Paris, Jul 2017
Houdini is a prison escape game with a twist. The briefing describes how Houdini himself is the only prisoner to escape this jail, and you need to beat his escape time of 60 minutes to prove yourself worthy of joining the great man on tour. Also, there’s something about a theatre performance. That might sound a bit incoherent, and I can’t say the plot makes a whole lot of sense on paper, but it worked much better in practice than that suggests. It took a standard jail escape scenario and mixed in a very different sequence, successfully combining different styles of game in a way that made both more interesting.
The game opens with a familiar prison setup, though one that looks great and is executed with a lot more creativity than most similar scenarios. In this section, for once a maximum size team will give the best experience – though for most of the rest of the game you’re better off with only two or three, since it’s mostly linear and some of the content will leave additional players standing waiting for their turn to get involved. I guess my recommendation is that you could attempt this game with either a small or a large team, and either way the team size will be well suited to some parts of it and less well suited to other parts.
Be warned that one point in the game provided a puzzle clue in French with no English translation – though the operator stepped in promptly to help there, and the rest of the game is entirely suitable for English speakers. (One other point arguably relied on local cultural knowledge, though we managed to bumble through that by accident anyhow.)
It would be possible to hate this game. A great many of the puzzles, from the outset to the end, are designed with admirable fidelity to the Houdini theme, meaning a whole lot of physical manipulation, trick mechanisms and ‘a-ha’ moments. Much of it reminded me of puzzle boxes, the trick containers that you sometimes find in escape rooms or in pre-game waiting areas, where the box only opens if you hold it in the right way and move this panel first, and then hold it there in just the right way. I consider puzzle boxes to be a poor choice for escape rooms, because when you know the trick they’re straightforward, but if you don’t they can be near impossible to work out, particularly under time pressure. Plus they can often only be worked on by one player at a time, and if players are struggling, there’s only so much the game master can do to help. And while Houdini Escape doesn’t involve any puzzle boxes, several of its puzzles can be criticised on the same grounds.
On the other hand, this style of puzzle fitted the game theme beautifully. Where you don’t see the trick and need the operator to help you through, it might be frustrating; but when you get it, you feel like a proper escape artist. There is an element of showmanship in this game, and its genius is that at its best it guides you into the starring role, letting you fill Houdini’s shoes for a while, performing amazing feats of escapology.
This game has flaws, but it is also varied and distinctive with many memorable and even spectacular moments. As an experience it varies for different players within the same team, and it would be very possible to play it and have a frustrating time. With some games I can be confident that anyone playing them would have a great time, and that’s not the case here – but in its highlights, and when it goes well, it is outstanding.