Escape rooms are appearing all across Brisbane, and it’s no wonder. They offer a unique social activity that can both challenge and entertain. Yet their very nature leads them to be short experiences, usually running for a maximum of one hour. Combined with prices around $30 per person in many cases, this makes for a premium activity. To aid potential room escapees avoid paying for a disappointing experience, Brisbane Geek Social Club has begun posting escape room reviews for Brisbane venues. This is a brief primer to help you understand the reviews and know what to look for to get the best experience from an escape room.
Reviewing escape rooms poses a number of challenges. The primary difficulty is the transient aspect of the escape room experience, meaning that each room can only be experienced once. The one-off and experiential nature of this activity poses two dilemmas. First, one’s enjoyment in many ways depends on a number of factors external to the quality of the room. Maybe the group doesn’t get on with each other. Maybe my head feels stuffy and I get frustrated with the puzzles. These factors may not relate directly to the quality of the room, but will affect the experience.
Secondly, as escape rooms derive their fun from mystery and surprise, it is essential that escape room reviews do not spoil the experience for readers by giving away too much information. However, without some level of detail, how will you know if the room is for you? By explaining my approach to reviewing escape rooms, I hope to provide a sense of how to pick the best room for you without ruining the experience with spoilers.
I separate my reviews into two components: the experience and the puzzles. This allows me to discuss broadly the criteria for an enjoyable escape room. “The experience” covers the more superficial elements of the room: the theme, the staff and venue, and the production values.
First, let’s talk about theming. According to work done by researcher Scott Nicholson, there are four ways theme can be incorporated into an escape room:
- No theme; completely abstract puzzles
- A theme but no story; theme is expressed through room design and decor
- A story is present, but the puzzles are separate to this story
- The puzzles are integrated and meaningful in relation to the story
All four of these are valid and can provide a great experience; none is inherently better than the others. I only make value judgements in relation to how successfully a room achieves what it sets out to do. However, I do have a personal preference for rooms with a story, and integration of story and puzzle design impresses me a great deal. When selecting a room, you should consider what is best for your group. Are you more interested in clever puzzles, in which case too much story could get in the way? Would you like to create your own story in an interesting, unique setting? Or are you more interested in an experience reminiscent of interactive theatre, where your progress may be regulated in order to have a full narrative experience? In terms of value judgements of theme and story, this relates solely to how successfully the room achieves its attempted theme. Is the room design appropriately immersive, or are the props tacky and unrealistic? If there is supposed to be a story, how successfully is it communicated? Does it make sense?
Most rooms provide some kind of clue mechanism, and I will describe this in detail in all cases, as this can often give a sense of whether the room will be relaxed or competitive. My preference is for clues that draw your attention to things you may have missed rather than point out the answers.
Something that is a little more difficult to detail in a review is the sense of surprise that a room offers. Most escape room experiences contain moments when parts of the room are used or reused in exciting and unexpected ways, opening up new possibilities that were not immediately obvious. For obvious reasons, going into details would spoil it, so I err on the side of caution and avoid talking about these. If surprise or secrets are fundamental to the enjoyment of the room, I will mention their existence and give an indication of how enjoyable or clever they are, but little more than this.
Puzzles are similarly difficult to review, as any description whatsoever may rob players of the joy of solving them. In general, in order to get a sense of whether the room is suitable for you, I will hint at the puzzle structure, the variety of puzzles, and their difficulty.
Difficulty is a bit more complex than simply easy or hard. Some puzzles require particular skills that some groups will have and others will not – spatial reasoning, mathematics, lateral thinking etc. Some puzzles even require specialised knowledge of things like music, art or literature. I attempt to describe the kinds of skills required so groups can evaluate their suitability to the task.
The variety of puzzles is also important, as some groups may prefer particular styles. For instance, many escape rooms have a seek-and-find component, where players raid the room to find clues to piece together to solve the puzzles. I have a bias against these, as it can often feel like busywork unless there are interesting hints to the hiding places of particular items. Also, I suck at finding hidden objects. Other puzzles may include physical tasks, brainteasers, or environmental puzzles. I prefer rooms that do not lean too heavily on one type of puzzle, but rather offer a range of different experiences. Technology can often facilitate this, but it is not necessary, as there are plenty of low-tech but innovative puzzle designs. I will flag in reviews if I feel an escape room leans too heavily on a particular kind of puzzle, but this is not necessarily a negative. If your group likes that kind of puzzle, perhaps this is a suitable room for you.
The final, and most complex, aspect to consider when it comes to puzzle design is the structure of the puzzles, or how they all fit together. An important concept to understand here is that of “flow”, which is the extent to which puzzles logically lead to one another. The greater the flow of an escape room, the more clear your path of progression will be. Flow can be applied to both sequential rooms (where each puzzle must be completed in order) to more complex open rooms (where a set of puzzles can be completed in any order but combine to provide the answer to another, larger puzzle known as the meta-puzzle) or path-based rooms (a combination of open and sequential, in which a number of paths are solved sequentially but all contribute to the one puzzle). An escape room will typically include a complex mixture of these three structures.
An escape room with high flow will usually have a clear central goal, and it will be obvious how each puzzle contributes to that goal. Flow removes some of the ambiguity from the experience, so players who want an identifiable task should seek high flow. The other information – whether an escape room is sequential, open, or path-based – can also be helpful when it comes to group size. A room with little flow usually benefits from a larger group, as do path-based models, where the group can separate and work on multiple tasks simultaneously. Open or sequential escape rooms tend to be more enjoyable with a smaller group, as they have fewer parallel activities.
Hopefully this provides some sense of how you can judge whether a particular escape room is suited to your group. I avoid giving ratings or rankings, and instead provide details of what you can expect so you can make a decision. By keeping in mind how concepts like flow, puzzle structure, and theme relate to your group, you can make an informed choice about which escape rooms deserve your money.
For a list of our reviews of escape rooms, click here.