London, Oct 2017
My previous experience of City Mazes, with the four games at their Oxford branch, did not leave me with fond feelings for the company: each game we played seemed badly flawed in one way or another. However, some rumours suggested they’d been trying to make improvements, plus they seem to have switched from creating their own games to purchasing Russian designs, so I headed to their new London branch trying my hardest to keep an open mind.
The Lost Cabin has a plot involving a plane crash and an island, and a mysterious cabin from which you now need to escape. The ‘cabin’ is more of a bunker, and the design style suggests a creepy government-run facility with not quite Cold War vibes.
Cryptic and ambiguous though the plot is, the fact the game has one is a step up from their previous games. It’s higher quality in a number of other ways too. The horrendous old hint system of pressing a button and waiting for the host to walk into the room has been replaced by a much more standard walkie talkie. Nor is there the structure we’d seen before, where the game is split into two mostly unrelated halves to allow the operators to begin resetting the first half while you’re still playing the second half.
It’s also more technologically ambitious, with zero padlocks and a particular sophisticated gimmick that I won’t spell out here but which you’ll probably spot in the promo video on their website, or on the TV screen on loop in their lobby area before the game.
One quirk familiar from their Oxford games was the high level of instruction given by the host at the start of the game, telling us what we needed to find for our final and first steps, and giving us a nudge towards the right starting point. I could sense at least one of my teammates bristling at the unsolicited help (spoilers!), but since the first step switches the lighting from a stressful flashing light to normal lighting, I wasn’t sorry to be given anything that helped us achieve that swiftly.
As with many games designed to avoid padlocks, the challenge is often to work out what types of action may help. A lock gives an obvious goal to aim for – find a key or a code – and without that the search space of possibilities is a lot larger. Lost Cabin struck a good balance here, and more than once we were about to ask for a hint when someone spotted something or had a bright idea that allowed us to progress. It also had a good variety of physical and other tasks that broadly made sense in terms of story progression.
I felt perhaps the weakest part of the game was, ironically, its showpiece gimmick. Although the technology worked without problems, it was an immediate bottleneck that meant the last third of our game lost pace, with half the team mainly stuck waiting unable to help.
That was one of several reasons why an initially promising game ended for me on a flat note. Another reason was us perhaps misunderstanding the initial instruction for what form our final code should take, causing unnecessary confusion and a lot more time stuck on that bottleneck that we needed to. Compounding that was that when we did ask for a hint it took a couple of minutes before an operator replied, who then needed to be filled in on where we were up to; and just at that point a guest from another game wandered into our room looking for the toilet…
It’s not really fair to blame the venue for the last of those, particularly since the offending player had to have used the external door release mechanism to get in, which you’d think would dissuade anyone with a little common sense. Still, it compounded an impression that the two (very pleasant) staff weren’t completely in control of the facility.
The result was that I enjoyed the first two thirds of the game a great deal more than the remainder, and it’s a judgement call to what extent it was let down by bad luck or mistakes on our part and to what extent it was problems with the game or venue. I’m inclined to not view it very leniently. While the room looked decent and the game design seemed quite strong, it felt like that underlying design was being let down in small ways by the implementation, as well as by an over-use of its main gimmick. The inattentive hosting, plus a lack of care about audible spoilers in the lobby waiting area when the staff are using the walkie talkies, also increases the odds of other teams running into one frustration or another.
So it’s not a game I’d recommend. But even so, it’s still a clear improvement from the City Mazes games I’d played before; and the problems that put me off it should be relatively easy ones to address.
Although constrained to a single room, the game made good use of space (particularly with the gimmick). We found good sign-posting to the puzzles, and the room revealed things as they were needed. The gimmick towards the end of the game did create a bit of a bottleneck. However, to complete the game, only one player would actually need to use it. We allowed ourselves to spend time on it because it was fun – and we were playing a game. It’s a shame to have to make that choice, but the inclusion of it definitely brightened up the game and gave us a feeling of reward and progress. Perhaps multiple copies of it would have helped with that – or an offer from the venue for any of the players to give it a go after the game ends that hadn’t already.
I’m content to give this room a good rating. The decor was adequately imagined and themed. The puzzles were also not bad at all – and the distinct lack of padlocks was welcome. The room had a story (although it wasn’t completely clear why our final actions had unlocked the door, or why each puzzle led to the next). A few times we’d unlocked something and not realised, but there was at least one spring mechanism that wasn’t quite set right so could easily be an accident during reset.
Overall, this game is a significant improvement for City Mazes. I wouldn’t not recommend it!