“My brain is the key that sets me free.”
– Harry Houdini
Location: San Francisco, CA
Date played: August 30, 2016
Team size: 6-12; we recommend 7-9
Price: $410 per time slot
Story & setting
“Harry Houdini built the world’s first escape room in the Palace of Fine Arts 100 years ago as a challenge to 8 brilliant innovators. The room is now open to the public – can you and your friends escape Houdini’s mystery room in 80 minutes?”
Our team was collectively cast as Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, Charlie Chaplin, John Philip Sousa, Buffalo Bill Cody, Helen Keller, and Luther Burbank – famous attendees of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 in San Francisco. While the roles were not specifically handed out, there was a puzzle designed for each character.
After a lengthy introduction to the history and backstory of the room, we were led into a heavily decorated and dimly lit wooden room. After a few more nods to theme and another round of rules, we were instructed to flip a switch and embark on Houdini’s most enduring challenge.
The Great Houdini Escape Room boasted a diverse collection of puzzles.
As with other rooms that host larger groups, it featured a mix of puzzles that could be attacked individually as well as larger challenges for the whole group.
The mix of puzzles was broad and deep. There was so much to do and there were more than a few things for everyone. This was a busy room that demanded parallel puzzling.
The Great Houdini Escape Room was incredibly well themed on several levels. While there were necessary intrusions of post-1915 technology, the technology was more or less hidden and treated as “magic” in the magician’s sense of the word. The room fit within the narrative it presented. With a few rare exceptions, that narrative was carried through all the way to the completion of the game.
The venue was truly special. The Palace of Fine Arts was originally constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. The backstory of the The Great Houdini Escape Room drew heavily from the real history of the space, with obvious embellishment. The transition from actual history to escape room story was nearly seamless.
While there were paper instructions and clues, the majority of challenges involved physical interaction.
Palace Games provides bonus time to losing teams, as they want everyone to see every bit of their creation.
A few days after our escape, they sent us a detailed report on our performance. It offered details on each individual puzzle and step along the way, including our team’s elapsed time compared with our percentile and the average time for that task, presented numerically and in chart form.
The space was relatively small given the 12-person maximum team size.
The tech occasionally showed a bit too much. In once instance, a strip of LEDs representing water felt bizarrely out of place.
Parts of this game were linear, but it didn’t feel like that would be the case; that was off-putting.
There were several times when our team was split up, working on several different puzzles at once. For several of us, there was a distinct feeling that we were missing out on what was going on elsewhere.
There were a few props that were far too fussy. Our gamemaster (who did a great job) was hovering over the team while we were interacting with these things. He clearly knew that they weren’t operating as designed.
Should I play Palace Games’ The Great Houdini Escape Room?
The Great Houdini Escape Room has a stellar reputation. Prior to visiting, many people whom I hold in high regard have described this game as their favorite. I had high expectations and was not disappointed.
The room was well-themed with a consistent narrative that carried throughout the game. The integration of the space’s actual history, albeit fast and loose with the facts, gave the game a unique energy. The puzzles were challenging, eclectic, and mostly felt like they belonged. They were well integrated with the room and provided a good mix of puzzle types with occasional task-based challenges.
This was not an escape that could be boxed or played in your living room. There was so much to interact with.
While the experience was slightly longer than the standard 1 hour, and well worth it, $410 flat rate was higher than average, especially for smaller groups (which I’d recommend). This was a game designed for experienced, highly functional teams. The Great Houdini Escape Room is for players who have at least a little experience under their belts. Much of what makes it special will be lost on new players.
The Great Houdini Room Escape was a top-tier game and any moderate to experienced player should give it a shot if they’re in San Francisco.
Book your session with Palace Games’s The Great Houdini Escape Room, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.
This review was written in partnership with Dr. Brian Ressler.