On a couple of occasions during February 2017, I passed through Glasgow and played some escape rooms. This wasn’t like my usual tourist visits where I tried to play all the best games available. Instead, we picked up a handful of games each time that were convenient due to their route or bookability or based on what my teammates hadn’t played. I still think it’s useful to package them up as a tourist-style review, but I urge you not to use this post as a definitive guide for what is or isn’t good in Glasgow.
Overall, I felt that the games were pretty weak. While I didn’t play every game available, I did play a good proportion of them and travelled with teammates who’d played most of the rest. Of all the games I played, and the other games I heard about, only Pollok House’s Escape the Past was noteworthy. If you’re in the area, I’d recommend dropping by on that one if you don’t mind detouring to (probably) the wrong side of Glasgow for you.
Pollok House – Escape the Past (4 stars)
In case you’ve never heard of it, Pollok House is a National Trust site just to the southwest of Glasgow. It’s pretty much what you’d expect: a stately home with pretty gardens, a gift shop, a tea shop… somewhere nice to spend an hour wandering round. Probably more so in the summer than in February when we were there!
Don’t do what we did and trek up and down the frontage looking for a way in. The escape room itself is with all the other commercial activities, which you access via the back of the house. It’s not at all well signposted but, if you head for the gift shop, you’ll either find a sign or be pointed in the right direction. Although it’s not attended at all times, they were able to accommodate our relatively late booking, so it’s worth giving them a call if you’re passing nearby.
As you may have guessed, Escape the Past is very much a heritage escape room, run by an organisation that’s trying to entertain while also educating visitors about life in the building. Specifically Edwardian life, with the split between the masters and the servants, the day-to-day life and, of course, the historical artefacts. Yes, this is a game that gives you access to what are, to some extent, museum pieces. In fairness, there are plenty of escape rooms that make use of props from bygone times (Escape Quest’s Curious Encounters, in particular, springs to mind), but there’s something particularly enjoyable about that happening in a “museum” context. And that, of course, is the intention. The very reason for this game’s existence is to try to engage visitors, to get them hands-on with history and immerse them in the environment. Impressively, they also said as we were going into the room that we didn’t need to handle the props with particular care.
First impressions were good: they haven’t devoted a huge space to the game, but there were plenty of props on show for us to get stuck into, and the room, as you might expect, was a good recreation of what you might find in a 19th century stately home… There’s a clear mission and story to the game – working out what the butler’s up to – but, more than anything else, I enjoyed the background that they provided. This was a proper immersive experience where it was clear that each character had a well thought-out persona.
I was pleased to find some solid puzzles on show, so it came as no surprise to discover later that the game had been produced in association with Can you Escape? of Edinburgh. Those puzzles also gave a decent sense of progress: it was clear where we were heading to from early on, and we could see measurable progress towards that. I’d assumed given the setting that none of the puzzles would use anything electronic, but they made good use of various behind-the-scenes triggers to give the room some magical effects.
The one exception to both the automation and the high-quality puzzling was a step where something is triggered manually once the GM believes you’ve made sufficient progress with a particular puzzle. We’d worked out that we didn’t have enough props to finish the puzzle at that stage, so we wasted several minutes ignoring it and looking for a missing prop. It was only when we had given up on everything else in the room that we decided to start working our way through that one. We were correct in our conclusion that it was insoluble at that point but, when we’d partially solved it, the host triggered the extra information to be revealed, leaving us feeling very much like we’d been artificially held back.
Your time in this room is tracked in a beautiful way that allows a digital clock to be used in an Edwardian setting while also pretty much guaranteeing an accurate escape time. The pair of us escaped with 13 minutes left having taken one clue.
Exit Games – Paisley (2 stars)
I was intrigued when I heard about The Exit Games, a new venue opening up in the town of my birth which had been part designed by local school students. It wasn’t clear to me whether that meant significant involvement or just a session to get some publicity, but I was keen to see what they had produced.
The venue itself was a little outside the town, with plenty of parking, and we got an incredibly warm welcome from our GM. Entering the room, it looked pretty, with plenty of engaging pops to investigate. In fact, potentially a few too many, as we’d soon discover that there are a fair number of red herrings to ignore.
The puzzles were entirely linear, leading us from one to the next from the start to the finish of the room. The only problem was that they weren’t always very good at leading us to the next part, and it became more a case of trying to get inside the designer’s mind than solving puzzles. The real low point was an evil escape room trope that required a lot of searching and made assumptions about Sherlock Holmes that were both outside-the-room knowledge and, in our opinion, not actually correct. Add to that some ambiguity in the answer and we were left performing a very, very tedious search for a very, very long time.
I wanted to like this room – it was created with help from students, the staff were welcoming and it’s in my home town – but it really was very poor and not worth visiting even if you’re in the area. (As it happens, it’s subsequently closed down, although it looks like it may re-open at some point.)
Escape Glasgow – Classic Live Escape (2.5 stars)
Escape Glasgow is right in the heart of the city, just next to a small café where you can grab a quick bite while you wait for them to get the room ready. I mention the café because I really have very little to say about this game. That’s partly because there wasn’t much to it and partly because we zoomed through it incredibly fast.
All the puzzles were ridiculously simple for enthusiasts. Very much escape room logic, but at least staying logical. There was one thing that might trip up some teams but, given we’d seen it several times before (including in Glasgow), it didn’t hold us up for long.
There’s no story, the decoration is IKEA-based and there’s really no reason to play unless you’re a first-timer or a completer-finisher and want the collection of rooms at the venue/in Glasgow.
Escape Rooms Scotland Glasgow – Zombie Quarantine (3 stars)
Escape Rooms Scotland is a brand with a presence across the Scottish central belt. Glasgow was their initial branch, and it certainly showed in this game, which I’d describe as an old-school escape room with a twist – there’s a live actor in the room.
This isn’t Trapped in a Room with a Zombie – you’re not constantly harassed by the non-player character and there’s no central mechanic to make the zombie’s presence particularly stressful – but it’s still scarier than your average escape room. As you’d expect with a theme like that, light levels are pretty low, although I didn’t find that a problem when it came to solving puzzles.
The puzzles themselves were solid but nothing special. They all seemed fair and produced logical answers, with the only problem we encountered being related to my abnormally long arms, which allowed me to gain access to a part of the space that I shouldn’t have. The part of this escape room that stands out is most definitely the zombie but, even with that, I’m not sure I really want to recommend this to anyone but first-timers.
Escape Reality Glasgow
Escape Reality is a huge escape room chain that first appeared in Cardiff about a year ago and has been rapidly expanding across the country ever since. They’ve got a reputation in the escape room community for games that range between terrible and OK, with a pretty much universally despised cluing system which consists of giving you a tablet and leaving you to your own devices.
Across the three games we played, we encountered plenty of escape room logic/tropes, invariably including a tedious counting puzzle at some point. The games were generally well presented, although Jungala was much weaker than the rest. While they were usually logical, we struggled with ambiguity in several puzzles that made them significantly less fun than they should have been. Everyone should definitely steer clear of Jungala, and I wouldn’t recommend any of these experiences for enthusiasts.
Jungala (1.5 stars)
There are a few Jumanji-themed games in the UK now, and Escape Reality are obviously proud of their version, given that it’s incorporated in – I believe – all of their venues. The theme lends itself to a combination of childhood fun and jungle decoration with, in the case of Escape Reality, some cuddly exotic animals providing a link across the two styles. To be honest, it came across as quite cheap from my point of view, and at no point in the game did I feel even vaguely immersed. While in theory the story has you trying to escape from the board game, there was nothing in the room that really conveyed that concept to me.
Lacklustre decoration and absence of story don’t prevent a game from being enjoyable, though: a decent set of puzzles can save it from mediocrity. However, that never came close to being the case here. It’s hard to define where they went wrong. First off, an escape room trope that I’m not fond of at the best of times but which here was presented with an ambiguous solution and a poor input system when you’d found the answer. There was a “right” way of creating this puzzle which would have felt natural in the game, but they’d opted to save some money and implement something that grated. To make matters worse, they repeated this trope later in the game.
A second puzzle in the game made me lose the will to live. There were several perfectly valid ways of interpreting some information, and we had to decide which one of them we felt the designer would have chosen. We then had to perform a lot of dull calculations before we found out whether we were right. Make one mistake and you’re screwed – you’ll likely assume your original interpretation was wrong and try a different option.
It’s the sort of puzzle where a good GM would realise that you’ve got the answer and get you back on track but, of course, there’s no such option here. You need to make an active decision about whether or not you need to ask for help via your tablet. Not that the hints from the tablet were actually useful: invariably, they told us something that we had already realised. We would then wait five minutes to press the “answer” button, which sometimes gave us the answer and sometimes gave us something that still wasn’t particularly helpful…
To add insult to injury, there were several staff members hanging around outside who could easily have been monitoring the game rather than just chatting. Escape Reality may have a philosophy of using tablets for clues, but surely if you’ve got the staff on hand, you could get them to monitor the games as well? Every interaction we had with them was great – they seemed genuinely fun, friendly people, so it seems like a missed opportunity to improve the experience.
Maybe I’m just bitter because we failed this room but, to be honest, by the time that happened I’d long since stopped caring. The cluing system had made us so frustrated that we’d given up and were going through the motions. With a proper GM, this game would have been merely slightly disappointing but, with the tablet monstrosity, it was simply horrible.
Whitechapel (2.5 stars)
I’d been incredibly reluctant to go back to Escape Reality, but a friend convinced me to return and try out Whitechapel. At first sight, it was a far better game: pretty decoration, nice furniture and props, and generally a reasonable place to spend an hour. There’s a bit more story to this game as you try to track down Jack the Ripper, although it’s more background than real progression.
The puzzles were similarly dull to the Jungala room although not quite as frustrating. We got similar tropes to the first experience (albeit with slightly less ambiguity), so it was hardly exciting but at least provided a passable time. As with Jungala, they had a repeated puzzle type in the game, although here it was even more flagrant.
The biggest frustration was with the way they inputted date formats. When we went into the room, they told us that some puzzles would require keypad inputs (yes, it was a Victorian-era game but we’ll let it slide…). What they omitted to tell us was what the date format might be. We spent a loooong time trying out ddmm, ddmmyy, ddmmyyyy, dmyy and various other combinations without success. As a bonus, it turned out we’d got the date wrong in the first place, so we got to do it all again. If you’re going to go to the trouble of having a keypad in a room, why not tell people how many numbers it takes? That way, they won’t want to kill you by the end of the experience.
The pair I was playing with had had similar experiences in Escape Reality, so we just skipped the tablet clue system entirely and called someone into the room whenever we were stuck. That worked far better and, while it still utterly broke the immersion, it at least minimised frustration.
Alcatraz (3.5 stars)
This was at least a little more interesting: a split-team start with – presumably – some communication required to continue in the game. Obviously, it wasn’t the most attractive of surroundings, but that was right for this game (a gritty prison-themed room which delivered on that front): a cold, concrete feel with solid bars and a general feeling that there was some potential to the experience.
Again, not much of a storyline, but this was Alcatraz – you don’t need it so much here, because the mission is clear from the start. The first step was to work out which puzzle to try to solve. That’s made easy in all of Escape Reality’s games by giving you a big QR code right next to each puzzle that you can use with the tablet to get help if you’re stuck. Each of the codes has a number next to it, so it’s pretty obvious at any point which puzzle you’re meant to solve next.
The puzzles here were trickier than in other rooms, but also more interesting. It felt like Jungala and Whitechapel were first attempts at escape rooms, whereas this, while still not super exciting, was a step up. I don’t recall any duplication of puzzle types and, although there was occasional frustration in keeping track of which codes we had or hadn’t used, the puzzles didn’t feel particularly ambiguous. There’s an early communication puzzle that seemed far harder than any of the ones we’d seen in their other rooms, so it didn’t come as a surprise when they told us that some people never make it out of their cells at all (which, for the avoidance of doubt, I see as a failing of the GM system – to trap people so early in the game for so long surely isn’t a good thing).
A couple of puzzles did feel a bit weak, including one slightly random use of technology where it felt like there was some missing direction to suggest why a particular solution was the way to go. That was a particular shame, because it didn’t feel like it would have taken much to improve the puzzle and make it far more enjoyable. Overall, though, a reasonable experience and one that means I may try another Escape Reality game again.