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 beginner-friendly (particularly in the 2015 edition), although the 2018 hunt experience suggests that that has changed… Check out the latest edition’s puzzles (and solutions) here!

[Note: The 2018 edition seemed miscalibrated, with no teams managing to reach the entire third round of puzzles. I don’t know if that will change in 2019, but beginners should be prepared to not make it very far in the hunt.]

I’m one of the organisers of this online hunt, which was held for the first time in 2017, running for 48 hours and attracting more than 100 active teams. The 2018 edition ran for 72 hours and saw higher participation. The next edition is likely to happen in early 2020, schedules permitting…

Australian hunts
The Melbourne University Mathematics Society and Sydney University Mathematics Society both (used to?) 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 since then we’ve gathered 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 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!

Some thoughts on the Singapore Puzzle Hunt

It’s been rather more than a month since the first Singapore Puzzle Hunt took place, which means I should really get around to putting down some thoughts about it.

The intention of the Singapore Puzzle Hunt was to introduce people who might be interested — in practice, mainly fans of escape rooms and the REG series — to the world of puzzle hunts. My focus, in particular, was to get them familiar with puzzle hunt staples such as Morse and semaphore. I think we ended up with a representative spread of common extraction methods as a result, although the puzzles were otherwise conservative in format, rarely straying from the identify-solve-extract framework (the need to sort was removed from several puzzles during the editing stage, to make them simpler).

Was it actually a good hunt for beginners, in the end? Well, if the feedback forms are anything to go by, almost all participants were kind enough to say they’d be interested in similar outings in the future. One issue if a 2016 hunt happens (and I hope it does) will be balancing between providing a challenge to teams who’ve now got the basics, yet keeping it accessible to complete newcomers.

Which might be a good point at which to talk about puzzle difficulty and the spread thereof. Leaving aside the meta (which, even in vastly simpler form, was still probably unfairly difficult), both the mean and median number of puzzles solved was six out of 12, while the mode was 6.5 — for whatever that’s worth. Might it have been better to aim for the average team being able to solve three-quarters of the hunt, maybe? I’d personally be inclined in that direction, but philosophies might differ.

A bigger issue, which I think is easier to agree on as an actual problem, was the uneven variation in how solvable puzzles were. The solve rates, grouped roughly, fell like this:

100% 96% 88%
71% 71%
29% 25% 21%
4% 0%

I’d personally have preferred the toughest puzzles to bottom out at around a 20% solve rate, and for more puzzles at around 60% – 70%.

I think the 2015 hunt has certainly given us a better sense of what does and doesn’t work for first-time solvers; a massive flaw in the organising process was a lack of test-solvers without prior puzzle hunt experience (partly because we wanted such people to take part in the actual thing instead!).

Puzzles aside, other things that bear thinking about for 2016 are hint systems and how best to integrate interactive elements. I imagine a lot of internal discussion when the time comes. But at least one takeaway from the 2015 hunt should not be controversial: the constantly-updated leaderboard, which was originally meant for the hunt organisers’ own reference but swiftly became popular with the teams.

Different kinds of challenges (and my biases)

There are many different ways in which an escape room or event could be considered challenging, which is also why I stick to just considering puzzle difficulty rather than overall room difficulty on my review blog.

What constitutes an enjoyable or meaningful challenge is probably something that each individual gamer will have to decide for themselves (if at all), but here’s my own entirely biased take on things. Roughly in increasing order of personal preference, here’s a list of different ways in which a room might be challenging. (I’ve left out “bad/ambiguous/illogical puzzles”, since I’m not sure anyone actually sets out to do this.)

– Simple mismatch between a reasonable expected solving time and the actual time allotted. Simply giving 45 minutes instead of an hour could make all the difference between a tough but fair room, and an unreasonably difficult one.

– Tedious puzzles. One escape room company in Singapore is (was?) notorious for having puzzles that required large amounts of counting or visual searching. There’s no thrill in such drudgery. This can also be a problem when puzzles aren’t innately tedious but “go on too long” — for instance, having to play a sequence of 20 musical notes instead of 10. It doesn’t take additional skill to do so, just more time.

– Hard logistical constraints. Darkness is a common one, especially when combined with a limited number of torchlights. I personally find this a cheap way to increase the difficulty. Dim lighting is fair if you want to obscure the existence of a clue or create an atmosphere, but it shouldn’t be used to make up for puzzles that are too few or too easy.

– Red herrings. I think rooms shouldn’t be so bare that clues and puzzles become obvious, but neither do I think rooms should have red herrings which are too numerous or simply unfair (those which match an existing puzzle, say).

– Memory work. I can see the argument for this being a valid skill to test, but it just doesn’t improve the experience for me.

– Computational work and complex logic puzzles. I can solve simultaneous equations, a sudoku, or a logic puzzle in my own time, were I so inclined; if I’m in an escape room, I’d appreciate more relevant, site-specific puzzles.

– A strong need for teamwork, including co-operation, communication, and human resource allocation. Split-start rooms are a good example, as well as events which might require a team to split up. Not only can this liven up the room experience, it also allows for clever or inventive puzzles. Most split-start rooms don’t stay that way for long, though, which I think is a good idea.

– Requiring physical precision or dexterity. This can be a particularly fun or refreshing element to have, especially after the first generation of escape rooms which were more lock-and-paper affairs. I do appreciate rooms which require a bit of this, but like everything else, it can be taken too far. Although they’re called escape rooms, I think the genre is generally thought of as highly reliant on puzzles and problem-solving, rather than mere skill in carrying out physical tasks.

– Need for searching and/or keen observation. Having clues that are just hidden enough can improve the experience of an escape room, compared to having the puzzles obviously laid out for you. Of course, there’s still a difference between a room that requires tedious searching (e.g. several shelves of books, all of which need to be checked; lots and lots of drawers) and one with clever hiding places (e.g. a key stuck to the underside of a drawer).

– Intuitive leaps. I personally feel that the core of a good puzzle is the central intuitive leap, or the aha, as it’s commonly known in the puzzle hunt tradition. Everything else after that is just some variation on execution, even if it’s non-trivial. A good aha might be particularly clever, apt, or creative; it also has to be fair.

A completely personal escape room wishlist

As above.

– For companies which currently combine teams to just stop doing so. In practice, if would-be players see that a slot is partially filled, do they really tack themselves on? How much extra profit do companies really get from such an unfriendly room policy?

– More old-school technology or mechanics, not just flashy electronics. Some of my favourite parts of the European escape rooms I’ve tried were their hands-on mechanical aspects, such as using a typewriter or filling a bottle with water in order to make something float to the top. Closer to home, the now-defunct Mysterious Lab room at Phantom Joker (I keep referring to defunct rooms because I don’t have to worry about giving spoilers) had one puzzle requiring teams to pipette water into a plastic container. That sort of hands-on work feels more real and thus more satisfying, to me, than punching buttons on some digital contraption.

– Fewer scary rooms, or at least not rooms which are so scary that they hamper puzzle-solving. The fact that practically all of Trapped SG’s rooms are marketed specifically as being scary means that I am very unlikely to try them.

– No more reliance on darkness as a cheap way of ramping up the difficulty. It can sometimes have a place (the use of darkness was one highlight of Phantom Joker’s Spooky Forest room), but if it’s not actually relevant to puzzle-solving, then dim lighting should just be atmospheric instead of an obstacle.

– No puzzles that rely simply on tedious execution.

– A greater variety of puzzles, and in particular, fewer of those straightforward matching ones. Yes, yes, I have an issue with matching puzzles. But honestly, in their simplest form they barely even count as puzzles: you’re literally just matching a given set of symbols with a given key. What’s the fun in that? At least hide the key somehow, or give some twists to the formula.