Deckscape – The Mystery of Eldorado [Review]

Survivalist

Location:  at home

Date Played: October 22, 2019

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

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: about $17

REA Reaction

The Mystery of Eldorado was the fourth installment in Deckscape’s card-based, story-driven escape game series. We were lost in the Amazon (rain forest… not website) and Deckscape added a survivalist twist to the puzzles.

In The Mystery of Eldorado, we had to make decisions – lots of them. Our choices came with ramifications: some foreseeable, others that came out of nowhere. In puzzle-driven games, if you’re solving well, you usually feel in control. The Mystery of Eldorado, however, always felt a little out of control, which was equal parts thematic and annoying.

The jungle and ruins art of the Deckscape Mystery of Eldorado box.

This was a strong installment, especially for Deckscape fans. The art was good. The story was playful. There were plenty of puzzles to fill a play session; we just wished that there was a little more variety to the puzzle types.

All in all, this was a fun game for the price and a good value for table top escape room players.

Who is this for?

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

Why play?

  • Some truly unusual puzzles
  • An interesting story
  • You’re a Deckscape fan
  • It’s cute

Story

While searching for the lost city of Eldorado, our plane had crashed in the jungle. With limited resources, and danger lurking in the leaves, we were committed to finding the legendary city or to die trying.

4 cards with different survival tools.

Setup

The Mystery of Eldorado followed the same structure and core mechanics of Deckscape’s previous games. We explained this in detail in our review of Test Time & The Fate of London, so we won’t rehash it.

As with previous Deckscape games, the print quality was great, as was the art.

Gameplay

Deckscape’s The Mystery of Eldorado was a standard play-at-home escape game with a moderate level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching, observing, puzzling, and reasoning though options.

Analysis

 The Mystery of Eldorado had a fun premise. It didn’t take itself too seriously… but it also worked well. It was a good balance.

➕ The writing was entertaining and the game world was funny. We played in English, which was a translated version. The writing held up.

➕/➖ There were many choices to make within The Mystery of Eldorado. That was cool because they were often consequential. However, many of them were blind choices and the ramifications felt haphazard.

➕ The artwork was great and had a consistent look about it.

➖ There were a few instances of eye-catching red herrings within the cards. Deckscape seems committed to their gotcha moments.

➕ Most of the puzzles were delightful and satisfying. The survivalist twist was well executed. It was surprising to have to attempt to reason through some of the more realistic logic puzzles.

➖ A minority of the puzzles were pretty dubious, which is kind of a thing with Deckscape. That said, there weren’t too many of these.

➖ There wasn’t quite enough puzzle variety for our liking. A few puzzle types were repeated with minor alterations.

➕ Deckscape created diegetic hints. They crafted characters and props within The Mystery of Eldorado that would provide the hints. This was fun.

Tips For Player

  • Space Requirements: a small table or the floor
  • Required Gear: pen and paper

Buy your copy of Deckscape’s The Mystery of Eldorado, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Deckscape provided a sample for review… and we lost it when we moved. So we bought our own copy to review it.

Support Room Escape Artist’s Mission

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

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

Escape from Hellscream – The Elevator [Review]

The elevator to Hell

Location:  Colorado Springs, CO

Date Played: September 9, 2019

Team size: up to 8; we recommend 2 – 6 (or elevator weight capacity)

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

Escape from Hellscream was about the experience, the setting, and playful terror.

Are you looking for an intellectual puzzle-driven adventure? Go somewhere else.

In The Elevator, the actors struck a balance between fear and humor that managed to amplify both without undercutting the tension.

Additionally, the experience was built around a functioning elevator; we used it to access different floors of the game. This was a nifty gimmick… and it allowed us to traverse a huge set without having to navigate stairs.

In-game:

The biggest annoyances came from a near total lack of lighting in one lengthy segment, which was great at first, but stretched on too long. We were also disappointed in some of the prop selection, which included a lockout safe.

Escape from Hellscream offered “scary” and “not scary” modes. The difference between the two was the presence of scare actors. I’ll be blunt:

There is no reason to visit Escape from Hellscream and play the “not scary” mode. Playing “not scary” would be like watching “not erotic porn.”

If you’re near Colorado Springs and like horror escape games, Escape from Hellscream is a must-visit.

Who is this for?

  • Horror fans
  • Actor-friendly players
  • Adventure seekers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • The hilarious and intimating scare actors
  • An imposing set
  • The elevator was cool
  • Adrenaline

Story

Escape from Hellscream’s The Elevator didn’t really have a story. It was essentially a haunted house with escape room puzzles as gates.

In-game:

Setting

Escape from Hellscream’s The Elevator was built around a real, functional elevator. The gameflow was controlled by locks and hasps on the elevator control panel.

In-game:

As we navigated the floors, we explored a haunted house filled with scare actors. It is possible to play without the actors, but why bother?

There were multiple settings that seemed entirely unrelated to one another. Each had its own creepy, dingy, haunted house vibe.

Gameplay

Escape from Hellscream’s The Elevator was a haunted house with escape room puzzles as gates. Your fear level will adjust the difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved primarily around searching with a few puzzles. Interacting with the actors was also part of the gameplay.

In-game:

Analysis

➕ “Scary mode” means the actors play too. The actors were the life of this experience and clearly had a ton of fun. These guys were simultaneously intimidating and hilarious, creating a vibe unlike any other escape room we’ve played.

➖ This was a search-heavy escape room, played primarily in low lighting. We didn’t have enough flashlights to solve the puzzles. While this was intentional to create a mood, it carried on far too long.

➕ Although much of the gameplay was searching, there were some serious puzzles in the first act. These were good solves.

In-game:

➖ One critical interaction had weak feedback. Ultimately one of the actors clarified things, but there was an opportunity for stronger execution.

➕ We enjoyed the gameflow, which Escape from Hellscream crafted around the elevator. With the locks on the buttons, the scare experience was gated by puzzles that we solved in this well-lit space where nobody unexpected would appear. It gave fearful players a break to solve puzzles and changed up the experience. This was a unique design choice.

➖ We didn’t have a clear sense of game progression and timing. We misunderstood the instructions – and I’m not sure if this was on us or on them – so we thought we had a lot more game left to solve than we actually did, meaning we rushed the ending a bit more than we needed to.

➕/➖ We could ask for hints over a walkie-talkie. The hint-giving was part of the gimmick and they toyed with us over it. This was totally in character for the game. That said, the actors controlled the gameflow. They could make things more or less hidden and help or hinder puzzles. There was an opportunity to have smoother gameplay facilitated by the actors and keep more of the experience in-world.

➖ Escape from Hellscream used some generally frowned-upon props including trick locks and a lockout safe. These have the potential to stall gameplay. Swapping these for less frustrating items would make a smoother experience.

The Elevator was a high-energy game. It got our adrenaline pumping.

Tips For Visiting

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

Disclosure: Escape from Hellscream comped our tickets for this game.

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

The Other Tales – The Anomaly [Review]

Not as it seemed…

Location:  Hawthorne, NJ

Date Played: October 17, 2019

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

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $29.95 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

I really like The Other Tales. When my mom wanted to play an escape room with her friends, I sent her to play their first game, The Forgotten Room. The Anomaly was a big step up on every level: puzzle design, game design, intrigue, set design, and interaction design. And it accomplished this while staying true to the handcrafted, made-with-love vibe of The Forgotten Room.

We also appreciated the detailed story conveyed by The Anomaly even if it felt a little too bogged down with reading.

Our biggest worry for The Anomaly was that it was showing wear, and some of the materials really ought to be beefed up. This game is too fun to fall apart.

In-game: A wall with furniture stuck within it.

The Other Tales is a gem in the northern New Jersey escape room market. Although their experiences aren’t the most impressive builds in the region, they combine puzzles and story with memorable moments, and they provide a gentle touch that we highly recommend for players of any experience level.

Who is this for?

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

Why play?

  • Unusual story
  • Interesting puzzles
  • Intrigue curve
  • Cool props and surprises

Story

We were part of a special task force investigating a scientific lab. After some strange happenings and a disappeared person, it seemed this lab might not be exactly what it seemed. We needed to set things right before the Feds arrived.

In-game: a computer on a desk with a Verge Ventures login screen.

Setting

At first glance, The Anomaly looked pretty standard – maybe even subpar – with white walls, assorted cabinets, and a table in the center of the room.

As the game progressed, however, The Anomaly revealed its secrets; the nature of the game and space transformed.

In-game: An unusual coil-like device sitting atop a locked cabinet.

Gameplay

The Other Tales’ The Anomaly was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

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

In-game: an unusual metal crate with all manner of machinery on it.

Analysis

➕ The puzzles flowed beautifully through an appropriate difficulty curve. They started out approachable and built up in challenge and complexity before backing off again in the conclusion.

➕ The Other Tales used a variety of interaction types in this game. They combined physical locks with tech-driven opens. The puzzles and interactions were largely tangible and inviting.

➕ The Anomaly told an unusual story. As we played, we learned about a character, his motivation, and his plight. We were invested in the game not only to solve puzzles, but to play through the story.

➖ As much as we enjoyed the story, it was sometimes burdensome to follow. While some of it evolved through play, it also required substantial reading. There was opportunity to show – rather than tell – more of the story beats.

➕ Although The Anomaly didn’t look impressive at the onset, as we solved puzzles, it offered more intrigue in the form of new props and available interactions. With each new open, we were increasingly impressed by what the room had to offer.

➖ The Anomaly hadn’t been open long when we visited and some of the materials, props, and set pieces were already showing wear. The Other Tales would be better served with some stronger, more interesting construction material.

The Anomaly included memorable moments that linked the physical props and the story.

Tips For Visiting

  • Parking: There is a parking lot.
  • Food: There are numerous casual restaurants nearby.

Book your hour with The Other Tales’ The Anomaly, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: The Other Tales comped our tickets for this game.

ConTRAPtions Escape Rooms – Plight of the Margo Part 2 [Review]

The 3 Hour Escape Game: Part 2

Location:  Fort Collins, CO

Date Played: September 6, 2019

Team size: 4-10; we recommend 5-6

Duration: 90 minutes

Price: $38 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

In Plight of the Margo Part 2, the real challenges emerged.

At this point we knew the setting, we were immersed within the story, we understood how the ship worked, and we had learned how to play the game. It was time for some cerebral heroics.

In-game: A tall metal Antimatter drive system. It's made entirely of metal and looks imposing.

Over this second 90-minute segment, the value of depth became clear. ConTRAPtions Escape Rooms was able to explore their world and add complexity and challenge that no escape room can create in 60 minutes. It left me with the realization that the value of extended game length isn’t simply that you get more.

The magic of the 3-hour game was that it could demand far more of us as players, adventurers, teammates, and thinkers.

As I said in the reaction to Plight of the Margo Part 1, this is a must-play game for experienced players. Looking back on it, I feel like it was a gift created for me and people like me.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Sci-fi fans
  • Technophiles
  • Experienced players in search of a challenging game
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • The set was unique and badass
  • Challenging puzzles
  • The tech was impressively engineered
  • The story had depth
  • It was essentially a 3-hour escape game

Story

Plight of the Margo Part 2 picked up exactly where Part 1 had left off. I won’t spoil it beyond saying the obvious: something was wrong with the Margo and we had to resolve a Star Trek-style paradox to save the day.

In-game: The steel grated floor and control systems of the ship.

Setting

The setting was identical to Plight of the Margo Part 1, except that during our break the gamemaster had added a few key props that enabled us to solve new puzzles.

In-game: A reflective wall of red hexagons.

Gameplay

ConTRAPtions Escape Rooms’ Plight of the Margo Part 2 was a standard escape room with a high level of difficulty.

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

In Part 2, we picked up exactly where we’d left at the end of Part 1. The game saved our team’s previous state. (You can play these chapters in completely different visits to ConTRAPtions Escape Rooms, but I recommend doing it in 1 session if you have the stamina.)

From this point forward, we were playing for the win.

In-game: an iris door with a mechanical automation system.

Analysis

➕ All of the positives from Part 1 still applied in Part 2. The set, puzzles, technology, effects, and atmosphere were all epic.

➖ Going into Part 2, we received a lot of pre-game instruction. It felt like the instruction was an attempt to compensate for concepts that didn’t come across clearly enough in-game.

➕ The interaction design in Part 2 was killer.

➖/➕ It was too easy to make a grave mistake within the narrative. (Luckily, there was a re-do for this and it didn’t detonate our game.) This happened because we were never entirely sure what we were doing, but in an escape room the gut instinct is to just advance and keep doing things. In escape rooms, forward momentum is always good… except in this one instance. While playing, it was difficult to truly comprehend this distinction.

❓ ConTRAPtions Escape Rooms cast us in the roles of people with years of advanced training, but we had to figure out absolutely everything about our vessel while solving the missions. This is a typical escape room narrative paradox and a hard one to overcome.

➕ The hint system was really smart. It was embedded in a computer system. It was difficult to tell the hints from the regular game prompts. This allowed our gamemaster to normalize the difficulty through hinting without making it feel like we were underperforming.

➖ The final challenge was confounding. It felt too complicated. We followed that instinct and overthought it. In the end, we solved it, but we weren’t sure that we had won. There was opportunity to tighten up this conclusion and make it feel more definitive and triumphant.

➕ The overall experience of Plight of the Margo was breathtaking. I haven’t stopped thinking about it.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.
  • At least 1 player needs to crawl.
  • Play both parts back to back if you can.

Book your hour with ConTRAPtions Escape Rooms’ Plight of the Margo Part 2, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: ConTRAPtions Escape Rooms comped our tickets for this game.

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

ConTRAPtions Escape Rooms – Plight of the Margo Part 1 [Review]

The 3 Hour Escape Game: Part 1

Location:  Fort Collins, CO

Date Played: September 6, 2019

Team size: 4-10; we recommend 5-6

Duration: 90 minutes

Price: $38 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

Plight of the Margo felt epic. Part of this was the length; we played it back-to-back in 2 90-minute segments. However, it was so much more than the game clock.

The puzzles and gameplay were deep, challenging, and rewarding. It felt almost like a really good puzzle hunt in that it was fun and a little stressful.

In-game: The ships helm beside and iris door.

The set was unique and beautiful. The technology was solid and craftily engineered. This was one of the geekiest games we’ve encountered and it was devoid of overt pop culture references… which meant that we weren’t breaking world to appreciate cultural callbacks.

Then there was the story, which felt inspired by Star Trek: The Next Generation. It wasn’t particularly violent or bloodthirsty. It was thoughtful and grappled with ideas and paradoxes.

I loved this game.

In my opinion, if you’re doing this right, you’re playing both segments back-to-back as one big 3-hour escape room adventure (with a short break in the middle).

For newbies, this is the kind of game that is worth training for. Build your stamina. Once you can comfortably play 3 60-minute escape games back-to-back-to-back, take on Plight of the Margo.

If you’re an experienced player, Plight of the Margo is a must-play. If you are anywhere near Fort Collins, Colorado, make the pilgrimage and test yourself against this magnificent beast.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Sci-fi fans
  • Technophiles
  • Experienced players in search of a challenging game
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • The set was unique and badass
  • Challenging puzzles
  • The tech was impressively engineered
  • The story had depth
  • It was essentially a 3-hour escape game

Story

Our crew had received a distress call from the spaceship Margo. We had to identify its location, journey through the stars to find the wayward ship, and learn what had disrupted its journey.

In-game: an unusual device with glowing buttons and large tube protruding from it.

Setting

The beauty, durability, and uniqueness of Plight of the Margo was instantaneously apparent. ConTRAPtions Escape Rooms built a spaceship set unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Two things struck us about this set:

First, near as I can tell, it wasn’t really riffing off of pop-culture spaceship aesthetics… or at least any that I’m aware of. The reflective gold walls, steel grate flooring, and industrial components felt unique to this game world.

In-game: A strange mechanical device in the middle of the ship, the walls are gold and reflective.

Second, the build quality and the components used within this set seemed genuine. The game didn’t feel like an escape room or even an amusement; it felt like an industrial construction.

Everything was so solid… like it might just blast off… or if you wanted to try to break this set, it might break you instead. (Please don’t try to break anything.)

Gameplay

ConTRAPtions Escape Rooms’ Plight of the Margo Part 1 was a standard escape room with a high level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around observing, making connections, and puzzling

The key difference was that instead playing to win, we were striving to achieve at least 38% completion to position ourselves for success in Plight of the Margo Part 2.

In-game: ship's helm with screens in front of it.

Analysis

➕ ConTRAPtions Escape Rooms built an impressive spaceship. This was an industrial grade set. There was no facade. It was robust enough to wear well and it might even look cooler with wear.

➕ The technology powering Plight of the Margo was as real as the set.

➕ So many of the interactions were real. Pneumatic tubes were pneumatic tubes. If our spaceship did a thing, it usually wasn’t simulated.

➕ ConTRAPtions Escape Rooms balanced the difficulty curve. The most challenging puzzles were in the middle of the games.

➖ The first puzzle was the weakest segment of Part 1. We’d been briefed on our mission, but the first puzzle was 100% escape room-y. It didn’t make sense in the world. After this, most everything else was justified by the narrative, which made this an especially confusing start. It didn’t teach us how to play the rest of the game.

➕/➖ The puzzles were challenging. Solving them tended to feel chaotic. We weren’t always entirely sure what we were doing, even as we were solving. This made for choppy flow. Atmospherically, and given the narrative, the chaos worked. We weren’t bothered by feeling a bit in over our head.

➖ We encountered some long bricks of text. This stalled forward momentum.

➕ The puzzles were challenging, interactive solves. Our favorite puzzles required us to interact with different contraptions aboard our ship.

➕/➖ There were some surprising, slick effects. Although they added a lot at the onset, they overstayed their welcome.

➕ Three words: automated iris doors.

Transition to Part 2

➕/➖ We’d never played an escape room where our progress after Part 1 was saved and we could pick up in Part 2 and continue. This was really cool. The downside in this instance was that Part 1 had no climax; it just stopped.

Come back tomorrow to learn about the exciting second chapter of this massive game.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.
  • At least 1 player needs to crawl.
  • Play both parts back-to back if you can.

Book your hour with ConTRAPtions Escape Rooms’ Plight of the Margo Part 1, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: ConTRAPtions Escape Rooms comped our tickets for this game.

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

The Curious Case of the Hatch Escapes Kickstarter

We’re big fans of Hatch Escapes in Los Angeles, California. Their first game Lab Rat won a 2018 Golden Lock-In award.

Hatch Escapes recently launched a new Kickstarter campaign to fund the launch of their largely built next game, The Ladder.

I’ll open by saying that I backed this campaign… and I’m watching it closely because nearly 3 years ago we declared the crowdfunding of escape rooms (more or less) dead.

kickstarter logo

2017 Escape Room Crowdfunding Study

At the beginning of 2017 we pulled data on all of the escape room-related Indiegogo and Kickstarter campaigns that we could dredge up and analyzed it year over year.

The results were pretty grim, showing that most escape room crowdfunding efforts failed. Those that succeeded had low goals.

The study went into a lot more detail; you should read it.

We’ve been meaning to revisit this and likely will in the not-so-distant future.

Why the Hatch Campaign is Interesting

This Hatch Escapes campaign is intriguing for a few reasons:

  • The $25,000 goal is ambitious.
    • The most successful Kickstarter that we had identified in our 2017 study was Oubliette Escape Rooms and Adventure Society out of the United Kingdom. In 2015 it raised $16,674.
  • Hatch Escapes has an amazing reputation and a strong following.
  • The campaign, like Hatch Escapes’ games, is well written.
    • The video and writing in the campaign far exceed what we’ve seen from most other escape room crowdfunding efforts.

Implications

The big question is: can Hatch Escapes buck the trends and raise enough to meet their goal?

I am truly rooting for them.

As top-tier escape room builds become more complicated and expensive, it is important for new funding methods to emerge. I would love to see a future where escape room creators with proven track records are supported in kind by the community of players.

Check out Hatch Escapes’ Kickstarter and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

And on the subject of crowdfunding and supporting creators…

Support Room Escape Artist’s Mission

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

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

Puzzah! – KAZAM! [Review]

Automagical

Location:  Denver, CO

Date Played: September 7, 2019

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

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $27 per player

Ticketing: Private

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

KAZAM! was a puzzle-driven escape game with a collection of generally high-quality challenges.

Additionally, Puzzah! had an interesting approach to automation that seamlessly injected bonus content into the experience, based on team performance.

In-game: another view of Kazam's study, the wall is covered in clocks and a strange mechanism is mounted to the wall.

That said, we felt the limitations of hint automation rear their head from time to time. Also, a recurring visibility obstacle was cool at first, but grew way too old by the end of the game.

As puzzlers we really enjoyed KAZAM! and absolutely recommend it to puzzle- and tech-minded players.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Technophiles
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Interesting automated puzzles
  • Strong team-based gameplay
  • Adaptive difficulty

Story

We entered the attic of famed and missing stage magician Kellar Kazam. The question at hand: where did his final disappearing act take him?

In-game: A computer with a white screen on a desk in a strange old study.

Setting

KAZAM! was built as a quirky space. It was an office. It was decorated and themed against the golden age of stage magic… and there was a modern computer. I have no idea what year it was supposed to be in the game world.

Now all of that might sound negative, but it wasn’t; it worked. I attribute this to the fact that Puzzah! clearly put a lot of effort into the space. That was evident from the unusual ceiling as well as the integrated tech.

As with all of the Puzzah! games we played on this trip, Kazam! had tech-driven adaptive difficulty piloting the game.

In-game: a bird cage with a glasses wearing skull.

Gameplay

Puzzah!’s KAZAM! was a linear escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

It was unusual in that a computer interface gated all the puzzles.

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

In-game: wide view the Kazam's study, clocks, and other items hang on the walls.

Analysis

➕ The puzzles were the star of KAZAM! Puzzah! took familiar concepts and added clever twists.

➕ KAZAM! had one of our favorite searching puzzles of all time. Puzzah! used riddles and puns to clue a finite amount of searching.

➕ While ciphers can drag on in escape rooms, Puzzah! dodged this in KAZAM! by integrating an entertaining mechanism into an alternating cipher.

➖ As much as we enjoyed the puzzles, at times we felt that Puzzah! could have added cleaner cluing.

➕ KAZAM! had an enticing magical study vibe to it. It was a fun place to explore.

➖ For a game set in the golden age of magic, it relied heavily on a computer. This seemed out of place. (I’m not sure what year it was supposed to be.) It also slowed the pace of gameplay.

➕/➖ KAZAM! opened with a gimmick that added intrigue to the opening moments of the game. We expect this will be novel for most players. We appreciated how this forced teamwork. We felt, however, that as the game progressed, this mechanic overstayed its welcome and became annoying.

➕ Puzzah!’s games are automated. KAZAM! will present more puzzles to players who move through the game quickly. We appreciated the “bonus” content. It seemed integrated well enough that players who aren’t presented with it won’t miss it.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is nearby street parking and public parking lots.

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

Disclosure: Puzzah! comped our tickets for this game.

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

Trap Door Escape Room – Cure Z: Quarantine [Review]

Bigger, longer…

Location:  Bartonsville, PA

Date Played: August 25, 2019

Team size: up to 16; we recommend 4-6

Duration: 120 minutes

Price: $49.99 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

Trap Door Escape Room builds big, strange, narrative-driven escape games. They have a style all their own and I’m into it.

Cure Z: Quarantine, the sequel to their retired second game Cure Z, was massive. It ran 120 minutes and took up a ridiculous amount of square footage. I cannot think of another escape game in the Northeastern US that’s anywhere near this big.

In-game: A test subject with dead eyes in a containment chamber.
Image via Trap Door.

What became clear over the 120 minutes was that what Trap Door Escape Room does well, they do really well: size, scale, narrative, effects, atmosphere. Trap Door Escape Room falls short in puzzle design and hinting.

The hinting seemed optimized around keeping us in the game for as close to 120 minutes as possible. This led to choppy gameplay. We found ourselves frustrated and wanting hints with no way of receiving them during much of the game… and then a flood of solutions wrapped as hints in the late game.

The puzzle quality was inconsistent with a few dreadful challenges. I have long believed that Trap Door Escape Room is a puzzle designer away from greatness. I think that now, more than ever.

Overall, I find myself coming back to the same feelings about Trap Door Escape Room. There is so much genius in their work… even when their puzzle play leaves me wondering, “was that even a puzzle?”

Trap Door Escape Room is all about spectacle and physicality and Cure Z: Quarantine brings what we’ve come to expect. If you’re near the Poconos, it’s well worth exploring; there isn’t anything else like it.

Who is this for?

  • Adventure seekers
  • Story seekers
  • Zombie fans
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • It’s physically massive
  • 2-hour game clock
  • Fun interactions

Story

One year after the original zombie virus outbreak was contained, a large portion of the population takes Quiet Z by Quieten Pharma to suppress the disease.

With the world beginning to pull itself back from the brink, a new attack from a terrorist organization named 1 World Alliance could push society into collapse if we couldn’t contain the threat.

In-game: a strange coiled device glowing green.
Image via Trap Door.

Setting

Trap Door Escape Room likes building big… and Cure Z: Quarantine was among the largest escape rooms we’ve encountered in terms of square footage. There were many different rooms, each with a unique aesthetic and purpose.

The general quality of the build was fairly high. There was some variation in quality, complexity and intrigue from scene to scene, but Cure Z: Quarantine had a lot to love in the set department.

In-game: an old and rundown travel agency.
Image via Trap Door.

The game itself had an unusual opening sequence. I could call it theatrical, but not in the sense that you’re probably thinking. Trap Door Escape Rooms opened their game with a ~10-minute coming attractions reel for their other experiences before pivoting into a video briefing. This was really clever, although its runtime was excessive.

Finally, the first set – a police station – was the weakest in the game. It was just barely designed and it wasn’t an inspiring first impression. The good news was that things rapidly improved from there.

In-game: an alleyway with "zombies = people" painted on the wall.
Image via Trap Door.

Gameplay

Trap Door Escape Room’s Cure Z: Quarantine was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

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

In-game: a red faux rotary pay phone.
Image via Trap Door.

Analysis

➕ Cure Z: Quarantine was an adventure. Foreboding, but not horror, this escape room had us racing through a large gamespace, exploring, solving, and interacting. It was exhilarating.

➕ The story of Cure Z: Quarantine worked. As we played, we learned more about the characters and the extent of the goings-on in this space. We understood the scenario and our role within it.

In-game: a dead body on the floor in the foreground, a zombie lurking in the background.
Image via Trap Door.

➕ As we played Cure Z: Quarantine, we were continually opening up new spaces. The floor plan was sizable and unusual. It was exciting to open up a new place. Trap Door Escape Room built some wonderful sets and drops. These were detailed and interesting. We had a continual sense of exploration and discovery throughout the experience.

➖ We played the entire game with flashlights. Although this could be justified by the staging, it was inhibiting as a player. We would have really liked spotlighting or a puzzle that revealed better light in key areas. 120 minutes by flashlight was too much.

➖ The puzzles needed additional refinement. Most puzzles seemed to be almost – but not quite entirely – clued. In one instance, we had the wrong tools to solve the puzzle. In another, the UI didn’t accept reasonable variation. At one point, the clues didn’t give us order. The puzzle-play dragged; it was the least exciting part of the experience.

➕ Trap Door Escape Room gated gameplay by illuminating the next input. In a game with such a large footprint and so many opportunities, this worked well to keep us on task.

➖ The hints weren’t hints; they were solutions. Trap Door Escape Room pushed us hints as they felt we needed them, based on our timing, but these hints came far later than we would have wanted them, long after we’d stopped enjoying solving a puzzle. When hints arrived, we could move forward again, but not in a satisfying way. We would have had stronger momentum with gentle nudges earlier in the game.

➕ The plot culminated with a nifty prop. The UI worked great. It delivered satisfying successes and humorous failures. It was fun to use. 

In-game: A dead person on an operating table in a green lit room, their organs are exposed.
Image via Trap Door.

➕/➖ Before our adventure began, we watched the previews… for Trap Door Escape Room’s other experiences at their other locations in New Jersey. We respect the hustle. It’s a smart move… if it were half the length, it would have been genius.

➕ The scope and size of Cure Z: Quarantine was admirable. Trap Door Escape Room isn’t afraid of throwing an incredible volume of square footage at a game; that’s pretty cool.

Tips For Visiting

  • Trap Door Escape Room is located at the back of the plaza. Drive behind the building.
  • There is a parking lot.
  • We highly recommend Pho Saigon II for a meal before or after your game. They are located in the same plaza.

Book your hour with Trap Door Escape Room’s Cure Z: Quarantine, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Trap Door Escape Room comped our tickets for this game.

An Exploration of Escape Room Hint Systems

I firmly believe that escape room experiences live and die largely based on customer service.

Amazing escape games can feel cheap and cruel when paired with poor customer care. At the same time, mediocre games can feel oddly charming when administered by a passionate and caring gamemaster.

With that in mind, I want to explore hint systems, the most persistent customer service touchpoint.

There are a great many ways to craft and administer hints. I’m going to do my best to look at the pros and cons of as many as I can. Before we dive in, I want to establish a few baselines.

An orange life ring floating in a pool.

Hinting Baseline

Definitions

I often hear the words “clue” and “hint” used interchangeably. I don’t think that this is a great idea. We’re particular in how we use these two words on Room Escape Artist.

A clue is a detail or component within the game that the players should interpret, combine, and solve in order to escape.

A hint is an additional piece of information from outside of regular gameplay delivered by the gamemaster or an automated system to assist a team in forward progress.

A detective finds clues. Hints are given by someone who knows more than the person solving the mystery.

Put more simply: hints are surrender; clues are the game.

The act of calling for a hint is a sign that the team is:

  • no longer having fun and wants the fun to come back
  • feeling time pressure and wants a speed boost
  • seeking to bypass something (either because they don’t want to do it or they can’t do it)
  • frustrated because something isn’t working properly

Whatever the reason, they’re calling for air support. It’s the gamemaster’s job to step in and ensure enjoyment.

Intent of Hint Systems

I’m also going to state my assumption that every escape room has built their hint system with the intent of helping pace the players through the experience.

I assume that a hint system is primarily there to ensure that players can enjoy their time in an escape room. It’s plausible, and encouraged, that the hint system could add to the theatrics of experience in some way. However, if your hint system is functioning as an obstacle unto itself, you’re probably doing something wrong.

Hint Frequency

It’s ultimately up to individual designers to determine how many hints they expect an average team to take in their games… but I suspect that companies with lower hint rates are usually doing a better job.

If a puzzle requires the same hint 50% or more of the time, that puzzle needs refinement. You’ve basically created an elaborate coin toss system… so that should be fixed.

If a puzzle almost always requires a hint, it’s not hard; it’s broken. Fix it.

Hint Delivery Mechanisms

With that in mind, let’s look at the pros and cons of some common hint delivery mechanisms.

I’ll state up front: My opinion on the “best hint delivery mechanism” is that it’s the one that fits the environment/ narrative most organically while allowing the gamemaster to properly support the team.

TV Screen

The wall-mounted television quickly became the industry standard hint delivery vehicle early on. When the players ask for a hint, the gamemaster triggers a hint to appear on the screen. It’s simple, intuitive, and easy to explain.

It caught on like wildfire because of systems like Escape Room Master and, more recently, Mythric Mystery Master (M3). These systems offer out-of-the-box game control functionality with minimal effort and expense.

It’s good, fast, and easy.

I only have one knock against this. Often the television and screen interface are wildly out of place in the set. Ideally, the television is mounted in a way that fits the environment and the interface is customized such that it makes sense in-world. Sometimes this is easier said than done.

Additionally, font selection, font size, and color contrast can make or break a screen-based hint system.

Written Notes

The first time that we started seeing written notes slid under a door was in Buffalo, NY… where we saw a lot of companies doing this.

Hands writing a note on a notepad.

Initially, I thought this was the laziest, cheapest thing that I had ever seen. As the games went by, however, I started to appreciate 3 things about written notes:

  • The hints were always good because the nature of the system requires an attentive gamemaster.
  • It could be (but often wasn’t) delivered in character.
  • The team didn’t need to take the hint as soon as it was delivered because they were either folded, face down, or delivered in some container. We could elect to wait a minute and see if we would solve the puzzle naturally. I came to really appreciate this level of control.
  • These hints can be prewritten and delivered elegantly.
A hand holding a handwritten note that reads, "phone a friend."

The downsides to written notes are that:

  • By my observation, most players think it’s cheap and won’t notice the virtues that I’ve mentioned above.
  • It usually comes with a time delay. If the players don’t understand the hint, it’s a pain for the gamemaster to help the team work through it in real time.

Walkie-Talkie

I’m not going to dive too deep into this one because I wrote an extensive piece specifically on hinting with walkie-talkies.

The short version is: walkie-talkies can be thematic and they are super cheap to setup. However, they have a terrible interface, require practice to handle them properly, and tend to have mediocre speakers.

The best way to use a walkie-talkie usually involves doing some surgery to them.

“God Mic”

This is a cute name for hint delivery through the room’s PA system. The gamemaster speaks into a microphone and it sounds to players like the “voice of god” coming from up high. The speaker can also be mounted in other objects, which is usually preferable.

A microphone with the words "Speak Up" scratched into it.

This is fantastic when the gamemaster is comfortable voice acting and the speaker is mounted in an object that the character should be speaking through.

One key downside of the God Mic (or any other spoken word system) is that it requires the gamemaster to always exercise control over their tone of voice. Any hint of sarcasm or disdain will make things uncomfortable.

Additionally, if someone doesn’t hear the clue, it needs to be repeated in its entirety. This can get especially difficult if the team’s native language is different from that of the gamemaster.

In-room Gamemaster or Actor

Just like the God Mic… but without the tech. A gamemaster or actor is there, physically present in the game (or summoned) delivering hints as needed.

Having a good actor in the space can be magical.

Having a regular out-of-character gamemaster in the space… well… that’s less than magical.

All of that being said, there are many nuances to actor performance that can improve or detract from the experience. It’s a world unto itself.

Escape Room Boss

Then there’s Escape Room Boss… which I already bludgeoned like a piñata at a frat kegger.

Hint Triggers

Now that we’ve established what a hint is and the methods of delivering them, we can talk about the thing that I actually set out to write about: hint triggers.

Player-Requested

The one, the only, the original hint trigger. A team is stuck… so the team asks for help.

Upon requesting a hint, the gamemaster delivers a scripted or custom hint.

A hand reaching up out of dark waters.

The big variable with this system is quantity. Are they:

  • limited to the traditional 3? (which is laughably arbitrary for how common it is)
  • capped at some other number?
  • unlimited?

This system is good because it ensures that the team never feels undercut by the delivery of a hint for a puzzle that they were “about to solve.”

The downsides here are that this system can fall apart if a team has the right mix of pride and incompetence… and the gamemaster can be stuck watching a team give themselves a miserable experience.

Similarly, incompetent teams can burn through rationed hints and find themselves twiddling their thumbs in the later portion of the game.

Gamemaster’s Discretion

The gamemaster watches the team play and when the gamemaster thinks that the team needs a nudge in the right direction, they deliver it.

The upsides here are pace control and engaged gamemastering (which I am told makes the job a bit less boring). Additionally, the hints aren’t tied to a team’s ego.

It is also possible to deliver the hints through an actor or interface such that they don’t feel like hints to most players; they are just part of the experience.

The downside of hints triggered at the gamemaster’s discretion is that the gamemaster can botch the delivery. If they give too many or too few hints, it ain’t good. If the gamemaster delivers hints just as someone is solving the puzzle, it can undercut the moment. Speaking from experience, this feels bad.

This surprises a lot of folks, but assuming a competent and attentive gamemaster, this is my favorite hint trigger by a wide margin.

Time Release

Time-released hints usually work by setting up goals. If a team hasn’t solved a particular puzzle by a certain time on the game clock, they receive a hint. Each hint has a release time and the hint is only released if the team hasn’t solved the corresponding puzzle.

The upshot is that this is fair and easy to administer, or even automate.

An hourglass with blue sand sitting atop pebbles.

The downsides are numerous.

For one, a hint mindlessly delivered can come with the same undercutting potential as the gamemaster’s discretion… but that’s just the start.

Fully automated hints are usually imprecise and can provide the team with information that they already have, which is frustrating. Similarly, the hints could avoid the nuance that the team is missing, which leads to all manner of rage.

A team that’s just slightly slow can find themselves being dragged through the experience with endless hints.

Or maybe the worst-case scenario: a good team finds themselves way ahead of the time curve until the last puzzle. When they finally need a hint, they find themselves waiting for 30 minutes, spinning in circles, until the time trigger hits.

Automagical

Automation is an interesting beast. The basic concept is that all puzzles are electronically tied to a computer that is aware of what the team has accomplished, what the team is working on, how much time is on the clock, and possibly how well the team is performing. Based on all of this information, it doles out hints either at the players’ request or at its own discretion.

Depending upon how this is executed, it can have the pros and cons of any of the other hint triggers.

A friendly looking robot looking up into the camera.

To execute this smoothly, puzzles need to have regular machine-readable checkpoints. If any puzzle goes too long without the computer knowing what’s happening in the room, the hints will be off-base.

It’s absolutely possible to build compelling games that are fully automated.

One added benefit of automation is that the game can also adjust difficulty by adding or removing content, which will allow all teams to finish the game regardless of skill.

I think that this is one of the futures for escape rooms. The companies that build the infrastructure to properly support this will have a significant leg up on their competition, if only because they’ll save on labor costs.

I suspect that I will explore automation in more detail in future posts.

Closing Thoughts

The best hint system is ultimately the one that fits a game’s narrative and a company’s ability to execute it predictably.

It’s also perfectly acceptable for a company to mix and match systems, adjusting for the individual needs of a given team.

A game’s success will frequently be built on its hint system.

My general advice: do not let any team sit and stew for too long on any one puzzle. Escape rooms are timed adventures and pace matters a lot.

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We shared this post with our Patreon backers a couple of days early and asked for their thoughts. We thank our community for their insightful comments, which were incorporated into this post. We hope you’ll consider joining these dialogues by backing us on Patreon.

Locked In Escapes – The Infected [Review]

Steampunk Zombie Apocalypse

Location:  Colorado Springs, CO

Date Played: September 9, 2019

Team size: up to 6; we recommend 3-4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $30 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

The Infected was a traditional escape room with a couple of theatrical twists and a clever theme: the steampunk zombie apocalypse.

In-game: A broken steampunk clock.

Locked In Escapes did a lovely job on this game and it felt strong for Colorado Springs. If you’re in the area, check it out.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Steampunks
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • A clever twist on the zombie apocalypse escape game
  • Solid puzzles
  • Some really fun effects
  • A strong introduction and conclusion

Story

Within a steampunk London, an outbreak had been driving the population mad. The roaming hoards of infected had transformed the city into a violent wasteland.

An urgent letter from a family member and colleague had begged us to visit her lab and complete her work; it might be the only way to control the disease.

In-game: steampunk bookshelves.

Setting

The Infected was a good-looking traditional escape room with a strong steampunk vibe.

Locked In Escapes paid special attention to the ceiling and it really paid off.

In-game: ornate copper ceiling.

Additionally, the gamemastering made the opening and closing moments of this game special.

Gameplay

Locked In Escapes’ The Infected was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching and puzzling.

In-game: A faux rotary phone encased in glass and chained shut.

Analysis

➕ We loved the steampunk twist on a zombie apocalypse theme. It was unusual, and it came together well. We enjoyed the set and prop details that supported this world as well.

➕ Locked In Escapes delivered an entertaining introduction. It was theatrical and ridiculous, and they sold it. It added intrigue and energy to the escape room.

➕ The puzzles were solid. There was adequate cluing at potentially frustrating junctures. The game flowed well.

➖ A few puzzles solved less than cleanly. In one case, subtle imagery blew us off course. In another, we encountered multiple solutions that seemed equally correct. A third instance had faint cluing.

➖ The second act was dark and although Locked In Escape provided enough flashlights (and the flashlights were cute), we would have appreciated spotlighting for workspaces.

➕ The climactic moment of The Infected turned into a wonderful reveal. It was exceptional.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.

Book your hour with Locked In Escapes’ The Infected, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Locked In Escapes comped our tickets for this game.

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