Cambridge, Aug 2017
For some reason both the escape game venues currently open in central Cambridge use room designs from Hungarian company TRAP. I played most of the TRAP games in Budapest some years ago, but Armageddon is one of the designs that didn’t exist at that time, so I happily booked in to try it when passing through town. I remembered the Budapest TRAP rooms as as solid and slick mass-market games, but then they were some of the first escape rooms I ever played, so I didn’t have much to compare them to.
Lockhouse had a busy foyer with plenty of interesting games and distractions, and a friendly host who did the game briefing energetically in character. The story is that an asteroid is on course to smash into Earth and obliterate humanity, and the missile defence system that could save us has mysteriously malfunctioned; naturally you have exactly one hour to fix it and save the planet.
First impressions were a little weaker than I’d remembered from the Budapest TRAP games: lockers and other conveniently padlockable items, with a variety of posters and decorations, and puzzles mainly based around finding padlock codes by using whichever pieces of information look most like clues rather than anything based in the narrative.
The decor improved as we played through the game, with a particularly nice set piece around the game end, and with more interesting and varied puzzles, which became increasingly naturalistic as the game reached its conclusion.
There was a particular skill-based puzzle that looked great fun, but which quickly became frustrating – I say ‘skill-based’, but the frustration was that it appeared to come down to little more than luck. That probably sounds like sour grapes, but after the game the operator seemed to have equal difficulty demonstrating how to do it. The quickest way to solve it was to ignore it and brute-force the answer, and in fact we received a hint suggesting we do so, though in the end I managed to get the answer in the intended way.
Trying a code in each of several places may be perfectly satisfying when the correct lock is found. If a team is focused on just getting to the answer, finding it by trying each of five or ten possibilities may feel as good a solution as any. Still, I consider it a mark of quality and elegance of design when clues resolve clearly and unambiguously to a single answer, which you can be certain will open a particular lock even before trying it. Armageddon fell short of that in various ways – with a clue that seemed to have three different ways of reading it, with the players expected to simply try all of them; another that had a big element of trial and error; and a third where wobbly wire connections made what should have been a straightforward puzzle unnecessarily ambiguous. None of those were severe enough to compromise the game, they just made it run a little bit less smoothly.
I think our host was also quite inexperienced, and over-anxious to make sure he was doing his job well, with the result that we seemed to receive a clue any time we looked at something and didn’t instantly solve it, and in at least one instance interrupting us when we were on the right track on one puzzle to push us to look at a different one. We made heavy weather of the game and felt that the blizzard of hints (from the lovely custom on-theme hint system) hindered as much as they helped, eventually finishing in 45 minutes – which might sound quite fast, but it didn’t seem a difficult game so I’d expect many enthusiast teams to finish in less time.
The biggest single weakness to my mind was a lock at which the team has a one-shot attempt to open it. It was clearly labelled as such, which is fair enough, but this was a game with a multiplicity of four digit padlocks and no clear direction as to which code goes with which. If you have an instant fail condition in a game, which this effectively was, there should be no element of guessing to it. As it was, we refused to try any code in it until the operator encouraged us to do so. Had there been some clue in the game indicating that this puzzle was the right one to use with the one-shot box, that would have been fine; as it was, it seemed far too much of a gamble to try anything in the lock without game master intervention.
None of that spoilt the game. It felt a bit more messy and ad-hoc in its design than I’d expected, but it’s accessible and well set up for beginner teams, who likely won’t mind a higher level of hand-holding from the host or even notice the points I found frustrating.