Los Angeles, Nov 2018
Stash House’s focus on immersion is clear from before you enter the venue, with the entrance being an nondescript door free of any sign that this is an escape room. This is a crime story, with you as new recruits for a drug gang run by a smooth unsavoury character named Ray. After the gamemaster covers the health & safety basics, an in-character video intro sets the scene and gives you your mission. I normally consider anything in the briefing to be not a spoiler, but since the line between briefing and game is a little fuzzier than usual here I’ll err on the side of the caution. However, the broad outline is that you’ll be searching the house to find and dispose of evidence, as a deliberate test to demonstrate your worthiness to join Ray’s crew.
Note that this is an unusual 90 minute game – something I’d forgotten about when scheduling it, giving us additional pressure to finish ahead of the time limit so that we could get to our next game in time!
As well as the unusually smooth transition from briefing to game, I admired the way it gave players immediate guidance for where they might start. With a large area that contains a lot to work on, that’s a good way to help players get going quickly. Puzzles are scattered throughout the apartment, which is decorated with a blend of minimalism and bling that’s thoroughly suitable for a drug dealer’s pad. The incongruity of having obvious puzzles on display is covered by the premise that this is all Ray’s test, and even so the design takes pains to add in extra details that tie some elements of the game into the setting.
One sequence in Stash House is in my mind unquestionably its weakest. We struggled with it much more than with the rest of the game, so insert caveats about sour grapes here. It took us ages to work out how to solve the first step of it, which was partly because it was less clear than most of Stash House’s other puzzles and partly due to ‘enthusiast syndrome’ – overthinking and making assumptions about how it was likely to work based on what we’d seen in other games. The following puzzles were variations on a theme, and were entirely reasonable though arguably a little bit repetitive. But the main problem is that it’s cramped, hot and linear. Stash House is minimum four players, with 6-8 recommended, and this section struggles to accommodate more than two at a time. Ideally you’d tackle it in parallel with various other puzzles that are available at the same time, but if, like us, you’re slow to solve its first step, you’re more likely to end up with the whole group standing around while one or two players work through it.
That part was the exception, and the rest of the game was consistently impressive. If I were to pick one moment that sticks in my mind it’d be a certain section that appears to be deliberately trolling players who hate padlocks, but Stash House lets you mainline on a non-stop stream of well-designed puzzles, which often follow familiar escape room ideas but which are always implemented well and usually with flair in design or presentation. The extra 50% game time isn’t there just to be generous, and Stash House felt noticeably more substantial than a typical game. The visual design deserves praise too, and it all leads up to a cool finish that caps a slick beast of a game. If you’re anywhere near LA, and you don’t mind a few drug references and non-family-friendly content, this really needs to be on your games schedule.