History Mystery: The Merchants’ Vaults

By | September 3, 2018

Norwich, Aug 2018

Rated 4 out of 5
Toby says:

Having located their previous games in Norwich’s Guildhall and in a historic church, History Mystery’s latest is set the medieval undercroft below Brideswell Museum. This is a ghostly grey space of elegant ancient arches and crumbling walls, simultaneously bare and atmospheric.
As a rigorously protected conservation site, the undercroft has strict rules to preserve the space, which include no touching of the walls. This must have presented quite the challenge for the game designers, particularly since they also need to be able to remove the game components when the space is booked for other purposes. Their solution involves some sophisticated mobile cabinets which manage to fit visually with the space while being easily removable, plus an array of additional items impressive enough that it wasn’t until near the end that I realised it was all built to be removable.
History Mystery’s games always draw inspiration from local history. This one is built under the Museum of Norwich, and draws on the city’s history of industry. The premise is that you’ve fallen back in time and must master the local commerce to afford your way back, but this is a pretext for a series of sub-games each themed for a particular industry. At each stage you must navigate a series of steps to gain an object representing the product of the relevant industry, plus a token allowing you to begin the subsequent section. Each stage is made up of a sequence of puzzles that are not simply themed but which form a little diorama, acting out the key production steps for the product.
We played quite slowly, often failing to notice details that retrospectively were obvious. Since most of the game follows a very linear structure, with a clearly defined set of objects to investigate, any points where we were drawing a blank felt more obviously like a brick wall. Additionally, this game is played with the operator present in the room, both for gameplay reasons and presumably to make sure the players treat the location with sufficient care.
Perhaps we’re more self-conscious than others, but we found it off-putting to have the gamemaster right there with us, an effect increased by the solemn stillness of the undercroft chambers (despite the audio effects used to build the theme).
However, for each step we struggled on, after we’d solved it the puzzle seemed thoroughly clear and fair. Even where they’d made the dubious choice of using shifting coloured lighting over a colour-based puzzle, once we figured out what we had to do the lighting turned out to not be a problem. As we progressed we also got more used to some of the unusual but reasonable design choices, such as how a particular type of sensor is re-used, and that made things go more smoothly.
Whether because of the location or the visible gamemaster, the atmosphere felt a bit heavy at times, but that wasn’t matched by the actual content, which was inventive, light-hearted and clever. Its highlights were outstanding, creative and memorable ways to recreate details of vanished cottage industries.
I’ve said before how difficult it is to design a successful escape room with a short time limit, but History Mystery have got the format down – separated as it is into distinct sections, The Merchants’ Vaults forms a series of great mini-games that would work beautifully both as fun educational activities in a museum exhibit as well as quick-fire escape room puzzle challenges. They share a common format but each is distinct in concept and design. The result has a very distinctive feel, incorporating a educational authenticity that never takes the edge off the fun, but also succeeding as a creative, unusual and satisfying escape room. 4 / 5
Pris rated this:4 / 5

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