Birmingham, Sep 2017
Escape Time is in Sutton Coldfield on the outskirts of Birmingham, a quick drive or a long bus journey out from the centre of the city. It’s an enthusiast-run venue which currently has two games, with a third under construction. We played both games in order, starting with their original heist-themed game. The aim is to break through bank security and swipe not one but two big shiny diamonds.
The venue uses some of the conventions more common in the larger companies with multiple branches. There’s an intro video in the lobby that goes over the ground rules, then a game-specific video briefing in the room. Items that are not to be touched are marked with stickers, and these are used liberally.
It’s very clear from the outset that this is going to be a game with multiple different areas. There’s some nice variation in the style of the decoration between each section of the game, though the decoration quality varies quite a bit too, from impressive to a bit perfunctory.
I enjoyed playing this game a lot. I want to make that clear up front, before diving into some criticisms. Firstly, it makes a lot of use of padlocks, which is all fine and good, though we’d often need to try each code in a couple of places; the alpha locks also tended to be quite sticky. Then there was a strong tendency to lean on escape room logic, where if a number or word is prominent enough, or can be produced by combining a set of available clues, then it’s probably the code for a lock. In one case that involved something like a scavenger hunt, searching for arbitrary pieces of information because we had something telling us to find them, then combining those according to the instructions. And finally, many of the clues were presented as laminated pieces of paper, often mixed in with distraction information.
None of those are design decisions I’m keen on, particularly so in combination. However, I mainly dislike them because they tend to lead to confusion and frustration, and here that wasn’t the case. With the game staged into different sections there were never that many identical padlocks to try at any one time; and the puzzles were sufficiently robust, distinct and free from ambiguities that even if the puzzles felt artificial, they were also fun to solve. And the game content goes for quantity more than difficulty, so there’s a good rapid pace of progress, as you get through one lock after another. I also don’t at all mean that this is a game with nothing but padlocks. While there were plenty of those, they’re mixed with several more physical and/or interesting tasks.
We missed one step of the game, which didn’t block us because it would have provided the final part of a set of clues for a code, and we managed to work out the code on partial information. The thing we’d missed turned out to be a search fail, but for a type of search that I heartily disapprove of, and would also expect most teams to need a hint to get.
To me Bank Heist suffers a bit from some of the tropes of its genre. But even so, it manages to be a thoroughly entertaining game. It uses its space well, with players needing to actually move back and forth between areas in a way that keeps energy levels up. It has puzzles that are fun, interesting and well themed – not always all of those at the same time mind you, but at its best it looks good and delivers a good payoff.
Note also that the game has a major refresh planned. According to the operator one area (the section with the least interesting decor, as it happens) is due to be removed from the game and replaced with a smaller space, and a great many of the puzzles will be changed or replaced at the same time. Although making a game smaller might sound like a move in the wrong direction, in this case I think it could well be an improvement, making the game more tightly cohesive and replacing a couple of its weaker moments. So if you’re playing it more than a few months after time of writing, you may well get a somewhat strengthened version of the game than the one we played.
This was fun, and an atypical bank heist scenario. Thought and effort had clearly gone into the puzzles to keep them fresh and different. There was an awfully high number of distractions though. We also very nearly skipped a game puzzle by assuming we’d need a certain amount of dexterity when there was a much better way to achieve a particular goal. I’ve made that mistake before, so I was glad to be warned off that course of action by the GM. Sometimes it’s ok to break the immersion for a moment or two to keep the game a game!