Outside the room
[Make sure to read the comment trail below for a follow up to my review]
Is it a bird, is it a plane, is it Superman? Well, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I’ve always thought of Agent November as an outdoor escape room, which is obviously a bit of an oxymoron, but given that we’d booked “Murder Mystery”, their indoor game, I was thoroughly confused as to what I’d signed up for. An indoor, outdoor murder mystery escape room? Only time would tell.
As is almost inevitable these days, I’d had too many people sign up for a single “room”, so I’d got in touch with Nathan at Agent November, who told me, much to my delight, they could run two games in parallel. Nothing like a bit of competition to add to the fun! So it was, that on another cold November evening, nine of us headed to the Somerstown Coffee House, for an hour of puzzles, locks and detective work.
Given the nature of escape room bookings, we turned up to the pub (and, for the avoidance of doubt, it is a pub and not a coffee house) half an hour early. Of course, given the location, the pub was pretty full, so we couldn’t find a table and, in spite of the bar staff saying someone would be with us in two minutes at 6:30pm, we were still hanging around after 7, waiting for our hosts to make contact. Not the best start to the evening, but they turned up a couple of minutes later, and after umming and aahing over menu choices and signing a disclaimer, we made our way upstairs to the rooms.
I can’t describe the other team’s room because I never saw it, but I can tell you that ours was wonderful. If I told you that it was called “the Boardroom”, you’d probably be getting the right idea. A fantastic, massive, leather-topped wooden table took pride of place in the room. Add to that a portrait of someone venerable at one end and some wooden panelling and you had the impression that whatever happened in this room was important. Especially if it was murder…
As I mentioned above, this game was billed as a murder mystery, and so it won’t surprise you that your job is to track down the killer. You’ve been invited to dinner with Victor Vacant, but on arrival you find he’s been murdered, and unless you can track down the killer, you’ll be next.
Inside the room
Well, before we go any further, let’s make one thing clear. This is absolutely an escape room. Admittedly you don’t have to leave the room to win, but that’s true of many other games and if a clear exit game puzzle structure isn’t enough, then the exit finale here is catching the murderer and saving yourself. In essence, this is a portable escape room, which calls the Somerstown Coffee House home. There are even padlocks, but more of that later.
After the briefing, we got down to business. At this point, we still weren’t entirely clear how much this was escape game and how much it was murder mystery, but as we started to look round the room, we quickly found our feet. It had as much searching as any typical escape room, which is impressive, given they’d had to make use of an existing room and couldn’t customize it. Naturally, that limited their hiding places, but they’d worked well to make it difficult, through some ingenious use of the room itself, but also through hiding in plain sight.
One thing that’s worth saying at this point, is that the two rooms were fundamentally different. We’d ended up in a much bigger room with more scope for hiding places, whereas the other team (with an extra person!) had ended up in the small room where they kept on getting in each other’s way. The clues in our room were mainly physical, but in the other room a couple had been replaced by cards. To take an extreme example – the other team had one set of clues required for the final challenge sitting on the table throughout the game, but ours were hidden in a locked box until almost the end.
It’ll come across throughout this review, but that really grated on me. I’d organised to play two versions of the same room, and while most of the differences were small, they added up, and most importantly, they weren’t all necessary – the clue pieces should have been identical and the clues on display should have been the same. I’ll accept that the nature of the venue meant they couldn’t get identical rooms and so had different hiding places, but the rest was their choice.
My real complaint though, and the one for which I find it very hard to forgive them, is that they’d mis-set the rooms. Some of the clue pieces had been put in the wrong places. In fact, in the wrong rooms. Worse still, they didn’t admit this. They quietly retrieved the said item from one room and then hid it in the other. The result? One team got confused because a piece they thought they had, had disappeared (only to find it again in a locked box!) and the other team had to re-search the entire room, only to find a piece turn up where they’d already searched. Afterwards, when the other team described how they’d found a piece unexpectedly it all started to make sense. If you think that all sounds bad, then it gets worse – one of the clue pieces had to be taken out of our room temporarily, so that they could copy the information on it, on to the corresponding clue piece for the other room. That’s not just mis-setting the room, that’s not play testing the kit.
There were a couple of other failures with the clues. As alluded to earlier, there were combination lock and (disappointingly) it was heavily based on four digit combinations, so lots of the clue pieces had numbers on them. Unfortunately they were starting to rub off, so it was hard to find the numbers (fair enough), and not always clear what they were. Bad enough when you have to try a single lock, but when there are eight or ten to go through, it gets frustrating to have to try two or more combinations on each.
The finale puzzle was nicely set up and a refreshingly different idea to most escape rooms, so kudos to whoever thought it up. It was spoiled for me however, by a couple of the pieces not being set up correctly, which meant there was a different way of interpreting the puzzle. We might have got the solution quickly, but the game host accidentally (I assume) confused us. We were doing the right thing, but it wasn’t obvious to him and in giving us a clue, he made us assume our current approach was wrong and so we backtracked, which likely wouldn’t have happened if the two pieces I mentioned above had been set up correctly.
One team survived, but the other team did not. I wasn’t on the right team… As you’d expect with a murder mystery, where it’s not as clear cut as a combination lock and you only get one shot, both teams went right down to the wire, but while the other team were fairly confident, we were still bemused.
I’d like to say we were let down by the inconsistencies between the rooms, but I don’t think they harmed us massively, and I know that the other team definitely were harmed. They were just better on the day.
All of the above leads me to believe that they’ve never run two of these in parallel. Most of it could have been avoided if they’d kept the two kits separate and made sure to practice with each of them individually beforehand – all in all, it came across as very amateur. This wasn’t just mis-setting a room (which happens from time to time, even with the most professional organisations). This was a catalogue of errors from both hosts on the night, and from the original prep in the room.
I desperately want to say we were beaten because of poor puzzles, but I definitely can’t, because the other team got out. I think under the covers, this is a good game, but the word “amateurish” keeps coming back to me. This was not the smooth flowing event that I’d hoped for, from the moment when we arrived, and the bar staff looked at us blankly (hint: codewords are cool, but telling us that there’s a room booked in a specific name would avoid a lot of confusion), through the start of the game when we waited for a waiter to take our food order for almost twenty minutes, through the game itself where clues were missing, sometimes difficult to read, each team was given slightly different versions of the game and one team’s food arrived half way through the game, to the end, where there wasn’t a great wrap up from our host and we had to get the other team to explain where we’d gone wrong (which they were more than happy to do…).
Putting aside the hosting, the raw puzzles were OK. There wasn’t much variety, but they were all logically solvable(or at least would have been if we had searched better and not had problems with the clues…) and there was an effort to make them, if not immersive then at least, on theme. If that had been all there was to it, then it would have been a little disappointing, but the murder mystery element had been nicely woven into the escape room theme adding to it rather than dominating. Personally, I’ll never really be a true fan of murder mysteries – I like there to be a definitive answer, and murder mysteries are far too vague; about circumstantial evidence rather than proof – but this was definitely nicely constructed.
I’m sitting here, three paragraphs into the verdict, still trying to work out what I think. Yesterday I was feeling quite negative about the experience, and wouldn’t have recommended. Today I’ve got a bit more perspective. This has the potential to be a good game, but needs a a lot more care with the room setup, a little work on the clues and better co-ordination with the pub. Polish these things up, and I think they’ll have a lot of happy customers.
As mentioned above, we ate in the rooms. One team during the game, and one afterwards. The food was good, although the desserts didn’t live up to the main course standards (my sticky toffee pudding did have a date stone in it, so they were authentic desserts at least!). Whether you go for the Tapas or more normal pub grub, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. One thing I’d worried about beforehand, was that we might be given a small set menu to order from, but happily you’ve got the full menu to choose from, and then they take your £13 paid to Agent November as a prepay. Even better, the room’s booked for two hours (and they weren’t in a hurry to kick us out), so it was a wonderfully relaxed evening.
Detailed Room Ratings