Sunday, 18 February 2018

The Cipher Room - Review of The Marlowe Hotel

Hi all

Finally, I'm writing my review of The Marlowe Hotel by The Cipher Room!  Marise and David kindly invited my team to check out their much-anticipated third room back when it opened in late November.  It took me two months to make it happen and we finally got there in mid January 2018.  [Special thanks to Suzanne and Jim for babysitting our girls in the 40 degree heat while we escaped this room!] 

You can read my reviews of The Cipher Room's other rooms, Espionage and The Cabin, here and here.

Before I jump into telling you all about this room, I'll first set out the room summary for The Marlowe Hotel from their website:

Step into your own black and white, film noir adventure! You are a private investigator in 1950's New York. One day you receive a letter from Betty McGee - a singer at the notorious Marlowe Hotel. She informs you that the gangster kingpin and hotel owner, Eddie Marlowe, is trying to blackmail her with incriminating material. She needs you to break in and retrieve the documents. You know Eddie is bad news, but you agree to take the case.
What secrets await you inside the hotel? How will you locate the photos? What do you really know about Eddie Marlowe? 

The Marlowe Hotel was our 71st  room in Australia (and our 58th room in Sydney). 

And now for what I liked about The Marlowe Hotel:

  • everything.
I could end the review here but I suspect you might be curious and want some more details.

Ok that's fair, so here goes:
  • I have not found an escape room in the country that has better craftmanship than at The Cipher Room.  This was certainly true of their Espionage and The Cabin rooms but The Marlowe Hotel is just off the charts.  It took Marise and David a long time to put this latest room together - the level of detail in every space shows why;
  • I don't think I'm giving any spoilers when I reveal that The Marlowe Hotel is a purely black, white and grey room.  As part of the film noir theme, players are placed into their own black and white adventure.  In fact, The Cipher Room recommends that players wear black/white/grey clothing to this room to really add to the immersion.  As suggested, my team came dressed appropriately;
  • when we opened our eyes at the beginning of The Marlowe Hotel, we were all amazed at what we saw.  My team had been to around 70 rooms at the time and there aren't too many things in escape rooms these days that make us stop and say wow.  But this room did.  It is hard to describe, but it was as though we were in a room from which someone had sucked all of the colour.  It was truly mesmerising - not only were we transported to another place and time, it was almost like our eyes were deceiving us given the lack of any colour;
  • the puzzles in the Marlowe Hotel were all fantastic.  They were primarily low tech puzzles as well as a little tech mainly used on hidden lock mechanisms that resulted in doors magically opening.  The puzzles were all do-able but challenging.  And consider this - if you were a puzzle designer about to design puzzles for a room, imagine your client telling you that you can only use black, white and shades of grey (and no other colours).  Think of how limiting that is from a design point of view - how many puzzles have you tried in an escape room that would work without colour?  Not only has The Cipher Room provided a full room of puzzles, they are all really varied and interesting, and they embrace the colour limitations;
  • as always with The Cipher Room's rooms, the backstory to the room makes sense and is quite layered (and fun);
  • my team escaped in record time (although the record has probably been broken again in the past month since we were there).  But I didn't feel like we were rushing at a mad pace - the puzzles were all logical and after doing 2 other rooms at The Cipher Room, I think we are now in synch with the room designer :-)  My team is also pretty strong at dividing and conquering (we split up and play to our strengths rather than all working on one puzzle together at a time).  We also stopped a few times just to admire the quality of the theming in each of the spaces and the puzzle design;
  • Marise and David design their own rooms from scratch and then they build them themselves from scratch.  The quality on all fronts is unmatched in the market - it is truly amazing (particularly given that they have young children, David has a full time "day job" and that they had 2 other escape rooms running throughout the design and build phases of Marlowe).  I have figured out their secret - they mustn't sleep!; and  
  • as always, Marise took us through the room after we escaped and explained all of the puzzles, the room flow, design aspects, easter eggs, etc.  It is a really nice touch to have the game designer personally explain how the puzzles came to be, where they sourced different materials from, etc.  

I adored this room - it is truly magical and another work of art from The Cipher Room.  At the time of writing this review, I have now been to 90 rooms around Australia.  Marlowe Hotel is my favourite of any room I have been to in Australia.  All of my team mates also agreed that Marlowe is their favourite room to date too.  

As I said to Marise at the end of our time in The Marlowe Hotel, I was really genuinely sad that it had to end - not only that we had finished Marlowe, but that in finishing Marlowe, we were finishing the third of the 3 rooms that The Cipher Room has on offer. 

I don't think I can give any higher praise than that.  

Where:                        640 King Street, Newtown

Duration:                    60 minutes

Themes:                     3 (so far...)

Cost:                           $156 for 4 adults (but we played at the kind invitation of the owners)

Overall Summary:      My favourite room in Australia (of 90 tried to date).

More details:    

Sunday, 11 February 2018

The Cipher Room - The Cabin (from a game master's perspective)

Hi everyone

The "lite" 3 person version of my team checked out The Cabin back in early January 2017 at The Cipher Room in Newtown.  I absolutely loved the room - it was so well themed and the puzzles were really varied and interesting.  It was an artwork.  You can read my review of The Cabin here.  

Almost exactly a year later, my wife (who couldn't come the first time around) came back to check out The Cabin for herself with friends.  I had told her that I thought The Cabin was the most immersive room in Sydney so she REALLY wanted to see it for herself.

Marise, one of the owners of The Cabin, was kind enough to let me come back and watch my wife's team from the game master's perspective.  Actually, my friend Nic (one of my escape room team members) and I both were able to check out how they went.  

We had Shahmen and Marise as our game masters, who showed us how The Cipher Room's game masters roll...

We were given an iPad and given that there were no other teams at the time waiting in reception, we sat in reception during The Cabin experience.  The Cipher Room use a voice of God system so that if players need help, they simply need to speak and then game masters can respond.  Alternatively, game masters can jump in if they feel that teams need help.

One of the trickiest aspects of being a game master I think is in how and when to give clues.  Some players are very stubborn about not wanting to receive any clues, whereas others are happy to be fed clues the whole way.  The Cipher Room accommodates this really well by firstly getting a feel from players upfront as to whether they want clues, and then secondly if a clue is needed, the game master will ask players if they would like a hint.  This therefore enables players to make a decision about receiving a clue, rather than simply being given one whether they like it or not.

I have sat in the seat of a game master a few times now. It's a really different experience to that of a player.  It has also been a year since I played The Cabin myself, but I was surprised at how many puzzles I remembered (as well as almost all of the room flow).  

The AV system used on the iPad was really cool.  It had 4 high definition video feeds that we could zoom in on and hear the audio of each space.  This allowed us to track players easily and to listen to their reasoning with various puzzles.  We found ourselves cheering at some points and at other times, I was trying to get into the players' minds and guess which puzzles they would breeze through or get stuck on.

I absolutely loved The Cabin when I tried it.  One of the nicest aspects of watching my wife's team do this room was that I got to enjoy The Cabin a second time, albeit in a slightly different way.  When my wife's team escaped, Marise kindly allowed us to be on the other side of the exit door to congratulate the team on their escape.  I then took the opportunity to walk back through the room and once again marvel at the quality of theming and workmanship.  I also got to listen to Marise walk through each of the puzzles, easter eggs, etc.  

I really enjoyed this experience from the other side watching a team escape from The Cabin, which is still one of the very best rooms in the country.  

And for the record, my wife was very pleased that she finally checked out The Cabin.  She agreed that it was the best themed room she had done in Australia (and she has done about 60 rooms at that point).  

Spoiler alert - about 30 minutes later we checked out The Marlowe Hotel at The Cipher Room, this time with all 4 of our usual team members.  I didn't think we would find a room better than The Cabin in Sydney but I was proven wrong.  

We now have a new favourite :-)  Review to follow shortly.

Where:                        640 King Street, Newtown

Duration:                    60 minutes

Themes:                     3 so far

Cost:                           $156 for 4 adults (but my wife's team played at the kind invitation of the owners)

Overall Summary:      A year later, this room is still "wow".  

More details:    

Monday, 5 February 2018

Xcape Sydney - Review of Ching Chiu Palace

Hi there

Ching Chiu Palace was the fifth and final room we tried at Xcape during a single day when we tried 5 of their rooms back to back in December 2017.

The room summary for Ching Chiu Palace is as follows, taken from Xcape's website:

Hidden deep within the holy mountains of Qingqiu, hides the ancient tombs of those who ruled over the Qingqiu palace over more than 5000 years ago in ancient China. Partake in the role of a tomb raider to unravel the secrets within the ancient tombs. Be wary though as the ghosts of those who failed before you shall stalk your every movement. Raid the tomb before others get to it first, a race against time. Only those who dare will reap the profits and escape triumphant.

We were a 3 person team.  Ching Chiu Palace was our 70th room in Australia (and our 57th room in Sydney). 

So, here's what I liked about Ching Chiu Palace at Xcape:
  • again, like most of their rooms, the production value of Ching Chiu Palace was very high.  Some parts of this room are like a movie set;
  • there are some aspects of this room that we had never seen in an escape room before;
  • as with all of their other rooms, there is a lot of tech in this room (and it all suits the theme pretty well);
  • there is one particular puzzle in this room that from a design point of view, I really liked.  It was truly novel and very well done.

Unfortunately, there were a a lot of things in Xcape's Magic Painting room that I did not enjoy:
  • there are some real safety concerns in this room.  There is one particular section that is really cool but my friend nearly lost a finger.  There are also sections of concrete (both above your head and below your knees) that need to be covered in something soft to protect players' heads/knees.  And as a general comment, there are sections of Ching Chiu Palace that I have concerns about from an evacuation point of view - in the event of a fire, I'm not sure how players could easily (and quickly) escape;
  • a pretty major concern I have with this room is that I think it is really only suited to Chinese players (rather than English players).  English players are provided with a scroll which is supposed to help players with deciphering chinese characters throughout the room.  However, many of the Chinese characters in the room are "old" or traditional characters, which are not exactly the same as the new Chinese characters in the scroll.  In my view, this made it impossible to decipher.  It wasn't helped by the fact that there are props with Chinese characters on them that are very poorly lit;
  • we had a number of technical issues in this room.  There were 3 different puzzles that did not work as they were intended to work (and we needed the game master to enter the room to help us).  Part of the problem related to the Chinese characters, but other issues were technical issues.  I know we were beta testing this room, but there was one puzzle that contained a pretty major error (which the owner said he would get fixed);
  • this room is very expensive at up to $60pp.  It is also an 80 minute room, but despite having a number of technical issues and other problems deciphering Chinese characters, we still escaped with a lot of time left over.  

Overall, this was my least favourite room at Xcape.  Many puzzles were just frustrating because we couldn't decipher Chinese characters.  Some of the tech was cool but at times pretty illogical.  The production value was high - many aspects were like a movie set, but this wasn't enough to overcome the various other issues.

Where:                   18 Queen Street, Chippendale 

Duration:               80 minutes

6 currently

$50pp (or $60pp on weekends/evenings) (but we played at the kind invitation of Xcape)

Overall Rating:       High tech but only suited to players who can read Chinese characters

More details:

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Xcape Sydney - Review of Magic Painting

Hi there

Magic Painting was the fourth room we tried at Xcape during a single day when we tried 5 of their rooms back to back in December 2017.

The room summary for Magic Painting is as follows, taken from Xcape's website:

Returning to your home, the kingdom of mist. You and your group of comrades have raised suspicions as mysterious things have happened since you’ve been away. People are behaving weirdly, a sense of witchery and black energy surround the kingdom and its populace and the sudden disappearance of the King and Queen have raised alarmed bells. Suspicions point to the King’s most loyal henchman who has a love for witchery and black magic. You take on the role as Prince Ryan and now the Kingdom crown is under threat, you seek to reclaim what is rightfully yours and investigate the sudden happenings. But be wary, sometimes those who you trust most will often scheme your downfall.

We were a 3 person team.  Magic Painting was our 69th room in Australia (and our 56th room in Sydney). 

So, here's what I thought of Magic Painting at Xcape:
  • this was one of my favourite rooms at Xcape;
  • there are some aspects of this room that we had never seen in an escape room before;
  • as with all of their other rooms, there is a lot of tech in this room (and it all suits the theme pretty well);
  • again, the production quality of the room is very strong.  I think the theming is also pretty strong;
  • there is a nice storyline to this room (and there's more I'd like to go into on this, but can't without giving spoilers).

There were a few things in Xcape's Magic Painting room that I think could be improved:
  • there are some safety concerns that my team members had with one particular aspect of this room.  I'm not sure whether this would pass a WH&S test to be honest;
  • there is one high tech puzzle that is pretty cool, but it is not 100% clear on how you need to solve it.  We eventually figured it out but there was a little bit of a logic jump to get there;
  • this is an 80 minute room but we were out in less than half of that time.  I therefore think that this room should either be changed to a 60 minute time limit or about 3 or 4 additional puzzles included to warrant an 80 minute time limit.  Also, at a cost of up to $60pp, this is a very expensive room.

Overall, I think this was my second favourite room at Xcape.

I liked many aspects of the room.  This room would definitely appeal to those players who love high tech rooms.  Xcape's rooms remind me a lot of Mission Sydney's rooms - they are high production value and full of high tech.  I don't think I saw a single padlock in any of their rooms.

At the time of writing this review I have now done 90 rooms.  I have come to enjoy totally immersive rooms with clever puzzles and theming.  I like high tech but equally, I enjoy low tech rooms provided that the theming is there.  I don't think any of the rooms at Xcape are at the same level as several other Sydney rooms when it comes to level of immersion.  However, Magic Painting is one of Xcape's better rooms.

Where:                   18 Queen Street, Chippendale 

Duration:               80 minutes

6 currently

$50pp (or $60pp on weekends/evenings) (but we played at the kind invitation of Xcape)

Overall Rating:       A room suited to those who love high tech.

More details: