Ipswich, Dec 2017
You might find the backstory for this game a little perplexing: it involves a boy called Jan Tleskac who has a flying bicycle, and a certain puzzle called ‘the Hedgehog in the Cage’. It is in fact based on a series of Czech 1940s children’s stories, which gives away the Czech origin of the game’s design. That design also shows through in its style.
The term ‘first generation’ is often used, sometimes with a negative connotation, of escape games that have mostly low tech components and not much in the way of narrative, and where puzzles tend to result in a key or a code for a padlock. Games designers sometimes aim to get away from that style with high-tech components, or which blends puzzles into story in a naturalistic way, and both of those can work well. However, neither is necessary to create a good game – a set of low tech puzzles can provide a great hour’s entertainment, if they’re interesting and creative enough.
There’s a design style that I associate with central European games that takes that approach, which prioritises quality of puzzles over making them link together or connect to the game’s premise, and which often emphasises nicely physical tasks as well. Secret Clubhouse is firmly in that tradition, and does it well. ‘Low tech’ is perhaps an unfair description, since in fact the game uses several pieces of technology, but the result still feels quite handmade – in a good way.
There’s a lot to get through, with few steps seeming unusually difficult but the quantity adding up to a somewhat more challenging game than average. We were playing as a team of two and a large team would likely find it easier, although it’s mostly linear so the opportunities to divide and conquer are limited.
If you’ve played enough games there won’t be much here that’s entirely new, but it has a lot to enjoy, with two highlights in particular – one which is obvious as soon as you enter, and another that was a cute spin on a frequently seen magnet task. It’s a bit of a grab-bag of different puzzles and tasks all mixed together, and there’s plenty that’s fairly forgettable, but at its worst it’s fun enough to play though, and at its best it has a number of clever, memorable and cool puzzle ideas. Secret Clubhouse is one of those games which won’t make many top 10 escape game lists but which I’d confidently expect pretty much everyone to have a good time playing.