Birmingham, Sep 2017
Whispers on the grapevine (okay, mainly Facebook) suggested that with Captain Riddle, Clue HQ had upped their game and built something quite special, so it was a priority for our visit to Birmingham. Actually, it’d probably have been a priority anyhow – pirate themed games tend to be fun.
First impressions on entering the room were contradictory: the decor was lovely, but I was surprised by what a small space it was. Fortunately that’s misleading, with the game turning out to be expansive enough for a genuine sense of exploration and discovery.
The game we’d played at Clue HQ earlier in the day had integrated the puzzles with the theme well, such that completing them felt like victories over the antagonist. Captain Riddle takes its story integration to the next level, with a clear narrative progression. Your first task is to sail your ship on the correct heading to a certain legendary cove, and although the puzzles link to that in a mostly metaphorical way, your progress is dramatically emphasised with lighting and audio that build great atmosphere and keep the story front and centre.
Beyond that I’ll gloss over details to avoid spoilers, but the initial briefing instructs you to find a pair of swords and as much gold as you can, so it’s no secret that those are your final goal. It’s certainly possible to finish with a larger or a smaller amount of gold, which sounds like a variable scoring mechanism, but that wasn’t emphasised on our visit. That’s a shame – I’d love to see the game extended with optional extra content that stronger teams could attempt to score bonus gold. However, as it is there’s a great ending that’s pretty much guaranteed to leave teams scrambling out in an excited rush (be sure to mind your heads when excitedly rushing!).
Captain Riddle uses a far greater use of automation and hidden mechanisms than we’d seen in their earlier game. Padlock-phobics should note there are still quite a few more traditional numeric locks around, and the design is sometimes unashamedly anachronistic in use of modern technology. (Speaking of which, I’m developing a strong dislike of digital writing tablets as a way for players to make notes in games. Not only are they often wildly out of place, as here, but they also tend to be a bit small and low-contrast, and it’s too easy to accidentally clear the screen. It’s barely better than making us write notes on an Etch-a-Sketch… 😒)
Where elsewhere the venue makes use of logo stickers to mark items that the players shouldn’t touch, here they’ve taken extra pains to avoid the need for them. There are weaknesses: for example, one central device used repeatedly early on in the game involves setting a code then pressing a verify button; but it was far too easy to accidentally bump that button during the rather laborious process of selecting the code, each time causing an annoying delay before we could continue. We also found that the swashbuckling background music did an excellent job of setting the mood, but also made it tricky to hear a couple of audio clues, particularly the one that played right next to a speaker.
Quibbles aside, it’s a lavish game full of fun puzzles, with a style that transitions from mostly more traditional ‘escape room’ style puzzles earlier on, to somewhat more physical and interactive sections later on. Where I found their A-I-9 game to suffer from a slightly generic, corporate feel to the design, Captain Riddle manages to be more idiosyncratic and fun, not just in the appearance of the room but also in its puzzles too. If this is the direction Clue HQ are heading in with their game designs, that bodes very well for the future.