrated by its door. These doorways were enticing and exciting. We loved how this space was set up.

➕ The intro video for Area 51 was hilarious. It was thematically appropriate and had us engaged in understanding the rules.

➕ Area 51 escalated well. The early sets weren’t much to behold, but it opened up into something otherworldly.

➖ Area 51 had a brutally hard first challenge. There was practically no on-ramp. This was especially challenging considering the split-team beginning. The net effect was that right out of the gate, Area 51 felt like a frustrating slog. (It did recover later.)

➖ Made You Think Escapes gave us tools, and there were so many things we could have taken apart that weren’t supposed to be fiddled with. If you give me a Phillips-head screwdriver, the only Phillips in the experience should be intended for removal.

➖/➕ The set design was decidedly uneven. The beginning of the game was completely uninspired, but the late game looked incredible. It was difficult to fathom how such a significant disparity existed within the same escape game.

➖ There wasn’t a lot to do in Area 51. There were a few puzzley puzzles and one of these had unnecessarily confusing wording, which diminished the fun of an otherwise good puzzle.

➕ We enjoyed one cleverly clued search.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.

Book your hour with Made You Think Escapes’ Area 51, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Made You Think Escapes comped our tickets for this game.

Disclosure: Our trip to Denver was sponsored by the Denver escape room community. Contributions were anonymous.

13th Hour Escape Rooms – The Trophy Room [Review]

“What a lovely room of death.”

Location:  Wharton, NJ

Date Played: October 27, 2019

Team size: up to 8; we recommend 3-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $29 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

13th Hour Escape Rooms has become northern New Jersey’s most consistently high quality escape room company. We’ve played and enjoyed 7 games from this company and awarded them with 2 Golden Lock-In Awards (2017 & 2018).

It’s going to come as no surprise that The Trophy Room was a fun game. This was 13th Hour’s 6th escape room set in the Hayden Family’s farm of torture, murder, and cannibalism. The facility itself was fully themed against this backdrop.

As usual, this was a challenging, puzzley game in a grimly beautiful environment.

In-game: A skeleton mounted from the ceiling, a light above its head.

We played during October, so we had the Hayden Family haunt actors doing their Tim Burton-esque, whimsically creepy antics to distract, entertain, and hint us.

The Trophy Room lacked a truly arresting moment like some of their other games have had. It’s an all-around great game. We just wanted to see something that really blew our minds.

If you’re in New Jersey, 13th Hour Escape Rooms is a must-visit company. We’d easily put The Trophy Room in the top 3 games that they have on the premises. So long as you can handle a bit of creepiness, I highly recommend taking a gander at The Trophy Room.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Strong puzzle play
  • Amusing interactions
  • A great creepy set

Story

John Hayden has a special room on his farm where he keeps trophies of his victims. The old murder farmer continues his search for the ultimate trophy. Would he find that individual in our group?

In-game: A plant that includes the shrunken head of a clown.

Setting

All of 13th Hour Escape Rooms’ games were part of a unified setting. The Trophy Room extended the aesthetic of the Hayden farm into new areas of the “house.”

The Trophy Room was visually striking from the opening moments, as we took in the space, surrounded by tastefully mounted human skeletons. It looked great; 13th Hour Escape Rooms’ craftsmanship always does.

In-game: Two skeletons mounted to beams on the wall.

13th Hour Escape Rooms struck a creepy and intense vibe without turning full horror. Additionally, while their games all look dirty and gritty, they are kept quite clean. (This isn’t always the case in escape rooms.)

Gameplay

13th Hour Escape Rooms’ The Trophy Room was a standard escape room with a high level of difficulty.

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

In-game: The gritty, furniture of The Trophy Room.

Analysis

➕ The scenery looked outstanding. 13th Hour Escape Rooms built a large, rugged, weathered set. It established the mood of the experience and was fun to explore.

➕ Although we started among John Hayden’s trophies, as we played The Trophy Room we explored other areas of the Hayden farm. These unexpected sets added charm to the Hayden mystique. We enjoyed the variety within the experience.

❓ 13th Hour generally builds more around escape room logic than narrative. That is part of their charm. They’ve successfully merged thematic with escape room norms, crafting their own style in both aesthetics and gameplay. They make it work. If you’re looking for serious storytelling, however, that’s not present in their games.

➖ Although The Trophy Room had a reveal – and this was enhanced by the actors who roamed the games in October – it wasn’t on the same scale that we’ve seen from this company in the past.

➕ 13th Hour reskinned a traditional escape room puzzle for the theme of The Trophy Room. It worked well.

➖ 13th Hour Escape Rooms steered clear of a laundry list of tropes, but one that they did use should be hung up and retired.

➕/➖ The Trophy Room had many strong tech-driven reveals, but a few of them made odd use of keypads. It was difficult to map individual puzzles to their inputs.

The Trophy Room was a more intimate game than those we’ve seen most recently from 13th Hour Escape Rooms. That isn’t to say it was small, but rather that the gameplay was more accessible for a smaller group size. That said, it lacked the grandeur that impressed us in The Grand Parlor and The Great Room.

➕ Many of the puzzles in the The Trophy Room worked best with teamwork. They made use of the space and the details within it.

➕ The ending might be the final nail in the coffin for some scaredy cats. (Although 13th Hour Escape Rooms’ games aren’t scary, they are creepy enough to put some folks on edge.) We loved this conclusion. In our October playthrough, the ending was personal and playful.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is parking available.
  • If you visit during a weekend in October, the actors roam the Hayden Family Farm, the set for all the 13th Hour Escape Rooms. They are more creepy and playful then scary. They are a fun addition to the games, if that’s your thing.

Book your hour with 13th Hour Escape Rooms’ The Trophy Room, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: 13th Hour Escape Rooms comped our tickets for this game.

Escaped in Time – Sweet Dreams [Review]

The world’s turned upside down

Location:  Colorado Springs, CO

Date Played: September 9, 2019

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

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $30 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [B] Emergency Key

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

Sweet Dreams was an adorable game with a great twist: everything was inverted.

In-game: A girl's dresser and oversized teddy bear all upside down.

Escaped in Time produced a straight forward, traditional escape room with smooth gameplay and a pair of memorable moments.

I would have loved to see a little more depth to the narrative and the interactions to truly round out this experience.

Overall, Sweet Dreams was a solid escape game in Colorado Springs. If you’re in the area and want something lighthearted and fun, check out Escaped in Time.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Any experience level
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • The room was upside down!
  • Adorable and whimsical

Story

KC, a typical 5 year old girl with a love of kittens, ponies, and unicorns, had an active imagination. Sometimes it got the better of her.

Our job was to lovingly help her through her dreams and prevent the bad thoughts from disrupting her sleep.

In-game: An upside down girl's bedroom with a bed, toys, and a dollhouse.

Setting

These photos weren’t flipped; Sweet Dreams was built entirely upside down. The room looked like it belonged to a little girl. The toys, clothes, and decorations all looked the part.

As the game progressed, the additional effects reinforced the dream like nature of the experience.

If it had been right-side up, it wouldn’t have looked even remotely special. The inversion, however, made Sweet Dreams delightful.

In-game: An upside down shelf with a pair of unicorns and a flower.

Gameplay

Escaped in Time’s Sweet Dreams was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

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

Analysis

➕ The set was adorable. Escaped in Time created a little girl’s bedroom and perfectly inverted it. It was familiar, but also entirely discoverable.

➕ Escaped in Time committed to their flip. We’ve seen upside down rooms before. While they usually fall victim to inconsistency, Sweet Dreams was entirely upended.

➕ We found unexpected enjoyment in typical escape room tasks such as searching and placing objects “on” other objects. These felt fresh again.

➖ A few of the puzzles felt like key for key puzzles, although perhaps lock for lock would be a more accurate term. These moments felt hollow. There was opportunity to do something more interesting.

➖ Although we thought one puzzle caught the story beautifully, it bottlenecked. Due to a conflation of puzzle type, room layout, tools, and gameflow, too many people ended up waiting around.

➕ Despite foreshadowing some of its best moments, we were still surprised when these dropped. Sweet Dreams had a stellar reveal.

➖ The last interaction seemed tacked on to an escape room that would have been complete without it. This interaction didn’t make sense in the context of anything that came before it. Our story had already ended.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.

Book your hour with Escaped in Time’s Sweet Dreams, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Escaped in Time comped our tickets for this game.

Disclosure: Our trip to Denver was sponsored by the Denver escape room community. Contributions were anonymous.

Puzzah! – The Curse [Review]

Puzzah Express

Location:  Broomfield, CO

Date Played: September 6, 2019

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

Duration: 30 minutes

Price: $25 per player

Ticketing: Private

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

The Curse felt like a miniature 5 Wits.

This Puzzah! location was in a mall, right by the food court. The Curse was a compact, tech-driven, family-friendly puzzle game. It was bright, colorful, and approachable.

In-game: wide angle view of the Mayan tomb, a pyramid in the middle of hte room, an large wall mounted puzzle beyond it.

The Curse looked good. It played well. It was not deep. This was a game made for a general audience; for that audience, it was great.

If you’re a diehard escape room player, play The Curse to experience something a bit different. This game had solid automation and adaptive difficulty, which was lovely to see, even if the game was not designed for me and my team.

Bring the kids and convince grandma to come too. This one is for the whole family.

Who is this for?

  • Newbies
  • Children
  • Families
  • Technophiles

Why play?

  • A vibrant family-friendly environment
  • Interesting automation and technology
  • Puzzle play that will engage a family

Story

We descended into an ancient Central American temple on contract with industrialist Victor Maragana. Our mission was to reason our way past the temple’s traps and obtain a long-lost coin.

In-game: A sun etched in the wall of the ruins.

Setting

The Curse was a compact, bright, colorful, and tech-driven Central American temple for families.

Calling it kiddie evokes a cheesiness and cheapness that wasn’t accurate. This was a solidly-constructed space that seemed designed to feel like an adventure without sending anyone home with a nightmare.

The adaptive technology was a smart touch to keep things fair and flowing for players of all ages and skills.

In-game: A large cube resting atop a pyramid in inside of bright ruins.

Gameplay

Puzzah!’s The Curse was a family-friendly escape room with a low level of difficulty.

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

In-game: closeup of a radio and a blacklight.

Analysis

➕ The Curse was designed for families, new players, and casual players stopping by while strolling through the mall. This 30-minute escape room was the right level of not-too-challenging for its intended audience.

➕ Aesthetically, The Curse was “ancient Aztec meets grade-school classroom.” It was thematically a Central American tomb, but it had bright colors for kids to follow to solve the puzzles. It was a bit strange, but it worked well in this context. It felt deliberately designed and looked polished.

➕ The Curse had a gentle on-ramp. It taught players how to interact with the space.

➕ The puzzles were solid. They were fun, team-based challenges. Puzzah! would present additional complexity as teams built mastery.  

➕ /➖ Puzzah! built a lot of puzzles into a small space. On the one hand, we appreciated the different ways they used the same props and input mechanisms. On the other hand, by the end of the game, the use of the same items was feeling redundant and we wanted more to interact with… or even just interplay between different props.

The Curse encouraged teamwork and sharing by design. When puzzles could only be solved by one person at a time, it even told the group that the next person should step up and take their turn at this trial. I can see this working wonders on sibling nonsense.

➖ The Curse lacked a boss fight. We wanted that final puzzle to be a more challenging, epic battle that necessitated teamwork. Also, we couldn’t actually hold the coin. When we won, we left the room empty handed. This seemed like a missed opportunity.

Tips For Visiting

  • Puzzah! Broomfield is located in the FlatIron Crossing Mall. Puzzah! Broomfield is at the South Entrance just beside Old Navy, right next to the food court.

Book your hour with Puzzah!’s The Curse, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Puzzah! comped our tickets for this game.

Disclosure: Our trip to Denver was sponsored by the Denver escape room community. Contributions were anonymous.