A bit of a departure from my usual puzzle-focused choice of game, Hunt for the Smoking Caterpillar is definitely well over on the “immersive theatre” side of things. Plenty of fun and well-run and paced, but attempted to wedge far too much content into an hour.
This was a bit of a departure from the norm for me. The lovely folks at Life After Five invited me to play Hunt for the Smoking Caterpillar ahead of reviewing it on their show. It wouldn’t have been something I would have picked for myself. Ahead of time we got a four-page newspaper by email to set the scene and perhaps share hints, though I gleaned none.
On the day, Chazz from Life After Five, who was meant to be playing with me, wasn’t able to make it along and so I was alone. With teams of 2 or 3 needed, Chris and Wayne who’d come down from the north were kind enough to let me join their team. This is a polite way of me saying that I attached myself to the nearest friendly faces and gave them no choice! They were clearly experienced escapers as well, which gave me confidence that the puzzle side of things would be under control.
On with the show then. Whilst we’d been asked to arrive 20 minutes before our 3pm start time and meet the White Rabbit who’d show us upstairs, the pale lagomorph in question was not in evidence until 5 or 6 minutes out. Not the most comfortable or indeed interesting waiting area with a Halloween party DJ playing at the back of the pub – this at 2:45 on a Saturday afternoon; they clearly start the party early in North London – but once we had made it into the function room and away from the revellers we could hear ourselves think once more.
From the mention of a White Rabbit you may have derived the theme: this was set in New Wonderland, post the events of the well-known Alice, and with a range of characters to chat with.
Each team started with a pouch including five “gold pieces”, brief instructions/rules, and a playing card. Proceedings were opened by the Baron, who explained the quest was to find the smoking caterpillar who was inexplicably missing – the clue was in the name – and rescue him. Along the way we would encounter some characters who might be able to help us, and could accumulate (or spend) gold along the way. The playing cards were used to determine the “best” players who had the highest card and got special hats, as well as the lowest cards who were designated dunces with conical D caps. I don’t think anything turned on what hat you got, other than occasional pointing and laughing at the dunces.
The set decoration and equipment were both very well-designed. The show is resident in the Owl and Hitchhiker pub for quite some months to come, and they’d made the space their own. It was cosy across two rooms but there was space to chat as well as to scheme.
Once we got underway there was a plethora of things to do, dominated by locked boxes and portable puzzles around the room (if you are a puzzle head) and by the four characters to speak to (if you like people). Interaction was important, bribery was encouraged, and piecing together information and clues from different characters and places was indispensable. The characters really knew their stuff and could gently push and prod players into different directions in order to move the storyline along – an hour really isn’t that long at all once you get into the swing of things. Every once in a while there was a sort of set-piece where all the players and characters got together for a few minutes to share a major part of the story, such as holding the beauty contest alluded to in the newspaper. They were not afraid to involve people, and I really did have to think on my feet and get out of my comfort zone sometimes.
Not a lot of structure here, it’s about as far from linear as you can get and you have more or less free rein to do what you will. Several of the puzzles and tasks are one-shot, mind you, so once one team has finished them successfully there’s not really anything left over. This didn’t become a problem for our group as there were plenty of spares, but I suppose it could theoretically dry up.
We managed to work quite well as a team, although could probably have shared or traded more information with other teams and gotten more into the swing of things. This sort of live-action role-playing is quite exhausting for me so I was glad to get summoned back into the other room after 55 minutes for the denouement.
Less of a win/lose outcome than a fairly informal ranking – you had to sort of choose one of two things you’d be ranked on (it’s difficult to be any more specific without giving massive spoilers). Chris and Wayne were pretty sold on one of the options but I talked them into the other, and it paid off inasmuch as we came second. Not that there were any prizes besides certificates, but still.
I can’t really say this set the world on fire. I’ve got a lot of time and respect for the actors and they played their parts well. But the organisation was bordering on chaotic, the puzzles were all either trivial or too difficult to be solved without help, and it felt far more like a show that I had a bit part in rather than a game or challenge.
A 1-point deduction has been applied to the overall ranking due to breaches of the rules on price display by quoting ticket prices excluding mandatory “booking fees”.
Accessibility: The game was played upstairs with no wheelchair accessibility.
Alerts: Characters may use very crude language. The venue (outside the game) was extremely loud.
Capacity: Players play in teams of 2-3 (and not 2-5 as mentioned on the website – groups of 4 and 5 were told to break down into two sub-teams). I don’t quite know what the maximum number of people they take was, although there were around 14 of us there and the staff remarked they had 8 no-shows. 22 people would have made things really crowded.
Cost: £27.50 per person, including the odious “booking fee” mentioned previously. American Express is accepted. As mentioned above, I did not pay for my ticket. The price includes a welcome drink, which appeared to be a gin & pink Lucozade, available sans gin for teetotal types like myself. This, I presume, also caters for under-18s, who must be accompanied by an adult.
Emergency exit: Clearly signposted, no locks anyway
Getting there: I played at the Owl and Hitchhiker, which is about 10-15 minutes walk from Archway station (Northern line). Buses and other transport are available.