Compendium Bury: Laboratory, Bedlam, Wrong Turn | Review

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Date played: March 2022
Time taken: 48 minutes / 46 minutes / 45 minutes
Number of players: 2
Difficulty: Easy / Hard / Medium

As someone who lives in London, I don’t often get the chance to venture ‘up north’, but there are quite a few companies that are making a name for themselves! Just outside of Manchester (an easy tram ride away) is the small town of Bury, home to “Compendium Escapes”. We decided to tick off all their rooms at once, so here I’m covering the first three, and leaving their award-winning final room for a post of its own!

 

Compendium: Laboratory | Review

You and your friends have been given the challenge to find and steal a Laboratory’s TOP secret remedy needed to cure a deadly disease. You have been entrusted with all the information you need to gain entry to the lab but no idea how to find the antidote undetected and once inside you find yourselves trapped. Do you have what it takes to save lives and escape the lab with the antidote?

 

When we entered the lab we found ourselves in a relatively large, clean room with plenty of science-y artifacts lying around. The premise is simple; locate and recover the antidote for the deadly pandemic that is ravaging the planet (I swear this was launched long before Covid-19). We immediately split up and started searching for clues, locating a number of interesting items and numbers dotted about. The decor in the room was great – it played into the theme and there quite multiple times when something which initially appeared to be a prop turned into a key puzzle!

 

Image (c) Manchester Evening News

 

This room is often said to be the best room for families, and I can see why – the room is full of bright colours and varied puzzles, with most puzzles within reach of small hands and some exciting little spaces to explore. The only issue is that the one main puzzle in the room (to access the parts of the antidotes) would not be possible for younger children, and indeed was not possible for me at 5ft3! However, the GM handled this really well, and let us off as he could see we had made quite a few attempts, but just physically couldn’t manage it. If this had been later in the day I can imagine this would’ve made us quite frustrated, but as it was we brushed past it and chalked it up to a slightly annoying thing.

Accessibility (Spoilers!)

The location isn’t very physically accessible, being up some quite steep stairs, but the room itself has a chair to sit in and is well lit. There is some reliance on colour, and that pesky physical puzzle. Hints are given via a screen, so otherwise no reliance necessarily on hearing.

 

Compendium: Bedlam | Review

 

Bentham Asylum has been standing since the 1900’s. In 1950 Bentham was given the nickname BEDLAM because of the events that happened in those 50 years, In 1974 Cell p23 was mysteriously locked without an explanation as to why. Bedlam has secrets that need to be uncovered. You and your team are the top journalists in your field, you have been tasked with uncovering the secrets that are held behind Cell P23’s walls. Can you go undercover, get in the cell undetected and escape with all the documents that will uncover the secrets of BEDLAM? 

I am really not a horror fan. I am a massive coward, so the idea of doing not just one, but two ‘scary’ rooms was a little daunting. However, we spoke to the Compendium team prior to booking who assured me there would be no live actors or jump scares, so we went ahead and booked. Bedlam definitely fits into the ‘creepy’ and suspenseful area of ‘scary’, with atmospheric background music/sounds that felt extremely immersive. I actually found myself really enjoying this! The combination of dingy lighting, a chair with handcuffs, and random screams in the background helped set the mood and get the adrenaline running before any puzzles have taken place.

The room itself is very small – we played as a duo, and I’m not sure I would’ve wanted to play with anymore! Despite this, I was amazed by how much Compendium have fit into this space, and we were constantly surprised by certain discoveries. There are so many hidden areas carefully blended into the padded walls that we really had a sense of excitement and never knew what was coming next.

The puzzles were a fantastic example of thematic design – they all fit the theme perfectly, and to a certain extent helped carry the narrative too. They were fairly non-linear (I know there were a few puzzles I never saw), with a couple that also required some team cooperation.  None of the puzzles frustrated us, and all the logic made total sense. There were also some really interesting mechanisms used for these puzzles, but I don’t want to spoil anything!

Accessiblity (spoilers!)

Like all their rooms, this is very much not accessible. Obviously, you need to climb up some steep stairs to reach the room itself, but there is a chair within the room. There is the requirement for at least one team member to be happy with crawling and small spaces, although this really isn’t the room for anyone with claustrophobia given the general size. The room was fairly dim, but we found a torch which helped!

 

 

Compendium: Wrong Turn | Review

 

You and your friends are driving along route 66 when you notice your gas running low, a friend suggests to make a turn at the next set of crossroads to see if there is a gas station… you don’t find a gas station but decide to explore the one place you have discovered by taking that WRONG TURN…. Will you escape or will you spend your life regretting that wrong turn?

The third room we did at Compendium was another ‘scary’ room – this time we entered the home of a serial killer. Once again we confirmed there were no live actors or jump scares, but unfortunately, there were plenty of mannequins (which is my specific phobia). The team were great though, and removed what they could, giving my mum a warning of where others were so she could deal with them for me. That aside, this room was fantastically creepy in a different way to Bedlam. Rather than screams, the soundtrack was instead an old fashion song and commercial, and the room and set dressing were just off enough to be unsettling.

 

Image (c) Manchester Evening News

 

Rather than entering into the lair directly, we instead found ourselves in an old-fashioned kitchen off Route 66. At first glance, nothing seems amiss, but look a bit closer and you realise that maybe things are not as they appear. The set dressing here was excellent, with a lot of relevant props and accessories to investigate, but not so many that they would count as red herrings (and none dressed as puzzles). The difference between this room and the lair (when you discover it) is very stark, and quite horrific (as you might imagine).

The puzzles themselves were a bit trickier than the other rooms, but still had a great flow and were fairly non-linear. I really appreciated the need to hunt for items and keep track of these throughout the room, as well as the requirement to move between the kitchen and the lair. The space is also a lot bigger than initially anticipated, with a great sense of atmosphere. There were also some unique physical puzzles here, which I quite enjoyed!

Accessibility (spoilers!)

In terms of accessibility – again, steep stairs to the location, but chairs inside. There is a requirement to be able to crawl to reach the lair, and there are some smaller, darker spaces to be aware of. You will need to be able to differentiate colours for this room too.

 

Compendium, The Verdict

 

I think Compendium is a fantastic company, who clearly pay close attention to all aspects of room design. I have written a separate review about their final room, UI-55, which is currently my number 1 room. Out of these three, I enjoyed ‘Bedlam’ the most, followed by ‘Wrong turn’, but that’s probably my cowardice talking. I would say you shouldn’t be put off my the scary aspect of either room though, as they are worth playing!

The team at ‘Compendium’ are also fantastic – we spent a long time chatting with them and they are top-notch. Given we booked all 4 rooms they’d actually ‘closed’ the place for the day, so we could be a bit relaxed about timings and decide when we wanted to play each room. This gave us time to grab refreshments between rooms, and decide on our lunch break, rather than either rushing out of one room and into the next, or else sitting around in a long gap. This was a little touch that was really appreciated and so unexpected. I also just enjoyed talking to them in general, as they are clearly passionate about what they do (which shines through in the rooms) and so we spent a while comparing and recommending rooms to each other! Compendium is definitely a must-visit for me.

These rooms can be booked on the Compendium Bury 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.

Wolf Escape Games: Hallows Hill | Review

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Wolf Escape Games: Hallows Hill Review | Can you solve all of the puzzles and unlock the dark secrets of Hallows Hill? Gather your team and play at home or over video chat!

Date Played: May 2022
Time Taken: 63 minutes
Number of Players: 4
Difficulty: Medium

Sometimes I play digital play-at-home escape rooms and I finish them thinking “wow, why wasn’t this made into an actual video game?!”. That’s not to say video games are anything ‘better’ or something designers should strive to create. Far from it. It’s just every single thing about Hallows Hill looked and played like a video game I’d expect to find on PC or on console. When they describe their game as “cinematic”, they’re not wrong…

From the beautiful 3D sets, to the point-and-click style of adventure with stylish cutscenes between it, to the music, the high fidelity, and general high budget feel of Hallows Hill, I was super impressed. In fact, it’s a wonder that Wolf Escape Games has completely flown under the radar as much as it has. We’d heard of it, because we make it our mission to hear about and play as many escape rooms as we possibly can. But by and large since the game launched in 2021 it hasn’t got the attention I think it deserved. So, lets go onto why!

 

 

About Hallows Hill

If you like ghost stories, you’ll love Hallows Hill. With a slight “choose your own adventure” twist, you find yourself plunged into an eerie mystery set in the old Hallows Hill household after, in our case, a patient under our care went missing. We chose this option, so I’m not sure if everyone will have the same reason to have to go and explore the old and clearly haunted house, but for whichever reason, you find yourself standing on the creaky porch of a dilapidated building. Your goal: Get in and get out quickly!

Throughout the way we were anchored to another character by a slick text-message interface. Harriet took the role of gentle GM, an automated series of messages that provides guidance and eggs you on through scarier moments. There were plenty of those, and plenty more where I was like “damn this job isn’t worth it lets just leave guys and find a new job”, but nope, on we ventured through the creaky house.

The further and further you go, the more restless the spirits become. Before long a mystery begins to unravel before your eyes over a series of ‘chapters’. A ghost story, a tale of children from decades ago, and a mysterious fire. But to achieve our goals (in our case, recover our patient), we had to push on.

*shudder*

 

 

Follow the Leader

The game has an unusual setup in that the leader must share their screen and other players can play along second-hand. We’re not the biggest fans of this style of gameplay as it always leaves one person feeling like they’re doing everything and everyone else more like passive observers. Without the freedom to click around yourself, it’s difficult to be as fully engaged with the person hosting. This time round, I was the ‘host’.

Mostly, it worked well. The technology was fairly seamless and anything I discovered on my screen would immediately populate into my team mates “backpacks” to take a closer look at. Occasionally there’d be a puzzle or two which only I could do. For example, a jigsaw. At these moments my team mates either watched me rapidly solving on screen, or moved on with a different puzzle. In another moment, a sound puzzle could only be controlled by me and the sound-sharing didn’t work as well as it might have done meaning it was a lot harder to solve than it might have been. But really those two things were just details in an otherwise smooth and logical puzzling experience.

One thing Hallows Hill did do really well was interweave the story into the puzzles. I love it when I see good Game Design done well like this! The solutions to puzzles told us about the characters and the ghostly happenings occurring in the building. It wasn’t the kind of game you could ignore the story in. The story was fundamental to the experience and handled very well.

 

Cinematic Level Graphic Design

Another thing Hallows Hill did really well was that ‘cinematic feel’. I literally cannot emphasise this enough, this game was absolutely beautiful. Maybe the most beautiful non-video game digital game I’ve ever played, and heck I’ve played a lot. The team really outdid themselves on the beautiful set design, atmospheric effects, music and cut-scenes. From the start to the finish I felt utterly immersed and seriously impressed.

 

For this reason we’ve decided to award Hallows Hill the Diamond Badge. This badge is awarded to games that were visually stunning and it’s a no brainer. *chefs kiss* for gorgeous set design. If this were a video game company and you told me it was a triple-A studio, I’d not be surprised in the slightest.

 

 

The Verdict

We had a lot of fun playing Hallows Hill and the best part? We finished 18th on the global leader board. Yay! I’ll take that with pride! We used one hint on a puzzle that indeed seems to stump most people judging by reading other reviews. It was a classic sound puzzle, and I’ll take the hit on that one – I’m just not that great with sound puzzles.

Now it is technically a scary game. Think spooky ghosts and eerie moments of tension. But even if you’re no good with frights, I’d still encourage you to try Hallows Hill out. There are no jump scares and it’s well worth it for the visuals and graphic fidelity alone. From fun puzzles to an immersive atmosphere, Wolf Escape Games have totally outdone themselves and I’m now eagerly awaiting to see if they’ll create any more games.

 

Hallows Hill can be booked by heading to Wolf Escape Games’ website here.

36 Inch Penguin: The Society | Review

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The Nayland Rock Hotel, once Margate’s most glamorous destination, visited by the rich and famous. A downstairs bar, The Crescent Suite, hosted regular meetings of a little known Society. When the Hotel closed for renovations in the 1980’s the Society and the bar’s Landlady vanished without a trace.

​The Crescent Suite never reopened.

​For years rumours have persisted of valuable items hidden away in the suite and then, with the death of an American man in 2021, clues came to light of those items whereabouts. The dead man’s children, The Twins, live in the US and can’t come to find them themselves, but…

​…with the help of a friendly security guard they can get you inside.

​Can you help ?

Date Played: 23 April 2022
Number of Players: 2
Time Taken: ~40 Minutes
Difficulty: Medium

 

We slid into Margate’s The Society on the back of a four escape room day.  We’d played Quick-E-Mart, Detention, Frankenscape and Spacescape at Ctrl Alt Delete back to back, with the time so tight between the end of Spacescape and the start time for The Society that we’d had to throw ourselves in a cab and make a desperate dash across Margate’s seafront.  We literally fell in through the door at the Nayland Rock Hotel, brains fried, energy depleted, a little dazed and confused.  Luckily the “friendly security guard” who met us took pity on us and let us grab a quick breather and chocolate snack. So we were soonfuelled up and ready to get back on the escape room treadmill.

Atmosphere

The pause also meant we had a bit of headspace to take in our surroundings.  And it’s definitely worth the pause to absorb it.  Because The Society takes place in a unique environ.  This isn’t an escape room carved out of an industrial space, a warehouse or railway arch, an empty office building or high street shop front.  This isn’t an escape room that’s repurposed a space that has no connection to its story.  This is a game that takes place in an actual abandoned, empty hotel.

Built in 1895 it was once a famous seafront holiday destination, where Charlie Chaplin vacationed and where Mick Jagger hosted his parents’ Golden Wedding anniversary party.  But now the hotel is a shadow of its former self.  When cheap overseas holidays lured us Brits away from our seaside towns, once fashionable resorts like Margate fell into a decline and hotels like the Nayland Rock struggled to survive. 

The doors closed in the 1980s and while a room or two is still rented out (I think), on the day we visited, most of it was empty apart from some of the larger rooms being used as prop storage for the shoot of Sam Mendes’ upcoming “Theatre of Light”.  There are apparently plans to renovate the whole hotel and try and return it to its former glory, but for now it’s a ghostly shell and the perfect space for a creepy (but not scary) ER.

Down into the Bar

And when 36 Inch Penguin’s publicity material say that you’ll be exploring a hotel bar that hasn’t been touched for nearly 40 years, they really mean it.  There’s a real visceral thrill in being given a couple of small torches (don’t worry more lighting comes on later) and pointed in the direction of some ropey looking stairs down to a dark and ominous basement bar.  Before you head off to investigate you first need to listen to a recording from ‘The Twins’ who’ve hired you to explore the hotel.  Now I’m not massively keen on ERs that lean heavily on narrative and expect you to wade through a lot of reading material.  I want to be playing puzzles, not reading essays.  But paying attention to the recording at this point is kind of important for everything that follows.  From then on in the narrative is delivered in fairly small doses, often in quite intriguing and unusual fashion, and which are easy to digest and don’t feel like roadblocks in the way of the puzzle flow.

Once you’re inside the bar, the unique location of a real hotel space really comes into its own.  Despite being a real, historical location, the escape room designers haven’t just stuck a load of padlocked boxes in the middle of the room to figure out.  This escape room directly engages with the space it is in.  The narrative is part of the fabric of the room itself and the actual fabric of the room is sometimes a literal part of the puzzle.  It feels really good to be able to get properly hands on with physical puzzles that are built into the historic rooms themselves.  One of them had me asking “the hotel owners really let the designer do that?”.  But they did.  And it’s great fun.

Hand Crafted and Theatrical

In terms of puzzles, there aren’t a vast number and my escape room enthusiast team of two moved through it fairly quickly, but there were several puzzles I had not seen in any other escape room I’ve played.  They were clearly lovingly handmade puzzles, both small and large.  At one point you get to see the mechanical back of the puzzle you’ve just solved and I was wowed by the craft behind it.  There is theatrical ingenuity on display here and when you look at the designers’ history as creators of immersive theatre that’s really no surprise.  The room definitely has ‘atmosphere’ and is probably the most genuinely immersive escape room experience I’ve had.  The theatricality means that there’s the right level of creepiness (at least for me) without being a full on scare or horror room.  All the creeps come from the shadowy spaces and your own (over-active) imagination.

The sound design is also a huge factor in this game, again thanks to the theatrical background of 36 Inch Penguin I suspect.  At one point I genuinely thought we were going to be finding actual live actors in the space because the sound design was so effective. And if you’re an 80s kid like me, you will love the music design too.  It’s hard to resist just enjoying the disco even when you’re supposed to be puzzle solving.

For me, this room had the almost perfect blend of narrative, searching, small hand held puzzle props and larger physical puzzles.  One part of the game involves a physical challenge (but not a difficult one) that only one member of the team can do as the other watches.  As the one doing the watching in my team it was hilarious.  I’ll say no more because it would be a spoiler but I was crying with laughter as my teammate valiantly carried on.

The Verdict

I was worried that playing The Society as the last game of five in a single day would mean that I was too tired or brain fried to enjoy it.  But it is such a great experience that I left totally buzzing.  For enthusiasts the complexity of the puzzles might not be too challenging (although a few did leave us head scratching for a while) but the atmosphere, the cleverness and creativity behind the puzzles and the physical interaction with a genuine space are massive plus points.  I’m a huge immersive theatre addict and could feel the strong immersive credentials of 36 Inch Penguin at play here.  The joy is as much in the atmosphere as the puzzling.  I really hope the designers are already working on their next immersive escape room experience because I will genuinely be the first in the queue.

As the Nayland Rock Hotel is scheduled to be refurbished at some point, there’s always a chance that The Society might have to move out and move on.  I suspect the gameplay will be just as excellent even in a new location, but you can’t replicate the environment that the game is currently in.  It is a character in its own right.  So get down to Margate without delay!

The Society is currently open for bookings between 22 July and 4 September 2022.  You can read more and book here

Enigmailed: Nightjar | Review

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Nightjar Review: An anxious mind, struggling to sleep, listens to the crepuscular call of birds as their insomnia continues to plague them. Will this innocuous jar filled with secrets be the key to escaping their torment?

Date Played: February 2022
Time Taken: ~40 minutes
Number of Players: 1
Difficulty: Hard

Nightjar is my personal holy grail of the escape room-in-a-box world and that makes it incredibly tricky to write a review for it. My brain is saying “lets be analytical and explain to our dear readers what the game is all about” and my heart is screaming in excitement that I actually own a copy sitting on my desk in pride of place. I imagine if I ever achieve my dream of getting hold of Tale of Ord (not likely) it’ll be much the same way.

 

 

Enigmailed’s Nightjar – A Rare Puzzle Game

Nightjar is a small boxed puzzle game, possibly the world’s smallest, as it fits entirely into a small jar around 10x10x10cm. There were only around ~55 copies ever made. The first batch was a part of the annual puzzle game Secret Santa group, where game designers from all around the world are tasked with creating a mystery game for another recipient around the world. Nightjar became something of a cult project thanks to a podcast series the game’s creator, Step of Enigmailed, made to document the game design process. The game was available as a bonus, extremely limited add-on in follow-up Kickstarter, Pouroboros. The game then later cropped up in a charity auction, selling for £110. Then, for a final time 50 or so extra copies were released mysteriously in a ‘blind game drop’ under the name EASTWOOD on April 1st, 2022. Nobody knew that Nightjar would be one of the two games released (the other is ‘Mangetout’ which I sadly haven’t played but definitely will and review soon. Shout out to my chaotic life for making it as yet impossible). Despite the hush-hush around what the games would be, the mystery drop release sold out very quickly. There goes the final batch of Nightjar… For now! A moment’s silence please.

So, that’s a long roundabout way of saying it’s a rare game and for me, a very very coveted one. If my apartment was on fire, I’d run past all my photo albums and holiday trinkets and make sure Nightjar got out safely first. As far as I’m aware, the creator has plans to make just a few more copies which will be released in similarly mysterious fashion. But for the most part, Enigmailed have moved on to other (very exciting) projects.

The second thing to note about Nightjar that adds to it’s rarity is that it is single-play. Almost every component in the game is destroyed, making it impossible to replay. Believe me, I tried to be extra careful. There’s also no reset pack. So of those ~55 copies ever made. Let’s say 90% of them were played. Which leaves… A very small number of this game out in the wild. Oof, my heart aches! I haven’t yet seen any of these games go up for sale, but I’ve no doubt whichever seller does will fetch a high price. But don’t do that. Keep it. Putting all the rarity and speculation aside, Nightjar was a genuinely very fun game and if anyone has a copy I’d encourage them to play it, enjoy it, and let it live on in your memory. Besides, you’ll have the jar to keep as a memento, like I have.

So, the history of Nightjar out of the way… Tell me about the game!

 

 

From Dusk to Dawn

If you didn’t know Nightjar was a puzzle game, you’d never be able to tell.

Your first impressions would be “oh, this is a jar of marmite”.

Then you’d realise something was up, you’d open it, and think “oh, this is a jar of sleep-aid things”.

Then you’d move on with your life and never realise just how brilliant the combination of objects hidden within the jar are. Yes, yes, they are just sleep aid things. But in true Enigmailed fashion there’s a riddle, inside an enigma, wrapped in a mystery locked inside. I won’t give any spoilers as to exactly what can be found inside except to say it’s a small medley of things you might turn to if you were having difficulty sleeping. You might dim the lights and pour yourself a cup of tea, you might try to block out the world outside, and you might use some nice smells to help you drift off. You might do anyway. Might… Might… Might.

In terms of quality, Nightjar is handmade in very small batches, so there’s a lot of attention to detail and care gone into the game. There’s a mix of real-life objects modified to suit the puzzle game, and further materials which are handmade or printed from scratch.

 

 

Falling Asleep is the Yeast of Your Problems…

The gameplay of the game is such that you can start with any object inside the jar and each object will lead to the next, and the next, and so on. It’s a puzzle loop that, when solved correctly, should bring you full circle over the course of 30 – 60 minutes.

It’s a quiet, introspective game best played in a team of 1. Probably also best played in the evening before drifting off to sleep yourself. But that’s not to say the puzzles were easy. Far from it, in fact! I always seem to find Enigmailed puzzle games on the harder side. I don’t know if that’s just me, or if they genuinely are. Cut to several years worth of playing them and I finally think I’m beginning to understand what type of answers the puzzles are looking for – and yet I still spent a good amount of time puzzling and wracking my brain over a few. At the time of writing there wasn’t a clue system (this may have changed), but Step was on hand to offer a little nudge if I needed it.

Above anything else, from the moment I opened up the jar to the very final puzzle I solved, Nightjar captured my imagination. It’s ability to set such a powerful theme, tell such a lovely story, and engross me with some brilliant fun puzzles with such a tiny number of materials squeezed into such a small jar is second to none. Yes, I had to use a magnifying glass a few times, but it was well worth it.

 

The Verdict

Normally at this time in a review I’d talk about who we recommend this game for and where it can be purchased, but with Nightjar that’s a little tricky. Firstly, I’d recommend it for everyone. Secondly, if you want a copy, you’ll have to try to convince Step to make you one, or scour the various Facebook forums for anyone selling theirs. Good luck in your quest, it’s well worth the reward at the end.

If you’re interested in getting into Game Design, Nightjar and it’s associated podcast are a 101 on fantastic game design, thinking outside the box, and creating puzzles out of unexpected everyday objects. As a game designer myself, if I ever create a game that is 1/10th as good as Nightjar, then I’ll consider my life a success. A round of applause for Step and Enigmailed. But even if you don’t play Nightjar, give the podcast a listen and subscribe to Enigmailed’s newsletter anyway. They’re both brilliant and will both give an insight into the weird and wonderful mind of the creators of this game.

 

Nightjar is no longer for sale but you can read about the project here.

Trapped Puzzle Rooms: Ruff Bluff: A Furlock Holmes Mystery | Review

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Ruff Bluff: A Furlock Holmes Mystery Review | Barker Street Detectives… An urgent request has come across my desk and I request you aid me in this investigation. A distressed Ms Barbara Fetcher requires our assistance with the case of The Missing Ruby Bone. Contained in this box you will find evidence gathered from the scene of the Ruby Bone’s disappearance. Identify the culprit of the theft and recover the priceless artefact. A particularly puzzling path awaits you inside…

Date Played: May-June 2022
Time Taken: ~4 hours
Number of Players: 1
Difficulty: Challenging!

I knew Ruff Bluff would be something special as from the moment I received it I had it sitting in pride of place at the front of my board game shelf. Without fail every single person that visited our apartment in time between then and now, commented on the new addition:

“Ruff Bluff? Haha what’s that?” or “OMG are those dogs playing cards?” to “Furlock Holmes? I love it!”

Cue my whipping it off the shelf and spreading out the materials to gush to my friends and family about my favourite puzzles in the game. Even before the Kickstarter went live and the game was made available to the general public, this game is single handedly causing big ripples in my little community here in London, just by merit of it sitting on my shelf. The box is so appealingly light-hearted and funny with a picture of dogs all sitting round at a card game, and the name ‘Furlock Holmes’ suggests something puzzlingly brilliant.

…And that’s before I even start on what comes inside the box! But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

 

About Ruff Bluff: A Furlock Holmes Mystery

Furlock Holmes is the fox character created by escape room company Trapped Puzzle Rooms all the way over in the United States. Creators of Taco Tuesday (oh! I’ve heard of that one), and a whole host of digital, remote avatar and audio rooms, Trapped Puzzle Rooms isn’t as much of a household name here in the UK escape room community as it clearly is in the United States. But after playing their first foray into physical boxed rooms, I’m impressed – and only slightly regretful that this is the very first experience of theirs we’ve played. We missed out not playing all the others in lockdown!

In June 2022, the company put Ruff Bluff up on Kickstarter as a sequel to their existing ‘Furlock Holmes’ mystery, “Furlock Holmes Museum Mystery”. The original game is a web-based point-and-click mystery that follows the titular character Furlock Holmes as he investigates crimes around a fictionalised, vintage London. That said, there’s absolutely no requirement to have played the first game before diving right into Ruff Bluff. They’re completely different!

Ruff Bluff is a 6 – 12 hour mystery game. The complete experience is self-contained within a small box, with a handy answer-checker online. It’s best played over a couple of sessions, and the box is broken up into four parts to make it easy to stop and start between those. As a bonus, the website also saves your answers up until that point so you can pick up wherever you left off!

I took on this mystery over around ~3 days, with a week or so inbetween. I took on Part I at my desk on a funny Friday afternoon. The second part is much longer and much more manual which took a little time over another day. Then I whizzed through the final two parts an afternoon a few weeks later. This super well for me, and I’d definitely recommend taking a similar approach over two or three evenings.

So, the technical parts and the ‘what to expect’ out of the way, here’s how I got on…

 

 

The game is afoot (well… apaw)

This exciting, canine-themed mystery pushes players right into the deep end! There’s been a crime! A priceless Ruby Bone has gone missing from a poker match and it’s up to you, the players, to figure out whodunnit. There are seven suspects: the seven dogs who were sitting around the table playing cards. They are:

  • Austin Fetcher, a Husky with a very boopable nose
  • Pablo Diggbury, a professional Barkeologist
  • Barbara Fetcher, the furriest ball of floof I’ve ever seen
  • Darleen Haskel, a sleek looking Dalmatian
  • Julia Dripping, a very dribbly St Bernard from New Bark City
  • Renaldo Blurri, my personal favourite, a Greyhound with a bowler hat on
  • Richard Ruffington, a pup who shares my birthday!

The game starts with dossiers about each of these dogs. Who they were, where they’re from, and what job they do. Within these dossiers are a number of blanks, and that’s where the player comes in – to fill in the missing information by scouring the clues and looking for details.

This proves an excellent introduction to the game as players are encouraged to really get to know the characters and start making their own assumptions about whodunnit (which by the way, I guessed completely wrong until the very last minute – which is exactly what a good whodunnit should do!).

To help you out, this first portion of the box is absolutely packed with clues. They’re not single use either – throughout the game I found myself constantly referring back to details from the first part and small nudges within the dossiers. From stacks of $700 bills, to a whole deck of playing cards, to napkins, poker chips, postcards and drink matts. It’s an understatement to say there really is a lot going on in this box and I loved it. Each new object seemed to hide so many puzzles, but the game leads you through them gently in a way that doesn’t feel too overwhelming as you scour the evidence. It’s a real “pin everything up on an evidence board and take a step back” kinda game, and I really enjoyed this.

 

 

The second part of the game however was my absolute favourite. I don’t know why I’m so easily impressed by a jigsaw puzzle mechanic but hey, what can I say? I’m just a simple gal who likes complex jigsaw puzzles. The one in Ruff Bluff was absolutely brilliant. It’s the kind of puzzle in a game that even though your partner doesn’t want to take part they can’t help but slide over to help you put a piece or two into their place. Whats more, it fit so well with the story too!

With box one and box two out of the way, the final two chapters were the home-run in terms of puzzle solving. By this point, you know the characters and you know what’s what. All that’s left to do it solve the case.

Even though I literally just said one paragraph ago that the jigsaw was my favourite… I lied. The puzzle that came directly after the jigsaw puzzle was my favourite. This time definitely no spoilers because it was so much fun to open that Box 3 and realise what the game wanted me to do. So I’ll just leave it by saying it was a logic puzzle at it’s absolute finest. More games should include puzzles like this. No, seriously. Designers take note!

In short, if you can’t tell by my enthusiasm – I had a lot of fun with the puzzles in this game. I found them to be genuinely enjoyable to solve which is at it’s heart what all games should do. For sure, I used a couple of hints. Okay, okay maybe more than a couple of hints… But despite this the whole thing felt well balanced in terms of difficulty.

 

 

When you’ve eliminated the possible…

Puzzles aside, let’s talk about the theme. Ruff Bluff’s unique selling point is… Well… Dogs.

If you’re a cat person, look away now. This game is set in the canine universe and is not for you. In fact there aren’t many other animals at all, other than a pesky squirrel, and the occasional off-handed mention of a dog’s owner. For example, my favourite part in the whole game:

“My human recently dug up a part of my back-yard and put in some new plants. I didn’t feel like they did a very good job digging. So I spent the whole afternoon digging several dozen holes all of the yard. Not only did my human not appreciate my hard work, they got upset! – I Can Dig It”

“Dear Dig It, Humans never really understand all the hard work we do for them. Whenever they accidentally vacuum our fur off the couch, we have to take the time and shed more all over it. Whenever a jogger passes by our house, we bark and bark until they keep doing by. This is important work. My advice is to keep digging holes. Eventually you’ll dig one they like and they will reward you with lots of treats.”

As a dog person. In fact, possibly one of only two ‘dog people’ here at The Escape Roomer *grumbles at all the cat enthusiasts here*, I appreciated putting our four legged canine friends at the front and centre of an exciting mystery like this one.

And what a plot it is too. It’s exciting, has twists and turns, and more dog puns than you can shake a stick at. Again, this game is FUN.

 

 

The Verdict

I had a lot of fun playing Ruff Bluff: A Furlock Holmes Mystery and I’ve no doubt this one is going to go down as a ‘favourite’ of a lot of folks out there.

For me, the very best thing about the whole experience were the puzzles. I saw some delightful ones I’d never quite experience before and genuinely had fun solving them throughout the whole game. When the box first said it would take 6 – 12 hours, I don’t mind admitting I groaned a tiny bit. Now, having finished the game, it turns out 12 hours is not enough. I want more of the Furlock Holmes universe. Give me sequels! Give me more puzzles! For this reason I’ve chosen to award this game the coveted Puzzle Prize here on the Escape Roomer, for outstanding puzzle design. It’s well deserved.

My particular copy was an early access, pre-Kickstarter copy. As such some of the materials weren’t ‘final’ quality, there were one or two missing bits, and a few corrections to keep in mind. However this doesn’t affect the review whatsoever, since the creator was so helpful in explaining what to keep an eye out and these are things which are planned to be fixed by the time of publication. That’s why I’ve absolutely no hesitation in recommending this game to other players.

In terms of accessibility – it ticks the boxes with no puzzles reliant on colour or sound that could restrict accessibility for any players. The only thing to flag is that in one puzzle you may find yourself looking very closely for details, so potentially not for folks who might be hard of seeing. But otherwise appears to me to be a very accessible game all round. With easy to understand puzzles, I also have no qualms about saying it would be a great game for a family audience. It’s packed with dog puns and so long as you don’t mind the themes of gambling / drinking at a poker game, then you’ll be golden with Ruff Bluff.

 

Presently, Ruff Bluff: A Furlock Holmes Mystery can be purchased by backing Trapped Puzzle Rooms’ Kickstarter here.

If you want to see what other games they have available, check out their website.

Micro Macro Crime City | Review

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Micro Macro Crime City Review | MicroMacro: Crime City includes 16 cases for you to solve. Each case includes a number of cards that ask you to find something on the map or uncover where someone has gone or otherwise reveal information relevant to a case. The city map serves as a map in time as well as space, so you’ll typically find people in multiple locations throughout the streets and buildings, and you need to piece together what happened, whether by going through the case card by card or by reading only the starting card in the case and trying to figure out everything that happened for yourself. Will you be able to answer all questions about the case without fail?

Completion Time: ~4 months
Date Played: Early 2022
Party Size: 1 – 3
Difficulty: Easy – Medium

Micro Macro Crime City is, dare I say it, one of the best things I own. It takes pride of place on my board game shelf, I have been playing it non-stop since I received it as a Christmas present in 2021, and it’s the first game I whip out when friends come round for board game night. Sadly, several months later I have now completed the game. The rest of 2022 is looking bleak and crimeless and I’m already wondering what I’ll do with my life post-Micro Macro.

All jokes aside, it’s a fantastic game and I couldn’t wait to flip over the very final card in the very final mission to be able to say I completed the whole thing. It really took me back to days as a kid where my parents would be at fancy dinner parties and I’d be hiding in a corner somewhere with a copy of Where’s Wally. I haven’t felt that kind of joy since becoming an adult.

*sheds a tear*

 

Image (c) Micro Macro

 

About Micro Macro Crime City

So why are we reviewing the game on The Escape Roomer? True, it’s not really an escape room. But it is a deductive detective game absolutely packed with puzzles and we review plenty of those.

The general flow of Micro Macro Crime City is as follows, you open up a case and read the first card in that case. It has a picture of a crime and a short description of what the crime is, for example a murder or a heist, or some other nefarious deed. Essentially, it tells you what you’re looking for and vaguely where to start, such as the Market Place or by the Pier. Once you’ve found what you’re looking for, you head to the next card in the deck and you flip that over to find your next question. For example, “where was the victim before they got killed” and then “who was the victim meeting” and so on and so on. Over the course of a number of cards you slowly retrace back in time and put together the pieces surrounding the case. If you prefer more of a challenge, the game suggests that players only read the first card and instead try to figure out the case for themselves.

Each case takes a comfortable amount of time to solve. The earliest in the game, rated 1 or 2 stars by the game’s internal difficulty rating, are easy and take just a few minutes. The most difficult (5 stars) could take 15 minutes and upwards. Towards the end of the game many of the cases take so many delightful twists and turns I found myself using coins and odd objects around my apartment to mark ‘places’ in the map where significant parts of the case occurred, just to keep track.

Because of the structure of individual cases, it’s very easy to pick up and put down – provided you have a large enough playing area of course (29.5 inches x 43 inches). For me, this made it such a fun past time. If I had a spare half an hour on a Sunday afternoon I’d put the kettle on, make a cup of tea, and play through a case or two. When friends came over I’d whip it out and suggest an earlier case. Even if I’d already played them I’d usually forgotten by that time and could play along again. The game is never too demanding, if you want to complete it in one session you could, or you can pace it out like I did over four whole months.

We’d recommend this game for a maximum of 3 players at a time, this is for a purely functional reason – when too many heads are pouring over the map it’s very easy to bump into one another or block each other’s light. The optimal number is probably 1, but I always prefer to play games with friends. It is also worth double-y mentioning that if the name weren’t a giveaway, the theme is definitely not suitable for children under a certain age. I’m not sure what that age is, I’ll let parents make that choice for themselves, but despite the cartoon characters there’s plenty of murder afoot in this city.

 

 

A Modern Where’s Wally Game

What is most impressive about this game is how it does so much with such a limited amount of materials. The only thing you receive is a large map and a number of cases. Thats it, the rest of the game is up to you. No dice, no turns, just you and your friends pouring over a map trying to spot tiny details. And yet it is so unbelievably fun! The artwork in particular is absolutely fantastic and unbelievably detailed. By now I’m sure I’ve spotted every detail, and yet even writing this review when I glance over the map beside me I notice something new.

Since the whole thing is in white line art, I’m impishly tempted to colour it in. Conversely, unlike many escape games this one is easily playable multiple times – you could keep yours pristine and sell or trade on once you’ve finished.

 

The Verdict

Again, I hate to sound like a broken drum but this game? You just can’t beat it. *ba dum dum tsk*

It’s the most fun I’ve had so far this year and sure, it’s only April, but I’m fairly sure Micro Macro Crime City is going down in my personal hall of fame. I never, ever want to get rid of the box and I’m already planning which of my friends I can buy copies for later in the year. It is worth every single penny. For sure, it was a Christmas gift, but going back to it there’s almost no price too high I would have played for this game and at it’s current retail price (~£20) it’s a steal for the amount of fun you’ll have.

Currently Micro Macro are working on new games including a kids version with a little less murdery undertones. The website also has a number of extra content to tide you over until new releases come out, which can be viewed here.

As a final note, I’ve decided to award this game the special The Escape Roomer Badge of Honour, awarded to games we thought were incredible. For it’s sheer innovation, puzzliness, and literal months worth of fun contained in such a small box, Micro Macro Crime City is something very special and I cannot recommend it enough.

 

If you want to purchase Micro Macro, you can head to their store here.

Hackers: Blood Over Baker Street | Review

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Blood Over Baker Street Review | Sherlock Holmes is missing. You are a group of journalists from The Strand magazine, sent to interview the world’s most famous detective. But you discover the remnants of a scuffle – his usually fastidious Victorian lair is in disarray. But there are clues that something is afoot, a nefarious game that pulls you into the depths of London and beyond. 

 

Date Played: 8th May 2022
Time Taken: ~1 hour
Number of Players: 4
Difficulty: Easy/Medium

 

An Escape Room? Nope… An Adventure Room!

Ok, so, where to begin?! Lets start at the beginning.  The rooms are also located within the same building as a really cool bar and beautifully themed adventure golf course – all run by Hackers. Its safe to say, we were all salivating whilst waiting to check in at reception, given quite how phenomenal this downstairs area looked. Making our way upstairs to the ‘adventure room’ area, we were greeted by an awesomely large waiting room packed with stacks of games to play whilst waiting for your game session. This certainly kept us entertained!

We were also greeted very warmly by our two hosts and first impressions always count so we knew we were in for something special!

Now onto the experience itself…

 

Walking through the first door, the initial area, although simplistic in nature given its Victoria London roots, gives the players just small glimpse of what is to come. Its safe to say, when Hackers themselves bill their rooms as “Adventure” as opposed to ” Escape”, they couldn’t be more honest! This room whets the appetite for adventure like nothing we’ve played before.

Sherlock Holmes has gone missing, and Dr. Watson… Well… He’s been replaced with a robot for reasons made very clear you you in a quirky and light-hearted video at the start. Your first challenge is to work out primary suspect behind Sherlocks disappearance. This was a really novel way of starting any escape room: the normal pressure of time didn’t feel as if it weighed heavy on our shoulders and it gave a nice, steady start into the experience with something for everyone to do in the room.

As ever from me, NO SPOILERS, however, we’d recommend you pay close attention to your briefing from the gamemaster. The way in which you deduct suspects is really clever and although we didn’t make mistakes in our deduction approach, it is very easy to slip up, so pay attention! It’s a clever display of modern technology merged with an exceptional Victorian theme, and expertly done in this first area.

 

But Then… Things Take a Bit of a Dark Turn

This room features a pretty spectacular storyline – so all we can say here is: Expect the unexpected!

Whereas other rooms put their puzzles are the centre of their escape room experience and then build a storyline up around it – Blood Over Baker Street takes the opposite approach. A rich and complex storyline with multiple characters and locations, with each puzzle serving as a mechanic to further the storyline along.

Yep, there are some dark moments (in both theme and atmosphere) but nothing that is there to scare or shock. In fact, my 11 year old came along and there were a few moments where he was a little on edge but nothing that would keep him awake at night!

Again, although we very much wish to stay away from spoilers, perhaps a few of the images from Hackers’ own website will give a sense of that eeriness we encountered…

 

 

Do You Need to be a Detective to Solve this Mystery?!

The short answer…. No!

All the puzzles in this game are short and sharp and won’t push the brain cells to work on overtime. This sits really well with the family approach that Hackers are taking! There is no need for any outside knowledge, if anything there are a number of puzzles in this game which are physical in their nature. With these physical puzzles, it certainly gives everyone there time to shine.

By that train of thought, don’t expect an overwhelming volume of ciphers, combination locks, taxing mathematical equations. Sure, there are a few, but the more physical, tangible style of puzzle takes precedence here. A refreshing break from the norm!

 

An Epic Adventure for the Eyes

Aesthetically, this room is certainly up there as one of the very best. The outstanding combination of attention to detail, lighting, sound effects, and some really inspired room transitions, mean it won’t be one we will forget in a while.

The experience starts in modest style, with a Victorian room as you would expect. Just don’t get too comfortable! As this game carries on, the design just seems to get more and more impressive. Every time we swung open a new door, or got down on our hands and knees to crawl to a new space, inevitably one of us (the first into the new room) would audibly say “Wow!”.

The puzzles also sat brilliantly within theme. Although the storyline definitely takes a few twists and turns and veers off in a direction none of us where expecting, the puzzles sit well within their environment. Not once was there any thinking of “hmm, not sure brightly coloured plastic balls were likely to sit within Sherlocks era”.

Care had really been taken to ensure that everything kept tightly on theme and it felt great!

Something that I found slightly different here to other rooms, is that is does have a very, very linear approach. The opposite would be a multi-faceted approach of giving team the opportunity to work on different puzzles at the same time – this wasn’t the case here. Beyond the first room, it was very much one puzzle after the next, after the next. Although there were a few moments where as a team we were bunched up working on each puzzle together, I actually didn’t mind as it gave me the opportunity to take in the love that had gone into designing this experience and really take stock of the phenomenal detail on show.

 

A Big (and Unexpected) Finale

This experience features no clock at all, so it is really difficult to keep track of time- although there is no actual allocated time to try and escape in. With this in mind there isn’t the normal escape room time pressure, however slowly but surely you could definitely feel some kind of pressure. This mostly came from the storyline ramping up dramatically as we went along. How would it end?! By the final section of Blood Over Baker Street, the tension had increased to a palpable state and clearly the four of us knew it was time to get our game on, and really push on.

Lets just say, discovering the culprit was half the battle, saving Sherlock was a whole-nother game!

 

The Verdict

A beautifully structured game, which, was not only visually stunning, but also had a really strong storyline and varied puzzles which were certainly different to the norm. An experience which would suit the whole family, and one where enthusiasts can get lost in an experience which doesn’t quite fit the normal “escape room” genre.

In terms of accessibility, there are some moments of crawling, and some steps to achieve the full experience. Get in touch with Hackers directly if you have any concerns.

In the worlds of a certain famous detective, booking this experience is elementary my dear Watson!

 

To book this experience, visit the Hackers Billericay website…
Hackers | Adventure Rooms – Escape Rooms – Mini Golf – Billericay, Essex

 

Hackers: The Tomb of the Wandering King | Review

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The Tomb of the Wandering King Review | The find of the century has been uncovered in the depths of Yorkshire – The Tomb of The Wandering King, a mysterious figure, lost to history. But the archaeological team have been silent for weeks. You arrive to find a dig site, long abandoned, and the mouth of the Tomb ajar and aglow. Who – or what – is this Wandering King? And what secrets lie beneath the soil?

Date Played: 8th May 2022
Number of Players: 4
Time Taken: ~1 Hour
Difficulty: Medium

Escape rooms and crazy golf... Not something I’d usually pair together, but after seeing how excellently Hackers has accomplished it, a trend I hope to see more of across the country. Add into the mix a well stocked bar and a fantastically enthusiastic bar-tender who was a dab hand at whipping up martinis for us, and you have a brilliant mix, truly putting Billericay on the map as a destination for a thoroughly fun day out.

On one such beautiful sunny Sunday, myself, Karen, Nick, and Nick’s kid arranged to travel in from our respective corners of ‘The South’ to take on not one but two brand new escape rooms. Not just any old escape room either… Two new creations by Time Run and Spectre and Vox alumnus Nick Moran – what a treat!

For many reasons *gestures vaguely*, this will be a difficult escape room to review, as it’s hard not to reveal too much about the game. But trust me when I say, this is a room you want to go into with absolutely no expectations. Expect the unexpected. Expect “ooohs” and “aaahs“. Expect to have your heart strings tugged at. Expect difficult decisions. Above all, remember that this escape room is all about the journey and not the destination and my God, what a journey.

 

Photo (c) Hackers

 

About The Tomb of the Wandering King

The name of this escape room evokes such strong imagery in my mind… Something between PB Shelley’s Ozymandias poem, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In both cases we, as the audience, are asked the question:

Who, or What is the Wandering King?

This escape room challenges players to find out exactly that. In this way, it’s not your classic “you’re locked in a room and you have 60 minutes to escape.” Actually, quite the opposite. We were never verbally given a time limit and, although we took around an hour to complete it, I didn’t get the sensation of time pressure at any moment at all. We were merely there to investigate and to see where the tides of our investigation might take us.

In this way the focus throughout the experience was less on the puzzles (more about those later) and more on the journey of being there and experiencing the story. The puzzles merely served as triggers to advance the story and uncover new rooms as we ventured along. The strangest thing? I didn’t even mind. Within minutes I was 100% there for the story.

That story! The character development! Ugh, give me more!

 

Photo (c) Hackers

 

I met a traveller from an antique land

The story begins with you, an intrepid team sent to investigate an archaeological dig that has gone unusually quiet. Your mysterious benefactor has a financial interest in the dig, but doesn’t mind if you (or the archaeologists) study what they’ve found first. So long as the profit goes straight to him.

You arrive in the first room to an abandoned dig site. Initially it looked like something out of a vintage ‘camp forest’, complete with it’s log cabin, radio dials on the walls, and soft wood chip flooring. How… Curious! We were alone, yes, but a series of video and audio recordings left behind by one of the archaeologists kindly provided us expositional material and got us started on the journey. Having that anchor to a character along the journey was very helpful, and she was all parts charismatic, determined and brave.

Our mission was simple – retrace the archaeologist’s steps and uncover what she was digging up. You probably know the drill: a mysterious (and very well decorated) tomb entrance with an ancient and cryptic mechanic to get inside it. But here, unfortunately dear readers, is as far as I can go into describing what happens.

You’ll thank me later for not explaining any further, even though I’m dying to.

But what follows is an hour (or more) of following our fearless archaeologists steps, finally making contact, and doing some things that shake the foundations of what we know about, well, *gestures vaguely* all of this. If I weren’t with company, I’d probably have cried a little at the ending.

 

Photo (c) Hackers

 

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay…

In terms of puzzles, individually they were probably the weakest part of the escape room experience. But even take this with a pinch of salt, the real reason I think you should visit this room isn’t for ‘excellent’ puzzles, it’s for pure atmosphere and story. But since this is The Escape Roomer, we’ve gotta mention them.

In our session, our Games Master kindly let us know that there was one puzzle that wasn’t working correctly so they were going to provide a manual override on it. If we hadn’t been told, I don’t think I would have noticed as it was very easy to bypass, but it was nice of her to let us know.

Of those puzzles that were working, we found this room to be a very high tech room. A lot of screens, buttons, and fancy wiring in the back-end. Not a single lock and key in sight. Okay, well maybe just one. But as a whole this is a high tech room. I’m always a little questioning of very high tech rooms as they tend to be the first to break (our own breakage not withstanding), but since we’re one of the first teams to play it I’m not in a position to judge how they’ll hold up long term.

High tech or not, every single puzzle we encountered worked very well within the environment. Nothing immersion breaking, and some really brilliant moments of mimetic puzzle design that were a delight to play.

There were a few puzzles that were definitely open to interpretation, and there were a few more that were needlessly finnicky. At a point sometimes finnicky puzzles are more about luck than about skill, but we got there in the end after much huffing. There were a few ‘sound’ puzzles which didn’t gel well with us as a team – we’re all completely tone deaf and found these to be more frustrating than anything else. Finally, there were a few puzzles that were quite similar to one another in functionality.

Again, take this with a pinch of salt. If you’re like me and viewed the puzzles more as a mechanic to further the story – then you’ll be fine. But it’s worth mentioning as besides a few standout fun ones, we didn’t enjoy the puzzles as much as we might have done.

 

Photo (c) Hackers

 

…Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare…

…And right back to the positives. Starting with the decor. The decor was *dramatic chefs kiss* beautiful.

I genuinely felt like it might be the most pretty and awe inspiring room I’d ever experienced. At least until we stepped into Blood Over Baker Street the next room we had booked at Hackers.

The space was huge and no expense spared to make it look, feel and smell realistic. Every detail perfectly encapsulated the theme of the environment and it was a joy to just physically be there. Can Nick and his team please come round and convert my apartment into a super realistic fantasy world? Please and thank you.

 

Team Escape Roomer!

 

…The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Sometimes on The Escape Roomer, and in life in general, I like to describe escape rooms as like films. Only you play the main character. Thriller, horror, magical? It’s always about you and your quest. 90% of the time it’s an accurate description. But after playing Tomb of the Wandering King with it’s intense level of immersivity I’m going to rethink how liberally I give that description to other escape rooms. Few can hold a candle to the level of storytelling and immersivity in this game. It’s like something else entirely.

If my tone of voice and general gushing weren’t obvious, I cannot recommend Tomb of the Wandering King highly enough. It ticked so many boxes for me personally and I am a big fan. For sure, I think the puzzles brought the overall rating down from a 5 to 4, and if you’re an enthusiast who looks for excellent puzzle design before making a trip then perhaps book yourself into Blood over Baker Street instead. But for me? Tomb of the Wandering King is well worth the trip and goes down in my personal hall of fame.

For this, and many other reasons, I’ve decided to award this escape room the “I Believe” badge, awarded to experiences that had us immersed from start to finish.

In terms of accessibility there were some cramped spaces, low lighting conditions, crawl spaces, objects placed quite high up in various rooms, and sound-based puzzles. For those reasons it’s not the most accessible in the world. That said I’d recommend reaching out to Hackers about your specific accessibility needs if that’s a concern.

In terms of recommendation – we had a young lad (Nick’s son) with us. Whilst I’d love to say it’s a great room for kids, being on the longer and more narrative side it is hard to capture a kid’s attention for that long. It’s also fairly scary with some real moments of threat. So I’ll leave that at individual adults’ discretion, but I personally wouldn’t recommend it for anyone younger than say, 14.

 

The Tomb of the Wandering King can be booked by heading to Hackers’ website here.

Professor Puzzle: Curse of the Dark | Review

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Curse of the Dark Review | Investigate the mystery of a doomed village and its cursed castle in this thrilling escape room game! You couldn’t resist the allure of Mordengraf: a remote mountain village, overshadowed by an imposing Gothic castle and haunted by a spate of mysterious disappearances. Could there be truth in the hushed whispers of a ‘creature’ stalking the area? As you look for answers, your investigation takes a sinister turn. Captured by an unseen force, you must escape the castle’s dungeon or become the creature’s latest victim. But you only have three hours before the creature resumes its hunt.

Completion Time: 3+ hours
Date Played: 6th May 2022
Party Size: 3
Difficulty: Medium

It was only a little while ago that I had the pleasure of playing through Professor Puzzle’s “Danger in the Deep” so when I heard that they had another escape game out but double the length, I jumped at the opportunity. The former is easily one of my favourites of 2022 so far, and I was eager to see how their sequel would perform. It was time to dim the lamps, light some candles, pour some red wine (because of course, vampires), and crack open the game.

The story goes that you, an investigator, receive a mysterious letter from someone known only as “J”. A monster lurks in the castle at the corner of a village and many of the villagers blame the monster for the recent disappearances. Your job is simple: investigate and get to the bottom of the mystery. But before long you find yourself sucked into the castle and soon to become the monster’s next victim. That is, unless you can puzzle your way out!

 

 

How to Play Curse of the Dark

Curse of the Dark is nothing if not very ambitious. Written in large letters on the front of the box is a total play time of “180 minutes” which of course, can (and probably should) be split into two parts at 90 minutes each. Our team of 3-4 players decided that we’d set aside an entire evening to complete the experience. From 6pm on a dark and stormy Saturday evening we sat down to a bottle (okay, maybe two bottles) of red wine, plenty of snacks and spooky music in the background.

180 minutes? Pfft.
We ended up concluding the game with a successful win at around midnight 🤯

This would put the game in more comfortably at 6 hours long, but even I’ll admit that’s a bit silly. The point being is this game, despite the recommendation, be enjoyed at any pace by any sized group and is definitely the most fun when you break it up with wine and snack breaks. So long as your goal is to have fun, you can’t go wrong with Curse of the Dark. So don’t be worried if you take a lot longer than the recommended time.

Where Curse of the Dark differs from *checks notes* pretty much every other escape game I’ve ever played, is it’s fantastic use of space. It’s somewhere between a tile-based, almost “worldbuilding” game with Cluedo, and Unlock! mixed in. As a team of intrepid investigators, you reveal and place new tiles that build up an immense, sprawling castle around your movements as the game progresses. Past the halfway mark and you’ve already strayed into 3D territory with an enormous stained glass window and not one but two brilliant tall towers standing at either edge of the board. Until we flipped each new tile it was impossible to know where our story would take us, but each room was as fantastical as the previous and each twist and turn as exciting as if we were watching a movie.

Visually, this game is gorgeous. Each tile is a top-down view of a specific room, but as mentioned the game occasionally forays into 3D, building up a complete picture of an enormous ‘spooky castle’. I happen to know *taps nose* that each tile was modelled in 3D on a computer and then rendered top-down to create a large but well proportioned environment. The edges of each tile often had an overlap or matched up directly to where the next room was. Only a few times did we need to slide the whole model across because we’d built too close to the edge, but thankfully figuring out how to lay out your castle isn’t one of the puzzles. There’s a handy guide as you go.

 

 

See the Day Turn into Night…

In terms of puzzles, there are 22 in the game, but if that number sounds low I can assure you it is not. Curse of the Dark is big. No, I don’t think you understand. It’s packed with possibly hundreds of pieces, cards, tiles and objects. We found that throughout our experience, objects we’d discovered earlier in the game often didn’t come into play until hours later – resulting in more than a little panicked rummaging throughout the boxes. So a fair warning when we say that this game is big – it’s worth keeping track of what you’ve used and are still to use.

By the end of the game we found that there were a few cards we hadn’t drawn from the deck, but thankfully the game has a very robust clue system to keep you on track if you’re unsure. On only one occasion did we accidentally brute force a puzzle, and only then we realised this because we’d left a card we’d needed to solve the puzzle in the deck without spotting it. This goes to show that the puzzles whilst not too difficult nor too easy, seem well pitched for an enthusiast to comfortably potter through.

Throughout the experience, my favourite puzzles involved anything that was 3D – what can I say? It’s a lot of fun picking up the great big bell tower and pretending you’re King Kong as you push and pull bricks out haphazardly. Other puzzles take you away from the physicality of the game and onto a simple web-based application which worked well, but the bulk of it took place via a system of cards and ’tiles’. As with many games, there were some puzzles we got right away, but plenty more we needed to use hints (a scratch-off system). In each we were looking for a secret hidden symbol to proceed.

 

 

…Through the Darkness, There’s the Light

In terms of the question of age rating and accessibility , Professor Puzzle recommends 14+. In terms of theme, I’m not so sure about that. There’s the odd splatter of blood and an allusion to nefariousness, but it’s ultimately quite a light-hearted, Vampire themed romp and nothing I wouldn’t have loved as a kid. The real question is whether or not somebody is able to sit still for the full 3 hours and remain engaged and interested – so I’ll leave that at the discretion of parents.

There are a few puzzles that involve sound, so someone who is able to hear well is recommended, but I believe it may be possible to solve those with the visuals. Some of the scenes are darker and will involve Similarly there are some moments in the game where colour is referenced, but if I remember correctly, none of the solutions hinge upon being able to identify colours, so it’s also colour-blind friendly.

Unlike previous games in Professor Puzzle’s catalogue, Curse of the Dark comes with a free download of the printable elements of the game. This means that after destroying certain components during your gameplay, you can print them off at the end to reset the game perfectly back to the beginning. In an era of being more environmentally conscious, I commend the creators for making this game not single-use, and encouraging folks to re-gift it on. That said, I won’t be giving up my copy of Curse of the Dark any time soon. Oh no, by contrast I plan to reassemble some of the coolest 3D components and put them on my shelf in pride of place.

 

 

The Verdict

If you can’t tell from my gushing, the verdict is we really did have a great time playing Curse of the Dark. From the fantastically fun puzzles that consistently manage to surprise me, to the beautiful visuals (2D and 3D), to a very spooky vibe that made our board game night perfect. There were a great many “a-ha!” moments, so many I’m sure my co-players got sick of my insisting “wow thats a clever puzzle” by the end of it. For that reason, we’ve chosen to award it our Badge of Honour which is awarded to games that achieve five stars from us across the board, and it’s well deserved too.

For sure it will attract a slightly more niche audience than other games in the Professor Puzzle catalogue coming in at ~3 hours of gameplay. Compared to other ‘escape room in a box’ games you see on the high street, this one is three times the length. But in this way it’s also excellent value for money.

Typically in ‘The Verdict’ I like to recommend who I’d buy this for. The answer for this one is simple: everyone. I could see myself playing this with family members old and young, enthusiasts and newbies alike. I’ve no doubt it’ll be a big hit for Professor Puzzle and can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

A big round of applause from me!

Curse of the Dark can be purchased from major retailers, pre-order it here.