If you want to play lots of good quality escape rooms in one location, then the Panic Room in Gravesend is a great option. In fact, they now have an enthusiast package where you tell them what you want to play and they’ll sort out the itinerary for you – booking in up to 16 games. Although it’s just one company, it actually has four different venues in the town (possibly five or even six, depending on how you count), so you needn’t worry about being trapped in a building for the entire day.
I’d previously played around ten games in Gravesend, so I organised a day trip to pick up the remaining experiences. We went as a group of eight and, while that would technically be allowed for most of their games, I’d recommend enthusiasts stick to a maximum of four players where possible. Reviews for those new games are below but, given how many experiences are packed into a single town, I think it’s worth pulling together all the reviews to help you decide which games to book.
Every enthusiast has their own opinion about what the best games at the Panic Room are, so it’s worth taking a good look at the themes to decide which will appeal to you most. I’d highly recommend Old Father Time, Dollhouse, Dino Land and LOOP. As well as being great games, that set also gives you a huge amount of variety. If you’re looking to play a few more, then add in Wizard of Oz, Revolución Olé (both reviewed below) and the Don, which were thoroughly enjoyable too. Prison Van, Defective Detective, the Secret of Pocahontas and Enigma are all reasaonable games in my opinion, although they each have some weaknesses. Note that I played LOOP and Enigma at other venues.
Secret of Pocahontas (3.5 stars)
Located over in Gravesend market, you know from before you enter the room that Pocahontas isn’t going to be an expansive space. Set inside a single (permanent) market stall, as soon as you walk through the door, you realise that any sense of discovery is going to come from unlocking individual cupboards or drawers rather than from entering new rooms.
For those of you thinking that there might be a hint of Disney to the experience, think again. Pocahontas isn’t a children’s room. Gravesend is where Pocahontas was buried, and this room very much revolves around her life rather than the cartoon film. In spite of the market stall setting, they’ve created an old-world office space, where you explore a period study to discover Pocahontas’ untold story. While that’s the ultimate goal to the game, the story doesn’t feature heavily, and you could easily gloss over that and just consider this a quest for a hidden manuscript.
I was impressed as we moved through the game that it didn’t just revolve around a lot of padlocked cupboards and drawers. I generally find that the smallest rooms often resort to those simple mechanics, which can both spoil the immersion and result in things becoming a little tedious. Instead, they’d used a variety of mechanics to lock up items in the room, making up for the lack of exploration with plenty of discovery.
The puzzles were generally logical, but a couple felt weak to us. In one, we solved the puzzle almost immediately, but all three of us discounted the solution for a while because it was inconsistent with one clue. In the other – ironically given how impressed I was that they’d come up with interesting locking mechanics – the issue wasn’t solving the puzzle but working out how and where to input the solution. The only other frustration in the room was a group of objects that felt like red herrings – each player spent a lot of time leafing through some fragile items that seemed worthy of extensive investigation but ultimately proved pointless.
There’s a good ending to the game where a fun action by the players releases the final document you’re looking for. A minor quibble was that there was no corresponding audio feedback to make us confident that the game was completed. It was only when our GM entered the game that we were sure it was over. We took the full complement of three players to the game, which seemed reasonable in spite of the linearity of the experience, and escaped in 47 minutes with a couple of clues.
Wizard of Oz (4.5 stars)
In contrast to Pocahontas, the Wizard of Oz very much is a child-friendly game. Right from the start they aim to immerse you in the world with an interesting transition that bridges reality to the Land of Oz. I particularly appreciated the tactile nature of that start – the sense of touch is often ignored in escape rooms but can make a big difference to immersion.
Once inside the room proper, you’re greeted with one of the Panic Room’s very best sets. Throughout the experience, the quality of decoration shone through – it’s a room which is a real joy to explore and spend time in. There’s a clear sense of journey within the game, and they’ve used different techniques at each point in the experience to convey the feel of the space. At times they’ve used theatre-style sets to give perspective, in other places it felt more cartoony and Disneyland-like, and on occasion they’ve used intimate decoration to give a cosy feel to the space.
The game kept the four of us pretty busy, with plenty of puzzles and searching to be had. This room has the unusual distinction of the challenge I enjoyed the most also being the one I found most frustrating. They’d thrown in a puzzle that benefited from teamwork, communication and good observation and which got the whole team talking, but there was a level of ambiguity caused by a relatively subtle clue that had us feeling thoroughly frustrated until someone investigated closely. It’s a difficult balance because they don’t want the clue to jump out at you, but it felt like it was just a little bit too difficult to spot.
Aside from that single example, the puzzles were logical and fun, but be warned if you’re searchaphobic: you could spend a fair amount of time scouring the room for critical props. In particular, the game can – more or less – end on a tough search, and I found that a damp finish. We were fortunate not to have to ask for a clue there, but I can well imagine others resorting to that and completing the game with a feeling of failure.
Revolución Olé (4 stars)
Revolución Olé is a game where the briefing really matters. First off, it’s done in character in a humorous way to break you into the world of “El Presidente”. Secondly, you’re presented with a seemingly complicated set of rules. While I found that quite an intimidating start, it actually turned out to be reasonably straightforward: you’ve got 13 yes/no questions to answer, you need to get 9 right to win, a new question arrives two minutes after you’ve answered the last one, and you have five minutes to answer each question. You see? Simple!
That’s a clever format for two reasons. First, there’s pressure all the way through the game. As enthusiasts, it’s easy to forget how much tension there is for normal players. If you’re a little slow on one puzzle, then you’re usually confident that you’ll be able to catch up elsewhere. In this game, however, the rapid-fire question format means you never have that feeling. Not only that but there’s strong encouragement to answer the questions as fast as possible. With 13 of these to get through, you have less than five minutes per answer but, without knowing how difficult later puzzles will be, you’re tempted to rush your decisions early on. That all combines to give the experience a frantic nature that I found thoroughly enjoyable.
The other clever thing about the format is that, with yes/no questions, even when you fail to work out the right answer, you may still get lucky. That results in even the weakest team going away with a respectable score; even if you chose at random, you’d expect to get 6 or 7 right, so 9 isn’t too hard a target for most teams.
Inside the room, they’ve created a well presented office set, something that’s nice to look at but isn’t going to wow you. The game isn’t about beautiful sets, transitions or immersion – it’s about that central scoring mechanism and the puzzles that go along with it. They’ve taken advantage of not requiring numbers for many answers to create a varied set of puzzles. Expect some answers to just be given to you, to absorb a fair amount of information for others, and for some to be much more traditional escape room challenges. The biggest weakness was something that was little better than a sudoku but in the end worked out fine. Oh, and bonus points if you spot the German answers hidden in part of the game that point to its origins.
That constant pressure kept me thoroughly engaged in the game right to the point where we got our ninth question correct. And then it was over. The room still had four puzzles left and we had twenty minutes on the clock but, instead of letting us continue, the GM came into the room and talked us through the remaining questions. That felt like a huge mistake: they had an opportunity to give enthusiasts real value for money (and a genuinely challenging 13 questions), but instead they chose to just end the game.
Note: I’ve heard of people who visited after us and played this game in hard mode. While that presumably addresses the issue, I think you could handle it equally well without requiring players to make that decision in advance.
Ten Fathoms Deep (3.5 stars)
If you want to play a versus game at the Panic Room, then Ten Fathoms Deep is the only option. It’s unusual in that the two sides of the game can’t be booked independently (although you can book into one half of it, if you so desire), so rest assured that you won’t be playing against another team even if you book in as a small group. The good news is that you have (or at least we had) two GMs, so you don’t need to worry about the problems that are prevalent when you’re sharing a GM between two groups.
This is a proper race room, with a measure of progress shared between the two spaces so that you’ve got a very real idea of how you’re getting on compared to your opposition. For me, that put a lot of pressure on the experience and encouraged me to rush, but for others I’m sure it will add to the fun. And there is fun to be had. We didn’t need a lot of help in the room, and that’s testament to some pretty logical puzzles. We struggled in a couple of places – once where I felt the signposting was weak, and on another where it’s easy to accidentally fail a challenge (although it doesn’t affect the game hugely). On asking the GMs afterwards about that latter issue, it seemed like few teams avoid that fate.
The rest of the challenges were logical and fun, with a particularly enjoyable sequence of puzzles in the latter stages of the game that seemed overwhelming at first glance but became progressively more tractable as you solved individual elements and were left with a smaller pool of clues and a clearer idea of where you were heading. That’s particularly effective in a close versus game (as ours was) with the progress indicators being updated faster and faster as the game reached its climax.
Our teams of two hit the final puzzle neck-and-neck, completing the game just a couple of seconds apart, around the half-hour mark, having taken a single clue. The proximity of our finishes highlighted what I see as a significant flaw in the experience: if you narrowly miss out on the victory, then you’re forced to wait in your room while the other team see the end sequence and escape. Losing is a bitter pill to swallow at the best of times, but waiting around, trapped in your room, must be a pretty horrible ending to the game. For me, there should be a better mechanic to handle teams that finish very close together – potentially allowing both to escape but certainly better than leaving one team waiting. Maybe a losing end sequence to keep them occupied? For the team that did clinch the win, there’s a fun final stage to the game to give you the feeling of escaping from the submarine, although it finished with a little less excitement than I’d expected.
Overall, there are some solid puzzles here with a good structure and believable decoration. It’s not the best of the Panic Room games, and it’s not as packed with puzzles, but it’s a very solid versus game.
Prison Van (3 stars)
One of the things that I love about the Panic Room is that they’re always looking for something a bit different – whether that’s the excitement of Dino Land, the unusual format of Revolución Olé or the quirky humour of Defective Detective. A game in a prison van is by no means unique in the UK, but it does provide a very different experience from your usual escape room fare.
While the meeting point for the game is over in the St George’s Centre, the game itself takes place next to the market, so there’s a brief walk outside to get to the van. A little thought will tell you that this is a split-start game – team members will be put into the separate cells within the prison van (and, as a consequence, it’s worth telling them in advance if you’re expecting more or fewer players so that they can get the reset right).
That’s a high-pressure beginning to the game, with a claustrophobic feel and a need for the team to work together if you’re going to make progress. While the GM is obviously on hand if you do get stuck, it’s worth thinking about whether you’re the sort of team that will thrive on that separation or will get annoyed with each other. Our team worked reasonably well but, even then, I was left trapped within my cell for an extended period, which really killed the fun for me. I’m not entirely sure how best to handle that in a game with this format, but the result was that I sat in my cell, bored, for far too long while my teammates were out and exploring. I never quite shook that frustration for the rest of the game.
The puzzles were reasonable but not numerous and, for me, they were the weaker part of the experience. The inclusion of a physical puzzle in particular was something that I found frustrating – partly because its location meant that it excluded most players and partly because its physical implementation resulted in it getting easily jammed. The real fun of this game is the enclosed space, navigating your way around your teammates in the confined space, exploring the unusual layout and working your way towards the final escape.
I’d come in quite looking forward to what a prison van game might be able to offer, but the end result, like the weather outside, was a little bit damp. That was down in equal parts to bad luck because of the cell where I started, the nature of creating a game in a prison van and, finally, weaker-than-average puzzles for the Panic Room. Nevertheless, it’s not a game I’d recommend unless you’re an enthusiast who wants to play something a little bit out of the ordinary.