An Escape Enthusiast Abroad- RECON Boston Day 3
I’m sitting in the hotel lobby writing this up. All around me tired but happy enthusiasts are bidding each other goodbye as they head to a flight or an escape or to take in what Boston has to offer. It has been a whirlwind trip, and it’s definitely a bittersweet ending as I’m definitely wanting more but also craving holing away with some garbage TV for a while.
Day 3 was somehow even more packed than Day 2! Let’s get to it!
Canadian Bumpkin Status– 5%
I tried lobster bisque for the first time, therefore solidfying my New England experience by trying local seafood. It was delicious. I could not bring myself to eat clam chowder because I’ve seen too many episodes of the Good Place describing it. Maybe someday.
I hope to take in some history of Boston! If I do, I may update this to talk about the rich and varied events of Boston through the centuries, but for now I can say that Boston seems quite interesting and has the advantage over Toronto for old buildings not paved down for condos (seriously, Toronto, you have a problem).
Ohhhh, the games. I only got to play the officially scheduled games that were part of RECON, but it’s safe to say it was a quality over quantity situation.
RECON organized a fun little ARG for everyone to participate in! Designed by Auggie, one of the RECON staff who I also interviewed on the podcast, our goal was to gain access to the Inner Circle, the secret group of RECON devoted to mysteries and intrigue.
This would be my first official ARG out in the real world, and not just through my screen. It was a lot of fun. I managed to find a team of friends to join, which included Rich Bragg and Ana Ulin, who you might remember as two team members of the Guiness world record team a few years ago (also Rich is the mastermind behind the Terpecas).
We ran around the hotel looking for clues and harassing volunteers for hints (they were often involved in the puzzles). In the end, we did indeed gain access to the Inner Circle, and much rejoicing was had. It did mean I missed the Birds of a Feather talk, but the pin was worth it.
Boxaroo– The Storyteller’s Secret
Boxaroo’s latest game was definitely my favourite escape of the trip (side note: stop telling me favourite is spelled wrong, WordPress. Respect my Canadian ways!). I had to check my expectations a bit because there was a LOT of hype around it. I’m glad I did, because while it was overhyped a bit, it was still such a solid experience and a gold standard for so many aspects of escape room design.
In the game, you and your friends find the cabin of Emily Carter, a famed fantasy author who has disappeared. What happened and why?
What this game really nails is the atmosphere and tone. Right away the game transports you to its whimsical world with an excellent use of visuals and score. No seriously, the music used in this game has to be some of my favourite in any escape room that I have played. It also maximizes its physical space and props. No surface is superfluous.
The puzzles were also enjoyable. We did get a bit stuck in a couple of spots but it was not long before we figured it out. In case we did get stuck, there was a hint system that was simply beautiful to look at. I actually wished I could have used it more but for my teammates’ sake I held back.
Boxaroo is also attempting adaptive game play. Since we were going through a bit more quickly, there were some additional puzzles we had to solve, usually variations on previous puzzles. This was not so bad because we were a larger group, and it was an opportunity to experience puzzles and wow moments I missed while in another area. But talking to others after, I can understand how it could get a bit tedious if you are a team of two or three. I doubt a newbie team of two or three would be working through things quickly though.
Narrative wise, it went in a different direction than I was expecting. This is mostly where the overhype factor comes in. The way that others were talking and the way the game teased one plot point, I was anticipating a different twist at the end. This wasn’t a huge thing though and didn’t have a negative impact on my experience.
There were a couple of minor nitpicks. One was around the ending which seemed a bit anti-climatic but that is such a minor nitpick as I still ended with a smile on my face. The other was around the setting and premise itself, and I ended up making up my own head cannon of who we were and why we were there.
Overall though, I would highly recommend this lovely and whimsical adventure. And if you have the time, ask for a backstage tour. They have an amazing reset system! Yes, I am getting excited about a reset system. And you should too.
Level 99 was the second big trip organized by RECON and was also where the final talks were being held. If there were any way to describe it, it would be like Boda Borg dialed up to 11. Like Boda Borg, there were various obstacle/puzzle rooms you could try to complete over and over again. However, rather than a stamp of completion, you received star points digitally on an account you started.
There was also just…a lot more to this place. As well as the rooms to play, there were random challenges you could do one on one with other players, art installations to check out, scavenger hunts to do while you waited for a room to be available, and prizes you could work your way up to.
It was a completionist’s dream…and nightmare.
There was also a full restaurant and bar within the facility which was a much appreciated addition. You definitely needed to keep a check on your health and thirst meters (too many survival crafting games lately) and make sure you kept fed and hydrated. I was dumb this time and attempted a physical challenge which my knee and weak ankles did NOT approve of, but there were always other options.
My personal favourite was a sort of “Space Twister” where we all had to cover circular panels with our hands and feet at a moment’s notice. The biggest downer was any room with a sound puzzle, because those rooms are NOT sound proofed and it was very difficult to make out any sound with all the noise going on around us. I did still manage to rack up a bunch of stars and puzzle pieces on my account. I did not, however, earn enough puzzle pieces for a pretzel. Sadness. That pretzel will be mine someday.
Visually, Level 99 was astounding as well. You could probably spend your entire visit just finding art installations to look at or even take in the entrances to the rooms. I would go back to both Boda Borg and Level 99 again, although for me personally I can only take so much of the constant barrage of noise and music.
There was a lot going on talk wise again. In the morning I did a workshop on Puzzle Design with Marie Huber of Red Fox Escapes. For someone like myself where I easily get designer’s block when it comes to puzzle design, she had some cool techniques to get a start on puzzle flow and design.
There were also the Birds of a Feather discussions which I sadly was not able to attend because of my obsession with the aforementioned ARG. The one discussion I wanted to join was unfortunately at the same time as my workshop. Not being an owner, which is what the talks were mostly geared to, I felt like I probably didn’t miss much but it’s always good to hear what’s going on in the industry. From what I heard, people enjoyed them!
Later, Victor Hung of Boxaroo and Level 99 gave a talk called Technically an Escape Room, focusing on the variety of ways tech can be implemented. Unfortunately from where I was sitting I was having difficulty hearing a lot of the talk (not really something that could be helped in those types of spaces), but the bits I did hear once I relocated were really valuable. Victor is also the mastermind behind the reset system at Boxaroo and when he displayed how it worked in his presentation let’s just say the room erupted in applause. Really smart and innovative designer. Cannot recommend his stuff enough.
After Victor was Matthew DuPlessie, founder of Level 99 and the Five Wits Escape rooms. His talk was called Future Play, Scaling Up Interactive Experiences. I also had trouble hearing this one. The bits that I did manage to hear were around increasing your ambition for what you could accomplish in your own escapes, along with various reminders that escape rooms are businesses. In the end, they do have to make money.
I will be honest, the tone of the talk toward the end took on a bit of a downer note for me. I think I know what message Matthew was going for, that you shouldn’t limit yourself just because you don’t think you can do it, but it kind of came across as “if you don’t make a Level 99 type experience, you’re not doing it right”. Speaking with other attendees after, they had similar thoughts. Still though, there was a lot of inspiring stuff in there and Level 99 is quite the accomplishment. I absolutely plan to go back. If anything, I view experiences like Boda Borg and Level 99 as another genre of the escape world, rather than the exact path everything is going to take.
Phew. This is a lot of words. But there was a lot of stuff. After the talks, there were the official thank-yous and farewells. Many hugs, smiles, and tears were had. David and Lisa gave their final thank-yous, after which point we played a few more games and then piled back into the buses to go back to the hotel for an informal after party in the lobby.
This was one of the highlights of the con for me, and put a cap onto what was already an amazing weekend of games, inspiration, learning, and friends. People brought down various libations to share (including a quite memorable bag of wine floating around), nerdy discussions were had, and I attempted to take selfies of every single attendee I could find. I did not get nearly there, but I got a lot! You can also see that the frizz on my head was practically getting an orbit at that point.
Back when RECON Boston was announced, there was a lot of talk about whether the high ticket price was worth it. It was a big decision at the time for me to commit to financially. The experience I got was well worth the ticket price and more. It was just large enough to meet all sorts of new people, but small enough that it felt like a high school reunion. I cannot express enough how wonderful this community is, and how exciting it was to have all of us in one room, nerding out into the wee hours of the morning.
Thanks so much to the RECON staff for organizing this and having a shockingly smooth conference. Seriously, things went so well I kept waiting to wake up and realize it was all a too optimistic dream. I can’t wait for the next RECON, and I definitely need to hit up Boston again.
Thanks as well to all the friends I met along the way. There are so many of you that naming you would mean missing my flight at this point, but I’m going to try and reach out personally. It was so fun to play games, go way too in depth into escape room theory, and learn of all the cities I need to get to and play games (there are of course, too many).
So long, RECON and Boston. Until next time. Enjoy this barrage of selfies. Time to play the ultimate escape and get through customs.