Starting the biggest fans of them all

The Crystal Maze logoAt 9pm tonight on Channel 4, The Crystal Maze returns for the first episode in its new series. It will be a Stand Up 2 Cancer celebrity special, notwithstanding that (most of?) the rest of Channel 4’s programming for the strand will be happening, as usual, in October. Alternatively, if you don’t want to wait for 9pm, you can watch it on All 4, formerly known as 4oD, until the show starts – and if you’re an O2 customer, then you’ll be able to see the show two days early all series long through O2 Priority. (Apparently there’ll be a code, granting access to the impending episode, released every Wednesday at 9pm.)

Accordingly, I’m far from alone in having seen the episode already, but I’m not going to spoil anything before it airs, and will be keeping my thoughts on it to the comments to this post for spoiler-prevention reasons. Whatever you think, I remain convinced the escape room industry in this country as a whole owes a debt of gratitude to the show; while escape rooms have boomed in countries which never had the show or anything like it, it’s a convenient, widely-known point of reference that surely sped the process of public acceptance along. Will the show’s return help the industry further? Remains to be seen – but, at the very least, I don’t see how it can hurt.

In other news, the UK Puzzle Championship opens to solvers at noon today; if you want to start your clock for two and a half hours of puzzles, you can find the details at the official contest page!

Loosely on the topic of codebreaking…

The Bletchley's logoA friend recently wrote “I spent Friday evening cracking codes deep in a secret bunker below Chelsea” and my ears perked up. This wasn’t to do with an escape game, so my ears perked up further. In truth, it wasn’t to do with an escape game to the extent that this post will use up some near-topic credit, but the moral of the story is that codes are sufficiently cool that other things are willing to stretch to associate themselves with them.

My friend was at The Bletchley, a pop-up cocktail bar. The decor has diagrams and scribbles of code on the wall, in jeeping with the theme. Participants pay in advance for a number of hours and cocktails; they order the first by using (something themed as) an Enigma machine to create a list of ingredients, which the mixologists in the bar use to create a bespoke cocktail. The participants then contact the staff by radio. Further instructions are provided as to how future cocktail orders might be encrypted before they are placed.

I will note that a large number of escape room fans of my acquaintance – though I don’t claim this to be a representative sample in the least – are notably sober types. (This feels a weird thing to write, knowing them; perhaps it’d be closer to the truth to say they don’t need to drink in order to have a good time.) The last time I gathered with a crowd of them, orders I had to place at the bar included a cranberry juice and a glass of hot water. (Cheap round!) While the Bletchley make it clear that they are perfectly happy to brew non-alcoholic cocktails as well as potent potables, you’ll know whether you are enough of a barfly to get a kick from this.

On other para-codebreaking news, cryptic crossword constructor and Puzzled Pint London co-founder Dr. Daniel Peake, a good friend of mine, has created several episodes of an online quiz show called, well, Codebreaker. If anybody who reads this has ever tried to work out a four-digit numerical code, they’ll be well and truly at home. Dan’s a fine host; both the questions he asks and the game that he has wrapped around them are finely balanced and great fun. There have been four episodes so far, with the last two (including the final, played for a cash prize) set to be uploaded to YouTube on the next two Wednesdays. Recommended!

Challenge Anneka? No, Challenge You

"Challenge Me" logoNot so long ago, on another forum, this site learnt of a casting call for a forthcoming ITV show provisionally entitled Challenge Me. “Do you have an unique skill or unusual party trick or know someone who does? Something that no one else can do? Could you use that skill to take on a huge challenge and win cash in the process?” It sounds something like a monetised version of You Bet!; let us not refer to the end-of-the-pier show that was the BBC’s Epic Win a couple of years ago.

The application page suggest that “We are looking for people with crazy, unique and bizarre skills and talents. These can be absolutely ANYTHING you can imagine! Big, small, serious or downright bonkers – we want you!” It’s not clear whether applicants have to be alone, or whether pairs or larger teams could apply. It’s tempting to wonder whether someone, or some people, could apply claiming “I can get out of any escape room” and then challenge ITV to build a room from which they cannot escape. It could make for some entertaining TV at the very least, though might well be out of the budget of TV these days.

However, if they want something a bit more straightforward, this site would like to see a sudoku champion take on a memory champion to produce a complete grid. The sudoku champion would see the grid with a usual number of digits placed, then would have to fill in all the missing digits. The memory champion would see the completed grid, memorise the position of all 81 digits, then reproduce it from memory. Both are impressive mental feats when done at champions’ speed; it would be possible to devise a sudoku of appropriate difficulty to make it a close, televisual race.

The unaffiliated-to-branded-beer world record for memorising numbers in a minute hasn’t been attempted for a while (different disciplines go in and out of fashion…) but with improvements in the pack-of-cards speed record, the 100m sprint of memory records, it’s tempting to guess that the top memorisers might be able to memorise the 81 digits in about 30-40 seconds or so, plus perhaps another 20-30 seconds to reproduce them from memory. There are plenty of speed sudoku solution videos out there; this one has Jakub Ondroušek (who has made the top three of the World Sudoku Championship five times) solving a 26-given puzzle in barely a minute and a half. Now you can’t calculate a sudoku’s true difficulty from the number of cells given, but it would surely be possible to create a sudoku which looked impressively sparse and difficult but could actually be solved to any given timescale.

There’s an interesting TV show in China whose title translates as The Brain. This has Chinese citizens with remarkable talents compete in domestic competition and the most successful competitors representing their country in international competition against representative teams from other countries. You can see China-Britain matches from last year and the rematch from this year on YouTube.

Clearly they’re all in Chinese, but you can fast-forward through to the challenges in which you can see the stars demonstrate their skills – and the UK team’s introduction videos have the UK team members self-introducing in English with Chinese subtitles and making all manner of exaggerated and aggressive claims at the producers’ request. These are huge fun, not least because British team captain Ben Pridmore (world memory champion in 2004, 2008 and 2009) is actually delightfully sweet and self-effacing in person, when some of his predecessors have been willing to cast themselves as relatives of Charles Big, who married into the Potato family and double-barrelled his surname.

US readers may be interested to know that Fox produced a one-off of a show called SuperHuman in January and are now casting for a full series, which bears a great deal of similarity to the Chinese format and which Wikipedia suggests may be a local US version. US puzzle superstars may be of particular interest to the show and might wish to throw their names into the ring; the trouble (for the show!) is that the best US solvers tend to be just as modest and polite as the aforementioned Ben…

New year, new Korean exit game TV show

Screen grab of CODE by JTBCHappy New Year! While this site is working on its start-of-the-year features, here’s something exciting and fresh to keep you going. As previewed a couple of weeks ago, Korean broadcaster JTBC have brought a show called CODE to the local airwaves. The first episode was broadcast on January 1st; happily, it does seem to be the exit game TV show that it promised to be. Dubious links to illicit online versions of TV shows do not last forever, so you’re probably better off looking for the magic phrase jtbc code in the search engine of your choice – but, at least for now, you could just try this link with the first half of the show and this link with the second half.

Watching shows in languages you don’t understand is always a certain sort of fun; perhaps the world of fan-supplied translation subtitles makes things almost too easy. While you might struggle to get the subtleties of a drama or a love song, gameplay is generally designed to be easy to follow for those who are not paying full attention. If you’re interested enough in exit games to be following this site, you won’t have any great difficulties. Based on a single episode, the game in the show comes closer than that of Race to Escape to the essential exit game experience, though Race to Escape works better as a show with a start, an end and a story to tell along the way.

Race to Escape‘s puzzles are more kinetic and visually interesting; here, the codes risk being a little sterile but are nevertheless watertight. One arguable niggle is that the show occasionally seems to play a little loose with the meaning of mathematical notation; if a and b are digits then does ab represent the product of a and b or does it represent 10a+b – the value of the number formed by a followed by b? Perhaps there are some language subtleties that are lost in translation.

For a fuller description of (what this site interprets to be) the format: Continue reading

The highlights of 2015

heartsLet’s shine a spotlight on some of this site’s highlights of 2015.

DASH 7 at the end of May was a spectacular day. The puzzles were rather tougher than those of the previous two years, in the main, but ingenious and thematic. The company was excellent; many thanks to everyone who put the event together, whether globally or specifically in London. Being able to cover the event extensively on Exit Games UK was also a treat. A date for DASH 8 has been announced, but it has not yet been confirmed whether anyone has stepped up to the plate to run the event in London. If nobody does, it’s quite possible that there won’t be a DASH in London this year. Does DASH have your name on it?

This site considers 2015 to have been an amazing year for puzzle TV. Here in the UK, Only Connect was great fun, as usual. Race To Escape in the US divides opinion – it has been pointed out many times that it encourages behaviour that nobody would want to see in a real exit game – but this site considered it great fun, full of clever ideas and remarkably variable from week to week, well worthy of an inclusion in a highlight post. Series four of The Genius was outstanding; some consider it the best season of the four, others don’t, but it’s definitely there or thereabouts. Quiz The Nation was both a highlight for those who were able to win hundreds or thousands of pounds from it – and, it should be noted, received their winnings in full and promptly – and a slight lowlight in that it only had one short run at the start of the year and perhaps hasn’t yet lived up to its strong potential.

On a related topic, this year, this site got really excited about getting to interview the team behind The Cyberdrome Crystal Maze, and following the progress from a distance of the live The Crystal Maze attraction coming in less than three months’ time. This year’s April 1st post was a lot of fun to put together and it was a selfish thrill to be quoted in pieces by CNBC and by the BBC.

It’s also been very exciting to read about the parallel development of the genre in so many different countries. People want to talk about these games of ours, and related games, and this leads to weblogs; from there, weblogs lead to meetings, or perhaps conferences. It’s always slightly disappointing when cool events aren’t documented in nearly as much detail as you hope they might be, and there seems to have been only one report of the MIT Escape Room Game Jam in April. Stuttgart’s Escape Games Convention sounds amazing, but again there seems only to have been the official report and a recommended write-up at Play-it-Real talking about it… at least, in English. (The Twitter hashtag has gone dormant.) October saw the Ontario Escape Room Unconference; the report gives some flavour, but the Google document generated by the participants has so much more to offer. Fingers crossed that this example of best practice can be emulated in the future.

The games, the puzzles and the ideas behind them may fascinate, but to (mis?)quote Alan Parr, “it’s the people, not the games, that make the hobby”. Here’s to much more of everything in 2016!

Exit game TV

Television setFour quick stories about exit games on television, both past and future:

1) The Bristol Maze, of the City Mazes chain, was recently featured in a short but very positive piece on the genre that was part of the BBC’s Points West local news show.

2) As discussed, the US TV show Race to Escape will be coming to the UK version of the Discovery TV channel. Indeed, you may even have seen some trailers for it. There’s also acknowledgment of it, of a sort on the Discovery channel’s Press Releases page. This site liked the show a lot, though not everybody did, and certainly it’s rather more destructive within exit game rooms than would happen in the real world.

3) However, it’s more fun to look at what’s set to come in the future. This site is bullish about prospects for further exit game TV shows; the lack of references firmly fixing them at a point in time mean that they, like The Crystal Maze, could be repeated for literally decades to come and still entertain someone who hadn’t seen that particular episode before. The ratings for Race to Escape are mentioned in this press release; it’s written in jargon rather than English, but – running it through the translator – those ratings are apparently “boffo”.

Not sure if the success of Race to Escape has been noted as a good thing, but Intervirals pointed (on Facebook) that the US TV channel Pop, half-owned by the CBS Network, are set to feature a show by Zodiak USA, who have quite a track record, with the working title of Celebrity Escape Room. The Deadline web site quotes a press release like so: “Based on the hottest new craze in live-action gaming, CELEBRITY ESCAPE ROOM is a high-intensity, totally immersive pop culture challenge. Two celebrities and their friends compete by getting locked in identical rooms, and the only way out is to use their pop culture knowledge and work together to unlock the exit. With room themes ranging from zombie apocalypse to a totally tubular 80’s teen dream, viewers play along as the two celeb teams hilariously stumble through a series of clues, puzzles and red herrings until they unlock the key to their freedom. The first team to escape wins.

4) As much as exit games are a global phenomenon, there’s no reason why TV exit games couldn’t be global likewise – and being quite visual, the formats might travel well. This site has discussed the outstanding The Genius broadcast on tvN in South Korea, which has won the Best Game/Quiz Program award in the Asian Television Awards and may have had more of an impact still; rival broadcaster JTBC has announced a show which looks like it might just be an exit game. (On the other hand, it might not; compare with Dero!, which inspired the US Syfy channel’s Exit, and is sadly just a dressed-up quiz.) ‘Code – the Secret Chamber’ is a psychological survival program that the casts have to evacuate from the locked down rooms with 4 different concepts by solving secret codes through mission games. Through their deductions, the program will induce the members to union, betrayal, corporation and competitions. ‘Code’ will air its first episode in January 2016.

Not long to wait to find out either way!

Racing to Escape

Race to Escape logoExit Games UK has previously looked forward to Race to Escape, a game show with an exit game theme that started on the Science Channel in the US yesterday. Happily, the first episode was very much to this site’s taste; the short series of six episodes promises a different theme each week and if the variety and standard remains this strong then the series will be something really rather remarkable indeed. In the worst-case scenario, later episodes in the series might have little to offer, but the first episode is still something of a must-watch.

The first question – at least to UK readers – is how to watch the series at all. If you’re in the US, then the solution is simple: it’s available to be streamed, free of commercials, on the channel’s own official site. If you’re not in the US, perhaps you might be able to persuade the official site that you actually are by means of a VPN or such – likely this won’t be free, but it’s cheap, can be reasonably simple, and comes recommended. It’s possible that someone might upload an illicit copy of the first episode to a video site; it’s also theoretically possible that, more legally, one of the UK channels over here might pick the show up.

((Edited to add:)) Oh, what the hell – here’s a link to just such an illicit copy of the first episode. As might be expected, there are a few ads to be closed, and there’s no guarantee that the link will last for long. Nevertheless, enjoy.

As previously discussed, the format is simple. Two teams of three strangers compete to escape identical rooms; the first team to escape within 60 minutes wins a cash prize. Escape within 20 minutes and win $25,000; take longer than that and the money starts to tick away at $500 per minute. Optional clues reduce the potential prize by $5,000 each. Based on a sample of a single episode, the actual show lives up well to the considerable potential. There is remarkably little messing about and the show gets straight to the action. The rooms are the true stars and look gorgeous. The puzzles are… not the most original things in the world, but sufficiently well-designed to impress and look like they have had more money spent on them than could be found in (almost all?) escape games’ budgets. The chain of cause-and-effect sometimes isn’t completely logical, but the show proceeds with such speed and spirit that on the few occasions that people might reasonably stop and say “Er, why?” that it gets away with it convincingly.

The host, Jimmy Pardo, plays his role with about as straight a bat as you might ever expect to see from a comedian, with only a couple of arch hamming-it-up moments. He interrupts the action occasionally to demonstrate the teams’ activities demonstrating certain psychological principles, which is a tenuous reason to justify the show’s broadcast on the Science Channel, but works well enough. The contestants are smart and likeable, though seem to be (if not quite over-emoting then perhaps) sugar-rushing their way through; they’re clearly having a great deal of fun playing the game, and this comes through convincingly. Maybe you can’t play the puzzles at home yourself as well as you might, but you can imagine how much fun it must be to get the chance to do so for real. The first episode left this site wanting more and looking forward to future episodes. Congratulations and compliments to everybody involved.

((Edited to add:)) The host recently took questions from the public on Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything” section. Most of the questions were about his Never Not Funny podcast, but there were a few about the show, with some interesting views behind the scenes.

Has there ever been as good a time for watching puzzle shows around the world as this? Series four of The Genius has been sensational, four episodes in; Only Connect is reliably superb, and Race to Escape has got off to a heck of a start. Happy days.

One more other global issue; while Exit Games UK doesn’t habitually cover US site launches, please do keep an eye on the newly-opened Locurio of Seattle. By way of full disclosure, Exit Games UK knows one of the founders a little, but it respects the knowledge and background experience of the founders so much that the site has exceptional potential.

Puzzle TV update

"The Genius" garnet and logoIt’s a joy to have a good excuse to use the above logo again; the fourth series of Korean sensation The Genius is now under way. At time of writing, the first two episodes have been broadcast, translated and covertly reposted with English-language subtitles. The subtitle of this series is GRAND FINAL, and it’s an all-star series; the thirteen contestants have all played one or two of the first three series – and, furthermore, they include the top two finishers from each of the first three series. (Sadly, some of the most entertaining and biggest mouths of the first two series aren’t back.)

This site previously discussed the show; in summary, imagine Big Brother with really smart contestants playing proper clever, puzzly games. You can jump in at the start of the fourth series which stands alone, but you may also get more from being familiar with the personalities if you’ve watched the first three series (highly recommended; the games broadly get more interesting and better-played over time, but the first series has the single most brilliantly-played game to date and the second series has the single most brilliant piece of gameplay, which is not quite the same thing). Links to shows plus translations are at the usual place.

While the UK isn’t cool enough to have The Genius, it does have dear old Only Connect, brilliant in its own right and its own fashion – though this site maintains that the show has, metaphorically, put on a jazzy bow tie ever since it moved to BBC 2, just for a giggle. The new series starts on Monday 13th July. Get in early if you can, because you stand much more chance – though still not much of a chance, unless you’re good! – at being able to play along with the episodes at the start of the series. BBC FOUR starts its brand new show, Hive Minds, on Tuesday 14th July, hiding its tricky quiz answers in word search puzzles with hexagonal grids. The clips suggest that there may well be some play-along-at-home value to it.

Later in the month, with most direct relevance to exit games, the Science Channel in the US is launching Race To Escape, as previously discussed. Some more videos have been posted, one featuring the rules to the game. (Two teams compete to escape identical rooms; the first team to escape within 60 minutes wins a cash prize. Escape within 20 minutes and win $25,000; take longer than that and the money starts to tick away at $500 per minute. Optional clues reduce the potential prize by $5,000 each.) One video suggests that they’re going to use some techniques for the show’s clues which this site would consider a little exotic because real-life exit games cannot have a TV budget; this is good to see, and probably essential because many of the show’s viewers are likely to have played games and seen the relatively simple stuff first-hand. Fingers crossed!

Race to Escape

Race to Escape logoThis site has previously mentioned Race to Escape, a forthcoming game show set to be broadcast on the Science Channel within the US. More details have emerged and are good to share. The biggest headline is the date: the first episode is set for 10pm Eastern time on Saturday 25th July. The media organisations of the world have more or less accepted that they have lost the battle to restrict their programming to the country of their choice; expect the episode to be up on streaming sites within another 24-48 hours of broadcast. (If the world is lucky, the upload will be official, easy-to-find and officially available to the world. If the world is unlucky, it will be necessary to delve into the murky waters of BitTorrent.)

You can find the trailer at an article in Entertainment Weekly on the show with some more details of the format: two teams of three strangers race against each other in identical rooms. Each room has five codes to find and solve. The first team out shares the jackpot, which starts at US$25,000 but decreases over time. “There will be a variety of rooms with all sorts of unique decorations, including an old-timey barbershop, a Chinese restaurant, and a 19th century study (which is the location of the premiere episode).” The graphics suggest that at least the first code will be numeric; fingers crossed for the degree of variety, and focus upon tasks, that the world already knows from the best real-life exit games.

For a deeper view behind the scenes, see the article at the Pacific Standard‘s magazine; this features an interview with show creator Riaz Patel. The article reveals that the episodes are an hour long and – in the best news of the lot – every episode will have a completely different room. (An excellent reason to come back from one show to the next; always something new to see!) The piece also contains more background information about exit games at large, discussing them with an operator from California.

This site hopes that the show is a huge success. The Escape Room Directory points to 58 countries that feature exit games; let’s hope that the show’s creators, and initial broadcaster, are well rewarded for taking a chance on the format and that local versions of the show are made in countries around the world.

Puzzle news in brief

News in BriefNot convinced about that graphic, but it took so much more work than it probably should have done… :-/

Puzzled Pint in London’s “Bubble” location was a smashing success; 79 players took part on 19 teams (not counting 3 GC members and two spectators), of whom 17 finished in full. The puzzles attracted plenty of compliments, with at least one that will last in the memory as probably better suited to being attempted after a couple of pints. As ever, the puzzles will be uploaded within, probably, a few days so that if you couldn’t make it then you can print them out and enjoy them in the comfort of your own home. Feel free to move from “Bubble” to “Squeak” from month to month according to which location suits you better, but this month there was plenty of room at “Squeak” and a bit of a squash at “Bubble”; when booking two rooms requires a certain amount to be spent at both, a more even split would suit rather better.

A new puzzle show – the category being a puzzle-focused subset of game shows – started on BBC 2 at 6:30pm on Monday. Cuddly Uncle John Craven oversees a team of four contestants attempting to solve three examples of two styles of puzzles in each of four “zones”, themed around different sorts of puzzle style. The more puzzles that are answered correctly, the more time the team have to try to win the prize at the end of the show. It’s a bit like a low-budget all-mental-game The Crystal Maze except much less kinetic – practically stationary. The puzzles include some very familiar styles, but the puzzle material is habitually very good and extremely well-suited for playing along at home. The endgame is great fun and rattles through at a good pace. Some videos of the first episodes have been uploaded to YouTube, possibly officially, possibly illicitly, so you may be able to take a look even if you’re outside the UK.

There was a hint at Puzzled Pint of an extremely exciting-sounding event possibly taking place; no specifics, but more news will follow if the event is confirmed and if this site gets permission to share. Fingers crossed, because the suggestion caused literal bouncing with excitement!