Bucharest, May 2018
We very nearly missed out on playing The Judge, after attempts to confirm our booking by phone and email failed to get through and we found ourselves outside a rundown doorway that gave no outward appearance of concealing any escape room company inside. But perseverance was well rewarded, with a distinctive and refined game that included some very memorable highlights.
The game is named after the 2014 movie The Judge, and uses carefully selected clips from it in its intro video, but doesn’t follow the film’s plot; in fact, even though the briefing carefully sets up a story involving a birthday party, a surprise retirement announcement and an implied dark secret, the game itself deliberately avoids a clear narrative resolution. Depending on your tastes you could view that as a missed opportunity or a clever way to let players interpret the pieces of narrative as they please.
This is essentially a game set in an office, but here that doesn’t mean cheap secondhand furniture or lazy puzzles involving filing cabinets and laptop passwords. This office is suitably well-appointed for a judge, and uses some original and clever mechanisms to hide its secrets. The elegant decor includes some expensively fragile items that players are warned off with Don’t Touch stickers; in fact, stickers are used extensively and categorised into at least three variants of Don’t Touch, Don’t Unlock, etc. It’s a tribute to how well the rest of the game is done that I found the quantity of stickers barely distracting at all.
Special mention has to go to something at the start of the game, an effect that’s quite simple but which was completely new on me, and so pleasing I actually gasped with surprised pleasure at realising what had happened. But the game includes a later step that is perhaps even more memorable, a physical task which is fiddly, potentially frustrating and has little to do with the theme, but is irresistibly appealing for its originality and ingenious home-made construction.
The eclectic mix of puzzle ideas include some sections that go down less well, such as a very tough physical device that would have been utterly baffling if I hadn’t already known the trick to it, and an involved mathematical puzzle that was entirely fair but felt quite oddly arbitrary in the way it worked. I should also note that some audio clues in this game are in Romanian, and the gamemaster helped us past those by posting written translations under the door at the appropriate moments. (If needed, clues are provided in a similar way.)
But even if the quality is sometimes a little uneven, we found we noticed the strengths of the game much more than its rougher patches. Additionally, this is a deluxe-length 90 minute game with a quantity of content to match. Although there’s a lot to do, my impression was that they’ve decided on the time limit with the admirable aim of giving all groups as complete an experience as possible, meaning speedy teams may exit under an hour but should feel they’ve more than had their money’s worth.