A year in lockdown has given my other-half and I very little opportunity to visit escape rooms recently. It hasn’t ruled them out completely however, because there are now many escape-room-in-a-box experiences which can be completed in your own home.
These have been having a successful time on Kickstarter lately. In March I backed Calling Card, a detective-thriller where you must use evidence in both document and digital format to find a killer; along with The Paper Labyrinth, a choose-your-own-adventure book where the answers to puzzles lead you down certain paths. Back in August last year, I made a pledge to The Mystery Agency’s campaign for The Balthazar Stone and finally had a chance to play it last month after receiving my box in February.
A loose narrative binds it together as with most escape rooms and I have to say that story here is one of the most well-paced as continues throughout the experience. Part of it takes place in the current day where you’re an agent for The Mystery Agency who has been given a curious case to solve, while the other half is set in the Golden Age of Piracy where Elsa Winslow journeys to Sharkstooth Island to find her family. The result is an ominous stone which curses anyone who possesses it and slowly drives them insane…
The game starts after logging into website using a password, where you’re given the starting details for your investigation. Here you can select to either go up against the clock or take your time (we chose the latter for a lazy afternoon and a bottle of wine). A message from your superior points you to a newspaper article which can be found inside the box you’ve received along with an archive website – but to get to the information from that, you’ll need to figure out the pirate Balthazar’s real name.
Opening the box reveals a wooden chest closed with a padlock, and you should be able to deduce the correct combination needed to open it using the clues you’ve been given so far. It’s an attractive thing and I can imagine a lot of players using it for something else after they’ve completed the game. There’s more crammed in than you realise at first thanks to compartments and additional locks, and it feels far more like a real escape room than some of the other experiences we’ve tried over the past year.
Within the chest is a range of items including aged documents, feathers and keys. Each of them plays an important part in the puzzles to be solved and none were included in the chest simply for show or to bulk it out. It’s lovely playing a game which uses physical objects instead of just paper alone for once, because everything is incredibly tactile and well-made; for example, an inventory list is stained and rough around the edges, while the treasure map feels as though it’s going to crumble (but it doesn’t).
Speaking of the puzzles, there’s a nice mix between these physical items and digital elements presented in the form of websites, and almost everything combines well within the narrative. There was only one challenge which didn’t entirely make sense in terms of the story. If some of the brightest minds have been unable to open the physical chest in centuries, then how come a clue is hidden inside which gives the password needed to unlock a protected file on a modern digital archive?
This in no way spoiled our experience though. We had to grab a hint from The Mystery Agency website early in our game but this isn’t a reflection of poor puzzle design; it’s more a case that, as with experiences in a range you’ve never tried before, we needed a little push in the right direction to help figure out the kind of answers expected. There’s a nice level of challenge and it took us around two-and-a-half hours to complete The Balthazar Stone – I’m putting that down to the bottle of wine consumed while playing.
My pledge to the Kickstarter campaign in August was for £40 and this is the same price for which the boxes are now available. Some people may see that as expensive for an experience which you could in theory complete in an hour but when you consider the cost of physical or online escape rooms, along with the quality of the items, it’s not bad at all. Providing you don’t draw on the documents, there’s also the possibility of re-boxing the items and passing the experience on to a friend.
I won’t be doing that though: the wooden chest is just too lovely to let go of! I can see my other-half and I attempting to unlock it again in a few years’ time once we’ve forgotten the solutions. We’ve also placed an order for our second experience from The Mystery Agency: The Ghost in the Attic, where terrible things have happened to those who have played a haunted board game released in the 1950s. The only way to solve the mystery is to now play it for yourself…
No doubt we’ll go on to pick up The Vanishing Gambler too at some point. The Balthazar Stone has been one of my favourite rewards received through a Kickstarter campaign and probably the most fun Pete and I have had with an escape-room-in-a-box so far (Zelda got involved too, as you can see from the photograph opposite). It would be great to see The Mystery Agency go on to create further experiences in the future – follow the team on Twitter to find out what’s happening.