The Golden Keys – 2021

Golden Key AwardI wanted to wait till games were fully open again, and then things got busy but, finally, here are the Golden Keys for 2021.

2021 wasn’t the year we wanted it to be. While it looked for a long time like we might be moving back towards something resembling normality, we closed out the year with things taking a step back for most people. Even now, in mid-2022 some companies are still seeing a significant reduction in bookings. To escape room owners and employees everywhere, my thoughts are with you – I hope this year has brought you a smoother journey and continues to do so.

Those restrictions didn’t prevent me from making it out to play, though, and it turns out that I played precisely 100 live escape games in 2021. While the vast majority of them were in the UK, I did manage to make a trip to Montreal as part of the Room Escape Artist tour, and that certainly provided some interesting additions to the awards below!

And, while I may not have played that many games, I’ve focused on quality: those trips managed to include 42 TERPECA-nominated experiences!

From across those experiences, I’ve picked out the ones that I look back on with particular fondness and awarded them a Golden Key. They aren’t necessarily the best 18 games that I’ve played but they all stick in my mind. 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 (in playing order!) that made me smile the most:

Immaterium (Escapologic, Nottingham, UK)

It’s always tough to make a game from famous IP, but Warhammer seems like a particularly difficult theme to convert. The team at Escapologic did a fantastic job of creating a gritty escape room that would be loved by Warhammer enthusiasts while still being perfectly playable by others. What I really loved, though, was the way they created an intensely physical experience that was crammed into a small space while still giving you plenty of room to climb and crawl around.

Daylight Robbery (Cryptology, Nottingham, UK)

In the middle of the year, I hit a sweet spot of puzzle-heavy games starting off with this game from the super-experienced team at Cryptology. They pride themselves on creating experiences that will entertain beginners and enthusiasts alike for the full sixty minutes. That was certainly the case here, with far more puzzles on offer than I could ever have hoped to complete as a pair. That, alongside their scoring mechanic, managed to give a real heist feeling to the game, as we collected all the loot we could in the time available, escaping out the door in the last few seconds of the game.

UI-55 (Compendium, Bury, UK)

Compendium have a deserved reputation in set design, having burst onto the scene a few years back with their Wrong Turn game. UI-55 shows just how far they’ve come with puzzle design, creating a thoroughly enjoyable experience packed full of puzzles that will keep most teams entertained for their full hour. This game felt like being let loose in a sweet shop: there was so much choice that it took a while to decide where to start, but that also meant there was never a feeling of frustration because we could always move on to the next puzzle if we did get stuck. Big teams may be able to finish this, but I think most teams of two or three will struggle to get through the full set. Either way, you’re in for a real treat.

Chamber of Champions (Escape Room Epsom, UK)

As with several of the Escape from the Room¬†games, Chamber of Champions lets you choose from two difficulty levels. The one we played – and the only one I’d recommend for enthusiasts – gives you ninety minutes and encourages you to finish 21+ puzzles. There’s no pretence at a detailed or expansive set. Expect to be stuck in a single, small room where almost everything is accessible from the first moment. The joy of this game comes from dividing up at the start for a frantic period of quick puzzle solving followed by joining back up to polish off the last few challenges that you’ve struggled to solve solo. Packed with puzzles, there’s a great sense of progress throughout and a fitting finale to help you take your crown in the Chamber of Champions.

Into the Reliquary (Dark Master, East Sussex, UK)

A company that opened up in the midst of the pandemic, Dark Master delivered a slew of memorable moments, including something absolutely unique and incredibly innovative. The puzzles may not always delight you (although they have their moments) but, almost a year later, I still look back on this game with awe.

Temple Quest (Clue Cracker, Royal Tunbridge Wells, UK)

I enjoyed all three games at Clue Cracker, but Temple Quest stood out on all fronts. They’ve taken a theme that I always love and delivered an interesting set that was a joy to explore. On top of that, there’s an impressive set of well-designed puzzles that are beautifully structured to allow teams to work separately when they want to but come back together for key moments.

Citizen Erased (Hysteria Escape Rooms, Chatham, UK)

Having played the Hysteria game that used to stand in the space now inhabited by Citized Erased, I wasn’t expecting to be surprised by the layout, but I absolutely was. Add in some innovative puzzles, surprising moments and a set that was both beautifully imagined and implemented, and you’ve got a game that left me grinning like a child for the rest of the day.

Tyranno Industries (Escaparium Dorval, Montreal, Canada)

Escaparium is clearly the jewel in the crown of Montrealese (if not Canadian!) games. Tyranno Industries was my first experience of what they could produce, and I had a fantastic time reliving the Jurassic Park story. The puzzles were solid, but it was the set and dinosaur elements that helped this game stand out.

The Lost Island of the Voodoo Queen (Escaparium Laval, Montreal, Canada)

The newest games from Escaparium, at their Laval site, seem to relish the space available to create big, bold experiences. The Lost Island is an immense experience, delivering enough set to hold three perfectly good escape rooms and a series of fun effects that are bound to keep the whole team entertained.

The Final Exam, (Sauve Qui Peut, Quebec, Canada)

Not a game for the faint-hearted, Sauve Qui Peut‘s The Final Exam stands out for a series of physical aspects including one that was amazing and terrifying in equal measures. This game, which is not one for the larger player (although I had no issues at 6’1″/1.85m), had several moments across the experience that provided me with child-like joy.

Wardrobe for Sale (Escaparium Laval, Montreal, Canada)

Oh, what can I say? Do you want story? Theatre? Amazing sets? Cool puzzles? Humour? This game delivered one of the sweetest and most fun experiences I’ve ever had in an escape room. It’s packed full of so many memorable moments that I don’t even know where to start. Unfortunately for us, we played during an early beta phase, which meant we didn’t see a significant proportion of the game and several of the puzzles had issues. In spite of that, it still goes down as my favourite game of 2021. If you’re ever in Eastern Canada, I’d highly recommend making a detour to Escaparium.

2002: A Bovine Oddyssey (Cabinet Mysteriis, Quebec City, Canada)

Cows in Space. Need I say more? This was a surreal experience that I’m very grateful I took part in. It’s clear that the Cabinet Mysteriis designers had fun making the game and poured a lot of love into the set. The puzzles weren’t quite up to the same standard, but it’s still a game that’s well worth playing.

Dreamwalkers (Cabinet Mysteriis, Quebec City, Canada)

Dreamwalkers is another game from Cabinet Mysteriis where you can see the love that’s been poured into the visuals. This game stood apart because of a clever design choice that delivered a natural mission to the room. Be warned, though: make one small mistake early on and you could be left floundering for a significant proportion of the game!

Mission Gnome-possible (SOS Adventures, Quebec City, Canada)

At the end of a long day, there’s nothing better than playing a game that doesn’t take itself seriously. SOS Adventures‘ Mission nain-possible (as it’s called in the original language) was a delightful tale that saw you trying to outsmart mischievous gnomes. A cartoonish set, some silly puzzles and a good flow meant I came out of this game buzzing.

Pudding Lane (Time Trap Escape Rooms, Reading, UK)

Time Trap always impress with their games, and I particularly love how they incorporate real history into their experiences. Pudding Lane is a delightful recreation of a London Street, complete with shops and an attention to history that stands out in the detail. I love the way they consistently deliver beautiful sets, great stories and fun puzzles.

Ram Raid (Escape Reading, UK)

I love a good heist game, and this is most definitely one of those. Escape Reading deliver the second game in this list where it’s not essential to collect all the loot, although I’d absolutely expect experienced players to be aiming for that, even if they play as a pair. It’s packed full of puzzles with a great end sequence and one particular moment that stands out by delivering something that feels like a proper bank robbery while still being a solvable puzzle.

Spellcraft (Tulleys Escape Rooms, West Sussex, UK)

Ah, Tulleys, you keep on spoiling us. This is another sprawling set from one of the best companies in the South East of England. Puzzles aplenty, cool sets, good flow and a fun theme make this a game that I’d happily recommend for almost any team. They split you into two teams but, if you don’t like that, you can pretty much ignore it inside the room and get something very close to a conventional game.

A Christmas Advent-ure (The Escaporium, Halifax, UK)

Yet another game that doesn’t require you to complete all the challenges to escape. This game from the Escaporium is beautifully constructed with a series of fun puzzles that exercised all our brain cells. For the faster players, there’s a second set of puzzles you can focus on if you’re confident that you’ll escape. If you get the chance to play this Christmas, I’d highly recommend taking advantage!

Congratulations and thank you to all of this year’s Golden Key recipients – it may not have been the year we had hoped for, but your games helped make it a little brighter for me and many other people.

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