Munich, Aug 2017
The opening sequence of Prison has a striking similarity to that of another game I’ve played elsewhere, despite no official connection between the companies that I’m aware of. Fox in a Box have certainly had this game open longer than the other venue, so that’s either a case of coincidentally similar design or of the other company being ‘inspired’ by this one. There are some significant differences too, and the other parts of the games are quite different, so I’m assuming the former.
I remember thinking of the other game that the way it started would be genius if it had worked better. Fox in a Box has a similar sequence and here it does work well, and it is indeed a very good piece of escape room design – a lovely sequence of naturalistic and immersive tasks that require co-operation and hands-on physicality, with a great pay-off.
Further on the game takes an unexpected turn for the generic, with a series of abstract padlock puzzles that mostly have nothing to do with the theme. There’s nothing particularly wrong with them as such, and one in fact involves an impressive custom creation of wood and plexiglass, but they’re a disappointing step down after the earlier part of the game, and feel a bit like extra filler material added in to pad the time out.
Fox in a Box have a restriction on the frequency of hints that players may receive – after each hint there’s a ten minute cooling off period. (Hints in this game are provided via an on-theme mechanism that the players must first access before using, which is a nice touch.) I believe the same restriction normally applies in all their games, but they had waived it for the previous game we’d played since we were a team of two. Having seen us make short work of that game, they were less lenient for the second!
We did in fact need hints three times, due to one search fail and a couple of instances where we’d noticed magic numbers, tried to use them on locks, and then dismissed them instead of re-trying them later on in the game when they were actually needed. The restriction on hints could easily leave a team sitting around stuck for the better part of ten minutes, and although the timing of when we took them meant that didn’t happen to us, some carelessness on my part triggered a five minute auto-lockout on one of the locks, so we suffered the same effect for a different reason. Auto-lockouts are occasionally necessary to stop teams brute-forcing their way through a list of possibilities for a code, though more often I suspect they’re used simply because that’s the default behaviour for the lock. Either way I’m not keen on them, and prefer to see a game designed so that they’re not necessary – having several minutes of nothing to do but wait for a lock to unfreeze is not much fun.
Artificially limiting the number of clues causes exactly the same problems, with considerably less justification. I suppose it can help force teams to go back and try a bit harder before giving up on something, and if they then solve it they’ll be that much happier… but far more often it seems likely to cause unnecessary frustration. Still, as long as you bear the restriction in mind and strategically choose when to take clues (or if you’re good enough that you don’t need them) this shouldn’t interfere with your game too much.
Clue restrictions aside, there’s lots to enjoy. The Fox in a Box designs seem reliably solid, and while some of the puzzles were a bit divorced from the theme or too dependent on using numbers simply because they were there, even the weaker sections worked perfectly well. I’d describe Prison as a more variable game than Bunker – in places less impressive, but with the first third of Prison being the most memorable section of either game.