R.E.D. Report – Sarnia Escape- Pirate’s Treasure Trove

This rantview (rant+review) was provided by our friend Manda!  

I found out a short while ago that my hometown of Sarnia, Ontario was getting its very first escape room. I figured it was the perfect opportunity to take a bunch of my family during the Thanksgiving weekend. My parents had to go to a wedding on the Saturday, so my brother (a fellow escape enthusiast in Ottawa), his girlfriend, my sister (who had done one before in Toronto) and her husband (a newbie) headed out.

I went in with an open mind. Sure, I was expecting a lower budget affair but as I had learned in the past that didn’t mean it would not be a fun experience. I had chosen the most difficult room: Pirate’s Treasure Trove. I only knew it was the most difficult because I had asked on the phone while booking since their website had no description on their rooms. Would it be a fun filled night of puzzling in my hometown?

Spoiler Alert: no, it was not. It really, really was not.
Before I bitterly recount the events of the room itself, let’s focus on the one positive aspect of the night: the customer service was pretty good. We walked into a small somewhat cramped cafe where a woman (I am assuming the owner) was running herself ragged getting teams set up.

She kept a smile on though and asked us to wait while she attended to the other teams. There were lockers to put our belongings. While we waited we were welcome to free samples from the cafe portion of the room. Sarnia Escape is also one of the first board game cafes in Sarnia, so a few people were there simply for that. The selection was limited but fun.
Creativity and Design (Immersion and Room Presentation)
Fair warning to any of those trying: the rooms to Sarnia Escape are cramped and tiny. Five of us in the room only just kept it comfortable enough for us to have room to maneuver. I really do wish there was an indication on the website for team sizes per room.

There were enough props in the room to give the impression of a pirate’s secret treasure horde: gems, gold and silver coins, a large battered chest and various “gold” items were among these.

One wall was made up to look like the wall of a cave which was a nice touch. Why the other walls were not decorated the same way is beyond me. Perhaps it was the way the building was structured that did not allow the owners to alter the other walls but it was a bit disappointing not to see consistency.

In Pirate’s Treasure Trove, you and your group are just minding your own business in some caves (like you do) when you stumble into a ancient pirate’s secret treasure horde. Normally that would be great news except being pirates they took precautions to make sure that anyone who would go in wouldn’t go out again. For…reasons…you are now stuck and have to find your way out so that you can spend your ill gotten goods.

I have said this in previous reviews: owners. If you have a low budget pick a theme that you can make look impressive for little money. Seriously, I just…I can’t…I really need you to listen to me on this one and I am not afraid to repeat it every single review I write from now on.

Now Pirate’s Treasure Trove is not a bad theme to choose per se. It’s one that lends itself to a smaller space and cheaper props at least in terms of the treasure. In our case though we were still in a carpeted room with florescent lights. It certainly did not feel like a secret cave.

I might sound like a diva, but I have learned that immersion is such a big part of escape rooms. A pirate’s cave is the perfect setting to employ some creative solutions to the low budget problem: dimmer lighting, a lantern that can be found, perhaps some cave sound effects (though in Sarnia Escape’s case it would be more difficult with the layout of the facility)

But let’s say that the budgetary constraints would not even allow for these changes. Okay, fine. There is still more one can do to engage the players and that is to involve more of a narrative: Who was the captain? Did he leave anything behind? A diary? Did he die here? Were there other explorers? Did they leave behind diaries? Or are their remains somewhere in the cave, holding a vital clue to escaping?

Any of these questions could have been addressed and sparked our interest. But in the case of Sarnia Escape, there was absolutely nothing there. As a result, we could not help but notice every little limitation in the room. Worse than that, we began to get bored just ten minutes into the game.

Intuitiveness and Puzzles

There are three puzzles in Pirates’ Treasure. Three. The most difficult room in the entire facility has just three puzzles to solve. It took us more than the allotted forty-five minutes to solve these puzzles but it was for all the wrong reasons.

The least aggravating of these puzzles was the searching involved. Yes, I am counting the searching as one puzzle.

Then came puzzle #2. I will not reveal much of what it was about but part of it relied on adding numbers together in our heads. We had no pen and paper provided. Normally this would not be an issue if there were three or even four numbers to add together. But there were almost twenty double digit numbers to add together. Twenty. There is such a huge margin of error that can occur it’s next to impossible to solve it quickly.

Throwing in too many numbers to add together does not make a challenge or at least not for the right reasons.. It makes for busy work and aggravation. In the case of this particular puzzle the majority of the challenge comes from guessing what kind of a puzzle it is in the first place. In fact there is another part of this puzzle in which a pen and paper would REALLY have come in handy.

But that was absolutely nothing compared to the final puzzle which contained my now most detested mistake of any escape room: assumed knowledge.

For those of you who are new to escapes or even puzzle design in general, assumed knowledge in puzzles involves making something thought to be common knowledge integral to the solution to the puzzle. An example might using a line from Hamlet and assuming everyone would know that was from Act 3, Scene 1 which would be part of a combination. But believe it or not, not everyone has read Hamlet and certainly not everyone knows specific scene numbers.

In fact I am going to make this rule even more important than the immersion rule: owners, never ever assume that your audience will know some cultural phrase or trivia that you think is simply common knowledge. If you DO have to use it, then all of the information one would need to figure out that phrase should be included in the room itself. Going back to the Hamlet example for instance: somewhere in the room there might be a copy of Hamlet or a diary where someone describes their favourite scene. There might also be bookmarked pages of their favourite parts.

Pirates Treasure has some of the worst examples of assumed knowledge I have ever seen. It is the reason we did not get out of the room. We had found all of the information. We had used our hint. We had everything we needed. But the final combination ended up involving knowing random trivia that not all of us were aware of.

That is not challenging. That is just withholding information. As the timer counted down to zero, we were not scrambling or rushing to defeat the room. We were bored, frustrated and tired. We wanted to just go. That is not how an escape experience should end.

Final Thoughts

When the timer finally ran out and the owner came in and comforted us in our loss, we asked what the answers were to the final puzzle. Instead of telling us, she advised us to go home, google the answers, then come back and do the room again.

Are you kidding me? Seriously?! Go home and then pay to do the crappy room again?! The “bonus” was that if we did the room a second time in fifteen minutes, we would get another room for free which is pretty backwards logic. Either you redo a room and get a free one or you just go and pay for a new room. Both ways you spend money. That’s also assuming I would even want to return for a new room.

I was really saddened by my experience at Sarnia Escape. I wanted to just have fun at an escape in my hometown and it turns out it could not even be that. We spoke with some others who had done the easier room there and their experience was unfortunately much the same.

I hate writing reviews like these. I really do. I want Sarnia Escape to do well. But if it wants to do so it will need to make some major changes. In its current state I would not recommend it to anyone, newbies or enthusiasts.

For more information, check out:


260 Indian Road
Eastland Plaza
Sarnia, Ontario