Now in its third year, the Top Escape Rooms Project is aimed at bringing together some of the most experienced enthusiasts to vote for the “best” escape rooms in the world. 2020 wasn’t the year we had hoped for, so I’m grabbing hold of every positive piece of news I can, and the Top Escape Rooms Project is certainly that. In 2020, it’s bigger and better than ever, with nearly 600 enthusiasts from 25 countries helping to 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 at least a month during the past year. If you’re keen, you can read the full details in the FAQs on the TERPECA site.
Note that this article is about the In-Person games. I aim to write a (shorter!) article on the online games in the very near future!
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, more European games than ever got into the rankings, with 40 out of the top 50 coming from the continent. Once again, Spain was the clear winner, with 11 out of the top 50 rooms. To put that in perspective, that’s more than the entire USA, a country with seven times the population. Greece was the other big winner of the year, more than doubling its haul with seven top games. Other European countries with multiple winners were Germany (6), Netherlands (3), Russia (2), France (2) and Switzerland (2). Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia and Poland all appeared with a single game. It’s great to see 14 different countries appearing, suggesting a real breadth of quality across the continent.
I haven’t got a huge amount of experience of Spanish games, but I have played two of the nominees, including the #44-ranked 90-minute experience La Mina from Unreal Escape (review here), which made my 2018 Golden Keys awards. Knowing there are another ten games ranked higher than that makes me excited for the day when I’ll be able to travel again and play some of these amazing rooms!
Two of the Spanish games made it into the top 10, with Mad Mansion’s DragonBorn grabbing the eighth spot marginally ahead of La Casa from Insomnia Corporation. In fact, Mad Mansion was the big story of the night, dominating the competition with seven – yes, seven – separate finalists including four winners (and another that finished in #51). DragonBorn, 101 Years of Forgiveness, Call or Die and the Mystery of Scum Island were their TERPECA-award-winning games, with Dino Rising (Red team) just missing out. With so much quality on display, it’s no surprise that Mad Mansion also won the Best Company.
Other games making it into the top 50 were La Cervecería from Enigmik, Elkano from Experientziak, The Exam from Abduction, Tomb Hunter: Akasha’s Legend from Escape Barcelona and Cursed Expedition from Mythos. ¡Enhorabuena a todos!
The other interesting thing about this year is that the awards are far less concentrated around Barcelona. The Spanish market has become better known over the last couple of years, and that’s brought a bunch of the smaller markets to the fore. If you do decide to go along, bear in mind that you’ll need a car to visit many of these games, and several require four people to book.
Perhaps I should really just say Athens, since I believe that’s where all the games were. We visited the Greek capital last year and were amazed at the strength of the offerings – high-quality games, usually well over sixty minutes long, with huge sets and often including actors. Add in relatively low prices, and it’s an enthusiast’s paradise. Two things to be aware of: First, they tend towards horror games, with the scariest UK games being considered fairly mild by their standards. Second, several of the games contain water, so bring along a spare pair of shoes!
I’ve played two of the top three ranked Greek games. The Sanatorium by Lockhill was a thoroughly enjoyable horror game where I was impressed by some of the scare mechanics that helped give a genuine sense of vulnerability. The more I thought about the game, the more I was impressed by what they had 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 (regarded as the best option) – 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. Paradox Project’s newest game, The Music Academy, also made it into the rankings, taking 12th place.
Other games to feature were El Exorcista – ranked #4 in the world – Wake up by Station 33 (fittingly ranked #33), Don’t Take a Breath by Verone and Woman in Black from Coven.
With six winning games, Germany was the next most successful country in Europe. Like last year, five of the games are located in Berlin or Hamburg and, with a two-hour train journey connecting the two cities, there’s definitely scope for visiting both on a single trip.
The clear winner from Germany, not to mention #2 company in the world, was THE ROOM, with the Brandon Darkmoor and Alexander von Humboldt experiences taking home the #15 and #17 awards 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 slightly better 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 adore Skurrilum’s Ernie Hudson games, which both appeared in the ranking for the third straight year. Perhaps not everyone shares quite my high opinions, but they were still popular enough to capture 19th and 40th places. Once again, its Hamburg dominance is split with Hidden in Hamburg’s Neptune’s Curse. I’ve not played that game, but I really enjoyed the other three from the same company, so I’m not at all surprised to see it do so well again. Again, it’s a city that’s worth a visit.
The sixth game in the set was a new name to me: The Alley from Rätselraum Ruhrpott. Sadly, that’s a long way away from Berlin and Hamburg but might just be an option if you’re travelling in our next country and don’t mind a bit of an extended detour.
The Netherlands (and Belgium)
I visited the Netherlands again at the start of this year for a four-day extravaganza which included many TERPECA-nominees; and wow, is it an amazing destination! If you’re prepared to pay NW Europe prices for escape rooms and can take along a team of four people, then I think it’s a great choice for a road trip of 10-30 games.
Once again, The Dome took the top spot. Having now played it, I have absolutely no doubt that it deserves that place. It is a mind-bogglingly impressive experience that has more memorable moments than I can count and the single most beautiful puzzle I’ve experienced in an escape room. It thoroughly deserves every accolade it receives. Well done, Escape Room Nederland!
The other two games in the trio of Dutch winners were DarkPark’s The End and the Catacombs from Logic Locks. Both are impressive experiences. I visited the Catacombs last year – 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 play it, but be warned: it’s definitely on the scarier side! The End was another scary experience, this time down in the south of the country. I played it just after it opened and, while we hit a couple of teething issues, you could see the brilliance of what they’d created. Perhaps it’s a little light on the puzzle side, but the experience is phenomenal and the ending a real highlight. If you’re into experience, then this is a must-play (and, as a bonus, there are two other great games at the same venue!).
While I’m talking about the Netherlands, it seems a good place to mention Belgium, since playing Dutch games pretty much requires a car, so you might as well cross the border and visit Mechelen. The Secret of Saint-Rumoldus from De Gouden Kooi was a joyful experience packed with good puzzles in a beautifully created set. If I built an escape room, this is what I’d be aiming for. It may not have some of the special effects of some of the other TERPECA games, but I think it delivers incredibly well on puzzles, decoration, exploration and story. If you want to see consistency throughout every aspect of the experience, then I think this is one of the best options.
The rest of Europe
Austria: Going Underground from Crime Runners in Vienna (review) was one of the few games that gained this year, sneaking up into the top 10. It’s a spectacular 90-minute adventure that saw us rushing through the depths of Vienna uncovering a long-hidden mystery. Austria may not have the reputation of other European countries, but 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 by Time Busters. You can view my recommendations here.
The Czech Republic: Poltergeist from the Chamber (review) once again made the top 50. It’s an expansive, immersive showpiece which, unusually for a scary room, still delivers interesting puzzles. The great thing about Prague is that there are plenty of high-quality games with two-player bookings, and they’re at 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! Full guide here.
France: Most companies had pretty consistent rankings from last year, but it was all change for France. Two games disappeared but two new arrived, both out of Perpignan in the south of the country. Escape Dimension is another company to add to the watch list, with two creations in the top 50: Jungle Quest and Mystery on Lived Street. While, on the face of it, you might feel like it’s not worth travelling to play just these two games, it’s worth mentioning that they’re only slightly over the border from Spain and within striking distance of Barcelona. Ones to consider for your next Spanish road trip?
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 for the last two years, and nothing suggested that it had dropped in quality. If only it wasn’t so hard to get to!
Estonia: One of the most fascinating games in the list, The Interview from Affect Laboratories, came in at #16, in spite of just five players having visited it. 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.“. I dearly hope it gets more visitors this year!
Poland: I played in Poland three years ago, but those games have long since vanished off the TERPECA nominees, let alone the winners’ list. The only Polish game that won an award in 2020 was Asylum in Wroclaw, which came in at #43. More interesting to me was that Bydgoszcz once again did well for nominations. While they 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? If you’re based in the UK, there are even direct flights from a couple of UK airports.
Russia: I suspect Russia really suffers from a combination of low numbers of visitors and untranslated games. Certainly, everything I’ve heard suggests it has some amazing escape rooms and would probably warrant more than the two games it got into the top 50 this year. Insane Paranoid from Quest-Art won its third straight award, while GhostHunters from Claustrophobia finally broke into the top 50, having just missed out for the last couple of years.
Switzerland: Aunt Hilda’s Room doesn’t sound like the most inspiring game in the world but, at position 6, it’s obviously an impressive experience. It was a game that benefited from additional players visiting this year – 26 as opposed to just nine – to see it rise several places in the ranking. It was joined by Kontinuum from one of the earliest European companies, AdventureRooms. Sounds like Switzerland may be becoming an increasingly interesting place to go for escape rooms, as long as you don’t mind road trips and high prices!
What about the UK?
Unfortunately, the UK didn’t get any (in-person) games into the top 50. Honestly, 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, a few games weren’t far from the placings, so an honourable mention should go to (in alphabetical order):
- clueQuest – cQ ORIGENES in London (review)
- Cryptology – Daylight Robbery (not yet played!)
- Escapologic – Curio in Nottingham (review)
- Extremescape – Viking in Disley nr Manchester (review)
- Houdini’s – Escape the R.M.S. Titanic in Southampton (review)
- Pier Pressure – Loot the Lanes in Brighton (review)
- Tulleys Escape – Nethercott Manor in Crawley (review)
Well done! All of those are well worth playing (by reputation for Cryptology – the only one I haven’t personally played) and are some of the very best experiences in the country. Congratulations to them and, indeed, to all the games that made it to the final vote.
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 when travel opens up again and I can experience these amazing rooms!
Finally, thank you 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.