Could there be a really good puzzles and games pub?

Scenario bar in Dalston by Loading. Used without permission, adapted from unknown photographer.I took a bus, earlier today, that went down little White Lion Street, right past The Crystal Maze; this will always make me smile.

I’m dreaming out loud here, but is the world now ready for a really good puzzles and games pub? If someone were to make one, would it be able to stay in business? This flight of fancy comes from observing a number of different, apparently successful, business models:

  • Loading Bar, as pictured above, has a couple of examples which support a business model which intersects “games” and “pub”;
  • Lady Chastity’s Reserve has a couple of examples which support a business model which intersects “escape room” and “pub”;
  • Draughts and Thirsty Meeples, among others, support a business model which intersects “board games” and “licensed cafe”;
  • Noughts and Coffees doesn’t have a fully developed web site, but has two locations, one of which is a straightforward board game cafe, and the other of which hosts escape games and also features a board game cafe, though currently only at the weekends.

Putting it all together, I’m envisioning something that isn’t a pub but is in fact a licensed cafe with board (and potentially, subject to appropriate soundproofing, digital) games very readily available, at least one escape game on the premises, at least a couple of regular quizzes, room enough to host interesting events like a Puzzled Pint and encouragement and sponsorship of game-themed clubs who want to meet there – chess, Scrabble and the like – and so on.

A licensed cafe would mean that there would be no minimum age restrictions on the participants, and it’s not unknown for cafes to host the types of event commonly known as pub quizzes. There’s also a cultural difference in that a bar (and, even more so, a pub) has a connotation of the function of the trip being repeated purchase of drinks, whereas a themed cafe has a connotation of the function of the trip being purchase of food and drinks, as well as participation in enjoyment of the theme – here, by playing games. Could you hang out at a cafe in good company for hours? Certainly so.

Could this survive and make money in the long term? Certainly it would need the right hand at the tiller, and that hand is not mine. Getting the atmosphere right would take some careful balance; the atmosphere would need to support playing games – quite possibly, people who are at the venue with quite different sorts of games in mind – and also support the continued existence of the venue as a cafe, selling enough food and drink (and paid-for gameplay, and games, and other ancillary products) in mind.

You’d also have to be very careful about whether the venue were to develop regulars or not, and what effect regulars might have on those who are attending and less familiar with what the world of games offers. This is a known and solved problem at board games cafes already, so I don’t consider it insurmountable. It would definitely need some deliberate welcoming policies to keep the atmosphere convivial and accessible to those who consider themselves more casual attendees. In my mind, I don’t want an exclusive Private Members’ Club – and, as much as I enjoy reading about the likes of San Francisco’s Jejune Institute (see also HuffPo and The Bold Italic; the cardhouse.com write-up is amazing), that’s not what I’m after either.

There’s also the potential that I could be falling for at least one or two of the Geek Social Fallacies – would people who regard themselves as gamers of one sort or another really want to share a space with gamers of a different sort? That might be trickier. I used to attend a games club which featured people playing minatures wargames, RPGs, trading card games and board games under the same roof – often, in the same large hall. I get the impression that that’s pretty rare. Adding more into the mix – escape games, quizzes, clubs for specific games – might only make things trickier. While there are plenty of examples of business models with the intersection of two different things, perhaps there’s good reason in practice why the limit seems to be two.

Lastly, what might be a good name for the whole thing? How I Met Your Mother got there first with a fictional bar called Puzzles

A world championship for escape game teams? Red Bull Mind Gamers: Mission Unlock Enoch

Red Bull Mind Gamers: Mission Unlock Enoch, copyright Red Bull GmbH

image copyright Red Bull GmbH

Just over 18 months ago, I reported on a Escape Room Game Jam held at MIT in association with Red Bull and their associated feature film division. Things went quiet and it seemed that the trail had gone cold on this one. The trail has heated back up; it looks like it heated back up a little while ago, but I haven’t seen anyone talking about it, so here goes.

Red Bull Mind Gamers calls itself a “platform for curious minds, with games and challenges to provoke their thinking“, featuring a selection of online puzzles testing strategy, logic, creativity, visual thinking, abstract musical thought and memory to various extents. The “Brain Food” section features articles and interviews on related contemporary mental game topics.

There has been a countdown to the site’s main event, Mission Unlock Enoch, whose self-description of “global competitive mind gaming tournament” is a gussied-up way of saying “sort-of-escape-room world championship”. Hurrah! This is far more exciting and relevant to interests here than anything else recently done by any other purveyor of caffeinated chilled sugary beverages. (Unless you know otherwise…) It’s all tied up with their MindGamers movie, previously referred to in passing as DxM.

25 teams of four will receive paid travel to Budapest in February 2017 to take on the “ultimate mixed reality Escape Room Tournament”, with the overall champions earning a three-day trip to Boston. Wherever you are in the world, you can attempt to win one of four global wild card spaces by attempting to complete this single-player online game as quickly as possible. (Practising the other games on the site might help.) The other 21 spaces are awarded to national champions to parallel national qualifying competitions held in 21 different countries: Singapore, South Korea, the US, Oman, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Norway, Switzerland, and a dozen current EU nations, happily including the United Kingdom. Lots of important gaps in the list: Australia, Canada, China, Japan, and so on, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

Accordingly, there is a national qualifying competition in the UK to determine our representative at the world finals. This will take place at Breakout Manchester on December 5th and at Breakout Cardiff on December 7th. “Within 20 minutes, your team of four players will have to connect their mind skills and solve a multi-player mind game in order to ‘unlock’ and leave the room. The fastest team per country gets to enter the final Escape Room in Budapest in 2017.” Each player only gets one try; you’re not allowed to play on more than one team, or to play in more than one location. It’s not clear how the company are planning to avoid spoilers here; procedurally generated puzzles might be one solution that remains reasonably fair in terms of difficulty.

It’s not quite even that simple! In order to get a place at Manchester or Cardiff, you need to rack up a score towards the top of the local chart for the single-player online game. Top scorers there will be invited to pick their team and their time of choice for the qualification day at Manchester and Cardiff. You miiiight be able to get to play in the qualifiers just by turning up on the day even without scoring well at the online game, but this isn’t guaranteed and I wouldn’t risk it.

The overall pattern looks like this: play the online game alone, do well and earn a spot at Manchester or Cardiff, do very well with your team there and win a trip to Budapest, do extremely well with your team in Budapest and win a trip to Boston. (Maybe, just maybe, the prize will be to go to Boston when the MIT Mystery Hunt is on. That would be a neat circle from the location of the original game jam.)

Not much else is known at the moment, except maybe anecdotally from past players. You can read the rules, the FAQ and the terms of participation as .pdf files, but you may get more of an insight by reading the interview with the designers. One open question: who (or, I suppose, what or where) is Enoch and why should Enoch be unlocked?

Inevitably I’ll be hundreds of miles away from anywhere useful, working the day shift on the Manchester qualification day and the night shift on the Cardiff qualification day, but it would be a joy if whoever the UK representatives eventually turn out to be were part of the community. (Or, the other way around, it would be strange if the UK representatives weren’t part of the community, by choice.) We’ll be cheering the UK team on in Budapest in February!

If you do decide to go for it, the very best of luck to you – and please tell all about it on December 8th!