People to meet, places to be

Meetup logoAs the previous post was about an exciting Meetup group in Manchester, it doesn’t take the greatest leap of imagination to try to find out what other exciting Meetup groups there might be out there. There are a couple of other interesting links at the end as well.

I mentioned the Escape Rooms and Puzzle Rooms in and around London meetup in a post about a year and a half ago, but it doesn’t seem to have been the most active group, having organised two escapes in the middle of last year and one in February. There’s more activity in the Escape Roomers London meetup group, whose members went to The Crystal Maze earlier in the month and have two escape rooms planned for May. London’s Secrets Society meetup takes a slightly wider purview, including escape rooms but also treasure hunts, “theme parks, pop-ups and the occasional unusual bar“.

We’ve covered the activities of the Treasure Hunts in London group quite a few times and probably the best way to keep up with them is to join their Meetup group; as well as the titular treasure hunts, they have a plan to play The Million Pound Heist at Enigma Quests on Saturday. However, they aren’t the only treasure hunt group in London; the Cultural Treasure Hunt Meetup of London has events every two or three months. The group has an impressive 800+ members so the hunts may well be popular. They’re free to play, though donations to the museums in which they take place are welcome. The group begat a sister group based around Cambridge.

Indeed, there’s no reason why London should have all the fun. As well as the Manchester group mentioned last time, Bristol is in on it; it has its own local escape room addicts group, which does not yet seem to have attracted a critical mass despite the efforts of the organiser, and also an exciting-sounding Rare Duck Club whose focus is more generally on live games – often of considerable, impressive scope.

A couple of other links unrelated to the Meetup site: Dean from Escape Review mentions Secret London Runs in passing; they have a variety of running tours, many of which involve several legs of running to interesting locations punctuated by encounters that go together to create a puzzle to solve. Many of their events are centred around 10 km runs, including breaks, so you’ll know whether that’s a surmountable barrier to entry or not. Lastly, Play Exit Games is currently running a giveaway competition with the prize being free tickets to Modern Fables.

Introducing the Manchester Puzzle Hunts Meetup

Manchester Puzzle Hunts meetup logoThis is exciting! Curtis from Puzzled Pint recently pointed to the existence of a puzzle hunt meetup in Manchester. If their puzzles are anything like as good as their logo, reproduced above, then this will be an exciting development indeed. Manchester already has its own Puzzled Pint monthly, but local puzzle hunts as well would make this probably a more exciting puzzle community than that of London.

The first event is set to take place on Saturday 6th May, which is an amusing and ironic date. In London, this will be when the DASH 9 puzzle hunt is taking place. The cute thing is that at one point it appeared that there would be a DASH 9 leg in Manchester, presumably on the same day, though it didn’t come to fruition. Happily, it turns out that Manchester puzzle hunters might just get to play on the day after all – just a hunt of their own! (Another way to look at it is that if you wanted to play in London but couldn’t get a ticket before they all sold out, perhaps you have another option…) Going up to Manchester to get to play in a future hunt sounds very tempting, especially if it could be doubled up with a trip to the Manchester Crystal Maze, or any number of other exciting games there or thereabouts.

The Facebook thread is interesting; it suggested that, at the time, there were plans for DASH to take place outside the US in London, Manchester, Vienna, and Mexico City. Of those four, only London has made it to reality, but happily it has been joined by Enschede in the Netherlands. This year’s DASH is expected to take place in 16 locations; notably, Provo in Utah is a happy addition, but Denver is missing as is previously ever-present Portland. Just goes to show that nowhere can assume that someone will step up to make sure that the event will take place.

More reasons than ever to look forward to Saturday 6th May! Of course, if you can’t wait until then, Saturday 29th to Sunday 30th April (i.e., next weekend) sees the next 24 Hour Puzzle Championship in Budapest. I previewed the event in 2014 and the basics haven’t changed much since then. Last year’s event was won by Neil Zussman from the UK!

This weekend is Dutch Grand Prix weekend

World Puzzle Federation Grands Prix 2017 logoThis weekend will be the fourth one since the Red Bull Mind Gamers finals. There’s an easy way to work that out; the World Puzzle Federation’s Puzzle Grand Prix events normally take place every four weeks, but the previous one was postponed because it would have happened on the same weekend as the RBMG finals. (Maybe “because” is strong; quite possibly it was coincidence.) In order to keep the series eight contests long, there’ll be an extra make-up weekend in early August.

The Grand Prix series is a collection of eight free-to-play online puzzle contests, each set by representatives of a different country. Each round is available for 3½ days, from 10am GMT on Friday to 10pm GMT on Monday. (This is likely to translate to one hour earlier in local time, for so many of us have sprung forward but not fallen back.) During that 84-hour window, you can press the “start the timer” button at a point of your choice; you then have an hour to score as many points as you can by submitting answers to the puzzles from that round.

There are three parallel one-hour contests that take place in the same weekend each round, referred to as classes A, B and C. Puzzles in the “Class A” and “Class B” contests are culture-free language-neutral logic puzzles, of which the Class B puzzles may be slightly less exotic; puzzles in the “Class C” contest are “understandable and solvable to a general audience” but are not necessarily language-neutral or culture-free; they might require a little external knowledge, or they might require “you either know it or you don’t” instinct rather than deduction.

The precise types of puzzles in each of the three contests for a round are announced a couple of days before it starts, and the instruction booklets with the details have already been published. Take a look at all three booklets – maybe start with the Class C booklet first – and then solve the set, or sets, of puzzles that look the most fun. So you can choose to have one, two or three hours of puzzle fun this weekend!

Getting down to business

A few pieces of news arising:

1) Insider Media reports that “An AIM-listed investment vehicle has agreed a £12m reverse takeover for a live escape room business, with plans to bring the brand to the UK. Dorcaster has agreed to buy Experiential Ventures Ltd, the holding company of the Escape Hunt Group.” If you search for Experiential Ventures in the news, you can find other analysts’ viewpoints on the development; for instance, there is a slightly sourer opinion from Shares magazine.

I’m not sufficiently business-savvy to know the ins and outs of how the procedure works, and whether it’s all done and dusted and the cash-register bell is ringing or whether people are still relying on other people to supply money to make things happen. (If there is someone who can interpret, that would be very welcome.) I do like the thought of someone from the escape game industry Getting The Loot, though; while this deal might have arisen from what is, to some extent, an escape game franchise business, rather than an escape game business, I can’t imagine you could have a credible escape game franchise business without having had an escape game business first.

This site featured a couple of interviews from May 2014 and November 2014 with Escape Hunt principal Paul Bart. There’s more analysis to be done somewhere of this (and of business in general) down the line, but that day is not today; today is a champagne graphic day, as far as I’m concerned.

2) The much-missed Oubliette‘s Minkette kindly pointed to this thread on Twitter, in which Lee Shang Lun, also known as Harry, livetweeted (and translated) a talk given by Baptiste Cazes on escape room games at the Pompidou Centre. The thread is well worth reading.

3) Archimedes Inspiration‘s Kou Tseng is running the London Marathon a week on Saturday in support of Mind, the mental health charity, in an escape-themed padlock costume. You can donate directly to his fundraising effort. Alternatively, the site’s Facebook page states that “Book one of our games between now and 30th April and we will donate all the profits to Mind, an amazing charity that provides help and support to anyone experiencing an mental health problem.” Kudos! Immense kudos!

4) Shortly after that, the next UK escape room unconference will take place. “April’s UK Escape Room Unconference will be held at Summerhall in Edinburgh – a quirky and original venue close to Edinburgh Waverley train station and the bus station. The lovely peeps at LockedIn are running free sessions from noon on Monday to noon on Wednesday if you’re staying over, and on the evening of the event as well.” It starts at 10am on Tuesday 25th April; tickets are still available for under £34, including Eventbrite fee. Sadly I’ll be working the day shift and have to miss out this time, but some highly-regarded London types have suggested that the standard of games in Edinburgh is (almost entirely consistently) remarkably high, with the highest highlight at least matching anything England has to offer. A ringing endorsement, and these unconferences are always great days. Judging by the names on the Eventbrite, there’ll be easily enough brilliant people there that it’ll be worth your time and effort in terms of who you’ll meet and what you’ll learn, and not so many people as to overload the venue and become overwhelming.

5) A little further down the line is the next Up The Game conference on Tuesday 9th May at a remarkable abandoned prison venue in Breda in the Netherlands. Tickets are still available and won’t leave much change from €200, plus all the usual costs of travel to attend a conference, but the speaker line-up is stellar. I hadn’t realised quite how big the first Up The Game was – of the order of 500 attendees from 40 countries – and I’ll eagerly be awaiting news of this one from afar.

What would, could, should an escape game world championship look like?

STOP PRESS! More DASH 9 London tickets are set to be released tomorrow!

A somewhat abstract champion among their competitorsImmediately after the Red Bull Mind Gamers finals show was broadcast, some people declared the games played on the broadcast to be “not escape games”. Most of the most excitable responses were apparently made within Facebook groups. Manda Whitney, of the Room Escape Divas, forcefully and articulately made the (small-l) liberal case for the breadth of the term.

You know how much I write about topics around escape games here: puzzle hunts, puzzle competitions and the like, as well as writing about games like Boda Borg, Koezio, The Crystal Maze, GoQuest and so on. I also note, with great amusement, that many of the best-received escape games deserve their praise in part because, rather than despite, how different they are to so many other games that reviewers have played. Accordingly, I absolutely take the viewpoint that the games which were played in the Red Bull Mind Gamers semi and final were very much on-topic here, and I would have no problem describing them as escape games. (Is there an agreed definition on what an escape game is? In some ways, I rather hope not.)

I will say that the games played did seem to have rather more in common with some escape games than others. Although I haven’t played it, I would draw comparisons in format to the global Adventure Rooms company’s Original Swiss rooms, and I’ve heard other people draw slightly more distant comparisons to Time Run‘s new The Celestial Chain. It’s probably also fair to say that the games in the final do not nearly fall in the centre of the set of games which are felt to have the escape game nature, and I don’t mind that in the least.

The impression I get is that the game was designed first and foremost as a standalone Red Bull Mind Gamers experience, and had the description of “escape room world championship” appended to it rather later. It was a competition that declared a champion, so I’m happy with the “championship” part, and it had notably decent global representation for a first try, so calling it a “world championship” is not at all unreasonable. It tested skills that could entirely reasonably be tested when playing an escape room, so I’m happy to see the words “escape room” in there. Put them all together, and do you get “escape room world championship”? Well, I can see why people feel not.

While the games at Red Bull Mind Gamers (hereafter RBMG) final was a competition testing skills that are called upon in escape rooms, it was also a competition not testing other skills that are tested in many, maybe even most, escape rooms. (Searching and prioritisation/sequencing of multiple solution elements, to name just two.) If you take the approach that an abstract escape room world championship “should” test skills relatively frequently found in relatively many escape rooms, implemented in ways similar to those found relatively frequently, you might well find it harder to get to “escape room world championship”. It seems quite possible that those complaining most strongly about the world championships adhere most strongly to those views.

I say “let a thousand world championships bloom”! There is no governing body for escape rooms; as I said in passing last June, I’m very happy about this. The term escape room refers to an experience that is, joyously, so broad that the escape room championship experience can be just as broad. At one level, every single escape room that keeps a record of which team escaped most quickly holds its own championship; should a team from the UK go across to Vienna or Budapest and break those records, then they are international championships. Trying to work out which championship might be considered most prestigious is another matter entirely.

A really interesting part of the joy and fascination of escape rooms is the way that surprise is, under most (? All? Almost all?) current implementations, part of the challenge. You don’t know what you’re going to face once you enter the room, and don’t know in advance what skills will be tested. In practice, most escape rooms will follow the good practice of somewhat trying to set players’ expectations in advance, to ensure that teams will be guided towards choosing to play the room that they will most enjoy.

As much as there can be escape rooms that have a relatively high emphasis on physical aspects, or a relatively high emphasis on horror aspects, I would not invalidate a world championship that chose to place such emphases in their own rooms. (Compare with Boda Borg‘s “Quest Master” title for a team who completes all their challenges in a single visit, or the Autumn 2015 £1,000 competition held by the three-month pop-up Panic! room.) On the other hand, they would feel like championships of some subsection of the wider escape room experience at large… and quite probably that’s how Red Bull Mind Gamers feels, as well.

Does playing in a world championship mean that participants need to be ready for anything that might come under the purview of the field in question? Suppose RBMG had heavily focused on horror elements, or even more heavily on physical elements, would that have been a problem? It’s tempting to look at the examples of courses in adventure races, which might test (from Wikipedia) “a range of disciplines including navigation, trekking, mountain biking, paddling and climbing”. Imagine that an adventure race choose to throw in, say, a tightrope walk, or a race through a cave. Would that deviate from the core adventure race experience? (This has happened in practice, as recently as last year.) Setting expectations in advance, and suggesting what skills may be tested, may well make for a player-friendly experience. If it’s intended that picking an ideal team for the test is part of the skill set to be tested, which seems reasonable, then let people know in advance if their self-selected team needs to include the fit, or the brave, or those with perfect colour vision, or the able-bodied at large.

It’s hard to know what’s on the record and what’s not, but specifically taking Red Bull Mind Gamers into account, I am inclined to give the very strong benefit of the doubt to Dr. Scott Nicholson, who was one of the principals on the creative team, but not nearly as personally responsible for the design, implementation and particulars of game organisation as the show implied. I get the impression that he included a very great deal of original, imaginative, thoughtful and player-friendly practice in his design that was not brought to life in the product that made it to the TV show. He also included a great deal of practical science, as befits the association with a science fiction movie, in the gameplay that fell along the wayside. His intentions, and the results of his tests and designs with his students, came up against the practicalities of what might be realised and what Red Bull thought might make for good TV and the results of this multi-way clash were… variable.

That said, Scott definitely deliberately designed for something that was not at the very centre of the current escape game experience, not least in terms of the extent of the involvement of story (expressed in terms of the unfamiliar associated media franchise). The inclusion of a co-operative section in the final is particular evidence of this; it’s hard to imagine many other world championship competitions with co-operative sections. (I can think of one moderately obscure one; perhaps you know others…)

I get the impression that he designed for a Red Bull Mind Gamers event first and foremost, rather than for a straight-down-the-middle escape room world championship; I’m not sure if he would have designed things the same way if he had been told to prioritise the world championship nature more highly and the movie association less highly. That’s fair enough. Crucially, I don’t know if Red Bull would have funded a relatively conventional escape room world championship without a link to a media property of theirs. Going back several paragraphs, I come down on the side of concluding that these design decisions make the event no less credible or valuable a world championship.

I don’t agree with all Scott’s design decisions. I’ll quote Scott as saying “In Escape Rooms, knowing when you are in over your head and need to get assistance is an important part of the play.” This is generally a wise, player-friendly policy, appropriate in 99% of cases. I would be inclined to say that world championships are among the 1% of cases that are an exception to that general principle and would have preferred a different treatment of the hint process in the semi-final.

It’s tempting to wonder what other approaches might work; the only explicitly competitive one I am aware of to compare against is Escape Run in Malaysia in 2014, held by the chain known here as Escape Room UK, as described at Enigmatic Escape. There wasn’t a media property to associate with; the business case for the event is that all the participants were drawn from branches of one particular business. I find it relatively easy to imagine a single chain with wide international visibility, like Escape Hunt or Adventure Rooms to name just two, hosting a championship to raise visibility of their own brand.

All the assumptions I’ve made in this post are easily capable of being played with, but this is long enough as it is. Another post to follow – possibly the next, possibly not – is one I half-finished months ago playing with one of the biggest assumptions of them all.