So, you’ve hopefully read all about the semi-final which, for us at least, was the main event, but there’s so much more to tell you about what went on in Budapest! Red Bull had organised travel, accommodation, meals and entertainment, not to mention the final. I thought it might be fun to dip into some of this stuff and talk about what we got up to.
The trip itself was a whistle-stop tour – three full days with most people arriving late on the Wednesday and returning very early on the Sunday morning. They were happy to organise a different time for you but you had to be proactive and tell them – there was no “when would you like to travel?” question. That was a missed opportunity, I think, because lots of enthusiasts would have liked to hang around for a couple more days and check out the Budapest scene. We still managed to get a few extra games in, with my team mates, S², getting over 50 done during the week. It would be great if next time round they asked teams if they wanted to extend their trip (paying for their own accommodation, obviously) to let them sample more of the local games. As it was, we had to choose between tourism and playing escape rooms. I think you can guess which won out for me (in my defence, I’ve been to Budapest on at least three occasions now).
The semi-finals were running on separate days and, in order to minimise the chance of “day 2” teams finding out about the puzzles, they segregated the semi-finalists into different hotels. That was in theory a great idea, but it meant we didn’t meet half the teams till the second day. It would have been great to have a group thing at the start and then segregate. On the other hand, with 24 teams, there were still plenty of people to chat to – and, with four people per team, I never felt totally alone. It’s an international competition, though – you want to engage with the other participants! The hotel itself, the Aquincum, was pretty nice but it was about an hour’s walk outside the centre, which (perhaps deliberately?) curtailed any independent exploration. It was also a bit of a shock to turn up and find I was sharing with one of my team mates. I fully understand that they’d want to keep costs down as much as possible but I don’t think that should happen without being warned. They did have the good sense not to force that on the wildcard team (who didn’t know each other) but there was at least one team with three men and one woman that were originally told they’d be sharing two rooms (fortunately fixed when the woman refused!).
On the first night we were shown the MindGamers film – the idea that had inspired the whole competition – and had a brief introduction from the person behind everything, Konstantin Mitgutsch, who we’d met in Vienna on a Red Bull promo trip. With the semi-final the next day, though, there was relatively little in the way of socialising, and we didn’t really speak to any other players before heading off and reading our homework (see the semi-final post if you’re surprised about the homework!).
In order to prevent teams playing on the same day from accidentally helping each other, they’d put on a series of experiences to keep us occupied. We started off by playing some escape rooms over at Locked, then headed off to a pinball museum before finally playing the semi-final at the end of the day. Other teams would do this in a different order and some, I think, ended up in two different escape room games (the other being Mystique Rooms). As with the semi-final itself, there was a huge amount of secrecy around the games we would be playing, which was a pain from a booking point of view. Fortunately, we’d managed to weasel out which venues they might be using with a few days to go, so we managed not to double-book ourselves for anything.
The games they picked were a good choice. Locked had five rooms (which we managed to play all five of) that ranged from a fairly basic intro room to a couple of relatively modern rooms with good tech. Mystique had three rooms available at the time (the fourth opened up just after). Although we didn’t play during the competition, we were lucky enough to go back and play two of those three (plus their new Steampunk room) and they were good rooms with beautiful sets. The Steampunk one in particular was absolutely fantastic. Given they wanted locations with a decent number of rooms and a comfortable space, I think they did well – I can’t think of any other locations in Budapest which would have met their requirements so well.
After that, it was on to a pinball museum. Again, I think that was a good choice. I’m not a pinball fan by any stretch of the imagination, but there was plenty to keep me occupied while I was there and it had the right level of geekiness to appeal to the audience. At this venue, and in fact all the venues we visited, there was a simple buffet to keep you fuelled (assuming you were willing to eat what they had on hand) and a plentiful supply of water. From there, it was on to the semi-final and back to the hotel for dinner and a post-mortem on the game.
The second full day saw us taken over to Laser Quest for 90 minutes before heading to the Museum of Science and Wonder. Laser quest was an interesting choice – a hot, sweaty environment wouldn’t be my first call before heading back on to a bus – but it worked well for the demographic and there was always the option of heading up to the shopping centre if that didn’t appeal. The museum was less good. It had some superficially interesting stuff (three-way table football, massively long table football, football pool, smart tables, some escape rooms and a couple of exhibitions). Overall, though, I got the feeling it was really aimed at young teenagers. We never tried the escape rooms because they weren’t open till late on and we decided to make the most of our time in Budapest and skip off to play some escape rooms. We did at least take along our Red Bull UK minder so, while in some sense we were going rogue, we were still under supervision (which, given that they were trying to stop us interacting with teams from the second final, seemed important).
Dinner that night was on board a boat on the Danube. This was our first chance to meet up with the Americans and Wildcard teams, several of whom we knew through the secret Slack channel. It was great to put some faces to names, and a real highlight was finally meeting the original escape room blogger, Essa. We’d originally been told we wouldn’t be allowed to discuss our results, but fortunately they relented, which made the evening far more enjoyable. There had been plenty of gossip already, so we had a decent idea of which teams had a chance of being in the grand final.
For most teams, the final day meant heading out sightseeing, but we’d been signed up to get involved with a Snapchat promotion. This was the second time we’d been involved with the marketing side of the event, having visited Vienna (escape tourist guide out soon!) to help with their Facebook promotion, and it was interesting seeing the very different feel they went for in the more transient medium of Snapchat. As usual with this kind of thing, they weren’t sure how long it was going to take to film – in the end it was most of the morning. I can’t complain – we had fun while we were there and, because we’d missed out on the tourism, they let us go and play at Mystique before heading to dinner.
After dinner it was on to buses for the grand final. They did a great job of creating an atmosphere inside the small room – particularly tricky since none of the action would take place where we were – the finalists would rush off to another part of the building for the final challenges. Everyone was allocated their own space and provided with a flag for their country (with the exception of the wildcard teams!), with the presenters in the middle of the crowd. It seemed to work pretty well, from my point of view, although obviously our team was a bit muted from the disappointment of not making the final.
The best part of the evening was seeing the Ukrainians when they found out they’d qualified. It was clear that they didn’t expect it and, while I felt sorry for some of the wildcard players (who I’m pretty sure thought they’d won their semi, and probably would have done had the hint system worked in a fairer way), I enjoyed seeing the Ukrainians’ looks of disbelief and excitement. I won’t talk here about the final itself – perhaps at some future point I’ll dissect a little, or maybe just leave that to one of my team mates – except to say that it was interesting looking round the audience when both teams crashed and burned on the penultimate challenge (at least, the penultimate one that we saw – there was one round that never got to be played). It’s worth giving a shout out for the amazing trophy, too – they’d solved the classic problem that most team events have, of giving one trophy to be shared by the team, by awarding a cube that split into four pieces. Neat!
Once the Slovenes had accepted their prize, it was time to head back to the buses and on to the party venue (ahem, with a short celebration to mark Mark’s 100th game, my 250th game and our Red Bull minder’s 10th – thanks to S² for conjuring up the certificates!). To say I’m not a party animal is probably an understatement, but even I was left a little disappointed by what they’d put on. At a Red Bull event, I’d expect them to pretty much take over a night club and have a free bar. There was at least a space outside the main nightclub where you could go and chat if you wanted and a corner where they’d placed some bottles of alcohol and mixers. The biggest issue, though, was that no one seemed to know where or when the bus back to the hotel was leaving (and that was exacerbated by the clocks changing around the time the party was due to end…). For many of the players, this was the first time they’d ever been on holiday alone and, in some cases, they’d never been drunk before, so we were left with a lot of kids that had no idea what they were doing. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if several of them missed their flights – especially since most people seemed to have very early flights out of Budapest the next day. That was a real shame, because a huge tournament like this should have ended on a high but, instead, it seemed to fizzle out.
I’ve probably dwelled a bit too much on the negatives through this piece and I really hope that the amazingness of the experience comes through. The people we met – whether participants, competition staff or the locals hosting escape games or in restaurants – were all incredibly friendly and engaging. The activities were generally pretty fun and, in particular, they’d picked a good set of escape games for us to try out. The hotel was nice, albeit a little way out from the centre. And, in the end, it was an expenses-paid holiday with great friends, to play these games we love and where we got to meet even more great people. Who wouldn’t love that?