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!

The sixth CUCaTS puzzle hunt: Cambridge, 17th-18th June

CuCATS fourth puzzle hunt logoThis will be the sixth consecutive year where the last Saturday of Cambridge’s Easter Term has seen the Cambridge University’s Computing and Technology Society stage an in-person puzzle hunt in town for 24 hours. They don’t make it easy. This is not just in terms of the puzzle hunt itself, but in knowing that it exists; it’s not on the society’s web site, nor is it on their Facebook page, but a well-placed e-mail confirmed that the game was on. The hunt seems to be intended to be played primarily by Cambridge students (though far from just by undergraduates!) and staff, but isn’t restricted to them; teams of up to three must have one person with a local e-mail address, but teams can have outsiders as well. Presumably the hunt has been well-publicised within the university.

The cat logo above is being used by this year’s hunt, though the pangram is not around it this year. The FAQ page describes the puzzle hunt as “a team puzzle-solving and treasure-hunting competition. Your team will navigate its way through a mental and sometimes physical obstacle course of challenging and fun computational, mathematical and linguistic puzzles scattered throughout Cambridge, seeking to cut its way through to the goal before everyone else. No preparation is necessary, just come along on the day!” – and that day is Saturday 17th June, with the time being 4pm.

The other thing to note is that puzzles from past hunts are available online, and they’re definitely towards the tougher end of the spectrum. While the organisation behind it is not the same one who put on the online Cambridge Puzzle Hunt earlier in the year, it’s not as if there cannot be crossover from society to society – and, indeed, the societies are moderately close in their essential interests. The more puzzle hunts people play, and especially the more puzzle hunts people set puzzles for, the better-calibrated the puzzles are likely to be.

I’m on shift this weekend and, frankly, get the impression that these puzzles are likely to be harder than I would enjoy. However, I know there are people in the UK for whom this hunt would be an excellent match, particularly the more technically-minded members of teams who did well at DASH or at online puzzle hunts, and if you come into that category then this may well be the hunt for you. Many thanks to everyone at CUCaTS for putting it on and making it available; it’s surely likely to be spectacular!

That said, it, also, is far from the only interesting thing happening this Saturday…

The annual DASH participation statistics post, after DASH 9

Bar chart showing improving performance over timeIf it’s a few days after DASH, it’s time for the annual participation statistics post! Please find below an updated version of a table which details the number of teams on the scoreboard for each city in each edition of the DASH puzzle hunt to date.

Albuquerque, NM 6 6+1 3+2+0 4+0+0
Atlanta, GA 5+7 8+5
Austin, TX 2 11 12 13+4 10+4+0 17+6+0 20+4 18+4
Bay Area, CA Y(SF)
73(SF) 34+7(SF)
Boston, MA Y 18 26 29 27+2 30+7+1 30+6+0 38+13 33+10
Chicago, IL 17 14 10+1 15+9+0 16+24+0 16+16 20+19
Davis, CA 16 15 16 13+7 8+7+1 13+7+0 12+8 15+5
Denver, CO 3+12+0 6+7
Enschede, NL 9+2
Houston, TX Y
London, UK 6+2 8+13+0 14+9+0 14+8 18+6
Los Angeles, CA Y 7 22 21 15+4 15+2+0
(Sta Monica)
19+17 16+6
Minneapolis, MN 8+7 7+4+0
9+7+0 7+9 6+17
New York, NY 12 24 25 30+7 26+15+2 29+15+0 24+15 37+13
Portland, OR Y 6 17 19 19+2 11+7+0 10+10+0 12+5
Provo, UT 1+1
San Diego, CA 7
Seattle, WA Y 32 47 49 49+2 58+4+2 60+9+2 63+6 46+3
South Bend, IN 1
St. Louis, MO 2 2+3 7+8+1 8+10 7+11
Washington, DC Y 14 22 33 31+1 27+5+0 26+9+0 28+12 27+13
Number of locations 8 10 12 13 15 14 16 16 16

Here are some initial interpretations:

1) Errors and omissions excepted, with apologies in advance. The Minneapolis DASH 6 recast figures came from the organisers by private e-mail.

2) The numbers are drawn from the scoreboards and may not reflect teams that participate but do not make the scoreboard for whatever reason, or other infelicities. (On the other hand, it does include teams which do make the scoreboard even despite being listed as “not started”.) DASH 1 does not have a public scoreboard on the web site and thus “Y” represents the hunt having happened there with an unknown number of participants. When there are pluses, the number before the first plus reflects the number of teams on the experienced track, the number after the first plus reflects the number of teams on the “new players”/”novice” track (DASH 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9), and the number after the second plus reflects the number of teams on the junior track (DASH 6 and 7 only).

3) Interpret “Bay Area, CA” using the following key: SF = San Francisco (1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9), PA = Palo Alto (1 and 8), SR = Santa Rosa (2,3), LA = Los Altos (2), SM = San Mateo (3), HMB = Half Moon Bay (5), C = Cupertino (6), SJ = San Jose (7), F = Fremont (9).

4) I’ve been thinking for a while about knocking single-entry cities (Houston in DASH 1, San Diego in DASH 3 and South Bend in DASH 4) out of their own individual rows of the table and into a single combined row, a bit like the Bay Area, CA row. This might make the table easier to deal with. Fingers very firmly crossed that Provo, UT and Enschede don’t prove similar one-offs.

5) The line-up of 16 locations participating in DASH 9 was not too different from that for DASH 8; we lost Denver and previously ever-present Portland, each hopefully for only a year, and instead gained Enschede in the Netherlands and Provo in Utah. Fingers crossed for the return of Albuquerque at some point, too, so I can know where to turn left. (See also this comment from DASH about there having been some interest, that didn’t come to fruition, from Manchester, Mexico City and Vienna.)

6) It’s not a competition to see whose DASH can be the largest; all DASH organiser teams are glorious, generous paragons of virtue, whether their event had one team or 70+, and the community at large thanks them all for the time and effort that they put in. The two-track solution proved its worth again, with each location seeing at least one team on each track.

7) Numbers do appear to be slightly down in several of the larger locations. It’s tempting to wonder to what extent this is a result of demand being down and to what extent this is a result of a lack of availability of supply. Could some of the locations, if they had wanted to, have held bigger events if they had had more GC available? Could some of the locations, if they had wanted to, have held bigger events if they had larger sites for their individual puzzles? Were there many teams who wanted to get the chance to play but didn’t get to play in practice? (As ever, there’s no reason why bigger necessarily has to be better and there’s no sense in deliberately trying to emphasise quantity over quality.)

8) I’m about to do something quite unfair, for the barriers to entry are so vastly different, but here’s a table comparing the growth of DASH with the growth of Puzzled Pint over the last few years, courtesy in part of data from Puzzled Pint’s Matt Cleinman:

Month Puzzled Pint
Puzzled Pint
2012 13 300 April 2012 1 50
2013 15 295 + 53 April 2013 2 (N/A)
2014 14 307 + 101 April 2014 5 255
2015 16 333 + 151 April 2015 17 922
2016 16 363 + 159 April 2016 32 1461
2017 16 342 + 138 April 2017 39 1956

The DASH data, after DASH 9

D.A.S.H. logoThere’s no editorial here, and definitely no intent to suggest there is such a thing as an optimal set of values, but this might still be of interest to set some context for comparison purposes. The times refer to puzzles offered in the most popular (i.e. expert/experienced) track from DASH 5 onwards.

Edition Par time Fast* time Usual* time Teams Structure
2 5:00 1:51 4:32 173 8+M
3 6:00 2:57 6:42 298 8+M
4 6:00 1:53 4:48 300 8+M
5 4:30 2:14 5:32 295+N IB+7+M
6 5:50 2:33 5:10 307+N IB+8+M
7 5:45 3:38 6:55 333+N IB+8+M
8 6:40 2:33 4:35 363+N IB+7+M
9 6:05 1:55 3:54 341+N 9
* median,
* median,
N = normal track M = metapuzzle,
IB = icebreaker

Data remains available for DASH 2, DASH 3, DASH 4, DASH 5, DASH 6, DASH 7, DASH 8 and DASH 9. Note that the usual time was calculated from the median time quoted for either the middle-scoring 8 or 9 teams, depending on whether the overall number of teams was even or odd, and may not represent every puzzle being solved without a hint or even every puzzle being solved at all. The times quoted do not include the par or solving times for the unscored co-operative icebreaker puzzle from DASH 5, 6, 7 and 8.

Mazes and Crystals

It all started with a big CrystalThere is much more to say about the Red Bull Mind Gamers finals show, much of it very positive. Not tonight. I am still bitter about my Internet access here yesterday, and how resetting a router can make things worse when every other time – including a measly ten minutes after the show finishes – it makes it better. That’s not important right now. (At least I got to see the show, even if I have used up half my mobile phone data for the month.)

The live The Crystal Maze experience is clearly a hit, selling out months in advance in London and sufficient to inspire a second official maze in Manchester. (There are some very positive reviews of the Manchester maze previews at Escape Game Addicts and at Brit of an Escape Addict!) When the show comes back to TV, after the one-off Stand Up To Cancer celebrity special, it will come back further into people’s consciousnesses and be a rising tide to lift all boats further. Hurrah!

Here is a statement which I don’t think reflects any great insight, but I don’t think I’ve seen anybody else yet make. The world of escape games is already enough that there can be reasonably well-established subgenres within it: a zombie game, a prison break game and so on. Aside from the issue of whether the live The Crystal Maze experience “counts” as an escape game or not, I think there is room for the existence of a “The Crystal Maze” subgenre of escape games, and that there will be more escape and related games in the UK that, for want of a good adjective, have some degree of the essential The Crystal Maze nature.

This is a gradual scale, with shades of grey, rather than being a binary distinction. There have long existed scored games, an early example (and probably the most famous?) of which is Clue HQ‘s The Vault. Some use the score element to reflect how quickly you were able to solve the regular puzzles in the game which you must complete before you can get to the scored activities. Others use scores in different ways; I enjoyed reading The Logic Escapes Me‘s reviews of the Ruby Factory at Trapped In and Bad Clown, as was, at Escape Quest. More topically, Time Run’s new The Celestial Game game is a scored game; from what I know about it, I thought it sounded quite crystalline, though Escape Review’s, er, review (which is spoiler-y for format alone, though certainly not for content) tended to differ.

The Bolton News recently wrote about an upcoming site called Crack The Maze, in which “teams between two and six are tested in physical, mental and skill challenges to win time for an ultimate final challenge. There will also be escape the room challenges in the huge complex.” So there are plans for an explicitly labyrinthine game on site and escape rooms as well. Exciting!

I also enjoyed reading about Never Give Up which opened in Newcastle-on-Tyne about a month ago. “Take on various challenges to successfully complete each type of game. 1 or 2 players can play each game while the rest of your team shout instructions through the doors or windows to help. ((…)) Successfully completing a game will earn your team a “clue sphere”. Collect as many of these precious sphere’s as possible to win clues for the epic centre-piece of the game, the escape from King Tut’s Tomb. ((…)) The various Egyptian themed rooms- mental, skill and physical games are up to 3 minutes long and will last for approximately 35-40 minutes in total. The final challenge, the King Tut’s Tomb will last 15-20 minutes.” So it’s two parts The Crystal Maze, one part escape room. Thumbs firmly up from here… and it has a great name, too.

Part of the reason why escape games have done so well in the UK, I am convinced, is the high esteem in which The Crystal Maze is held, even decades after the fact, and the extent to which people can relate to it as an immediate cultural touchpoint. (Escape game owners, raise a toast to Challenge TV. I’m not kidding.) It strikes me as logical to wonder whether Fort Boyard, the French predecessor show, might have a similar effect in countries where it is beloved. For instance, Oslo in Norway has a game called Fangene på Fortet, which is also the name of their local version of Fort Boyard. The game seems slightly more Boda Borg than anything else, but that’s another game that… if not quite along the same axis, is another asteroid in the same cluster.

Flying slightly into fantasy, it’s tempting to wonder whether other game show properties might ever see the light of day. Given the popularity of the Knightmare Live theatrical shows, I find it easy to imagine that there would be people who would pay to play a Knightmare experience – and that certainly could be replayable. (LARP is a whole different topic, but one not at all far away.) Flying considerably into fantasy, I’d rather like to visit the alternate universe in which John Leslie is providing a star guest appearance at the opening of the (1994 ITV one-series smash-miss) Scavengers experience…

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!

Coming soon to London: A Door In A Wall presents “Horses for Corpses”

"Horses for Corpses" by A Door In A WallEvery time London interactive theatre company A Door In A Wall (for the company capitalises its words, even if its logo remains lower case) announce a major new work, this site gets excited. Spring and Autumn of the past few years have seen hit after hit, and this site has got excited about them more than a few times. One of those times of year is coming up, and the company will be putting on Horses for Corpses.

The ad didn’t say much: “Investigators wanted. No experience necessary.” Some horse trader apparently. You didn’t know much about riding, but you weren’t going to look this gift in the mouth. If only you’d asked a few more questions out of the gate…

Now you and your friends are finding out that racing is a murky world. It seems like everyone’s got form and the going ain’t easy. Somewhere amid the stalls and stables is the truth, and you’ll have to find it, otherwise it’ll be you who’s in the running… for murder.

There are a couple of slight differences to the usual A Door In A Wall format. Teams of 3-6 are suggested (though teams of 2 or 7+ are OK) and up to ten players (so perhaps 2-3 teams, or maybe even 4 tiny ones) get to start in their own private briefing in one of six 20-minute slots offered each afternoon or each evening. After the briefing, you have 2 hours 40 minutes to investigate, then the same players from the private briefing present their conclusions in a private debriefing and determine whether or not they have cracked the case correctly – so the whole thing lasts 3 hours 20 from start to finish. The event is offered on Tuesday to Sunday evenings from 5th May to 28th May, with weekends having additional afternoon matinee performances and a pair of performances on Bank Holiday Monday 29th May rounding things off. The venue is Camden Market, so plenty of good opportunities (and time within the schedule, too!) to grab something to eat and drink along the way.

This site really loved the review of a previous event at The Logic Escapes Me, which suggests precisely what sort of things might be involved: varied puzzles, highly immersive environments and plenty of characters to interactive with. From a starting-point that readers over here might be more familiar with, start with DASH, dial the interactions, interesting locations, storyline and pun fun up, then dial the puzzles slightly down, but not out altogether. (Ah, the things you can do when you are running an event 30+ times, with a professional budget, rather than once with just volunteers.) Book your tickets soon before the remaining dates sell out!

Industry advertising at the UK Games Expo

UK Games Expo 2017The UK Games Expo describes itself as the largest Hobby Games Convention in the UK. It has taken place in Birmingham for each of the last 11 years and attendance is in the low tens of thousands annually. It’s a three-day event, so the figure might have some triple-counting, but that’s still very impressive. It features organised tournaments and open gaming across a wide variety of genres: board games, trading card games, miniatures war games and RPGs, both tabletop and live action. Increasingly it features game-themed entertainment events as well. (It’s almost easier to define it in terms of what sorts of games it doesn’t focus upon: traditional mind sports, physical games and digital games.) While far from all exit games players have interests in these fields, enough of them do that this seems to pose an obvious opportunity: people who go to the UK Games Expo have a much larger-than-average chance of being interested in exit games.

There is a plan to have some sort of industry-wide presence at the event. Potentially there will be a bespoke game to play, showcasing what a number of different exit games have to offer, but which will need considerable manipulation to fit into a convention context. There would also be the scope to heavily advertise your exit game brand at the event. More on this may emerge at the next unconference on 10th January, as previously discussed, but there may be no spaces left for it, so the best way to find out more would be to get in touch with Liz Cable.