Unlocking the Joys of Austin’s Puzzle Rooms

Escape rooms bring the solitary diversions to life

You've always wanted to be an adventurer, an explorer, a spy, a master thief, or a detective. You have a keen eye for detail and a mind for unraveling mysteries. Or maybe you just need to occupy yourself for an afternoon and don't mind spending an hour locked in a room with a crew of collaborators who share your mission: to find clues and solve a series of puzzles that lead you to the key that allows you to escape.

Inspired by simple point-and-click web games (Escape the Room, Crimson Room, Viridian Room – basically anything with "room" in the title), "escape rooms" bring these solitary diversions – and their players – into the real world. Simply put, people pay to be locked in a designed space which they have to work together to get out of. Scenarios range from heists and jailbreaks to dungeon escapes, downed spaceships, and zombie outbreaks, but all involve finding a way out of one or more rooms; they tend to run about an hour; and they usually provide some assistance on-site to nudge players along when they find themselves at their wit's end, delivering extra clues to the clueless via walkie-talkie, video screens, or characters in the room with the players. (Operators are also on-call to release players if they need to get out for a bit.)

Before the fun begins, players store away personal items (including cell phones, cheaters), and some introduction briefs the puzzle-busters on their task and instructs them in the basic protocols of the game: what they should look for, what they should leave alone; don't record, photograph, or steal anything; and don't tear the place apart. (In general, the puzzles are mental challenges – if you're using excessive physical force, you're probably doing it wrong.)

The first escape rooms opened in Japan, Singapore, and California in the late 2000s, and the format has experienced wild growth since. Almost 3,000 rooms are now operating worldwide, including elaborate escapes from multistory office buildings and renovated castle towers. A dozen outfits have set up shop in Austin since the first opened here in 2014, and there seems to be no end of patrons looking to test their wits against their crafty conundrums. Inspired by this newly realized desire to lock ourselves in a room and see if we're clever enough to work our way out, we visited several local escape rooms to test our mental mettle. (We're obliged to keep the exact nature of the challenges in these rooms in strictest confidence, so we'll describe our experiences without revealing spoilery details.)

Puzzle Room Austin

111 W. Anderson Ste. 320-E
Scenarios: Wizard School, Supervillain Hideout, Wild West Riddle Roundup
Players per session: 10

Clearly, if you have the chance to graduate from Wizard School, you have to take it, so I gathered some colleagues and signed us up for that scenario at Puzzle Room Austin. Our group – half friends, half strangers – met in the cozy waiting area, where toys and brain-teasers are provided to warm up prospective escapees. When our time came, the gentleman at the front desk donned a satin cloak and launched into his introduction: For our final exam, we must complete the challenges laid out by the headmaster, unlocking a chest containing our diplomas and, of course, the key that unlocks the exit door.

The room we entered was adorned with all the trappings of a medieval institution of higher magical education: walls painted like a castle's, house banners, moving portraits, and plenty of doors and chests with locks awaiting the key to lead us deeper into, and eventually out of, the experience. We quickly spread out, searching the chamber for clues, which soon opened the locked door of a second room, which contained more puzzles.

The challenges were widely varied, including logic puzzles, mathematical and language problems, and trials requiring use of our tactile, musical, and even olfactory senses. (Fortunately, pencils and paper were provided for note-taking and problem-working.) The vast array of puzzles made it difficult for our group to tackle them all in an organized manner, and we often encountered the problem of not knowing who had worked on what or if a problem was completed or abandoned.

Some puzzles demanded individual focus (which was at times hard to achieve in a busily crowded room), and others required teamwork between two or more players. With the aid of our mystical proctor, who generously dispensed hints from the entrance of the main room, we managed to finish our tasks until they narrowed to one or two final obstacles. As a few people scrambled to complete the last puzzles (while the rest waited with little to do but offer encouragement), the buzzer sounded; we had failed our wizard exam.

The room was nicely ornamented, everything fit the theme well, and the challenges were varied and well-constructed, but ultimately the game was overwhelming. I felt I missed out on some interesting puzzles due to the difficulty of coordinating so many people in a densely packed space. We benefited from having a diverse group to solve the different kinds of puzzles, but suffered from disorganization and keeping track of everything that needed to be done. Still, the experience and process were enjoyable for everyone.

Escape Game Austin

405 Red River
Scenarios: Prison Break, Classified, Gold Rush, The Heist
Players per session: 7-8

Word is, the Nashville-based Escape Game company – with locations across Tennessee, Florida, and Texas – dropped a cool million dollars on this Austin outlet, and it shows. My friends and I signed in to the iPads in the stunning, polished lobby in a spot just around the corner from the Convention Center.

We'd opted to try our hand at an art heist, and due to the company's open sign-up system, our crew was rounded out by a birthday party of preteen boys and their mother. After leading us to the entry room, dressed as the world's tiniest art gallery, the facilitator played a well-produced introductory video. We were to break into the private collection of a master art thief, find the stolen painting, and get the code that would allow us to leave before the hour was up. Our host answered a few questions from our young friends, locked the door, and began the countdown.

A brief search of the entry room yielded no clues on how to proceed, so our team called for a hint. (We could ask for as many as we liked, but after a few free ones, each additional piece of advice would add minutes to our total time.) The rooms are monitored remotely by camera, and our request was answered by a prompt on the video screen.

Before long, we made our way into the main game room, where our options greatly expanded, with a few solid starting points for us to latch onto and a substantial assortment of puzzles to discover and work through. We had opportunities to work both independently and as a team to unravel the trail of clues, which were organized to give our progression a sense of narrative. The layout and decor were as high-quality as anything else we'd seen, and it was clear which set-pieces and objets d'art were part of the game and which were merely for decoration – red warning tape marked several as not to be disturbed.

Though we stalled at a few points, there was just the right amount of obstacles to keep all the team members busy, while not being overly confusing or frustrating. The party group worked well with the rest of us, and the puzzles were devised in a way that even the youngest player could contribute to the overall effort. After uncovering a few more entertaining surprises (and calling in some more hints, including one to help retrieve a team member accidentally locked behind a secret door), we managed to retrieve the painting and make our way out of the room, with minutes to spare. We had our victory photographs taken, received stickers for our successful escape, and exchanged high fives.

Maze Rooms Austin

5555 N. Lamar Ste. 110-K
Scenarios: Spy Safe House, The Pharaoh's Tomb (coming late summer)
Players per session: 2-6

Maze Rooms Austin (a franchise that came here from Russia by way of Los Angeles) currently offers one scenario: Enter the safe house of a Cold War-era Soviet spy, uncover evidence of espionage, and steal away with the identifying documents. (A second is set to open in late summer and a third some time later.) To book a room, you reserve a time slot and show up with two to six players, so there is no possibility of being thrown together with strangers. We arrived with a full complement of agents, listened to the briefing, and followed our host to the starting point.

As the door closed behind us, I was stunned by the realism of the setting. The interior design was incredibly faithful to the period, and for a moment I felt I'd accidentally stumbled into an actual Seventies kitchen. My nostalgia faded as our handpicked team of operatives made an efficient sweep of the scene, turning over and pulling apart anything that looked useful, arranging potential clues on the pale green Formica-and-chrome table, and stacking items that were of no use (or had been used) in an unobtrusive corner.

This escape room differs from others in that it has few straightforward locks that require keys or codes to open, except where they might normally be found, as on a briefcase or a safe dial. Many puzzles required us to manipulate or interact with objects in the environment, which opened something in another part of the room or revealed another room containing more threads to follow. Warning stickers marked some things as off-limits, but the room contained enough items to play with that we wound up chasing a couple of red herrings before returning to more fruitful avenues of intelligence-gathering.

We were told at the outset that each item would be used only once, so it was easy to follow the path laid out by the clues as they branched and rejoined each other. Although the puzzles were wide-ranging and challenging, our team made steady progress, and with the help of a few pointers given to us over the radio, we uncovered step after step of the Soviet agent's plot. (A team member with a hazy recollection of the Cyrillic alphabet may have given us a slight advantage at one point.) Eventually, through diligent code-breaking and puzzle-solving efforts, solid organization and teamwork, and a modicum of luck, we succeeded in unlocking the door, passports and incriminating documents in hand, cheering as we escaped with only a few minutes left on the clock. The free world was once again delivered from the shadow of Communism.

Austin Panic Room

1205 Rio Grande
Scenarios: Prison Break, Museum Heist, Abandoned School, Cabin Fever
Players per session: 4-10

The Panic Room is where it all began: "Austin's first and original escape game." When it opened a couple of years back, some friends and I failed to defuse a bomb there, so I figured I was due for a rematch. This time, my partner and I chose Museum Heist from the menu of rooms, and since it can take 10 players, we joined a group of eight newcomers that included a few younger folks.

Situated in an old house near the Austin Community College Rio Grande campus, the Austin Panic Room art heist couldn't have been more different from the one at Escape Game Austin. After waiting in the cramped entryway for a few stragglers to arrive, the facilitator led our party through white-painted hallways to the "art gallery." A brief explanation of the setup and a few awkward get-to-know-you games later, we entered the room.

Unlike other escape games we tried, every element of the puzzles in this one were contained in this one room, with no other areas to open up but the ultimate egress. While an effort was made to create the feel of an exhibition hall or a storage room by filling the space with crates and artwork, the overall impression was that we were still in the room of an old house with assorted paintings, crates, and display cases laid out around it.

My partner and I got down to the business of tearing apart the area for clues, recording and sorting numbers, words, and other potentially useful information as we discovered them, while the rest of our team took a more ... casual approach. This underscored for us the importance of leadership and team spirit in these games; the lack of a shared strategy with which to approach the tasks significantly increased the difficulty of completing them.

The overall design of the structure and flow of the puzzles added more stress. Most of the obstacles were sets of three- or four-digit combination locks or padlocks with keys hidden somewhere in the room. This homogeneity of solutions led to much duplicated and wasted effort, as we had to try every key or number we worked out on all the appropriate locks. Thus, our path through the sequence of clues was broad and disjointed. We were simultaneously faced with too many puzzles to solve and left stymied with no rough edges to pick at when our efforts stalled out.

Progress felt frustrating and aimless, but with liberal use of the hints from our operator (relayed over a static-y walkie-talkie guarded jealously by the youngest of our group), we eventually made a successful escape, posed for our obligatory victory photos, and picked our way out through the congested entrance.

Lockout Austin

1700 S. Lamar #330
Scenarios: Blue Meth Breakout, Casino Heist, WW3: The Conspiracy Theory
Players per session: 2-8

It was difficult to choose from the intriguing options at Lockout Austin, but ultimately we chose to pass up the World War III Conspiracy Theory and Blue Meth Breakout for one final heist scenario. It was a light afternoon, so we were an intimate company of three friends, working together to infiltrate a casino vault and make off with the valuables inside.

Arriving early, we had ample time to relax in the spacious lobby, distracting ourselves with the numerous puzzle boxes, toys, and gizmos throughout the space. (Our host noted that Snooze, the new brunch place a few doors down, often had waits in excess of two hours, so it was possible to put your name on the list there, swing by to tackle an escape room, and be back in time for mimosas.) Our hosts were amusing, charming, and knowledgeable, running us through the routine instructions, warnings, and pointers before depositing us at the casino door.

A person behind a sliding peephole in the door gave us a simple riddle to solve to acquire the password that would grant us entrance, and within moments, we were inside. A live operator in the room provided color and guidance, and as she was fully in character as a blackjack dealer, that added an extra element of enjoyment to the scene. At various points in our escapade, our team was required to interact with her in a variety of ways, affording us the opportunity to buy her "drinks" for hints, play games, and overcome different types of challenges that other, more solitary escape affairs don't provide.

The room itself was nicely designed and decorated – slightly minimalist but still rich and evocative of the casino theme, complete with mood music, various pieces of gambling apparatus, and a set of antique lockboxes to crack. No element of the room was wasted; everything inside was used to figure out the solution to one of the puzzles. We enjoyed a fair amount of environmental discovery and moments of revelation as we uncovered clues hidden in plain sight, and each new challenge flowed naturally from the last. Even with a very small group, we were never lost or overwhelmed, making good time without feeling rushed and finally walking out the back door with a sack full of loot in near-record time.

Lesson learned: Sometimes a tight-knit strike team of focused smarty-pantses can outperform a larger bunch of uncoordinated puzzle-hounds, when properly motivated.

And We're Out!

After this brief survey of Austin escape and puzzle rooms, the one I'm most excited to return to is Maze Rooms Austin, once its new scenarios are up and running. The attention to detail in the decor is fantastic, and the manner in which the challenges, gadgets, and discoveries are integrated into the design of the environment and the story that reveals itself as you go along is clever. The wonderful pacing of the solutions and reveals includes discernible crests and dips in the narrative and multiple "eureka!" moments, all culminating in a satisfying climax as you verify the final solution. The operators are exceedingly professional and friendly, and it's clear they take genuine delight in creating these experiences. (The Escape Game and Lockout Austin are tied for a close second, so I foresee a rash of new investigations and breakouts in my future.)

If working through challenges under the pressure of a ticking clock sounds like your cup of tea, I'd definitely recommend assembling a group of like-minded players and trying out a few. I suggest either reserving a room that allows private bookings or making sure you have enough people to fill one of the others. Playing with unknown quantities can be rewarding, but it can also lead to frustration with differing play styles, interests, or experience levels.

Ultimately, though, every escape experience is different, and different ones will appeal to different types of people. If you feel like taking your chances with a grab bag of strangers, go for it. Maybe you'll accidentally assemble the perfect crew, and continue on together solving mysteries, reclaiming stolen artifacts, and defusing nefarious plots across the world.

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