This game was bought by the Panic Room and is now available in their Harlow venue with plans to move it to Gravesend in Nov 2017.
Outside the room
I’d been meaning to get up to A Great Escape since it first opened. Since before it opened, in fact: I came close to making a trip up on the weekend of its soft opening but couldn’t quite get things to match up. It languished near the top of my non-London list for a long time but there always seemed to be something else cropping up that stopped me sorting out a trip. I followed it with interest, pleased to see positive reviews appearing and getting good reports back from enthusiasts.
It was pretty surprising, therefore, to find out that it was up for sale and would be closing down at the end of the year. It was now or possibly never and, when I spotted that I was free for the last slot before they closed, I hatched my plan to visit.
After a wander round the National Museum of Computing (well worth a visit), we arrived at the unprepossessing “Hut E” just in time and were warmly greeted by the host, who told us the backstory and showed us to the room.
In 1987 GCHQ’s Central Training School moved from Bletchley Park to Culmhead. A small group of cryptographers remained within Bletchley under orders to uphold National Defence through intercepting and deciphering intelligence. This department became the “Bletchley National Defence Cybersecurity Unit” in 2010. Just recently, one of the cryptographers uncovered a threat to the Government network and was horrified to realise the traitor was in her team! She narrowed the suspects down to five people, but she has now mysteriously disappeared! You have one hour to complete her work and stop the attack!
Inside the room
At first glance, the game was set in a pretty standard office. Too standard really – there were plenty of props to look through and, while I initially thought they might be red herrings, it quickly became clear that the majority of the items you encounter are relevant to the game in some way. In most games, you get told each piece of information you need precisely once. The only time you ignore information is where it’s in the form of a red herring or you’ve skipped a step in a puzzle. Here, though, there were plenty of tidbits that were relevant but you could happily throw away because they were duplicated elsewhere. That was an interesting approach but it left me with a feeling of information overload. Even now, a few weeks later, I’m not sure if it’s a good or bad thing – in some sense, it’s incredibly realistic but being bombarded with so much information adds an extra challenge to a game that’s already pushing you reasonably hard.
I couldn’t help but feel that the reason you’re bombarded with unnecessary information is because at some point after opening they’d decided to simplify the game. While I think they probably called it right (given how much we struggled with it, I’d imagine you wouldn’t want it to be any more difficult!), I couldn’t help but feel cheated that the puzzle wasn’t more involved. They’d set it up nicely to require a lot more thinking and deduction, and what little of that we did was very enjoyable, but it all turned out to be a bit pointless.
In spite of the codebreakers concept and ENIGMA reference in the title, the game isn’t actually set during the war, so it was able to make use of some relatively modern technology. Generally, while the occurrences weren’t always essential for the story line, the technology fitted well into the game. The one exception was in a puzzle that we found to be very temperamental. I know from talking to other enthusiasts that it sometimes worked just fine but, for me, it was a gimmicky inclusion. If it had worked reliably, it would have been a nice piece of fun but, given we knew what we were expected to do and still all three team members failed to get it to work, I’d suggest that it detracts more than it adds.
The other props in the game were a little more mundane, varying from modern office to throwbacks from around the war. Frustratingly, we needed one search-related clue because we were trying not to damage one of the older props. The briefing had been clear that we wouldn’t need to move furniture but we took a more liberal view than the game operator of what that meant. That’s always a tension in escape rooms: are we allowed to take pictures off the wall? Can we move furniture? Is the ceiling out of bounds?
Speaking of the ceiling being out of bounds (it was), one of the solutions in the game could be taken as referring to “upstairs”. Now, it didn’t occur to me that it might mean I was meant to look amongst the ceiling tiles but, in retrospect, that would be a perfectly legitimate interpretation. It brings home that, as a designer, you need to think very carefully about how players can misinterpret anything you throw at them. However idiot-proof you make a game, escape rooms will entice bigger idiots.
We escaped with around 8 minutes left on the clock having received a couple of clues.
This was a fun game pitched at a good level of difficulty with plenty of puzzles but, ultimately, that temperamental puzzle, a set that was a bit drab and the unnecessary information overload at the beginning left me with a bitter-sweet taste – this could have been so much better!
STOP PRESS: Good news – this game will be heading over to the Panic Room in Harlow in a couple of weeks . It’s great to hear that the game’s being saved and, with the transfer to the new location, they’ll hopefully have a perfect opportunity to look at those parts of the game that could do with a revamp.
Instead of our usual trip out for food, we’d just grabbed sandwiches so that we could head to the National Museum of Computing beforehand. While you obviously won’t be able to combine this game with a trip to the museum now, I can still highly recommend visiting if you’re in the area. If you think the story of Alan Turing and The Enigma machines is interesting, then it’s well worth finding out about the less well known Lorenz machine. There’s a replica of one of the Colossus machines that were built to crack the cipher during the war, and then you can follow through the history of computing from the earliest devices that you’d barely consider computers through all iterations of computing to the present day.
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