London, Jan 2017
Agent November is unusual in that they run outdoor escape games (though some of their other games are run indoors). Naturally, we played on a cold, rainy afternoon in January, which must be close to the worst conditions to play it in; and despite that it managed to be huge fun, in large part thanks to the entertaining host.
I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect – would this be closer to a street game or clue trail than a normal escape room? In fact, it felt very much like a normal escape room, scaled up to an open-air environment. The play area is well defined, with sufficient space to dash about while small enough for all players to remain in sight throughout. Being much larger than a normal indoor room, there’s no question of scouring every corner for hidden clues; instead, all search elements of the game are prompted by visual or written clues giving you a target to find. That made the searching ‘directed’ rather than ‘exploratory’, in a way that I rather liked – it meant that when we were stuck on a puzzle, there was no lingering worrying that we’d simply failed to spot a vital clue.
(I recommend dashing since it makes the game more fun, but it’s definitely not required. For those who’d rather not run, a team could play the game fine without moving faster than walking pace.)
I’m not a fan of laminated pieces of paper as clues, or of multiple padlocks, and this game makes plenty of use of both. Here they seemed much more acceptable than usual though, given the outdoor environment. The puzzles had a good difficulty progression, and in places had the characteristic of a good cryptic crossword clue: it requires an intuitive leap to see the answer, but having once thought of the answer, it fits together so well you’re certain it’s correct even before you try it.
Playing in a public outdoor location means the game operators have less control of the environment. The hidden clues are sufficiently hard to spot that I imagine it’s rare for one to be swiped by a passing pedestrian. It must happen occasionally, but the operator apparently has a full set of spares just in case. More likely is interruptions from curious members of the public, and we did indeed have an elderly very drunk gentleman wander over and make persistent conversation (which the operator handled with aplomb).
We played with a team of five, and although the game is listed as 3-7 players I’d suggest four as the optimal number. Because players spend time hurrying around the park at a distance, it’s easier than normal to completely miss sections of the game, as your teammates solve something and progress while you’re hunting down a clue a hundred metres away. That said, there’s enough to work on in parallel that we weren’t hitting unnecessary bottlenecks or having some players left standing around.
This is a game where a team’s experience could vary greatly depending on the weather, on interference from the general public, and various other factors outside the operator’s control. In most respects we played under very suboptimal conditions – the weather was miserable, there were problems with the walkie talkies, the whiteboard provided for us to scribble on didn’t work well in the wet, there were interruptions from the drunk guy – and yet it still worked and managed to be a lot of fun. The operator gets a large share of the credit for that. He was unwaveringly entertaining with in-character remarks and amusing comments, and perhaps more importantly kept the game running smoothly throughout. I’m not accustomed to playing an escape game with the operator visibly right there, and I was worried he’d give too much away as we fumbled our way through the clues – it’d be easy to end up keeping half an eye on the host while discussing a problem and getting guidance from involuntary tells. But he kept stone-faced while we debated possible answers, and thanks to being in-character he reinforced the immersion instead of breaking it.
The physical components could do with an upgrade. Some were a little worn, and investing in some more impressive kit could really lift it – though of course they’re limited by what they can make hard-wearing, weather-proof, and easily replaceable in case of theft. But even with inclement weather and difficult conditions they still managed to deliver a very fun, pleasing game.
Full disclosure: we were invited to play this game for free for review purposes.