Clue Carré – The Voodoo Room [Review]

No players were cursed in making this review.

Location: New Orleans, LA

Date played: October 8, 2017

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

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per ticket

Story & setting

Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau left a trail of puzzles to her last bottle of love potion. Could we retrieve it before the curse she left upon her home took effect?

In-game: A livingroom space with two chairs, a small table with a light, and red walls with many pictures hung from it.

The Voodoo Room was aesthetically cohesive and minimally designed. It had a clear and coherent art direction with few set pieces, many wall hangings, and a lot of open space (relative to the game’s size).

The escape room began approachably and got a touch more grim in the second act. It was just barely spooky, so no need to worry about horror.

Puzzles

The puzzles in The Voodoo Room required meticulous observation and careful searching. We needed to notice oddities, patterns, and connections between various set decor and props.

Standouts

The puzzles in The Voodoo Room flowed one to the next. We connected elements, opened locks, and uncovered more intriguing props. The gameplay worked well and would be accessible and unintimidating to newer players.

In-game: A feathery tophat resting on a bookcase. A glowing red lamp in the background.

One set piece flipped the tone of the space midway though the escape room. It was detailed and just a bit eerie. It made the set that much more exciting.

The final puzzle sequence in The Voodoo Room was superb. It felt magical, as love potions generally do.

Shortcomings

The Voodoo Room was an older escape room and much of the gameplay reflected an older design style. This included some challenging search elements that eventually became tedious time wasters. It also meant that Clue Carré hadn’t built the strongest of connections between puzzles and locks.

There were far too many locks with identical digit structures. We were regularly inputting codes multiple times “just to be certain.”

There was a lot to read in The Voodoo Room. While we didn’t need to hang on every word, we did need to familiarize ourselves with the text. It would be easy to get too caught up in reading and miss all the fun.

The Voodoo Room struggled with lighting and ambiance. Clue Carré could develop a more magical and pointed lighting strategy to eliminate that dimness of voodoo-meets-puzzling environment. (Considering that Clue Carré will be replacing The Voodoo Room in a few months, we don’t recommend that they invest in this idea for this particular room escape, at this point.)

Should I play Clue Carré ‘s The Voodoo Room?

The Voodoo Room was a solid beginner-friendly experience with a few nuggets of unusual innovation that would appeal to experienced players.

The Voodoo Room was one of Clue Carré’s first escape rooms and it has been operating for about 3 years. If you played this a couple years back and feel like this review is more positive than what you saw, that’s because Clue Carré overhauled The Voodoo Room a while back and it plays a lot better than it once did. We had friends shadowing us who had played the original and they were pleasantly surprised with how far The Voodoo Room has come.

If you’re looking for something approachable and locally themed to get started with escape rooms, The Voodoo Room is a great choice. If you’re looking for something special, give Clue Carré’s French Quarter House of Curiosities a shot. Regardless of your selection, there’s good puzzling to be had.

Book your hour with Clue Carré’s The Voodoo Room, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Clue Carré comped our tickets for this game.

 

Escape Hunt – Houston, We’ve had a Problem [Review]

“Okay, stand by, Thirteen, we’re looking at it.”

Location: Houston, TX

Date played: October 8, 2017

Team size: 6-12; we recommend 5-7

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $38 per ticket

Story & setting

Inspired by the events of the Apollo 13 malfunction and rescue, Houston, We’ve had a Problem split the team into two groups:

  • Up to three players put on the orange jumpsuits of Apollo astronauts and played in the capsule.
  • The rest of the team worked from Houston’s famed NASA Mission Control. Within the Mission Control group, one player wore the white vest of Gene Kranz and played Flight Director, another player was cast as CAP-COM and held sole responsibility for communication with the astronauts.
In-game: A team of astronauts and Mission Control high fiveing after a successful mission
Image via Escape Hunt, Houston

The Mission Control set looked Mission Control-y. With large banks of computers and stacks of binders, it had that functional-yet-space-age-made-for-TV aesthetic that still defines NASA Mission Control’s look.

In-game: Three astronauts strapped into their seats with an intricate dashboard in front of them.
Image via Escape Hunt, Houston

The Apollo 13 capsule set ranged heavily in quality and realism depending upon which direction you were looking. Parts of it captured the cramped and complex feel of the spacecraft. Others, like the floor and ceiling, felt like office space.

Puzzles

The puzzling varied dramatically based on role.

The players in Mission Control solved more cerebral puzzles that varied in complexity. These were mainly paper-based and only occasionally tangible. We then needed to communicate these puzzle solutions.

The astronauts recreated these solves onboard the ship through set interaction. Their gameplay was more task oriented. It required calmness under pressure, coordination, and communication.

CAP-COM’s puzzle was 100% communication.

Standouts

What could be more “Houston” than Apollo 13? Escape Hunt simulated that historical moment through gameplay. It was an ambitious undertaking that added layers of complication beyond the typical escape room. It was impressive.

We appreciated the split-team design. Since any given teammate played either at Mission Control or aboard the capsule, we relied heavily on impeccable communication through the entirety of the escape room. This was an added challenge around which we had to strategize.

The set looked great. Mission control had stations with button and lights. Parts of the spaceship felt cramped and realistic. This added a little bit of intensity and intimidation that escape rooms frequently don’t offer (and I mean that in a good way).

Houston, We’ve had a Problem instilled emotion. We were frantic and at times frustrated with the limitations of our ability to communicate. This felt like an accurate simulation of a historical event. It made us reflect.

Due to the split design of the game, it was possible to play this escape room twice. Two of our teammates had played before and barely had to hold back in order to participate a second time. I wouldn’t replay it immediately, but if you wait a couple of months and swap roles, it works well.

Shortcomings

The gameplay was uneven. Some players were busy every second. Others felt useless much of the time.

The set was intricate and captivating, but it didn’t factor much into the gameplay. The majority of the puzzle solving took place on laminated sheets of paper rather than through the buttons and dials on the consoles. This was disappointing.

Parts of the capsule’s set looked unfinished. There remains a lot of opportunity for small improvements that would have a big impact.

Furthermore, Houston, We’ve had a Problem followed a run book. This made sense, given the scenario. That said, it too was laminated paper rather than integrated into the set. In the end, at Mission Control, we spent more time poring over laminated sheets than interacting with the space… or the people in space.

Fun level correlated to engagement level, which was dictated by roles. Those of us at Mission Control who solved a few paper puzzles, but largely felt useless, didn’t have that much fun.

In the capsule, the astronauts had been granted access to one set of game components far too early. This caused them to circumvent a puzzle and damage the flow of the game.

One particular puzzle went on forever. We had to communicate and repeat the same series of actions in three places. It was a serious time burner. It seemed unnecessary and diminished the excitement of players in both gamespaces.

Another puzzle did not solve according to the puzzle documentation. In fact, the way it ultimately worked rendered Mission Control, and all the time we had spent determining how we intended to solve and communicate it, utterly worthless.

Communication was an important puzzle, but it was hindered by headset difficulties and background noise. We had to open a channel to communicate, but we could hear each other in the background anyway. There was a lot of shouting in additional to regular communication channels.

Should I play Escape Hunt’s Houston, We’ve had a Problem?

Houston, We’ve had a Problem was a challenging game. We won with a mere 17 seconds on the clock. It was also a test of communication and calmness under pressure.

The overall concept was awesome. The game’s structure made puzzles that would be simple in many escape rooms far more challenging due to the strained flow of communication.

The execution was good. It’s tough to create a fully split escape game and keep it entertaining and balanced. Escape Hunt didn’t quite achieve that. The escape game just wasn’t that fun from Mission Control because most of the action was happening next door.

Note that success hinges on role assignments. The people you put in the capsule should be calm, able to communicate well, and willing to take direction. They must be prepared to crawl and get a little physically involved with the set.

Additionally, the entire game hinged on the player in the role of CAP-COM. This individual spent the entire game as the only conduit for communication for all of the players in the game. Make sure your CAP-COM player can communicate effectively, even when frustrated or stressed. If you cannot tell the difference between giving orders and effective communication… this job isn’t for you.

I don’t think that Houston, We’ve had a Problem is for everyone. The divide has less to do with escape room experience than it does temperament. If pressure really gets to you, or you struggle to communicate, this escape game will quickly spiral out of control. It’s amazing how impactful a minor miscommunication could be. You have to be cool.

Houston, We’ve had a Problem was different from other escape rooms we’ve played in that it created new challenges and different types of pressure. While it didn’t nail every aspect of the gameplay, it certainly delivered a memorable experience unlike any other.

Book your hour with Escape Hunt’s Houston, We’ve had a Problem, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

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

 

13th Gate Escape – Agent 13 [Review]

Sharks and freaking laser beams.

Location: Baton Rouge, LA

Date played: October 6, 2017

Team size: 4-8; we recommend 5-6

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per ticket

Story & setting

We entered the recently discovered bunker of a former Nazi inventor who had infiltrated the United States after World War II. The inventor was a known pioneer in rocketry as well as atomic weaponry, but it is also believed that he was an early and secret pioneer in artificial intelligence. A previous agent had been sent to learn the secrets of this bunker, but he had disappeared. It was up to us to see if we could learn the true nature of this facility and learn the fate of the missing agent.

As with the story, Agent 13’s set was eclectic and detailed. Walking a few feet through a doorway could take us to a completely different world from the one that we had occupied mere moments before. The build quality and attention to detail were beyond incredible… which is true of every room offered by 13th Gate Escape.

In-game: A sci-fi science lab with tubes filled with glowing green material, and a large metal and glass chamber with lighting running through it.
Image via 13th Gate Escape.

In the service of furthering the adventure, 13th Gate Escape filled Agent 13 was many massive set pieces and interactions that did not serve a purpose other than to be really freaking cool. Almost any other escape room company wouldn’t have even thought to add this level of detail.

Puzzles

The beating heart of Agent 13 was technology.

Agent 13 required many different skills including observation, correlation, logic, deduction, communication, and even agility. In general, we engaged the expansive and detailed set to work toward solutions, which we entered in the form of buttons, switches, or the like.

The puzzling in Agent 13 was a team effort.

Standouts

Agent 13 had multiple sets, each more exciting than the last. These were detailed and beautiful. 13th Gate Escape designed intricate and incredible set pieces that were… just set pieces to instill drama. These enhanced the look and feel of each gamespace and made Agent 13 into an emotional rollercoaster of an escape room.

While some of the elaborate set pieces were there simply to add drama, others were deeply involved in the puzzling.

The transitions were incredible. They were surprising and included fantastic effects.

One physically intense stretch of game was designed such that we had to work together to advance. Accomplishing this challenge required at least 4 people.

Shortcomings

Agent 13’s narrative was disjointed. It more or less time-hopped and felt like World War II-meets-Portal. While all of the individual interactions looked cool, we never fully bought into this futuristic 70-year-old-bunker-meets-lab.

A few puzzles lacked adequate clue structure. In one instance, we recommend the tech either accept variant solutions, or the clues be more specific.

13th Gate Escape could tweak the tech slightly to make it more reliable. For example, eliminate the use of a live internet connection to feed critical information that could be hosted locally.

Agent 13 bottlenecked in the climactic moments of the escape room. We ended up largely bypassing the intended communication puzzle, as it overstayed its welcome and was bogged down by lengthy documents, some relevant and others red herrings.

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

Should I play 13th Gate Escape’s Agent 13?

Agent 13 was impressive. The set was enormous and detailed, with each segment so different from the others. The tech and effects were incredible.

As the sets changed, so too did the puzzle types, which was exciting. The variation, however, contributed to a disparity in fun versus frustration. A few of the puzzles didn’t quite tip the scale in the fun direction.

Agent 13 contains challenging puzzles that rely on communication and teamwork. We expect that Agent 13 would be exceedingly difficult for newer players and is probably best enjoyed by more seasoned players.

As you play though Agent 13, you’ll traverse what feels like the past, the present, and even the future. And that is worth seeing.

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

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

 

Escape My Room – Jazz Parlor [Review]

“It’s not the puzzles you play, it’s the puzzles you don’t play.”

Location: New Orleans, LA

Date played: October 7, 2017

Team size: 2-8; we recommend 3-4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $30 per ticket

Story & setting

The DeLaporte family hired a team of private investigators to aid in solving a murder that occurred within their estate. Could we wade through the evidence and unmask the criminal who committed this malevolent musical murder?

Escape My Room applied their trademark antique-estate-of-curiosities aesthetic to the Jazz Parlor. The set spanned a number of rooms within the sprawling DeLaporte home that houses all of Escape My Room’s experiences. It was decadent, highly detailed, and loaded with eccentricities of a bygone era.

In-game: An organ covered in blood with bloodied sheet music strewn about a ransacked parlor.

Puzzles

The Jazz Parlor’s puzzling focused on carefully searching, building an understanding of the area around us, and manipulating that environment. Escape My Room conveyed narrative through notes, evidence, and interactions scattered throughout the set.

Standouts

Escape My Room’s DeLaporte Mansion had a distinctive and beautiful aesthetic. The cluttered and quirky decor was intriguing, but not chaotic or distracting. Escape My Room struck a delicate balance between busy and calm. Jazz Parlor was a fun space to explore.

Jazz Parlor had one particularly inventive room transition. We took a strange action – that was clued just enough – and it created something so unexpected.

Throughout Jazz Parlor we gathered pieces of a mystery by way of puzzling. By the time we made our escape, we felt like we’d also unraveled the whodunit. We appreciated their interwoven design.

Escape My Room wants players to spend an hour within their escape rooms. Should you finish early enough, a series of bonus puzzles present themselves.

Shortcomings

While we did unravel the mystery through gameplay, the puzzle flow was sometimes clunky. It wasn’t always clear, at any given moment, what puzzles were relevant. This, combined with a linear game flow, meant occasional hangups in puzzling.

While the escape room was mostly well kept up, one puzzle sequence was thwarted by wear.

Should I play Escape My Room’s Jazz Parlor?

As we explored Jazz Parlor, we unraveled a mystery. It unfolded with each subsequent puzzle solve. When we escaped with a win, it felt that much more complete.

Because at the start you begin to uncover both puzzles and context, it can be challenging to get your bearings in Jazz Parlor. Newer players will likely find Jazz Parlor challenging, but not impenetrable. Be patient. Look for oddities. The connections will come.

In Jazz Parlor, we stepped back in time, into the beautiful and quirky style of Escape My Room’s DeLaporte Mansion and into a fun story that felt quintessentially New Orleans.

Book your hour with Escape My Room’s Jazz Parlor, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Escape My Room comped our tickets for this game.

RISE Escape Rooms – Hijacked [Review]

“Get off my plane.”

Location: Tickfaw, LA

Date played: October 6, 2017

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

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per ticket

Story & setting

We boarded RISE Airlines flight 772, sat in our seats, buckled in, watched a riveting safety demonstration, and then drifted off to sleep… until we were startled awake by a hijacking. It fell to us to secure the plane and land it before it ran out of fuel and fell to the earth.

In-game: The cabin of a commercial aircraft with rows of 3 seats beside closed windows.
Take a moment and look at this.

There’s no other way to put this: RISE Escape Rooms built a commercial airliner’s fuselage into their facility. It bore the look, shape, and aesthetics that anyone who has ever flown will immediately recognize. They even went out of their way to build cabin doors that looked strikingly similar to the genuine artifact.

In-game: A rounded cabin door marked EXIT, with an open and close lever latch.
That was not a camera trick; the door was curved.

Puzzles

The puzzles in Hijacked took us through the components of a commercial aircraft. As we opened each new space or prop, we engaged in a thematically appropriate puzzle. The puzzles traversed the aircraft.

Some of the puzzles involved set or prop interaction. Other times, RISE Escape Rooms presented themed paper-style puzzles to us, on board the aircraft.

Standouts

Hijacked looked and felt like an airborne airplane. The cabin included rows of seats, overhead compartments, a drink cart, and a lavatory. The cockpit had a myriad of buttons and dials. The plane even had the thick, heavy outer doors. It was exciting to explore a space that was familiar, but also unusual. The thing that seemed a little out of place… too much legroom (which was great for the game and would be fantastic in real life too).

In-game: A close-up of a coach seat with the seat belt laying atop it unlatched.

Moreover, RISE Escape Rooms created some shocking full-set interactions.

The puzzles took us throughout the plane, revealing each area of the set in turn. This was exciting.

Hijacked started out with one simple on-ramp puzzle to help us get our bearings. This puzzle asked us to think about the airplane staging. It worked beautifully as the catalyst to this airborne adventure.

Shortcomings

While the puzzles were thematically airplane-y, they didn’t tell the story of a hijacking on board. We made seemingly random connections between objects, generally sticking to a theme. The gameplay was escape room-y.

Hijacked included a number of less interactive, paper-style puzzles. Especially considering the exciting aircraft set, any puzzles that didn’t incorporate the space felt out of place and disappointing.

Should I play RISE Escape Rooms’ Hijacked?

Hijacked was an exhilarating escape room. The gorgeous details sold the adventure. It contributed to the overall experience in ways I never would have dreamed up. It was brilliant.

RISE Escape Rooms constructed Hijacked a couple of years ago and its age shows in the occasionally lackluster gameplay. It was a linear playthrough with more paper-style puzzles that only belonged because they were thematically “airplane.” That said, the puzzles flowed well and built to a more exciting conclusion.

RISE Escape Rooms has built something incredibly special. This set delivered an exciting adventure that overpowered any other shortcomings, even age. This is a must-play.

Whether you’re new to escape rooms or overly experienced, Hijacked offers an unusual and fun adventure. RISE Escape Rooms has constructed a truly impressive environment that delivers a dramatic airborne exploit.

Book your hour with RISE Escape Rooms’ Hijacked, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: RISE Escape Rooms comped our tickets for this game.

 

Hunt A Killer – Season 1 [Review]

“What’s in the box?”

Location: At home, monthly subscription

Date played: Most of 2017

Team size: 1- ¯\_(ツ)_/¯; we recommend 2-3

Price: $165 per season (9 boxes over 9 months)

Spoilers?

This review will be discussing the entirety of Hunt A Killer Season 1. Spoilers will be hidden unless clicked open. However, it includes a discussion of the game’s structure from which you could glean nuance and solving tactics. If you’re sensitive to the spoilage of any detail, please don’t read this. You’ve been warned.

Story & setup

Season 1 of Hunt A Killer was centered on The Listening Friends of America, an organization that links “isolated men and women living in prisons, hospitals, and psychiatric wards” with volunteer pen pals. Listening Friends put us in contact with a man named John William James (JWJ), as his pen pal.

JWJ, an intelligent and charismatic individual, had spent many years under compulsory psychiatric care after committing murder. All communication with JWJ was screened by Listening Friends inspectors, so he elected to fill his ongoing communication with veiled and encoded messages.

This was the detective story that Hunt A Killer presented to us: each month we would receive a Listening Friends package from JWJ. We had to chew on the letters, documents, clippings, and items that we received to explore the past, present, and future of this criminally insane individual.

Materials

Hunt A Killer’s boxes, notebooks, pins, and other paraphernalia that arrived in the packages all looked slick.

In-game: An assortment of box 1 items laying on a stack of Hunt A Killer boxes. They are illuminated by a blacklight.

With rare exception, the boxes that we received had high quality, meticulously designed materials.

In a game where every detail could be important, Hunt a Killer minded a lot of details on the component level.

Puzzles

Hunt A Killer Season 1 was interactive fiction with some puzzles (not the other way around). The puzzles within these boxes were generally about achieving understanding, identifying details, and researching references.

While the experience did include the explicit puzzles that an escape room player or puzzle hunter would consider to be a puzzle, there were maybe one or two per box and they almost never identified themselves without research.

Hunt A Killer was striving to present a detective game, not a puzzle game.

Standouts

Hunt A Killer had phenomenal aesthetic style and excelled at carefully selecting materials to send subtle messages. Observing these details was without a doubt my favorite part of each episode.

The folks at Hunt A Killer were clearly iterating on the product in real time. A few episodes in they introduced “Inspector’s Notes” which were in-character hinting provided by the Listening Friends’ inspector who was reviewing JWJ’s communications. This was an essential addition to the game.

We enjoyed the set up with the Listen Friends of America and our pen pal JWJ, which created an interesting dynamic to deliver a mystery. We welcomed the narration via documents, letters, innuendo, and encoded message. All together, this was a compelling way for us to dive into a world, rather than being told about a world.

The first two boxes were seductive. They set up enough intrigue that we felt compelled to dive into this continuous river of madness. It was clear that we were going to have to swim upstream and we were not certain that we would enjoy the journey… but we couldn’t deny ourselves the challenge.

At the end of the experience, we received a final box including an epilogue and review of each previous box, with an item-by-item explanation of each’s significance, insignificance, and puzzle solutions.

Shortcomings

The Hunt A Killer Season 1 episodes were not self-contained and didn’t conclude with any resolution. There was no way to know when we were finished investigating a box.

For as much information as Hunt A Killer would throw at us, we were given almost no feedback in return. When we learned or accomplished something, we could assume that we’d solved something because our conclusion felt right; there was almost never confirmation. We figured out a ton of this mystery, but along the way, we never knew how much we had actually solved nor what we were still missing.

Season 1 also suffered from a serious depth problem. Every component in each box needed to be interrogated and researched. As a player, it was impossible to tell if the significance required digging deep or taking a thing at face value.

Minor spoiler example:

One of the boxes included a maroon, unsharpened Listening Friends of America pencil. What did it mean? When we couldn’t figure it out, we sharpened it. It seemed like a normal pencil… but it had to mean something. However unlikely, maybe something was something hidden within it? So we sharpened it and sharpened it until it was a freaking nub. In the epilogue, we learned that it was just a pencil. We kind of knew from the beginning, but because of the nature of the game, we couldn’t be certain. As a result of this depth problem, the various blog posts and forum posts by Hunt A Killer fans are a mess of treatises on constellations, mythology, and other nuances that emerged in the story. Most of these dove entirely too deep, but then every once in a while there was a clue that required an insane amount of exploration.

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The longer the Hunt A Killer season went on, the more troublesome the volume of content became. Since these boxes weren’t self-contained, anything could be in play. More often than not, backtracking wasn’t required… but sometimes it was. By the final box, the threat of having to look back through two thirds of a year’s worth of content was depressing.

Minor box 1 spoiler

To further illustrate the backtracking, volume, and depth problems, consider the blacklight included in box 1. This blacklight revealed a minor detail that was also re-revealed repeatedly throughout the story. We didn’t need to see this detail illuminate in UV ink, but since we had been given a blacklight in box 1, that meant that we had to use it on every damn item that we received from that point forward, because you never know.

[collapse]

While the printed materials were smartly designed, the physical objects were generally weak (although there were one or two great ones). This is a problem that I’ve seen recur in many subscription games. I think it stems from needing to purchase these items in bulk while controlling weight, size, and cost. Since these items are never designed by the game’s creators, they generally feel tacked on. This is unfortunate because tangible objects stand out among paper and it’s natural to ascribe more meaning to them, even when it’s undeserved.

When Hunt A Killer established a game mechanic, we learned how to work with it. Then in some critical instances, they shifted the function and meaning of the mechanix. Praised be design controlled. This violated a basic tenet of game design. I understand that storytelling was the main thrust of Season 1, but it was still a game, which was sometimes forgotten in the puzzle design.

Bluntly: There were too many logic leaps. Most of the details that we missed necessitated insane connections. When I was reading the epilogue, at times I felt like the person who wrote it must have known that these puzzles and deductions were nonsense.

While the box-by-box summary in the epilogue was great, we needed each to arrive within the next box. This would have at least prevented us from feeling like we had missed too many details to move forward.

In the first few boxes, I really cared about a few of these characters – the ones that Hunt a Killer worked to develop a bit – but as the story progressed, they became utterly unbelievable. I stopped caring whether they lived or died or achieved their goals (good or evil). In a game focused on storytelling, this was Hunt A Killer Season 1’s cardinal sin. I’ll explain, but this is a deep spoiler:

Serious late game spoilers

The emails from Valerie Madson did not read at all like a letter from a mother of a young child whose husband had disappeared. (I’m not referring to the autoresponder… that was cool). When this character was killed off, I didn’t care at all. What a wasted moment.

Then there was JWJ’s progression from charismatic and enigmatic murderer to omniscient and unstoppable super-villain. This guy was so much more compelling when he seemed like a human, deranged though he may have been, he was still human. By the end, I was completely indifferent to him.

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Should I play Hunt A Killer’s Season 1?

The Hunt A Killer team did so many things so right with materials that subtly conveyed plot details. I loved that. I wish that this review could have been more positive, but the truth is: I did not enjoy Hunt A Killer Season 1. By the end, I just wanted it to be over.

Once the first couple of boxes offered no resolution, I became frustrated. Still, I needed to know where the story was going and what Hunt A Killer would do with it. It was clear that they were attempting something different. I respected that enough that I wanted to see it through.

The game improved in some ways over the course of Season 1. They were iterating on their product live, which I respect. However, this made Season 1 feel like an elaborate beta test. Almost everything felt like it hadn’t been tested enough. This was a critical issue in a game that was infinitely open-ended.

The story started out strong, but it buckled when it shifted from telling an intimate tale of murder to a grand murderous epic.

The puzzles and gameplay never really worked. Their flaws snowballed as the volume of game mechanics and content increased with each subsequent box.

Hunt A Killer Season 1 fell victim to its own decadence. It attempted to tell too grandiose a story. It demonstrated a blatant disregard for its players. The logic leaps were painful. The lack of clue structure was mind-boggling. The game mechanics were far too fluid to ever feel like you could achieve mastery over this experience. Plus, there were too many things to research… and too many of them weren’t relevant without any means of discerning what mattered.

In spite of this, I know that there is an audience for this concept. I know that there are people who have enthusiastically embraced JWJ and his story. I know that there are people who are enrolled in Season 2. So here are my final thoughts on Hunt A Killer:

I love and respect what Hunt A Killer was trying to do. I don’t think that the finished product was satisfying and I didn’t enjoy the journey. If I hear that Hunt A Killer has created mechanisms to tighten the gameplay, I will eagerly re-enroll in the future. But for now, there is no way that I can recommend Season 1 and I cannot even bring myself to look at the Season 2 material that came with the epilogue.

If you loved Hunt A Killer and think that I’m wrong, let’s discuss. I’m going to pull a page from Theme Park University’s playbook and ask that you tag your comment with #IReadTheWholeReview and I’ll happily engage with you on the nuances of the game’s design.

Also know that the comments might have spoilers. I am not going to police them.

REA Weekly Roundup – November 26, 2017

We hope our readers in the United States had a wonderful Thanksgiving. We certainly enjoyed ours.

REA Round Up logo with an up arrow atop the letter d.

Announcements

Looking for holiday gifts? Check out our Room Escape Lover’s 2017 Holiday Buyer’s Guide!

On January 2nd, we’ll announce our 2017 Golden Lock-In award winners. In the meantime, look back at the escape rooms that won in 2016 and 2015.

Featured escape rooms

Next up in reviews from our October trip to Louisiana:

Escape My Room’s Inventor’s Attic was unique and beautifully designed with surprising reveals and brilliant interactions.

13th Gate Escape’s Tomb of Anubis included the most dramatic and exciting reveal we’ve experienced in an escape room to date.

Something different

This week we discussed the meaning of “single use” in escape rooms.

Featured products

Sleuth Kings is a new play-at-home escape game subscription service with a fantastic concept and an interesting structure that mixes mailed materials with online inputs. We recently reviewed Case 001: The Guilty.

From the community

Boss Keys released their The Legend of Zelda 1 & 2. It’s a great exploration of some bad design decisions made in early video games, and there’s a lot to extrapolate about escape room design. Read our full write up of Boss Keys.

In & Of Itself extends its New York run through May 18, 2018. Last week we met Ms. Tomorrow in Panera… who invited our friend back to that night’s show. Get yourself a ticket to this one. You want to understand what that sentence means.

Finally, this is a fantastic story on social engineering past security. This is interesting stuff with a lot of real life security lessons.

“Single Use” In Escape Rooms [Design Tips]

One isn’t always the loneliest number in an escape room.

The concept of “single use” items is common in escape rooms, but it has a strangely fuzzy definition.

Pros & cons

Single use is a popular design choice, but it is not the only way to design an escape room. It has a few benefits for both players and companies:

For players, the benefit is clarity. If you use something, you won’t need it again. You can create a “used” pile that you never have to revisit.

For companies, that player clarity generally results in smoother game flow. It also reduces wear and tear on props, because players don’t continually investigate them for the entire game.

On the flipside, without single use, the same concept can return in different ways, enabling players to build mastery. This can add a level of player satisfaction and more interesting and innovative game design.

Every game design decision comes with tradeoffs.

The proper definitions of single use

If you use it once, you never use it again.

“It” refers to anything in your gamespace, be it a prop, puzzle, solution, key, clue, combination… or black light.

The black light alternative definition

If you use it once, you never use it again, unless it’s a handheld black light. This is lame, but can be ok if it’s made crystal clear.

The incorrect definition

If you use it once, you never use it again, unless we think you should. We’ve seen this strange definition require us to reuse journals, keys, solutions, information that leads to one solution and then leads to another… and, of course, handheld black lights.

Clarity

The words “singe use” should be pretty clear.

George Carlin and his quote, "Try to pay attention to the language we've all agreed on."

They should mean that players will rely on each item once. If that is not your definition, that’s perfectly fine. Not every game needs to be, or even should be, single use. But if you design a game that reuses anything, don’t announce it as “single use” in your pregame briefing.

13th Gate Escape – Tomb of Anubis [Review]

Anubis: God of the afterlife and dramatic reveals.

Location: Baton Rouge, LA

Date played: October 6, 2017

Team size: 4-8; we recommend 5-6

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per ticket

Story & setting

While following a boring guide through the Pyramids of Giza, we decided that it would be more fun to explore on our own… until we triggered a trap and discovered the corpse of another would-be explorer. There was no going back, only through. Could we find our way out of the Tomb of Anubis?

In-game: A narrow corridor in an Egyptian tomb with a circular series of wheels with symbols on the far wall.
Image via 13th Gate Escape.

Tomb of Anubis was huge. The scale of this escape room was dumbfounding, as was the level of detail. I don’t think it’s a stretch to call the set of Tomb of Anubis a work of art. From sand to sandstone, to carvings and statues, no detail was too small to ignore.

Puzzles

To solve the puzzles, we manipulated the gorgeous and expansive set pieces inside Tomb of Anubis.

To understand the puzzles, we pored over a small journal of diagrams and prose that contained the clue-structure. 13th Gate Escape divorced cluing from the environment.

In-game: A series of colored bottles on a ledge within an Egyptian tomb.
Image via 13th Gate Escape.

While there was a lot of adventure, there were some strikingly challenging puzzles in Tomb of Anubis.

Standouts

When Tomb of Anubis revealed its inner depths, we were shocked. We’d never seen a space transform on such a scale. It was the most dramatic and exciting reveal we’d experienced in an escape room to date.

We were Indiana Jones exploring this tomb. The set reacted to us. On multiple occasions, the tomb revealed surprises. It was intense. It was badass.

Tomb of Anubis was a challenging puzzle game. There were a lot of complex puzzles to work through in the space. They involved beautiful props and the set itself.

We enjoyed one transition space that was a physically interactive puzzle, an elegant link to a previous solve, and a dramatic set interaction all rolled up into one. It was incredible to traverse.

Shortcomings

Inside the Tomb of Anubis, we found a journal that functioned as a run book for the puzzles. It lead us through the different tasks inside the tomb, one by one. We focused on this one prop – and struggled against an unclear font and little diagrams – rather than on the much more impressive space around us. We would have loved to have been able to spend this escape room 100% engaged with the amazing gamespace.

Because much of the clue structure was in the journal, the puzzles were less interconnected and the experience less fluid.

Our gamemaster warned us not to place items on a very inviting surface, so as to not compromise gameplay, but this intervention put a damper on a late-game reveal. If 13th Gate Escape made a small adjustment to the set piece, they’d enhance the drama of that one moment by removing the need for gamemaster intervention. It would be worth it.

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

Should I play 13th Gate Escape’s Tomb of Anubis?

Tomb of Anubis had one of the most impressive escape room sets that we’ve ever seen. It was enormous, detailed, and interactive. When it changed, oh wow, did it change. It was breathtaking.

I only wish that I hadn’t spent so much of my time in Tomb of Anubis with my head in a little journal.

If you like escape rooms that transport you to incredible places you can’t see in real life, look no further than Tomb of Anubis.

Know too that Tomb of Anubis is no slouch of a puzzle game. Bring a larger team. Cooperate. Share the journals and the set piece interaction. You’ll have to puzzle hard to see this one all the way through.

The Egyptians did the afterlife right.

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

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

Sleuth Kings – Case 001: The Guilty [Review]

I’ll be back in 5 minutes.

Location: at home, with an internet connection

Date played: October 9, 2017

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

Duration: up to one month

Price: $24.95 per month

Story & setup

Sleuth Kings is a new play-at-home escape game subscription service that mixes mailed materials with online inputs.

We played the role of remote assistants to private investigator Sullivan King. King sent us a file of evidence and then we emailed with him when we’d solved pieces of the case or needed a little extra help from him.

The materials in Case 001: The Guilty were printed papers, photographs, and a rather fetching folder with Sleuth King’s logo emblazoned on the cover.

The Sleuth Kings folder of materials next to a laptop with the Room Escape Artist logo.

The internet interactions were predominantly email-based. Sullivan King was in fact… an email bot.

Surprise Chipmunk
Dun, dun, DUN!

Case 001: The Guilty had us investigating a street revolutionary who went by the moniker Dictator Sin. We had to team up with Sullivan, root-out Dictator Sin’s plans, and stop him.

Puzzles

Sleuth King’s puzzle game was strong with varied, challenging, and interesting puzzles driving gameplay.

After we resolved a puzzle, we would email the solution to Sullivan who would “act on the information” and provide us with followup details.

Standouts

I really enjoyed the puzzle offerings of Sleuth Kings.

The conversational interface of emailing with Sullivan was a good way to narrate a story and keep everything cohesive.

The Sleuth Kings logo is slick.

Sleuth Kings delivered puzzles that weren’t in the initial packaging.

Shortcomings

As we sent information to Sullivan, he would take time to act on it. He’d reply, something like, “The address isn’t far. Give me five or ten minutes and I’ll email you when I’m there.” Then we’d literally have to wait 5 minutes or so before receiving another email moving the story forward and giving us our next task. This shattered the game flow.

Hinting got a little awkward because Sullivan-bot could only discern three things:

  • Correct answers
  • Incorrect answers
  • Requests for help

When we were almost there, and simply inputting our answer incorrectly, it was treated as a wrong answer without any feedback that we were on the right track and simply needed a nudge.

Additionally, Sleuth Kings was constantly creating new email threads. All in, I had 19 threads through Case 001: The Guilty. It wasn’t initially clear to how this threading/ replying dynamic operated.

The many of the printed materials were a little hokey.

The story was fine, but not particularly believable.

Should I play Sleuth Kings’ Case 001: The Guilty?

If you evaluate the standouts versus shortcomings in this review purely on word count, it would be easy to think that Sleuth Kings was bad. It wasn’t. It was actually quite fun, and this was their first chapter.

Sleuth Kings has a fantastic concept and an interesting structure. It needs additional refinement to run smoothly, but it largely works.

Interaction with automated characters smartly mixed story, puzzling, and gameplay. If Sleuth Kings can refine the pacing issues and make the system a little more aware and able to identify nearly-correct answers, this would be phenomenal. Swapping from email to a chatbot, or the addition of another character who could “run errands” while the gameplay continues, could smooth over some of these issues.

Sleuth Kings is strong contender in the burgeoning subscription puzzle game market, and could make for a fantastic holiday gift for that special puzzle lover in your life.

I welcome our robotic puzzle overlords and look forward to where Sleuth Kings is heading.

Subscribe with Sleuth Kings, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Note that Case 001: The Guilty is no longer available. Your purchased subscription will start with the current month’s game.

Full disclosure: Sleuth Kings comped our tickets for this game.