Sherlock’s Escape Rooms – The Wild West [Review]

Yeehaw!

Location:  Florence, Kentucky

Date Played:  December 30, 2018

Team size: 2-12; we recommend 4-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $26 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit: Yes

REA Reaction

The Wild West was traditional and innovative.

Sherlock’s Escape Rooms built puzzle-focused, escape room gameplay with some added twists.

With an unusual win-condition, The Wild West focused on collection, which gave everyone a fighting chance at winning, even if they couldn’t solve some of the puzzles. This approach kept our team busy for the entire hour.

In-game: The word "BANK" cut from corrugated Aluminum. Below it is a barred door and beyond it, a vault door.

The Wild West also included some unorthodox gameplay moments that were both exciting and a little unnerving. It wasn’t anything terrible or dangerous, but we were legitimately confused as to what we were supposed to do, why we were supposed to do it, and what the implications would be if we ignored it.

Overall, we enjoyed our first (and so far, only) escape room in Kentucky. Sherlock’s Escape Rooms had a passion for their work that was infectious. The energy and creativity shined throughout the experience, even when we found ourselves a bit confounded.

Regardless of your experience level, there was fun to be had in The Wild West if you are willing to surrender to the chaos and puzzle through it.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle cowboys
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Gamemastering enthusiasm
  • Puzzle density
  • Atypical win condition

Story

We were part of Jesse James’ posse and owed our boss a gambling debt of $3,000. He had sent word that he was on his way. His train would roll in an hour.

Either we were going to give him his $3,000 or he was going to give us a some bullets. It was heist time.

In-game: A small craps table beside a strange wooden construction with nails protruding from it.

Setting

We stepped into an Old West-themed escape room that was half saloon and half bank; both sets held money to steal.

The set was clearly a labor of love, if a little uneven. Certain portions of the set looked great; others seemed cobbled together from scrap hardware.

In-game: Shot over a poker table, a gated doorway in the background.

Gameplay

Sherlock’s Escape Rooms’ The Wild West was a standard escape room with a twist and a moderate level of difficulty.

As a twist, our goal was to steal at least $3,000, not necessarily to complete all the puzzles. As long as we had solved enough to pay the debt at the end of 60 minutes, we would win. (We left one puzzle unsolved.)

Core gameplay revolved around searching and puzzling.

In-game: Closeup of a small bar featuring old liquor bottles.

Analysis

➕ We didn’t need to solve every puzzle to complete our mission. We liked this twist on typical escape room-style gameplay. The mission-based play worked well with this staging.

➕/➖ There were plenty of puzzles in The Wild West… more than most teams will solve in an hour. There was always something to solve. That said, many of these were purchased puzzles that would be more suited to lobbies than in-game gameplay. They weren’t integrated into the set or props of the escape room.

In-game: Closeup of a blow that is labeled "Alive Reward."

➕/➖ Sherlock’s Escape Rooms tried out some novel ideas and fabricated the puzzle mechanisms themselves. We enjoyed the concepts, but the implementations and clue structures needed refinement. Gameplay and prop manipulation were messy. In one case, the mechanism was easy to hack, which made the puzzle less functional.

➕/➖ The Wild West included a few amusing and surprising moments. Sherlock’s Escape Rooms delivered these through an atypical sequence. We found this to be well-intentioned, but off-putting and a bit frustrating. Although we enjoyed the reveals as part of this sequence, the design felt uncomfortable and needed refinement.

➖ Many of the locks in the final scene in The Wild West were in rough shape.

➕  The folks at Sherlock’s Escape Rooms were really enthusiastic about their work. Their excitement felt genuine. They were all about embracing the fiction and having their customers do the same.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.

Book your hour with Sherlock’s Escape Rooms’ The Wild West, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Sherlock’s Escape Rooms provided media discounted tickets for this game.

Calliope Games – Double Double Dominoes [Review]

Dominoes with a puzzley twist.

Location:  at home

Date Played: January 8, 2019

Team size: 2-4 (6 with an expansion); we recommend 3-4

Duration: 30-60 minutes

Price: $29

Publisher: Calliope Games

REA Reaction

We’ve been on a kick to find tabletop games that are easy to learn, quick to play, and feel puzzley. Double Double Dominoes is the first one that we’re writing about.

A full board at the end of the game.

Double Double Dominoes was a Dominoes/ Scrabble hybrid that we found more interesting than traditional Dominoes and a whole lot more approachable than Scrabble.

We were playing Dominoes against one another, but scoring points based on the placement of our tiles on the board. It started off straightforward, but as we placed more pieces, the variables and opportunities to score grew into an elaborate conundrum. When coupled with a mechanic that meant that any player could score on anyone’s turn, Double Double Dominoes turned out to be a thoroughly engaging game.

If you’re looking for a classic style board game that’s easy to pick up, friendly for players of all ages, and comfortably plays 3 or 4 people, Double Double Dominoes would be a great choice. It’s staying in our game collection.

Closeup of the board, featuring three point indicators in close proximity to one another.

Who is this for?

  • Tabletop gamers who don’t require fancy components or elaborate rules
  • Competitive puzzlers
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • You can learn the rules in under 5 minutes
  • Straightforward gameplay with a reasonable amount of strategic depth
  • Piece placement feels like a puzzle, especially in the mid and late game

Setup

We played Double Double Dominoes by chaining dominoes together like we were playing a more classic game of dominoes… but we were doing it on a scrabble-like board with score tiles.

There were a few other rules. This video does a good job of explaining everything… even if it’s a bit cheesy.

Gameplay

Calliope Games’ Double Double Dominoes was a classic-style board game with a gentle learning curve.

Core gameplay revolved around pattern recognition, strategic thinking, and bit of luck.

The center of a fresh Double Double Dominoes board.

Analysis

➕ The first few rounds of Double Double Dominoes were gentle, with few options. This created a lovely on-ramp for the game and allowed everyone to get comfortable with the rules and mechanics.

➕ Double Double Dominoes was simple to learn and teach. We pretty much just opened the box and started playing. There were a few nuances, but nothing crazy.

➕ Every player could score on every play. This kept everyone engaged. It meant that the nature of gameplay shifted constantly. It drove the pace of play.

➖ The score markers were fairly transparent, but we regularly found it difficult to tell which number our pieces were resting on.

Closeup of two point indicators, one on a 4, the other on a 5.
It’s easier to see the difference in values in this photo than it was in real life.

➕/➖ Double Double Dominoes was much more interesting with 3 or 4 players than it was with 2 players.

➖ This was a small nitpick, but it would have been nice if the tips of the starbursts for point tiles were colored to match the tiles’ value.

Closeup showing how the dominoes cover the color of a point tile.
If those diamonds maintained the color of the center, it would help newer or forgetful players with scoring.

➕ After playing quite a few games, most of the time, the person who played the best won. There were a couple of games where it felt like luck was the prevailing factor. This happens in any game that involves chance. The balance seemed fine.

The board mid-game.

❓ The rules called for players to draw a new tile at the start of their turns. We opted to introduce a house rule where players drew at the end of their turns. This allowed everyone to familiarize themselves with their tiles and evaluate all of their options on other players’ turns. We found that this sped up the pace of the game.

Tips For Player

  • Space Requirements: a small table or the floor

Buy your copy of Calliope Games’ Double Double Dominoes, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Calliope Games 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.)

The Mortality Machine [Review]

90% feels

Location:  New York City

Date Played: January 26, 2019

Team size: up to 20 people

Duration: 120 minutes

Price: $125 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Restraints

REA Reaction

The Mortality Machine was something different. It was strange, profound, and heartfelt. It’s deep enough that I am not sure how far down one would have to dive to find the bottom.

In-experience: 4 players looking over something with intense facial expressions.
Image via Sinking Ship Creations. Photo by Zack Filkoff.

Sinking Ship Creations describes their experience as “an immersive theatre experience that combines live-action roleplay and site specific dance to allow you, the participants, to become the protagonists of the story. ”

I think that a more accurate description is: “The Mortality Machine is a live-action roleplay (LARP) that combines elements of immersive theatre, escape rooms, and site specific dance to allow you, the participants, to become the protagonists of the story.”

The Mortality Machine was mostly about playing a character in extraordinary circumstances and finding human moments with the other characters. The puzzles were straightforward and would get solved. Game mechanics would inevitably be triggered. It was up to each individual player to create their own moments.

With the story and emotional stage set, each of us had to step out of ourselves and into our characters.

A number of small improvements to game mechanics could make it easier for every player to comfortably focus on what matters most. Sinking Ship Creations has been rapidly iterating on the production, so I assume they will continue to make improvements.

Lisa and I had incredible experiences in The Mortality Machine. Your mileage will vary based on the gameplay and character decisions that you and the rest of the players make.

If you’re looking for a puzzle-focused, goal-oriented game, skip The Mortality Machine and book an escape room.

If you want to be a passive observer and take in a meticulously scripted performance, skip The Mortality Machine.

If you’re willing to explore humanity and emotions by embracing a little bit of roleplay, and you’re happy to occasionally solve a puzzle and take in a beautifully scripted moment, then The Mortality Machine is a must-play. The catch is: you have to commit. The best moments will be born of your willingness to embrace your character and be that person.

In-experience: show co-creator Ryan Hart speaking to the players.
Image via Sinking Ship Creations. Photo by Zack Filkoff.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Story seekers
  • Best for people open to an emotional experience
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every interaction
  • It’s playable by people with any experience level, but the more experience you have with roleplaying, improvisation, and acting, the easier you’ll find it to get into character.
  • Players who are ok with having to work for their moments

Why play?

  • If you embrace the experience fully, there are some serious feels to find
  • The story and characters are surprisingly impactful
  • It’s an amazing introductory LARP

Story

In 2014, 5 people died in an underground medical experiment. After years of litigation, the loved ones of the deceased were granted access to the illegal lab.

Setting

The Mortality Machine was built into New York City’s immersive stage Wildrence. It spanned their entire basement set.

Each room within Wildrence was adapted to represent a new environment within the game. It was a good location for the game. Having visited multiple experiences in the space, I think that this was one of the more extensive and effective adaptations that we’ve seen.

In-experience: A player strapped to a gurney.
Image via Sinking Ship Creations. Photo by Zack Filkoff.

Gameplay

The Mortality Machine was a LARP that blended elements of escape room and immersive theatre into the fabric of its gameplay and script.

Core gameplay revolved around conversing, improvising in character, and emotionally connecting with other players and non-player characters.

There were additional escape room gameplay elements that involved searching, puzzling, observing, and making connections. These elements were decidedly secondary. Focusing on them at the expense of the emotional component was thoroughly detrimental.

Analysis

➕ Every player was cast into their role at the door. Rita, the greeter, was impressively talented at this.

➕ Our character descriptions on the back of our name tags were short, yet potent. We weren’t overburdened with tons of lore and backstory, but we had enough to figure out our motivations, our connection to the deceased, and our relationship to the other people from our “family.”

➖ It felt like there was a missing step in our on-boarding process. We needed just a few minutes to get acquainted with the descriptions on our character cards before we had to be those characters. My character card lacked critical relational information that another character had. The gap really put me in a bind at the onset of the experience. (I made it work.) Finally, our character cards had bolded names on them. It would have been helpful if we were explicitly told that bolded names were player characters.

➕/➖ The day before attending The Mortality Machine, we received an email with a few short articles and letters and an FAQ to help frame the experience. We read these on the train to the venue. While these weren’t required reading, it was immediately apparent who had or hadn’t read the materials based on whether they knew the disease that all of the victims had. A lot of folks didn’t read it.

➕ The introduction was well structured to add little bits of additional information and complexity at a time.

In-experience: 4 players looking at a computer with intense facial expressions.
Image via Sinking Ship Creations. Photo by Zack Filkoff.

➕ There were some light puzzles that seemed to play cleanly.

➖ I don’t think that everyone playing understood that this was neither a puzzle game nor a show. LARPs aren’t a mainstream thing. Unlike escape rooms or most immersive theatre, LARPs aren’t easy to enter cold and experience fully. You have commit to your role to earn your own moments through emotional connections, conversation, and action. It felt like a lot of people needed more on-boarding with regards to emotional play… but it was far too easy to just hyper-focus on the puzzles in the beginning of the experience.

➖ One of the puzzles pertaining to Lisa’s character’s loved one failed. Either the component wasn’t there at the start of the experience or someone deliberately or inadvertently misplaced it early on. Her group struggled to fully immerse themselves in the character moments because they had this unfinished task and they didn’t know how important it was. The failure here wasn’t the missing prop, but the lack of a failsafe to seamlessly assist the group through the mishap.

➕ There were some amazing shared moments, experienced with most of the group. These scenes surprised and confounded us while launching the next act.

➖ One critical moment involved a device with insufficient speakers, given the amount of commotion going on in the game. I couldn’t hear most of what should have been a powerful establishing moment for me.

➖ We didn’t fully understand how to operate a critical game mechanic… and we didn’t really need to… but there came a point where the nature of this interaction changed and that wasn’t clear enough to be satisfying.

➖ At the end of the experience, the players were rushed out of the space. Depending on where we’d experienced the last scene, we were rushed out more or less quickly, which was also confusing. There was an opportunity to go upstairs to a bar for conversation… but not everyone found out that this was an option. The rushing also juxtaposed sourly against the warmth of the experience.

❓The decisions that we made mattered, some more than others. It was possible to take actions early on that profoundly and permanently impacted an individual’s path and experience. This wasn’t inherently good or bad; it just was. Because of this, you really ought to act as your character, not as a gamer or theater goer seeking thrills, secrets, or private moments.

❓ The Mortality Machine came with a ton of variability. Each individual player’s experience was the direct result of how they were spot cast, how much they committed to their role, and how well their relations played and committed to their roles.

Was she playing a believable sister? Did she open up and let you connect with her? Was she fumbling around with searching the space for 90 minutes? I focused on having conversations and moments with the people who were engaged and that paid off for me.

❓ Yes, there were a number of different possible endings. It would be possible to actively strive for a particular ending. I suspect that others saw it differently, but I felt like focusing on a desired outcome would be counterproductive. I think that I had a better experience because I remained focused on my character’s motivations and relationships.

➕ I enjoyed the poetry and calmness of the ending that we earned.

➕ Lisa and I experienced so many emotional moments in The Mortality Machine. Our feels ran the gamut, including anger, compassion, joy, and sorrow, among others.

In one of my most genuine character moments of the evening, I found myself screaming at a non-player character (which was breaking a rule, a fact that I forgot in the moment) and he went right there with me.

Lisa’s most profound moment was a meaningful gesture that filled her with both joy and sorrow. She teared up.

Tips For Visiting

  • Parking: It’s Manhattan, maybe don’t drive? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
  • Food: The venue is in Chinatown. You’ll have no problems finding food and drink.
  • Accessibility: You’ll need to be able to ascend/ descend one stairway to enter/ exit the venue.

Book your session with Sinking Ship Creations’ The Mortality Machine, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Cincinnati Escape Room – The Upside Down [Review]

Home of Will the Wise.

Location:  Cincinnati, Ohio

Date Played:  December 30, 2018

Team size: 2-8; we recommend 4-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit: Yes

REA Reaction

The Upside Down was an unapologetic and loving homage to Stranger Things. With a bit of set dressing and a strong emphasis on puzzles, this played as a well-executed traditional escape room.

It had some tech. It had some set embellishments. This was, however, primarily a puzzle game and we enjoyed it.

Regardless of experience level, if you find yourself in Cincinnati, and you’re looking for a traditional puzzle-driven escape room, this is a game to play, especially if you’re a fan of Stranger Things.

In-game: Christmas lights strung with the numbers 2 & 6 hanging from them. Below it, a door with wood panels that have the words, "Home of Will The Wise" and "Castle Byers," painted on them.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Fans of Stranger Things
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Faithful theming
  • Fun puzzles

Story

The Seven Forces was an organization dedicated to capturing powerful artifacts hidden throughout time and space.

We had to visit a small town in Indiana during the 1980s and contend with a mystical evil in possession of an artifact.

In-game: The letters A-Z painted on the wall, each has a single Christmas light lit above it.

Setting

Within the wood-paneled walls of a 1980s basement, we found lots of puzzles and Stranger Things references.

While the set had charming details and sufficiently conveyed where we were, it wasn’t the focus of the game. Cincinnati Escape Room emphasized the puzzles.

In-game: Closeup of an Atari and it's joysticks.

Gameplay

Cincinnati Escape Room’s The Upside Down was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

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

In-game: The word "Start" above the beginning of some sort of maze.

Analysis

➕ The Upside Down was well themed. It felt true to its inspiration without being frightening.

➕/➖ Although the theming was clear, and generally on point, a few puzzles seemed strangely unrelated.

➕ We enjoyed the puzzles in The Upside Down. There was a lot of solve. We liked that keen observation, rather than sustained searching, yielded a large volume of puzzles.

➕ Many of the puzzles required teamwork. We appreciated this facet of Cincinnati Escape Room’s design.

➖ We entered the space with headlamp flashlights, supposedly as a thematic choice to embellish the experience. As we played the opening moments, however, these felt more like an afterthought. One didn’t work; another was weak. This sequence made it hard to pick up momentum at the onset of the experience.

In-game: A small makeshift bed in a sheet tent with a box of eggo waffles sitting on it.

➖ One precise puzzle was a bit out of sync. The concept was clever, but it seemed like the tech may need more regular maintenance.

➕ Cincinnati Escape Room implemented a pair of key moments exceptionally well. It wasn’t at all finicky. We’ve knocked a lot of companies in the past for getting this kind of thing wrong.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.
  • We enjoyed a post-game stop at Urban Artifact.
  • Cincinnati Escape Room is part of The Seven Forces family. See our review of The Summons to see what else The Seven Forces is up to.

Book your hour with Cincinnati Escape Room’s The Upside Down, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

YULU – Cut the Wire [Review]

Snip. Snip. Boom!

Location:  at home

Date Played:  December 20, 2018

Team size: 1-10; we recommend 2-4

Duration: 5 -15 minutes per round

Price: $33

Publisher: YULU

REA Reaction

Cut the Wire was a bomb defusal game, rooted in turn-based deduction and chance. Our goal was to use clues and a bit of luck to cut the right wire.

Cut the Wire's packaging.

As far as straightforward, kid-friendly games go, this was about as enjoyable a game as I’ve seen. The interactions felt great. There was a solid mix of luck and skill, and a round of play never lasted more than a few minutes. This is one of YULU’s strongest offerings (although their essentially unreleased Fire Quest is still our favorite #Justice4FireQuest).

Additionally, I think it’s the kind of toy that could break out of board game play and be used for imaginative play (provided that you don’t have a problem with the subject matter).

If that sounds like it will fit into your family’s game night… then give it a clip.

Who is this for?

  • Deductive puzzlers
  • Kids
  • Families

Why play?

  • Cutting the wires was bafflingly satisfying
  • Fast-paced

Objective

 Cut the right wire and disarm the bomb.

The bomb, dice, and wirecutter.

Setup

We plugged in all of the wires and turned the game on. We then rolled the die and did as the die commanded.

Everyone took a turn, rolling the die and doing as it said. We repeated until someone cut the defuse wire and won… or cut the detonate wire and lost.

A wire being cut.

Wires

There were nine wires: 3 green, 3 blue, and 3 red.

Each wire was also labeled with a shape: circle, square, or triangle.

Closeup of a cut wire.

Dice

A turn consisted of rolling the die, then doing what the die commanded.

The die could tell you to:

  • Get a Clue (1/6 chance) – Push a button and receive a random hint as to which wire was either the defuse or the detonate wire.
  • Cut a Wire (2/6 chance) – Cut a wire blindly, without getting any clues that round.
  • Clue + Cut (2/6 chance) – Take a clue, then cut a wire in a single turn.
  • Clue + Force Cut (1/6 chance)– Take a clue, then force another player to cut a wire of your own choosing.

Game End

The game concluded when someone cut the defuse wire and won or cut the detonate wire and lost.

“Timed Mode” added 1 additional hurdle of a 15-second clock to complete an action. Failure to take an action within the allotted time would detonate the device.

Gameplay

Spy Code’s Cut the Wire was a play-at-home game of deduction and chance with a low level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around deduction, memorization, and chance.

The hint screen.

Analysis

➕ The device was designed as a caricature of a bomb. It looked fun and non-threatening.

➕ The physical act of cutting wires in Cut the Wire was especially pleasing. The wire cutters had a good feel to them. The sound, sight, and feel of clipping was delightful.

➖ I found a little too much variation in cut tension. Most of the wires felt great. One was too hard to cut. One felt just a touch too loose.

➕ I cut the loosest wire about 40 times to see if it would break. It did not. Similarly, the stiffest wire didn’t loosen. This speaks well to Cut the Wire’s durability.

➕ The clue system was great. The display was recessed deep into the device such that it was easy for the active player to see it and difficult for other players to sneak a glance.

The wirecutters attached to the back of the bomb.

➕ There was a clip on the back of the device that perfectly held the wire cutters and die (all of the things you need to play). This made me inordinately happy.

The dice attached to the back of the bomb.

➖ We found it a bit difficult to visually distinguish the shapes printed on the wires. If I were planning to play regularly, I’d modify the game by taking a Sharpie marker to the shapes to make them easier to see.

➕ Cut the Wire was easy to set up, quick to learn, and approachable for most ages. It was simple, but there was an actual game to play.

Tips For Player

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

Disclosure: YULU 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.)

Unlock! – The Tonipal’s Treasure [Review]

H-arrrrr-d pass matey. 

Location:  at home

Date Played: December 11, 2018

Team size: 1-6; we recommend 2-3

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $14

Publisher: Asmodee

REA Reaction

Well… this is awkward. We made 2 different attempts to play Unlock!’s The Tonipal’s Treasure. In both cases we broke the game’s sequencing… and it was messy. 

As experienced Unlock! players, we understand how the series functions, but even when we tried our best, we broke the game and found ourselves utterly lost. In the end, we flipped all of the cards over, deduced the correct solve path, and finished the game. 

UNLOCK Tonipal's Treasure box, depicts a pirate ship with treasure.

There were a few cool puzzles… but they were buried under the frustration of some obtuse interactions and a flawed hint system. 

As charming as some of this game was, it was too broken to recommend in its current state. Fortunately for Unlock!, it could probably be fixed with a software update. 

Who is this for?

  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • People who understand that this game is easily broken and are willing to adjust accordingly. 
  • Players with at least some experience

Why play?

  • Some interesting mechanics
  • Charming moments
  • To learn from the mistakes made in this game

Story

Many sought Captain Smith’s buried treasure. We were in a race to find it and dig it up before our rivals did. 

In-game: The initial setup of Tonipal's Treasure

Setup

Unlock! is an entirely card-based series that uses a mobile app to handle hints, timer, and a few puzzle solution inputs. The Tonipal’s Treasure followed the same structure.

I have explained the core mechanics in more detail in a past review: 

In-game: The Prison cell layout.

Gameplay

Asmodee’s The Tonipal’s Treasure was a play-at-home escape game with a high level of difficulty.

Most of the challenge came from identifying the puzzles. It proved difficult to determine which puzzles were active at any given point in the game.

Core gameplay revolved around observing, puzzling, and card management.

In-game: The Prison cell layout, all cards revealed.

Analysis

The Tonipal’s Treasure’s narrative and characters were entertaining.

➖ In an effort to convey story, we gained access to too many cards at a time. We were constantly struggling to determine which puzzle we were supposed to work on. 

➖ Entirely too many puzzles required a logic leap.

The Tonipal’s Treasure’s put a heavy emphasis on hidden numbers.

➖ The Unlock! hint system was insufficient. It did a poor job of guiding us to the active puzzle components. The hints were either painfully obvious and useless, or gave us the solution without any explanation as to why. This meant that we could get the solution to a puzzle that wasn’t fully in play and accidentally jump out of sequence. 

➕ I think there actually could be a lot of good puzzles in this game… but only if the hint system were fixed.

➖ There were audio clues that were far too difficult to understand. 

➕ The Tonipal’s Treasure did something really interesting with the card design. 

‼️ The entire Unlock! series could benefit from a major hint system overhaul. If anyone from Asmodee is listening, section 3 of our 11 Principles of Tabletop Escape Game Design explains how to fix this.

Tips For Player

  • Space Requirements: a small table 
  • Required Gear: a smartphone with the Unlock! app

In its current state, I cannot recommend The Tonipal’s Treasure. Consider Squeek & Sausage or Adventures of Oz instead. 

Disclosure: Asmodee provided a sample for review. 

Amaze Escape – Art of the Heist [Review]

“9-1-1 this better be good.” -Chief Wiggum

Location:  Arlington, Massachusetts

Date Played: December 15, 2018

Team size: up to 10; we recommend 3-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $30 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit: Yes

REA Reaction

The Art of the Heist was a competent escape game with solid puzzle flow, good humor, integrated history, and a compelling, authentic setting.

Amaze Escape’s creation was held back by two frustrations: an overabundance of interesting red herrings and a painfully underdeveloped late-game sequence. These were serious momentum-killers, but are quite fixable.

Art of the Heist was a strong game that I wanted to enjoy more than I did. It just needed a bit more polish.

If you’re in the area and looking for a solid escape game in a unique and authentic setting, Art of the Heist would be a good choice.

In-game: The police station, featuring an American & Massachusetts flags, a coat hanger with a uniform and a desk with a computer.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • A genuine setting
  • Solid gameflow
  • An interesting final puzzle

Story

We were members of a syndicate of thieves tasked with stealing the world’s most valuable suitcase. Allegedly the suitcase had found its way into police custody in the town of Farlington, Massachusetts.

The syndicate had created a diversion, giving us an hour to break into the police evidence locker and retrieve our prize.

In-game: Close up of the electronic surveillance system box.

Setting

Amaze Escape was located in a building that formerly housed a municipal justice center. Their earlier game made use of the building’s authentic jail cell. Their latest game was set within the police station.

The concrete walls and generally drab setting was livened by a number of Simpsons references and other jokes. The setting was pretty perfect and was one of those instances where the real thing doesn’t necessarily look like TV or the movies, but feels like the genuine artifact.

In-game: the word "Taxachusetts" painted boldly on the wall.

Gameplay

Amaze Escape’s Art of the Heist was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching and puzzling.

Analysis

➕ Amaze Escape was located in a former municipal building that housed the court, jail, and police. They stuck to their roots again in their second game, The Art of the Heist, set it in a police station. It was believable.

➕ The puzzles flowed pretty smoothly. The gameplay generally worked well.

➖ We encountered one frustrating section. Ambiguous cluing, lack of necessary light sources, and choice of input mechanism came together aimlessly.

➖ Amaze Escape included substantial red herrings in The Art of the Heist. We kept looking for ways to interact with these significant props, only to find that they were simply ambiance. This was unfortunate because these red herrings were among the most interesting items in the game.

➕ We enjoyed one nifty late-game tech-driven solve. It was an intriguing design and amusingly precise.

➖ While we enjoyed the setup, we didn’t feel the narrative pressure of the heist scenario. The Art of the Heist lacked a moment of intensity and excitement that made our hearts race.

➕ I loved how Amaze Escape worked other bits of Boston heist history into their game, including the infamous Gardner Heist, which I had originally learned about from my favorite podcast, The Futility Closet.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is street parking nearby. Pay the meter.

Book your hour with Amaze Escape’s Art of the Heist, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Amaze Escape provided media discounted tickets for this game.

Houdini’s Room Escape – Oval Office [Review]

Hail to the Chief

Location:  Cincinnati, Ohio

Date Played:  December 28, 2018

Team size: 2-16; we recommend 4-7

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit: Yes

REA Reaction

Ever since we played this game, I’ve been pulling my phone out to show photos of the set to friends. It was absolutely amazing. For me, it was worth the price of admission simply to spend an hour in Houdini’s Room Escape’s recreation of the Oval Office. I deeply regret that I didn’t take a picture of myself pensively peering out the window.

In-game: The President's desk, and the seal of the President at Seal of the President.

From a gameplay standpoint, Oval Office was a traditional puzzle room with themed puzzles added into the set. Few puzzles felt deeply ingrained in either the environment or the story. In short, the gameplay felt dated.

Regardless of experience level, if you’re near Cincinnati, Oval Office is a must-play, if only for the novelty and craftsmanship that went into building the space.

That said, if you’re a newbie, I’d recommend playing at least one or two other escape rooms before tackling Oval Office. Afford yourself some comfort with the escape game format so that you can spend more time enjoying the space itself.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Presidential history buffs
  • Anyone who wants a picture of themselves sitting in the Oval Office
  • Players with at least some experience

Why play?

  • The room is a faithful recreation of the Oval Office.
  • Large volume of puzzles
  • That room. Seriously!

Story

While on a tour of the White House, we had wandered off from the group and found ourselves in the Oval Office. It was really cool until someone accidentally hit the President’s silent alarm and sealed off the office. We had to find our way out before the Secret Service found their way in.

In-game: George Washington's portrait over the Oval Office's mantle.

Setting

Oval Office looked like the Oval Office. This set was gorgeous.

The room was round. The rug, couches, desk, chair, windows… it all looked like the Oval Office.

While the room completely avoided modern political references, Oval Office had a number of iconic references to past presidents, most notably, Ronald Reagan’s jellybean jar and Harry Truman’s “The BUCK STOPS here!” sign.

In-game: President Truman's "The BUCK STOPS here!" sign on the President's desk.

Gameplay

Houdini’s Room Escape’s Oval Office was a standard escape room with a high level of difficulty.

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

In-game: a jar of jelly beans on the President's desk.

Analysis

➕ The set was phenomenal. Houdini’s Room Escape had faithfully recreated the Oval Office in their facility. It was oval, first and foremost, and sizable. It looked a lot like the real thing. The staging was impressive.

➕ Houdini’s Room Escape took advantage of the room’s unique layout. Oval Office hid its secrets… as one would expect. These reveals were the best moments of the escape room.

In-game: A 60 minute timer screen beside the windows and doors of the Oval Office.

➕ The gameplay was structured such that everyone could get involved early on and become familiar with the gamespace. Oval Office onboarded players well.

➕ Houdini’s Room Escape packed a lot of puzzle content into Oval Office.  There was a lot of gameplay in this exquisite room.

➖ Oval Office contained one puzzle that didn’t work well and wasn’t easy to access. Houdini’s Room Escape had attempted to make this one easier, but that change wasn’t clued, and instead left us awkwardly struggling to set this thing correctly… until the gamemaster bypassed it for us, which they do a lot, it seems. (The bypass was truly appreciated.)

In-game: Close up of George Washington's portrait.

➕ Houdini’s Room Escape added detail to the props and clue structure – through weathering and choice of materials – that made them feel more natural in the space. The set and props were lovingly crafted and presidentially themed. The hint system fit the space as well.

➖ For the most part, the gameplay felt tacked on to the room. The puzzles were in the props rather than the room itself. Although thematic, they weren’t integrated into our story or any one cohesive reason. It felt like playing a themed escape room on a grand stage rather than experiencing an escape from that stage.

In-game: The President's desk in a surprisingly accurate replica of the Oval Office.

➖ We had a frustrating playthrough with a bad reset that led to at least one fully bypassed puzzle and a lot of other confusion. Given the volume of content in this game, a reset issue was especially detrimental to our experience.

➕ The Oval Office was not non-partisan and not political. The design leaned into history. It was exciting to spend an hour in Oval Office.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.
  • We recommend La Grassa for nearby Gelato.

Book your hour with Houdini’s Room Escape’s Oval Office, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Houdini’s Room Escape comped our tickets for this game.

14 Innovative Escape Rooms in 2018

We wanted to take a moment to point out a number of escape rooms that we played in 2018 that did something truly innovative to push the escape room format in a different direction.

We saw tons more innovations in 2018, but these ones stuck out to us.

Presented in the order that we played them:

2018 Innovative Escape Rooms

Bogeyman

Trap Door Escape Room – Morristown, NJ

In-game: A strange purple glowing passageway.

Trap Door added a scare actor and turned an otherwise straightforward game into a frantic, challenging experience, as we were chased around and cornered by a monster.

Beat the Bomb

Brooklyn, NY

In-game: gif of Lisa, David, and Lindsay getting doused with a paint explosion.

Replayable and modular, Beat the Bomb felt more like a gameshow with different games within it than an escape room. It all concluded with a battle against time. When the clock struck zero, a giant paint bomb exploded all over us.

The Bunker: Strange Things at Hawkins Lab & The Shiners

Escape Woods – Powder Springs, GA

In-game: An old trailer in the middle of the woods. It's lit with a long strand of light bulbs.

Escape Woods games were raw and real. Both games felt like actual adventures.

The Diamond Heist

Get Out of Here – Utrecht, The Netherlands

The escape room briefing area.

Get Out of Here delivered the narrative of The Diamond Heist with a third person voiceover that told our story as we advanced through the game. This solved a number of escape room storytelling problems.

Jason’s Curse

Escape Room Rijswijk – Rijswijk, The Netherlands

In-game: a weathered basement wall with the words "KNOCK KNOCK WHO IS THERE" painted on it.

Escape Room Rijswijk did something incredible with their space, physically transforming the gameworld while we were within it. It was one hell of a trick.

The Pop Star’s Room of Doom

Real Escape Games by SCRAP – San Francisco, CA

In-game: view from one apartment window through another. Across the way is the popstar's blue walled apartment covered in 90s references.

The Pop Star’s Room of Doom wasn’t an escape room. It was something new: a time loop game. We were reliving the same actor-driven time loop, taking different actions each time, and trying to determine how to break the cycle and save the game’s main character.

It’s a Doggy Dog World

Level Games – North Hollywood, CAA

In-game: an oversized doghouse.

We played as dogs trying to get our favorite ball back. The vibe was unique, warm, and playful. We left this game wishing that there were more whimsical escape rooms.

We loved this game so much and we’re sad that it and Escapades LA are closed. I don’t know if its for sale, but if it is, someone should adopt it and give this pup a new home.

The Courtyard

THE BASEMENT – Sylmar, CA

In-game: an aged porch with a rocking chair.

The Courtyard had a jaw-dropping set, but its true innovation was how THE BASEMENT integrated an actor into the experience and gameplay. There’s a scene in this one that we will never forget.

The Experiment

Get the F Out –  Los Angeles, CA

In-game: torn ship's mast.

Designed for escape room enthusiasts, Get the F Out’s incredibly meta game, The Experiment, had two unusual innovations. One involved lighting. The other was in its storytelling. Months later, we’re still debating what we were supposed to take away from this game.

Museum of Intrigue

Syracuse, NY

A Museum of Intrigue mystic character posing in front of the story display.

We didn’t enter an escape room; we were patrons of a quirky museum of oddities, along with all of the other players… but it wasn’t a museum. It was a sandbox for puzzles, scavenger hunts, and adventures. We had our mission and everyone else had theirs, but we were all puzzling and exploring in the same space at the same time. It was chaotic and lively and it became more interesting as more people showed up.

La Terrible Affaire Bambell

Heyou Escape –  Le Cannet, France

In-game: The hallway of the apartment complex that housed the game.

Terrifying. Heyou Escape built tension by adding a sense of danger and screwing with our minds and expectations. I’m not sure if La Terrible Affaire Bambell is actually an escape room, or if we were even players… Looking back, I think we may have just been props in their production.

D.J. Death

The Gate Escape – Leominster, MA

In-game: a dance floor with DJ Death's skull and cross scythe logo.

The Gate Escape put training wheels on escape room gameplay. Instead of presenting a free-for-all escape room-style game, each puzzle was presented in its own station… and it concluded with a dance party. This was a great way to open up new players to escape room style puzzling.

The Summons

The Seven Forces – Cincinnati, OH

In-game: A stage at the front of teh room features an assortment of strange pieces of technology and mystical artifacts.

By adding social and group dynamics into the large-scale theatrical escape room event format, The Seven Forces created something new and special. Their approach kept multiple teams engaged with both the puzzles and one another for the entire game.

More Innovation

We’d love to have you join us on an escape room tour!

Join us in visiting some of the other innovative games we’ve found in our travels. (It just so happens that we didn’t play them in 2018.)

Escape Immerse Explore: The Palace

Escape Immerse Explore: New Orleans

The Fine Print

If you’ve seen something like we’ve described above elsewhere, we aren’t claiming anything is entirely unique. These are the games that we saw the innovations in.

This post wasn’t intended as a re-review of anything. For full critiques of these games, take a look at the reviews.

We’ve left out games that won 2018 Golden Lock-In Awards. You can check that list out too. Many of them were highly innovative. We’ve already heaped tons of praise on those games.

Passport To Iron City, The Alita: Battle Angel Experience [Review]

The Factory is always watching.

Location:  New York City (Austin & Los Angeles)

Date Played: January 17, 2019

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

Duration: 2 hours

Price: $25 per player (early bird Jan 26 – Feb 13)

Ticketing: Public, and there are multiple teams playing at once

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

Passport To Iron City was substantially more than I was expecting. It had more detail, more gameplay, and more time within the world than I’d imagined a pop-up experiential movie promotion was capable of.

I went in a bit skeptical and left thinking, “maybe I’ll go see that movie…” which is a feeling that brand activations rarely manage to instill in me.

In-game: A scrapyard with a red sign reading, "Scavenging in Progress"

As substantial as this was, I wanted more gameplay. Over the course of a 2-hour experience, I spent only 40 minutes playing games. There was so much I didn’t get to play. We also didn’t have enough information at the onset to actively strategize our team’s gameplay based on point value or fun factor. The experience felt unbalanced.

I’m glad that I experienced Passport to Iron City. It was clearly made with love and an appropriate budget… two things that are often missing from branded pop-ups. It expanded my understanding of what a brand activation can be.

If you’re looking for puzzle-focused gameplay, there is a little something for you at Passport to Iron City. That said, this experience is really for players who are open to variety in gameplay and the experience beyond the games. Check it out if you’re in New York City, Austin, or Los Angeles.

In-game: A robotic totem.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Sci-fi fans
  • Any experience level
  • Players who are comfortable knowing that they can’t do everything
  • People who don’t need to win to have fun

Why play?

  • A large beautiful set
  • Tons of actors
  • A variety of challenges
  • An unusual social experience
  • Value

Story

Set within the world of the existing manga and upcoming movie, Alita: Battle Angel, we were set free within a wreckage-filled dystopian city where we competed against other teams for credits.

There wasn’t a rigid narrative. Neither the title character Alita nor her story seemed to play a role within Passport to Iron City. We were just a bunch of normal folk trying to get by in a ruined world.

In-game: a jukebox beside a wall of wanted posters.

Setting

The set was the star of Passport to Iron City. Designed in conjunction with the production designers of the movie, it looked lived in.

The experience played out over three main areas:

In-game: a table with a touch screen in the Kansas Bar.

The Kansas Bar was a functional and fully-themed bar that served in-world food and drink. Upon entry, we met our teammates, familiarized ourselves with some of the game materials, and got to know the folks playing on other teams.

In-game: A marketplace table with an actor setting up shop.

Iron City was laid out as a series of small businesses that housed the various characters and challenges. This was a detailed and heavily varied dystopian environment.

An in-world branded chocolate bar.

At the conclusion of the game, we exited through a gift shop. It sold some quality stuff including in-world chocolates and hot sauces (produced by women-owned businesses Valerie Confections and Yellowbird Sauce, respectively), as well as the obligatory t-shirts, manga, and other gift-shoppy things.

In-world branded hot sauce collection.
🔥

Gameplay

Passport To Iron City was an eclectic game with a varied level of difficulty.

Gameplay covered escape room-y skills including traditional puzzling and searching challenges as well as an assortment of sensory, reaction-time, and gambling games… and that’s just what I saw. I missed a fair amount of the available gameplay.

In-game: an empty "Kansas Bar" glass beside a map of Iron City and an illuminated touchscreen.

Analysis

➕ There was a lot going on. The size, scale, and depth of Passport To Iron City really surprised me, especially when compared with most other brand activations that I’ve encountered.

➕ I loved that the food and drink were in-world. The names and labels were all part of the experience. Designers rarely take that detail into account, but it made a difference.

In-game: A marketplace table with an actor setting up shop.

➖ The Passport To Iron City website could have set better expectations for timing. Sure, I didn’t look in the FAQ to learn how long the game would be, but this should have been front and center because it’s a selling feature. The entire experience was about 2 hours. Passport To Iron City was fighting against expectations that this would likely be a 15-30 minute experience.

➕ Gameplay included a broad variety of options. No matter who you are, there’s probably a game within Passport To Iron City that you’ll be good at.

➖ We were given the opportunity – and strongly encouraged – to strategize our approach to selecting challenges, but we weren’t given enough information about those challenges to produce a viable strategy. In the end, we pretty much found ourselves going to the game stations that were open or had no line.

❓ Playing on media day, there were a lot of people, but we didn’t have a packed game. If attendance were substantially greater, I imagine that the dynamics and availability of certain games would be crunched.

➕ I truly enjoyed the scavenger game. It had a surprising amount of depth. The actors overseeing it were as engaged as they were funny.

In-game: A marketplace table with an actor looking at the products.

➖ This is a nitpick, but one of the marketplace games had an unfair round. It was maddening.

➕/➖ I enjoyed most of the challenges, but found myself wishing that I had another couple of minutes in most of them. For a 2-hour experience, 40 minutes of gameplay felt light. I know that I missed at least one challenge that others felt was the strongest of the evening.

➖ The point value of the various challenges seemed almost random. I always felt like I had control over the task at hand; I never felt like I was strategically in control of my own destiny within the game.

In-game: the Motorball raceway.

❓ The climax of the experience was watching a Motorball race (the Alita equivalent of the obligatory blood sport race that is legally required as part of any sci-fi dystopian epic). Your level of enjoyment will be directly tied with your interest in gambling.

❓ There was a lot of content within Passport to Iron City that I didn’t have time to even see, let alone experience. I don’t know how much content I missed. That speaks to the depth of what’s available, but it also means that you can’t do everything.

➕ I am not a gift shop guy… but I’m still surprised at the quality of the goods. The chocolate and hot sauces were amazing.

➕ If you’re able to book as an early bird (January 26 – February 13, 2019), $25 per ticket is a fantastic value.

Tips For Visiting

  • The New York City venue is a short walk from the Bedford stop on the L train.
  • Passport To Iron City has ADA accessible venues.
  • There is a coat check.

Book your hour with Passport To Iron City, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Passport To Iron City comped our tickets for this game.