Usually with these reviews I am extremely careful not to give anything away, as the entire experience of an escape room can be ruined by a careless spoiler or two. In this case, however, I have no such qualms. The reason is rather sad, to be honest: you will never get to play this game. Escape Hunt ran this mega escape experience within the walls of Boggo Road Gaol for a limited time at the beginning of October 2015, and the gaol is now undergoing residential redevelopment. Note that this escape was somewhat greater in scale than an ordinary escape room, so while the puzzles may be comparable, you are unlikely to get an experience like this is a regular escape room.
Escape Hunt, West End
Difficulty: Not listed
How We Played
84 players (though we went as a group of 5)
Hints: Difficult to keep track of
Approx 90 minutes
Of course, the principle component of the game’s atmosphere was its venue: the brooding and imposing walls of Boggo Road Gaol surrounded us as we puzzled our way out. Where ordinarily you are contained within a single (or small connected) room(s), here we were trapped within an enormous compound. Yet Escape Hunt didn’t simply allow the venue to speak for itself. They did a fantastic job adding story and theme to the experience, with staff members providing prison shirts to all players at the start of the game and acting in roles as both guards and fellow inmates. This not only allowed them to play their roles with gusto (the march into the prison was an enjoyable introduction to the experience, as the guard ordered everyone into lines and barked orders) but also to provide hints and move the experience along without breaking the immersion.
The way this mega escape functioned was streamlined and clever, ensuring everyone had puzzles and activities to solve. Everyone was assigned a group at the start of the game, and each of these groups (I believe there were seven groups of twelve) was assigned a different task that would contribute to the escape. One group had to find the weapons cache, for instance, while another was in charge of taking out the guard. My assigned group was in charge of shutting off any alarms. I can’t speak for everyone in the group, but this role made me feel rather important, as shutting the alarms down seemed central to the escape, and from what I saw of other groups everyone had weighty, significant tasks they needed to complete.
Upon entering, everyone was locked in the cells within one of the prison blocks. At this point we were in groups of three. A simple puzzle allowed us to exit the cell. We were then released into the general cellblock, where another brain teaser was etched to the floor. Once everyone was out of their individual cells, we broke up into our teams, were briefed by the staff in their role as fellow inmates and plotters of the escape, and were released into the prison yard to comb over each cellblock and solve our chain of puzzles.
Escape Hunt developed a clever device that served both as a thematically appropriate way of increasing the tension and a way to keep track of how much time remained. Every ten minutes a bell rang, signifying the appearance of the prison warden at one of two locations: the guard tower overseeing the yard, or on patrol around the perimeter. At these moments, everyone had to hide: behind walls, within cellblocks, wherever you could break line of sight. These moments pulled you away from whatever puzzle you happened to be concentrating on, but reinforced the tense atmosphere so successfully that this didn’t matter. We were, after all, there for the experience, not just the puzzles.
I also must commend the staff for their stupendous efforts in playing their roles, particularly their ability to improvise in a pinch. At one stage, one of my friends got caught by the patrolling guard, point blank, no hope of escape. She immediately attempted to seduce him, at which point he got flustered, mumbled, “Back to your cell, prisoner,” and continued his patrol. All actors managed to create thematically-appropriate ways to circumvent players failing to hide in time, or struggling with puzzles.
Once each group had solved their parallel puzzle pathways (and the guard had been gassed in a very entertaining bit of theatre resulting from one team’s efforts to create a special guard-gassing machine) we escaped into the guards quarters – and then all hell broke loose. Alarms started blaring and everyone raced off to complete their final tasks before the SWAT team arrived. We had ten minutes.
My team stormed into the guard tower where we were confronted by the unconscious guard from earlier. We gleefully emptied his pockets to find the key to the alarm box, opened it up and were confronted with a mess of wires. But which wire to cut? The answer was obvious, but there was a real thrill to re-enacting the “cutting the wire” scene from every action movie ever.
Once everyone had completed their tasks we put together the pieces to the final puzzle and pushed open the enormous wooden gates to savour our freedom. But unlike the real prisoners of Boggo Road Gaol, most of us left wistfully, wishing we could return for more.
Escape Hunt really knocked it out of the park for this one. Even when the puzzles weren’t directly and obviously thematically appropriate, the method of progression always was. The first puzzle, for instance, was a locked box matchstick puzzle (i.e. you are given a pattern made of matchsticks and must move a certain number to make a different pattern). Opening the box revealed cigarettes, which were used to bribe a guard to get in on the escape plan. Ingenious.
I can’t speak for every group’s experiences, but I found the alarm team’s puzzles to be varied and fun. There was a dexterity task (move a loop around a wire maze without touching the edge), an environmental puzzle where a fire alarm beeped out Morse Code, and a spatial reasoning puzzle interwoven cleverly into the theme of shutting down the alarms.
One complaint, and it is really a complaint with the concept of mega escapes like these rather than Escape Hunt’s particular approach, regards the use of railroading, which sometimes felt a little cheap. The problem is that, with a number of different groups working simultaneously on different puzzles, inevitably some groups finish at different times. Unfortunately, I always seemed to be in the first group to finish a particular section (ME SO CLEVER), which meant a lot of waiting around. Staff encouraged players to begin work on the next metapuzzle (that is, the larger puzzle that the smaller ones feed into) while they waited, but neglected to provide crucial pieces of information. For example, in the first puzzle of this type, a series of numbers were grouped on the floor. I figured out that each corresponded to a letter of the alphabet, but got no further. It was not until later that I discovered that the locks we needed to open were colour coded, and the numbers spelled out the colours. After wracking my brains for ten or fifteen minutes on this puzzle, I felt a little cheated that I could have had the solution had I been able to inspect the locks.
In saying that, I don’t know what the solution to this problem is. For the most part, these checkpoints were not egregious, and we were waiting a maximum of ten minutes before everyone had caught up. The whole point of these checkpoints is to keep everyone together, which is a herculean task, and so of course there will be roadblocks like this, and it was a good idea to give the impression they could be solved so everyone had something to think about. If, in future mega escapes like this, they figure out a way to circumvent this problem, I think this could be a perfect experience.
The Bottom Line
I am put in the unenviable position here of unequivocally recommending an experience that you can now never have. This was one of the last times Boggo Road Gaol’s role as a prison was put to use, and I simply don’t think such a unique experience will be possible again in so appropriate a venue. Having said that, I am confident the event was a success for Escape Hunt, and suspect the franchise will be looking to capitalise on similar experiences down the line. Should this occur, I have no hesitation in encouraging you to attend. Keep an eye on our forums and meetup page, as we are sure to call attention to any similar events in the future.