Wednesday, 8 February 2017

New escape room TV show - Geek & Sundry

Hi all

Some of you may know of Geek & Sundry already - they are a website who describe themselves as the "epicentre of gaming and lifestyle for pop culture fans".  They also have a YouTube channel, where they host various geeky shows including the web-series TableTop (with Wil Wheaton), where famous (or more accurately, semi-famous) people sit down and play boardgames and teach you how to play.  It's awesome.  [Side note - my escape room team and I are also avid boardgamers - we have something like 130 games in our collection...]

Geek & Sundry have just started airing a new escape room style show, where celebrities (again, semi-famous celebrities) are placed into a room and need to solve puzzles in order to escape.  

The host seems uber annoying, but it's otherwise fun to watch. 

You can check it out here.  This is the second show of this type that I am aware of - you can see my earlier blog entry on the Race to Escape TV show here.  Still no word on whether there will be a second season of Race to Escape...


Note -  It seems that only the first episode is available at the above website.  To see the rest, you need to get an account with "Alpha" in the USA.  I signed up for a 30 day trial, have watched all of the episodes and will cancel my account within the first 30 days and not be charged anything.  All of the TableTop eps are there too, so I think it's good value.  

Monday, 6 February 2017

Exitus - Shutdown Review

Hi all

My team were invited by Exitus (Strike Bowling) to come and check out their new Shutdown room back when it opened in Melbourne.  We weren’t able to get down there, but I was really pleased to hear that they had opened the same room at Entertainment Quarter in Moore Park late last year. 

We have had some really mixed experiences at the Strike Bowling rooms in the past.  Some of their rooms (Forensic and Butcher’s Burrow) were really strong, well-themed rooms.  However, we weren’t fans of some of their other rooms at all and we have never had great service at any of their venues.  I have made the comment before on this blog that we always felt like the escape rooms were an “add on” to Strike’s main business of alcohol sales.  In our other experiences, we phoned for a hint and nobody picked up the phone, several times we had escaped and the game master had no idea, so we had to line up at the bar and wait our turn before telling them, etc.  The service was poor.  Oh, and there was that one time at Macquarie where the game master spoke to us like we were something she had stepped in – that experience still ranks as my absolute worst escape experience to date.

Despite our earlier experiences at Strike, my team went into this room with an open mind.  After all, this room was designed by Cubescape (rather than Exitus or Strike) and we had never before tried an Artificial Intelligence run room.  These are “next gen” rooms where each experience is different because AI is running the show – it can adapt to each team’s experience levels, provide hints where needed, etc.  It’s also a cool room theme – a company’s AI computer system has been taken offline by a disgruntled employee, so your team is deployed to get the computer back up and running…

We checked out Shutdown in early January 2017.  We were the “lite” version of our usual team (just the 3 of us).  It was a milestone room, my 50th so far.  Here’s what we thought.

On the positive side:

·        the tech in this room is cool.  The theming style reminded me very much of other Strike rooms (in that the quality of the props and general theming is really strong – they have that Hollywood set kind of feel to their props and wall/floor finishes);

·        the puzzles were also interesting and varied.  Many of the puzzles were high tech or computer based puzzles.  There were also some old-school puzzles thrown in for good measure (and a little bit of simple hunt and seek fun); and
·        some aspects of the artificial intelligence running this escape room were cool – like hints that were provided via video.

If the whole room had been at the same quality that we had experienced in the first 15 minutes, then my review would have been much more positive than it unfortunately is.  So, without further delay, here is what I didn’t like in the room:

·        there are flaws in the some of the artificial intelligence aspects of this room.  For example, at one point, we had apparently taken too long to solve a puzzle (we were busily working on other puzzles as guided by the main computer in the room) but suddenly the AI decided we had taken too long and simply released the item.  There was no guidance that we had to prioritise this particular puzzle ahead of others – rather than telling us to work on this puzzle (or giving us a hint in relation to the puzzle), the AI simply released the item and solved the puzzle for us.  This was unnecessary and annoying;

·        sounds and music can really add to the theming and immersion of a room.  However, the sounds and effects in this room were uncomfortably loud at many points (and their volume only seemed to increase throughout the experience).  Throughout this experience, there is dialogue coming from 2 difference sources – at a few points, it was impossible to hear any of the dialogue over the bangs and other loud noises;

·        one puzzle relies on UV/blacklight.  I hate UV/blacklight puzzles – my view (and it’s a widely held view amongst escape room enthusiasts) that UV/blacklight puzzles are used when game designers can’t come up with something better.  There are very few rooms where UV light would suit the theme (maybe a spy room?) but it was so out of place in this room, which prides itself on being high tech;

·        by far the biggest issue was had with this room was the game master (or more correctly, his lack of training).  We were up to the final puzzle, which we solved with about 15 minutes left on the clock and then…..nothing happened.  We got on the phone and asked the game master for some guidance.  He was very vague with his hint.  My other team members called him as well and also asked for a hint and he repeated the same vague hint verbatim.  I even told him “repeating the same words to me isn’t helping”, so he clarified and told us what we needed to do escape and he confirmed that we had the right code for the final door keypad and we should just keep trying it.  So then spent the next 8 minutes trying the code over and over again until the time ran out.  When the game master opened the door, we asked him what was going on and he said that if we try the wrong code too many times, the keypad stops working.  He then told us it was a shame we didn’t escape because we were going so well right up until the end…..

·        fast forward about a week or two, when I give Strike/Exitus my feedback on the room and a manager there gets back to me and explains that the game master had given us a bum steer.  What we thought was the final puzzle was in fact the final puzzle, which should have opened our exit door.  The instructions the game master had told us about finding a code and entering it into the keypad was completely incorrect – it’s not how you exit the room at all.

Needless to say, I was even more annoyed then than I was on the day of our escape.  The game master clearly had no clue as to how players escape the room (not only did he have inadequate training, I would bet any money he has not even tried the room himself).  This is pretty disgraceful, particularly at an outfit which charges up to $165 for this room, which I think makes it about the most expensive room in Sydney (given it’s only a 50 minute experience).    

My feedback to the relevant Strike/Exitus managers was simple – until they get back to basics and have a properly trained, dedicated game master watching players and guiding them through a room, they will continue to provide a lower quality product than the product on offer from many of their competitors.

If you read through escape room Facebook groups and TripAdvisor reviews on Strike/Exitus, there is a clear theme that customers are not happy with the poor level of service that they are consistently receiving from this business.  Strike/Exitus recently changed most of their rooms to use QR codes for hints (where you scan a code in the room and you are given an automatic clue, which is sometimes helpful and sometimes not).  The approach they should have instead taken was to increase the game master interaction with players, rather than effectively removing any interaction entirely.

These guys don’t do the simple things well – until they do, I do not consider them to be a real escape room outfit.  One positive thing I will say is that since trying Shutdown, I have been in contact with 2 managers who have been open to receiving my feedback.  Whether or not they implement changes and listen to their customers remains to be seen…

Where:                   Entertainment Quarter, Moore Park

Duration:               50 minutes

3 different themes

$41.25 each (4 players) (We played at the invitation of Exitus)

Overall Rating:      Really frustrating and disappointing – their service is still lacking

More details:

Sunday, 5 February 2017

The Cipher Room - The Cabin Review

Hi everyone!

Back in early January, I checked out The Cipher Room’s second room, The Cabin.  My usual team of 4 play-tested their Espionage room back in August 2016 just before they opened to the public.  You can read my review of Espionage here.  After having tried and loved Espionage (which I described as the best themed room in Sydney), we went into The Cabin with very high expectations. 

My team this time was the “lite” version of our team, in that we were just a team of 3 (my wife was really bummed not to be able to join us).  This was our 37th room in Sydney and our 49th room in Australia.

The Cabin is a thriller room, where your team play the roles of LAPD officers who get a tip off that a serial killer is hiding out in a cabin in the woods of California.  Armed with your search warrant, you arrive at the cabin in the middle of the night and try to track down the killer and bring him/her to justice.

As always, I’ll start off with what I liked about the room:
  • their website is first rate, as is their location and their style in general.  They have a really cool, curiosity-inducing window display that sets the scene beautifully for what’s to follow.  Their front of house is equally mysterious, old-worldly and charming, as is their hallway that seems to go on forever;
  • the theming in their Espionage room is truly awesome.  But the theming in The Cabin is just off the charts – as escape room enthusiasts, we spent a considerable amount of our time in the room simply admiring the theming and the props.  Within minutes of entering The Cabin, we felt like we were transported to a cabin in the woods and were a million miles away from King Street in Newtown.  The sounds, the lighting, the set decoration and props were all so well-considered and clearly SO much work had gone into not only their design, but the craftsmanship of all of the aspects of this room.  All of these aspects were hand-made by Marise and David themselves, which is incredible.  The Cabin is the best themed room in Sydney hands down in my humble opinion (narrowly beating The Cipher Room's other room, Espionage, which takes second place).  Clearly these guys know what they’re doing);
  • the theming was so good in fact that at one point, we were enjoying the theming so much that we were distracted from the story of the game (and some of my team missed a vital part of the story line);
  • there is a truly great mix of puzzles in this room.  They are all hand-made and there were many puzzles throughout the room that were of a type that we had never seen before (and after 50 rooms, that is getting pretty rare these days).  There is also a really nice mix of low and high-tech puzzles and really cool mechanisms within the room;
  • this is not a children-friendly room – if you are after a great family-friendly room, definitely check out Espionage rather than The Cabin.  The Cabin is definitely eerie and creepy, but there are no “jump scares” at all.  I think we escaped in about 40 minutes or so (and I don’t think we asked for any hints by memory), which puts it towards the more challenging end of the spectrum.  It’s definitely not impossible, but there are certainly some challenging puzzles in this room;
  • owners Marise and David are truly enthusiastic about their business, which shows from the amount of work they have put into it.  They have set out to create a truly immersive experience and this is certainly again the case with The Cabin. 

There's nothing at all to report on the negative side.  

I would describe this room as a pretty challenging room - I suspect most teams might need a hint or two to escape within 60 minutes.  The game masters at The Cipher Room are always at hand to help guide players, so don’t be put off on trying this room if you’re an escape room newb. 

As always, the number one factor that I consider when reviewing a room is how much fun we had.  This room was incredibly fun, but it was more than that – it was a work of art.  There is so much attention to detail in this room – the flow is just right, the variety of puzzles is just right and the craftsmanship is better than any other room we have been to in Australia.  It’s an utterly charming room (which sounds weird for a serial killer themed room, but it’s totally true).

I have no hesitations at all in recommending this room.  I suggest doing both of their rooms back to back – start off with Espionage, maybe grab lunch or dinner in between and then hit The Cabin.  You are going to love them both.   

Where:                        640 King Street, Newtown

Duration:                    60 minutes

Themes:                     2 so far (but 1 other planned)

Cost:                           $152 for 4 adults (but we played at the kind invitation of the owners)

Overall Summary:      Wow.

More details:    

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Social Escape Rooms - Baker Street Mystery Review

Hi all

My team checked out Social Escape Rooms in early January 2017 and we did both their Paris Escape and Baker Street rooms back to back.  You can check out my solo review of Paris here.  

For Baker Street, it was the “lite” version of my usual team (ie just 3 of us, instead of the usual 4).  I wasn’t nearly as nervous going into Baker Street as I was with Paris, mainly because I had other team members with me in Baker Street (and could of course blame them if we didn’t escape in time ;-) 

Baker Street was my 36th room in Sydney and my 48th room in Australia.  As always, I'll start off with what I liked most about Baker Street:

·        the room theme is a nice twist on the traditional Sherlock Holmes room theme.  I won’t go into the detail too much, but you all play the role of Sherlock who is caught up in a murder mystery involving the notorious Baker Street Five.  We all really liked the theme – the intro/briefing to the room and the storyline throughout are really logical and well considered;

·        the theming of this room is really well done.  All of the props work well and are very thematic.  There is a high attention to detail in all of the puzzles and room flow.  As with their Paris room, all of the puzzles worked first time and there was no ambiguity at all as to their solutions.  There was also a good amount of hunt and seek fun;

·        compared with their Paris room, Baker Street is certainly the more difficult of the 2 rooms.  I think Baker Street also has less high tech compared to Paris and relies more on old school, bespoke puzzles (which we really liked and which I think work best for a Sherlock Holmes themed room).  Our team of 3 managed to escape in about 42 minutes, which was the record (but no doubt will be broken soon, if it hasn’t been broken already!).  We found it to be a challenging room but not impossibly difficult, so I think it really would suit beginners through to experienced players;

·        Mark is an excellent game master.  He is really engaging and enthusiastic about his rooms.  He watches players’ every move via camera and can help to guide players through the rooms and to ensure that they have a great time.  His hint system is among the best I have seen – you simply speak and the God-like voice responds over a speaker; and

·        at the end of the escape, we were given a photograph as a souvenir and a really detailed graph which showed how quickly we had solved every single puzzle in the room compared to the average time of all teams to date. This was really cool and it’s something that no other escape room owners provide (that I am aware of).

On the negative side, I really have nothing to report.  There was one puzzle in Baker Street that I was able to brute force (ie solve in a short cut kind of way that wasn’t intended).  This was my fault (I knew what I was doing but couldn’t stop myself).  It was a shame because it meant that we deprived ourselves of experiencing a really cool puzzle reveal.  I had a chat with Mark about this and he’s going to slightly change the puzzle (if he hasn’t already) to ensure that other competitive players like me won’t brute force their way through. 

As always, the main determining factor in how I review a room is the enjoyment factor.  We had a heap of fun with this room.  It was really engaging and there were a number of puzzles that we had never seen before (which is getting rarer and rarer these days). 

I’d recommend this room to all group types, newer players and experienced players alike.  It’s also one of the few rooms in Sydney that is not scary at all and is therefore suitable for families too.

Where:                   Level 1, 62 Wyndham Street, Alexandria

Duration:               60 minutes

2 different themes (but 8 rooms planned in total)

$31 to $36 each (for 4 players, depending on time of week) (We played at the kind invitation of the owner)

Overall Rating:      Well-themed, fun, family-friendly and challenging room for all levels

More details:

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Social Escape Rooms - Paris Review (this time as a spectator)

Hi all

This review is a little different to my recent review of Paris at Social Escape in that this time, I was sitting in (or next to) the game master’s seat rather than as a player.  For my review of this room as a player, click here.

Moments after I finished my solo escape from Paris, 2 members of my usual team set out to escape from Paris.  This was the second time that I have sat on the other side and watched people escape from a room.  It was a very cool experience and it gave me a really interesting insight into the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes to ensure a great escape experience for players. 

So, here are my thoughts from the experience:

·        we started by resetting the room after my solo escape.  Mark showed me his Paris room “bible” which went on for several pages and showed precisely the steps needed to properly reset the room.  It took us maybe 10 to 15 minutes to reset the room and to double check everything – we were chatting as we did it, but I learned it is a process that takes time and attention to detail;

·        on that note, I buggered up and didn’t close a suitcase padlock properly.  I was concentrating and doing it slowly, but I still stuffed it up (thankfully, it was one of the easier puzzles so I didn’t give my team too much of a freebie).  Again, I learned that resetting a room is not straight-forward and it can’t be rushed;

·        while we were watching and listening to my friends escaping from the room, Mark showed me his very cool excel spreadsheet that he has designed which sets out every single puzzle aspect in the room.  Each time players locate a puzzle piece or solve a puzzle, Mark clicks his mouse and his spreadsheet records the time and tells him how the current players are tracking compared to average teams.  This is a really important tool because it lets Mark know when he might need to step in to provide some nudges or hints.  This system is incredibly accurate, but it ensures that the game master has to watch your every move, which from a player’s perspective is exactly what you’d like;

·        this data is also used by Mark at the end of the game to provide players with a print out of how they went compared to average teams, on a puzzle by puzzle basis.  It’s incredibly detailed and very cool;

·        I know my team members very well and I know their strengths and weaknesses in escape rooms (just as they know mine).  I was really surprised because at the start of their game, I picked that there would be certain hidden items they wouldn’t find and others they would find immediately – and I was totally wrong.  They attempted puzzles in a really different way than I had done.  Things that I needed a hint to find they managed to find literally within seconds of entering the room, whereas other items I had found took them some time to locate.  So from an owner’s point of view, I can appreciate how cool it is to see how different teams tackle your room – everyone does it differently; and

·        when Mark and I noticed that my friends hadn’t found a particular hidden item, it was really interesting that Mark could then project forward and know which knock on puzzles they would be delayed by as a result of not having found the hidden item.  I also learned how INCREDIBLY frustrating it is to know puzzle answers or where hidden items are but to see teams struggle.

Over all, this experience again showed me the true importance of having dedicated game masters for each room.  Playing escape rooms is not a cheap exercise and according, we players expect to have a fun experience with a dedicated game master ensuring that we have that fun experience. 

Thankfully, Social Escape Rooms are one of those great outfits in Sydney that put the customer experience as their priority.  And accordingly, Mark is bound to be successful. 

Where:                   Level 1, 62 Wyndham Street, Alexandria

Duration:               60 minutes

2 different themes (but 8 rooms planned in total)

$31 to $36 each (for 4 players, depending on time of week) (We played at the kind invitation of the owner)

Overall Rating:      Awesome, family friendly fun for all group types

More details:

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Ask the Experts - International Escape Room Article

Hi all

A little while back, Matt Silver from Escape Room Addict asked me if I'd be interested in representing the Australian section in an online international "ask the experts" article on escape rooms.  I of course said yes.

If you're interested, you can read my part of the article series here.  And the other countries' sections are here, here and here.


Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Social Escape Rooms Sydney - Paris Review (as a player)

Hi all

My team and I finally managed to get around to checking out Social Escape Rooms in early January 2017.  I had been trying for a few months to get there and was really pleased to be able to find a time that suited my team over the summer break.

Mark Anton is the owner of Social Escape Rooms Sydney, a software developer turned escape room owner.  He was an awesome host and game master for the morning while the "lite" version of my usual team (just the 3 of us) tried out his rooms.  He was also kind enough to let me try out Paris by myself as a solo player and then allowed me to sit beside him as game master as the rest of my team tried Paris. 

Paris was my 35th room in Sydney and my 47th room in Australia so far.  As always, I'll start off with what I liked most about Paris:

·        what struck me first off with Paris is what a novel room theme it is.  No doubt many of you have tried at least a few escape rooms where you are trying to solve a mystery, or trying to escape before a vicious murderer is coming back for you, etc.  And those room themes are certainly fun, but Paris is a little different – instead, you are holidaying in Paris and have lost your airline tickets and passport somewhere in your hotel room and only have one hour until your flight;

·        something else that was a first for me was that I was genuinely nervous going into this room.  In all 46 previous escape rooms I have tried, I have been excited but never nervous.  When Mark first contacted me about his rooms, he mentioned that Paris has been designed so that it can be played by solo players.  This is also very novel, as I’m not aware of any other rooms in Australia that have been designed specifically for solo players;

·        the solo element was awesome.  Normally, when I play escape rooms with my team, we each know each other’s strengths (eg who is good at maths and logic puzzles, who is good at visual puzzles, etc) and therefore typically I will pass puzzles onto the best person to solve them.  That wasn’t an option in my solo game in Paris, so I was forced to solve them all myself.  And I found that incredibly rewarding, although it did make me nervous going in;

·        the theming of this room is really well done – there is a high level of detail that has been applied to the room theme.  All of the props make sense in the space and they are of a high quality.  All of the puzzles worked first time and there was no ambiguity at all as to their solutions;

·        there is a nice mix of high tech puzzles and low tech puzzles in this room, with many of the high tech elements completely hidden (as they should be).  There is also a really good mix of hunt and seek fun;

·        I would describe Paris as an easy to medium difficulty room.  It is one of the very few rooms in Sydney that I can (and will) recommend to first timers and experienced players alike.  It also has the major benefit of being kid friendly – not only is the theme appropriate for younger children, kids could definitely join in and help solve each of the puzzles in the room;

·        Mark was an excellent game master.  He watched my every move and was available when I needed a nudge in the right direction.  His hint system is among the best I have seen – you simply speak and the God-like voice responds over a speaker.  Mark tracks your every move and at any given point in time, he knows how you are tracking and whether you need a hint to ensure you escape on time; and

·        at the end of the escape, I was given a photograph as a souvenir and a really detailed graph which showed how quickly I had solved every single puzzle in the room compared to the average time of all teams to date. This was really cool and it’s something that no other escape room owners provide (that I am aware of).

On the negative side, I really have nothing to report.  There are a few minor tweaks I have suggested to Mark of ways to slightly improve this puzzle or that, but Paris is a really fantastic room with a unique theme.

As always, the main determining factor in how I review a room is the enjoyment factor.  I had a heap of fun with this room (and so did my friends when they tried this room after me – look out for my separate review as to what it was like watching my friends play this room). 

I’d recommend this room to all group types, particularly families and newer players.  That being said, I think this room is still pretty challenging for teams of 2 (there are a heap of puzzles to solve in this room).  I can also personally recommend this room to more experienced players as a solo player.

Where:                   Level 1, 62 Wyndham Street, Alexandria

Duration:               60 minutes

2 different themes (but 8 rooms planned in total)

$31 to $36 each (for 4 players, depending on time of week) (I played at the kind invitation of the owner)

Overall Rating:      Awesome, family friendly fun suited to all group types

More details: