Natural History Museum: Mystery at the Museum – The Search for Dippy | Review

Mystery at the Museum: The Search for Dippy Review | The year is 1905 and you have been invited to a special preview of the newest display at the Natural History Museum – ‘Dippy the Diplodocus’.  But when you arrive the curators are in a panic and you realise something is amiss – you’ve found a note that tells you several parts of Dippy the Diplodocus are going to be stolen before the display opens!  Follow the clues around the Museum, question the suspects and track down the culprit before the King arrives for the display’s launch. Can you help the curators prevent a national scandal?

Date played: October 2022
Time taken: 90 mins
Number of players: 3
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate

 

Night at the Museum

 

Courtesy of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum London

 

Which of us wouldn’t leap at the chance to sneak around behind the scenes in a museum after the public have been ushered out and the doors locked behind them? And when that museum is London’s Natural History Museum in South Kensington the appeal is even greater.  London’s museums and galleries have long embraced the idea of late, after dark openings with extra access to exhibitions alongside bars and live music.  But the NHM’s ‘mystery’ evening might be the first time a museum has allowed eager ER enthusiasts and puzzle hunters to roam its corridors in search of suspects and solutions.  Trying to temper my excitement that, at nightfall and behind closed doors, the exhibits might come to life for me as they did for Ben Stiller, I headed down to South Ken to find out if my detectoring skills were up to solving the mystery at the museum.

Impressive Game Space

 

Courtesy of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum London

 

First up, wow.  Just wow.  When we arrive at dusk the Natural History Museum is looking glorious in the gloaming.  It really is a stunning piece of Victorian architecture which lives up to it’s ‘Cathedral of Nature’ epithet.  Entering under the main arch is thrilling when you realise that you’re really about to have this vast space to yourselves for the evening.  Well, you and probably 75 other people.  And only a few of the galleries.  But still.  You still feel… special.

But if there’s anything that’s guaranteed to make you feel insignificant rather than special it’s the humungous skeleton of a blue whale that greets you as you enter the central Hintze Hall.  Suspended dramatically from the ceiling and lit up in startling red, the whale certainly draws your attention.  There’s not much time, however, to feel the vast inferiority of the human species because as soon as you arrive a game card is pushed into your hand and you are whisked off to meet Inspector Lestrade.  The game, it seems, is already afoot.

 

Prehistoric Puzzling

 

One word of warning – although the publicity for this event promotes it as an ‘escape room-like game’, it is most definitely not an escape room.  Arrive expecting an ER and you will be disappointed.  Attempt to rummage around the museum, opening drawers and searching cabinets as you would in an ER and you’re likely to be expelled!  But while it isn’t an ER that doesn’t stop it being a whole heap of fun.

To get started you need to read the game card you were given on arrival.  It outlines the mystery that faces you.  The unveiling of the new exhibition featuring the skeleton of Dippy the Diplodocus is due to take place tomorrow.  But a suspicious note has been found, suggesting a crime will take place before the grand opening and which could plunge the museum into unwanted scandal.  The game card also gives you the names and brief bios of six suspects who have been ordered to stay in the museum by Lestrade until the case has been closed.

 

Courtesy of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum London

 

Lestrade also gives you a copy of the note and your next task is to decipher it.  This is really the only actual puzzle involved in the game and it’s not especially hard but does get you moving around the galleries that surround the main museum hall.  And stopping to ask a few of those suspects some penetrating questions along the way will also help your case solving.

Because this is mostly about interacting with those suspects.  It’s really a traditional ‘whodunnit’ and you will get the most out of your evening and the event if you spend time grilling the suspects (whose period costume makes them easy to spot) and honing your theories.  You can question them as often and for as long as you like, or listen in as other players ask their own questions.  Although they may tell you a few lies, they will also give you some nuggets of truth and if you can unpick their elaborate webs of accusations, fabrications, deflections and evasions, you might just be able to work out, in the words of Mr Sherlock Holmes himself, who had the “means, motive and opportunity” to commit the crime.

 

Dippy’s Dino Denouement

 

Once you’ve solved the opening puzzle, interrogated your suspects and worked out a convincing theory you can take your hypothesis and test it on Sherlock.  Holmes solved the mystery in 17 minutes himself so he’s happy to throw you a bone or two if you’re not quite on the mark.  And if, after a couple of guesses, you’re still not 100% correct, Holmes will take pity on you and give you the full story.  Because no-one wants to go home without knowing who really did design to destroy Dippy’s debut.

 

The Verdict?

 

Overall, if you approach this as a mystery solving game along the lines of a traditional murder whodunnit then you will have loads of fun.  The mystery is sufficiently knotty to keep you questioning suspects and untangling theoretical threads for well over an hour and, for the adults, there’s an in venue bar to keep your whistle wet and your mind sharp.  Full kudos to the actors playing the suspects who handle even the most obscure of questions with aplomb, keep in character throughout and manage to retain details of the multiple narrative threads all while dropping gentle hints and prods to get you moving in the right direction.  And the venue itself, the access to certain areas of it after hours and when it’s empty of tourists, is worth the price of admission alone.

A few minor niggles.  Any expectations of difficult tradition ER puzzling will be disappointed and I think, personally, that they should remove the reference to an ‘escape room-like game’ from promotional material and instead focus on the massive positive of it being a strong mystery-solving evening.   Those ER players who don’t enjoy engaging with live performers will want to steer clear as well.  Talking to the actors throughout is the only way to play this game.

There were also some weaknesses in communication that left us unaware we had to take our final conclusions to Holmes to be checked.  It was only when we eavesdropped on other groups that we realised.  And there’s no satisfyingly dramatic conclusion when the culprit is officially unmasked.  Because the event has a staggered start time with groups arriving and getting started throughout the evening, everyone reaches their final answer at different times.  Once we’d reported to Holmes, that was it.  Game no longer afoot.  So the evening sort of petered out.

We had a fun evening though.  Not too strenuous on the little grey cells, but a nice little mystery to solve in a fantastic location.

 

This event runs for a limited number of days in October and November. Book via the Natural History Museum website here.

 

Courtesy of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum London

Local Bonus

If you want to get into a suitable detective frame of mind before the game, or want to continue afterwards, then I highly recommend a visit to the Evans and Peel detective agency (about a 15 minute walk away).  A secret speakeasy bar with a fantastic, and inventive, cocktail menu, you need to provide a good cover story before you can gain access.  The more imaginative and bonkers the better.  It’s advised to book.

Evans and Peel Detective Agency, 310c Earls Ct Rd, London SW5 9BA

 

Top Escape Rooms: Rockstar Swan Song | Review

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Top Escape Rooms: Swan Song Review | Dean Waylon is the front man of the band – Us, Them, Or Dean. Tonight, they will be performing the kick-off show of their concert run at the Colosseum Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. Checking in Dean’s dressing room, his manager finds Dean’s personal belongings, but no sign of Dean. Find the clues and solve the puzzles as you retrace the career of Dean Waylon. If you’re quick, you can get the scoop on his disappearance before security catches you.

Completion Time: 59:00
Date Played: 8th October 2022
Party Size: 3

About Top Escape Rooms

Rockstar Swan Song is one of five escape rooms provided Top Escape Rooms in Holt Heath, Worcestershire. The room is based on the touring band Us, Them Or Dean and their frontman called…. *checks notes* Dean; whom has gone missing before a Las Vegas show and we need to locate him!

This was supposed to be a party size of 4. However one of the party was ill, therefore 3 of us had to take to the stage instead!

Poster (c) Top Escape Rooms

Before We Begin…

The party consisted of myself and 2 friends who all share two things in common… our love of the Netflix series Cobra Kai and that we are all current/former music professionals.

Another thing… my teamies had never done an escape room before. As an escape room ambassador, I’ve got to get this right and not scare them off! When I saw this music-themed room advertised I booked it post-haste.

Poster (c) Top Escape Rooms

I’ve Lost My Frontman…

Our GM was welcoming and friendly. He explained that the game was linear, allowing us to fully focus on the task in hand. We then passed round a directional lock (see below) for familiarity, giving us a practice go on them to get a tactile feel of how they work. This was great, especially as my two teamies had not used one before.

The GM then spoke about his own background of working in the music industry. This was interesting in itself and I didn’t even realise the fluid change into the backstory of the game; until it actually happened(!) Next thing we know, we have been tasked with finding his frontman Dean, as the show was to begin in one hour.

We were given our backstage/dressing room passes, alongside a digital notepad and the timer starts to tick away!

Pay Attention Russ…

Mental Note. Don’t steamroll the room. I had to make myself not get too involved and at times, stand back to allow my teamies to experience as much escape room fun as they possibly could…. otherwise the escape room gods would never forgive me.

This Felt Too Familiar…

I’ve been there before. About to go on stage and a band member (usually the frontperson!) has gone for a walk without telling anyone. The rest of the band now sweating bullets and arguing about who is going to sing in their place…

The dressing room was very thematic; there was that feeling of a bare room being dressed-up for it’s specific habitant at the time, ready for it to be changed for the next performer in minimal turnaround time. On one wall, were three very distinctive touring posters of the band from years past. Each one, telling a story (and a puzzle) of what happened and what is to come.

All but one of the puzzles were padlock based. The one, was an electronic-based, fader/mixer type puzzle with an amplifier. It looked incredibly authentic and had the biggest wow factor. I personally would like to have seen more electronic-based puzzles, especially considering how much electronics are used in a musician’s day-to-day life! The types of puzzles included, but not limited to; map-reading, wordplay, maths, light-based and musical.

I’ve Never Heard “Helpful” And “Stage Manager” Put In a Sentence Together…

When we were stuck and needed a hint, an electric guitar chord would strike and the stage manager would leave us a tailored message under the countdown clock. The hints were useful and relevant, however in some cases; unsolicited. There were times, I feel, if the stage manager had let us have another moment or so to reflect, we would have solved the focussed set-piece on our own.

My suggestion would be to Top Escape Rooms for all their games; to ask how much input the hint-giver should provide to the team before the game begins.

*Internally Panics*

With around 12 minutes to go, I felt we were doing rather well….

Until we opened a padlock to a second room.

At this point, I internally panicked.

“We have 12 minutes to solve another room?!”

Well, it was two puzzles total. However, that revelation turned me from a semi-seasoned escaper, into a fumbling idiot. The majority of work for the last two set pieces was done by my teamies, who once again, had never done an escape room before. (Well done Russ, you’re letting the whole escape room industry down here….)

To their credit however, they pulled us (me) through with one minute to spare.

As much as the first room was thematically and immersivity beautiful, the second room felt bare in comparison. Firstly, because there were only two puzzles, it felt unbalanced from a weighting perspective. Secondly, the walls were blank with one poster, that didn’t really add to the theming or immersion in any way; it lacked the personality the first room had. It wasn’t a complete deal-breaker, but the overall experience was certainly reduced because of this.

As you can see, my music career was short-lived, based on the way I held a guitar…

For The Music Dreamer Or Virtuoso?

My escape newbie teamies found the room not too easy and not too difficult. Therefore, this would be a perfect choice for someone who hasn’t played an escape room before. More seasoned players however, might find (particularly the first few) aspects of the room, to not be challenging enough.

The puzzle designs (again, particularly with the first few) are almost-all quite common and have been often used in already existing escape rooms. There are also two maths-based puzzles. There is a calculator in the room, however if you are really adverse to them, the second of the two may cause frustration…

The music based puzzle however, was very innovative. That being said, we collectively agreed that it may completely stump a team with zero musical intuition.

Unfortunately however, this room is now retired! We were the very last team to play it!

Touring Is Expensive!

For a party of 4 as we intended, this room cost £17.50 per person. This is a solid price point, however big thanks to Top Escape Rooms for handing me a £10 voucher to use for a future game in light of our poorly 4th player. This kind of customer service is greatly appreciated and I have already booked two further rooms here in the upcoming months as a result of this gesture.

Rating

Overall, Top Escape Rooms have a solid room in Rockstar Swan Song. It is a great one for beginners, with its linear design and organic learning curve. The second room falls a little bit flat, however the first room has a strong thematic and authentic take on the dressing room of an actual touring musician, which was a welcome sight for us as a team of musicians.

My teamies both enjoyed themselves and are looking to do another escape room closer to Christmas time. I’m counting that as a mission successful from an ambassador point of view!

Top Escape Rooms’s Rockstar Swan Song is now retired, but their other games can be booked by heading to their website here.

Arcadium Adventures: A Most Mysterious Convention | Review

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Arcadium Adventures: A Most Mysterious Convention Review | Chapter One in Arcadium’s Most Mysterious Cases, now you can enjoy more of the intrigue, the mysteries and the stories from wherever you are! This experience is a most enjoyable way to spend an afternoon or evening at home and can even be used as greeting card or gift.

Date Played: August 2022
Time Taken: ~1 hr
Number of Players: 2
Difficulty: Comfortable

After taking a long break – mostly spent moving house from London to Edinburgh – I was excited to return back to the world of puzzle games! They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, right? Well this saying is definitely true for all things escape room, board game and a combination of the two (like this one).

Having settled down, I couldn’t wait to invite fellow puzzler Rebecca round for an afternoon of puzzling. The very first game in our list came all the way over from Arcadium Adventures in Australia. Arcadium Adventures is a brick-and-mortar escape room based in Brisbane who specialise in all things magic and mystery. For book lovers and adventure afficionados, they also have a series of “play at home escape rooms” whose names all begin with “A Most Mysterious…”

Over the course of two hours, broken in the middle by lunch, we played through both Chapter One and Chapter Two of Arcadium Adventures’ series. Here’s how we got on:

 

 

A Mysterious Box Arrives

The first thing to note about Arcadium Adventures is the boxes they arrive in… So small, yet so much fun! Chapter One was about the size of a small paperback, so it fit perfectly through my letterbox. It’s a good quality box, very sturdy and lightweight. However, if you wanted to play the game but didn’t want to pay postage, the company also offers the games as digital downloads. I’m assuming these would be a PDF version of all the printed materials we received. A few items may need to be printed out, but mostly there’s no reason it couldn’t be played online.

Inside, we opened it up to discover a wealth of different pieces of paper and clippings all that related to our mystery at hand. A black envelope sealed with a wax stamp titled “Begin Here” points to where (and how) to get started. Inside this envelope was an introductory, expositional piece. Our mission, should we choose to accept it, was simple:

 

ARCANACON – The Annual Mystery Convention

ARCANACON is the fictional (awww!) annual mystery convention and sadly we were not able to attend this year. However, the organisers of ARCANACON have sent us a letter with a secret message. Across the materials about the convention is a puzzle to be solved. If we manage to solve everything, we’ll uncover the secret message.

The ARCANACON Radio was also available to us which, we were pleasantly surprised to discover wasn’t just music but also a true radio-style broadcast that occasionally interrupted our play with fun messages. We also had access to a webpage which provided recipes, a chatbot, additional hints, and a place to input our answers.

The creators of Arcadium Adventures really outdid themselves with all the little extra details, and we appreciated those a lot! They added an extra level of immersion to the whole experience. I only hope that one day ARCANACON will be a real life thing we can actually attend. Now that would be fun!

 

 

Puzzles & Papercraft

In terms of the puzzles, the structure of the game was quite simple. Every puzzle was tackled in isolation and every puzzle gave a digit output that at the end of the game would be strung together to reveal the secret message. Whilst this is a fairly common ‘secret message delivery system’ regular players will recognise from other games out there, Arcadium Adventures required a 23 digit code. The more digits, the more room for error… And there was a little bit of error on our part. Such as accidentally mixing up the order of two puzzles, or making small typos when relaying the 23 digits. But nothing we couldn’t overcome after a few attempts.

In terms of those individual puzzles, there was a range of different puzzle types. There were some folding puzzles, plenty of cipher puzzles, puzzles where you had to overlay one material onto another, logic puzzles, and so on and so on.

Overall we’d probably say that both the game’s puzzles and it’s overall input wasn’t particularly innovative. For starters, we both agreed that every puzzle in the game we’d seen somewhere else before – but that does come with the territory when you play hundreds and hundreds, so I can’t fault them there. But more than this there was an overall sense of the objects being quite random, and their solutions feeling a little forced. There’s a lot of discourse in the industry I won’t get into here about mimetic and diegetic puzzles, so I’ll just distil that down into “the vibes” were a little off.

But that’s not to say we didn’t have fun, and this would be an excellent introductory game to somebody who has never played a “play at home escape room”. The creators should be very proud for building a well balanced and enjoyable puzzle game.

 

Image (C) Arcadium Adventures

 

The Verdict

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the first of the Arcadium Adventures games. It was good for at least an hour’s worth of puzzling fun, set within a quirky story about a mystery convention, and really pushed us to think outside of the box on some of the puzzles. It’s a great quality box with a wealth of fun details inside. As mentioned, we’d recommend this game for beginners who want to try their hand at a ‘play at home escape room’. It’s a good level of difficulty to be challenging in parts and satisfying in others.

There is room for improvement for sure, but as the company continues to make more adventures like these I’ve no doubt they’ll get better!

 

A Most Mysterious Convention can be purchased from Arcadium Adventures’ shop here.

Phantom Peak | Review

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WELCOME TO PHANTOM PEAK

Welcome to Phantom Peak, known far and wide as the Venice of the West! In this fully-realised steampunk mining town, nothing is what it seems… What is hiding in the vestiges of the mines? What does the charismatic founder of corporate JONACO really seek in this sleepy town? Was the Blimp Crash really just an accident? Dine, shop, play games, go sightseeing, collect clues… explore the town and uncover its mysteries at your own pace for up to five hours in an immersive open-world adventure the likes of which you’ve never seen before!

Time spent: 5 hours
Date Visited:
August 2022
Party Size:
4
Mysteries solved:
7

First of all, an important note! I am not an immersive theatre fan. I have only been to one other Immersive Theatre show in London, and in general, I tend to steer away from anything immersive – I even hate live actors in escape rooms! Therefore this review is from my perspective, as a lover of escape rooms and mysteries, rather than immersive theatre. Keep an eye on our site though, as we will be sure to update this with the review from our resident immersive theatre lovers once they have had a chance to visit!

If you’ve become immersed in the Escape Room Industry at all you’ve probably heard the name “Nick Moran” crop up a few times. Nick is the genius behind “Sherlock: The game is now”, Hackers’ new rooms, and “Spectre & Vox”. Now he joins the creative team behind “Phantom Peak”, so we knew this was easily going to be one of the most mysterious immersive experiences in London, hopefully with the emphasis placed on the mysteries rather than the immersion!

So what is Phantom Peak? Phantom Peak is a cowboy / steampunk town that has recently opened in East London. On one hand, you can go and enjoy the food, drinks and various games around town. However, for the more curious amongst us, there are (currently) 16 different mysteries occurring in this small town, with many more set to come as the town expands in the future.

 

Entering Phantom Peak

 

 

The first thing to acknowledge is that, from the outside, Phantom Peak doesn’t look like much. Based a short walk from Canada Water station we found ourselves in a rather dusty car park, looking at a wooden fence. However, just before our entry time (11am) a couple of “townspeople” came out (including Nick himself) to give a bit more of an explanation of what to expect inside the town, and get us set up on our phones (which are crucial for this). We then answered a few questions to get our first trail assigned, and we were ready!

Unfortunately, rather than the nice, large double doors you see here, we were let in the smaller side door, which meant there was a bit of a backlog going in. However, once we were in our expectations were definitely met – we were presented with a real life “boardwalk” from the Wild West, leading to a lake, and even a cave. The set design is beautiful and fully realized, with no half-finished sets or rough finishes. There are so many big and small features of the town, it’s so worth just taking some time to look around. The attention to detail is fantastic, and due to the number of mysteries, you never know if or when something will be relevant! It lead to quite a few fun moments when we finally realised what a certain poster was alluding to, or immediately knew where to go next because we’d noticed something previously. The costumes that the cast were wearing were so beautiful without being over the top, and I also loved that a lot of the guests had also committed to the Wild West steampunk vibe – I’ll definitely need to make more effort next time!

 

Starting off on the right foot

 

 

As mentioned, a lot of Phantom Peak relies on following a mystery on your phone. You answer a few questions, get given the name of your trail, your initial story point, and a place to start and you’re off! These trails make use of the whole of the town, moving back and forth and venturing into a variety of locals. Luckily the people of the town tend to stick to their zones (whether that’s propping up the bar, running their store, or canvassing for votes), so once you know who’s who it’s easy to find them.

To unravel the mystery you will need to talk to a range of characters, utilise the various machines around town, and even do a bit of subtle sleuthing. I also want to give a shout out the gender neutrality of the names – the logical side of me knows this is so that actors can be switched in and out for the same character (which also shows how talented these actors are), but the liberal side of me is excited that at no point do you know whether the character you’re searching for is a man or woman, and even the titles are all gender neutral (‘post-person’, ‘supervisor’).

At one point I was scolded by the Saloon owner for saying I loved a ‘lady boss’, and she quite rightly told me it was just ‘boss’, no need to qualify it or bring gender into it! It was points like this that shows how brilliant the actors were – I really enjoyed talking to them, having fun with them, and have proper conversations with them that made it clear they weren’t just following a script. This aspect made them really feel like fully rounded characters.

It would’ve been nice if things you discovered in one trail (or ways you interacted) carried throughout the day, as at points we finish one trail and discover some sort of big twist, but 5 minutes later we’d talk to the same character and it would be as if it never happened. However, with such a large crowd I understand why this may have been a little challenging.

However we did find the phone aspect a little too hand-holdy in parts, particularly where the casts and clues were giving us some clear directions to follow, only to realise we had a few more questions to answer in the phone before we got to that point. However, it was also a nice safety net so we weren’t totally in the dark at any point, and the townsfolk were all very knowledgeable and ready to lend a clue if needed.

 

The Puzzle Posse

At this point, I need to talk about the mysteries themselves, because oh my word they were so much fun! If you are thinking the mysteries will just be about missing hats and rogue bandits you’re so wrong (mostly), and even the ones that started quite meekly had an interesting twist. There’s also one facet of every story that will appear quite quickly, and I absolutely loved this part of the town lore. I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but let’s just say the town has a clear mascot, which I adored and found so creative. The way it features in each story and throughout the town was so much fun and so creative.

The mysteries themselves weren’t that hard – for the most part, they involved talking to a townsperson, using one of the machines to find some information, or finding a hidden clue on a poster or in a certain location (which we were mostly guided towards). I would say don’t come into this expecting complex puzzles and the need to be Sherlock Holmes, but that’s ok! It wasn’t until we were discussing our experience for this review that we realised we didn’t really ‘solve’ all that much, but somehow we hadn’t noticed at the time because we were having so much fun. The story building was also thorough and immersive – we always knew why we were going somewhere, and what we were meant to be doing next.

In the end, we managed 7 trails, out of a possible 16 (so far). I’m not sure how you’d get over 8 (due to the nature of the questions), but apparently, I’m metagaming here, as I know some people managed 11 during the 5-hour slot! This included taking plenty of breaks for delicious food, necessary water, and of course a romantic (?) boat ride. You receive a souvenir at the end of each trail, but other than being a keepsake these didn’t appear to have been used for anything. I’d love to see these used for something in the future, or even have some form of souvenir ‘guidebook’ you could purchase to store them in (and therefore see all the uncompleted trails you have yet to do!). I’d also love some sort of specific souvenir to display on your person (such as a badge) so that as you wander around you can see what other people have done, and it might also give the characters more material to play with.

In terms of the machines, they were all fun and easy to use, but by the 3rd or 4th time using them the shine wore off a little. I think this could easily be solved by just not saying which machine needed to be used – we became familiar with what number of letters/numbers led to each machine fairly quickly, and then that would have added a small amount of puzzle solving to the puzzle instead. Either that or potentially making them a little more complex to use. In fact, it might have been nice to have some more complex trails to do – we did one that could potentially be called ‘adult’, but I think it would’ve been easy enough to tone down the content for a family.

Mystery trails aside, there was clearly a larger mystery at work in the town. We worked out enough (from the wider lore and stories) that something was a miss, but never worked out the overall mystery or how to solve it. I absolutely love this. There’s clearly a lot of wider lore that is dropped into each mystery if you pay attention, and many conversations to have. I’m not sure if there’s much ‘hidden’ around the town that wasn’t part of one of the 16 trails, but then again I wasn’t looking for anything in particular.

 

Rooting and Tooting

 

Of course, there is plenty more to do here when you want a break from a puzzle (especially as the time slots are 5 hours). There are 3 food stores (4 including Gelato) as well as a couple of bars. We tried the burgers, chips, and tacos and they were all absolutely delicious. I also have a ‘beer float’ from the Gelato stand, which was perfect on such a hot day.

 

 

As well as food and drink, there’s also a variety of fun carnival games, which are harder than they look, and you’ll need to beat 3 of them to become a real citizen of the town. Unfortunately, I only managed to earn one rosette, so I have no clue what happens when you have all three!

There are also a couple of events that only happen at a certain time, likely to give everyone a chance to explore the town a bit more first. I only took advantage of one of these, but will be sure to do the other next time! You can also browse the variety of shops for your variety of needs (and walk away with some nice souvenirs). The town itself was also completely accessible – everywhere was flat, which ramps up and down where necessary. We didn’t use any stairs and believe all the doorways were wide enough for a wheelchair. We were there for 5 hours, which was actually the perfect amount of time. I was personally getting a bit frustrated by my non-enthusiast friends who were taking lots of breaks, and definitely flagging by the end, but I admit I probably wouldn’t have wanted to stay much longer.

 

This town ain’t big enough…

I absolutely loved our time, and I will absolutely be returning, but there were definitely a few niggles here and there which will hopefully be ironed out as the experience expands. For a start, we heavily relied on my phone, which meant the battery ran down quickly. Luckily I had packed a portable charger, but even then I was down to 30% when we left. For such a phone-heavy experience, I was surprised by the lack of charging stations in the town – I can imagine some rentable power packs would be a big hit here!

The walkways are also quite narrow, so we often found ourselves walking slow behind a queue of people, or waiting a while to get into a shop. This died down at certain points throughout the day (down to events, food breaks, or just people leaving), but it was definitely a bit harder at the start. Staggered start times would solve this, but then of course it would be hard to monitor when people’s 5 hours were up. In a similar vein, there were times we were essentially following another couple doing the same trail, either waiting for them to finish their conversation with a character so we could have the same one, or just listening in. Sometimes this was fine, due to the occasional puzzle that needed some time to solve, but otherwise, we got into the groove of using those moments to grab another drink rather than following on their tail. I’m not sure what the plan is for the expansion, but I’d love to see some bigger areas, perhaps with new characters to talk to and new machines to use!

 

What’s the verdict?

 

 

This is hands down my favourite experience I’ve done in London. I’d even go so far as to say I’d rather come back here than go to another London escape room. At less than £40 for a ticket, which covers 5 hours, it’s a real steal on price too!

You can be as immersed as you want to, but the characters don’t necessarily approach you or force you to put on an accent if you don’t want to, which was great for my friends who were less sold on this aspect. The mysteries were just really fun stories, and although the puzzles weren’t that complex I don’t think you’d be disappointed because so much else is going on.

I will be recommending this to anyone and everyone, and cannot wait to return to Phantom Peak.

Tickets for Phantom Peak can be booked on their website

Studio Stamp: On Circus Grounds | Review

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On Circus Grounds Review | 1883, Circus Maester in Dalfsen, the Netherlands. Right in the middle of his opening speech Nicolaas Maester collapses in front of the audience. The ringmaster of Circus Maester appears to have been murdered. It doesn’t take long for somebody to be arrested and for the case to be closed.

Date Played: July 2022
Time Taken: ~2 hours
Number of Players: 3
Difficulty: Hard

 

A new Kickstarter game?! Argh! Take all of my money! 2022 has been an excellent year for Kickstarters honestly… From Ruff Bluff, to Unsolved Science, to PostCurious’ Light in the Mist, to Curious Correspondence’s Doomensions. But now we have another, just as exciting game to look forward to from the brilliant minds of Studio Stamp: On Circus Grounds. The best part of this one is that it’s already been released in Dutch as Meester, 1883 to rave reviews and a solid 8.7 on Board Game Geek.

From the moment our box arrived and I popped it open on our table, I knew we’d be in for something very special. A small box, yes, but an in calculable number of beautiful documents came pouring out. A locket, a little vial, scrolls upon scrolls. Studio Stamp’s attention to detail is *chefs kiss*, and we couldn’t wait to get stuck in.

 

 

Come One, Come All

Roll up, roll up, for Nicolaas Maester presents a circus night like no other. Enchanting dancers, lion tamers, fortune tellers, and death defying stunts… But tonight is not a night like any other. Tonight the ringmaster of the circus suddenly, in the middle of the show, collapses dead. The case goes cold, the evidence grows dusty on a shelf, and soon society forgets the curious case on the circus grounds. That is until the mysterious box packed with evidence arrives on your, the player’s, doorstep. Can you crack the cold case and identify the true culprit of that fateful night?

If you couldn’t tell, On Circus Grounds is a lot more in the category of “murder mystery” than “escape room”. For starters, you’re not really escaping anything. For seconds, the experience is all about deduction and paying close attention. There is a medley of characters each with motives as compelling as the other. But to succeed in this case you have to pay close attention to everything they write and every little detail about their person.

Sure, there are quite a few puzzles in the game too, and I think Studio Stamp does a good job of balancing puzzles against story, but more on that later! For now it’s important to know that you’re not looking for a specific number combination or word output. No, the puzzling is softer. In the introduction letter, the game sets out four key questions to answer:

  • Who murdered Nicolaas Maester?
  • What was their motive?
  • What object was used to commit the murder?
  • If applicable, how did the culprit gain access to it?

So, no pressure, hey!

 

 

Roll Up, Roll Up

I chose to play On Circus Grounds in a team of 3 players over a quiet evening, each of us with varying levels of experience in solving games like this, and each of us at various levels into our glass of wine. Given that circumstance, I will say that we definitely struggled with this game. We struggled first with who was who, and then with who did what, and after quite a bit of arguing we weren’t 100% sure on the ‘correct’ answer to input into the website in the end. It’s a murder mystery, but it’s a deeply complex one that should challenge even the most seasoned puzzle enthusiasts.

But the flip side is, this isn’t the first time our very specific team has struggled with a murder mystery case in a box, as regular readers might remember from The Fire in Adlerstein. So I will say perhaps murder mysteries just aren’t quite for us, and that’s okay.

But unlike all the other murder mysteries in a box we’ve ever played, this one had a LOT going for it. For starters, it’s packed with puzzles. A lot of the information is just given in plain text, but a lot more must be solved before it can be used. Think ciphers, folding puzzles, reading maps and so on. So there was never a boring moment in the whole game. For seconds, the quality of the materials was absolutely gorgeous. No, seriously. I kind of want to take the whole game and frame it, it’s that pretty! I’ve never encountered a box with such a consistent level of high quality materials and I cannot believe the retail price is under €50. For that money you get so much material, lovingly hand-made and hand packed, and beautiful to spread out over the table.

 

Puzzling through the Circus

So this is The Escape Roomer, we have to talk about the puzzles! Puzzles, there are plenty.

Overall, players can expect to encounter a few different ‘types’ of puzzles. But, this being a game consisting of mostly paper, these puzzles usually fell on the side of ‘cipher’ or word style puzzles which, if I have to admit, erred on the longer side to decode. In general, I can’t over-emphasise how much reading there is to do. We often found it hard to know exactly what to do to tease out the secret message or the secret author of the text, but a quick check of the hints page usually set us along the right way. That said, in many more moments we knew exactly how to decode a puzzle but found the contents of the text so lengthy we again consulted the hints to skip a little manual decoding time.

But when they weren’t lengthy ciphers, the puzzles were great fun! My favourite in the whole game involved a little jar of a curious concoction we needed to take to our kitchen and mix. Whilst it didn’t work perfectly (I blame the unseasonably hot weather we’ve had here in the UK), we understood how it worked and were delighted by the physicality of it. Any puzzle that surprises and delights is a double thumbs up from us.

Mostly, the puzzle output for each item in our box was looking for a connection between two people, or a motive and a person, or so on, but we got there in the end… Sort of, anyway! After 2 hours of sorting and resorting through everything we knew, drawing timelines and striking names off pieces of paper… We were ready to make our deduction! We promptly headed to the linked website to answer a few questions on a futuristic AI style of police database.

Only… We got it wrong!

Whoops… The wrong suspect sentenced to prison? Well this is a cold case and all the suspects are long gone. So, thankfully the game’s finale let us re-choose our answers until we finally got them correct, and we were able to experience the fun finale as it was intended.

 

 

The Verdict

So, we didn’t succeed, but I think that’s okay. Unlike traditional escape games in a box where the answer is super clear, murder mysteries deal in deduction and nuance and small details and meticulous note-taking. Which are all things we’re not so great at. But, the most important part was that we had fun playing the game. A lot of fun in fact! There was plenty for a team of 3 to get along with, and some brilliant moments of discussion between us as we ironed out details. The game is beautiful, the puzzles enjoyable, and I have no doubt this will be a fan-favourite for many armchair detectives for years to come. A round of applause for Studio Stamp, and I highly recommend checking this game out on Kickstarter.

 

On Circus Grounds can be purchased in Dutch via Studio Stamp’s website here. For the English version, back their Kickstarter.

Please, Don’t Touch Anything VR | Review

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Please, Don’t Touch Anything VR Review | Covering for a colleague taking a bathroom break, you find yourself in front of a mysterious console with a green screen monitor showing a pixelated live image of an unknown city. Also present is an ominous red button with the simple instruction to not touch anything! Push the red button once or press it many times. Your choices and actions will lead to outrageous consequences and over 30 unique puzzle endings.

Developer: Four Squares, BulkyPix
Date Played: June 2022
Console: Oculus
Number of Players: 1
Time Taken: ~2 hours

Every time I saw a warning on this game that read “Not for the faint hearted” I thought “Hah! How bad can this be?! It’s just a game where you’re sitting in front of a console pressing buttons.” Then I found myself worshipping Satan, being scared out my mind by demon standing behind me, and watching the human race get wiped out… Repeatedly.

That said, I still wouldn’t describe it as a horror game. I’d describe it as a fixed perspective escape room game. Which is a fancy say of saying “button pushing simulator”. It’s just you and the console, and a lot of different outcomes. Where most escape rooms just have one (you escape), this has multiple. But the idea is the same, you’re solving puzzles and performing actions in a small 2x2m room to achieve them all. And let me just say… It was some of the most fun I’ve had in VR in a long time!

 

 

About Please, Don’t Touch Anything

The original “Please Don’t Touch Anything” was a short pixel art game released by a Russian indie studio Four Squares for PC way back in 2015. It received a large amount of praise and the studio, in collaboration with Escalation Studios then went on to release a 3D version of the experience just a year later with virtual reality support. Later the game was launched on Nintendo Switch, and has continued to be met with praise for many years since.

Skip forward to 2022, and I’m idly scrolling through the Oculus store with a 30% off voucher in hand looking for a new title to try out. I wanted something short, fun, puzzley, a little bit creepy. After punching those filters into the search engine, there was one title that kept coming back to me: Please, Don’t Touch Anything. Well, of course I wanted to immediately touch it.

 

 

“I’ll be right back, don’t touch anything!”

The game begins with you in a small room with a large console in front of you. Your colleague appears at the door and says he’s popping out for a quick bathroom break and for the love of god, he implores you not to touch anything on the console. With a wave, he’s gone. It’s just you and the room. Oh, and a giant red button.

Amusingly, on my first playthrough I didn’t touch anything. My colleague appeared back from the bathroom and thanked me for being so diligent, and the game ended. I was immediately respawned into the room and it begun again. This time, I hit the big red button and triggered a nuclear apocalypse…

So far so good.

If you can tell from that brief description, Please, Don’t Touch Anything is a game of many many endings. Thirty endings to be exact. It’s best played with no expectations – you walk in, you press buttons, or you don’t, and you get a curious ending. The game restarts and you’re immediately hooked on a need to uncover every single one. What happens if you push this button? How do you get the hammer? Is that a UV blacklight? With each playthrough a new facet of the world reveals itself. How will you destroy civilisation this time? Or will you simply press a switch 50 times and nothing will happen. Perhaps you’ll make it your mission to clean up this (very messy) room. All valid game choices all with unique endings.

It’s also a game packed with many pop culture references. From TV, from films, and from other video games. Delightful nods to puzzlers past and some very creepy moments I’d only seen on the silver screen suddenly brought to live in VR. I love it!

 

 

Button Pushing Simulator Now in VR!

If you’re familiar with the original 2D version, there are enough changes in the VR/3D version to make the game feel innovative and fresh. Endings are different and things have been added. For the whole part, it’s a game that works well in both 2D and 3D but as a big fan of virtual reality I think it works really, really well in this medium. For starters, you’re pushing buttons and toggling switches and this feels extra immersive in virtual reality. Want to pick something up? You can simply bend down in real life and pick it up and manipulate it in real life.

In terms of controls, it’s not perfect, but that’s to be expected for an early VR experience. My hands in the game didn’t always move to where I wanted them to be and I found it was often quite tricky to stretch over objects and reach things. For the best gameplay, you need a large space to play in at home so that you can move around freely. You can play this standing up or sitting down. It might be slightly more immersive (and easy on your legs) to sit down, but I played it largely standing up. If you don’t have a large space, you can stay rooted to one spot and use the in-game mechanic to teleport around fairly easily too. No motion sickness here!

 

 

Where are the Puzzles?

Like any good puzzle game the primary ‘puzzle’ is figuring out what to do. Then figuring out how to do it to get the output you want. For sure, there are plenty of ‘classic’ puzzle mechanics the escape room enthusiast will recognise, like Morse Code or binary inputs, but it’s largely a game of sequence memorizing and inputting a variety of data pieces into your console creatively. You might find a 4 digit code on one playthrough that you suddenly remember 10 playthroughs later and input it. You might spot a symbol which ends up being a map to guide you around a grid of buttons. There are a few ciphers, and some very fun uses of black-light, and so on and so on.

In short, I think it’s a fantastic game for the escape room enthusiast to play. It’ll push everything you know about solving escape rooms to the limit, and then some. A unique game that doesn’t quit fit into any category box, but definitely one I think you, dear reader, will enjoy. Puzzles a-plenty.

 

 

The Verdict

I really, really enjoyed playing Please, Don’t Touch Anything. It’s tongue in cheek humour was the perfect setting for a quirky little puzzle game like this. When writing about any VR game I like to consider whether such an experience would be possible in any other medium other than VR. There’s nothing in it that wouldn’t necessarily be possible in another medium – the example being that it’s also available as a non-VR title, but it’s so much better in VR.

I’d not hesitate to recommend this to any other escape room enthusiast and I think it’s got a rightful place in the Oculus catalogue as a game puzzle fans should definitely check out.

Please, Don’t Touch Anything can be purchased for Oculus Quest 2 on the Oculus store page here.

Breakin’: War on Horizon Alpha | Review

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War on Horizon Alpha Review | With the expansion of the human race on other planets, an oppressive regime has risen to power and instated a dictatorship on the Colonial Republic, the dreaded Alpha One faction. You and your team are part of a rebel alliance trying to overthrow the regime and reinstate democracy. A massive assault will take place on the Horizon Alpha space station, serving as the Alpha One headquarters, which aims to destroy it, thus sparking a revolution on all planets. Your mission is to infiltrate the station and deactivate the shields in time so that the assault may be successful. Without the shields down, the entire offensive will become a suicide mission. Good luck, you are the galaxy’s only hope!

Date Played: June 2022
Time Taken: 55 minutes
Number of Players: 2
Difficulty: Medium

It’s official! I’ve now played every single escape room at Breakin’. Which is why I can safely say that War on Horizon Alpha is the most “meh”. Don’t get me wrong, I love a sci-fi theme. Even more love for a sci-fi theme that’s clearly inspired by Star Wars. But there was something about this one that didn’t just click for us. A little tired, a little broken, and more than a few puzzles that I’m still not sure I understand even now, weeks after playing. That’s okay, not every room is for every person. I preferred Wizarding School or Heist Plan, but you might prefer this one.

 

Never Underestimate a Droid

The first thing you’ll notice when you walk into War on Horizon Alpha is an enormous R2D2. Or should I call it the IP skirting D2R2? Haha. The second thing you’ll notice is a huge amount of buttons. War on Horizon Alpha is a single-room escape room so pretty much everything you’ll interact with is right in front of you and it’s… A lot! There’s an enormous panel of buttons and screens and 99.9% of the buttons do absolutely nothing and there’s not much to indicate which are the ones you’ll need and which aren’t. Oh dear!

But, once the first hurdle of figuring out where to start (which we ended up spending our first clue on 10 minutes in), we were off to a flying start! As with most Breakin’ rooms, this one was fairly linear which suited our team of 2 quite well. We worked together on everything and progressed at a steady pace through the spaceship.

 

 

The cool thing about the room was the sci-fi vibe of it. It was a bit of a tight space but it was also clear a lot of care and attention to detail had gone into the set once upon a time, which by now is the good quality set design I expect from Breakin’. They know how to make a good atmosphere. Think neon glowing lights and blinking buttons and a fun musical track that ramped up in excitement as we headed towards the climax of the game.

We asked for a record breaking number of clues and many more of those clues either led to puzzles that were broken or things we found so illogical we had to be given the answers for them. We also wasted a good 20 or so of our minutes ‘solving’ a puzzle that was on full display but wouldn’t actually activate something until the very end of the game. So when we then got to the end we looked up at the camera like “we’ve already done this please don’t make us do it again“.

Once our GM had taken pity on us and given us the final answer, the game came to an abrupt halt and our host appeared to ask how we found it. We asked a million and one questions about all the things that didn’t make sense (there were a lot), had our photo taken, and were hurried out of the building without so much of a goodbye. It wasn’t the usual Breakin’ experience I’m used to, but everyone has an off day and every room loses it’s magic eventually.

 

 

The Verdict

Overall, not my favourite room. Lost points for puzzles and general wear and tear, but earns points for a fun sci-fi theme. I felt a little bad about it as we booked this room for my birthday and as one of the final rooms to play in London before moving out of the city. But as I say not every room will click with every team and that’s just the luck of the draw when you try a new room!

If you love Star Wars and sci-fi themes and a particular style of puzzle, you’ll probably love this. We’d loved everything else at Breakin’ so far, but this one was a miss for us. So if you do book this room, be sure to book a couple of others at Breakin’ at the same time to experience the full magic the company has to offer!

 

War on Horizon Alpha can be played by booking on Breakin’s website here.

Mazer Zone: Star Struck | Review

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Mazer Zone Star Struck Review | The year is 2220, wars and natural disasters have ravaged the Earth. Humanity, clinging to survival in orbit, has one last hope – a scientific genius and his revolutionary formula for starship fuel. Alas, the powers that be will not relinquish their grip on the human race. Shortly after being recruited by the good professor, he suddenly disappears leaving the fate of mankind in the hands of you and your crew. Do you have what it takes to solve the mystery and save the human race?

Date Played: 2nd July 2022
Number of Players: 4
Time Taken: ~30 Minutes
Difficulty: Easy

Mazer Zone is one of London’s newest escape rooms and at the time of writing has only been open for a couple of weeks. Presently, there are two rooms available with a third coming soon. And well, you know me, I’m a sucker for a good sci-fi room so we couldn’t wait to get ourselves booked in to play.

Despite being located very centrally in Camden, Mazer Zone is an escape room that’s a little hard to spot. In fact, we walked past it a few times before realising it was there. Tucked away in a residential estate, an unassuming building that looks like it could be an apartment building opens up into a very clean and clinical basement with a very low ceiling – tall people be warned (though not a problem for me at 5 ft 1). On the outer door was a 4 digit padlock, and we assumed this might be the first puzzle – but thankfully after knocking a few times our host came up to pick us up.

As you go down into the main area, there’s no lobby to speak of, so be sure to arrive exactly on time. We kept our belongings with us and, after a quick briefing with the usual “this is a padlock, don’t brute force, if it’s above head height ignore it“, we were led to a mysterious door. A message appeared to us from a very cool sci-fi delivery pipe containing all the information we needed to get started and then whoosh! We were off to a flying start!

 

Image (c) Mazer Zone

 

Beam me up, Scotty!

What followed was a series of physical spaces (around 3 unique rooms to be exact), that followed the story of the mysterious disappearance of a spacecraft engineer and scientist. You see, we were space travellers in the far distant future trying to preserve humanity by colonising the stars. But we can’t do that without valuable starship fuel. Our mission was to investigate what happened to the scientist and recover his secret stash of starship fuel. Presumably so we could synthesize more, or perhaps we just wanted to use it to power our own ships and fly away. Either way, we had a mission and we stuck to it.

The room played out like a “museum of humanity“. Early in the game we found a tablet-like device which enabled us to scan any codes we found around the room. There were many of them. On the one hand, red herrings? On the other, just quirky distractions adding to the overall story. There were plenty of things in the room we never used, and plenty more things we did use which I couldn’t believe were even relevant to the game, but provided some fun moments of delight when they were.

There was one puzzle I enjoyed the mechanic of so much I even laughed out loud, inviting my other players crowd around just to watch it. But mostly, the puzzles were straightforward – easy to spot, easy to solve. Yes, we absolutely whizzed through the room and broke the record (although for a room that’s just opened that’s less impressive than it sounds), but we did have fun solving the puzzles. Everyday objects were used in innovative ways and there were some very fun moments of technology.

On the topic of red herrings however, there were definitely more red herrings than we were comfortable with. I counted around 5 digit padlocks we discovered which we ended up never using, and plenty of things that seemed so obviously like they were part of the game but then never ever used. There’s a lot of discourse in the escape room world about whether red herrings are good or bad, and it’s too detailed to get into here, but we at The Escape Roomer generally fall in the camp of “they’re not great”.

Having too many things in the room that feel unfinished leads to an anti-climactic ending in which you can’t help but wonder if you’re actually finished or not. Star Struck toed this line, as many of the ‘red herrings’ were quirky and part of the story. For example, informational pieces about the universe and objects which felt like they should have had a purpose, but didn’t in the end. When we finally unlocked the last door, we all couldn’t quite believe it. “But wait, we didn’t use ‘thing’?”, to which our host explained that we didn’t need to. So the jury is out on that one.

There was one puzzle in the experience which could potentially be a health and safety hazard. Not naming any names as I don’t wish to spoil anything, but there was definitely a moment we could have (but didn’t) hurt ourselves… Which brings me to the realisation that we weren’t asked to sign a waiver. It’s one of the first escape rooms I’ve ever experienced that hasn’t, which is interesting. Potentially just an operational oversight since the company itself is in it’s infancy, and hopefully an issue they’ll fix quite quickly.

As a final note, since we didn’t ask for any hints, we can’t judge how these are delivered – but we were given a walkie-talkie at the start of the experience in case we needed to communicate with our host.

 

Image (c) Mazer Zone

 

An Escape Room Set on a Spaceship

One of the things we enjoyed most about the room was the decor. It really did feel like a sci-fi spaceship and there’s some impressive technology in there that really added to the feeling of immersion. It was high-tech in all the best ways, with sensors and scanners a-plenty, plus all that tech worked perfectly well. Which makes sense, since the room is brand new.

On the topic of decor, the room very much feels homemade but in the kind of way that it’s been built with a lot of love. I’ve since found out that unfortunately it is a room that was open for some time in another country, before being sold to Mazer Zone and opened up here in London. That said, they’ve still done a good job the start-up resources they have available.

Just a note on accessibility, unfortunately the environment and the building itself being located down a long flight of stairs – so this room is not wheelchair accessible. There were also several puzzles that involved listening to voice-overs without subtitles, so a word of warning for folks with hearing difficulty.

 

The Verdict

Overall, our team did enjoy playing Star Struck at Mazer Zone. If anything, it was just a shame it didn’t last longer, I’d have loved to spend 60 minutes in the room rather than 30! We had an enthusiastic host, which brings about it’s own kind of charm, and we enjoyed chatting to them for a while after. The room itself featured some fun decor and unique technology, as well as puzzles that made us think outside the box in ways I haven’t experienced before. As, at the time of writing, they’re a brand new company so there are some big operational oversights which we’ve given feedback on, but I think it has a lot of potential.

Presently tickets come in around 30 – 50 pp, depending on how large your team is and when you visit. For this price it makes it one of the more expensive escape rooms in London. Do we recommend it at full price? Probably not. Especially given we escaped in around 30 minutes. But if you can get tickets at off-peak prices, then definitely worth giving them a go.

Mazer Zone are hard at work on their new and upcoming rooms. I hear the second and third rooms are better than the first, so it’s onwards and upwards from here.

 

Star Struck can be booked by heading to Mazer Zone’s website here.

ESC WELT: House of the Dragon | Review

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House of the Dragon Review | An aging Japanese carpenter felt abandoned by his son who had left home and started a family of his own.  But when a dragon came to the carpenter in his dreams and told him he still had time to bond with the grandchildren he’d never seen, the carpenter designed and built a wooden toy.  The toy was a puzzle box that children alone couldn’t open so children, parents and grandparents worked together to solve the mystery of the ‘House of the Dragon’.

Date played: May 2022
Time taken: 60-90 mins
Number of players: 1
Difficulty: Medium

 

Puzzle Box Joy

First up, I love wooden puzzle boxes. They are beautiful little works of art.  I had a money box as a kid that was a simplified puzzle box with panels that you had to slide around to find a hidden drawer with a key, then do some more sliding to find the keyhole.  I loved it, even when I’d done that sliding so many times it was no longer a puzzle.  I guess that was when the ER bug first bit, even though there was no such thing as ERs at the time.  It also explains the little jolt of joy I get in ERs like those by ‘Escape Plan’ where they use cute little wooden puzzle boxes in place of the ubiquitous padlocks. So much of the pleasure I get from ERs is that they are safe spaces for adults to indulge in childlike play and I guess wooden puzzle boxes are a direct, visceral link between adult me and the little kid I once was.

Which is a very long winded and philosophical path to saying that when EscWelt asked us to review their latest puzzle, House of the Dragon, I jumped at the chance.  I hadn’t played an EscWelt game box before, though had taken on similar puzzles by iAdventure, so was excited to unbox it.

 

Handmade Heaven

‘House of the Dragon’ looks and feels lovingly hand-made, a fact confirmed by a signed slip inside the box from the EscWelt bod who put it together.  In keeping with the Japanese theming and narrative, with the back story laid out on a paper insert, the puzzle box takes the form of a miniature pagoda, crafted from sustainable birchwood.  There’s lovely carved detailing and beautiful etching on every side, with cherry blossom tumbling down one side, and a dragon wrapped around the roof.  Each side and each section has a unique design and feel and a quick scan around the box gives you the sense of multiple puzzle elements.

But Where Do I Start?

But that’s where I came a bit unstuck.  The iAdventure games I’d played previously had a handy ‘start’ etched somewhere on them to give you a clue where to begin. ‘House of the Dragon’ doesn’t.  It’s clearly designed to be trickier and that’s no bad thing but it can also lead to frustration.  Maybe because I’m singularly dense, or maybe because I was playing alone, with no-one to bounce ideas off, I just couldn’t spot an obvious ‘way in’ to the sequence of puzzles.  So I spent a lot of time just turning the box around and around in my hands trying to get an insight into where to start. Which is ok for a while but my patience did erode fairly quickly.

 

Let It Flow

Eventually after a bit of wiggling of box parts, I made the first step and after that things flowed a little more, although you still have to be a bit experimental and willing to try some random poking around, in some cases literally.  After the first element was solved and I’d done a bit of Japanese language translation, I realised I was looking for a specific sequence (of what I won’t say coz spoilers).  And from then on, the puzzle flow around the box was more satisfying and fairly slick.  Constrained by the size of the box, there aren’t a huge number of puzzle elements and I probably took longer figuring out where to start than I did actually solving it all but the sheer physicality of the puzzling is very satisfying.  And, like in any good ER, the revelation at the end is worth all the effort that preceded it.

 

The Verdict?

My minor niggles would be that lack of a clearing start point and the fact that the playability of the box is impacted by some parts being too stiff and some too lose.  In some case parts don’t move easily, meaning you feel like you haven’t solved that element when you actually have.  Some parts also move but have no function other than looking pretty.  On my box the roof element rotated so I spent ages thinking there must be a significance to that.  But there wasn’t.

However, these are minor issues in a puzzle box that is beautiful to behold.  The tactile physicality of the box is the true selling point.  When you can’t get hands on with an ER out in the real world, and online or paper ER type games just aren’t hitting the right spot then a puzzle box like ‘House of the Dragon’ is a treat.  Sliding panels, buttons to push and pull, secret doors and secret codes.  All in the comfort of your own home.

There’s a QR code system to get access to EscWelt’s tips and hints on the puzzle box and once you’re done and found out the secret at the heart of the labyrinth, there’s also a resetting video so you can play again or pass the box on to someone else.  Maybe you could even hide a little treat inside and see how long it takes someone else to get inside ‘The House of the Dragon’.

 

‘House of the Dragon’ and other puzzle box games from EscWelt can be bought at their online store or at other online retailers. 

Extremescape: Lost Tomb | Review

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Extremescape: The Lost Tomb Review | Your team of adventurers & archaeologists, enter an abandoned gold mine in the heart of the Mexican mountains, your mission is to find the hidden gold. Legend says that the holder of the hidden gold of El Narangel will find the Lost Tomb. The miners left subtle clues & hints, if you use all your skills you may find the hidden gold and ultimately the Lost Tomb but be careful they the miners won’t give up their gold easily.

Completion Time: 80 minutes (out of 90)
Date Played: 24th March 2022
Party Size: 2
Difficulty: Hard

Ever wanted to be Indiana Jones? Of course you have, hasn’t everyone? Well this room gives you the chance to infiltrate a mine, fine some gold and then journey further into a hidden tomb.

One of the first things that immediately impressed us with this room is the obvious high budget set design – effects, solid decor, and a plethora of different elements all combine into an incredible experience. You are immediately transported into the mine in a way that is sure to leave an impression, with plenty of hidden aspects to delve into and discover. Once again, there were plenty of clues hidden in plain sight, waiting to be noticed. The moment of discovering the tomb was truly awe-inspiring too – you discover it in a very Indiana Jones-esque manner, and it definitely gave me goosebumps. Once more, the set had lots of details and really appeals to those who like seeking.

My only negative point on this room is likely to be a positive for others – there were quite a few ‘jump scares’! There were loud noises (particularly to alert you to someone you should be solving), with a couple of purposeful scares. I wouldn’t say this should put you off if you are nervous like me, but there were two I think are definitely unnecessary!

 

 

Duh de-duh dah…

Once again this room is non-linear, with plenty of aspects to address. Initially, you are looking for bags of gold, which are harder to find than you might expect. There are plenty of puzzles that are hidden in plain sight, with more physical puzzles thrown into the mix. I have never seen quite the variety of puzzles or the use of different elements in a room.

I was blown away throughout most of the game, and although the signposting could’ve been a little better (this feels like a theme for this venue), I think each puzzle had a certain level of surprise which just created so much joy and excitement throughout. Even the exit had us amazed!

The difficulty didn’t lie in solving the puzzles, but rather figuring out how to solve them! Once we’d figured out what to do each time it was fairly straightforward, with enough puzzles to keep us occupied without becoming stressed.

If I’m trying to nitpick I’d say that we required hints to identify a couple of puzzles, which I feel better signposting could’ve solved. I also felt like we ran into a wall after each puzzle (after a certain point), which got a little tiring. However, these are really minor points that ultimately shouldn’t put you off playing as it was one of the best rooms I’ve done!

 

Dah dah dah

Accessibility-wise, there are some stairs into the venue and within the room itself, with some physical challenges within the room. The room is dim in places, although torches are provided. Hints are delivered via screen and voice-over, so should suit anyone with visual or audio needs. As mentioned, there are loud noises and jump scares, as well as some smoke, so make sure to check ahead of time if you have any sensitivity to these things!

 

The Verdict

I loved this room. It felt like there was a lot to do, with plenty of elements and things to discover. Discovering the temple with only 30 mins left was definitely panic-inducing, but added a bit of pressure. I highly recommend this room to anyone!

 

Lost Tomb can be booked at Extremescape