*Okay, the best escape rooms in the world that I’ve played, but that isn’t as click-baity.
Merry Christmas to everyone from me and the rest of Team Squared. I’m afraid I haven’t bought you anything, but hopefully I can give you some ideas for gifts to treat yo’self to in the future.
A few days ago the Top Escape Rooms Project Enthusiasts’ Choice Awards (TERPECAs) 2019 were presented to what it considers the best escape rooms in the world. You can read and watch about it on their website, youtube (while the stream recording is still available) and these follow up articles from other bloggers, here and here. Everyone involved has done a sterling job to present a collection of excellent games, and is about as close to an ‘official’ voice as we can hope for at present.
But today I’m not looking for balanced algorithms and fair processes. Instead I’m giving you a completely one-sided view, mine, of what I consider to be the best escape rooms in the world. And what could reflect Christmas better than such a wanton act of self-indulgence?
Now, because I’m on Santa’s list naughty list for not keeping up with my blog posts this year, some of these games you won’t have heard about from me before. For this I can only apologise. If it’s any consolation (by which you know it isn’t going to be) you’ll probably get to hear about them again when I get around to the individual trip write-ups. And because I don’t have a time-travelling sleigh (there’s a new game theme for someone) I can’t comment on games I haven’t played yet, which rules out many exciting prospects, most notably North America (although, all being well, that is on the cards for 2020).
One of many difficult questions you face when writing a list like this is where do you cut it off? For rambling reasons including games I nominated for TERPECA, games I voted for in TERPECA, games I’ve played since voting closed, fondness for round numbers, and a desire to not think about it any longer, I’ve gone for a Top 30. Here they are:
30. PC Security/Base B423 – The Escape Lab, Paris (TERPECA placing: eliminated in Phase 1)
A game being eliminated in Phase 1 means it received one nomination but only one, and, unsurprisingly based on its presence here, that nom was from me. And I think that is perhaps representative of the people I played it with, who weren’t quite as hot on it as I was.
Your goal is to break into an abandoned military base and get it back up and running. For me, the game is the best conveyance of ‘getting old things working’ that I’ve come across. And while doing that you’re plunged into an interesting story of why the base has been abandoned; a great example of a game not giving away all its secrets before you play, as they are often so wont to do.
There is one issue in this game, and perhaps why other people/groups haven’t rated it so high. One of the jobs in getting the station online is reactivating its computer system. And when we played, this became a huge part of one player’s experience, pretty much isolating them from what the rest of us we were doing. And one person not having fun is one person too many. But if you can work around this there’s a great experience to be had.
29. The Shelter – Crack the Egg, Paris (185)
Crack the Egg, and the rooms contained within its yolk, are very hard to evaluate. The Shelter is one of three games that make up the ‘Hunt for the Golden Egg’. On its own it is a very solid game, but out of its depth with the company that it’s keeping here. And the other games, Chinatown and Professor Tychsen, are weaker still. But the value added by the extra credit assignments in each, to find the golden egg, is immeasurable. The moment when we found the third egg, when all hope was nearly lost, is still one of the standout moments in my escaping career. Until we find a way to accurately represent in wider/simpler voting, please take this as a strong recommendation to go and try out the whole quest.
28. The Secret of Kryptos – Myst Entertainment, Sofia (51)
If I described this game as “the least immersive on this list” you’d wonder why I was recommending it. But immersion isn’t the point here. Instead it is an exquisitely presented puzzle room, based on the theme of Kryptos (with educational element to boot). It is unlike any other experience that I’ve had, and has stood up to much challenge and debate amongst my teammates on how good it actually was, which is arguably the toughest test.
27. Below Zero – Escapem, Sabadell, near Barcelona (161)
I reviewed this in my write up of my first trip to Barcelona. But in short, a story that takes in multiple scenarios, has some great surprises, and very challenging puzzles.
26. Barum Dum – Cinema Escape, Barcelona (190)
Another from my trip to Barcelona. A beautiful world with chunky puzzles, which makes you feel like you’re in Middle Earth, but not directly Lord of the Rings. Brave but correct.
25. Dystopia – Make Your Escape, Derby (eliminated in phase 1)
The most surprising omission from phase 2 for me (especially considering some of the other UK games that made it in). I believe Dystopia is a contender for the best game in the UK with a compelling story, thematic puzzles and satisfying design. Perhaps people had issues unpicking it from its partner Utopia, which undoubtedly heightens the experience. But I believe it stands up just fine on its own.
24. The Narcos – Unreal Room Escape, Hospitalet de Llobregat, near Barcelona (65)
Unreal Room Escape was well presented at the TERPECAs with this just outside the top 50 and La Mina (The Mine) up in 18th. While most people seem to prefer the latter, and it’s certainly a strong game, I don’t see how pottering about in a mine can compare to the character, comedy and variety of game play you experience with this one.
23. Paradox Project: The Mansion, Athens (70)
I just reviewed this in my write-up of Athens. A huge game that revels in ridiculousness, and gave me a sense of giddiness like few others.
22. Einstein’s Letter – Le Passage, Bordeaux (45)
If you study narrative design at all you’ll likely come across the idea of story beats; varying the intensity of action and information to keep the audience engaged. This game is a master of that, playing with your emotions before building to an incredible ending, that attacks head-on and defeats the ‘problem’ with many similar games.
21. Apophis – Vortex Escape, Terrassa, near Barcelona (64)
This game was from my second trip to Spain so hasn’t been written up yet.
If you ask my team-mates about how they know if I’ve enjoyed a game or not, they’ll probably tell you about a look I get when I’m lost for words. This may have been the first time I got that look. While I’d played brilliant games before, they’d never produced a moment that caught me off guard like this. It catapulted a game that could have been ‘fine but nothing special’ into its position on this list.
20. Alien: The Origin – Escape Barcelona (47)
Apparently we’re in the Spanish section of the list. I told you they had good games there. A game full of novel concepts, and good mix of physical tasks and mental puzzles. The fact their new room, Tomb Hunter, is supposed to be better in every sense (finishing #6 in TERPECAs) is a big driver behind a third trip to Spain in 2020.
19. Entrenched – Conecta Escape, Cerdanyola del Vallès, near Barcelona (48)
I can’t describe it any better than how my friend Dean did when nominating it for TERPECA:
“The first World War II bunker game I’ve played that actually felt like a real WWII bunker. It’s a relatively easy theme to do with pretty low production values. But what happens when you turn those values up to 11? Atrincherados [Entrenched] happens.”
18. BlueLab – Endorphin Games, Sofia (79)
As you play through this game it’s easy to miss just how good it is. Everything that happens is just so incredibly slick. You operate nice mechanisms, you’re challenged by tough puzzles, you’re wowed by nice effects. And, impressively, it keeps the whole team engaged throughout. Once you finish, and gather your collective breath, I think you’ll agree you had a great time.
17. Loot the Lanes – Pier Pressure, Brighton (67)
When I played BlueLab, one of the first things I said was “it reminded me a lot of Loot the Lanes”, and now look at them here as neighbours. A lot of what I said above applies again, except here there’s even more to do, plus an element of humour, and a unique local theme. It’s not my highest rated UK room but I have no problem with it wearing that crown at the moment.
16. Zombie Outbreak – Fear Escape Room, Barcelona (188)
Back to my Barcelona write-up once again. There’s a subset of games that I call “video game simulators”. If you didn’t play the games in question the rooms are probably just very good. If you have then you’ll love them. This was the game that taught me that.
15. Atlantis – Teorema Escape Rooms, Sofia (58)
Sofia isn’t the easiest place to get to, nor is it a popular holiday destination. But if you want a tightly packed weekend of excellent games then it should be high on your list. Top of the pile is Atlantis, mythical both in theme and its status as one of the best games in Europe. I believe its worthy of that status, particularly if you like a large dose of physical tasks with your mental challenges.
14. Ulysses Spaceship – Maximum Escape, Barcelona (212)
One of the most divisive games I’m aware of, perhaps represented in its relatively low ranking in TERPECA. Some people say that there aren’t enough puzzles to call it an escape room. I wouldn’t go that far, but there’s certainly an emphasis on doing over thinking. And when what you’re doing is as immersive as this, in such a beautiful setting, then I think it’s a fantastic experience, regardless of what it’s called.
13. Amsterdam Catacombs – Logiclocks, Amsterdam (19)
I do not like horror games. When I told the people I was playing with (not my usual team) that this was a horror game, none of them were keen. With my
insistence encouragement, we all played it and all loved it. The scary parts were done extremely well. The puzzles were not ‘dumbed down’ because it was scary. And the effects were mesmerising.
12. The Sanatorium – Lockhill, Athens (24)
Another from my recent review of Athens. Another horror room, but you can choose the levels of scares this time. And even at the least scary level it’s still creepy as hell. An incredible atmosphere with really satisfying puzzles.
11. Yucatan: The Lost Temple – Coco Room, Zaragoza (52)
In our second trip to Spain we went to a lot of places in the awkward to describe ‘middle North bit’. Despite stiff competition, this was my pick of the bunch. A mesmerising experience where you go on an adventure deep into the jungle, tackling all kinds of physical and mental tasks, only to discover you’ve hardly moved. An incredible use of space, and the best jungle/temple game I’ve played.
10. Origenes – ClueQuest, London (87)
When I first came back from Barcelona, I threw the gauntlet down to UK escape rooms and said they’d have to pick their game up to compete. A couple of weeks later I played this and said it competed with the best I’d played anywhere. As with all ClueQuest’s games it’s full of quirky mechanisms and funny moments. But this one marries them with a unique story and beautiful decoration. For reasons, I’ve watched someone else play this game as well as play it myself, and it was wonderful to see their reactions at the same point as mine.
9. Kontinuum – AdventureRooms Technorama, Winterthur, Switzerland (NA)
If you’d told me a few weeks ago that AdventureRooms would have an entry on this list, I’d have accused you of hitting the Christmas sherry too early. My previous experience of them had been middling at best. However, after the TERPECA nominations were announced, we decided to take a trip to Switzerland and stumbled across this game that isn’t getting any of the attention it deserves.
Surprisingly for a game ranked this high, we have to start with some negatives. Firstly, this room is not beautiful. In fact, quite the opposite. The “Technorama” of the location is a science museum and they’ve taken the decision to focus on the “the science” rather than the aesthetics. Secondly we had a tech fail when we played which the GM admitted happens too often. And thirdly, there is a puzzle in this game which is only for one person and takes ages, creating a pretty horrendous bottle neck.
Now, I’m sure you’re wondering what a game with so many flaws is doing so high on this list. Well, on the flip side, this game has not one, not two, but five separate bits that took my breath away. Some of the best bits I’ve ever experienced in escaping. We came out of the room with a buzz that we’d not felt since playing a game we’ll come on to shortly. This game is already something special. If they can fix that bad puzzle and resolve the tech issues, then who knows how good it can be.
8. Going Underground – Crime Runners, Vienna (13)
If you had to write a textbook on how to design a great escape room, you may well use Going Underground as the case study. It starts off on the easier side, to make sure you get going, then ramps up the difficulty as you progress. It mixes up physical and mental tasks so it appeals to different types of players. It tailors the experience depending on how many people you’re playing with. It delivers an engaging story through multiple scenarios. It feels like you’ve been on an epic adventure, but from the outside it only takes up a small amount of space. It uses clever transitions and obstacles to manage your progress (“pipe-lining”) without you being conscious of it. It’s an experience you can enjoy in terms of both its play, and in how well it’s created.
7. Paradox Project 2: The Bookstore – Paradox Project, Athens (2)
The final entrant from Athens. It’s a 200 minutes game and it never feels boring or repetitive. It shouldn’t be possible to deliver a cohesive set of puzzles and story over that duration, but somehow it does.
6. Revolt at Lock Academy – Lock Academy, Paris (92)
When putting together my ranks for the TERPECAs I came across a strange phenomenon; the “best” games and my favourites are not necessarily the same thing. This was a prime example of that; my initial scores should have had this much further down, but when I compared my memories of this to that of others in front of it, I kept remembering it more favourably. A big part of that is that it’s funny, which is a very difficult thing to pull off in escaping. Then add in multiple scenarios that lend themselves to very different styles of game play. And some very satisfying puzzles that made me feel like I was in a point and click adventure. No wonder I like it.
5. La Piece Odyssey – La Piece, Paris (147)
Did you ever wish that escape rooms were harder? There was no random searches and counting things on the wall? It was just an abstract concept of a puzzle that you had to solve? What you’re looking for is Odyssey. In most places in the world this game either wouldn’t exist or you’d have two hours to try and complete it. In Paris, where they believe “escaping” should be a real challenge, you have just 60 minutes to work out and take every logical step you’ll need to get your spaceship back up and running and get home. It’s really hard but really fair, which makes everything you complete feel like a real accomplishment. More of this please.
4. Abduction 3: The Exam – Abduction, Badalona, near Barcelona (8)
As I’ve said before, The Exam is a game that works better the less you know. So while not saying too much, expect your brain and body to be tested in creative and entertaining ways.
3. Aunt Hilda’s Room – TripTrap, Geneva (31)
Switzerland was something of a surprise force in this year’s TERPECAs with five games making it into Phase 2. Based on this revelation we quickly packed our bags and jetted off to try them out. After 2.5 days, Kontinuum, which wasn’t even nominated, was sitting proudly atop my rankings and I had pretty low expectations for anything topping it. Boy, was I wrong.
Aunt Hilda’s Room is about as close to an open world sandbox as I’ve encountered while escaping. The space is huge and filled with things to explore. But there’s no hand-holding, just subtle little signposts of what you might be looking for. Despite that initial vastness, there’s still more to explore and find as the story unfolds. And after all that awesomeness, it manages to tie it all together with an ending I can’t express in words; it’s a chef’s-kiss emoji.
Unfortunately the voting for this year’s TERPECAs was closed after we got back, otherwise I think this would have been very close to the top. I urge you to get to Geneva and play it if you can, and make sure it is properly represented next year (not that #31 is anything to be sniffed at).
2. Catacumbas – Golden Pop, Barcelona (110)
What a rollercoaster of a year this game has had. Back in February, I proclaimed it the best game I’d ever played. But shortly after, a falling out within the company meant that big parts of it had to change. Many people visited during this “version 2” and reported that it was severely weaker than when we’d visited. I went so far as to say I couldn’t recommend it any more. But by the end of the year I’ve heard further reports that the game has now been restored to its previous glories, and is available with a proper English translation. Assuming this is correct then I will return to wholeheartedly recommending it. Certainly one of the most thrilling games ever.
1.The Dome – Escape Room Nederland, Bunschoten, near Amsterdam (1)
The TERPECA #1 and mine, I don’t think there’s any doubt that right now this is the best escape room in the world. These statistics borrowed from the awards say so much:
Of the 59 people who have played it, 41 of them ranked it as their #1, and 54 of them put it in their top 3.
Since I stopped doing detailed reviews of individual games back in 2018, this is the only game to compel me to write one. In that review I very deliberately don’t tell you anything about the game, I just try to convey how good it is. I firmly believe that any attempt to describe or understand what goes on while you play can only lessen the experience. And if you check out my ratings page, the 11/10 I give it is not a typo or a joke. It’s the only way I can compare it to all the other games I’ve played.
There’s a joke we often share amongst Team Squared that when someone asks “What’s the best game in <some city>?” The correct answer is “Get a flight from there to Amsterdam, and go play The Dome”. And we’re serious. Go play it, now.