Brussels, Jan 2018
Squeezing in a short-notice visit to Chamber Challenge during a gap in our schedule, they kindly adjusted their schedule to allow us to play The Lab. The familiar-sounding theme turns out to have an unusual and gently educational premise that explores some of the history of the discovery of DNA.
That might come as a surprise to anyone who booked on the basis of the website’s description of the room, where it tells you that you are “in a race against time to uncover the structure of DNA in order to stop the evil plans of Dr. Doom”. That description bears almost no relation to the game we played; the actual idea for the game is much more interesting and original.
That said, I liked the concept of the game rather more than I enjoyed actually playing it. The decor is simple enough, which isn’t unusual for a laboratory game, and there was some tricky searching to do, which isn’t playing to my strengths; but that’s all fine. Most of the content consists of fairly standard escape room puzzles, and is entirely acceptable. I’m not a fan of clues written as riddles, but your mileage may vary (and assuming they were written originally in French, they may read better in that language – it’s not easy to translate a clue while preserving both its meaning and the rhyme structure).
What left me liking The Lab less was its rather unclear structure. Broadly speaking escape rooms work best when every element is used exactly once and everything is necessary. This game broke that rule in a variety of ways, including an apparent puzzle that turned out to be only decorative, a sequence that clearly led to a particular item that was then not used, and another answer that was indicated by no fewer than three sets of items, all cluing essentially the same thing. I think the latter at least was a deliberate design decision, to provide multiple pathways to a single answer, and in theory that sounds like a good idea. In practice it tends to be confusing. Teams may be thrown off by the repetition, or complete one of the strands first and then keep coming back to the others and trying to use them elsewhere, not realising they’re no longer relevant.
The Lab’s final section includes a lovely puzzle idea, one that’s challenging and hands-on and brings the theme together to excellent effect, really lifting the rest of it. Or at least, it would have, but it turned out to be completely unnecessary. The actual answer was something we could have done ten or fifteen minutes earlier, an idea we’d discarded because it seemed too facile and because it seemed we clearly weren’t yet at the end of the puzzle sequence.
I came out disappointed because I wanted to like the game a lot more than I did. Even with the quite simple set it has the potential to be interesting and fun, and to finish with a particularly memorable end section. It has several other points in its favour: friendly and enthusiastic hosting and some cute touches to the decorations, as well as a premise that (despite the website’s description) avoids lazy clichés. As it stands I wouldn’t encourage enthusiasts to play it, but it would take relatively little tweaking and adjustment to make it a much more satisfying game well worth playing.