Escaping Tokyo, again (and Hakone)

A recent trip to Japan gave me a chance to try more nazotoki events and SCRAP offerings — one of which apparently exists in San Francisco, in an English version localised for the US market.

SCRAP – Tokyo Metro

The Underground Mysteries 2018 [available in English]
no time limit (within game hours) | no booking required | play-at-your-own-pace puzzle kit

Having missed all previous runs of this game (this is the fifth run, with different puzzles each time), I was glad to finally have a chance to try it. I played with a friend who also knew both languages, allowing us to attempt both the English and Japanese versions. While the flow and puzzles are largely similar, the English version was significantly dumbed down at some points and omitted a couple of puzzles — if you can speak both languages, I’d strongly recommend the Japanese version.

As for the game itself: the early on-the-ground stage felt somewhat uninspired, with not much being made of each area’s distinctive identity. The experience soon improved, though, with better puzzles in store. My favourite escape/puzzle events are those with puzzles that have to be experienced offline, in the physical world. This one certainly delivered, with surprise real-world interactions and great use of various puzzle kit components. RECOMMENDED if you can forgive the less exciting early stages. Now I’m hoping to catch future runs, too.

SCRAP – Tokyo Mystery Circus

Projection Table Game vol. 2 – ある魔法図書館の奇妙な図鑑 [available in English]
60 minutes | booking required | individual/team game

Following the first Spellbound Supper game (still playable in Japanese at SCRAP’s Shimokitazawa outlet), SCRAP’s second projection table game continues to use the interactive video-projection-enabled format to great effect. Compared to its predecessor, this game plays out much more like, well, a game — less escape-room-style puzzle-solving, more figuring out what to do. Clever twists maintain a sense of freshness and surprise. The maximum team size has increased to six, and the endgame is (in my opinion) more forgiving than the previous game. I played this in Japanese since the English version wasn’t yet available; based on that experience, I’d say it’s HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, assuming the English version is similar.

SCRAP – Ajito of SCRAP, Shimokitazawa

アイドルは100万回死ぬ [Japanese only; English adaptation available in the US]
60 minutes | booking required | individual/team game

A revival of an old game (there’s already a sequel, which I regret not having had the time to play on this trip), this engaging and unique not-an-escape-game experience is comparable to SCRAP Asakusa’s Escape from Hunter X, in its use of time loops and the ability to learn from one’s mistakes — except it goes much further. The gameplay is far more complex and layered, and the use of the time loop mechanism is very clever and deliberate. The experience itself is just pure fun — cute and entertaining. Although our team succeeded, I feel that even teams which fail will have enjoyed themselves. I don’t know how well the puzzles and overall experience were localised for the US version, but based on the original Japanese one, I’d say it’s definitely HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

takarush BLACK LABEL

When it comes to play-at-your-own-pace puzzle kits, I feel that takarush BLACK LABEL beats SCRAP. Its thoughtful and cleverly-crafted games are generally more complex and engrossing, featuring ingenious hands-on components, lots of aha moments, and a rigorous focus on narrative.

星の王子さまと秘密の物語 [Japanese only]
no time limit (within game hours) | no booking required | play-at-your-own-pace puzzle kit

Running at the Little Prince Museum in Hakone, this game is patterned closely to the Antoine de Saint-Exupéry novella; you don’t have to be a fan of The Little Prince to play it, but it certainly deepens the experience, particularly given the dramatic narrative developments. (I found myself genuinely a bit moved at certain moments.) The gameplay itself is fun, as you’ll have to make little discoveries amongst the museum exhibits. A sweet, clever, and satisfying game.

電脳九龍城怨念遊戯殺人事件 [Japanese only]
no time limit (within game hours) | no booking required | play-at-your-own-pace puzzle kit

This is the sequel to the 香港九龍財宝殺人事件 nazotoki+murder mystery game, taking place in the same Anata no Warehouse arcade in Kawasaki. As a result of that, it suffers somewhat in that certain discoveries lack the same sense of surprise. The murder mystery component, while more complex in some ways, had a slightly head-scratching endgame mechanism. But perhaps the game only suffers in comparison to its excellent predecessor — taken on its own, it’s still an engrossing game that’s very much worth playing.


Escaping Tokyo

[Note: See also this more recent post on Tokyo events/games]

I’ve decided to do this as a post instead of a page because Tokyo’s escape-and-puzzle scene seems particularly time-sensitive compared to many other markets. Not because there’s a high rate of room closures, but because the scene features a lot of limited-time-only events.

In Tokyo, I recently played nine escape-and-puzzle activities of one form or another; only four were permanent affairs (and two of those were in Japanese).

The two English-friendly permanent ones I played were, unsurprisingly, the well-regarded Escape from the Red Room and Escape from Hunter X rooms at SCRAP’s Asakusa outlet; more of them over on the general Escaping Elsewhere page.

The others span a wide range of styles. Here’s the breakdown:

SCRAP – Tokyo Mystery Circus

SCRAP’s Asakusa branch and Tokyo Mystery Circus are probably the go-to destinations for English-speaking escape room enthusiasts in Tokyo. The nice thing about Tokyo Mystery Circus is its variety of offerings, from room-based variants (a 10-minute escape, a 30-minute ‘stealth game’), to larger ‘hall’ games (mainly in Japanese but also including the exciting and English-speaker-friendly projection table series) to site-specific, play-at-your-own-pace puzzle kits.

Projection Table Game vol. 1 – Spellbound Supper [available in English]
60 minutes | booking required | individual/team game

This exciting and unique game is for groups of one to five; I managed to get a table to myself, as I was the only one playing in English during that session. The game starts off with somewhat usual SCRAP REG-style puzzles, but it soon becomes something entirely different, with interactive light projections used to clever effect throughout — it’s hard to say more without spoilers, but you’ll have to do all sorts of interesting things to progress. This volume seems to be ending soon, but a new one is on the way. A highlight of my trip, and HIGHLY RECOMMENDED as a must-play for any escape room fan in Tokyo.

A Mystery at Magic Academy Shinjuku [available in English]
no time limit | no booking required | play-at-your-own-pace puzzle kit

This is a very beginner-friendly experience that, correspondingly, may not impress the experienced puzzler. You’ll have to walk the nearby streets of Shinjuku (a handy map is included, so no worries about navigation) to solve fairly tame puzzles; there’s one exciting real-world highlight and some clever moments, but nothing unmissable. There’s no time limit, but the estimated duration is 60 to 90 minutes; we finished it in just about an hour. RECOMMENDED for beginners, NOT RECOMMENDED for veterans.

Mystery Mail Box Global Edition [available in English]
no time limit | timeslot booking required | play-at-your-own-pace puzzle kit

I’m still not sure why timeslots are assigned for this game — to avoid crowding, I guess? This bilingual puzzle kit felt cleverer and more satisfying than the Magic Academy one; although it only took about 30 minutes, it was certainly enjoyable. RECOMMENDED and easy to fit into anyone’s schedule.

Nazotomo Cafe Shinjuku

I’d been intrigued by Nazotomo Cafe’s 765-second offerings since first reading about them years ago, so I decided to put my weak Japanese skills to the test and attempt some rooms solo at their Shinjuku branch. I didn’t do that well, but I’d still be interested in going back to try their other rooms if I get the chance. I’d previously hoped that they would be abstract and language-independent, but they’re quite the opposite — the two rooms I played relied significantly on an understanding of the language, and the staff said that most of their rooms are text-heavy.

おとな小学校 [Japanese only]
765 seconds | no booking required | individual/team room

This was a small but charming game, at least as far as I managed to play it; after a swift start, I failed due to completely misinterpreting a mid-stage puzzle (for puzzle reasons more than language reasons) and thus being unable to proceed. Well worth playing if you have a basic command of Japanese (the game relies mainly on hiragana); the success rate was ~20+% when I visited.

スピリチュアルレポーター殺人事件 [Japanese only]
765 seconds | no booking required | individual/team room 

This bite-size murder mystery was cute and clever; I managed to solve it, thanks in no small part to the interesting in-room guidance provided by video narration (which undoubtedly accounts for the room’s >70% success rate when I played).

takarush BLACK LABEL

I haven’t quite figured this out, but takarush seems to be a “Real Treasure Hunting” (リアル宝探し) outfit that offers limited-run escape/puzzle event kits, often in conjunction with various partners. Their BLACK LABEL series is for adults, which just seems to mean “more difficult” — and impressively so. Pre-set hints are available on each game’s website; it’s nice to have that option.

香港九龍財宝殺人事件  [Japanese only]
no time limit (within game hours) | no booking required | play-at-your-own-pace puzzle kit

This was probably my favourite escape/puzzle experience in Tokyo (and one of my favourite ever?). Held in collaboration with the famous Kindaichi manga series and the Instagram-worthy Anata no Warehouse arcade in Kawasaki, this site-specific, part-puzzle-solving, part-murder mystery extravaganza unfolded over some three hours (for us, anyway). No advance booking is required; you turn up, purchase a puzzle kit, then explore the warehouse to solve puzzles and receive new parts of the mystery. It’s hard to say more without giving away spoilers, but this had some of the cleverest puzzle-piece-reusing and most chill-inducing aha moments of anything I’ve ever played. A must-play if you know Japanese; the run was recently extended until July 1. [edit: A sequel is now being staged through 12 May 2019!]

古書店まんせい堂奇譚  [Japanese only]
no time limit (within game hours) | no booking required | play-at-your-own-pace puzzle kit 

This was an extremely text-heavy experience, which is why we ended up requiring some three hours (and several hints) to solve it, instead of the estimated two hours. Although it had fewer site-specific elements and far fewer dramatic reveals than the other takarush event, the reuse of puzzle kit elements was similarly masterful — to the extent that I probably appreciated it more for the cleverness of its construction than anything else. Worth playing if you are reasonably fluent in Japanese and appreciate puzzle construction.

Costs and closures

The start of a new year offers a good excuse to take a look at the escape room industry in Singapore. Maybe it’s just leftover pessimism from 2016, but things don’t look great…

Unravel’s closure

In late 2014, we lost the gem of Singapore’s escape room scene, Phantom Joker; in mid-2015, the struggling Mystery Escape closed down (perhaps before news of its Nomis Piy-designed rooms had a chance to turn its fortunes around); last year, we lost Unravel, a great escape room outfit with local-themed rooms.

It’s always a shame to lose lovingly-crafted rooms run by true enthusiasts. High rents probably contributed to Phantom Joker’s closure, while Mystery Escape just never really made a name for itself, but given Unravel’s decent online presence and its location in a minor mall, I have to say that I didn’t see its closure coming. Which also raises the question: are more closures in store?

Signs of struggle?

I take it as a bad sign when an established escape room company goes back to Groupon or starts offering hefty discounts. Worryingly, several companies are starting their 2017 on that note. There have also been several branch closures, some of them done more quietly (Lockdown) than others (BreakOut).

Could it be that the escape room craze has died down? Perhaps the true enthusiasts have played all the rooms there are, and the casual players have satisfied their curiosity without getting hooked…

The danger of TripAdvisor

And then there are other pressures. Besides high rentals (which may have forced one or two branch closures), there’s the old problem of shoddy outfits siphoning away business from more deserving rooms. I’m talking, of course, about U Escape. It is currently ranked #4 in its category on TripAdvisor, ahead of some much better escape room companies.

What can be done? Perhaps I’m part of the problem, in that I haven’t left them a bad review to warn away potential customers (if an escape room company has many rooms, then I try not to leave a TripAdvisor review on the basis of a single room — and for obvious reasons I haven’t wanted to try a second U Escape room).

I have no conclusion

But perhaps U Escape is also an easy scapegoat. Maybe the market is just proving too tough; or maybe it has always been tough, and for the past few years, escape room companies were running half on optimism alone.

Then again, there might be reasons to be optimistic. Existing companies are staying busy. Xcape’s Funtasy and Haunted rooms are good additions to the escape room landscape, and the continued expansion suggests that they’re not doing too badly. The Escape Artist opened a new branch with some very extensive rooms at Sentosa Gateway. We have BreakOut’s new rooms, LOST SG is finally changing out one of theirs, and even Escape Hunt showed that it can improve.

I still suspect that we will see at least one closure in 2017, and I fear that — as with Phantom Joker and Unravel — it will be the closure of an escape room company that deserved to survive. What can be done? I go back to what I’ve always believed in, I guess: if you enjoy escape rooms and want them to survive, then help them do so. Give the company a good review on Facebook, and — crucially — on TripAdvisor. Tell your friends. Spam your Facebook feed. Suggest it to HR the next time they’re planning some team building exercise. If you’ve never even tried to get someone else to play an escape room, then there’s no use mourning when your favourite company closes down.

Three makes a trend


Dusting off this long-neglected blog to post some extremely speculative generalisations about European escape rooms, now that I have finally played rooms in three different cities (Ljubljana, London, and Trieste).

– Hint systems: unsolicited hints or offers of hints seem to be the norm, delivered via TV screens on the continent (sometimes in text, sometimes in picture form, which I quite like) and over audio systems in London. The hints tend to be gentle and tentative, which is great, but I imagine that this has probably become best practice in the international industry by now anyway.

– A stronger focus on hands-on tasks, compared to rooms in Singapore. Which I personally love when it takes the form of creative problem solving, as opposed to e.g. those ball-bearing mazes, which require skills such as finesse and dexterity but less in the way of actual creativity or thought. The two rooms I played in Trieste were great for aforesaid hands-on puzzling; the brand, Enigmarium, has rooms in the general region and seems to be a good bet if you’re going to be in Slovenia/Northern Italy/Croatia any time soon. The different branches all seem to be run by different, dedicated groups of enthusiasts.

– Perhaps it’s just a function of market size or saturation, but in Ljubljana and Trieste, I liked how there seemed to be a small number of high-quality companies run by enthusiasts, instead of the jumble of enthusiast-run and somewhat more cynical/bottomline-driven outfits one gets over here.

– The UK likes its in-character intros and facilitation, but thankfully avoids the practice of having someone actually in the room with you. The rooms in Europe don’t really go in for role-playing. Rooms in both places pay more attention to having plot- and setting-relevant puzzles, compared to rooms here.

– Compared to rooms in Singapore, those in Europe tend to lack tedious puzzles, and pack in a higher number of puzzles instead. I appreciate this a lot.

– There’s a bit more searching than you might get in Singapore rooms, but it doesn’t feel as irritating, whether that’s thanks to interesting hiding places, or searching for physical objects instead of e.g. hard-to-find text.

Another brief look at Japan

Hat-tip to Exit Games UK for finding the Nazotomo site, which seems to be an aggregator for user-contributed reviews of live puzzle events or “real games” across Japan.

(The site has listings for events by other companies, including the genre giants SCRAP, but it’s actually run by Nazotomo Cafe — part of Namco, as in Japanese entertainment giant Bandai Namco. Nazotomo Cafe operates, well, cafes: you show up, “order” a room from their selection, and have 765 seconds in which to clear it, as their handy intro video shows.)

Some observations:

– The genre does seem to be event-heavy: the listings are of events, and the About page talks about the genre as comprising events rather than rooms. Also interesting is the framing of these “real games” as “puzzle-solving events” — a clear indication of the extent to which the genre has evolved beyond escaping.

– Their tagging system gives a little insight into how players might think about such games. Practically all events are classified as “puzzle-solving”, but some also have “logic” or “treasure-finding” aspects. Then there’s the “booking-type” versus “anytime” (or “walk-in”, perhaps) distinction.

– There are a few free events, which seem like a nice way to get beginners interested in the genre. One was held at an IT festival, another was run by a university lab, and one by an airport!

Personally, I find the existence of an industry-wide aggregator run by a specific company interesting in its own right! I can’t see the same being done in the Singapore market, say.

If you like escape rooms, you might like…

Through meeting more escape room enthusiasts, I’ve discovered that there’s a web of vaguely related interests which might appeal to the sort of people who enjoy escape rooms. So here goes:

Puzzle hunts

If you enjoy the puzzle-solving aspect of escape rooms, why not go a step further and try pure puzzle hunts? These complex, multilayered puzzles really operate on a different level, but the key components of a eureka moment (known in the puzzle hunt tradition as the ‘aha’) and rigorous logic are there.

Singapore Puzzle Hunt
I was one of the organisers of this annual live puzzle hunt in 2015 (its first year) and 2016, but left in 2017. Many puzzles were meant to be fairly beginner-friendly (particularly in the 2015 edition), so I think they serve as a good intro to the genre. Check out the latest edition’s puzzles (and solutions) here!

In 2017, I’m one of the organisers of this 48-hour online hunt, which might hopefully become an annual event!

Australian hunts
The Melbourne University Mathematics Society and Sydney University Mathematics Society both hold annual high-level hunts that run for a week. The new mezzacotta puzzle competition looks to be in a similar vein.

MIT Mystery Hunt
This massive annual event is held over just two days with hundreds of puzzles. A very intense experience. A large Singaporean team tackled the 2016 MIT MH together, and we’ll probably aim to gather solvers each year — get in touch over on the SG Puzzlers Facebook group if you’d like to join us!

Murder mystery events

Local escape room organisers have already branched out into this related genre, holding events such as I Know Who Killed You This Halloween and The Mystery Mansion, while new player Changi Revisted brought us the best example of the genre so far in The Hendon Horrors.

Murder mysteries require a somewhat different sort of puzzle-solving, but the combination of intellectual thrill and interactive fun makes them a good fit for escape room fans. If you don’t want to wait around for the next event to be held, you can try Lockdown.sg’s CSI: A Good Night to Die room, which is essentially a murder mystery within a room, and very much worth playing — or Xcape’s extremely fun murder mystery roleplaying game, Shanghai 1943.

At this point I have to mention the fantastic Korean gameshow Crime Scene, which Shanghai 1943 is directly modelled after. Clever celebrity players essentially play a murder mystery game each week, investigating elaborate sets, finding clues, interrogating each other, and piecing together the case. One of them is secretly the murderer, and has to take part in the investigation without being caught.

There are three Korean seasons so far, and the first two are available with English subtitles thanks to an amazing fansubber. The show also has a Chinese adaptation with completely different cases. There are official English subtitles available for both the first season (called Crime Scene) and the second season (called Who’s the Murderer), with a third season starting in September 2017. I’d recommend both the Korean and Chinese versions to everyone.

Board games

This overlap is a little more tenuous, but I think both escape rooms and boardgames count as “fun intellectual challenges”. If you like logic and rigour, there’s a wealth of strategic or tactical games in various genres. If you prefer vague roleplaying aspects, there are many hidden role/hidden objective games, from those that last just fifteen minutes to others that run for three hours, say. If you don’t have boardgame-playing friends, the local Meetup group is a good way to get started and discover new games.

The Genius

For me, this is the pinnacle of puzzle-related television. In this elimination-based reality show, contestants play games of logic, strategy, and manoeuvring. Sometimes there are clever hidden twists or sure-win solutions that a good strategist will spot; sometimes there’s just excellent alliance play, bluffing, and/or backstabbing — often all in the same episode.

If you like the manga series Liar Game or its jdrama/kdrama adaptations, this is basically a real-life Liar Game — and even better, in my opinion. Boardgamers will find a lot to appreciate here as well, with some episodes involving variations on well-known boardgames such as Resistance: Avalon.

The show ran for four brilliant seasons and is available with English subtitles. I’d recommend just giving the first season’s first episode a try to see if you like it: that episode showcases clever game mechanics, social strategy, and nail-biting twists, i.e. everything that makes The Genius a great show. And that’s just an average episode of The Genius. There are some truly brilliant, highlight episodes spread out across the four seasons.

A glimpse of another tradition

Ahead of an upcoming trip to Japan, I wanted to get a sense of the escape room/event scene there (or more specifically, to see if there were any rooms I might want to attempt). I found an amazingly comprehensive Japanese blog/website, なぞまっぷ, which has detailed spoiler-free reviews, real escape news, and tips and techniques, among other things.

I’ve only really glanced around, but my initial impression is that the Japanese real escape ecosystem is very different from that in Singapore and what I’ve seen of Europe. Though SCRAP has a chain of room locations around the country, there still seems to be a focus on events rather than rooms.

I also get the impression that language-heavy puzzles — of the sort seen in SCRAP’s English REG editions and SCRAP-produced REG television shows — and a relative lack of technical frills are the norm, although I leapt to this conclusion based mainly on the fact that the website owner makes a distinction between gimmick-heavy 上海型 or “Shanghai-style” rooms and the SCRAP-style アジト or “secret base” sort.

There’s also an interesting review of Escape Hunt’s Tokyo branch, which is classified under the “secret base” category but described more specifically as a “Shanghai-style room minus mechanics plus quality”. (It was also deemed too easy, but if Escape Hunt’s Singapore offerings are anything to go by, that’s not a surprise.)

I think the most important observation made in that blog post is that Japanese rooms/events have a heavy focus on storyline. Anyone who’s ever taken part in a SCRAP REG will probably agree that even though individual puzzles may seem arbitrary, the endgame is invariably narrative-driven. I’d really like to see how that maps onto an escape room experience — would there still be a lot of paper-based puzzles?

Other points that the blogger made include:

– Compared to Japanese rooms/events, foreign rooms are less likely to have any indications as to how teams should get started.

– Japanese rooms/events tend to require division of labour (I suppose that accounts for why SCRAP’s rooms take up to 10 people), in contrast with Escape Hunt’s more linear approach with fewer puzzles. I think the degree to which rooms are linear does vary a lot within countries, though.

– Apparently SCRAP’s rooms are devilish when it comes to searching!