The Golden Keys – 2018

Gold Key 2018

As we head into 2019, it’s time to take one last look at the year gone by. My escape obsession calmed down a bit and I only played 178 games, taking me across much of the UK and into Europe – Spain, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. From those games, I’ve picked out the ones that I look back on with particular fondness and awarded them a golden key. That’s not just a case of taking the top-ranked rooms: some five-star rooms didn’t make the cut, while other lower-rated rooms did.

To paraphrase the Room Escape Artist, there’s no such thing as a perfect room, but some rooms make you smile long after you’ve escaped. Here are the ones that made me smile the most:

Andere Welt (Smart Room – Berlin, Germany)

Andere Welt (Another World) is a 90-minute extravaganza packed full of interesting puzzles with, as an added bonus, some of the proceeds going to a local charity that supports the Deaf. For me, the stand-out part of the experience was an extended series of split-team challenges that required plenty of non-verbal communication. It’s great to see a game that requires serious amounts of teamwork and, if it’s for a good cause, then so much the better.

Go West (THE ROOM – Berlin, Germany)

Games that are intimately connected with their location are almost always a good thing, and Go West was no exception. For a game that’s several years old, it’s stood the test of time well – a testament to THE ROOM’s relentless quest to perfect their experiences. Combining fun puzzles, a great set and a genuine sense of journey, this adventure is one that I constantly recommend to people heading to Berlin.

The Lost Treasure of Alexander Humboldt (THE ROOM – Berlin, Germany)

One of the most beautiful games I played this year, The Lost Treasure is an Indiana Jones-style adventure that saw us navigating our way through caverns beneath Berlin. With four games at the venue, all of them with a strong reputation, THE ROOM was deservedly voted one of the top escape room companies in the world by enthusiasts.

Dino Land (The Panic Room – Gravesend, UK)

One of the most ambitious projects in the UK escape room industry, Dino Land was so much more than a dinosaur-themed escape game. A GM in the room, a huge floor area, small chunks of puzzle interspersed with action and a seventy-five-minute duration made it a truly innovative game that stands well apart from the average escape room and feels more like a truly immersive experience. People often ask what I think the future of escape rooms is. There’s no single answer to that, but Dino Land is a great example of one direction I believe they’ll head in.

Tomb Raider (Clockwork Dog – London, UK)

Any game that ends with you zip-lining through (genuine) fireballs deserves a place on this list. This game, which ran for only two weeks, was one of the highlights of my year, with genuine set decoration from the Tomb Raider film, a series of different environments and some impressive puzzles. It’s a real shame that only a handful of people got to play it before it was torn down, but hopefully some of the puzzles will resurface in future Clockwork Dog experiences.

Submarine Bunker (Escape Rush – Brussels, Belgium)

Few venues impress you from the street, but Escape Rush is a company with real talent when it comes to set design. Their storefront and waiting area are amazing in their own right but, once you’re inside the game, you realise just how talented they are. With a second game now released, I expect to see Escape Rush pop up on more enthusiasts’ radars in the coming year.

Kubus (Locked.Gent – Gent, Belgium)

It’s easy to forget how much escape rooms are constrained by existing games. Kubus is a fantastic example of what someone can create when they’re working from first principles. The puzzles may have been disappointing, but the game concept, the journey you take through the room and the theatre of the experience were amazing. It’s a highly physical game, requiring mobility and flexibility, which you can’t play in the height of summer because it gets too hot, and which you must play with precisely four people, and so requires more than a little planning. Beginners should steer clear of this game, but enthusiasts should make every effort to visit.

De Ramkraak (Project Escape – Nijmegen, The Netherlands)

A game that managed to pack a complete adventure into a single experience. De Ramkraak (The Ram Raid) starts with you being recruited for the job and then sees you break into a medical facility, complete a heist and then make your way back out. Add in some optional challenges to ensure that enthusiasts are pushed to their limits and you’ve got a fantastic experience. If you get the chance, then it’s worth being aware of the extreme edition in which they kidnap you from the street beforehand…

The Divide (TimeTrap Escape Rooms – Reading, UK)

A game that sought to raise both money for a homelessness prevention charity and awareness about the factors that contribute to homelessness. Handling a project like this is incredibly difficult – making a game out of something so serious was a huge ask, but they managed to produce something that handled the topic sensitively and was still great fun to play. After a three-month run that raised over £2500 for charity, the great news is that the game has found a new home down at Pier Pressure in Brighton.

Poltergeist (The Chamber – Prague, The Czech Republic)

My favourite game of 2018. Poltergeist saw us exploring a huge underground space, with actor interactions, theatre and puzzles that absolutely made sense. It has so many stand-out moments that you can afford to miss a few and still go home with a great experience. I’m not a fan of scary games, but Poltergeist convinced me that they can still deliver amazing escape rooms. Definitely not for the faint-hearted, though.

Galactic Pioneers (MindMaze – Prague, The Czech Republic)

A fantastic space-themed game that begins before you even enter the spaceship, packs in puzzles that are fun and on theme, offers cool decoration and finishes off the experience with a fun finale. A must for sci-fi fans, this game lets you feel as if you are at the centre of a space adventure.

La Mina (Unreal Room Escape – Barcelona, Spain)

This 90-minute, expansive game set in an abandoned mine was another highlight of 2018. Few games have taken me on such a long journey, and it seemed like the impressive spaces within the room were never-ending. It’s a massive game, beautifully decorated throughout to give the feel of a real mine, with memorable moments scattered throughout the experience.

Carfax (Cave Escape – Nottingham, UK)

Lying quietly beneath Nottingham is an extensive network of caves which Cave Escape has made use of in their first game. I went into this room fully expecting the cave to be central to the experience, but instead they have created a game that cleverly takes advantage of the environment, weaving it into the game but never relying on it. Add in some gorgeous decoration and solid puzzles and you’ve got a top-notch experience.

Dystopia and Utopia (Make Your Escape – Derby, UK)

Dystopia and Utopia are individually pretty good rooms, but they truly stand out when played as a single two-hour experience with a seamless transition between the two. Why? Well, a two-hour escape room is a good start anyway, but the contrast between the two sides of the experience and the way the challenges fit within them combine well with a real sense of adventure throughout the extended experience.

Venus (Guildford Escape Rooms – Guildford, UK)

Venus has a good set and puzzles, but its inclusion here is because it made me laugh more than any other game I’ve played. At times it was in your face, at times it was subtle, but throughout the experience it was amusing. No other game has come close to what they did, not just layering the comedy on top of the experience but at times embedding it in the very heart of the puzzles.

Nethercott Manor (Tulleys Escape Room – Crawley)

Probably the most expansive of the UK games I played this year, in Nethercott Manor you break into an old family home, explore its maze-like interior and complete more puzzles than any room has the right to throw at you. That puzzle density and the fact that every time I felt I’d just about got a handle on the game, I’d find there was yet more to explore made this a game that will stay in my memory for a long time.

Afterlife (X-it Games – Shipley)

Every so often, an independent game appears that really stands out. Afterlife is one of those games. The puzzles were enjoyable enough, but the decoration and the sense of exploration were where it excelled. Each time we moved into a new space, the game surprised and impressed me. I’m excited to see what they produce when they create their second experience.

Full disclosure: We weren’t charged for several of these games – see individual reviews for details.  That doesn’t influence the review though – you can read more on the About page.

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