A year ago, the Top Escape Room Project aimed at bringing together some of the most experienced enthusiasts to vote for the “best” escape rooms in the world, was launched. In 2019, we did it again but bigger and better. 370 enthusiasts helped rank the top 50 games from around the world. Well, not quite – there were certain restrictions: They had to be playable in English, and they had to have been open for a month during the past year. If you’re keen, you can read the full details in the FAQ on the TERPECA site.
With so many people voting, we had more confidence in the results than last year, which also meant that we felt able to award the top 50 games – twice as many as last year. Make no mistake, though: getting an award is still an amazing achievement, and there are some great games that missed out.
Map of the top 50 games
The Top European Games
With 50 awards, you won’t be surprised to hear that plenty of European companies were celebrated. In fact, a total of 35 European games got into the rankings. Spain was the clear winner with a total of 10 out of the 50 rooms. Putting that in perspective, the USA got only 13, and it has a population that’s seven times larger. The Netherlands also placed well considering its population: four winners puts it at a similar level as Spain per capita. Other countries with multiple winners were Germany (5), Greece (3), Russia (3), the Czech Republic (2) and France (2). Austria, Andorra, Belgium, Estonia, Poland and Switzerland also featured with a single game.
I’ve not played many games in Spain, but I am fortunate enough to have played a couple of nominated rooms, including the #18 ranked 90-minute experience La Mina from Unreal Escape (review here). No surprise that it made my 2018 Golden Keys awards. It’s just one of ten winners, though, alongside Tomb Hunter: Akasha’s Legend, The Exam, DragonBorn, The Brewery, Roomanji, The Diamond of Souls, Alien: The Origin, Entrenched and Hotel Hello. It’s an eclectic mix of themes – some adventuring, a little fantasy, some sci-fi, and the unusual – though not unique – brewery-themed game. Seems like there may be something for pretty much everyone!
Eight of the rooms are in or around Barcelona but, before you get too excited, bear in mind that visiting some of them without a car is tough. You’ll also need to take along a team of four for some of them, so plan carefully before heading out. The good news is that there are plenty of other Spanish games mentioned outside the top 50 awards, so there’s a real strength in depth here.
With five winning games, Germany was the next most successful country in Europe, but that was on the back of just three companies: THE ROOM in Berlin plus Hidden in Hamburg and Skurrilum (also in Hamburg). In fact, those three companies were the only nominated ones from the country. The good news is that, with a two-hour train journey connecting the two cities, there’s definitely scope for visiting both on a single trip.
I’ve raved many times about Skurrilum and, while not everyone shares my unbridled enthusiasm, it still does well enough to capture 17th and 35th places. Its Hamburg domination is split by Neptune’s Curse from Hidden in Hamburg. I’ve not played that game, but I thoroughly enjoyed the other three from the same company, so I’m not at all surprised to see it do so well.
The clear winner from Germany, not to mention #1 company in the world, was THE ROOM, with the Alexander von Humboldt and Brandon Darkmoor experiences taking home the #9 and #11 spots respectively. The attention to detail at THE ROOM is hard to believe, so those high rankings weren’t a surprise. I’ve played The Lost Treasure of Alexander von Humboldt, and I can assure you that they know how to deliver a great adventure. Everything I’ve heard suggests that Darkmoor is equally good and, with two more great experiences at the same venue (and several other good games in the city), Berlin’s definitely worth a trip.
I say Greece, but I should really be saying Athens, as that’s where all the enthusiast recommendations seem to lie. We recently came back from the Greek capital and were blown away by the quality of games on offer. It’s a great enthusiast destination: the games are very reasonably priced by Western European standards, and they tend to be longer than average (we didn’t play *any* sixty-minute games while we were there). There are a couple of things worth being aware of which I know will put some people off: there’s a tendency towards horror games, and there are often actors in the room. That merely reduces your choice, though: there’s still plenty to keep you occupied for a few days!
We missed out on the second-most highly ranked Greek game, Exorcista from No Exit, but we did play the other two. The Sanatorium was a thoroughly enjoyable horror game. I was impressed by some of the scare mechanics that helped give a genuine sense of vulnerability, something lacking in many scary escape rooms. The more I think about the game, the more I’m impressed by what they’ve created: there’s a good combination of scare and puzzles, and it’s one of the few games where the outside world faded away and I was totally focused on the game world. My only regret is that I didn’t play in MIDNIGHT mode – with full scares and puzzles!
The big winner, though, in second place overall, was Paradox Project’s The Bookstore. Words barely begin to describe this 200-minute-long epic of an experience that delivers a beautiful environment with a set of puzzles that are incredibly varied and interesting. Throughout the game, there’s a narrative that’s carried over from their first room. It’s a truly stunning creation and something that’s well worth the effort of visiting.
This year the Netherlands took over as the country with the most games per capita, so it’s no surprise that it came near the top in the TERPECAs too. The winning games are fairly spread out, but it’s a small, densely populated nation so, if you’re willing to drive, it’s not too difficult to visit them all. Minimum team sizes vary from two to four, but it’s an expensive country, so taking along a team of four is probably the best value option.
While the Dutch games did really well, the big story was the Dome. In spite of not having played any of the Escape Room Nederland games, there really was no doubt in my mind that it would come in at #1. Everyone I talked to said it was an amazing game. Almost all of them said it was their favourite game ever and, when it wasn’t, there was no consistency in the games they preferred over it. In the end, it finished a long way above its rivals in the rankings and clearly deserved its place – more than two-thirds of players who visited rated it as their favourite, and 90% said it was in their top 3.
Behind it are three other well known Dutch rooms. At #19 is the Catacombs from Logic Locks, which I visited in May this year. It’s a high-intensity, immersive experience set beneath a church in the centre of Amsterdam. If you’re a fan of theatrical rooms, then you should definitely plays this, but be warned: it’s definitely on the scarier side! Next up is the End from DarkPark, another scary experience, this time down in the south. I played it a week after the opening, and it was clear what a great game it would be even then. It’s a little light on the puzzle side of things, but the experience is phenomenal and the ending a real highlight. The fourth winning game is Kamer 237, which I played eighteen months ago. It’s undoubtedly a great experience, although I wish the puzzles were just a little stronger to help match the superb quality of the game’s introduction, decoration and reveals.
The Czech Republic
No surprises from Prague, where Poltergeist from the Chamber (review) and Galactic Pioneers (review) from MindMaze both made it into the top 50. I played both games in my most recent visit to the Czech capital and can confirm they’re excellent inclusions. Poltergeist is an expansive, immersive showpiece from the Chamber which still manages to deliver interesting puzzles, while Galactic Pioneers is a superb space mission with a fun finale that made me feel like I was on the Starship Enterprise.
The great thing about Prague is that there are high-quality games with two-player bookings and a price point that makes playing as a couple attractive. That’s totally glossing over the obvious, though: this is a beautiful, historic city that’s well worth visiting as a tourist destination in its own right!
One of the powerhouse countries of escape rooms, Russia is packed full of experiences, but few of them are available if you don’t speak the local language, which drastically cut its impact on the Top Escape Rooms Project. Three games made it into the top 50, all of them in the capital. Surprisingly, none of them were from the powerhouse Claustrophobia, with three smaller companies taking the honours. Transformer, Insane Paranoid and Sacrum Labyrinth all sound like worthy winners, although the last of those seems to have closed permanently and the first is closed at least temporarily.
The rest of Europe
Austria: The only other award-winning game I’ve played is Going Underground from Crime Runners in Vienna (review). That’s a spectacular 90-minute adventure that saw us rushing through the depths of Vienna uncovering a long-hidden mystery. While Austria doesn’t have the reputation of other European countries, it’s a beautiful city to visit and has a few other games worth playing, most notably three more from Crime Runners and a few games by Time Busters. You can view my recommendations here.
France: The Slaughterhouse in Paris and Einstein’s Letter in Bordeaux were the two winners from France, with neither coming from the best-known venues on international groups. Both Lock Academy and The Game appeared further down the nomination list, which further underlines how good games have to be to make the top 50. If you’re thinking of visiting Paris it’s worth mentioning that Slaughterhouse is most definitely a scary game… In spite of that, I’m still planning to play it when I visit in March.
Andorra: An Avalanche of Oblivion from Claustrophobia was the single winner from this tiny country in the Pyrenees. No surprise there: this game ranked highly last year, and nothing suggested that it had dropped in quality.
Estonia: One of the most fascinating games in the list, The Interview from Affect Laboratories came in at #20. And it did that with just six players having visited it. If they’re to be believed, next year it’s likely to both get more visitors and move up in the rankings. Toby from Escape the Review made this fantastic comment: “Interview is not like any other game I’ve played anywhere. It pulls tricks that no sensible designer would try, and gets away with them. A work of bizarre genius, you won’t know what’s hit you.”
Belgium: The Secret of Saint-Rumoldus at De Gouden Kooi was one of the few games that hadn’t appeared on my radar until the awards. At #27, it’s clearly something to look at, especially if you notice that it was only played by four people (and is therefore slightly penalised by the algorithm). One thing that I would say, though, is that three of those voters played it together, which puts a little more doubt in my mind. Teammates have correlated experiences, and the algorithm doesn’t take that into account. Still, on balance I expect it to rise up the rankings in the next twelve months.
Poland: I played in Poland a couple of years ago, but none of the games made it through to the final vote. The only Polish game that won an award was Asylum in Wroclaw, which came in at #34. More interesting to me was the number of votes for Bydgoszcz, a town that I’d already heard had a good reputation. While it didn’t make the top 50, there’s strength in depth there so, if you’re looking for a brief weekend away, then maybe that’s the city to choose?
Switzerland: Aunt Hilda’s Room doesn’t sound like the most inspiring game in the world but, at position 31, it’s obviously an impressive experience. In fact, I suspect it would have been placed far higher if the players who’d visited had had more games under their belt (which affects the algorithm). Indeed, since then, I’ve heard very positive reports from Team Squared who’ve now played it, as well as favourable comments about other games in the region. Perhaps a trip that’s worth considering?
What about the UK?
Unfortunately, the UK didn’t get any games into the top 50. On reflection, I think that’s fair. We certainly have plenty of good games here but, when I compare our games against the ones that made the top 50, there are few that would truly challenge. That said, four games weren’t far from the placings, so honourable mention should go to (in alphabetical order):
- clueQuest – cQ ORIGENES in London (review)
- Extremescape – Viking in Disley nr Manchester (review)
- Pier Pressure – Loot the Lanes in Brighton (review)
- Tulleys Escape – Nethercott Manor in Crawley (review)
Well done! All four are excellent games which are well worth playing and are four of the very best experiences in the country. Congratulations to them and, indeed, to all the games that made it to the final votes.
Methodology and weaknesses
Let’s start by making this absolutely crystal clear. This project is phenomenal, and Rich, who put in the lion’s share of the work, has done an amazing job. That this hasn’t created a huge amount of controversy worldwide is testament to how well thought-out the project is. In the days following the results, enthusiasts across the globe have been poring over the list, working out where they want to head next. I’ve already accelerated a couple of trips to play games that were nominated, and I will make sure that I add detours on other trips to take in some of the games mentioned. Some people are taking a more extreme approach and lanning entire itineraries around the ranked games. That all goes to show how much faith people have put into the results.
But… it still isn’t perfect. Here are various ways in which it may not have given the results you were looking for:
- Niche games don’t do well. It’s more important to appeal to the masses (and not annoy anyone) than to execute a niche interest well. In particular, I expect horror games to struggle, especially ones that are well known and so are played by people who don’t love horror games.
- Hype can damage games. With the best will in the world, if you go into a game thinking it will be amazing, it’s not going to feel as impressive. That’s always been the case with every game, but it’s even more true for the TERPECAs, where expectations are massively raised.
- Nostalgia effect. It’s really not fair to expect me to compare a game that I played four and a half years ago (yes, really: one was in that category) with one that I played last week. Am I holding it to the same standards? Am I really comparing it against the current quality of games? Am I looking back with rose-tinted spectacles?
- Everything changes. Puzzles are improved, props are broken, rooms get facelifted. Catacumbas in Barcelona had a set of puzzles removed for a while, which apparently had a major effect on the games. They’re back now, but some of those ratings are tarnished. Conversely, the Dome has improved immensely since opening. What if more enthusiasts had gone at the beginning rather than more recently?
- Small samples: Some games have only been played by a few players. They’ve been penalised because we don’t want a small group of people who happened to really enjoy a game to cause it to be driven to the top of the ratings. The upshot is that, when a game has few plays, we expect it to rank higher in future years. But…
- Correlated playing. I want to be independent, but I think that we feed off our teammates. Even if we didn’t, when three or four experienced enthusiasts play together, one poor GM-ing decision can have a massive dampening effect. I’ve played around half of my nominated games with Mrs Logic, and I suspect our rankings reflect that shared time in the room.
- “Uber-enthusiasts” have a disproportionate effect. A few of us carry a lot of weight with our voting because we’ve played more games. Although I believe that should have some effect, I think it’s currently too strong. For example, I think a game that’s played by one player with fifty comparisons gets as much benefit as a game that’s played by five separate players, each with ten comparisons. I don’t think the former is such good evidence for the quality of the game.
So, there are some reasons that this isn’t perfect, but then voting systems never are (provably so in most cases!). The point is that this is probably the best guide you can get to escape rooms that are playable in the English language and, for the top fifty at least, it’s a great way of selecting good games.
All that remains is to say thank you to all the companies, whether they finished in first place or got a single nomination. If you created a game that a 200+ game player ranks as one of their top 20, then you’re doing something incredibly well. If you made a game that finished in the top 50, then massive congratulations – it’s hard to express just how hard it is to get into that echelon. And, if you participated in the voting, then thank you for making me look forward to an exciting year of escaping!
And finally, thank you to Rich Bragg. Few people will realise how much effort you put into this project. You have created something truly remarkable. I hope you feel just as proud as the people who created the games that made the top 50. The industry and enthusiasts everywhere owe you a debt of gratitude.