London, Aug 2018
Slightly apprehensive after a not-parfectly-smooth experience in their medieval torture room, we plunged straight into a second game at London Escaped. A brief introduction explained that we were students of Leonardo Da Vinci, attempting to prove our worth.
This is another dimly-lit room, though less so as it progresses. But it’s also quite beautiful, thanks to the Renaissance aesthetic of cogwheels and astronomy, with liberal use of Da Vinci diagrams as decoration. The puzzle mechanics use a lot of electronics behind the scenes, but surface presentation emphasises physical mechanisms. One example is a set of cogs that’s immobilised with hidden tech until you’ve completed the puzzle to prevent you from ‘hacking’ it, but which you then have the satisfaction of turning by hand.
Four players are recommended as the minimum for this game, although London Escaped allow it to be booked by smaller groups. That’s because it uses a split start, and with fewer than four players, one person will have a section of the game to complete on their own. I found the split structure one of the most interesting and successful features of Da Vinci, set up such that the two halves of the team can easily communicate and pass objects back and forth, with some smart co-operative tasks straddling the divide such that you’re working together physically not just shouting information back and forth.
A ‘previous student’ (or possibly Da Vinci himself?) chimed in over the speakers where needed to give us hints, in a cheerily American accent that grated for its incongruence. This time the gamemaster diverged from his menu of pre-recorded hints and spoke directly where needed, which, when things went wrong, helped avoid some of the frustrations we’d had in the previous game. Not all of them though – hint messages came too quickly, often didn’t help, and in one case actively pushed us away from the correct solution.
I promise that all our team are civilised and conscientious players who try very hard not to damage anything in the games we play, to the point we’ve occasionally been caught out by handling mechanisms too gingerly to trigger them. Nonetheless, we managed to break something both in this game and in The Prisoner. We apologised profusely, and the host took it very much in his stride in a way that suggested it was far from uncommon; and despite the very short length of time they’ve been open, I could spot a couple of bits of pre-existing damage. Without trying to make excuses for our crimes, I think the room designs are very susceptible to breakages: they both have quite physical mechanisms in places, and ones where it’s not immediately obvious what is or is not supposed to move; and the amount of force required by some parts of the room is sufficient to cause damage if applied in the wrong places.
In Da Vinci, the item we damaged was part of a puzzle that I’m confident would have been infuriating in any case. As far as I could tell (based on the game and also talking to the operator afterwards), the critical piece of information for solving it was only delivered over the hint system. But in any case, the information given was misleading; it implied we needed to select a smaller number of items than was actually the case. Moreover, the correct set of items appeared to include some with sensible labels and others with intentionally illegible ones. Since afterwards the gamemaster wasn’t able to explain the intended logic, my best guess is that it’s been put together differently to the original design, in a way that destroyed the puzzle altogether by giving it a very arbitrary solution. In its current state it’s so dysfunctional they’ll surely identify and fix it before long.
Da Vinci was more to my taste than The Prisoner – fragility aside, both have top notch production quality for props and visuals, and where The Prisoner is gruesome Da Vinci is very pretty. It’s also more challenging and puzzle-driven. Once again, my impression was of an excellent game design that’s not – yet? – being operated to its full potential. The broken puzzle, the fragility and loose components, the sometimes uncertain gamemastering should all improve over time. I have some remaining reservations about the game: for example, the flow was sometimes confusing, and could use better signposting when you complete something so you can tell what’s changed. A little fine-tuning would help a lot there, as long as the venue can manage to address those subtler flaws; if not, this may remain a game that’s very impressive for surface dazzle but sometimes needlessly confusing in practice.