Published on April 3rd, 2017 | by Dean Love


The time we became the best normal people at puzzles in the country

I’m finally publishing this as after selling out in a couple of days, some more tickets for DASH 2017 in London have been released and should be available here. If you want to know what DASH is then read on…

DASH first came to my attention when I was trying to find out about escape rooms, and back in 2014 there was just one UK resource on the subject – Chris’ blog, now at ExExitGames. In addition to cataloguing the growing UK escape room scene, he also covered puzzle hunts, the biggie of which was apparently DASH. An annual event taking place in multiple locations “around the world” (although effectively for many years this just meant across the US and in London), teams of 2-6 would meet at a given location in the morning, where they would get a puzzle to solve. Solving said puzzle would direct them to the next location and so on, until the hunt was completed.

The puzzles are certainly a step up from your average escape room fair, generally requiring both a  bit of insight to figure out what you’re meant to be doing, followed by an execution that can also be challenging. You’re given hints along the way, and I’d say once you’ve unlocked all the hints you’re about at the difficulty of a tough escape room puzzle. You can always check out past puzzles for yourself at http://playdash.org/. The variety of puzzles can also be a bit greater: DASH is happy to include puzzles requiring knowledge of trivia, or based around wordplay; areas many escape room designers consider verboten. Of course, Google is absolutely permitted if you’re stuck on these.

But while the puzzles may be different, the hunt has a few things that remind me of escape rooms. First is teamwork: most puzzles can be approached from a few different directions, and you’ll often be splitting things between the team to let people work on the bits that they’re best at, and solving one part can often lead to clues to another so communication is key. Secondly these aren’t just paper puzzles – you’ll often get interesting props to play with, and puzzles that require you to build things and then manipulate them. Last year’s event saw a London pub full of 60+ people all making origami swans. I can only imagine the reaction someone not in on the game would have had to seeing that!

Lastly is the sense of adventure. This especially applies if you don’t know the city you’re playing in that well, as there’s an element of exploration and finding cool interesting places where the next puzzle will happen. You get comprehensive directions (and a contact number for if you’re really lost) but there’s a definite feeling of adventure as you move around. As of last year this was improved further by having bonus tasks along the way, which included playing Mastermind and shooting a Nerf gun!

Directions are given, hints are revealed, scores are tracked and answers are entered via a neat smartphone app called ClueKeeper which does a great job of holding things together. At least one person on the team will need a smartphone but you can add in as many others as you like. It does drain the battery a fair bit though so I recommend packing a portable phone charger. Probably not a solar one if you’re playing in London.

Our own experience with the competition started with DASH 6. It had a “new players” track with slightly easier variations on the puzzles and we decided to give it a go, and had a lot of fun travelling around London solving puzzles for a day themed around setting up a lemonade stand. Even if it all went a bit wrong at the end because we didn’t realise Dole was a brand of pineapple. Overall we placed a respectable 54th out of 97 “new players” teams worldwide. To explain the scoring a bit: essentially, the faster you solve the puzzles, and the fewer hints you take, the better your score. Travelling between locations isn’t scored at all, so you can stop for lunch without worrying about it affecting your placing.

I returned next year for DASH 7 with a different team, where the theme was Harry Potter, but without actually saying the words “Harry Potter” for trademark reasons. Again, we had a lot of fun, but hit a stumbling block that involved spending 90 minutes on a park bench trying and failing to do a wordsearch, and finishing in the middle of the pack in the now named “novice” track.

At this point we weren’t taking the scoring seriously, we were just there for a fun day out, which made DASH 8 a bit weird. With a James Bond theme, and a mostly new team (with just myself and one other returning player) we again took off around London but avoided any major missteps, and somehow ended up winning the now named “normal” (as opposed to “experienced”) track in the city. Once all the results were in, we were somehow fourth in the world. No-one was more surprised than us to reach the finish line and be told we likely had the best score and ending up with a trophy! And so we were officially declared the best “normal” puzzlers in the country! Of course, this means that we’ve had to enter the “expert” track this year (as opposed to “standard” – no I don’t know why the name changes every year) because if we entered the easier one and somehow won it again we’d feel like dickheads. And I can say with absolute certainty, with how seriously some “expert” teams take the event, and one of our team members off playing over in New York this year, we’re certainly not going to be any near the top!

But we’re looking forward to it. Both DASH 6 and 7 had their issues with organisation and approach, but the London team really nailed it last year for DASH 8 and put on a flawless event. If you like escape room and are up for trying something that’s more a marathon than a sprint, with somewhat tougher puzzles, then I highly recommend it. And we will of course have coverage of this year’s event on the site next month!

About the Author

Dean is a professional writer who has worked for The Mail On Sunday, The Digital Fix, MicroMart and others.

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