21 of the 22 competing teams for the Red Bull Escape Room World Championships 2019 met up in London on Thursday 11th April (the 22nd team, Switzerland, would arrive the following morning). We knew from the information we’d seen in advance that the semi-final stage would be very different from what we’d experienced in 2017, and this was confirmed in the opening presentation. There would be no “assault course”, instead there would be three 10-minutes mini escape rooms, and it was your combined time through the three rooms that would determine your qualification for Saturday’s final, where two teams would finally get chance to play an actual 60-minutes escape room.
For behind the scenes detail I’m delighted to share the thoughts of Wei-Hwa Huang, a competitor from 2017 who was part of the Red Bull team for this year’s event:
The general story is that team members were invited to London to join the company “White Hat” and the semifinals were training sessions run by CEO Kyle Smythe, Jr. with the aid of an intelligent AI named OMNI. At some point during the presentation by Kyle, he got an important phone call and had to take off. OMNI then hacked into the presentation and told the players that they were once four bright minds asked to join White Hat by Kyle Senior, but do not like how the company is run by Kyle Jr. and now want the teams to help them escape White Hat.
The semifinals were three 10-minute “training rooms.” The general rules for each one were the same — time starts when the entrance door opens; time stops when the exit door opens. The exit door always opens at 10 minutes after regardless of how the team is doing in the room. Sum up the three times for each room; lowest sum wins.
Before starting each room, the team got to watch a very short (maybe 10-second) video explaining what needed to be done in each room to open the exit door. These videos were all language-free and so I think it was sometimes challenging for some teams to interpret what they were seeing in the videos. And I’m pretty sure that some teams were often so overwhelmed by what was in the room that they forgot what was in them under time pressure.
The three rooms spanned a rather wide range of different Escape Room skills. There were places where it was advantageous for teams to all work together, places where working on doing the same thing in parallel made sense, places where working on doing different things at the same time was better. Puzzles were often visual, occasionally audio, sometimes logistical. There were small physical aspects but not as strong as the first season.
On the GM side, we staggered the teams with a 10-minute gap, which generally meant that Rooms 1 and 3 often had teams in them while Room 2 was resetting, and vice versa. Thankfully, nothing broke that required more than 10 minutes to reset, so we actually got all 22 teams through about 45 minutes ahead of schedule.
Each room had a dedicated GM who followed procedures for the room (since the rooms weren’t fully automated) and a judge (Scott for room 1, Ken for room 2, me for room 3) who helped with the GM’ing, recorded official times, and often had to make on-the-fly decisions for situations where something went wrong (tech fail, team requesting out-of-game assistance, etc.) Serious stuff often resulted in three judges conferring. In between teams the GM and judge would go reset the room. There were also some other per-room roles; room 1 had an NPC in the room (mostly to serve a function that would’ve been a lot more expensive and unreliable to do with tech), and room 3 had a person in charge of video (mostly because it was easier to have a person sit in front of four laptops and hit “play” on each one rather than figure out how to get the door-opening to sync with four screens automatically).
There was also a media crew that worked independently from the room crew, responsible for filming footage of teams that could be edited together into a highlight reel. The media crew had cameras in the room independent of the GM cameras. Occasionally the GMs peeked at the media crew cameras to get angles of the team that weren’t available on the GM cameras. And there was a crew of people who oversaw the whole process and kept things running and on schedule.
Room 1 – Shuttle
The video outside of the room suggested that you need to illuminate five lights.
On entering the room you were in an office space. I assume this was a deliberate attempt to “feel like an escape room”. There was a blue button on the desk that didn’t appear to do anything for now, and a door at the end of the room. The door wasn’t locked, and led to a second room. This second room was almost empty, bar an NPC (person mentioned earlier) in the corner, and what appeared to be handles on the sidewalls. The secret here was that the handles were there to slide the entire room, “the shuttle”, from side-to-side (the NPC was there to make sure the shuttle wasn’t slid in to anyone in the corridor space).
Sliding the shuttle into position B granted passengers access to to a third room. For people back in the first room, it also now provided access to a second blue button, previously hidden behind it. The third room had a mirror on one wall, the five lights seen in the pre-room video on the opposite wall, next to another door (the exit). If you remained in room 3 but returned the shuttle to position A, you now had access to both a third blue button and a tiles puzzle, where you had to insert four tiles into a space so that coloured wires matched up on all sides. On completion of the tiles puzzle, the mirror in room 3 dropped down to reveal a fourth blue button.
Unsurprisingly, the blue buttons related to the lights. But you had to press them in the sequence you encountered them in order for them to stay lit. So two players must be in room 1 with the shuttle in position B, to press buttons 1 and 2. They moved out of the way, allowing the shuttle to move to position A, giving access to button 3, and picking up the passengers. After button 3 was pressed, that player had to get out of the way, allowing the shuttle to arrive in position B, placing all players in room 3. One of them could then push button 4.
But didn’t I say there were five lights? I did. The last sneaky step was that light 5 was also button 5, which opened the exit.
Room 2 – Audio
The pre-room video showed you entering a 12 digit code using a keypad.
Room 2 was a much smaller space, roughly a cube. Immediately in front of you was another door with (tablet-based) keypad next to it. On the right-hand wall a waveform was being projected that changed every few seconds. In the centre of the room were three stations, later dubbed audio, visual and maths.
Each of the stations had two screens. One which allowed you to select different parts of the waveform, indicating there were 12 parts. The other showed some sort of relationship between the waveform and numbers. The audio station also had two pairs of headphones. The maths station also had some perspex tiles with parts of waveforms and numbers on them.
I’m afraid I can’t really offer much more on what you were supposed to do, as even after having them explained they still mean nothing to me. The visual puzzle had something to do with picturing how two waveforms would combine and average out, and then referencing those two waveforms to turn them into a digit. The audio puzzle was about identifying two notes and then selecting the one exactly halfway between them. The maths puzzle involved maths, I guess?
The surprising part was that all three stations resolved to the same answer, so you could solve any one of them (or parts of each) to get the 12 digits you needed to open the door.
Room 3 – Digitizer
The video for this one showed you something like a printed circuit board, with parts of it rotating to complete or break certain connections.
The third space was a similar size to room 2. The circuit board of the video was visible all around a cylindrical centre piece, but the rotating elements were locked. It also had four ‘wings’, meaning that you could only interact with a quarter of it at once. The exit door was surrounded by four plug sockets, with a fifth socket at the base of the centre piece. On the walls were four TV screens, each with another plug socket. The screens displayed an OMNI eye and a diagram suggesting a number of cables that should link it to the centre piece and/or door. There were also around 20 electricity cables hung up and/or scattered about the room.
The task was in two distinct parts. First you needed to connect up all the plug sockets with the cables to ‘power up’ the centre unit. This would then unlock the rotating elements so that you could create a path through the circuit board maze. When that was complete the final door would open.
We cracked the secret very quickly as Sera grabbed the handles in the shuttle and said that she thought the room moved. We all jumped in and moved into Room 3. After finding not much, Sera and Dave headed back in the shuttle. While this was happening I discovered the trick with button/light 5. Sharan discovered the tiles puzzle and started working on it. I quickly joined to assist. As that was completed we moved to investigate the dropped mirror, allowing Dave and Sera to move the shuttle again and discover button 2 behind it. With all five buttons now discovered we started to press them all but quickly realised they needed to be pressed in sequence (as Sharan and I could see the lights illuminating, or not). We paused for a few seconds to
calmly discuss shout wildly about how we were going to have to move to get to each button, and then put the plan into action. This took exactly five minutes, the second fastest time on the stage. We could have shaved off a few seconds on the tiles puzzle and on communicating the sequencing, but I think Belgium’s time of 4:48 is pretty optimal. 21/22 teams completed Room 1.
After the expanse of Room 1, I think Room 2 came as a bit of a shock to us. There was nothing to look at other than the three stations in the middle of the room, and what to do with these stations wasn’t immediately obvious. Sera had an idea on the visual puzzle so concentrated on that. Dave put on the headphones and said he thought he knew how it worked. Sharan and I looked at the maths station (which is usually one of our strengths) but couldn’t get anything out of it. While we were head-scratching, Dave started shouting numbers to us that we entered into the keypad. Once we had all 12 we pressed submit, and discovered there was a checking mechanism that broke the answer down into three-digit chunks, and told you whether or not they were correct. We had the third and fourth chunks correct but not the first two. While this was going on Sera had calculated nine digits of her solution. We started to enter it, not knowing how that would interact with our partial answer from earlier. But when we noticed that digits 7-9 were the same, we concluded that the number would be the same regardless of the station used, so entered the rest of the number and opened the exit.
We don’t know exactly how far away we were with our original answer, but I feel like we only had one digit wrong in each of the two chunks, as the correct answer felt very similar when we entered it. Dave admitted that he wasn’t 100% on the method as he started but was by the end, which checks out with the results. The ‘problem’ with the audio puzzle was that it was slow to complete, as you had to listen for each of the noises to play a couple of times to work out the answer (we were told afterwards that we were the only group to come close to completing it using that method). But because we’d started with that method we gave Dave the chance to finish, before starting on the visual puzzle that Sera was working on. If we’d have gone with that one first, or known that all the answers were the same so we could have matched the two halves together, then we’d have been faster. We took 8:42 on Room 2, the 8th fastest time. Only 11 teams completed Room 2.
Obviously we didn’t know at the time, but our combined time of 13:42 at this stage put us in a good position. We had 9:44 to complete Room 3. We missed it by 16 seconds. And before you say “well, you missed out by 16 seconds, but who knows how long Room 3 would have taken you?”, the answer is we do. Room 3 took us 10:00:61. We completed the puzzle at the same time the door was opening for us because 10 minutes was up. It doesn’t count any different to any other fail but I can assure you it feels a lot worse.
When we entered the room it was pretty obvious what had to happen, but how we worked out which cables went where was largely a mystery to us. The first timed clue came as an update to the diagrams on TVs, indicating which ones were now short cables and which ones longer. This still didn’t help me with what to do, but something clicked for Sharan. She took the lead and had all the plugs connected by 8:30. We then turned our attention to the circuit board, where it took us 91 seconds to trace the path through and make the necessary adjustments.
If the cabling had clicked for any of us earlier, or even for more of us once we’d received the hint, then we could have got the plugs connected faster. If we’d gone straight to creating one path through the circuit board rather than trying to create a ‘perfect match’ the first time, then we could have been quicker. But we didn’t. Only 7 teams completed Room 3 within 10 minutes.
What? You didn’t think there was any? It wouldn’t be a Red Bull Escape Room World Championships without it really would it? I’m pleased to say there was nothing like the nonsense of 2017, but there were a still few things that we and/or other teams were irked by.
Fastest time vs. Fastest solve
As soon as we were told how the semi-finals would be scored, with the total time taken being more important than how many challenges/rooms were actually completed, there was a concern that one fast time and two fails could beat three completions, and that didn’t seem right. In practice, it wasn’t quite so extreme, but Croatia’s incredible performance in Room 2 (more on that shortly) earned them their place in the final at the expense of Latvia, who completed all three rooms but only came 7th overall (perhaps the one saving grace being that it would have made our one second failure of Room 3 even more painful).
The same but different?
While not necessarily the intent of Room 2, it was certainly an expectation by the designers that having three puzzles with the same answer would trip up experienced players. But the question is, in my best Scott Nicholson voice, “why?”
When in an escape room (or any puzzle really, but this is the escape room world championship) are you ever given three ways of doing something but you only need to do one of them? Or even simpler, when are you ever given a puzzle/task that you don’t need to do? I’m sure some clever clogs can give me an example, but it’s certainly unusual (and don’t try and tell me red herrings (HTAC!) are a good thing). And if you accept that, then why are you trying to trip people up? I appreciate there’s a fine line between a clever trick (button disguised as light?) and a dirty one, but this feels off to me.
Croatia qualified for the final because of their incredible performance in this room, beating anyone else’s time by over four minutes. How were they able to do this? By their own admission, they were very inexperienced in terms of escape rooms or puzzles. So one of their team walked up to a console, thought they knew how to do it, so started shouting out numbers. They ignored everything else in the room, which turned out to be the optimal method.
It’s already turned on
As I said in my description of Room 3, the task was in two parts; first powering up the centre console, using the electric cables, then using the console to complete the circuit board. When you correctly connected the cables, or six minutes into the task (whichever came first), the console turned blue to indicate that power was now being supplied. In other words, the plugs and cables were now meaningless. But we didn’t know this, so we carried on for another 2.5 minutes doing something that was completely pointless.
The ‘justification’ for this was that the pre-room video showed that completing the circuit board was the objective for the room, not connecting the plugs. But at the risk of labouring a point, when in an escape room is there a task that you don’t have to complete (apart from maybe when a team gets bypassed on something they can’t do, but that doesn’t really seem relevant here)?
In isolation, this would be the point that I would be most upset about. But from talking to other teams, nobody realised what the blue lights indicated, so we didn’t gain or lose any advantage from this. Still sucks though.
No physical strength required
…we know is a staple of all pre-game briefings. But undoubtedly, the shuttle part of Room 1 required some physical strength to move the room from side-to-side. A number of teams felt that simply having handles on the walls was not sufficient signposting to suggest that you should push against a wall, essentially breaking one of the golden rules of escape rooms. I can see their point.
Escape room logic
This actually came to light more on finals day (which will be covered in part 3 of this blog) but while we’re airing grievances…
At the Finals show, a big point was made of the “silly” things that people do when playing escape rooms. In the semi-finals, it was that people kept looking behind the clock in Room 1. In the finals, it was that people kept looking under a pot plant. “Why do people keep doing that?”
Well, because this is the escape room world championship. And in about (WARNING: made up statistic) 95% of escape rooms, you have to do things like search through clocks and pot plants to find things. Sure it looks silly when you watch it back, but it actually feels less like an escape room when you don’t find something hidden there. Maybe it was just intended for lolz, but to point this out as something that all the teams were doing, just shows the disconnect between expectations of an escape room and these challenges.
As we were the penultimate people to play the semi-finals we didn’t have long to wait to find out the results. We met in a noisy bar to find out the finalists were Croatia and Slovakia. And that was that. Come back for part 3 to hear my thoughts on the final; an actual escape room!
With the pressure off we had a few beers and sung some songs. Any suggestion that this may be viewable on YouTube is entirely possible. This was one of many good times we had, which will be part 4 of this epic saga.