søndag den 17. september 2017

Va Bank (Questerland, Prague)

The French gambling term “Va Banque” means that you are going all in: You put all your money on ONE bet, which means that you could either win all the money or you could go bankrupt. This high-stakes, risky business strategy is easily transferred to all other areas of life – most notably the expression was used by Adolf Hitler during World War II when discussing his war tactics with Hermann Göring.

In this way, the “Va Bank” escape room makes very good sense. Once more, in Prague, you find yourself on the wrong side of the law: You are bank robbers in the middle of your biggest heist ever. You’ve reached the inner vault, when suddenly the door shuts behind you. It’s locked! So, besides robbing the bank of all its valuables and gold bars, you have to find the secret exit door. Fortunately – since the Czech police force isn’t the quickest one in the world – you have a whole hour to escape!

That background story isn’t deep or detailed in any way. But it doesn’t need to be for the game to be fun. Just get the money, and get out of there. Go!

Set decoration: 9,5
The hands-down best thing about “Va Bank” is the set decoration. It’s not only gorgeous to behold – it’s also immersive. The game starts with you stepping into the bank vault and the round metal door literally locking behind you. You can hear the iron bolts sliding into place, and then you take a look around in what looks like a set from a heist thriller: Rows upon rows of small bank boxes are lined up along the walls and a safe is placed in the furthest part of the room behind solid security grilles. Even though all the lights are on, and the room has been cleansed of every single shadow, it still feels suspenseful – first and foremost because the room is as bare and clinical to look at as a real bank vault. This also creates an immersive sense of isolation. You are really stuck in this place, and you need to get out now!!

To underline this, a monitor screen shows what’s going on right outside the huge vault door. Here a group of police officers are trying to hammer drill their way into the underground safe. However, no sound effects or yelling can be heard – which is perhaps a little disappointing since the rest of the room is so flawlessly designed. The same could be said about the background music: It is a little underwhelming and can’t really keep up with the dynamics of the room. Still, on the other hand, once you get further into the game, there will be sound effects – and loud ones, too. The lighting will also change to accommodate the storyline and your progression in the game. All of which works very well to turn up the stressful atmosphere. And then we haven’t really mentioned the changes in the set decoration: Suffice it to say that when the room opens itself up to the second part of the game, you won’t be disappointed.

Puzzles: 6,3
The puzzles in “Va Bank” are well integrated into the set design, so much so that many of them hinges on finding the needle in the haystack. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say that the 250 small bank boxes are there for a reason, and a good dozen of them will come into play during the game. The question is which ones? In this way, “Va Bank” is probably not an escape game for absolute beginners – unless of course you love discipline and attention to detail. Also, if you need hints along the way they will most likely concern a very small feature that you had just plainly missed – making you feel stupid and ignorant. In other words: There’s a risk that you will end up feeling like somewhat a failure even though you actually won the game.

On a more positive note, the puzzle designers clearly have had an idea when it comes to the progression of the puzzles. The starting area is definitely the easy part of the game, whereas the final third is much harder and requires you to think hard about what you’re doing. However, from start to finish the puzzles are about keeping your eyes open in order to find the next code.

What made our gaming experience slightly more frustrating and difficult was the fact that we accidentally skipped a puzzle, which meant that we also missed a key. The game master, unfortunately, did not catch this – we had to ask about a hint ourselves. Likewise frustrating was the loose connection concerning a light switch that you have to use in a puzzle – the light switch didn’t work properly. You also have to interact with some analogue watches at a crucial point in the game – here a couple of the hands on the watches were broken and came right off.

Game Master: 9,5
Our host and game master were both very kind and excellent at English. They welcomed us with a smile and we had a chat both before and after the game. We talked about the company, Questerland, as well as the escape-game scene in Prague in general. There’s a nice lounge area that invites you to stay a little longer and hang out and get a drink in the bar. It’s all very cosy, and you definitely get the feeling that these guys love what they’re doing.

During the game you communicate with the game master through an intercom system mounted on the wall close to the entrance. On the one hand, this solution works well since it creates a stressful sensation when you have to run back and forth between the puzzles and the intercom to get hints. On the other hand, honestly, it’s not all that integrated into the game: Who are you getting help from? Other people inside the bank? However, we didn’t need more than three hints, so it didn’t really bother us.

What did bother us was the lack of a countdown timer. Especially because you have to ask for hints, too, so it’s never really clear how well you’re doing, or how far you are in the game. Also, it doesn’t feel like the game master is monitoring you, since you have to be very specific about your hint requirements. As mentioned previously, we messed up the order of the puzzles somehow, and we had to find that out ourselves. You can of course ask about the time through the intercom (and we did!), but it should be pretty easy to build a visible timer into the set design, and change the story a bit to make it all add up. That would be an improvement.

Conclusion: 8,4
As beautiful and immersive as the “Va Bank” set design is, the puzzles are slightly more mediocre and not all that varied. All of them require you to be massively disciplined and examine every single thing up and close. If this is your kind of puzzle, we wish you happy searching.

Room: Va Bank
Company: Questerland, Manésova 54, Prague 2, 120 00
Languages available: Czech and English
Game time: 60 minutes
Price: CZK 1000,- for 2 players, CZK 1100-1300,- for 3-5 players

This review:
Game date: 13 July 2017
Number of players: 2 (Questerland suggests that you are 2-5 players, but we wouldn’t recommend more than 3 grownup players due to the size of the room. Certainly, it wouldn’t have hurt our game with more eyes to look for all the details.)
Hints: 3

We survived, 58:30 minutes played

Christopher Columbus (Runaway Escape Rooms, Prague)

Who should’ve known that immoral games apparently are a real escape-room niche? So far, in Prague, we’ve helped a convicted criminal escape God’s punishment, we’ve adopted the roles of thieves, and now this: In the “Christopher Columbus” escape room you’re not assuming the role of the titular character, Captain Christopher Columbus himself. Instead, you take up the role as spies for the Spanish royal court. You have to sneak aboard Columbus’ ship and report back to the King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella about Columbus’ whereabouts and his discoveries. Why exactly you have to do this, and why you have only 60 minutes to set sail and go across the ocean to America and back again – that’s never revealed? But that’s the somewhat illogical setup to this immoral escape room.

Set decoration: Once Upon a Time in America
“Christopher Columbus” is hosted by Runaway Escape Rooms – the same company that’s also behind the “Gulliver’s Travel” escape game. You might think that it would be perfect to bring children along to these kinds of themes, but you need to think again. Neither “Gulliver’s Travel” nor “Christopher Columbus” are family-friendly rooms.

“Christopher Columbus” is laid out inside three cellar rooms which are damp, mouldy and downright dirty. You could argue that this condition fits the natural settings – after all, you will be presented with a harbour, a cabin on a ship and the American wilderness. But at the end of the day, you won’t feel the windy weather and the salty spindrift from the seven seas – you will feel like you’ve helped clean out and clean up the deserted and derelict estate of your senile aunt Celia. It’s stuffy, mouldy and filthy.

The set decoration itself is poorly devised. The number-one decoration tool seems to have been painting the concrete walls with for instance a view of the sky and the sea when you stand on the harbour. When you move on, however, the wooden panels of the insides of the ship have also just been painted on the walls – and the American vista in the end is just a disgrace!

Still, the worst part about the set design is the safety hazards that you will encounter while playing “Christopher Columbus”. There are several heavy wooden logs that could potentially fall down on your head. In the cabin area, you also have to open up a huge and heavy hatch to a secret storage room beneath deck – however this trapdoor is so heavy that it could easily injure you, and you also have to make sure that you close it again, since the lights inside the room will automatically switch off creating another risk that you might just fall down the hatch and hurt yourself badly.

Puzzles: The sense of not smelling
The puzzles in ”Christopher Columbus” have some variation to them, and some of the better ones involved turning on some special lights and using the zodiac signs. However, in general, the gameplay is tough to a degree where the game ceases to be fun and playful. We had to be guided through almost the entire game – and ended up feeling like pawns controlled by the game master. That we ended up solving all of the puzzles and completing the game in time is certainly his achievement – not ours.

There are both “find the needle in the haystack” puzzles and downright inconsistent puzzles – both of which feel like they are put into the game just to make it more difficult, more of a chore. For instance, you have to put 30 (thirty!) pieces of rope into a certain order to decipher their meaning. There’s another puzzle in connection with a hammock on the prairie that requires especially trained eagle eyes. You also have to search an Indian tipi for clues that have to be used to unlock one out of many modern padlocks.

One of the more creative puzzles involves small bags of different spices that you have to feel and smell – which is always fun! However, the designers clearly have had problems with translating the names of the spices or getting their hands on the right ones: One of the bags should have contained caraway seeds according to the game and the game master, but the actual contents of the bag were clearly star anise. Furthermore, in the damp and mouldy cellar it is nearly impossible to smell any variation in the spices, and we wondered why the disigners haven’t used more distinctly smelling ones – cinnamon and lemon, for instance?

Worse still is one particular puzzle that requires you to have collected a number of small wheels covered with strange signs and numbers. These wheels have to be lined up in a specific order and turned meticulously around so you can decipher them properly. It might be difficult to imagine, but there are literally hundreds of ways to “read” these wheels and we’d like to see the person who can do this on his or her own without interference from the game master in less than 5 minutes. We spent at least 20 minutes on this puzzle, and had to rely on the game master to help us through – and still, it was an almost impossible task.

Game Master: Thanks for all the fish
It’s strange, but actually our game master was the best thing about the “Christopher Columbus” escape room. He was kind and understanding when we spoke to him about our frustrations after the game. During the game, however, the language barrier was evident and his English skills were put to the test. You communicate via walkie talkie which didn’t make it any better, since he clearly hadn’t adjusted the volume or didn’t know how to speak into it in a proper way. “Distortion” is a very mild description of the sound quality – it was nearly impossible to hear or understand what he was saying, which just meant that the clues and hints we we’re given were a puzzle in and of themselves! And then there’s the whole concept of using modern walkie talkies in a “Christopher Columbus” theme room – it just doesn’t add up.

However, as a game master he was alert and kept a firm eye on the time which he reported to us occasionally since there wasn’t any clock or countdown timer in this room.

We were asked to pay up front before playing the game – which is not the regular way of doing business. Neither in the world of escape rooms. Here at Runaway Escape Rooms, it’s required, because you would probably object to any kind of payment whatsoever after playing the room.

So, just to summarise: When the “Christopher Columbus” escape room is best – it’s mediocre. When it’s worst – it’s a biohazard of mould and damp with several safety risks built into the decoration as well. The puzzles are deliberately frustrating and difficult – and once again the English language is a problem… It’s not a room for children, nor families – nor anybody else actually. Instead think about the company name one more time and enjoy the irony: Runaway Escape Rooms!

Room: Christopher Columbus
Company: Runaway Escape Rooms, U Elektrárny 6, 170 00 Prague 7
Languages available: Czech and English
Game time: 70 minutes
Price: CZK 1300,- for 2 players, CZK 1600,- for 3-5 players

This review:
Game date: 12 July 2017
Number of players: 2 (Runaway Escape Rooms suggests that you are 2-5 players, but we would recommend as few players as possible due to the health hazards and the overall poor condition of the room)
Hints: Many!!

We survived, 62 minutes played

søndag den 3. september 2017

Gulliver's Travel (Runaway Escape Rooms, Prague)

There’s not much left of Jonathan Swift’s satirical Gulliver’s Travels in this poorly named escape room. Not only have the so-called ”travels” been reduced to one singular ”travel” – Swift’s fun and wit have also been tossed out the window. What we do have is an uncomfortably moist and mouldy escape room, full of health hazards, which has been advertised and promoted in the most dishonest way possible. Without a doubt and without comparison, “Gulliver’s Travel” is the worst escape room we’ve ever played – and will ever play. Hopefully.

The set up to this travesty makes no sense. Apparently you are back in the 18th century, standing in Captain Lemuel Gulliver’s kitchen. Your job is to find evidence that Gulliver did actually find the strange countries and people there. But the big motivational speech is missing: Why do you have to find this evidence? Why do you only have 60 minutes to do so? What’s the point? Unfortunately, this set up is also deceptive, leading you to believe that you will visit or at least find evidence from all four travels that Captain Gulliver conducted. You won’t, which in an ironic twist to the established escape-room game concept means that “Gulliver’s Travel” is impossible to solve.

Set decoration: 1,5 points
For some strange reason, you start the game in Captain Gulliver’s kitchen. Apparently, you’re back in the 18th century, because everything is meant to look sort of authentic. Except for the padlocks on the cupboards here. Except for the electrical overhead lamps and the flashlight you’ve been equipped with. Except for the black-and-yellow stripes of safety tape, which are found every-single-where you turn. And except for the glaringly obvious fact that this is not a kitchen at all – at the very best, it’s one half of a kitchen and omitting the cooking section which to many people come to define the actual word “kitchen”.

But it gets worse: From the moment you step into this first section of “Gulliver’s Travel” you sense that there’s something wrong. Yes, the escape room is located in a cellar, but still an escape room should never ever be this moist and mouldy. You can almost feel the mildew enter your lungs when you breathe in. And to make matters still worse, once you start investigating the room, you quickly find out that the furniture has been attacked by nasty mold and fungus. Maybe this is why you only have 60 minutes to play the game – because if you stay any longer you will most certainly come down with something.

You do venture on from the so-called kitchen area, and end up both in the country of the Lilliputians and the country of the giants called Brobdingnag, and both rooms are as hopelessly designed and as damp and mouldy the first one. The Lilliputians room looks like the result of a kindergarten project of particularly unimaginative children. The houses have been lazily put together without any attention to detail: At the very least the designers could have made sure that the size of the Lilliputian dolls would actually match up with the size of the houses. But they haven’t. They have put out a thin green felt rug over the rocky and uneven cellar floor, making it very difficult for the players not to end up with at least one knee injury. 

But still, the worst thing about the “Gulliver’s Travel” escape room is the moist and damp atmosphere. Inside the Brobdingnag room the game masters place a giant Fatboy rabbit just before game start, and they hurry up and remove it again after each game, because they know that the stuffed rabbit will die a quick death among the algae and fungi down here.

Puzzles: 3 points
There are a couple of good puzzles buried in all the mouldy dampness of “Gulliver’s Travel”, but they are few and far between. You will have to spend far too much time deciphering unhelpful drawings and hints involving, for instance, a set of drawers and a group of Lilliputians – both have to be put in the right order, so to speak, and we ended up spending 30-40 minutes on these two puzzles alone. The puzzles are simply not logical or coherent: If the Lilliputians figurines you have to put in the right formation are supposed to represent real Lilliputians what kind of terrible creature do you as player become?

What’s worse, still, is that nearly all of these puzzles don’t really fit into “Gulliver’s Travel” as a theme and the 18th-century setting. We’ve already mentioned the modern padlocks and flashlights. But later on you will have to use black light to uncover some hidden signs around the Lilliputians houses – whoever painted these signs inside and outside the houses, though, remains a mystery. There’s also a puzzle that involves a reference to Alice in Wonderland, which of course was published more than 130 years after Gulliver’s Travels, so how that book ends up in this setting is another mystery.

The Brobdingnag room at the end of the game was the best area of them all – mainly due to the huge wooden chair that somebody has constructed here. And which you were also forced to climb in order to solve the game. Creating yet another excellent opportunity of injuring yourself badly from falling 2,5 metres down onto a hard brick floor.

Game Master: 2,3 points
Our game master was a clever one. She made us pay up front for both of the escape rooms we were going to play this afternoon, because she knew that after playing “Gulliver’s Travel” we not only wouldn’t be back for the second game, we would just downright refuse paying. It’s that bad.

The room is falsely advertised in flyers and online, due to one picture showing a completely different room: A couple of high-heeled ladies’ legs protrude into an office-like setting with sunshine in the background. When we pointed this out to our game master, it came as a huge surprise and they couldn’t see the problem. Now, one month later, that picture has been removed from the company’s website, but the accompanying promotional video is still taking its liberties with the truth: There is no rainbow-coloured umbrella.

False marketing aside, our game master wasn’t very good at English, and she wasn’t very forthcoming either. When we arrived a little earlier than scheduled, we were nearly turned away in the door – even though it was pouring down outside. And then there was the walkie-talkie situation: Not only are modern walkie-talkies in an 18th-century setting a no go, oftentimes it was completely impossible to communicate through the walkies. Either they were not set up properly, or the game master didn’t know how to use hers – pushing the wrong buttons, and her voice sounding fully distorted. It was terrible.

Conclusion: 2,3 points
Before playing “Gulliver’s Travel” we had to sign several documents stating that we wouldn’t destroy anything in the room or act violently during the game. Now, we understand why. This is the worst escape room we have ever played, and we would never recommend “Gulliver’s Travel” to anybody. What we would recommend is that the company behind it, Runaway Escape Rooms, feel thoroughly ashamed of themselves and simply just close “Gulliver’s Travel” and not open it again. Never ever.

Room: Gulliver’s Travel
Company: Runaway Escape Rooms, U Elektrárny 6, 170 00 Prague 7
Languages available: Czech and English
Game time: 60 minutes
Price: CZK 1200,- for 2 players, CZK 1400,- for 3-5 players

This review:
Game date: 12 July 2017
Number of players: 2 (Runaway Escape Rooms suggests that you are 2-5 players, but we would recommend as few players as possible due to the health hazards and the overall poor condition of the room)
Hints: 10-20, most of them on the same two puzzles…

We didn’t survive, 65:32 minutes played

søndag den 27. august 2017

The Alchemist's Chamber (Mindmaze, Prague)

Rudolf II was a real-life monarch, who reigned over a handful of Central-European countries back in the 16th century. He died in Prague, 59 years old, largely unsuccessful politically, but very colourful in his private life. He loved the arts and occult sciences like astrology and alchemy, and spent most of his life searching for the legendary Philosopher’s Stone – a substance which among other things could turn metals into gold and bestow immortality to man. 

Actually, Rudolf II invited a bunch of alchemists to court to conduct private experiments in the royal laboratory just to find the Philosopher’s Stone. And so, this is where you find yourself at the start of “The Alchemist’s Chamber” escape room. You, yourself, are an alchemist and have to help Rudolf and hopefully find the occult material. But don’t worry: It’s not really as dangerous or horrifying as it sounds. “The Alchemist’s Chamber” is a very family-friendly escape game, with atmosphere and puzzles for even the youngest Harry Potter fans. And as such, it works just fine.

Set decoration: 6,0 points
Entering “The Alchemist’s Chamber” is a little like stepping onto the stage of “Harry Potter the sitcom”. The lights are maxed out, no shadows, but there’s lots of space because there are no tables or chairs to speak of. Plenty of space to move around for the actors, but also a little too unreal to be more than just a stage set. The brick walls are constructed from wallpaper designed to look like a brick wall. The floorboards are too perfect and shiny. There are no cobwebs or candlelight here. You never feel that you are back in the 16th century, let alone an alchemist helping Rudolf II. You can pretend, but that’s about it.

Still, it’s not that the room is hopelessly decorated at all. There are knickknacks placed on shelves around the walls, there are even stuffed animals and some old pieces of furniture. Some of the items that have to be used in the puzzles are also lined up nicely – an old cauldron, a collection of test tubes to mention just the two obvious ones. From the loudspeakers you can even hear a dramatic film score. And during the game the room changes and opens itself up to your investigations in new ways. Yet, it doesn’t feel authentic or immersive in that 16th-century dungeons-and-dragons style you might expect. It’s a little too “perfect” or staged – and very family-friendly, first and foremost. 

And then we haven’t even mentioned the power cords that are clearly visible around some of the puzzles. Preferably they should have been hidden inside the decorations. They are not as family-friendly.

Puzzles: Could it be magic?
If the set design is a little bland, the puzzles are definitely more fun and varied. Overall, there’s a nice flow in the gameplay. It’s not 100% linear because you find objects along the way that you have to use later in the game. Still, the game feels linear because it’s divided into four sections, each based on you uncovering a stone that have to be put into a diagram. Solve the puzzles – get the stone. Get the four stones – complete the game. In this way, “The Alchemist’s Chamber” is a game designed for escape-room beginners, because it’s always pretty clear where you are and how far you are in the game.

And that’s not a bad thing, when the puzzles themselves are as diverse as they are here. Even though there are a number of padlocks – and also padlocks within padlocks! – the gameplay never feels boring or like a chore.  You get to play around with the water in the test tubes, with a magic cauldron and with some spices, as well.

Some of the puzzles seem to have been designed with young and older children in mind – sorting through a number of animals, fishing for keys with a magnet, recognising the zodiac signs, and so on. Actually, the electric devices and contraptions you come across are very family-friendly, as well: Whenever you fiddle around with a mechanism, you always know when you’ve activated it, and what other thing it opened up or turned on. The childish glee at opening a secret compartment in another corner of the room will seep into even the most grownup of us – and that’s just great! Indeed, the straightforward nature of the gameplay will leave you with a great sense of accomplishment. Which just underlines that “The Alchemist’s Chamber” is a fun escape room to play.

Game Master: Over and out!
Our game master/hostess was very kind, forthcoming and excellent at English. She welcomed us with a smile and showed us around. However, she also followed us all the way into the room itself as a sort of standard procedure – and as always it makes the gameplay less immersive.

And then there’s the hint system: As in most other escape games in Prague, you are equipped with walkie-talkies and communicate with your game master in this way. And as in many other escape games in Prague, it fits the overall theme of the game very poorly. In “The Alchemist’s Chamber” you’re supposed to be 16th-century alchemists at Rudolf II’s court. So, therefore there should be no walkie-talkies – the hint system should be integrated into the game in a different and more creative, more immersive way. Maybe you could have a magic mirror that could give you hints in writing or pictures instead. Or maybe you could conjure up a spirit that could speak to you from beyond. Other solutions are available, but walkie-talkies should be a no go in this game setting.

Interestingly, the countdown timer was actually integrated into the game in a very elegant way. Mounted on one of the walls is an hourglass, and then each 15 minutes played is marked with a sound effect mixed into the dramatic music: A hooting owl, church bells and so on. That was an excellent idea.

All in all, “The Alchemist’s Chamber” is a nice and family-friendly room designed so that even 6-7 year olds can participate. That’s another way of saying that the room lacks atmosphere and thereby also a sense of realism and immersion. But then it’s a good thing that the puzzles are fun, coherent and down-to-earth. There’s a little something for everyone here, so it’s very hard not to like this escape room.

Room: The Alchemist’s Chamber
Company: Mindmaze, Tyršova 9, 120 00 Nové Město
Languages available: Czech and English
Game time: 60 minutes
Price: CZK 1200,- for 2 players, CZK 1400,- for 3-5 players

This review:
Game date: 12 July 2017
Number of players: 2 (Mindmaze suggests that you are 2-5 players, but we wouldn’t recommend more than 3 grownup players due to the size of the room. A family including 2-3 children should be fine.)
Hints: 1

We survived, 41:52 minutes played