The door is locked, a timer is ticking down. A hidden switch turns on a light, shining a password on the floor. The walls and ceiling around the room are covered in numbers, in all different colours, but only the red ones work on the keypad. Water poured into the blocked pipe floats out a ball that contains a key, letting you enter a secret room. Can you find the last key that will let you out before it’s too late?
Sounds like a video game. But it’s all real.
Real-life ‘Escape Room’ games have appeared world-wide since 2007, a phenomena inspired by a particular genre of point-and-click video game, where you must, of course, escape a room. The room is filled with hidden clues, puzzles, and switches, and they must all be solved to escape.
Business is booming for these places. I’ve seen five appear in my home town in the last two years. An article in MarketWatch suggested there were over 2,800 of these businesses around the world as of July 2015. The number has to be much higher by now. There’s no directory of them, but try Googling, “Escape Room ” and you will probably find something close to you.
I’ve done three rooms so far, twice with friends and once this past weekend, with my daughter for her 12th birthday party. The experience is much different with a group of tween girls.
Here’s how Escape Rooms work. You’re part of a team of players, generally six or more. You get a briefing on your scenario, some house rules (don’t break things, please don’t tear up the floorboards) and away you go. There’s a timer counting down, music or special effects are playing.
Each room has a theme and story, often inspired by classic books, movies, or genres. I’ve played in:
- a zombie-themed room, where we had to find the cure in an abandoned lab, before a bomb exploded the entire place.
- a mysterious library, where the final will of an old friend was leading us to a huge secret.
- an 8-bit video game room where we solved puzzles to gain levels and rescue Princess Pear from the clutches of the evil Browser.
(The last one is the one I did with the kids.)
You scour the room, looking for objects, secret compartments, hidden notes, clues, keys. You flip through magazines and look under carpets. There are occasional red herrings, but generally most things you find are useful – even if you don’t know it yet.
Sometimes there are entire hidden rooms that are revealed through play. In my first game, the zombie one, I was working on a bike chain that blocked a wardrobe and something banged on the inside, scaring the crap out of me. When I finally got it open I found a hole in the wall leading to a darkened room.
No source for the bang though. The staff member with the broom handle had already gone out another door.
Hints for enjoying
I’m not going to give hints on how to win. Each room is different and you need to figure it out for yourself. These are tips on how to maximize your enjoyment.
It’s all about teamwork.
First off, you may have seen something that might help someone else solve a puzzle. Keeping it to yourself could fail you completely. Someone else might have hidden skills at this particular puzzle that you lack.
Secondly, puzzle-mad or excited people can sometimes grab things and run with them – I’ve always found there’s one or two people who end up left out when the louder people get in the way. Remember to calm down and give everyone a chance.
Keep track of what you’ve solved and what you haven’t. That lock back in the first room might need a key you don’t find until the end. Those sheets of paper you keep finding might have a secret code once all are put together.
Don’t over think. Sometimes your idea for a solution can go well beyond what is actually needed. Step back if you are stuck and take another look. Or let someone else give it a go.
Hints for enjoying with your kids
Watch the difficulty. Some places will rate their rooms on a difficulty scale. Some won’t say anything, so contact them for suggestions for your family.
The Locked Room in Calgary lists the room statistics. Our game, “Gameover: An 8-bit Adventure”, was 20% logic puzzles, 10% word and math puzzles, and 70% spatial and mechanical puzzles. We chose it over “Mutiny on the High Seas” and “The Wine Cellar” for both its focus on physical puzzles rather than logic and because it sounded more kid-friendly.
We skipped “Dead Meat” because the dark zombie/cannibal theme, with associated horror and gore, might be a bit much.
Our biggest problem was the noise. Five tween girls can be really, really loud. So loud that anyone with an idea may not be heard. Focus on keeping their volume down so anyone with an idea can speak up.
Grabby hands are also a problem. One excited kid can ruin the fun for the others. Be sure to keep everyone as calm as possible. I found sending kids on particular missions was the best way to keep them from fighting over any one particular puzzle.
Near the end of the game, when we were down to the last couple puzzles things got bunched up. No kid wants to wait while someone else tries something. We ended up letting each one have a minute to try to solve it before letting someone else try.
Let them do it – ask if they need help, and only step in if they start to get frustrated or start to panic. They will enjoy it much more if they can find the solution themselves.
I wouldn’t recommend kids younger than 11 or 12 – your mileage may vary of course, but when we played there were several logical leaps that needed to be made that the girls weren’t seeing, and where I would lean in and say, “Hey what about trying this…” and then let them run with it. Smaller children might not even catch that much.
My daughter’s verdict: She wants to go again, but with only a couple other kids and the rest adults. And she wants to do the zombie one. Of course she does