Sunday, 20 October 2019

Sydney Fringe Festival - Lilies & Dust Review

Hi all

I learned (thanks Marise!) about a pop-up interactive escape room experience that was coming to Sydney as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival, called Lilies & Dust.  I booked within about 15 minutes of hearing about it.  Although I have had mixed experiences with interactive experiences before, 2 of my all-time favourite interactive experiences to date were pop-up rooms (Art Heist and Monroe & Associates), so I jumped on the tickets.  And I’m glad I did, because the tickets were all snapped up pretty quickly.

From their website, the summary for Lilies & Dust is as follows:

Alas, your dear sweet cat is dead.
Or perchance, you’ve been misled?

Death, The Grim Reaper themself, contacts you offering a curious wager: if you and three courageous mortal allies can find your way to Death’s doorstep, you may try to win your unlucky feline back while its nine lives still hang in the balance.

But your team will have to work quickly to decipher the many curious puzzles and strange riddles set before you, combining clues and cracking padlocks swiftly to find the crucial nine keys. With only 47 minutes counting down and Death hovering smugly, the challenge won’t be easy. Time is ticking and Death won’t wait, are you quick enough to change your poor cat’s fate?

I didn’t realise it at the time, but (I think) this was not the first time that my team had been in the company of the artist who created Lilies & Dust.  The artist, who goes by the name of Seymour Nixen, was our game master (and live actor) at Second Telling Missions at Newtown.  She was our hilarious German guard at Second Telling Missions.  This time around, she played Death (well, at least I think it was her, but I never did get to see Death’s face).  I am sure that she was at least the writer of the show, but I suspect she was also our actor for the evening. 

We were our usual 4 team of players at Lilies & Dust, which was our 129th escape room (or escape room-like experience) in Australia and our 84th in Sydney.

Here’s what I thought:
·         the theming was really well done.  Although it was only a temporary room, the space was fantastic and the room was completely carried by Death herself and the quality of puzzles and props;
·         I have learned from my previous interactive experiences that by far the most enjoyable moments come from interacting with the live actors.  For example, I will never forget:
    • a moment in Art Heist where my team of 4 (including my wife who had a 6 month old baby hanging from her on a baby carrier) were all “hiding” under a tiny table trying to avoid being detected by security guards, whilst laughing uncontrollably because only our heads would fit under the table;
    • the time (also in Art Heist) where I bribed a security guard to look the other way; and
    • a moment in Monroe & Associates where the live actor and I took turns yelling abuse at each other;
·         those moments were so much fun and more enjoyable than the best-designed puzzle that I have seen in any escape room to date.  Live actors in a room can completely ruin an experience, but equally they can completely make the experience too;
·         I am really pleased to report that our game master was fantastic.  Death was a dry-witted and seemed to spend the whole hour barely tolerating our presence;
·         my favourite moment by far in Lilies & Dust was when I dressed up like a cat and did my best cat impersonation.  I think I caught Death off guard when I started pawing at her robes like a kitten, which I am very proud to report made Death break character and chuckle, which made the entire experience for me ;-)
·         the experience had a really nice mix of puzzles.  The puzzles were a mixture of pretty simple puzzles and a few tricky puzzles.  My experienced team was not at all bored by the puzzles and we found a couple of them pretty challenging.  There was no tech at all in the room (that I can remember), but I didn’t miss the tech at all;
·         the experience was INCREDIBLY cheap for what it was.  At only $82 per team, it was about half the price of a typical escape room.  I assume it was subsidised by Sydney Council as part of the Sydney Fringe; and
·         Lilies and Dust has a really strong storyline that was very well told by Death.  Death was not a pushy game master.  She assisted when prompted and pretty much waited for us to interact with her.
We utterly enjoyed our time at Lilies & Dust.  The space was incredible and the puzzles were really fun to solve.  But by far the best element was the interaction with our actor. 

As always, the best measure of a great room was whether my team enjoyed it.  We absolutely did – it was a fantastic pop-up, interactive experience.

Where:                        The Rockery, 47 George Street, Sydney

Duration:                     75 minutes

Themes:                      1 theme

Cost:                           Price:                           $82 per team

Overall Rating:            So. Much. Fun.

More details:     

Thursday, 17 October 2019

D.A.S.H 11 - Puzzle Hunt 2019

Hey everyone

This is a little bit of a different review from the usual reviews on my blog.  This time, I am reviewing D.A.S.H. 11, which is described as a fun, interactive event where teams of players race to find and solve creative puzzles hidden in different locations in cities all over the world. 

D.A.S.H is an acronym which stands for “Different Area, Same Hunt”.  However, each year, the “DASH” letters are repurposed for that year’s event.  This year, which was D.A.S.H. 11: Diagnose, Assemble, Shrink, Heal.  Each team was a group of doctors/scientists who were shrunk down to a microscopic size and then sent through the patient’s body to try and heal them.

I first heard about DASH months ago (thanks Fay Lee) and then it fell off of my radar.  Only a week before DASH, I contacted Craig Whitmore (a fellow escape room enthusiast) and I was lucky enough to join his team for the day. 

D.A.S.H 11 was my 128th escape room (or escape room-like experience) to date, my 83rd based in Sydney.  Here is what I thought of D.A.S.H. 11:
·         our team members for the day were Craig, Philip, Joanna, Dale and me.  I had met Philip previously in Melbourne and had corresponded but never met Craig in person;
·         it was fun playing with people I had never played an escape room with before.  I am used to playing with the same 3 people in escape rooms (we have played over 100 rooms together), so it was a nice change to play with different people;
·         the hunt had us walking about 5km in total I think, from the Opera House where we all started, around Circular Quay and Dawes Point and then to the Botanic Gardens for the final puzzle.  It was a fun but really tiring day.  We started at about 8am and we didn’t finish until around 5pm, during which time we stopped briefly for lunch;
·         D.A.S.H. can be played at either an expert or normal level – we played at the expert level, which meant that we were provided with a lot less clues than those playing the normal level;
·         D.A.S.H. uses an app called ClueKeeper, which players use for hints and to submit answers.  This was my first attempt at a D.A.S.H style puzzle hunt and the biggest tip I learned is that when you have a partial answer to a puzzle, you should submit it in the hopes that you will get some further guidance at that point.  There were a couple of occasions where if we had submitted our partial solutions, we would have saved a lot of time;
·         overall, the puzzles throughout the hunt varied from great to very average.  Some of the puzzles I really did not enjoy – there weren’t elegant or well-designed unfortunately.  Other puzzles were much stronger and were therefore much more satisfying;
·         the final meta puzzle was really nicely done.  It brought all of the previous puzzles together in a really nice way; and
·         our team came in 306th place internationally based on our time (out of 380 expert teams) – to be honest I was happy to just finish my first puzzle hunt, so I was happy with how our team did.
I really enjoyed the D.A.S.H. 11 experience.  I am hoping to check them out again next year, but next time I will have a little more experience under my belt (and I will pack more sugar, caffeine and nurofen).  I’m really glad that they run the hunt in September, which is a great time of year in Australia to be running around the city for hours on end.  It was also really nice to meet other puzzle enthusiasts (including a few who have read my reviews here on my blog).
A special thanks again to my fellow team members and to Craig for organising our team!
Where:                        Sydney CBD (but also played around the world)
Duration:                     Anywhere from 6 to 9 hours

Cost:                            Price:                          $93AUD per team (max. 5 people to a team)

Overall Rating:            A fun (but very long) day with puzzles of varying quality

More details:     

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Escape Room Oz Sunshine Coast - Room Reviews

Hi everyone

My wife and I recently took our daughters on a short trip to the Sunshine Coast.  I asked around on escape room enthusiast Facebook groups for some room recommendations (thanks Craig and Keziah) and we ended up checking out 3 rooms at Escape Room Oz at Caloundra. 

Escape Room Oz has rooms at Caloundra and Mooloolaba, for a total of 6 rooms.  We went to the Caloundra premises and tried 3 rooms back to back (with a short dinner break).  This time we were a team of 3 – my wife and I (both experienced) and my mother in law who had only been to a couple of rooms previously.

The 3 rooms that we checked out were Time Traveller’s Room, The Conspiracy Room and Outback Hell.  They were our 125th, 126th and 127th rooms to date (and our 2nd, 3rd and 4th rooms in Queensland, after having previously checked out a Cairns room).

Here is what we thought of the Escape Room Oz rooms:
·         the standout room for me was the Time Traveller’s Room.  It was head and shoulders above the other 2 rooms for me.  There was a nice level of tech in The Time Traveller’s Room, there was a really nice mix of puzzle solving and hunt and seek fun, the puzzles were interesting and challenging and the theming was pretty good.  Our team also managed to grab the record, which surprised me (given we were the “lite” version of our normal team);
·         the next best room that we tried there was Outback Hell.  Whilst there were no “wow” moments or standout puzzles, I think Outback Hell was a solid room with a reasonable mix of puzzles; and
·         my least favourite room at Escape Room Oz at Caloundra was The Conspiracy Room.  The puzzles didn’t make a lot of sense to us (even when explained), the room did not have a good flow and our game master was not able to properly explain the puzzles (which is always disappointing).  To his credit, the owner Darren refunded our money for this room.
Overall, we enjoyed our time at Escape Room Oz.  Based on the 3 rooms that we did there, I would describe the rooms as being about in the middle of the pack for escape rooms in terms of design, puzzles and theming (as compared against the other rooms I have been to in Australia).  If you only get the chance to check out one of their rooms, definitely to with Time Traveller’s room.

Where:                        Shop 10a, 51-55 Bulcock Street, Caloundra 4551

Duration:                     60 minutes

Themes:                      6 themes

Cost:                           Price:                           $42pp (depending on team size)

Overall Rating:            The Time Traveller’s Room is the pick of the bunch

More details:     

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Mazescape - The Island review

Hi all

I had learned from an escape room enthusiast Facebook group that Maze Escape Rooms had opened rooms in Sydney.  I reached out to the owners and Billy, one of the owners, invited us along to check out one of their 3 rooms, called The Island.

We checked out The Island in late July 2019.  The building is a graffiti-covered, not well sign-posted, poorly lit maze of hallways (which I really liked, but I could see some customers being a little freaked out by).  When we arrived, we met the owners and had a chat with them about their rooms and their business.  I had initially asked to try their Poseidon’s Treasure room, but it was undergoing renovations at the time that we visited.

The summary of The Island (from their website) is below:

This is your captain speaking we are now experiencing some extreme turbulence…

You hear a sudden gust of wind and your flight is forced to land on a mysterious island.  You discover a secret government operation.  What could possibly happen?

Work together to escape the wreckage but be careful on who you can trust; the government is watching.

The Island was our 124th room to date (our 81st room in Sydney).  Here is what I thought of The Island:
·         the puzzles were interesting and at times pretty tricky.  There was an interesting mix of hunt and seek fun and puzzle solving;
·         something unique to The Island is that each character is given a role to play.  Prior to commencing the room, each player is handed a passport with their background details and information about their secret objective (with each player having different objectives).  More about my thoughts on this at the end of this review;
·         the theming was pretty well done – I would describe the theming in The Island as being at about slightly above the middle of the pack these days;
·         I personally liked the room theme;
·         The Island has a mix of high and low tech puzzles.  Some of the puzzle elements were quite cheaply made (made of paper, etc) but they served their purpose well; and
·         they utilise walkie-talkies in their rooms for communications.  Although not as good as the voice of God system that is quickly becoming the industry standard, it worked well.
We enjoyed The Island.  The biggest issue for me though was the special individual objectives that each player had.  It is really difficult to properly explain what I mean by this without giving away spoilers, but I will do my best.  A real issue for secret player objectives in escape rooms is that it can be confusing, particularly where different players have competing objectives (and where other players have entirely unrelated objectives).  This was certainly the case for me with my particular objective, which was a hunt and seek objective.  Little did I know however that the item had been found (and pocketed within the first 30 seconds) by someone else in my party who had the same hunt and seek objective that I did.  The result was then me looking for something for the entire experience, whilst that item was in someone’s pocket the entire time.  Unfortunately, that does not make for a particularly engaging or fulfilling experience.

I think others in my party had the more interesting objectives, which had them secretly pocketing items and working on their own agendas (rather than as a team).  Again, all the while I had no idea what they were doing and why.
I think secret objectives can work in escape rooms where the objectives are completely separate from the primary objective of the room’s storyline.  For instance, players might compete for bragging rights for not only successfully completing the room as a team (which must always be the primary objective), but for also achieving unrelated personal objectives.  However, real problems arise when individual objectives determine potentially different endings for the entire team in an escape room.  Whilst at best you might have one player walking away understanding the storyline and the ending, you will almost certainly have other players scratching their heads wondering what the heck just occurred.  Those players are also unlikely to feel completely engaged by or immersed in the room because they were excluded from knowing the entire storyline whilst in the room.  These kinds of secret objectives do not promote collaboration or team building in rooms.  Part of the appeal of an escape room is for team members to work together and to all escape (or solve the primary room objective) as a team, thereby having a shared experience. 

As always, the best measure of a great room is whether my team enjoyed it.  The Island is a really difficult room to review on that front – whilst we really enjoyed many puzzle elements and props, the ending (and hidden objectives) really took away from the team experience and our overall enjoyment.  The player in our team who successfully completed her secret mission might have enjoyed the experience the most, but she was one of only 2 of our 4 team members who knew what was going on.  The owners took some time after the game explaining the various potential endings and each players’ objectives, which we appreciated (and was definitely necessary for us all to understand what had just happened), but I still can’t help but feel like I was robbed during the game of having the full picture and therefore from being able to affect the outcome in some way.

And to be clear, I would have the same comments above whether or not I was one of the players who understood what was going on with the relevant secret missions.  I have no doubt that the player on our team who completed her objective (thereby triggering the end of the entire room for us all) would agree with me that the secret objectives did not work well in The Island. 

I think all players need to enjoy a shared experience in an escape room, not just some of those players.  The best designed rooms require players to work together.  Secret objectives can add some extra fun, but they shouldn’t do this at the expense of the shared experience.

Where:                        207/342 Elizabeth Street, Surry Hills

Duration:                     60 minutes

Themes:                      3 themes

Cost:                           Price:                           $40pp (but we played at the invitation of the owners)

Overall Rating:            A nice room but let down by secret player objectives

More details:     

Mission Sydney - Trapped Review

Hi all

The second room that my team ever did in Australia was Vampire Castle at Mission Sydney, which we tried back in November 2014.  I enjoyed Vampire Castle, which was my first experience of a high tech escape room.  I also really enjoyed Dr M at Mission Sydney, which we did a little while later.  My team also enjoyed The Lost Mine at Mission Sydney, which we did about a year ago at the time of writing this review.  And finally, my team absolutely loved Unstoppable, which we escaped from in January 2019.

This time we were invited back by the owners to check out their brand new room, Trapped.  We were our usual 4 team of players.  Trapped was our 123rd room in Australian and our 80th room in Sydney. Here's the summary of Unstoppable from their website:

One day at a commercial building, a lift carrying passengers malfunctioned, resulting in 2 casualties.

You are detectives who are in charge of this accident. Although this was classified as a human error accident, the investigation has little progress due to lack of evidence.

You have recently received an anonymous message, which claims that a piece of crucial evidence was left at the building. Now, you and your team are heading to the scene for a further investigation.

Here’s what I thought:
·         the theming was really well done.  So many details were really well considered and well designed;
·         as mentioned in my earlier reviews, I have always enjoyed Mission Sydney rooms – they own the “high tech” corner of the escape room market in Sydney (and always have).  Although I have really enjoyed all of their other rooms, I found that at times, whilst really cool, some of the high tech elements didn’t always completely suit the theme;
·         both Unstoppable and Trapped are a step up in my view on the theming and storyline side of things.  There is some very clever use of items in the space in Trapped that make sense and are cleverly designed as puzzle elements.  This is an element that the majority of escape rooms get wrong – even though the puzzle elements can be great, if they don’t make sense in the room then they aren’t thematic.  I am happy to report that the puzzle elements in Trapped made sense in the space;
·         it feels to me like Mission Sydney has really appreciated the importance of a strong back story with Trapped – in many ways I think elements are more subtle and more natural than in their earlier rooms.  The storyline is strong and the puzzles make sense in that storyline;
·         they utilise walkie-talkies in their rooms.  Although not as good as the voice of God system that is quickly becoming the industry standard, it worked well; and
·         this room is family friendly – there are no dark rooms or scary elements.  I would suggest children over about 8 years old would be fine if supervised.
We really enjoyed Trapped.  On the constructive side, there was one puzzle in Trapped that we didn’t love.  It was not an awful puzzle by any means, but compared to the rest of the puzzles, it was a weaker puzzle.  Most people who have been to escape rooms will know what I mean – you see a puzzle, you solve it (or you are given a hint) and you look back at the puzzle and think the solution is not a perfect fit for the puzzle.  The industry term for this I think is an “inelegant puzzle” – it’s not wrong, but it doesn’t quite feel 100% right either.  We were also told by the game master that at the time that we escaped the room, there had been no teams before us who had solved that puzzle without a hint.  That confirmed for me (as I think it should for the owners) that the puzzle might need to be reworked. 

As always, the best measure of a great room was whether my team enjoyed it.  I'm pleased to report that we really enjoyed Trapped!

******NOTE that Mission Sydney currently has 2 different locations.  Trapped is at their new George Street premises*******

Where:                        Suite 502, 724 George Street, Sydney 

Duration:                     70 minutes

Themes:                      6 themes

Cost:                           Price:                           $45pp (but we played at the invitation of the owners)

Overall Rating:            A clever room with nice tech and strong puzzles

More details: