London, Apr 2018
More than a few escape companies have games with themes that are based on films, lightly re-skinned to avoid the copyright lawyers. City Mazes London’s newest room is unusual in that it’s an official tie-in: the game was originally available in Cardiff as a pop-up for the release of the latest movie in the Maze Runner franchise, and has since been moved to London in an expanded form with additional puzzles.
None of our group knew anything about the films the game was based on, but apparently it’s a dystopian sci-fi story which begins with the protagonists waking up in a maze with no memory of the outside world – so a rather fitting theme for an escape room. City Mazes seem quite proud of the level of technology used in their more recent rooms, with the briefing explaining how these were ‘4th generation rooms’, and the game design uses plenty of electronics (as well as a selection of more pedestrian padlocks). It also has an automated hint system based on a tablet and electronic tags. Each puzzle has a tag next to it that you can touch with the tablet to receive a hint message.
By the time our game started we were already feeling a little disgruntled, having been kept waiting with little explanation for close to half an hour past the slot time. That appeared to be a combination of the previous team running over and some issues resetting the room. Letting a team reach the end even if that takes them over their time is a good thing, but shouldn’t be allowed to impact on subsequent groups of players.
The room itself had quite basic decorations for a sci-fi setting, and would have been very cosy with the listed maximum of ten players. Our progress through the puzzles was quickly brought to a halt by a temperamental piece of equipment; we were increasingly certain we were trying the right thing, but it was completely unresponsive. We spent a while trying everything else we could think of, and eventually took the automated hints for each clue tag that seemed like it might be relevant, then finally resorted to calling the GM, having convinced ourselves that it was a tech failure. It took a while to get any response, but once he eventually arrived, it turned out the device was just highly sensitive about how the code was entered, without giving any kind of feedback until it successfully recognised a correct sequence. As well as the frustration of the finicky puzzle itself, this also showed the weakness of the automated hint system, since it was hit and miss whether any clue we tried would help us, whether it would be useless, or whether it would instead give an unwanted spoiler for a later step.
A later puzzle also suffered from a dodgy piece of equipment, though that time we could see the loose connection and adjust it until it worked. In contrast, the most ambitious piece of technology in the game worked flawlessly. This was an augmented reality system, and my experience with similar mechanisms elsewhere has been that they’re often fussy and prone to failure; here it worked consistently and reliably, no doubt helped by the good lighting levels. That was an impressive use of tech that worked well with the theme, even if the device used for it was a bit too recognisable as modern day consumer electronics. However, a substantial part of The Runner was based around this mechanism, and since only one or perhaps two people can reasonably interact with the augmented reality system at a time, it was still a bottleneck that will tend to leave some players sidelined while others do the solving.
When reviewing games, I try not to be unduly influenced by technical hitches, reset errors, and problems of that sort. Even the most conscientious venue in the world can be hit by these now and again, however careful and thorough they are. With City Mazes though I’m less inclined to be lenient. Partly that’s because of the way the gamemaster handled it, with an attitude of ‘there, I got it to work so you’re mistaken and it’s fine’; and partly because of the general sense of disorganisation at the venue, which makes me suspect small problems are endemic there. Both the lack of punctuality in our start time and the apparent inattention of the GM while we were playing could be put down to the venue having a bad day, but both match my previous experience with City Mazes, and both echo comments from other enthusiasts.
The Runner had some interesting and fun elements, and some of my teammates left with somewhat warmer feelings towards the game. If you play with a small team (to reduce the bottleneck effect of the augmented reality tasks) and manage to not need any clues and not hit any tech failures, then it could be a decently enjoyable game. Even then, I’d still describe it as favouring novelty-factor tech over interesting puzzles, and let down by some corner-cutting in the design and decorations; and I suspect a majority of teams will find their experience impacted by some combination of venue disorder, poor game maintenance, and the annoying hint system.