Outside the room
New Year’s Eve and I’d made plans with friends for an escape room crawl. We’d plotted a route we could visit in a day and decided that a convenient start would be up in Andover. Fortunately, the owner was kind enough to open up at 9am so we could make an early start. It was easy enough to find, and we confidently threw the car into a one-hour parking zone just round the corner and headed up.
It’s a smallish place inside, but we were greeted warmly by the owner and had a chat in the waiting area before being briefed and heading into the room.
Your poor old aunt Alma has been growing increasingly paranoid over recent years. Since the passing of her husband and the pay out of his sizeable life insurance policy, she has suspected the entire family has been trying to steal the inheritance. Now that she has been forced into a nursing home, she is appealing to you, her favourite relatives, to enter her home, retrieve some personal belongings, and arrange to have them sent to her. The inheritance is carefully hidden somewhere in Alma’s home, and it’s protected by layers of tricks and traps.
Inside the room
As we entered the room, I seemed to have been thrown back into my Gran’s house. Well almost – there was a little bit too much in the way of 80s stuff for my gran, but it was a nice caricature of a pensioner’s accommodation with the usual clutter you might expect. There’s a little more in the way of red herrings (or props that can potentially act as red herrings) than your average room, but I don’t think that in itself proved to be a problem. What it does mean, however, is that, if you get stuck, there’s a lot of stuff to look through before you’re confident you need to ask for help.
We were given a hint as we walked into the room about where to start, but we pretty much ignored it and ransacked the room just as usual. Eventually, we came back to that hint and tried to find the corresponding puzzle. It seemed utterly impossible to us. We had a theory but surely that couldn’t be right? Surely no one would create a puzzle like that in an escape room. Unfortunately they had. The puzzle they asked us to solve required outside-the-room knowledge. This is in a domain where you genuinely might know almost nothing because of a lack of interest or being the wrong age, where even if you did know something, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t know it well enough for it to be of even vague help.
The first puzzle in a game is critical. It sets the tone for the room. It tells you what’s in the designer’s mind. It can set your trajectory for the rest of the experience. By the end of that first puzzle, I was frustrated with the game and had lost faith in all the future puzzles. Truth be told, the remaining puzzles were logical but I approached them all with trepidation. Granted, they’d only installed this extra puzzle the night before and the likelihood is that they’ll change it based on our feedback but, for our experience, it weighed heavily.
Thereafter, things went much more smoothly. Some of the clues and props you need felt a little bit cheap and flimsy but it’s not all the sort of low-tech puzzles that you might expect for a game in a relatively small town. There were three or four moments during the game where they’d managed to do away with the padlocks that they could easily have fallen back on and instead used technology to make the experience a little more engaging.
Escape isn’t the only purpose in this room. There’s also a quest to pick up your Aunt’s possessions along the way. Usually I like that because it can tend towards a more open game, where you might be following separate puzzle trails for each item, and because you get a sense of progress. There was some sense of progress but it wasn’t amazingly even (not helped by being stuck at the beginning for fifteen minutes), and the game was almost entirely linear with the possessions becoming available pretty much in passing (albeit that you might have had access to them earlier). Overall still a positive, but it felt a little tacked on to prevent you accidentally bypassing puzzles.
We escaped in 40:27 having taken two clues. One of those was for a virtually insoluble puzzle, and the second for something that was staring us right in the face and I still can’t believe we missed…
I always dislike writing a negative review, especially when it’s obvious the owner has poured a lot of love into creating the experience, but I just didn’t enjoy this game. That first puzzle ruined the experience and the rest of the game didn’t have enough in it to ever pull me back from that disappointment. The puzzles weren’t very exciting, the set worked but wasn’t inspiring, and the occasional use of technology was a bonus but not earth-shattering.
The thing that really worries me is that the first puzzle never seemed like a good idea. Sure, people have bad puzzles in their rooms with leaps of logic all the time but often, once you’ve created a puzzle, it’s very hard to see its flaws. The flaws here were obvious – any enthusiast or designer of any experience who had the puzzle described to them should immediately have realised it was testing pub quiz-style knowledge rather than puzzling skills.
Once they’ve fixed that first puzzle, I expect beginners to have a fun time in this experience. I can’t recommend it to experienced players, though – there’s nothing here that really stands out once you’ve played a few games.
Detailed Room Ratings