Just Escape – Underworld [Review]

Don’t forget to pack your cement shoes.

Location: Massapequa, NY

Date played: March 26, 2017

Team size: up to 12; we recommend 3-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: from $30 per ticket

Story & setting

We entered the home of a mob boss to locate a port and container number in order to intercept contraband cargo.

Underworld took place in a sparsely furnished home. The set pieces and overall aesthetic were largely unremarkable.

Just Escape logo

Puzzles

Underworld relied on persistent searching.

The puzzling was your typical, varied escape room fare.

Standouts

We appreciated one puzzle in particular for the logical connection Just Escape created that wasn’t readily apparent.

Just Escape’s intro video was sassy… in a good way. We really enjoyed it.

Our gamemaster delivered artful, punny hints that led us indirectly to overlooked information.

Shortcomings

The hint delivery seemed inordinately delayed. Just Escape should have these wonderful hints prepared ahead of player request.

Just Escape hadn’t been open more than a few months, and already many of the props showed signs of wear. In one instance, a written clue was entirely rubbed away. They need to be cognizant of maintenance.

One red herring gobbled up a good chunk of our time and attention.

Should I play Just Escape’s Underworld?

Underworld would be a fun beginner game. The setup worked and the room escape flowed logically. The puzzling was pretty standard, with a few more challenging elements. Most solutions led to a lock, yet the volume of locks wasn’t overwhelming.

While I wouldn’t recommend that experienced players go out of their way to visit this escape room, if you’re new to escape rooms, or you have some friends on Long Island you’d like to initiate, Underworld wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

Book your hour with Just Escape’s Underworld, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Just Escape comped our tickets for this game.

 

Escape Zones – Black Beard’s Brig [Review]

Pirates of Eastern Alabama.

Location: Auburn, AL

Date played: March 31, 2017

Team size: up to 8; we recommend 3-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $22 per ticket

Story & setting

Tossed into Black Beard’s brig, we had a brief window of time to escape while our captors were off plundering and pillaging.

Black Beard’s Brig was Escape Zones’ first game. As such, it looked like a fairly typical first game. The set wasn’t particularly immersive; it was a cute but basic pirate ship.

In-game: A skeleton propped against a wooden wall.
That’s a pretty cunning shirt.

Puzzles

Just as Black Beard’s Brig looked like a first game, it largely played like a solid first escape room design. It balanced searching with puzzling, offering the standard, old-school escape room experience.

In-game: A bird skeleton in a a cage. The cage is locked with a 5 digit combination lock.

Standouts

Black Beard’s Brig was appropriately balanced for the Auburn escape room market, where Escape Zones was the only company in town and nearly all of the local players are first-timers. In terms of puzzling, it was neither a pushover nor brain-buster. More importantly, the puzzles flowed well.

It had a well-hidden surprise.

Shortcomings

In many instances, technology was visibly out of place on the brig. Escape Zones should build housing for their technology so that it can be better integrated into the experience.

Some of the props were in rough shape. We had to contend with breakage and wear, which made puzzles either easier or harder depending on the puzzle and the breakage.

One particular prop had an unintentional red-herring built in. It should be modified to avoid leading players away from its actual function.

Should I play Escape Zones’ Black Beard’s Brig?

Black Beard’s Brig was a solid escape room for new players. It combined many escape room elements: searching, puzzles, locks, and tech.

If you’re new to this type of entertainment, you’ll most definitely enjoy a surprise or two.

More experienced players will likely move through it quickly, but will still enjoy a few truly satisfying solves.

Book your hour with Escape Zones’ Black Beard’s Brig, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Escape Zones comped our tickets for this game.

An Exploration of Escape Room Pricing Structures

It’s time to explore one of the most controversial issues in the North American escape room market.

Ticketing Models

Private Ticketing – Refers to a ticketing model where an entire group experience is purchased at once. This eliminates the possibility of strangers sharing the same experience. It is the most common ticketing model outside of the United States. In this model, there is a set price for the entire group experience. It sometimes varies by player count.

Public Ticketing – Refers to a game where admission is purchased by each individual player, thus allowing for the possibility of strangers sharing the same experience. This is a common ticketing model in the United States. In this model, the price is per ticket and isn’t adjusted based on how many tickets are booked.

Myths

It is commonly believed that:

Escape room players prefer private ticketing because they don’t want to share these experiences with strangers.

Escape room owners prefer public ticketing because it is a more lucrative business model.

To get the best of both worlds, companies occasionally offer a private ticketing model for the same price as the maximum number of individual tickets. This is positive sales spin.

In truth, however, the ticketing model debate isn’t so black and white.

Study

When The Locked Room opened in Calgary, AB, Canada in August of 2014, they opened with public ticketing. They were the first company in their city and the subsequent companies followed their lead. At the start of 2017, however, they switched over to entirely private ticketing.

So, what happened?

We recently interviewed Edwin Tsui, Managing Partner at The Locked Room, about this transition.

Photo of Edwin and his partners in one of their horror games. It's dark and there are body parts as well as implements of destruction postioned throughout the room.

Room Escape Artist: You have recently switched from public ticketing to private ticketing. Why did you make the switch?

Edwin: By 2017, we’d expanded to offer 8 more escape rooms and competitors had opened up others. The majority of our rooms were no longer filling to the maximum, but our prime weekend spots were still filling up with mixed groups.

On a Saturday with 132 rooms running across 3 locations we would log an average of 1 or 2 cases of groups vocally expressing their displeasure at being paired with others. For these groups our customer service team would follow up with them to resolve, get feedback, and compensate them (regardless of fault). We also acknowledged that we were likely alienating some of our non-vocal customer base: the “that was great, but I would only do it again with only my friends” camp.

Despite running hundreds of thousands of players through our rooms and having giant disclaimers and warnings about public ticketing, we still regularly had groups come through unaware about this policy.

As a brand with 12 rooms in a single city, repeat and return customers are crucial to the long term survival of our business. We began to consider a switch to private ticketing as a commitment to player experience and long term sustainability.

In the meantime we also launched a US location that was entering as the 4th company to market in a new market (Omaha, Nebraska). We decided to start with private ticketing there as a way to ‘disrupt’ in a market with only public ticketing games. We thought private ticketing might be the hook for new players.

In game at The Locked Room. A science lab with a assortment of lab equipment.

Let’s do the math. What were/are the ticket prices?

Our old pricing model was on a per head basis. It was $24.95/player with no minimum group size. It was a public ticketing system where strangers could be paired with each other.

Our new pricing model retains the same pricing at $24.95/player, but with a minimum booking size (3-4 players depending on the room). All bookings made under the new system are private with no special exceptions for weekdays or weeknights. Players may bring along additional teammates for pay-on-arrival without any special notice.

What were you expecting to happen when you made the switch?

We expected a few things:

  1. A moderate initial revenue drop (10-15%)
  2. A strong positive public response
  3. A drop in customer service-related issues

What actually happened when you switched to private games?

In response to our expectations:

  1. There was no initial revenue drop. Our online sales decreased in the realm of noise (~5%) but we made up the difference with an increase in in-person payments.
  2. Overall, the switch had a strong positive response. A few individuals, however, contacted us expressing their displeasure with the room minimums or telling us about their positive experiences with the public ticketing system.
  3. We experienced fewer customer service-related issues, exactly as expected… and even better!

Unexpected positive side effects:

We are able to staff a bit more efficiently. Since there are no longer ‘difficult’ groups of strangers to mix together (i.e. a group of 8 with a group of 2 or a group of 4 adults paired with 4 teenagers), our staff feels more relaxed. Consequently, they perform better in terms of customer satisfaction, faster and more accurate room resets, and ability to maintain games in between bookings.

We were able to push the private ticketing offering as a strong marketing campaign for the lull months (January, February) of the new year, encouraging people to come back or to try a room out even if they couldn’t gather a full group together.

Bonus interesting point:

Most customers simply didn’t notice any difference. They didn’t know that there were 2 different systems. First-timers would never know the difference and a large percentage of returning players had never been paired with others under a public ticketing system.

In game image at The Locked Room. A security office with camera screens, a desk with a typewriter, and a filing cabinet.

After operating under each pricing model, do you have a strong opinion in this debate?

The sides of the ticketing debate often have clear divisions between owners and enthusiasts. This is the expected result of different goals: profit versus customer satisfaction.

As an owner and enthusiast, I see no advantages to the player experience with a public ticketing system over a private ticking system, given equal or similar pricing for both options.

There are exceptions such solo business travelers or individuals without like-minded friends, but they make up a trivial percentage of the players coming through our doors.

The majority of our room escapes are best with 4-6 players. While we get fewer groups of 8 or more since switching to private ticketing, that also means more groups sizes closer to the optimal amount. Since we do not run games tuned for more than 8 players, I cannot comment on the public ticketing model for those types of escape rooms.

We launched with public ticketing to generate profit. At the time, our 4 rooms were constantly booking out, selling every possible spot on both weekdays and weeknights. It made no sense to turn away eager paying customers. We acknowledged that we were making a player experience sacrifice in exchange for a better bottom line. If I were to have a do-over, I would still have launched our company with public ticketing as the first escape room in town.

We switched when we shifted our goal to long-term sustainability. I believe that private ticketing will play a big role in achieving that goal. It was a pleasant surprise that we could improve the player experience without a hit to our bottom line. It’s an added bonus that I personally feel better about what we offer to our guests!

Is it the right choice for every company? Maybe not. However, if you are solidly booked through public ticketing, don’t be surprised if the market starts shifting towards smaller games with private ticketing when new escape room venues pop up in your city.

Room Escape Artist’s Conclusion

For The Locked Room, given the type of experience they offer, private ticketing makes the most sense. It provides a better customer experience, more effective staff members, and equal revenue.

Much of the nuance comes down to the product offered.

If your room escapes are designed for over 8 players, we’d probably still recommend public ticketing. It would be challenging for most people to bring a large enough group to fully enjoy the experience.

However, if your room escapes are designed for 2-7 players, we recommend private ticketing.

We fully agree with Edwin on the following points:

  • Private ticketing will reduce customer service issues.
  • Private ticketing is great in a competitive market.
  • Public ticketing makes sense in a population dense, non-competitive market… but there aren’t too many of those left.

A Roundtable Discussion from the 2016 Room Escape Conference

At last year’s Room Escape Conference in Chicago, we participated in a impromptu Trapdoor UNLOCKED recording session about operating an escape room. This roundtable discussion covered a ton of ground as we all tried to help Jason Richard of Steal and Escape in San Diego, CA, a company we haven’t played but have heard many great things about.

… Just know that the audio quality wasn’t amazing as this was an unplanned recording in the middle of a bar.

We are looking forward to another gathering of like-minded owners, operators, and enthusiasts this May in Niagara Falls. The conversations – whether scheduled or spontaneous – build community and further the growth of the escape room industry.

If you liked this video, Anthony Purzycki from Trap Door Escape and Trapdoor UNLOCKED speaks about BIG Ideas for the not so Big Budget: Guerilla Marketing on Monday, May 1st at 3:30PM.

Our seminar Goldi-lock-ing Your Escape Room Business… Learn the Difference between Magnificent, Average, and Tragic Escape Room Design takes place on Tuesday, May 2nd at 10AM.

We’re moderating a panel with Louisiana owners on Co-Working, Co-Existing, and THRIVING! on Tuesday, May 2nd at 2:30PM.

Look for us at booth 102 to further the conversation.

9 Tips for Starting an Escape Room

So you want to start an escape room business. But where the heck do you begin?

We recently spoke to ZOZI – an online reservation, payment and customer management software used by tour and activity businesses – about our tips for how to prepare before taking the plunge into what can be a highly rewarding, challenging, and potentially lucrative industry.

Filter-painted closeup shot of key mosaic.

Read it on the ZOZI Blog!

Continue reading on the ZOZI blog…

Time to Escape – Al Capone’s Speakeasy [Review]

A game served with a twist.

Location: Atlanta, GA

Date played: April 2, 2017

Team size: up to 10; we recommend 6-8? (more on this below)

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per ticket

Story & setting

Set in a Chicago speakeasy in 1929, we were on the hunt for evidence to put Al Capone behind bars.

The set was awesome. It looked like we had stepped into a bar. I would have happily sat on one of the stools and enjoyed a drink.

Time to Escape - Al Capone's Speakeasy

Not only was the set compelling, but there was an in-game actor playing the role of the bartender. He delivered clues, hints, props, plot points, triggered events, and generally bantered with us.

Time to Escape’s promo video for the game accurately depicts the set, as well as the actor’s delivery (although we had a different actor).

In addition, each player was given a secret and unique role to play within the room. The roles impacted each player’s game in 3 different ways:

  • Each player had a one-time use power within the game.
  • Each player had a secret win condition that, if achieved, would guarantee that they won (regardless of whether the team succeeded or failed the overall mission).
  • The actor would interact with each character in a completely different manner based on who they were.

This was one of the most ambitious games we’ve ever seen.

Puzzles

The puzzling was mixed throughout the game. While most of the puzzling components were available from the start, many of them required an additional component or piece of information that was triggered by the actor.

These trigger points frequently felt like cinematic cut scenes in a video game. The gameplay would stop and we would watch or interact with the actor. Upon the conclusion we’d have what we needed to make the next progression.

Standouts

Time to Escape crafted a beautiful, detailed, and spacious speakeasy for this adventure.

The puzzling came in all forms including interpersonal interaction, audio, visual, and more hands-on experiences. We had to think in many different ways.

The bartender was engaged and engaging. He was both a character and the gamemaster. When a swing tune came on the radio, Lisa and I started swing dancing in the middle of the room and he rolled right along with it.

We too were characters with our own influence and motivation.

Shortcomings

Al Capone’s Speakeasy was trying to be a lot of different things all at once. While it did a lot well, not everything played well together. We weren’t always sure how we should be spending our time – in puzzles or in more of a theatrical experience.

It wasn’t always clear when we had enough information to even bother solving a puzzle. Looking back, we burned a silly amount of time focusing on things at the wrong time.

Even the objective was confusing. We each had our own side quests, some of which seemed to give incomplete information. We didn’t entirely understand how they fit into the overall mission or narrative.

These side quests were not even, in terms of intrigue or difficulty. One player can end up solving one of the most challenging puzzles practically alone. Others quests barely involved actions. The fact that solving the side quest triggered an early win for a player regardless of the team’s overall performance created the opportunity for hollow victories.

Should I play Time to Escape’s Al Capone’s Speakeasy?

Al Capone’s Speakeasy was a complex experience that had a lot more going on than most escape rooms.

In so many ways, it was a truly wonderful escape room. The set, actor, roleplay, and puzzles (to a lesser extent) were great game components. The challenging aspect was that these often collided with one another in awkward ways. This is the nature of ambitious games. Incredible concepts create new problems.

  • The character roles need more balancing.
  • The individual win conditions should only be applied if the team wins.
  • The puzzling needs a mechanism to help players determine what is in play when.

If Time to Escape can crack these nuts, then this will be a breathtaking room escape.

In its current state, it’s still pretty damn impressive.

Al Capone’s Speakeasy won’t be fun for everyone. For some people, this will feel more like theater than puzzling. Furthermore, it’s theater that you have to participate in. You must embrace interacting and role playing to enjoy it.

If a combination of roleplay, theatrics, environment, and puzzling sounds appealing, then I think you should speak the password to Al Capone’s Speakeasy.

Book your hour with Time to Escape’s Al Capone’s Speakeasy, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Time to Escape provided media discounted tickets for this game.

Improve Your Mental Escape Room Math [Player Tips]

Mathematic puzzles are not all that common in American escape rooms… but they aren’t unheard of either. When they do emerge, they usually aren’t too tough, but if you’re not used to working with numbers, they can be intimidating nonetheless.

I have never loved math, but I have been actively taking on the math puzzles we encounter in escape rooms. I enjoy how escape rooms enable me to push myself. With that in mind, here are 3 tips from me and a whole bunch from Gizmodo.

Order of operations

We live in a civilized society and there are rules here. Order of operates matters.

PEMDAS

  1. Parentheses (simplify within)
  2. Exponents
  3. Multiplication & Division (left to right)
  4. Addition & Subtraction (left to right)

You may have encountered escape rooms that have mathematical puzzles that ignore order of operations. These companies are wrong and deserving of shame.

Game of Thrones meme of the wicked priestess dinging her shame bell

Approximate & brute-force

While I’m not the best at calculating precise solutions, I’ve found that I am a talented estimator.

I like to round numbers, then do quick mental approximation. If I am inputting the answer in a lock, I’ll strive to get the answer within 20 and spin the dials until I get it open.

This tip and many others (most of which apply to escape room math) are discussed in Gizmodo’s 10 Tips To Improve Your Mental Math.

Shift your mindset & be fearless

The more I’ve taken on math puzzles in escape rooms, the more I’ve realized how simple most of these are to solve.

The biggest obstacles to me and any non-math-y puzzlers are ourselves.

Be bold. The worst thing that happens is you take a hint.

Just Escape – The Tryals [Review]

I confess!

Location: Massapequa, NY

Date played: March 26, 2017

Team size: up to 8; we recommend 3-4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: from $30 per ticket

Story & setting

As falsely accused witches about to stand trial, we had an hour to steal a series of fake confessions that our neighbors had created in our names, or burn at the stake.

The room was dark and largely bare with the exception of a few props that suggested old-timey witchcraft. While the gamespace was certainly unusual, even by escape room standards, the room was not much to look at.

In-game: a glowing lantern upon a shelf illuminating a pair of goblets.

Puzzles

The Tryals was incredibly search-centric. There were puzzles to solve, but finding all of the components was the crux of the game.

Additionally, some of the puzzling had fractured clue structure. This became apparent when hints started flowing pretty freely from the gamemaster to help us bridge the gaps.

Standouts

Just Escape did a lot of unusual things with this room. They created honestly different interactions and challenges.

Two late-game moments, in particular, stood out: one for its unexpected arrival, the other for its unorthodox delivery. These were inventive.

The Just Escape facility was well staffed. The blazer-wearing gamemasters were diligent, caring, and on top of their stuff.

Shortcomings

The darkness of the gamespace was the true challenge of The Tryals. It was tedious having only one significant light source for everyone to share.

Aesthetically, the room wasn’t appealing. It felt like a dark basement.

It was often difficult to tell the confessions apart from non-confession clues. We didn’t even realize when we had collected all of them.

The puzzle’s clue structure was frequently fractured and required a few leaps of logic or hints.

Should I play Just Escape’s The Tryals?

The Tryals was an interesting game. It offered a unique experience and unusual interactions. This is admirable, especially considering how many room escapes rehash the same concepts that so many others have already explored.

There was, however, plenty of opportunity to improve The Tryals with stronger in-game cluing, more compelling aesthetics, and strategically placed light sources.

Beginners will likely find The Tryals a challenging game. The darkness adds a lot of complexity to most team dynamics. If you don’t already know your way around an escape room, this can be a mighty big challenge. If this sounds like an appealing challenge, then by all means, dive in.

Experienced players will likely find the game flow issues, lack of aesthetic, and light sharing frustrating. I found myself regularly impressed by the unusual game mechanics and then equally frustrated by some of the glitches in execution.

There is a brilliant game in The Tryals if Just Escape is looking to iterate.

Book your hour with Just Escape’s Tryals, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Just Escape comped our tickets for this game.

Panel Discussion: Co-Working, Co-Existing… and Thriving!

Last year we made it clear that we believe that top escape room businesses should be collaborating with one another.

The panel

So, we’re delighted to moderate a panel at the upcoming Room Escape Conference and Tradeshow in Niagara Falls on this very topic. We’ll be speaking at length about how Louisiana escape room owners Mindi Plaisance (Rise Escape Rooms), Dwayne Sanburn (13th Gate Escape), and Megan Mouton (Clue Carré) support each other’s businesses.

Co-Working, Co-Existing, and THRIVING! will be held on Tuesday, May 2 at 2:30PM in Cascade Room 1.

This panel will cost $50 per person if you pre-register or $55 per person if you register at the conference.

What to expect

During our pre-interviews (we do our homework), we covered a lot of ground with Mindi, Dwayne, and Megan. Attendees are in for a fantastic discussion.

We’ve heard a lot of great things about all three of their games and these images speak for themselves.

As far as the panel discussion is concerned, you can expect to hear about how collaboration

  • creates awareness
  • improves game design
  • generates a market
  • builds a support structure

We’ll also address some of the individual challenges these companies face… from space constraints, to traffic crises, to market size, to drunk players. They might not have the same operational concerns, but they all have the same goal: to create a thriving puzzle entertainment business in southern Louisiana.

There will be plenty of opportunity for audience questions, so come on over if you’re looking for a dynamic discussion… and no PowerPoint slides.

Get your tickets today!

If you haven’t already purchased them, get your tickets for the Room Escape Conference in Niagara Falls. Come to our talks, visit our booth, and generally enjoy a few days of learning and networking.

Be sure to checkout some escape rooms while you’re there. Buffalo / Niagara Falls have some great ones.

Mastermind – Escape the Air Raid [Review]

Sound the alarm. It’s a puzzle raid.

Location: Atlanta, GA

Date played: April 2, 2017

Team size: up to 10; we recommend 4-6

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per ticket

Story & setting

Our squad had received warning of an enemy bomber raid and we had to puzzle our way through our own equipment to trigger the air raid siren and warn the nearby city… The story didn’t make a ton of sense.

The set’s quality was strangely uneven. Some set pieces looked great, while others were simply puzzles and army surplus gear bolted to the floor. The aesthetic, much like the story, lacked logical cohesion.

In game - A wall of sandbags and barbed wire with a rifle.

Puzzles

Escape the Air Raid was loaded with puzzles. Most of them weren’t overwhelmingly challenging, but they were numerous and many were entertaining.

Once again, as with the story and set, the puzzles didn’t come together to form anything beyond a large collection of military-ish themed puzzles.

Standouts

Some of the set design was interesting and well-used.

In game shot of a weathered metal door and corrugated aluminum walls.

There was a lot of content in Air Raid. It was loaded with puzzles.

Shortcomings

The puzzles didn’t fit into a narrative; some of them barely fit the theme. It was simply a mess of puzzles of varying quality. Much of the content was uninteresting. It felt as though it were simply there to fill space.

Late in the experience, we had to contend with poor lighting. It wasn’t clear how to focus ourselves towards turning on the lights, which meant we spent a lot of time frustrated by the environment.

Mastermind relied on a tablet & QR code-based self-service hint system. In this way, you could easily call for a hint that penalized you without giving you any additional information. While this style of hinting reduces gamemaster duties and is probably efficient from a business standpoint, it also results in weak game oversight and completely shatters any immersion.

Should I play Mastermind’s Escape the Air Raid?

If you’re looking for a military-themed room escape filled with puzzles, Escape the Air Raid is just what the commander ordered. It’s a straightforward, by the numbers escape room.

It’s a perfectly solid game for newbies, so long as they aren’t too reluctant to take hints. They will likely be pleasantly surprised by a few moments.

Experienced players should also be able to enjoy Escape the Air Raid, so long as they aren’t expecting to be blown away by anything.

Book your hour with Mastermind’s Escape the Air Raid, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Mastermind provided media discounted tickets for this game.