London, Sep 2018
One sign of escape rooms being increasingly mainstream is the way they’re appearing as add-ons to other, more traditional tourist attractions. The latest example of that is Damage Control, a 30 minute pop-up escape room hosted on the HMS Belfast, the mid 20th Century warship now permanently moored on the Thames as a museum.
Finding the game meeting point is the first challenge, since it’s all the way over at the far end of the ship. Having found it, your gamemaster leads you off into a section which the normal flow of tourists can’t access. A short safety briefing quickly escalates into a lightly in-character game intro, and you’re off.
Where an escape room is built in generic office space, the designers have a free hand in altering the environment to suit their wishes. Where, as here, it’s built in a carefully preserved location of historical value, it gains incomparable authenticity of atmosphere, but also many constraints on how it can be built. With Damage Control the designers’ solution is to focus the game around a central large table. This table acts as an information display, as the hub for the game’s considerable electronics, and also as the focus for several of the puzzles. The rest of the area is also in play, but as little more than backdrop.
Damage Control is, in no particular order, linear, family friendly, and intended more for the general public than for escape enthusiasts. Audio effects set the scene but also drive the game, prompting for your next task and reinforcing when you do something correct. A series of written prompts reinforce those instructions, and you have a clear sequence of tasks to work through. Your goal is to save the Belfast after she strikes a mine, a scenario based on the real-life wartime history of the ship, and your tasks are vividly themed as emergency damage control. This works well with the electronic controls and displays used for the puzzles, which give a decent illusion of being in a control centre in charge of the ship.
Our team of four felt slightly too many, and we got in each other’s way a little. With a fixed ticket price per game there’s an incentive to bring a larger team, but if you ignore financial considerations, two or three would be a good number. (The financial considerations say this is a pricey 30 mins – unless you’re interested in visiting the Belfast anyhow, since full admission to the ship is included in the game price, in which case it becomes very reasonable indeed.)
I was particularly keen to try Damage Control because it was created by the exceedingly well-respected game designers Clockwork Dog, and it does show their hallmark rock-solid puzzle design. However, where their previous game Loop was particularly suited to enthusiasts, this mini-game seems tailored to its natural audience: which is to say, tourists and families visiting the Belfast who might try the escape game as an add-on.
I don’t mean that it’s too easy; though, as a 30 minute game, it’s certainly short. However, it is quite directed. From start to finish, at each step it’s made clear what you should be concentrating on and the broad outlines of how to solve it. A couple of clever wrinkles make it trickier than that implies and amidst all the LEDs and switches and loudspeaker emergency announcements it’s easy to get caught up and not notice that a lot of the time you’re basically following instructions. Given the location and target audience this is exactly as it should be: with a short time limit you can’t afford to have teams flounder about wondering where to start, and if many of your teams are beginners or family groups, you need to get them solving quickly and give them challenges they can enjoy beating. Experienced players will likely have fun too, but may find it insubstantial.
The HMS Belfast website markets it as a family game, and I’d suggest thinking of it as something halfway between an escape game and a dramatised interactive museum experience. Don’t rush to it expecting the next Clockwork Dog classic, but if you have any interest in visiting the Belfast (which is certainly well worth seeing in its own right), then you should absolutely go quickly so that you can have a go at Damage Control while you’re there. And if you want a game to take kids or nervous first-timers to, this could be an unusually good choice.