Drawing a line from one DASH to the next

DASH 008 in London needed its teams to go underground!

DASH 008 needed its teams to go underground! From @playdashlondon

This is a guest post by David J. Bodycombe, one of the UK’s foremost puzzle authors. You may know his work from The Crystal Maze and Only Connect or perhaps numerous books and periodicals. At the very least you probably know that car park puzzle; to this site’s taste, he’s written easily two thousand much more interesting ones over the years, but you can never tell what’s going to catch the public’s imagination…

Last year, as a participant of DASH 7, something didn’t feel… right. When I got home and had to explain to my wife whatever the heck I’d been doing for the day, I sensed that I hadn’t had that much fun. The company was great, but the frantic time limits, a lack of food, an unfortunate route and a brute of a final puzzle left me thinking “Maybe I won’t do it next year”. But with DASH 8 promising a Brit-friendly theme of James Bond, how could I say no?

Last year, I put down my thoughts on how DASH could improve, both as a podcast and as a summary post in the comments. I make no personal claim for any improvements made but, since it is this site’s frequent milieu, I thought it might be fun to look back and see how much of my wishlist was catered for this year.

Partially. The Junior track has gone, tailing the tracks from three to two. Frankly, the junior track was never going to be a long-term possibility in London, particularly with its 18+ pub culture being a supplier of many indoor venues. The prospect of expecting a chaperone to guide teenagers around the busy streets of London on a Saturday was a tough ask, and I agreed with a commenter last year who said that there would be better value in making the puzzles available for schools to run their own mini-puzzle drives. I still believe the differences in the Normal/Expert tracks cause more doubt and administration complexity than is worth, and that homogenisation of the tracks wouldn’t affect more than 5% of the teams.

Yes. In past years, it was hard for Londoners not to look on the DASH social media feeds with a feeling of jealousy. Somehow, DASH seemed cooler there – better themed, better spaced and better stunts. Not so, this year. If anything, London may have been *the* place to DASH – particularly with the start point a stone’s throw away from the on-theme MI6 headquarters. Imaginative mini-tasks plus the tremendous innovation of optional ‘HMSAT tests’, some of which required teams to be observant and quick-witted at all times, added immensely to the occasion.

Yes. Last year, the slightly rubber-banded rules, where different locations were allowed to be flexible about when to end the hunt, led to a lot of confusion and disappointment. This particularly applied to my team last year, as we quit early not realising that the advertised “strictly-enforced 8 hour time limit” was actually no such thing. This year, the sensible thing was done – a 10-hour limit was the same for all (AFAIK) and even an overall countdown timer was there on the ClueKeeper to avoid any anxiety.

Partially. Still some work to do, here. In particular, the scoring was not explained on an info sheet this year, so lord knows what DASH newbies thought of it. But, again, puzzle 1 was not worth anything. This means that some teams (maybe well-meaning latecomers) are simply typing in the answer that their mates have told them, meaning that ClueKeeper’s stats credit them with solving the puzzle in a world-beating 7 seconds, and thus denying the ‘real’ winning team from getting a little gold cup next to their name. I still think it should be worth something – either a flat score, or a low Par value to indicate that you shouldn’t spend too long on it. Another wish of mine from last year was to allow more opportunities for bonus points. This was indeed achieved, but only in the distinctly cheeky manner of ramping up the total Par time to a little short of 7 hours. Hmm.

Yes. A big win. You couldn’t say that this year’s DASH was “just Puzzled Pint with walking”. The advantages of DASH’s economies of scale were definitely evident this year and, more to the point, the props had a puzzle purpose to them rather than just delivering a codeword answer.

Yes. Though our team quit on the final puzzle this year due to taking too long on puzzle 9, looking at the general ClueKeeper statistics it’s easy to see that almost all teams had the opportunity to finish within the time allowed.

With these feedback points largely addressed, I offer up another set for discussion:

This is one area that really hurts smaller teams. While DASH has never claimed to be any fairer to teams of 3 than 5, nevertheless the fairly extensive nature of some puzzles that required the teams to build paper or wooden models would have added minutes (maybe tens of minutes) to the scores. The news near the end that *every* team member was *required* to have scissors really took me aback. And, I say this slightly seriously, if I ever make it to DASH 38, I wonder how my arthritic fingers would cope with things like folding paper cranes. Does against-the-clock building further discriminate against the less physically able? As other commenters have noted, the time difference in time taken for construction often made the ClueKeeper out-of-sync with the team’s progress.

Although the average solve times seem much more in line with previous years this time around, and the overall event pacing was better too, there did seem to be an expectation that teams would have to spend 9 hours overall this time rather than 8. I would like to see the par time come back down to nearer 6 hours. This, plus an hour for eating and 90 minutes for travelling, still adds up to a pretty packed 8.5 hours. How could this be done in practice? I would say: by keeping the starter puzzle shorter (it was quite a Googling-heavy brute this year), by keeping most puzzles sub-45 minutes, and by having a slightly more robust attitude to starting on time. Puzzle 5 (par: 75 minutes) was way too long for a lunchtime activity – my usual team usually finishes an entire evening of Puzzled Pint (four puzzles and a meta) within 75 minutes!

Despite following DASH on Facebook and Twitter, somehow I missed the “Advanced Training” which gave information on two things: how to solve cryptic crossword clues, and how to fold paper cranes. If you’ve never solved a cryptic crossword, to somehow learn this skill in the week before DASH is asking a lot. What next? You have a week to speak fluent Klingon, or learn to juggle? I’ve seen some people suggest the rules to Baccarat should have been made available beforehand, to which I heartily disagree: it would have put even more advantage to the teams that have spotted the pre-game information.

It would be appreciated if the route information could more heavily hint if teams are likely to stay in a location for a long period of time – particularly where locations ‘double up’ for two puzzles. For instance, at the morning meeting point there was a heavy sense of “Do I bother to buy a coffee or not?”. You don’t want to be mid-croissant when ClueKeeper cheerily guides you to your next location 2 miles away. No-one wants that.

DASH GC have a little more way to go to make it feel like a global-inclusive event, rather than London being a “+1”. For instance, I winced when – given the event’s British/James Bond theme – we had to release puzzle 1 on ClueKeeper by spelling the word LICENCE the “wrong” way…

Overall, my team rated this year’s DASH as a ‘solid 8/10’ which should be interpreted as a very good score for such a complex event, and a definite improvement from last year. Particular thanks should go to London’s GC who stepped in to help when all others stepped back, and added notable innovations and flair that I hope future GCs will emulate. I very much look forward to DASH 9.

(Full disclosure: due to a family medical emergency, I had to pull out half-way. As a result, some of this post uses feedback from my teammates or other third-hand information.)

A year in the life of Agent November, puzzle detective

Agent November playersA (slightly belated!) guest post by Agent November‘s Nathan Glover, looking back on the highs and lows of the first year of running an escape game business.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to run my own business. Growing up, I was never very creative musically, theatrically, or artistically. But I had a burning passion for creating a business, and I was always on the lookout for a way to start a successful enterprise.

About 18 months ago I was tentatively trying to start up a tour guiding business in London. To bring in some cash, I started working for an escape room, running some of their games and their e-mail system. So although I encountered the idea of escape games accidentally, I quickly realised that if I made my own version then I could use my passion for entertainment to create something amazing.

The first problem I hit was a lack of funding; there was no way I could afford to rent or fit out a room. But what I’ve discovered in the last year and a half of this project is that my biggest problems can often lead to my greatest opportunities. Instead of using a room, I decided to set my first game up in a park. But how could this be an “escape” game if the players are already outside? My answer: use the narrative of having one hour to defuse a nuclear device! It’s something that players can instantly understand, and it really puts them in a situation which is both unusual, yet in some ways familiar; after all, who hasn’t watched James Bond or Jack Bauer doing something similar? Thankfully a wonderful organisation called Go Make It Happen funded the start up of the company, allowing me to get the materials needed to make my nuclear puzzle device. The outdoor nature of my “Major X Plow-Shun” challenge has become a major selling point, as many players love the idea of doing an outdoor escape game, especially in the summer.

But it certainly wasn’t easy to begin with; in the first 10 weeks, I ran just 15 games! I was stuck in a catch 22; with no reviews on Trip Advisor, no one would book my games – and with no games being run, there was no one to write reviews! This did give me some time to call up newspapers and bloggers and try to promote the business. Thankfully I was mentioned in the Metro and on Exit Games UK, and the bookings started to come in. I’ve also started doing deals with Stag and Hen companies, and I’ve found that my second game “The Rainbow Syndicate” is a great way of getting stag/hen weekends off to a fun start.

I’ve always wanted to add something to my experience that isn’t offered by the other games running in London, while keeping the core elements that make them so much fun. I see so many opportunities to bring in elements of entertainment from different fields, and right from the start I wanted a strong narrative thread running through my products. To add to the customer experience, I advertised for actors to run my games (or “missions” as I prefer to call them), and made sure I paid them well, in order to keep the best people on board, interacting with the players and creating a fictional world for them. Working with such creative individuals has been great, and they have added a lot to the final product.

As the summer approached I was asked to create a new game, and after several sleepless nights I had created my third mission, simply called “Murder Mystery”. I decided to make the murder investigation a major part of the game, and blur the line between “escape games” and murder mystery events. It’s been great watching people take on a puzzle game with a unique blend of flavours. The game itself is designed to be run in some fantastic rooms I found, where I could finally run an escape “room”, rather than purely outdoor games. The venue in Euston that provides these rooms for me also let me keep my game materials on site overnight. This might not sound like a big deal, but it means I no longer have to cycle to work every day with up to 35kg on my back!

Then the summer hit, and I was suddenly busy all the time, which was a huge relief, as the sacrifices and hard work of the previous 8 months finally paid off. Last week I finally got rid of my credit card, which was a great feeling! The next day my 51st Trip Advisor review came in at 5/5, but that’s just what I’ve come to expect; as in everything I’ve done, I’ve tried my hardest to do it right. I can now accommodate 35–40 players at a time, and I’ve put on several corporate events of this size, which is always hectic but loads of fun. As the summer winds down I’m looking forward to running even more of my fiendishly difficult Murder Mystery missions.

I’m a perfectionist at heart, so I’ll never be completely happy with how the business is doing, but overall, I’m proud of what’s been accomplished. And now a moment is fast approaching that I’ve been really looking forward to; August 19th will mark 365 days since the first customer came through my doors! (This isn’t technically true, as I didn’t have any doors. But they did come through my hypothetical doors, even if they didn’t realise it at the time.) The reason that I’m so excited is that most businesses don’t last a year. Therefore the fact that Agent November has been running for over a year puts it in the top 50% of businesses of all time!

The future looks bright, as I’m really happy with the missions I am running. My biggest weakness remains marketing, but I am hopeful that something big will come along soon – possibly a partnership with one of the larger escape game companies in London. I’m also looking to find a manager soon, to take care of the daily running of the business, so I can get back to what I do best – to quote my mission statement, creating “outstanding quality puzzle experiences, which immerse participants in an amazing fictional world”!

P.S. This popped up on my Facebook feed today: “I used to be embarrassed because I was just a comic-book writer while other people were building bridges or going on to medical careers. And then I began to realize: entertainment is one of the most important things in people’s lives. Without it they might go off the deep end. I feel that if you’re able to entertain people, you’re doing a good thing” – Stan Lee

Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough

Hands holding a question mark and an exclamation markHere’s a treat, and hopefully it might get some discussion going. This site is proud to feature a guest post by Ed Roberts, proprietor of Breakout Manchester. Breakout Manchester is one of the busiest and most popular sites in the country and Ed has travelled extensively, playing games around the country for research purposes (and because he, like everyone else, is a massive fan). Here is a starting-point for a possible ranking table of different games’ difficulties; if you agree or disagree with his rankings, please share your opinions in the comments. Different people will find different things difficult, of course, but if there’s any consensus of opinion, then this would be useful for people deliberately looking for a relatively hard or relatively easy game. Thank you so much, Ed, and take it away!

So I’ve played a fair few escape games. Here in my opinion is how they rank from hardest to easiest. This is no indication of which games are good or bad; an easy game may be great, so may a hard game. Likewise an easy game may be awful as may a hard one. This is also based on nothing more than my personal opinion.

I’ve never played the Scottish, Bath, Bournemouth, Cryptopia, or Irish offerings so I can’t comment on these. I’ve also ranked the Breakout game rooms for where I believe they would sit. You will also notice some games I escaped from are higher up the lists than some other I didn’t escape from, for two reasons: some of the people I was with are better at these games than others – and, as with any game, sometimes there are good performances and other days bad performances.