Pop Up Playground: Small Time Criminals [Review]

stcLocation: Small Time Criminals, Preston, Melbourne, VIC, Australia

Date completed:  November 2016 (5 players). Raided $1.5 million worth of loot!

Creativity: 10Difficulty: Varies; Atmosphere: 9; Fun: 9.


  • 2-6 players
  • Fluent English

Ever want to rob a bank? This is the very simple premise behind Pop Up Playground‘s massively immersive heist game, Small Time Criminals. Having wanted to play this for ages, we recently kickstarted an escape room marathon by taking in a team of five to raid the very questionable firm Eureka Futures. Think Ocean’s Eleven and the Italian Job.

Is this game actually a escape room? Not really. But labels are not important here. It has a story, puzzles, tasks to perform and a lot to explore. Let your raider side take flight and avoid the security guard!

Small Time Criminals is the product of a successful crowdfunding venture on Pozible where it promised to host a live heist adventure in a former bank in Preston, Melbourne. With a crew stacked with experience from theatre and film, they truly delivered on the Pop Up Playground’s motto of ‘We Make Awesome Situations’. In this case, the awesome situation was to go steal from Eureka Futures, which from the trailer below is a seemingly ruthless firm with questionable ethics.

Built inside a former bank building, this game was a thrilling experience and is a very good example of what can be achieved in the live-action ‘escape’ industry. Quite simply, there is no ‘escape’ in this game and players could theoretically walk out at any time they wish. Rather, the objective of this game is to infiltrate the very convincing offices and vault of Eureka Futures to take as much as you can. This leads to a very unique point of Small Time Criminals – it is completely non-linear in how you want to approach this job. There is no right way to go about this (although there are definitely wrong ways which could get you caught).

This mindset adjustment is definitely required and was something briefed by our very dodgy handler, Sparrow, who could have come out of movies like Snatch. Once he disabled the security of the building, we threw ourselves straight into the job.

Maximising the former bank environment, Pop Up Playground really went to town with all aspects of the game. The puzzles fit in perfectly with the setting and the story and did not feel out of place. In other words, immersion and suspension of disbelief was really achieved. The documents and files you find scattered around? They relate to Eureka Futures. The post-it notes on desks? They’ll reveal the interactions of the fictional staff that normally work there. A security guard patrols the building. What you want of this situation is up to you.

Challenge wise, this is where I am hesitant to give a difficulty score as it can come from a range of factors on the day. Robert from Pop Up Playgrounds also emphasised the amount of agency players have in Small Time Criminals during the recent live-action escape industry panel at PAX Australia 2016. Essentially, players will have a high amount of flexibility to deal with their situation and teams with a creative bent could come up with all manner of outside the box solutions to their predicament. From discussing with other players who have tried this game and also from Robert’s description of a particularly hilarious encounter, it would appear that no two games are alike. Small Time Criminals is definitely replayable.

Our team tried to take on a more a no-nonsense criminal approach to Small Time Criminals and we found it useful to have a mix of searchers, a person who could talk with Sparrow and coordinate the team, a code breaker and a runner (as the area is huge). It was also interesting that empathy also plays a role in deciphering all the information that we uncovered as we have to get into the minds of the staff that work at Eureka Futures. Without spoiling anything, a general awareness of history might also help players understand what they might find. Basically, teams that want to make the most of the allotted one hour window should consider bringing in a range of people with different skills. This is a bank heist after all.

For those of you looking to get the most out of the game, Pop Up Playground have also released two short ‘documentaries’ on Eureka Futures which might provide you with some clues to the game:

Episode 1
Episode 2

Overall, we had a very exhilarating experience and the only downside came from the walkie-talkies suffering radio interference. Sparrow, playing the British gangster, also gamemastered in character although this ended up posing a challenge for most of the team who were non-native English speakers due to the accent.

After orchestrating an exit, our team got out with $1.5 million worth of loot and it would seem that we did rather well. However, as we were soon to learn from the Pax panel, there is an accumulated $12 million in total in the game! We hadn’t even touched some of the possible areas to ransack and explore! We’ll definitely be back for another round.

Note: Small Time Criminals unfortunately closed at the end of Feb 2017. We really hope that Pop Up Playground will come up with more games like this in the future.

Out of the room

Service: Our game was run by ‘Sparrow’, who monitored us well and provided an in character briefing. He was also very accommodating and flexible to our situation as we had friends who were slightly late.

Communication: All communication was through walkie talkie and there was a bit of radio interference. Sparrow indicated after the game that this is something they’ll look to improve so this might become a non-issue in the future.

Surroundings: We caught the tram out to Preston and it took us around 25 minutes to get from the Melbourne city centre out to the nearest tram stop (Tyler St stop 52), which is pretty much right next to Small Time Criminals.

The folks from The Plus Ones gave their views on their experience in Small Time Criminals here.

After the game, we made our way to Preston markets to survive Pop Up Playground’s Room Service.

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