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.

Red Bull Mind Gamers thoughts

Red Bull Mind Gamers: Mission Unlock Enoch , copyright Red Bull GmbHThe global finals of the Red Bull Mind Gamers promotion took place in Budapest, Hungary last week, tied in with Tuesday’s release of the Mind Gamers movie by the drinks company’s media house.

22 national teams qualified from their countries’ qualifying campaigns, with two other wild card teams made up of solvers from around the world arising from other competitions on the Red Bull Mind Gamers site. These 24 teams, in total, were split up into two sections of 12 depending upon their arrival date in Hungary, which in turn depended upon how far they had had to come. Each section of 12 played an identical semi-final game on the same day, either Thursday or Friday. All 24 teams were brought to a studio on Saturday where the results of the semi-finals were announced, with the best teams taking part in a final. Excerpts of the semi-finals and the final itself were broadcast in a live show on Red Bull TV, still available on demand, and the faster team in the final won the championship, along with a trip to the US and a delightful physical-puzzle trophy.

The rest of this post is a reflection on, and will contain spoilers for, the TV show. Continue reading

A tiny bit more from Budapest

copyright Predrag Vuckovic / Red Bull Content Pool

copyright Predrag Vuckovic / Red Bull Content Pool

A fantastic photo of the UK team, to be referred to as Team United Kingdom, about to start their semi-final. It doesn’t show their best sides but it’s still a great photo!

Red Bull have posted another article with more information from the combined days of the semi-finals. It also features a photo of Team United Kingdom’s Sera in full flow in what appears to be a laser maze or something similar. Here’s an updated quote with progress:

Based on how challenges to various intelligences were solved throughout the Semi-Finals, an ultimate Dream Team pulled from the full two days might include talent from Australia, Canada, France, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey and the USA. But to make the Finals on Saturday night, teams must have combined all those diverse mind skills within their own four teammates, and any one of the 24 contenders could be announced as a Finalist.

At least for a while, there’s also a video clip available with edited highlights from the semi-finals. The quality and speed of the editing by the Red Bull team is hugely impressive, the game looks amazing and it makes me really look forward to tonight’s show. See you back here just before seven!

Edited to add: For technical reasons, liveblogging the show did not happen as had been hoped.

Tonight is World Championship night

Drinks canCompletely generic beverage container pictured there, yeah?

I’ve been trying to cover Red Bull Mind Gamers’ Mission Unlock ENOCH, the first really serious international competition between escape game solving teams. The official Facebook and Twitter are still keeping things fairly firmly locked down, and participants are respecting the privacy embargo impeccably, so this report of what there is to know about things so far is necessarily going to be pretty short. There’s no more inside information than one player having described the room as “really, really cool”.

That said, it has been suggested that the restriction on discussing the games on social media was lifted at dinnertime on Friday night, so here’s what has been mentioned. Teams played a series of seven challenges; solving each one opened a door to try the next. The challenges have been compared to things from The Crystal Maze or The Krypton Factor, except with very heavy focus on co-operation between team members; the challenges were primarily mental, but with heavy physical elements in the implementation of the puzzles, as opposed to testing athletic prowess. They involved unusual equipment rather higher-tech than you would see in most, but perhaps not quite all, escape rooms; it’ll be really fun to see (at least footage of) the teams playing with some very fancy toys on the broadcasts. If I can get permission to suggest what the challenges were before the broadcast then I’ll paste what I’ve heard in.

It is known that Thursday and Friday each saw twelve teams play the same game, with the fastest qualifier of the day qualifying for tonight’s final. The Thursday and Friday games were different from each other, presumably as a spoiler protection measure, so performances can’t be compared exactly from day to day. Thursday saw the UK play, along with eleven other teams who had arrived in Budapest relatively early. The UK faced off against Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Slovakia, Italy, France, Hungary, Norway, Spain, Lithuania and Estonia, so there will be some European interest in the finals.

We do know a little – and I mean little – about how Thursday went, courtesy of an official “surprises and stats” article. The juiciest quote runs like so: The early results are as top-secret as the details of the Escape Room itself. But organizers did reveal that, looking at the strengths showed by the teams in the various intelligences challenged – the dream Mind Gamer team for the day would have been a combination of Spain, Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia and the United Kingdom. There’s a lovely photo of the UK team just before they go into the room, as well, even if it doesn’t show the team members’ best sides.

While the UK team were only the 17th fastest out of the 22 national champions in the qualifying competition, the actual escape room-based tests of the semi-finals should have played to their massive experience and their strengths. Second place and twelfth place are practically interchangeable so this may not be the most meaningful thing to say, but I have a feeling that the UK team will have acquitted themselves really pretty well. (If I’m going to pick a second tip, the Swiss team were mentioned above, plus had the fastest qualifying time among the European teams.)

Friday’s play featured teams from Singapore, Korea, Russia, Azerbaijan, Romania, USA, Oman, Turkey, Ukraine and Sweden, as well as the two wild card teams. Obviously I’m going to be cheering for UK to qualify from Thursday, but my loyalties on Friday are more heavily divided. I’ve met one person on each of the two wild card teams; both wild card teams and the US team are represented on the Slack, so I’d be happy if the Friday winner were any of those three.

It’ll be a lot of fun to find out. The teams are being kept in suspense as to how well they have done until the big reveal on the live show on Red Bull TV online from 7pm UK time tonight. I’m going to try to provide minute-by-minute liveblogging here at Ex Exit Games, as befits coverage of the world championship final of a mind sports event, and because it was fun when I tried something similar a dozen years ago. See you just before seven!

Second-hand bits and pieces from Budapest

Stylised globe encircled by a bolt of lightAs discussed recently, the de facto escape room world championship that is Red Bull Mind Gamers’ Mission Unlock ENOCH is just about to spark into life. While play hasn’t started yet, there haven’t been a great deal of specifics posted on either the official Facebook or the official Twitter, so time to dig a little further.

This site has made passing mention of the tremendous Room Escape Divas podcast; it’s a running joke that virtually every episode makes prominent mention of the not-at-all-secret escape rooms secret Slack chat. (If you’re not familiar with Slack, it’s rather a lot like old-fashioned IRC text chat, only with a beautifully-designed user interface that’s a joy to use.) There are a couple of hundred people registered for that Slack chat, including site operators and prominent industry participants as well as bloggers and other enthusiasts, and spending time there is a lot of fun. (In particular, the inhabitants of the #uk-general channel are especially dear to me.) It shouldn’t come as a surprise that there’s pretty good representation of English-speaking Mission Unlock ENOCH participants in the chat, and this seems to have been a pretty good source of information.

You can well imagine that one of the potential barriers to running an escape room competition on the up and up is avoiding spoilers. If not all teams can play at the same time, then there have to be measures in place to ensure that players on teams who play the room early cannot give tips to their friends taking part later on. Accordingly, a tight lockdown on communications is about to come into effect, which is why I use “seems to have been” rather than “seems to be” above. People seem to be respecting the intention as well as the letter of the law and are keeping quiet about relatively small details of their experience, for fear of transgressing the lockdown and risking disqualification. It seems likely that we’ll not get to hear too much about the event until it’s all over – but here’s what we do know.

There are 24 teams taking part: 22 national representatives, plus two wild card teams. Twelve teams are playing in one semi-final today and the other twelve tomorrow, with the fastest team from each day (or possibly the two fastest teams overall) facing off in the live final on Saturday night, to be broadcast on Red Bull TV from 7pm UK time. The teams will be sequestered from each other reasonably aggressively for spoiler prevention. It may well be that the twelve teams playing tomorrow are those who have had to come further to get to Budapest and thus might need slightly longer to get over the time zone differences; certainly the UK team are playing at some point today. All the team members have been provided with some very snazzy-looking jackets, complete with national flags sewn onto the forearm, as well as the branding you might expect.

You can find out who’s on which team on the official site. The breakdown is something like 80% male, 20% female. Certainly among the briefing held for the twelve teams playing today, it was observed that a reasonably strong majority of the participants were young, pale and male. Day two looks like it will have rather more diversity, though.

The Slack chat referred to above means that I at least vaguely know people on at least four of the teams, so I’m hopeful of having someone to cheer for on Saturday night. The best of luck to them all… but mainly, from my perspective, to the UK team!

It’s World Championship week with Red Bull Mind Gamers: Mission Unlock ENOCH

Red Bull Mind Gamers: Mission Unlock Enoch, copyright Red Bull GmbHMonths ago, this site posted about the then-upcoming UK qualification rounds for Red Bull Mind GamersMission Unlock ENOCH campaign. National qualification championships were held in 22 countries around the world, though mostly in Europe, which each qualified a national representative team for the finals, along with two wildcard teams, each of which featured four players earning their places via additional online competitions. These 24 teams are making their way to Budapest in Hungary this week for the world championship.

As I understand it, the 24 teams will take on the same room, one at a time, over Thursday 23rd and Friday 24th March. The two fastest teams face each other in the overall final, set to be broadcast online on Red Bull TV live from 7pm UK time on Saturday 25th March. (It’s not clear how, or if, we’ll be able to follow the action on Thursday and Friday, but Red Bull’s social media would seem like a good place to start. There have even been some suggestions that everything will be kept pretty much locked down until the start of the live show on Saturday; we’ll see.) What else do we know about the room? “It’s the first escape room based on quantum logic, and is designed to challenge 4 problem-solving skills: creativity, logic, visual thinking and strategy“, the titular ENOCH to be unlocked is a quantum computer, and you can see a six-part vlog series about the design of the event.

The UK team looks very strong to me. It is made up of Ken Ferguson, of The Logic Escapes Me fame as well as a little blog called Exit Games UK, Mark Greenhalgh of Really Fun as well as Sera Dodd and Sharon Gill. The team is hugely experienced, having played a total of 1,000 escape games between them – possibly not far from 1,100 by the time of the finals. Ken wrote about the qualification experience in detail and I look forward to seeing and reading more about the finals in the fullness of time. Ken admits that they weren’t as well-prepared for the qualification event as they could have been, and some amazing qualification times came from teams who analysed videos frame-by-frame in preparation. However, this week will test raw escape game skills; it would seem unlikely that the UK team will be out-experienced in this regard.

While this is the first event of its type and so there cannot be a form guide, there are some very familiar names on the other teams. The US qualifiers include a US Sudoku champion, ahead of some very stiff competition, and if you search for the other names on that team, it’s clear that they have some extremely serious puzzle chops as well. Speaking of which, the wildcard winners team includes four-time World Puzzle Champion Wei-Hwa Huang and ClueKeeper co-founder Rich Bragg; I’m sure the other two members are likely to have very considerable skills as well. Long-time US Puzzle team captain Nick Baxter is on the DxM wildcard team, as well. And those are just the names I recognise! I’m sure that representatives of other countries are just as accomplished in their own ways, too.

There’s so much that we don’t know, but it’s going to be great fun following the week and finding out!

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!