Outside the room
I’ve been well aware of Clue HQ for a long time, partly because of their reputation of providing hard rooms, and partly because they first opened in Warrington, where I grew up. In fact, were it not for that reputation of providing tough rooms, I’d almost certainly have visited on a previous family visit. It seemed foolhardy to attempt one of the toughest rooms in the country with just two people, so I bided my time until I could get a few of us up to see what all the fuss was about.
Sometimes though, if Mohammed won’t come to the mountain, the mountain has to come to Mohammed. When I heard about them opening a site near London I was excited to be able to play with a full complement of escapers and see how we fared against the northern powerhouse. That in itself would have been pretty exciting, but when I realised it was opening at the Secret Nuclear Bunker, it was like Christmas had come early!
There was only one small problem – the venue was about an hour’s drive away from home, along the M25, so with my usual habit of going on weekday evenings I was going to be hitting rush hour, and arrival times were going to be somewhat hard to predict. No matter – we’d aim for dinner beforehand, and if we were running late, head straight to the bunker instead. With two rooms though, that meant battling through traffic twice, so I hatched a devious scheme to play both games in one evening, and bring along two groups of people to play each room.
That was the plan, but then eight out of the nine people said they fancied joining me on my insane double mission and the ninth caved when they saw the lay of the land. So it was that on a miserable, rainy, dark and dreary night in November we braved the motorway and headed over to Brentwood for my fourth session of back-to-back escaping.
If you can find your way, this is without a doubt the most impressive entrance to an escape venue that I’ve seen. Half a mile along a single track road with hedges on each side, before turning off along a dirt track with a “Private No Admittance” sign, in the pitch black. Playing Bunker 38 after that intro felt absolutely right!
The franchise operator, Paul, greeted us on arrival and gave us a brief rundown of where he was – rooms were complete, waiting area was still in progress (although I’ve been to several worse waiting areas that were supposedly finished!) and they’d had a few groups through the doors, but were still getting the hang of it. Both games masters were friendly, but they didn’t yet have the smoothness that experienced hosts bring to the table. That wasn’t a big deal though, because both rooms had video introductions to set the scene.
Soon enough the remainder of the teams turned up (I wasn’t kidding about the “if you can find your way” comment!) and we dived on in.
Bunker 38 was the first room the original Clue HQ opened and tells the story of a group trapped in a nuclear bunker who, having weathered the nuclear storm and fallout, have realised they’re down to the last hour of air and need to leave. Their team leader knew the details of how to escape, but unfortunately died of radiation poisoning not long after they entered the bunker…
Inside the room
The video introduction takes place in the room itself, but I resisted the urge to start scouting things out until the intro was over and the clock had started counting down. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: It’s a minor quibble, but I like briefings to take place outside, so that you’re thrown into the pressured environment without any time to get used to the area and almost feeling overwhelmed about where to start.
The video over, we jumped in. I quickly gravitated towards an obvious physical puzzle which I thoroughly enjoyed. When it comes to physical puzzles, I’m usually a bit of a voyeur – I often find myself watching someone else solving them (notably so in Escape Plan Ltd) and find that just as much as fun as being involved myself. With mental puzzles, usually as soon as you’ve worked out the puzzle, the solution is there instantly, but with phsyical puzzles (and this one in particular), you can know exactly what you have to do, and then it’s all about being patient. That’s exactly the sort of puzzle you want at the start of the room, because it’s very hard for the host to predict how long it will take, and they can’t (easily) give clues.
On the subject of clues, I’m going to single out one puzzle for my ire. One of the padlocks in the game couldn’t be unlocked with the information present in the room. You needed to have some prior knowledge, and to me that’s a no-no in an escape room. I hope they change this up, and I wonder whether it was present in the original Warrington version – I can’t help but feel it would have long since been weeded out if so.
While there were definitely some novel puzzles in here, the aforementioned padlock was a very long way from being the only one, which always leaves me feeling a bit disappointed. In particular we had to try four digit codes in several different locks, which gets very tedious, very quickly. And, if you were looking for technological puzzles, you’d also be disappointed – I can’t think of a single example across either room we played.
In fact, the vast majority of puzzles were basically trying to spot some sort of number in the room, and the solutions were rarely part of the theme. They might make use of a legitimate prop, but the solutions weren’t realistic or woven into the narrative. Almost from start to finish, it felt like we were solving arbitrary puzzles to get a code or key to unlock a new puzzle.
That isn’t inherently a criticism, particularly for relatively new players. Go in with your eyes open and I don’t think it will be a big problem. It didn’t spoil the game for me – it’s just that they missed out on making me excited about it.
There was a much more impressive theming angle though – there’s something incredibly special about playing Bunker 38 at the Secret Nuclear Bunker on a dark and dreary night. I was in the mood for this game just from the journey across, and was glad it happened to be the first room we played – it’s almost a shame that they can’t take you direct from the pitch black outside and straight into the room without any briefing at all!
Finally, there was one minor issue with the room not being set properly, but they handled that reasonably well, and I’m sure they’ll fix their script to avoid it in the future.
We escaped with 15 and a bit minutes to spare. There were a few clues along the way, which I think is pretty inevitable for this room. Having said that, with the exception of the puzzle mentioned above, all the clues we required felt like we hadn’t done our observation/searching job well enough, so it’s the number of puzzles that make clues inevitable, not each individual puzzle.
This was a solid, but not exceptional, room. I’d hyped up Clue HQ in my head, and it didn’t meet those high expectations. Admittedly, as a new room/location it still had some teething problems to work from, but even after those are resolved, this game wouldn’t have excited me. That said, it’s in a stunning location, with no other escape locations near by, and if you’ve not played many escape rooms I still think you’ll thoroughly enjoy it, so I’m sure they’ll be successful.
We went to the Eagle Pub beforehand. The food was very good – home made to order, with good sized portions. Service was outstanding – I emailed them in advance and they were very helpful, then on the night they understood we had somewhere to be at 8pm and made sure everything was ready on time. Nice traditional pub too!
Detailed Room Ratings