For fans of the weird, the wonderful, and the utterly immersive… Something exciting is coming in 2024. From the creators of The Locksmith’s Dream comes an announcement of a new experience: The Key of Dreams.
We sat down with the two creators, Ivan and Laura, a super-team of designers and creators to find out just what The Key of Dreams is, and what can players expect.
So, what is The Key of Dreams?
Laura: The Key of Dreams is a bit tricky to categorise – maybe we need to coin a new phrase for it. It shares some DNA with escape rooms, immersive dining experiences, Secret Cinema, Punchdrunk immersive theatre and experiences like Phantom Peak, but yet isn’t directly comparable with any of these. In the most basic form it is an overnight immersive and interactive experience with an unrivalled attention to detail and a feeling of consequence.
Ivan: As part of that, guests explore a 17th Century manor house in Wales, discovering secrets that are both real history of the place and parts of the stories we weave there. There are a range of puzzles to solve, from simple trails following paths of clues to unlock boxes, narrative told in snatches of letters, journals, artworks and objects to discovering the stories of the characters of the house through interacting with the actors. The actor to guest ratio is four to one, this combined with the length of the experience means that people develop strong opinions about the characters, their trustworthiness and motives.
There are a range of puzzles to solve, from simple trails following paths of clues to unlock boxes, narrative told in snatches of letters, journals, artworks and objects to discovering the stories of the characters of the house through interacting with the actors.
Laura: Hospitality is also a huge part of the experience for us. The twenty fours hours that the experience lasts comes with all the meals you’d expect – and more. There’s an arrival lunch, an afternoon tea, a banquet dinner with stories and mysteries woven through the dishes and after dinner nibbles served in the bar where you can relax with a cocktail to celebrate your excellent sleuthing. The following day, a hearty breakfast sets you up for the final investigations.
You’ve compared it to other immersive experiences – but what else sets The Key of Dreams apart?
Ivan: At its heart, the Key of Dreams is about connection.
These can be human connections with other guests, the actors or characters in the stories. Moments of realisation provide another spark of connection, whether it happens when a puzzle clicks satisfyingly into place; when a piece of music suddenly makes everything come together and make sense; when you realise who a character is and how they were involved with one of the stories you have followed; and the friendships made along the way with other guests.
Laura: We are huge fans of weird fiction and of role playing games like Call of Cthulhu. We love the depth of description and attention to detail that helps to make the deductions, and to help us feel truly immersed in the world. While we consider the word immersive to be overused, it really is what we are trying to create here. That for the twenty four hours you exist in the house, you are part of the strange, timeless place; the outside world seems distant and less real while you are there and you happily give yourself over to the dream-like quality of the experience.
Just sitting in an ancient house, in front of a roaring fire surrounded by the ghosts of history, is an experience that cannot be translated into another medium. When you weave ‘imagined’ history through that experience, the ghosts of the real people with the imagined, factual events with the phantasmagorical, then it becomes truly extraordinary.
Meet The Collector
What was the design process like for creating an experience like this?
Laura: Much of our design process revolves around the concept of ‘apophenia’ which it turns out is a much more recent and less commonly used word than anyone who knows us might expect! Apophenia is “the human tendency to see connections and patterns that are not really there”. But in our world of course they often are!
Ivan: We take all of the details we have, historical facts, characters, places in and near the house, objects, sounds, colours, flavours and smells and then create links between them. Attention to detail is a big deal. When attending our events, we want the suspension of disbelief to happen naturally, to slowly creep over you, like the dawning realisation that comes over a character in a Lovecraft story. You won’t find any bits of paper with roleplay effects, you won’t be told how you are feeling, and you won’t be expected to believe anything is something other than it appears to be. But if we’ve done our job right, you’ll find yourself muttering over scraps of paper in a corner lit by lantern-light, pointing at some feature of the craved wall, or telling a character your deepest fear (even though you strongly suspect that by doing so you may be imperilling your mortal soul).
Laura: When we write, we become pretty deeply immersed in everything ourselves and I’m not sure how good it is for our own sanity! But apophenia works! We recently had a guest message us to say that he was convinced that we’d hidden a secret message in our website and he’d been scouring it for hours to try and work it out! And of course – he may be right…
Ivan: There’s actually a quote I love from the Sherlock Holmes reimagining Elementary that sums it up this part of the design and the experience perfectly:
“It has its cost, learning to see the puzzle in everything. They’re everywhere. Once you start looking, it’s impossible to stop. It just so happens that people, with all the deceits and illusions that inform everything they do, tend to be the most fascinating puzzles of all.”
The staircases inside the Key of Dreams
Connections between people (and things) is at the centre of this experience, could you talk more about how The Key of Dreams brings people together?
Laura: We say that our events have no ‘right way’ to experience them and it really is true. For previous events we have run, we’ve had people turn up in character and hold their role all weekend in how they interacted with the actors and other guests. We had people come along with their partner or family members who knew nothing about the experience that they were coming to, we had escape room folks who came and sped off around the house following clues, interrogating the characters and solving puzzles, and everyone loved it.
Laura: Creating an experience like this can be a bit overwhelming, by design there is far more than people can experience in one sitting. We make sure there is plenty of story to follow and we try very hard to ensure that there isn’t just one way to solve each problem. For instance, when writing trail clues, we usually have three ways to solve them: there is the ‘I’m a fan of the stories’ who has the knowledge, the ‘I’ll put in the legwork’ who can go and discover the answer from a specific place in the house and the ‘I’m a researcher’ who can find the answer in the commonplace book that they are given on entry in to the house.
Ivan: In a roleplaying game, whether of the tabletop or live action variety, if someone isn’t in character when they should be they break the social contract which makes the game less enjoyable for the other participants. We want to *invite* our guests to play a role when interacting with the actors, to believe in the stories and events, but on their own terms and at their own pace. As they get deeper into the stories and the experience it becomes easier, and all the more delightful to unexpectedly find yourself trading dark secrets with a denizen of the house, or making a connection that makes complete sense within the dream-like logic of the house.
Laura: As someone who suffers with anxiety and can easily become overwhelmed, the experience is designed to include the opportunity to be in a quiet space while still being near the flow of the action. We have puzzles in the bar and in the quiet sitting room, which develop the story, but also help people just to take some time to reset. Additionally, building in some structured activities like a house tour, or dance class with the actors, is a great way for people to learn more about the lore without feeling awkward about approaching people.
The Key of Dreams is set in the past, how does technology factor into the experience?
Ivan: While we don’t force people to have to accept that they are experiencing time travel, the house is itself out of step with the real world, even more so at night. Because of the 1920s vibe that the place has, we aim for the experience to be as diegetic as possible, from music to objects and the technology/science elements. We don’t want people to be wondering how they should be reacting to something, a speaker behind a picture might be able to play atmospheric music, but from the context it isn’t clear how you should respond to it, pretend it isn’t there, or consider who and why it was placed there.
Ivan: Our aim is for the technology to always be in service to the experience and the story, so that they contribute to that little moment of delight that the guest will remember and tell their friends about. We have some utterly delightful embedded technology planned for the Key of Dreams, which should really give a sense of magic. We aren’t ready to reveal our secrets at this time, But we have been dabbling with psychometry and spirit photography!
One of the rooms in The Key of Dreams
Finally, what do you hope people will take away from their experience at The Key of Dreams?
Ivan: A sense of magic and wonder. To be drawn into a world both familiar and unfamiliar in an extraordinary place. To have stories to tell about the little moment of delight. There are physical mementoes of course as well, from the ‘Commonplace book’ crammed with clues, and diversions that each guest will get, to other ephemera that they will get to take away.
Laura: The world we live in can be a hard one; it can be relentless and unforgiving. There is a joy to be found in letting go of that for a day, exploring a strange and mystical place, even if you’re interacting with some sinister beings and unravelling some unpleasant stories. There is a special quality to a shared experience, whether that is dining with fellow investigators, exploring a house, uncovering secrets, and plotting with (or against). There is a Lovecraft quote which captures our hopes that our guests will,
“clothe life in embroidered robes of myth and look through the ivory gates into that world of wonder which was ours before we were wise and unhappy.”
Laura: We love our growing community of cultists, investigators and enthusiasts! Your readers should have a peek at The Key of Dreams website, and if it appeals can sign-up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook or Instagram. We also have a blog on our site, which is where I get to talk about my passion for literature and we’ll talk more about the design or inspirations as they arise.
Laura: Our website has information about what you can expect and about the house and how to book. There is also a section on ‘Investigations’ that is currently rather heavily redacted which will fill up over time with teasers and snippets of lore about the world (prize for the reader that creates the best red string diagram!). Over the next few months there will be more information about the characters, societies of interest and objects of curiosity appearing – so do check back. The best way to keep up to date with everything is to come and join our mailing list. That is where the date announcements, competitions and early access to new details will be in the newsletters.
How to book The Key of Dreams?
The first two events have been announced, and will be on the 27th and 30th of April 2024.
Discount for The Escape Roomer readers! As a special treat for The Escape Roomer fans you can get a 10% Discount for all April tickets until the end of October. Just use the code APOPHENIA when you check out.
You can also book a deposit for a future 2024 event and get a 10% discount early-bird discount as well.
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is the biggest and (in my totally un-biased opinion) the best Fringe Festivals in the world. It takes place every year in August, lasts the whole month, and showcases somewhere in the region of 3,800 acts consisting of 50,000 performers.
Assuming every act lasts around an hour, it’d take you 159 days to see them all. And that’s if you didn’t sleep or take a single break…
Wait, what?! But there’s only 30 days in the Fringe!!
Exactly. So if you’re visiting for a day, a week, or the whole month, you’ll want to maximise your time at the Fringe. Especially if you’re an escape room enthusiast, because I won’t let you visit Edinburgh without trying out some of our escape rooms whilst you’re here too. I’m serious.
Since moving to Edinburgh I’ve lived through 2 Fringe Festivals, and before that I’d visited a few times for a show or two. The festival does change every year, but there are a few things that happen in Edinburgh all year round you may wish to take advantage of whilst you’re visiting. In this article, I’ll mention a few shows which I’ve seen return year on year, and a few things which are permanent features of Edinburgh. I’ll also mention a few to avoid (and why), so that hopefully (as an escape room enthusiast) you can make the most of your time here.
The Best Escape Rooms in Edinburgh
There are three Do Not Miss companies in Edinburgh:
In number one position is “Case Closed” which is easily one of the best in the whole UK. But what makes it so special? It’s a 90 minute room in the heart of Edinburgh. So far, fairly normal. There’s no “escape”, and your currency is information: instead of unlocking doors and running away, you succeed by filling out reports to your superintendent, and if your information is correct you may proceed. It’s about as realistic as it gets to solving a real case – think blood spatter analysis, forensics, and guns. Furthermore, there are no leader boards or ‘escape times’, no, you’re supposed to take your time and enjoy it rather than worry about beating a score. It has a spectacular ending which I’m still buzzing about days later. It’s also designed and created by an enthusiast. You can tell the difference between an escape room for profit, and escape room born out of absolute passion and love. Case Closed is the latter.
In second place, and located in the very heart of the Edinburgh Fringe is The Anatomist by Escape the Past.
Escape The Past have created an incredible game combining Edinburgh’s dark history with an exhilarating escape room. Our team of five were completely immersed in our surroundings, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that the room was designed by Chris Wood, an Edinburgh University History graduate and Zahra Chaudhri, a doctor. The attention to detail is seriously impressive and offers a full sensory experience, which is a rare find.
And in third place, for us, is the company “Locked In“. Which room? Honestly, any of them available for booking, but I’m partial to “The Secret Lab”, pictured below. It’s a challenging room for up to 10 players featuring lots and lots of cells. According to the website:
“The lab known as the Kensie Research Lab or the ‘Secret Lab’ was a marvel of the 70’s with technology that no one could ever imagine. It contained the very best equipment money could buy and a group of scientists whose work would go down in history. The genius in charge of the lab was Dr. Lyall Kensie, a brilliant bio-chemist, specialising in virus’ and disease. His experiments were groundbreaking, his ideas were radical but not everything played out how he had hoped.”
The Best Outdoor Scavenger Hunts in Edinburgh
But before you go and book all the escape rooms… I should drop a little reminder that the Edinburgh Fringe takes place in August. The one month of the year where it’s least likely to rain. So why not get your puzzle fix and make the most of the beautiful Edinburgh outdoors at the same time?
One of the most, if not THE most loved treasure hunt company in Edinburgh is the aptly named “Edinburgh Treasure Hunts“. A solo-run and operated business by your incredibly awesome host Sabi who, as a part-time tour guide, is an expert in all things Edinburgh. The company is also one of the first to start running games of this kind with many of their trails being well over 5 years old and host to thousands and thousands of players over the years. Not only cool credentials, but their experiences are just really, really, really good. My favourite is the Pirates Quest.
Mystery Guides is a company based out of Portsmouth. They’ve got that small, independent feel, and you can tell the creator really loves what he does. Fast forward a few years from their foundation and now Mystery Trails has setup popular trails in many, if not most major cities around the UK. Luckily for us, one of those trails is in Edinburgh.
The format of a Mystery Guide is fairly straightforward. With your order you’ll receive a physical, printed clue book. These books are lovingly illustrated and come packed with puzzles that guide you around the city. With each new puzzle section, there’s a snippet of map showing you where to go next, the actual clue to be solved, and then a snippet of story. In our case, this was in the form of diary entries. Many clues also had local information about the history of the area, or useful tidbits about local businesses / street names / and fun facts.
Edinburgh Fringe Exclusives to Look Out For
Now, these may or may not be running on whatever year you’re planning an Edinburgh Fringe visit – so take these with a pinch of salt. But, if you’re overwhelmed by the 3,800 shows on offer, here are some things you might wish to start with.
Every year, company called Darkfield sets up a collection of shipping containers where a performance takes place entirely in the dark. Now, I’ve never booked it. Honestly? I’m too scared. But everyone who ever has says they love it. And by “everyone” I mean all my escape room enthuasiast friends. So it’s probably well worth checking out.
Welcome to DARKFIELD. We hope you enjoy your stay. Eulogy is a surreal, otherworldly journey through a dreamlike, labyrinthine hotel that exists entirely in your mind. Performed in complete darkness over 35 minutes, this intense and exhilarating ride uses binaural sound and speech recognition technology to deceive the senses and transport audience members through rooms, down corridors and into the bowels of this strange and not altogether comfortable hotel. How your dream unfolds is, in part, up to you. However, make sure you don’t volunteer to become the subject of the eulogy every guest is preparing to deliver.
Darkfield experiences are actually run all over the world, not just at the Edinburgh Fringe, so the chances are if you can’t make it out here to Edinburgh – you’ll be able to book something a little closer to home.
That’s right, THE Punchdrunk. Quite often they run a show (or two) at the Edinburgh Fringe, or the Edinburgh International Festival which runs at the same time. In 2023, they ran show called the “Lost Lending Library” aimed at children, to wild success.
At 314 floors high and with 78 spiral side departments, The Lost Lending Library houses the largest collection of books and stories in the world. Books of all sizes and colours are crammed together on its shelves, stories bursting into life from their covers. Inside one department is a trainee library guardian weighed down with responsibility. They need your help to learn how to believe in themselves, and appreciate their own unique talents.
Whether they’ll be returning in the future or not, Punchdrunk is the first name I search when each year’s new Edinburgh Fringe line-up is announced.
Agent November (Miss)
Agent November is a regular face at the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s the only real ‘escape room’ experience taking place at the Fringe – consisting of a part outdoor puzzle trail, part tabletop escape room. There are a few experiences on offer, and they run on the hour, ever hour. Don’t get me wrong, we’re big fans of Agent November, but sadly this is probably on my Fringe ‘miss list’. The main down-side being that they do public bookings of up to 10 people per slot which crowded around a tiny briefcase means you definitely do not get your money’s worth at £20 per person.
Escape rooms: everyone’s favourite activity to do when you’re going to a birthday party hosted by a virgin or when your company is forcing you to go under the threat of contract termination. Escape rooms famously simulate everyone’s favourite real-life feelings of being stuck in a room with a bunch of strangers, being forced to do puzzles, and having thoughts that if something goes slightly wrong you might die. How are you going to figure out how to escape The GottaGo Room? Here’s a hint: try to solve the clues!
…Unfortunately it was one of the worst shows I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I booked tickets with Rebecca, another writer here at The Escape Roomer and we both agreed it missed the mark. It felt like a student performance by a troupe of chaotic individuals none of whom has ever actually been to an escape room. The ‘puzzles’ were odd and imbalanced – an extremely hard maths puzzle next to an incredibly easy spot the difference and an awkward ‘everyone in the audience stand in a circle and hold hands’ that I still don’t really get. We really try not to be negative here on The Escape Roomer, but if they make a return for 2024 or beyond, I’d recommend skipping.
(This article was originally posted in full on Medium, but I decided to cross-post here as well, in case anyone is here looking for game design advice!)
I am not a video game developer…
Okay, okay. That’s not quite true. I’m a puzzle game designer. I’ve worked on physical escape rooms, a bunch of tabletop experiences, outdoor puzzle trails, ARGs, and yes… A few video games as well. But I’m also the kind of person who opens up Unity and gets nervous sweats just looking at it. I mean, coding? Me? The last time I coded was some time in the early 00s when I added glitter text to my Neopet’s HTML petpage.
Those really were the good old days, weren’t they?
But despite that, someone, somehow saw something in me and decided to accept my application for the 2023 Astra Game Development Fellowship. Which meant I was suddenly presented with a dream come true, unique opportunity to learn all of the things, and learn them really damn fast.
The Astra Games Development Fellowship, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a grant to support the work of a “thinky game developer” for one year. And in case you’re also wondering, a thinky game, for anyone who doesn’t know, is essentially a really cool word to describe a game that makes you think. Puzzles, strategy, or resource management.
Are you braincells being thoroughly stretched out? Well then, you might be playing a “thinky game”.
The first part of the Fellowship focuses on experimentation and development through a series of game jams. And, as I write this, I’ve just ‘finished’ my final game of the six-jam series.
‘Finished’ is a very strong word, and we’ll get into that shortly… But first, I wanted to take time to look back the delicious jam and think on a few lessons. Over the past few months I’ve made some games I love, and some games I hate, I learned to collaborate with other people, and I learned how to discipline myself for solo working as well.
How many jams?! Six jams!
Show me the Jam(s)
Game Jam #1 — “Fairytales”
The very first jam of the season was titled “Fairytales”. From the first moment the jam was announced, I knew I’d be doing two things:
I’d be making the game out of Twine, and
I’d be making a sci-fi game
You remember the Neopets joke? Well, I was serious. Coding was a big scary black box of doom. I wasn’t ready for C#, but I did feel comfortable with the most basic level of HTML. Yep, the kind I used to make petpages out of.
After a couple of days work, I game up with a very short story idea where the main character has to decode a series of interstellar transmissions. It’s a little more complex than that, but I’ll let the game itself do the explaining.
The background for Distant Outposts
Game Jam #2 — “Make it Thinky!”
One jam down, five more to go. The idea behind the second game jam was to take a genre that isn’t traditionally thinky, and make it thinky. For example, taking a ‘skateboarding’ game and somehow turn it into a puzzle experience.
This theme, I love! *chefs kiss* But with a new game jam came a new collaboration. For this jam I collaborated with a fellow fellowshiper (fellow fellow?), Caroline. Together, we ran through a few ideas and slowly they converged onto another sci-fi game: This time about a to-and-from conversation between you, the player, and an alien. Originally based on the idea of making a ‘music/beat/ game thinky, we slightly ran out of time, but I’m still immensely proud of the results! I mean, baby’s first foray into Unity coding, heck yes!
Call and Response
Game Jam #3 — “Verbs”
Okay, okay, so technically this was the one of the 6 game jams I didn’t actually take part in. Life got in the way and an ill-timed holiday cropped up, you know how it is. But despite that, this was still my favourite prompt. The prompter (the fantastic Ludipe) gave suggestions such as “Dance”, “Fold”, and “Grow”. But of course my mind went to verbs such as “Shout”, “Scream”, “Squat”, or “Search” (why so many S’s, I do not know).
For this non-participation round, I made a bunch of things. Pages in my notebook, a few 3D models, and some sketches. The idea that took hold in my brain used the verb “Whisper”, where the player would walk around a speakeasy trying to solve a murder by carefully listening to the whispers of the NPCs.
Again, feeling not quite ready to take this into Unity, I focused largely on bringing a scene to life in Blender, and then uploaded a number of 360 degree ‘views’ into a platform called Telescape in order to click and move around the environment.
Game Jam #4 — “Everyday Things”
Rejuvenated from my mini-holiday and slightly disappointed that I didn’t have time to submit any the week before, I started week 4 ready to challenge myself. The theme of the latest game jam was “Everyday Things”. Think doing the washing up, or folding laundry. Things you do all the time — but this time, make them puzzley.
I reached deep, deep into the depths of my knowledge, and bolstered by an over-confident declaration that I wanted to try VR — fired up Unity and chose the “VR” option. For this jam, I wanted to make a supermarket. But a really disconcerting maze-like supermarket where every time you picked up an item from the shelf the whole maze subtly changed so the path you just walked is no longer there. So, I did just that. And since my avatar is The Rock, it has a subtle ‘Rock’ themed vibe.
Game Jam #5 — “Local Culture”
A Dwayne the Rock Johnson themed VR supermarket maze? Okay, that last jam was a little silly. I was having fun in a low-stakes “it’s okay if this turns out terrible” environment. But with Game Jam 5 came the first of the two-week long jams, and time to get serious about the ideas I may carry across into the full grant year.
For local culture, I dug down into an idea I originally pitched when I was first accepted into this Astra cohort. A puzzle game about delivering post in a town that has no street names or postcodes. Essentially a logic puzzle. The local culture was my own, hyper-specific, slightly cottage-core vision of rural England.
The result was “Delivered”, the first game in this series of jams I felt truly happy to have made. A game that can stand up straight on it’s own legs and no caveat of “well I’m not sure this works but at least I learnt something”.
Game Jam #6 — “Collaboration”
Last, but by no means least, was the very last jam. One could look on the jam and say ‘this is where she went off rails’ or as I prefer to see it, ‘oh okay, heres where she actually decided what she wanted to do and it wasn’t this’. The final topic was ‘collaboration’ and with a happy co-incidence I went on holiday with the coder who helped me with Jam #5 — my Unity Wizard brother.
I decided to play with an idea of a classic point and click adventure that’s been half-written over countless game design docs and notebooks over the years. The first week… Went well! My brother and I created some Unity scenes together, an inventory system, some simple animations…
A very early sketch of one of the scene’s (behind those windows — a parallax scroll sky!)
…And then I went home and stared at the Unity file unable to make any further changes. Why? Because I already knew the game I wanted to make for my ‘big project’, and it wasn’t this one.
So for the final game jam I submitted (almost) exactly nothing, and I’m thrilled with myself that I did it. Because A) I learnt so much in the first week and B) I used the second week efficiently, building a game design document for my ‘big idea’ and sharing with for feedback with peers.
So, what did I learn about making games?
1. Making games is so much fun
Going from “haha this is a weird little idea” to having a link you can send to anyone anywhere in the world is… Cool. And all you need to do is literally just sit down and do it. Make the game. It’s as simple as that. Why didn’t anyone tell me this earlier? Damn I wasted 27 years not making cute little video games? That changes now.
Don’t let your dreams be dreams (or something like that anyway)
2. Everyone should give themselves permission to make bad games
Nobody can make good games without first making bad games. It’s a tricky lesson to learn and it took me the whole game jam series to not feel bad about making something, well, bad! But game jams are great for that because they’re so short — literally nobody can make something super polished in that time, and I love that.
3. When making games, make sure you give yourself all the breaks you need
Without realising it, I had a pattern. Make two games, then take a break. Make another two games, then take a break. That works for me. It might not work for the next game dev, but the important thing is to make sure you’re taking the breaks you need, when you need them!
Me after sending one little email
4. Making games is 10% making them and 90% tweaking after
There’s nothing quite like clicking “play” after thinking your game is finished only to discover 15,382 bugs to fix. The lesson: ‘Finish’ early, and give yourself as much time as possible to tweak later!
5. You don’t have to always make games in [cool engine], you can make them in [super random tool]…
I spent all 6 jams telling myself “ok Mairi, we’re gonna do this Unity” and settling for a different system. Along the way I used Twine, Telescape, VR Chat, and cut up paper on my desk. And you know what? I still learned a lot, had fun, and made cool games.
I’d even take it a step further and say there is literally no right or wrong thing to make a game out of. If you want to make a game out of an ice sculpture? Go for it. Mashed potato? Even better!
I’m probably going to stick with Unity, but send me some mash and a plate and I’ll see what I can do.
Potato challenge accepted
6. …You can even use paper to make a prototype!
Ok so maybe I didn’t learn this right now. I come from a background in board games so paper prototyping is my jam. But since I’m writing about game dev lessons, you can have this one for free.
Sometimes it’s quicker to prove a concept, especially a puzzley one, on paper before firing up the engine.
For example: If you want to make a game that plays top-down on a desk — why not literally go cut out shapes on paper and put it on your desk and see how it looks and feels?
7. Make a game for you, and only you
There are experts. Loads of ’em. And they know lots of useful stuff. But the one thing they don’t know about is YOUR GAME. There’s only one expert in your game and that’s Jeff… Wait no, wrong notes. ITS YOU.
Of course, take feedback! But I believe strongly in not trying to please everyone. Even within the puzzle world we all have different expectations of a “thinky game”. One person might love Sokoban, and the next person might want hours of pure mathematics, the next person might be looking for an escape room where they can sort through a bunch of keys. Those are three very, very different things. So, don’t try to make something they’ll all love, just make something you’ll love.
It’s not a Mairi article unless there’s a GIF of Nic Cage in there sorry I don’t make the rules
Thanks for reading! 👋
Whether you’re a game developer yourself, a fellow Astra Fund recipient, or just my mum reading this because you love me (oh hi mum), I hope the article was useful!
For me, my next step with Astra will be making the ✨big game✨. Deciding what sort of a game you want to focus on for the next 10 months is an equally thrilling and nerve-wracking decision, but as I write this I’m feeling hopeful and excited about my idea. It’s my intention to post some development logs as I go. Perhaps on Medium, or perhaps on my personal portfolio, or perhaps on the Game Design section of my escape room site… We’ll see!
As for you, I don’t know what your next step is. Maybe you’re making your own game? Or maybe you’re just making a cup of tea. Oooh, or maybe you’re making a game about a cup of tea?! Or maybe you’re making a cup of tea about a game– no wait, that doesn’t make sense. In any case, go forth and make good things, and bad things, and share them with the world (especially if they’re puzzley) so I can support you!
Escape rooms have taken the world by storm, captivating people with their immersive environments, challenging puzzles, and adrenaline-pumping experiences. Behind the scenes, the magic of escape rooms lies in their intricate design. But have you ever thought about how escape rooms are designed? Escape room design is an art form that combines storytelling, set design, puzzles, and technology to create immersive adventures. Each element must harmoniously work together to transport players into a world where they can become the heroes of their own stories. In this article, we have listed the most important factors we always put in mind when we created our first escape rooms in Live Escape Rotterdam. Let’s explore the fascinating world of escape room design and the key elements that make these adventures truly unforgettable!
1. Write a compelling storyline
First and foremost, the foundation of any escape room design is a compelling storyline. Whether it’s a thrilling mystery, a treacherous jungle expedition, or a sci-fi adventure.
A well-crafted narrative sets the stage for the entire experience. The storyline serves as the backbone of the room, guiding players through a series of puzzles and challenges that are
seamlessly woven into the overarching plot. This is what we are doing in our new location in Utrecht that you can enjoy real soon!
2. Physical design of the room
One crucial element of escape room design is the setting. The physical environment must be meticulously designed to reflect the storyline and create an atmosphere that draws players into the game. Every aspect, from the walls and props to the lighting and sound effects, must work in harmony to create a believable and immersive environment.
Attention to detail is crucial as designers meticulously craft every element to enhance the theme and transport players into another world. Whether it’s recreating a futuristic laboratory, an ancient temple, a post-apocalyptic wasteland, or even a museum (Yes, we are building a museum escape room in Live Escape Amersfoort!) the setting should be visually appealing and create a sense of awe and wonder. Interesting, right?
The Team at Live Escape Amersfoort
3. Puzzle creation
Did you know that puzzles are the heart and soul of escape rooms? They should be engaging, challenging, and intricately connected to the storyline. A well-designed puzzle should require both individual and team problem-solving skills, encouraging communication and collaboration among players. From deciphering codes and solving riddles to manipulating objects and uncovering hidden compartments, each puzzle should provide a sense of accomplishment and progression.
4. Flow of the gameplay
Another essential aspect of escape room design is the flow of the gameplay. The room should be designed in a way that allows players to navigate through the challenges logically. Cleverly designed pathways, hidden passages, and non-linear puzzles can add depth and complexity to the experience, ensuring that players are constantly engaged and surprised.
5. Atmosphere and ambiance
Escape room design is a delicate art, where atmosphere and ambiance hold the key to an unforgettable experience. The perfect escape room captivates players from the moment they step inside. Dim lighting casts mysterious shadows, while carefully curated soundscapes enhance tension. Intricate set designs transport participants to another world, immersing them in a narrative that unravels with each clue discovered. The ambiance, a combination of eerie silence and sporadic bursts of adrenaline-pumping music, keeps hearts racing and minds focused. Every detail, from props to scent, is meticulously chosen to maintain the illusion. In this carefully crafted environment, the line between reality and the game blurs, leading to an extraordinary journey of suspense and triumph.
Theft at the Morgue at Live Escape Amersfoort
Escape room design prioritizes safety to ensure an enjoyable experience for all. Well-designed escape rooms incorporate clear emergency exits, fire safety measures, and adequate lighting. By considering safety in the design process, escape rooms become spaces that allow individuals to join in the excitement of solving puzzles and unlocking their potential for adventure. Designing an Escape Room is really a hard work, so the next time you find yourself locked in an escape room, take a moment to appreciate the intricate design that has gone into crafting this unforgettable experience.
I am Kevin, a manager and game designer at Live Escape. Gaming and experience designing are my true passions, and I pour my heart into creating immersive adventures that captivate and challenge participants. With a relentless drive to push the boundaries of game design, I strive to ensure unforgettable escapades for all. I have created several games for different escape room companies in The Netherlands, like “The Safe House”, “The Boiler Room” and “Veronica” but I’m most proud of our new escape room that we are going to open soon in Utrecht. I can’t tell a lot yet, but it’s going to be an experience room and we have included some physical elements as well.
So today’s blog post isn’t exactly escape room themed. Wait, what?! A non escape room post on The Escape Roomer? Scandalous!
Unless of course you count the fact that many of the Taskmaster series have incredibly puzzle-y and escape room-like challenges in them? And that Alex Horne himself is an escape room enthusiast, which we found out when we interviewed him. Both things are how I’m going to justify writing this post. That and I don’t know an escape room enthusiast who isn’t also a fan of Taskmaster. When I posted about my party on Instagram, everyone who reached out asking how it went and tips for throwing their own party were puzzle people. It leads me to one conclusion: The Taskmaster fans and escape room enthusiasts Venn diagram is a circle.
To celebrate my twenty something-th birthday, I decided to throw a party. But not just any party, a Taskmaster themed party. I gathered all of my favourite people in one room, locked the doors (just kidding), and gave them a series of tasks to complete. Throughout the process I learned a thing or two about writing good challenges. As a game designer, writing Taskmaster challenges doesn’t usually come up in my day-to-day work, but there was a lot I learned from theories of player progression, gameplay beats, the archetypes of fun that went into planning and executing the gameplay. That’s a lot of words for: I tried really hard to make it fun, it paid off, and so I wanted to share some tips and tricks with you.
Design Your Own, or Buy the Game?
The first question you want to consider is probably whether to design your own challenges, or buy one of the many, many resources the Taskmaster team have available for sale. If you buy the board game or book, the host can also take part! But then you lose out on the fun of coming up with your own wacky and wonderful challenges yourself.
If you do wish to purchase a list of ‘challenges’, the Taskmaster store has many:
101 next level tasks (and clues) that will lead one ordinary person to some extraordinary Taskmaster treasure…
Picking the Best Environment
The first consideration was: Where am I doing this party?
If it’s sunny out and you have a local park, this is an ideal place to throw a Taskmaster party
Pro: The large space makes for large-scale constructing and crafting challenges, as well as search-and-find challenges, pretty much anything involving water (and so on)
Pro: It’s always fun to be out and about in the sunshine
Con: Whatever materials you want your players to use, you’ll have to bring with you
Con: Toilets! Gotta let your players take toilet breaks
Do you have a garden? Well, best of both worlds!
Pro: Same as above!
Con: Way fewer con’s here, except to say – careful of making a mess! It’s your garden you’ll have to clean up.
Hiring a space, such as a private function room.
Pro: A dedicated space where all the tasks can take place
Pro: Most places will cater / include drinks, and you might even have access to some impressive AV equipment
Con: You’ll have to stay away from particularly messy tasks.
Con: You’ll have to bring everything with you.
Why not go all out and rent out an entire Taskmaster sized building!
Pro(or Con): Your Taskmaster event no longer has to be one evening long, why not make it a whole weekend long?
Your own apartment. This is what I did, and it worked for me!
Pro: Your own space, to get as messy and loud as you like!
Pro: Everything you need is already there at home
Pro: You have your own AV
Pro: If you have a garden, perfect.
As indicated, I did mine at home. Unfortunately I don’t have a garden but I did make good use of the surrounding neighbourhood area with one particular (not messy) outdoor task. But you’ll know what suits you best!
Coming Up With Tasks
You know your players better than anyone else – so as you’re reading this you might already have some ideas of what sort of questions to give them. Maybe you have a particularly athletic group of people and can challenge them to do sporting activities, or maybe you’ve got a group of puzzle people and want to try your hand at one of those “escape the caravan” tasks from the TV show. It’s your party, so it’s your rules!
The ones I came up with are very specific to my players – a mix of people, some puzzley, some less so. I’ll write the tasks I came up with at the bottom, but in general, here are some fun tips to coming up with tasks:
When coming up with team or pair tasks, split up couples and put people with surprising parters.
If nothing else, it’s an excellent way to break the ice! In any case, couples (generally) work far too well together and you don’t want to give anyone an unfair advantage.
Come up with tasks that make people laugh.
Think ‘silly’, and think ‘party’. Taskmaster isn’t about being the best (well, maybe), it’s about doing things you’ve never done before that you might look incredibly goofy doing. I loved leaning into that.
Come up with tasks that take a range of time and mix them up satisfyingly.
I made an error with one of my tasks being too long, and put it too late into the game. Don’t be like me, break them up and mix them up with long-short-long-short. If you’re also serving drinks, the drunker players get the less patience they’ll have (but the goofier they’ll get!). Use this to your advantage.
Surprise players with a “Part A” and a “Part B”
A Part A might feel innocuously simple, coaxing the player to pick or do something in a certain way that is suddenly turned on it’s head in Part B.
Give tasks that make for great photographs!
After all, you want some fun memories to remember the day by, right?
The Taskmaster at Work
The best ways to come up with tasks are to re-watch old series for inspiration, or just look at a fun round-up article like this one. There’s also a handy website here which is a super invaluable source for playing Taskmaster at home.
So, what were my tasks? They were:
In your teams, you have 30 minutes to find something that fits each of the following categories. You can take a photograph, or bring the physical item back. It’s up to you. 1 point for each ‘best item’.
Pareidolia (Something that looks like a face, but isn’t)
Something that reminds you of [host]
The quirkiest street art
An optical illusion
The incorrect time
Something pink and fuzzy
The smallest object
100 years old (exactly)
Is it cake?! (something doesn’t look edible but is)
Greg. Someone called Greg.
A menu with an item costing exactly £6.50 on it
Most unusual food fusion (e.g. pizza ice cream)
The meaning of life
The most Scottish thing
Happiest looking dog
Something that will offend [person in the team] the most
A famous person’s doppelganger
The most unlikely thing in your team’s colour
The cheapest thing that isn’t free
Design a new board game that does the exact opposite of another board game. For example: Peacehammer instead of Warhammer, or Reverse Snap where you have to ‘SNAP’ on any non-matching group of cards. We will play both games and decide collectively which team wins.
An optical illusion! Can you believe it, he is actually floating?!
Decorate the best cupcake. Your cupcake must be edible. Best cupcake wins.
(the best part is – you’re left with a bunch of delicious cupcakes at the end!)
Stack the tallest book tower in 5 minutes. However you may only touch books whose authors have the same first letter name or surname as you.
Send one of the following questions via Text or Whatsapp to someone who will definitely reply. Fastest reply gets the most points. Slowest reply gets 0.
If a tree falls in the desert and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?
What if our dreams are actually glimpses into alternate realities?
If humans had the ability to fly, would we still have developed advanced transportation systems?
What if gravity stopped working for a day—how would it impact you?
PART A: Using the periodic table (and not the internet), construct your favourite word using chemical element abbreviations. For example:Fl O W Er
(Flerovium, Oxygen, Tungsten, Erbium)
PART B: Write a haiku (5-7-5 syllable) poem for each of those chemical elements. Make sure your haiku is factual and informative about the properties of that element.
Put on a blindfold and follow your partner’s instructions to ‘draw’ something. Guess what they are asking you to draw. Correct guesses win points.
We started with the outdoor “find all the things” task, and I used this as an opportunity to split the whole party into groups of people who didn’t know each other. I also made sure to have a Taskmaster superfan and extra competitive person on each team. This gave me extra time to set up the next task, and people loved running around whilst it was still bright and sunny outside.
Challenge: Find the happiest dog. This is a bemused looking dog, very happy crowd of people around it!
Next, we did the remaining challenges randomly. Some particular favourites were the texting challenge (one replied immediately and others still haven’t replied even now!), the book challenge was also a lot of fun – but then again, I’m a serial book collector and there were plenty of books hidden around the house people could use.
The one challenge which probably didn’t work as well was the game design challenge. Again, as a game designer I was excited for this one – but it was the very last challenge and whilst I’d hoped it’d be a fun note to end on, it was after midnight by then and I think everyone was simply quite tired! The other challenge which I needed to amend on the fly was the drawing one – I originally wanted everyone to draw twice and instruct twice, but it would have taken far too long, so we ended it after just one round.
This is all learning for next time – and hopefully learning you can apply if you’re planning your own party!
Creating the Envelopes
To create the envelopes, this was super, super simple. From watching the TV show, I noticed they’re not actually “envelopes” but sheets of card that have been tri-folded and sealed shut with a wax seal. Now, finding a wax seal is the gold standard. Taskmaster sell their own official envelope with a seal here. Or, you can get these custom made like these ones on Etsy, or get your own personalised seal and buy the wax separately like this product here.
If you leave it fairly last minute to get something custom made like I did, you could also make your own. I went super simple: I drew out some simple wax seal outlines, shaded them in red, and them wrote TM on top. Which of course stands for TaskMAIRI, right? *cough*
To create the contents of the envelopes themselves: I opened up a Google Doc and selected the “Special Elite” font. This isn’t the official font or anything, but it was the closest I could find. Then, in print-layout I made sure each task was on a separate page at an appropriate size, and then printed the whole thing out on card.
The whole thing took less than a few minutes, and whilst having real wax seals would have been very cool – I was happy with the outcome!
Hosting the Games
The next thing a good Taskmaster party needs is a good Taskmaster! Am I a good Taskmaster? Pfft, probably not (I’m far too kind with giving points). But it’s all about the confidence and a fancy chair to sit in, am I right?
Unless you’re playing a pre-purchased Taskmaster game, your last big challenge is probably going to be deciding who and how to ‘host’ the game. This should ideally be the person who came up with the challenges. So if that’s you, then that’s great! But if you want to offload the hosting onto a particularly charismatic friend, by all means.
My two top tips here is firstly to do like the TV show and make sure that everyone gets a chance at reading out a challenge, so that the host’s role is purely judging. And, on the topic of judging, try to make sure the tasks aren’t too ambiguous in terms of “who won”. It’s super fun to judge, but “best thing” is so much harder to judge than “fastest to complete”, and nobody will argue. Unless of course you want arguments then… “Best thing” away!
But, at the end of the day, hosting a Taskmaster themed party is all about fun and your goal as hoster of the Taskmaster party is to make sure everyone has fun and feels happy… And doesn’t go home feeling like this:
My heart breaks, honestly.
In my party there were seven participants. This meant that each round there were 7 points up for grabs. 7 to the winner, 6 to the second place, and so on. In some rounds *cough cough* the outdoor ones, I awarded points for every item ticked off on the list. This meant that the winner walked away with a massive 60 something points, but everyone was at least over 40 by the end. Again, not exactly true to the original inspirational show, but if I’m the Taskmaster, I’m going to award whatever points I want to whatever task I want to – and you should too! It’s your party!
Last but not least, the prize!
What are you waiting for, grab the papier mache! It’s time to make a lifesize version of your own head.
I’m joking… Unless?
For my Taskmaster event, I gave the prize of a pineapple. It was the most head-like item I could find in the supermarket the afternoon before the party. I might have gone for a cantaloupe melon and stuck some googley eyes on. But at least this way your winner has something useful and delicious to take home.
Our grand prize winner, with his pineapple!
With that, I think all that’s left for me to say is go out there and host an awesome Taskmaster themed party!
It’s time to break out the yellow-and-black confetti because one of our favourite escape rooms is turning 10 this June.
As one of the longest running escape rooms in the UK, clueQuest has come a very long way since 2013. Founded by the Papp brothers – Gabor, Zoltan, Peter and Gergely, clueQuest has transformed from a little site in Tottenham Hale into one of the most popular and most beloved escape rooms in London, now located in Kings Cross.
When clueQuest first emerged nobody could have predicted the extraordinary journey that lay ahead. clueQuest invited the public to join forces with it’s signature yellow mouse Mr Q and embark on thrilling missions to protect the world. The debut escape room mission, PLAN52, tasked newly recruited “agents” with uncovering a double agent’s identity. Little did they know that this captivating adventure would become a monumental success, with over 170,000 people having played PLAN52 to date. It’s been nominated (and won) countless awards since then. And, remarkably, it can still be experienced today at clueQuest’s current home in King’s Cross.
Here on The Escape Roomer, we’re big fans of clueQuest. Not just their physical escape rooms like PLAN52, but we’ve also played all of the VR games they have on offer, and their Print+Cut+Play kept us sane through the global lockdown.
An EGGsciting adventure
You may also remember a few years ago The Escape Roomer was taken over by the evil, nefarious Doctor Black Sheep. For one week, the entire site was clueQuest yellow and Dr Blacksheep could be found across a number of hidden pages, causing mischief and mayhem.
Reflecting on the remarkable journey, CEO Gabor Papp remarked,
“clueQuest’s mission statement has always been to create happy memories for people. If companies were measured by how much laughter and happiness they contain, then clueQuest would be the most valuable place in London. We’re so proud of that as a business and as a family.”
To mark this momentous milestone, clueQuest is announcing they’ll be celebrating all year long. Each month, customers will have the chance to win one of many £1,000 gift cards. Each month will bring a new opportunity to win a prize. Be sure to keep an eye out on their website here.
Here at The Escape Roomer, we’re raising our glasses to toast the clueQuest team on their 10th birthday! Here’s to 10 fantastic years of escaping, excitement, and shared adventures 🥂
Kickstarter is an incredibly powerful tool not just for securing the funds to create a game, but also for marketing the game itself. In this article, I look at the very specific niche of “tabletop puzzle games” and using case studies, go through what works well and what might not be working quite so well.
What is a ‘tabletop puzzle game’, and why am I so fixated on them?
Tabletop puzzle game, play at home escape room, mystery box, puzzle board games… Whatever you want to call them. I’m a Game Designer, and even in our industry we haven’t settled on an exact name for exactly what it is we make. Or an exact genre for that matter. But, in general terms:
Tabletop puzzle games are a specific sub-genre of board games that are typically (but not always) single-play mystery experiences, packed with puzzles to solve. Think “you are trapped in a room and you have 60 minutes to escape”, or “you’ve inherited this mysterious box. You solve the puzzles and complete actions with a singular goal in mind. These games are often collaborative, not competitive, and they’re best played either solo or in a small team.
Sometimes tabletop puzzle games remain quite niche, popular in the “Puzzle People” communities where 3,000 or so of us share and chat about our favourite new puzzle games. Others break into the mainstream. You might recognise some of the following:
Graphic image from The Panic Room’s online website
And why is this topic so interesting to me? Well, it goes back to the idea of the communities who play these games. In other words:
“The “Puzzle People” communities where 3,000 or so of us share and chat about our favourite new puzzle games”
The most successful Kickstarter groups capture the attention of these people first. A successful first day means a game is all the more likely to be a Kickstarter “Project We Love”, and thus be shown to thousands, if not millions of new players out there. And it all starts with those Puzzle People. But marketing your game to such a small group comes with it it’s own challenges.
This crowd are the Puzzle People, and Nic Cage’s head could be your game.
Show Me the Numbers
To support this article, I went through every single English-language Kickstarter funded game in this ‘genre’ I could find, and compiled them in a spreadsheet here. In the time it took me to finish the spreadsheet, I managed to drink three cups of coffee. But hey, I enjoy crunching numbers whilst absolutely buzzed and excited. So here they are:
I was able to find 80 games in this genre since 2015
Most were from the USA. A whole 35%.
The next ‘most’ was the UK, with 25%.
Of course that might just be Kickstarter deliberately showing me British Kickstarters because of where in the world I am, but I was still surprised to see it.
Canada and the Netherlands were the next most represented countries, with 8 and 7 campaigns respectively.
Which companies are raising the most TOTAL moolah?
Well, to make things fair I converted all currencies into USD. These figures are accurate as of May 2023, but given currencies fluctuate they may not accurately represent what the Kickstarters took home at the time.
How much does it cost to make a game? Like, a million bucks?
At the very top, we see:
The Shivers, who raised $576,892.00 for their game
Mysterious Package Company(and their sister company, Curious Correspondence) who raised $501,637.00 on their most recent 2022 game, $446,281.00 in 2016, and $310,792.00 in 2015.
iDVenture, who consistently raise between $271,494.00 — $394,314.00 on every campaign
Spectre & Vox, the small British team who raised $308,764.00 in 2020
And last but not least, PostCurious’simpressive suite of games raising at most, $290,088.00 in 2020.
The Shivers on Kickstarter
Which campaigns have the highest number of backers?
The numbers start to look interesting if we instead filter the spreadsheet by number of backers. At the top we see:
Again, The Shivers at 6,794 people
Mysterious Package Company drops off the top-10, with one notable exception: Doomensions, which was a collaboration with Curious Correspondence. They had 5,338 backers.
iDVenture shoots right up to the top with a spooky 3,980 backers across both their campaigns, a year apart.
PostCurious, with a consistently high number of backers, their highest being 3,734 on Light in the Mist.
Doomensions on Kickstarter
Which campaigns have the highest spend per customer?
This is when things get even more interesting. I decided, out of interest, to divide the total raised by number of backers to see how much people are spending on campaigns. Or in a cynical way: Which companies have the richest backers?
A Killing Affair, a new name, comes in at top with just 86 backers who spent each $257.28 on Blind Faith. This isn’t surprising since the lowest pledge level was $125 and the highest $335.
Mysterious Package Company is no surprise here, with a very high cost of individual games. Their campaigns see between $238 — $249 per customer spend.
The Enigma Box is a new name in the top list again, their 2017 campaign saw an average spend of $221.
Similarly, The Detective Society rears it’s head as the company with the 4th highest spend per customer at $215. This again makes sense, since they were selling whole seasons of games.
Interestingly, or painfully, the 5th is a Kickstarter campaign called The Boundless Library which was never fulfilled. Backers pledged an average of $200.
Filigree in Shadow on Kickstarter
How about Player Spend by Year?
In 2015, I found 1 Kickstarter and it raised $310,792.00 (per backer spend of $240.74)
In 2016 I found 3 Kickstarters and they raised $590,410 (per backer spend of $139.47)
In 2017 I found 2 Kickstarters and they raised $422,142 (per backer spend of $207.64)
In 2018 I found 3 Kickstarters and they raised $38,250 (per backer spend of $24.51)
In 2019 I found 10 Kickstarters and they raised $389,792 (per backer spend of $51.24)
In 2020 I found 18 Kickstarters and they raised $2,275,464 (per backer spend of $90.29)
In 2021 I found 20 Kickstarters and they raised $1,059,446 (per backer spend of $63.03)
In 2022 I found 19 Kickstarters and they raised $1,589,997 (per backer spend of $83.18)
What the heck happened in 2018? Well, I don’t know, Kickstarter reported record funds, so maybe folks were just spending their money in other categories. It was a uniquely record-breaking hot summer, perhaps folks weren’t spending a lot of time playing board games? I tried looking up significant events in 2018, as well as any major scandals that might have impacted consumer trust in games. Ethiopia signed a big peace deal with Eritrea, which is awesome, but somehow I don’t think it had much of an impact on Kickstarter either.
My conclusion is that 2018 was a record low year for puzzle games simply because: The biggest names in the industry at that time simply didn’t run any campaigns that year. Yes, I’m looking at The Mysterious Package Company (who raised $446,281.00 and $310,792.00 the years before), Escape Room in a Box (who raised $135,429.00 the year before), Simulacra Games (who raised $244,175.00), and Enigma Box (who raised $177,967.00 the year before).
How to market your puzzle game on Kickstarter
Okay, so now we can get to the part of the article you’re really here for:
How?! How do I do it?!
How’d it get funded?!
The answer: There is literally no right or wrong answer.
I don’t have the answer. Folks who create campaigns that end up being funded $1m + also don’t have the answer. Following every trick in the books won’t guarantee a successful Kickstarter campaign.
So instead, what we can do is look at what other campaigns did well. I’ll use this article to look at what some of the most successful Kickstarters in the ‘puzzle game’ niche did well, and some pitfalls to avoid.
Make Good Games: A Case Study of, Well, Everyone!
A successful Kickstarter starts months and years before you actually hit ‘Publish’ on your campaign. It starts with making good games. With good games, comes trust.
But wait, I’ve never published a game before!
That’s why I’m going to Kickstarter!
There are other ways designers can build up trust with their audience, so fear not if you’re planning your first game! Why not try:
Making a short mini-game that backers can try out?
Publishing mini-puzzles on social media?
Sending your game to ‘influencers’, and reviewers ahead of the campaign?
In their most recent campaign, The Detective Society are seeking backers for Murder on the Moon, a murder mystery puzzle game set in space. Now, The Detective Society have published many games so there’s no doubt they’re good at what they do. But this time they have added something unique to the campaign: a “mini game”, which backers can gain access to for just a $1 pledge.
This mini game is digital only, accessible via an online password protected portal. For backers new to The Detective Society, it means they can try out their puzzles before committing to the full game.
The $1 pledge is similarly very smart. Backing a Kickstarter campaign means receiving their Kickstarter updates. It’s like giving away a $1 ticket to an event where you get to advertise a full priced product over and over (*cough cough* like those cheesy Home Convention Shows I somehow keep applying for free tickets to). The Detective Society have the duration of the whole campaign to convince an individual backer to pledge the full amount for the game.
The Early Bird catches the wriggly worm of Kickstarter success
Since this is probably the most important point to make, I’m doubling down on it from a slightly different angle:
A successful Kickstarter starts months and years before you actually hit ‘Publish’ on your campaign.
By making good games, you naturally build up an audience. Having an audience before you start a Kickstarter campaign is probably the single most important thing you can do for the success of your campaign. So, what do I mean?
I won’t go into all the details, for each of those bullet points is it’s own pillar of marketing. Plus, building up a presence won’t be the same between two companies. The company killing it on Tiktok might not be focusing on their emails. The company with 500,000 customers on their mailing list might not have time for a convention, and so on.
So instead, here’s how one puzzle game studio did it:
One of the companies who has historically done very well on that “community” front is Mysterious Package Company. It shows with their latest 2022 Kickstarter campaign, Doomensions. MPC is the kind of company that historically built up a lot of intrigue and FOMO with their customer base — a “join our mysterious society”, before mysterious societies were available, and “we will drop this mysterious box at midnight and there’ll only be 15 available” in a way your local designer t-shirt label probably does today. They also ran a message board called Curios and Conundrums, as well as countless invite-only message boards and Facebook groups that blurred the lines between fiction and reality.
But that’s not all, with Doomensions they collaborated with Curious Correspondence Club who are the organisers of the annual Puzzletember event in September, a free puzzle activity that pulls big audiences. Small, but mighty, Curious Correspondence also had a track record of shipping their own compact envelope games and a dedicated community that probably didn’t have too much overlap with the older, most established, higher spend-per-customer MPC.
It’s a good example of Kickstarter collaboration (more on that later), but more than anything just how building up a community and track record over years and years can help when it counts.
Make Beautiful Games: The 3 Seconds to Make an Impression
Research shows that most people make a first impression of a person within 7 seconds.
Some people say it’s actually 0.1 seconds…
…And in the video game world, the statistic often thrown around is “5 minutes”.
I don’t know if anyone has ever researched how long someone spends on your Kickstarter campaign page. If they have, I couldn’t find the numbers. But lets assume it’s a really short amount of time.
So how can you make an impact?
Use the Title and Subtitle to explain what the game is, and what is unique about it.
Use striking visuals and short and snappy headers to take users on a visual journey through your campaign. Who are you? What is your game? Why should they back?
Show, don’t tell. Include as many eye-catching images as you can — photographs, animated GIFs, illustrations.
But none of these are particularly new or ground breaking ideas, so let’s look at some case studies from the puzzle world:
Light in the Mist was a collaboration between PostCurious and illustrator Jack Fallows. Looking at their campaign, it seems like they knew their strength: The physical game itself was incredibly, incredibly pretty. Therefore, the Kickstarter campaign focuses on photographs of the game first. From hand-drawn tarot cards, gorgeous box poster, and add-on prints I’m quietly seething I didn’t pledge for at the time.
Both creators are well known for creating really high quality and beautiful games. But when they came together and made a Kickstarter for Light in the Mist? It was just pure…
Case Study: The Shivers Or as you might know it, the prettiest looking campaign ever.
On the other hand, we have the most successful game in the genre: The Shivers. Can I just print out this campaign page and frame it? The Shivers put a lot of time and effort into making their campaign page absolutely gorgeous. From high quality animated GIFs showing the game, to eye-catching illustrations. It’s a very image-heavy campaign, but it paid off.
The Shivers on Kickstarter
The TLDR; If you want to make a good first impression with your puzzle game, do like PostCurious or The Shivers and put the most visually appealing thing about your game on a pedestal.
The Power of Puzzle People
Now is a good time to bring it back to the very first thing I said in this whole article: The puzzle game community. The English speaking puzzle game community is around 3,000–5,000 people strong. They hang out in Facebook Groups, Discord Channels, Reddit, on social media and at in-person events (don’t believe me? Try Puzzled Pint!)
If you’re launching a Kickstarter campaign for a puzzle game, your campaign will live or die by how well you engage the puzzle community.
Kickstarter campaigns that do well are often:
Are from creators who are active, helpful and kind in the Puzzle Community. In fact, I think almost every campaign I’ve ever backed was because the creator made a personal effort.
Sending out previews of the game to reviewers, ‘influencers’, and other game designers in the industry.
Actively nurturing their own community, whatever that looks like. Do you have an ARG? Why not try setting up your own Discord channel or message board about the game.
Lost in the Shuffle is a really lovely case study and card game that launched on Kickstarter in 2022. It’s a very deceptively simple game. It’s quite literally just a deck of cards. Objectively (and no shade here) there’s nothing particularly eye catching about the visuals either — handwritten text, black and white illustrations, and a sketchy pencil-like quality. It was also by a solo game developer, Spencer is Puzzling who was relatively unknown in the industry.
And yet, Lost in the Shuffle was funded with over 480 backers.
So what did they do right? Well, besides making a game that was really good, they did a few things in the community really right:
They sent out copies of the game ahead of time to a number of reviewers and ‘influencers’ in the puzzle game niche.
They were active in the puzzle communities, kind and thoughtful about their responses to threads.
They appeared on talk shows, podcasts, and the like.
Lost in the Shuffle on Kickstarter
It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this *hands you a collaboration*
The puzzle game niche is small, and we all know each other. But that doesn’t mean that bringing other creators can’t add something new to your campaign.
Game design skill, illustration skill, marketing skill… No one person is perfect, and no one person can do it all…
Not even him
… So there’s always something to add by inviting a collaborator into the fold. A number of Kickstarter campaigns have been very successful in their collaboration, such as:
Doomensions, a collaboration between Mysterious Package Company and Curious Correspondence
I myself will be collaborating on a puzzle experience later in the year with Enigmailed.
THAT SAID: Just be careful out there when you do collaborate — protect yourselves, protect your heart, and protect your intellectual property! Make sure the person or business you’re collaborating with is able to fully commit, is someone you trust, and has a track record of successful delivery of projects.
Paid Ads, and All That Jazz
Not being intimately acquainted every puzzle game’s budget and ad spend, I can’t give any case studies for this — but I will say as a marketer myself, one of the important things you should also consider is Paid Ad Spend. This is the part of your campaign where you cast your net wider than the Puzzle People group and try to attract folks with overlapping interested.
Here are a few tips:
Define your target audience, specifically the demographics and behaviours of the people you think will be interested in your campaign
Utilise the video and visual content you’re creating for your campaign and repurpose it for any advert campaign.
Retarget interested users. If anyone has interacted with your website or brand in another meaningful way, now’s the time to reach back out to them with ads.
Other, outside of the box things you might want to try
Kickstarter is all about experimenting. Especially in the puzzle game niche. What works for [big popular company] or [indie solo developer] might not work for you, so you should try and forge your own path. Figure out what makes you and your game unique, and lean into that.
Create a Series of Puzzles to Support the Campaign
Puzzles that link into your campaign can be used on social media to advertise the game, or just as a way of keeping folks engaged and interested in your campaign. Doomensions did this well.
Offer Limited Edition Content
Remember when I said I was kicking myself for not adding a print onto my Light in the Mist order? You can be absolutely sure I’m getting all the “limited edition” add-ons for the projects I back today.
Offer Retail Copies of your Game
Don’t forget to include a pledge for retailers interested in stocking your game.
Last but not least: When to launch your campaign?
In the puzzle game niche, it’s more important not to launch at a particular time of year, but to be mindful not to launch at the same time as another campaign. We’re a small but mighty group, and the last thing you want to do is ‘compete’ for the attention of the same 3,000–5,000 people.
Yes, the community is collaborative, but at the end of the day your backers don’t have unlimited money. I myself can commit to backing a new puzzle game a month. But two a month? Three a month? I’ll have to be more careful with my pledge. Making your players choose between your fantastic game and the next team’s fantastic game is no good for your business, or for your audience.
If you have launched your campaign at the same time as someone else, take a leaf out of Diorama and The Detective Society’s group and see if there’s a way you can work together and make a fun spin on it!
Mairi, what the heck?! You wrote so many words! I’m not reading all that.
You, scrolling through this article
Okay, okay, okay I got carried away. It’s all that coffee I drank, remember? Here’s the short version, with animated GIFs:
Make sure the game you’re Kickstarting is good. Enough said.
Am I getting through to you Alva?
Prove to people you can make a really good game. Previously published games? Great! Nothing previously published? Send this game to reviewers, press, and influencers.
Start early, and build up your community. Your game will live or die by how well you’re able to mobilise your community — so don’t leave it up to chance!
Make really, really pretty games. It’s worth investing in graphics or illustrators.
Your game, but beautiful.
Engage the Puzzle Community! Make a mini game, or share mini puzzles. This one is a bonus because you can also show off how fun your puzzles are.
Collaboration can be good. But also make sure you protect yourself!
This could be you and your co-collaborators
Paid Ads = Good. They get your game in front of new, non-puzzle people.
Don’t launch your game at the same time as another game. It’s not ‘competition’, it’s just logistics. Puzzle people are a small group, don’t make them choose.
Thanks for Reading!
All that’s left to do is to go out there and make good games and launch them on Kickstarter.
Oh and, don’t forget to tell me about the games you launch. Mainly because I want to support your cool puzzle project and shower your campaign with love and attention!
This is me when I see a new puzzle game has been launched on Kickstarter
Cast your mind back to 2021. Yep, a whole two years ago. I was halfway between 20 and 30 and probably feeling listless and directionless about live (oh, hello 20s) and decided to make myself an “escape room bucket list” for all the things I wanted to achieve before I turned 30. A lot can happen and a lot can change in two years – but I’m still here, and more important I’m still playing escape rooms.
But now, on the 2 year anniversary of making that list, seemed as good a time as any to revisit what I’ve achieved, what is still on the list, and what advice I can share to other folks making their own [number before age] list for themselves.
Playing Escape Rooms… Around the World?
Reeling from being locked up for about two years at this point, it’s unsurprising a lot of my bucket list items involved travel. So, how did I do?
Play an escape room in Central Europe
Play an escape room in North America
Play an escape room on the other side of the world
Bonus: Play an escape room in another language
Well, the first three are easy enough. Though I’m not quite sure what I meant by “other side of the world”. Probably Asia, Australia or New Zealand. In that case, not quite yet – but I did recently play some in Canada, the Netherlands, and Poland. As for an escape room in another language, I was really hoping to do something clever and play a ‘language-less’ escape room. But I’m not quite sure they exist, so I’ll settle for French. Another tick. Or should I say il est complété!
Playing Escape Rooms… With Specific People!
The next category of escape room 30s before 30 seem to be about playing escape rooms with specific people:
Introduce all my friends to escape rooms
Play with friends from around the world
The first I’m working on every, single, day. *shakes fist at friends who haven’t played one yet*
They say you should never meet your idols but that’s false because I met mine and they were the best people. As for playing rooms with friends around the world, I have my Canada trip to thank for that! It was a whirlwind adventure in that I got to meet so many of my absolute favourite people in the world, all in one place. The escape room communities of Toronto and Montreal were amazingly welcoming, and I had the most wonderful time. Cheers to all of you! 🥂
Playing Specific Rooms
The next category of ‘bucket list’ items I can group by seem to be centred around playing specific rooms. These were:
Play a horror escape room
Play the first room in the UK
Play the Crystal Maze
Participate in a Zombie event
The first one was always going to be an easy win. I think I booked a horror room the very next month after writing my list. How was it? Terrifying. But nothing as terrifying as this year playing one of the world’s scariest: Stay in the Dark by DarkPark in the Netherlands. Sometimes I still wake in a cold sweat thinking about it, hah! As for the Crystal Maze, Zombies, and first in the UK – I’m still working on those. It doesn’t help that I moved away from London, but since that’s not in the spirit of things I’ll mark them as “pending”. There’s still time before 30!
Shooting for Gold on the Leader Board
My next few ‘bucket list items’ concerned leaderboard scores. Namely:
Come first on a leaderboard
Achieve a puzzle game speed run record
Compete in the Red Bull championships
I’m simultaneously not sure I have, and absolutely certain I have achieved something of all. As for those escape room scores, I just can’t say for sure which one. Plus, with many escape rooms resetting their leaderboard monthly, it’s quite likely if I go back through the list, any went for in the first day or two of the month are strong contenders. With regards to the Red Bull championships, sadly those don’t exist anymore – but I have been enjoying ER champ these last few years. Last year Team Escaping the Closet (consisting of myself, Al, Ash and Tasha) placed 36th in the world and 2nd UK team! Not bad.
Team Escaping the Closet takes 36th!
Creative Escape Room Goals for the Next 3 Years
Besides playing rooms, it’s clear from my bucket list I made back then that I wanted to focus on designing more.
Publish a digital escape room
Work on a new murder mystery
Publish a board game
and so on
Well, 25 year old me would be very proud, as I’m now able to say being a puzzle game designer is my full time job. I’ve completed all of the above, and more. It’s been a wild few years (mostly of burnout), but I’m proud of everything I’ve achieved and how far I’ve come. I won’t list them all here, but if anyone is interested I have a portfolio available here.
Last But Not Least: The Escape Room Tattoo
Argh! How could I have forgotten this one? Well no. I haven’t got that tattoo yet. But I still really want to. If anyone knows of any tattoo artists in the UK who might be up for designing me something, please do let me know!
What’s Next? 2 years? 5 years? 10 years?
There are a number of fun things on the bucket list I still need to achieve, and that’s great – I’m getting round to them for sure. But this also seems like an excellent opportunity to take stock and suggest some new things for my 30 before 30 bucket list. Such as:
Play 100% of all escape rooms in Edinburgh
…And why not also try to play 100% of all escape rooms in Scotland too!
Reach 500, physical, in person rooms played
Play an escape room in Japan
The home of escape rooms. Big bucket list item for me!
Visit a Punchdrunk experience
How have I reached this ripe old age and managed to miss them all? I’ll never know.
Beat 33rd in the world in the ER Champ
Collaborate on a puzzle experience with [specific person]
Note, I’m not actually going to name said person (or tbh, people, there are a few who are dream collaborators). But I’ll reach out when the time is right for sure.
Collaborate on a puzzle experience with [specific business]
Again, same reason. I know who they are. THEY probably know who they are due to my ‘Adoring Fan’ nature
Start a podcast about the puzzle industry
I have the format, I just need to get a move on. Haha, the story of my life.
Launch Escape Industry Jobs
A little project to help job seekers in the industry that I’ve had brewing in the background for a while
Bucket Lists, Are They Worth It?
Yes, and no. It really depends on what you want to get out of it. It’s a lot of fun making a list of things you’d like to do, and an excellent resource to look back on when you feel like you’re in a rut. Writing one really lets you lay out your priorities and in some ways can hold you accountable in a fun way. By not achieving something – you’ve only letting your younger self down.
But by that metric, it’s important to keep in mind they are fun. That’s one of the reason I wanted to write one about escape rooms and not say, my general life. Escape rooms are fun, playing them is fun, and my lists are just fun reminders to get out there more and seek out more exciting adventures in my life!
If you want to write your own bucket list, escape room or otherwise, I’d suggest setting a “before a certain date” on it. That way you have a target, and a milestone to pause on and look back at how far you’ve come.
Writing Your Own Escape Room Bucket List
So you’ve read this far, and you’ve thought “okay I want one of those”. Having looked back on mine, I’ve been reminded of the things I actively worked on, and doubly reminded of those things I completely forgot about. But armed with that knowledge, I wanted to share some advice.
Having escape room goals like “travel to far away place” or “win competition” are excellent – but only if they’re realistic. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t afford to travel, or enter the competition and only come 2nd place. The point is you put your heart into something, and that counts for a lot.
Ask for recommendations
In the escape room world, everyone loves talking about their favourite rooms – so this is a great opportunity to get recommendations for escape rooms and venues to put on your own bucket list. What are your friends favourite room? What are the experts’ favourite rooms? Ask around, and you’ll be amazed at the answers – and probably discover some new hidden gems along the way.
Get your A-team
Lets be real, most escape room bucket list items will need a team. Unless one of your bucket list items is to “play a room solo”. Which would be pretty cool if it were! Once you’ve written your list, share it with your friends and start getting a team together to help you play through or achieve new targets with your rooms.
So this is an ‘out there’ tip, but I’ve found many folks bucket lists are all thing they want to do, but for their own personal reason are waiting. Maybe they fear people will laugh, or say no when you invite them along with you. A good friend told me about the “100 rejections” challenge. You aim to collect 100 rejections in the course of a year. By aiming for rejections, you apply for the things and ask the questions you’re sure you’ll be rejected for. Out of those 100, you’ll surely collect a few “yes” replies, won’t you? 😉
Want to try designing an experience yourself? DO IT.
Some of my absolute favourite puzzle games and even escape rooms were designed by people who didn’t think they knew how, or did have any experience. Trust me, you can do this. And hey, if you want tips on where to get started – I wrote this guide here!
This is the absolute most important one of them all. We’re all in this escape room industry to play games and have fun. Making an escape room bucket list is first and foremost all about having fun. As you write your list and work your way through them – don’t forget that!
Okay yes, so this is “The Escape Roomer” and yes, we almost exclusively review UK escape rooms. That is, barring the few awesome “play at home” ones which we invariably did play from the comfort of our homes here in the UK… But then sometimes you go on an ‘escape room road trip’ to another country and are just so downright blown away by what you experienced you immediately come home and open up a “New Post” to start writing about them. This is one of those times.
So, if you’re reading this blog looking for a good escape room to play in the UK – stop what you’re doing and book a train to the Netherlands instead!
I’m sure this list of rooms will come as a surprise to absolutely no-one, since our trip was “Let’s play as many of the best escape rooms in the Netherlands as we possibly can“, but there are of course a number of rooms we just didn’t get round to playing this time. So this list isn’t an exhaustive, complete list to ‘the best’ rooms, but more a general look at what we loved most about the ones we played.
If you want a complete list of the best rooms to play, I highly recommend checking out the latest TERPECA winners. Simply head to this page and CTRL+F “Netherlands” and you’ll quickly see how well represented this fantastic country is in the rankings. At the time of writing, the Netherlands has, in the global rankings:
2. Down the Hatch’s “Molly’s Game”
3. Mama Bazooka’s “The Dome”
9. Darkpark’s “Stay in the Dark”
32. Kamer 237’s “Lost and Found”
35. Darkpark’s “The End”
40. Epic Escape’s “Illusion”
74. Rock City Escape’s “Soup du Jour”
82. Escape Room Junkie’s “Corpse Inc.”
95. Kamer 237’s “Room 237”
99. Logic Lock’s “The Amsterdam Catacombs”
10 out of the top 100 escape rooms in the world are here. For the 22nd smallest country in the world (and 6x smaller than the UK), that’s not bad. Not bad at all.
The Netherlands Escape Room Itinerary
Comprised of a team of myself, Alice & Ash from Escaping the Closet, and our good friend Tasha, we took the overnight ferry from Hull to Rotterdam on Thursday night. We checked into our Airbnb in Rotterdam, and then hurried off to play our first game.
Mama Bazooka @ Bunschoten
Rock City Escape @ Amersfoort
Darkpark @ Zoetermeer
Next Level Escapes @ Eindhoven
Darkpark @ Vlaardingen
Darkpark @ Delft
Down the Hatch @ The Hague
In terms of transport, the Netherlands is incredibly well connected by train, bus and tram. In fact no two escape rooms we needed to travel by took more than 1 hour, or cost more than about €14. We stayed in Rotterdam which is South-Central, and a lot less expensive than somewhere like Amsterdam.
Escape Rooms in the Netherlands – General Observations
Before I get into the details of each room, I wanted to share a few observations we noticed about Dutch escape rooms in general.
Firstly, there’s this amazing trust system in the lobby that simply would not work in the UK, and that is that you can help yourself to drinks and snacks before and after. Usually the lobbies are unmanned, but you can pick up a little checklist if you plan to take a bunch of stuff. This includes alcoholic drinks, and often merchandise too. This was a really nice touch. In the UK you’re lucky if there’s an old vending machine in the corner. In the Netherlands it was much more “please make yourself comfortable” and I loved that.
Mama Bazooka’s “Self Serve” counter
Secondly, briefings are given in-character. We often (but not always) arrived to be greeted by someone absolutely in character, not breaking for a second. It was interesting seeing how people offered us the use of lockers and bathrooms ‘in-character’. I enjoyed this, although we did get caught out with a “you’re late!”, only to start to argue that we were 20 minutes early, before realising this was part of the briefing.
Thirdly, many rooms were ‘self-triggered‘. What do I mean by this? After your briefing, we were told to enter the room by ourselves, without the Games Master around. I’m sure it’s because the Games Masters were off getting set up in their office, but it always worked so well in the theme. Go up to a door and knock three times? Or solve a puzzle to actually ‘get into’ the game. Excellent!
A final point to raise is that Dutch escape rooms – or at least the ones we played – tended to be more expensive than the average UK escape room. Yes, even more expensive than London. We paid in the region of £30 – £50 per person, per room. That said, they were all absolutely worth it – but be sure to factor that into your budget!
The Dome – Mama Bazooka
We started and ended the trip with the two rooms that have been ‘competing’ for the number 1 spot. The Dome, and Molly’s Game. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, and first lets talk about The Dome.
The Dome is a ‘sci-fi’ escape room. Well, sort of. In fact, it’s the kind of room that really defies categorisation because a week later and I’m not even totally sure I understood the things that happened to me in that room. You enter the experience as laboratory assistants, but things take a surreal turn when you accidentally ingest an hallucinatory substance. From this point onwards there’s a “wait, what?” level of disbelief and astonishment. The physical space is impressive, it’s twisting and turning corridors that do not take you to where you expected to go, and those moments of looking back at something you’d already completed only to find subtle, eerie differences that leave you questioning your sanity. There’s a good amount of physicality to the experience, but you’re mostly running on pure excitement and adrenaline. What it lacks in a complex narrative, it makes up for in visual, thematic and technical impressiveness. For that, I absolutely adored this room. The focus was squarely on the puzzles – as brilliant as they were – and the set design. It was a fantastic room.
It’s best played with very little expectations (though I suppose being for a while #1 in the world does come with it a certain level of expectation), so I’ll leave the review with just one final question:
Does it live up to the hype? Absolutely.
Soup Du Jour – Rock City Escape
Next up on our itinerary was “Soup Du Jour”. I approached this escape room with a very uneasy feeling in my stomach. I’m not a fan of scary or horror games and this one certainly verges on the side of “creepy”.
We approached the unusual building (a hidden door tucked away in something that looks a lot like an actual monastery), and were greeted by our stern Games Master who boldly barked “you’re late”, before giving us a nun outfit each and ushering us into the Monasterie Restaurant to help set up for the day. But something peculiar is afoot at this restaurant Nuns have been going missing. As we explored the physical space, we couldn’t help but shake the feeling that we might be next on the menu.
Soup Du Jour is a creepy room. There are a few more ‘jump scare’ elements than the average room (including one hilarious one we all screamed our heads off at), and a definite feeling of tension throughout. Where Soup Du Jour really shined for me were the puzzles. There’s a mix of linear, non-linear, and really creative solutions. Whether I’d personally agree it’s the 74th best escape room in the world… I’m not sure. It’s certainly better than the hundreds of others I’ve played in my life so far, and it certainly brought us a lot of delight, but it’s hard not to compare it to the other Dutch rooms. If this were in another country it would be exceptionally outstanding. Because it’s in the Netherlands, it’s simply “brilliant”. Make of what whatever you will!
In this room we ‘escaped’ with a comfortable time of around (I forget exactly) 45 minutes. Success!
Honeymoon Hotel – Darkpark
More horror?! For this scaredy cat?! It’s likelier than you think. But thankfully after a stormy and atmospheric day, the sun finally decided to come out and so the approach to our final room of the day wasn’t quite so creepy.
Honeymoon Hotel was my first taste of the infamous Darkpark… A company I’ve loved since I played their at-home puzzle game The Witchery Spell. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Darkpark that is they do horror really well, and Honeymoon Hotel is an excellent opportunity to “dip your toes in” to the theme and style the company goes for to see if their other (scarier) games are for you.
The game begun as H. H. Holmes’ latest bride entering his infamous murder hotel. So far, so good. Our goal was quite simple – to try not to die. What followed was a lot of darkness, loud jump scares, and creeping banging noises looming all around us in the dark. In fact, the best (or funniest) jump scare came when we’d forgotten to lock the main door behind us and the Games Master has to creep back and close it loudly behind us.
As with many Dutch rooms, Honeymoon Hotel is a multi-space experience that takes you on a visual and puzzling journey through the depths of the hotel as you try to find your way out. It has a labyrinth-like quality to it, confusing and horrifying in all the best ways. There isn’t a live actor in the room, but there’s something about the impressive atmosphere they’ve created that really makes you wonder “wait a second, is there actually someone in here with us?!”
My favourite thing about Honeymoon Hotel by far was the finale. All that atmosphere, all those noises, culminating in something seriouslty impressive. I won’t spoil it, but I will say I squealed with delight when I realised what was happening. Not exactly the noise I expected to make in a ‘scary’ room, but I was thrilled!
We finished with 44:20 on the clock!
The Suspicious Farmhouse – Next Level Escapes
Day two and we were off to Eindhoven – a fantastic city in the South of the country. But unlike other cities, there was just one escape room company on our list: Next Level Escapes. Next Level is located behind a very fun looking bar / social space, and up some stairs. Their two rooms:
The Suspicious Farmhouse, and
Catch Me if You Can
are sequential, one after the other. The characters you meet in the former will make a reappearance in the latter. That’s not to say you couldn’t play them out of order… But for the best experience, I recommend doing them this way round.
In the former, you enter what is essentially your grandma’s farmhouse. Think kitsch furniture, cute wooden shelves, and some very fun light-hearted puzzles about looking after the farmhouse. At about the 50% mark, the game turns out to be about something very different indeed. I knew there was something “suspicious”, but the twist took me by surprise in all the best ways. I loved the reveals and hidden details which turned out to be important, and the final puzzle really brought the whole experience together in one fell swoop.
I don’t know if I was just a little out of sorts in The Suspicious Farmhouse, but I would say that of all the rooms we played, this one didn’t totally click with me. This was a room in which we ended up asking for many hints, and at times I felt like due to the linear-nature of the experience, there was always one of us (usually me) not contributing to an active puzzle solve. There was also a lot of searching. If we needed a hint, the answer was usually “have you searched more in this place”, only to find something that was almost impossible to spot without help.
That said, we immediately followed it with Catch Me if You Can which was, to me, a stellar room. So they balanced out in the end.
We finished with 02:28 left on the clock!
Catch Me if You Can – Next Level Escapes
After a quick break between the rooms, in which we almost lost Ash (see below, oh no!)
We were once again called back in and ready to take on the sequel – Catch Me if You Can. Now I’ve never seen the film of the same name, but I think the story in this room is something similar – except we were playing the FBI agents! The experience began with us hot on the heels of the criminal we were uncovering in the first game. Unlike the first one, I immediately fell in love with this escape room from the moment I stepped foot inside. Then, if you can believe it, the experience kept getting better and better.
After having played multiple horror rooms, I was secretly thrilled to be playing a super high quality escape room that is about as far from horror as you can imagine. Furthermore, Catch Me if you Can featured one of the most impressive ‘sets’ I’ve ever seen. I really don’t want to spoil it because the reveal of “wait, surely they don’t have…” is well worth the anticipation. There’s a certain cinematic quality to this escape room that I appreciated a lot. It felt like more than just being ‘in an escape room’, we were quite literally the main character in our own film for the duration of an hour. It also allowed me to fulfil one of my bucket list items for my life. Not something I expected I’d be saying about an escape room trip, but there you go!
In terms of puzzles, with a few exceptions we required a nudge for, Catch Me if You Can really stood out in these. As with it’s predecessor we finished with an almost picture-perfect 2 minutes on the clock, which really added to the heightened tension of racing to the end. If you can’t tell from the jubilation on our faces in the photo, Catch Me if You Can was a real stand out in it’s genre!
As a brief non-escape room recommendation, after playing at Next Level Escape we stumbled upon the most fantastic eatery about 1 minute around the corner: Down Town Gourmet Market. This is a marketplace that has a bunch of different hot food stands and you can order from any of them all from your table!
Stay in the Dark – Darkpark
Okay, lets get one thing straight. None of us slept well the night before. Tasha even stayed up until 1am reading every single review on EscapeTalk.nl trying to anticipate what this experience would be like. On the train there, we all sat in stony silence, occasionally saying things like “pozzy vibes” to brighten the mood. But all that to say, we were really nervous going into Stay in the Dark.
For anyone who doesn’t know, Stay in the Dark is probably one of the scariest escape rooms out there. It certainly has the reputation for being so. It’s also won a lot of awards and one of those “you absolutely must not miss” rooms, and so there was no chance we weren’t going to do it. In fact, we planned our whole trip around securing a booking for Stay in the Dark. So there you go.
First things first, there is a live actor. Secondly, it’s 2hr30 long. Thirdly, if you need to leave the experience there’s no going back. That’s it.
In honesty, I’d probably say it isn’t really an escape room. It’s a live immersive experience much closer to something like Burnt City, or Colab Theatre’s Spy City, or a Swamp Motel immersive experience. I say this as throughout the experience I counted maybe three, maybe four “puzzles” in the sense of the word. There’s about one puzzle per “area”. But for an experience like this where you feel like you’re fighting for your life, that’s a good level. There were moments when we got slightly stuck on a puzzle, but this had more to do with the environment around us than the puzzles themselves. In short, it’s not terribly puzzly.
But what it lacks in puzzles it makes up for in immersivity. There’s sequence of pitch blackness, there’s strobe lighting, and there’s a horrifying somebody or some-thing following you. There’s strange blood spatters I’d rather not think of. The whole thing is utterly immersive. From the distant creaking of a door, or a dog’s bark, or a shadow crossing across your vision, the whole thing is thrilling. My favourite ‘part’ of the experience is towards the end and it involved the largest room (and largest props) I’ve ever seen in any escape room ever. Whilst my teammates were solving a puzzle I had my face pressed up to a window saying “wow I hope we get to go in there!!”. Sure enough, the puzzle’s success state unlocked that very door and off we went.
Is it scary? Oh yes. Is it unsurmountably scary? No. Should I book it if I don’t like horror? Yes. -Wait, what? Well, the reason I think everyone should book this is because they actually tailor it to your comfort level. Yes it’s terrifying but if you’re full of bravado, they’re going to dial it up. If you’re crouched in the corner screaming, they’ll dial it down. And if you’re so scared you can’t move, somebody will come in and help you out. At the end of the day Darkpark are escape room designers and they really want you to have fun, so they’re going to make it fun. The worst part of the whole thing was the beginning- and that’s really just the fear of the unknown. Once you ‘know’, it’s not so scary anymore. And this is coming from someone who is mortally afraid of scary escape rooms.
As a final note on this mini-review of Stay in the Dark, I want to give a particular shout-out to our host Ruud. Ruud absolutely made the experience as perfect as he was. He was flawless in his judgement of how much scare we could handle as a team, his acting was fantastic, and his upbeat personality really brought such a smile to our faces. I always try to remember our host’s names but sometimes days later they’ve slipped my mind, but it was impossible to forget Ruud. We’re planning to come back some day and I am hoping with all my might that the next time I play a Darkpark game we’ll have Ruud as our host once again.
The Dentist – Darkpark
From one Darkpark to another. There was no way anything else could possibly be scary to us after having played Stay in the Dark, so off to Darkpark’s Delft venue we went, full of a newfound bravery. The first escape room on our list at their venue was The Dentist. The Dentist is one of the first ever escape rooms in the Netherlands. As such, it’s fairly Gen 1 in terms of it’s use of puzzles and locks. That said, Gen 1 usually has negative connotations of being basic, but I think the Netherlands needs its own category of escape room generations, because a Dutch Gen 1 room is as visually and immersive-ly impressive as some of the escape rooms opening around the world today in 2023. Despite it’s age, The Dentist was… Awesome!
As the name suggests, you go to visit the Dentist. His room has all the familiar tropes of a creepy dental worker – strange contraptions, blood spattered all over the walls, and dark and sinister secrets to uncover. Nothing like my dentist whose name is Anthony. Anthony is a lovely lovely guy. Shout out to him if he’s reading this.
Our main goal of the experience was to ‘escape’, but along the way we found a myriad of unique and exciting puzzles. There were plenty of ‘search and find’ ones, and some fun physical manipulation and button pressing. We didn’t take any hints on the game until the very end when our host opted to give us one as we were going round in circles on one particular puzzle. The most impressive thing about The Dentist, besides it being a very early escape room to the Dutch escape room industry was again, the atmosphere. Atmosphere is one thing Darkpark does really, really well. Lighting, auditory additions, and an exciting intro delivered in-game makes for a *chef’s kiss* experience.
The Carnival – Darkpark
As with many of these rooms, you’ll notice a theme in my reviewing. The first of each we played I’m like “this was great”, and the second I’m like “oh my god I’ll be thinking about this for the next 100 years”. The Carnival does not break this trend. After waiting in the lobby (and taking use of the self-serve drinks cabinet to have a celebratory prosecco), we proceeded to The Carnival which is easily one of my favourite games from the whole trip. I cannot get over how much I enjoyed The Carnival. However, I might be in a minority here, as for as much as I loved it, it didn’t hold the same weight for the rest of my team. But what can I say? I’m a sucker for a “wait they really want us to do this?” moment.
The Carnival also featured one of the funniest moments of an escape room. A moment where I thought a jump scare was over and went “oh look at that” to my group, causing them all to look at the exact place the very worst jump scare of the experience would pop up.
In all, The Carnival is again slightly less like a traditional escape room and more like a ridiculously fun series of carnival themed mini games. Your goal is simple – escape the carnival. But to do so you must perform, so perform you shall! Think about the most fun things that happen at a carnival and yep, this room has got them. Despite the occasional scare (though by this point we were desensitised and didn’t find it too frightening at all), this room was above everything super fun. I don’t want to give away too much, but it had us giggling and cheering for joy. The puzzles were less about locks (though there were a few) and more about performing actions and engaging with things physically, which I appreciated a lot.
It’s said that this DarkPark in Delft they’re building a third room – the upcoming Rise of the Phoenix which is set to be another ‘not to miss’. Combined with The Dentist and The Carnival, this puts this venue squarely on the map for any enthusiast visiting the country.
Molly’s Game – Down the Hatch
Last but by absolutely no means least, the final escape room on our trip was Molly’s Game. Where do I even start with this one?
10/10 for puzzles, 10/10 for set, and 19/10 for story. Molly’s Game begins with a visually amazing lobby, and a very enthusiastic greeting. After a brief introduction, we were led into the room where we had to break into a doctor’s office under the invitation of the mysterious and enigmatic “Molly”. Who is Molly? Well that was for us to find out. Molly’s Game is slightly Stranger Things themed – but only slightly, you don’t really need to have seen the TV show to understand it, I think it’s more just “set within the same thematic universe” which is pretty cool.
Again, it’s really hard not to spoil this experience as very early in the game it goes from “pretty good escape room” to “wait, what?” in all the best ways. The puzzles were extraordinarily fun and fit beautifully within the environment. There is an incredible amount of love and care gone into this escape room and I can completely see why so many people call this one their absolute favourite room in the world.
But the one thing that Molly’s Game does better than any other escape room in the world is tell a story. By now, I know every ‘escape room story’ like the back of my hand. You’re locked in a room. You escape. Sometimes you’re a pirate, other times you’re a convict. None of that at Down the Hatch. The story they tell is complex, beautiful, sad (oh yes, expect to cry in this one!), full of twists and turns, and very easy to follow. The puzzles are interwoven seamlessly through the environment and through that story. For those who appreciate the set they’ll spot a myriad of hidden clues and details which all add into that central story.
In this game you don’t “win” or “lose”, you experience something magical. It’s an escape room in the truest sense of the world, and a really special one at that.
This has been a very long review to write, and my conclusion really is: they were all amazing.
The Netherlands is a really special place for escape room enthusiasts. I’d often wondered about going – but thought to myself “Heh, how much better than rooms elsewhere in the world can they really be? An escape room is an escape room is an escape room”. But oh how pleasantly wrong I was. The ones we played were so brilliant, so utterly immersive, and so full of love I feel speechless even now.
If you had to make me choose between each escape room, I simply could not. Every single one we played brought something new and unique to the table and is not to be missed. But if you forced my hand, I’d split it by the following:
Best Set Design – The Dome
Most Impressive Set Reveal – Catch Me if You Can
Best Story – Molly’s Game
Best Puzzles – Also Molly’s Game
Most Immersive – Stay in the Dark
Best Host – Stay in the Dark
Most Fun – The Carnival
With that, there’s really just one question left to ask – where shall we travel to next?
We’re super excited to have been invited onto our favourite podcast, The Infinite Escape Room to take on the latest chapter in their (if the name weren’t a giveaway already) “infinite” escape room. On a sunny Thursday night, Mairi, Al & Ash got together with a cup of their favourite brews for “Down the Rabbit’s Hole”. How did we get on? Scroll to the bottom of this page to listen.
The Infinite Escape Room is “The puzzling podcast where a group of chums have a drink & work together to solve a homemade escape room” and each week you can join the team comprised of Mike, Ben, Jon and Jamie to solve-along with a new audio escape room, continuing the adventure week by week.
At The Escape Roomer we are all huge fans of The Infinite Escape Room, and highly recommend it for everyone who enjoys a laugh, a beer, and a puzzle.
Here are the two episodes you can catch us on, and when they air: