Review: Race to Escape TV show

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Reviews

Race to Escape is a new TV show on the Science channel, and it is what you get when a game show and an escape-the-room puzzle love each other very much, and have children. Luckily it seems to be a cute child so far. This review is based off of the pilot episode.

For those of you not familiar with the term, an escape-the-room puzzle is just what it says on the tin: it’s a puzzle where your goal is to escape the room you are in. Usually, you have to explore the room and use the elements there to solve puzzles that eventually lead to your escape. Sometimes that requires using things you find around to open locks, uncover clues, etc. Sometimes you have to decipher codes and discover passwords. The exact nature of the puzzles. It’s a very popular subject for small, rudimentary Flash games with MS Paint style graphics, but shows up in games of all levels of complexity and sophistication (Myst is, in essence, a series of elaborate escape the room puzzles).

Race to Escape turns this into a competition. Two groups of three people (who have just met each other) are placed into two identical rooms and the goal is to get out before the other team and before the one hour timer runs out. In order to escape, the players must discover a series 4-digit codes which are put into a keypad on the wall, five codes in total. Once the first code is put in, a clue for how to find the next code is provided and so on. Enter all five, and your team wins. The prize is $25,000.

There are some wrinkles to it. When the clock has 20 minutes left, the prize amount decreases by $500 every minute. Also, you can spend $5000 for a code breaker, which will tell you how to solve the puzzle you are on. You cannot use a code breaker on the puzzle to acquire the final code, however. Also, if you put in three incorrect codes in a row, your keypad locks for 2 minutes, to discourage just putting in codes willy-nilly. To increase the pressure, there is an indicator in each room that shows how many puzzles each team has solved so you can see if you are ahead or behind.

The show itself cuts back and forth between the two teams in a reality show way, with voice over commentary by the show’s host. Also, there are small little fluff bumper scenes where the host explains a detail of one of the puzzles, or talks about things like logical fallacies displayed by the players. The coverage of the two teams seemed pretty balanced and there weren’t any bits of ‘dead air’ in the show. The voice over and bumper scenes are not really important, but luckily they aren’t intrusive or super cheesy.

But onto the meat of the show: the puzzles. As a veteran puzzle enthusiast, I was generally impressed by the puzzles. Very few of the puzzles presented to the players were cliche. No “Oh look, they have dressed up a sudoku puzzle” moments here. There was one sliding tiles puzzle in the pilot, but it distinguished itself both by being a physically large puzzle and hidden in the floor itself.

The puzzles made good use of the space and physicality of the room. Some required players to physically search the room for items. Players had to interact with the entire space of the room as well. For example, one puzzle had the players following a trail of paintings around the room indicated by people in the paintings pointing at other paintings.

The solutions required a variety of lateral thinking challenges. Players had to be aware of all of the room and be willing to discard fruitless ideas quickly to keep up. Solutions were outside the box and none of them seemed overly obscure. I found all of them to be creative and interesting. There were no truly repetitive puzzles, nor were there any puzzles that just required players to sit down and work things out on a piece of paper, which definitely wouldn’t make for good television.

If I had one criticism, it is that there was a puzzle or two that required a little bit of ‘guess what the designers were thinking’. The clue for the last puzzle in this pilot episode in particular was more of a riddle – you just had intuit what the clue meant. This was the make-or-break point of the game. One team sped ahead very early, but could not generate the ah-ha moment the final puzzle needed. While they spun their wheels, the other team caught up, had the epiphany quickly, and won the game. My criticism is really a nitpick, however, coming from the perspective of someone who has done a lot of puzzles and has created more than a few for others.

Overall, I found the show enjoyable with a good pace. The puzzles were creative and interesting, and it was fun to watch people work through them. The combination of puzzle design, good choice of players who actively engaged with each other aloud and good editing made the entire episode entertaining. There is not too much of a reality show feel to it (no trumped up drama or anything), just people working together to play the game. If you are people watcher and you find puzzles tickle your fancy, I think you’d find it enjoyable as well.

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