Norfolk, Aug 2018
On my last visit to Puzzlescape eighteen months earlier, Dereham in Norfolk seemed an exotically obscure location for an escape game; with the way the industry has expanded since then, it now seems entirely normal. In the meantime they’ve expanded from one to three games, of which Sleight of Hand is their second.
Based on the name of the game I was expecting something involving playing cards and conjuring. While that was part of the theme, the name also refers to manual dexterity – a big part of this room is built around physical and skill based challenges. In fact, it’s split about 50-50 between that style of game and more traditional puzzles based on logic, codes and lateral thinking.
Puzzlescape is a small and friendly family-run venue, who have clearly designed and built everything by hand. Their games are quite traditional in that they’re very puzzle-led with not a whole lot of narrative to tie them together, but it’s also clear that this one aims to be a little different to other escape rooms, in its emphasis on skill tasks.
Our group had very different reactions to the puzzles. The harsh view is that they were composed of mostly familiar escape room tropes and suffered from a selection of ambiguities and weaknesses, culminating in a ridiculously difficult dexterity challenge that we completed purely by luck and that teams could easily be frustratingly stuck on for twenty minutes or longer. There’s some truth to all those criticisms, but personally I found the room appealing and enjoyable. It did use plenty of classic escape game elements, but in a perfectly acceptable way, presented well with handmade components and often mixing in quite original ideas. The task that seemed most ambiguous worked well enough when approached from the right direction, and the ridiculously difficult task – well, that really was much too hard, in a way that leaves players trying over and over in hope of finishing it by fluke. Even there though, it was a fun and unusual task that I’d have liked a lot if it had seemed a bit less impossible.
My favourite part of the game was a step that could only be reasonably attempted by one or perhaps two people at a time, but which struck me as unusual, an interesting blend of dexterity and lateral thinking.
I reliably like any more physical or dexterity-based tasks in escape rooms, and so the concept here immediately appealed. The well-run and welcoming reception area also got things off to a good start. That one step was crazily difficult and could certainly lead to frustration or despair, but teams who keep at it are likely to fluke it sooner or later; and in other respects it was an entertaining game with a home-made feel and some moments of good creativity.
Sleight of Hand has minimal backstory, and you are briefed that first half of the game comprises puzzle solving and the other 50% will be skills-based puzzles.
If you are seeking an immersive experience, look elsewhere. Being basically a collection of puzzles placed in a room for you to tackle, it’s very generic and somewhat non-inspiring. Of the 4-5 puzzles in the first room, two felt like time-consuming process tasks that didn’t require logic or lateral thinking. But my gripe is with the skills-based puzzles in the second half! One puzzle was rather refreshing, but the other three tasks were a bit insipid. One was a type that can easily be found on the internet, and the last was ridiculous and unfair. A puzzle or task based on luck is definitely not in in spirit of a quality escape game, and this critical step did not appear to include any gamemaster bypass or alternative method to let your players progress should they become hopelessly stuck.
I would like to rate this game higher due to the friendly owner and GM, but the escape game industry has progressed beyond this standard – it’s difficult to recommend unless you happen to be in the area with time and money to spare.