Bucharest, May 2018
Some themes are a natural fit for the escape room format – such as jailbreak scenarios, or anything where you’re trapped in a smallish space. As a tale about an epic continent-spanning journey, Lord of the Rings is a less obvious fit; but 60 Minutes’ game is based around the Mines of Moria section of the story. While I thought its success at capturing the feel of its subject material was mixed – it’s difficult to include battles with orcs and trolls, after all! – as an escape game it’s beautiful, ingenious and memorable.
I can confidently say this is the first time an escape room briefing has included a warning to be careful not to damage the moss. The starting sequence was rather beautiful and will particularly thrill Tolkien fans – or perhaps just anyone who’s watched the movies. It was also unusual in that the game effectively starts with the host still present, which was a little distracting, but quickly transitioned to a more normal format.
My otherwise thoroughly positive initial impressions were tempered by a disappointment that the play area was unexpectedly narrow, even cramped. That feeling dissipated. Although this game does use some quite small spaces, that was suitable enough for underground tunnels, even if a little more ‘soaring dwarven halls’ would have been nice. More importantly though, the space is used in an interesting way, the details of which I’ll leave vague but which genuinely managed to give the impression of subterranean chambers in place of themed game rooms. (I can’t resist pointing out the warning on the website description for this game: “In this room, the squat walk is mandatory.”)
The presentation didn’t always quite match the intended setting, such as an fun skill puzzle that looked cool but also had an unfortunate and jarring resemblance to a vending machine. But don’t let my petty snark distract from the main takeaway, which is: it’s gorgeous, a creatively different game space decked out with a top-end decoration budget, and if it doesn’t quite resemble Tolkien’s Moria it more than succeeds on its own terms.
That’s not even the most impressive feature of the game, however. While there are of course a variety of puzzles and puzzles styles involved, the core of this Lord of the Rings game is a suite of physical and skill tasks, much of which make clever use of the room layout. Moreover, the originality and variety of those tasks had me stopping to marvel even as we frantically tried not to fail the room. After a few hundred rooms I’m used to counting an unfamiliar variation on a standard task as interestingly novel, but 60 Minutes have assembled an array of tasks that were entirely new on me – and also consistently entertaining, at just the right level of difficulty to make you despair of being able to do it right up to the point you succeed.
Be warned that this makes it an unusually physical escape room where players need to be comfortable moving around in small spaces, and where players may need to use more strength than the normal ‘two finger’ rule would allow. It’s not an intellectual game, but it’s certainly a clever and challenging one. I do worry about what happens if a team is consistently unable to complete a skill-based task, since the host has limited ability to help by sending a hint; but I imagine they have ways to deal with that.
I can see a risk it might turn into a frustrating disappointment for a team who struggled badly with it, and I’d quibble with a few details – such as the use of an incongruous walkie talkie as a hint device. Even so, it was intensely fun, full of distinctive ideas and designed in a way that made it look and feel like an underground adventure. The finish was as cool as the start; whereas Frodo and co. left Moria dejected and unhappy, we came out grinning ear to ear. If you go anywhere near Bucharest, don’t miss this game.