Israel has a thriving, creative escape room scene that includes a bounty of lighthearted themes filled with special moments.
The scene is also fairly insular: as of my visit in May 2022, we were amongst the first non-Hebrew speaking groups to play extensively in the region, and we were the very first players of the English versions of certain rooms. Many but not all Israelis speak some English, and we were grateful to have Hebrew-speaking teammates and friends who generously accompanied us for much of our trip.
Across the 22 rooms I played in Israel, I observed certain distinctive trends:
- Unique Theming: Fandoms & Food
- Everyone Finishes
- Nascent Translation
- Safety & Upkeep
- The Secret Sauce
Unique Theming: Fandoms & Food
The top rooms in Israel represent a plethora of unique themes. Amongst this upper echelon of games, many of the most commonly repeating themes in global escape room markets are nowhere to be seen. In their place, a wide range of less common escape room narratives thrive.
A number of rooms were themed around particular fandoms, including: How I Met Your Mother, Friends, Cube, Money Heist, Gulliver’s Travels, Harry Potter, The Lion King, The Wizard of Oz, Game of Thrones, Hunger Games, and more.
In a completely different but equally delightful direction, one company, Panica, introduced a novel riff on the escape room format: culinary escape rooms. In each room, the gameplay unlocks actual food ingredients. Specific themes include: burgers, pizza, ice cream sandwiches, cocktails, and cupcakes.
One final trend is less common but perhaps most exciting for escape room enthusiasts: meta themes. A selection of rooms — The Sting, The Intervention, Hollywood 117, Action!, and Kofiko — all included meta-narrative elements. With varying degrees of meta-acknowledgement of the escape room genre, behaviors of escape room enthusiasts, or the narrative of the game itself, these rooms each contained elements that would be especially appreciated by self-aware enthusiasts.
Israel is a family-friendly country, as was evident just by walking through downtown Tel Aviv and observing the impressive density and quality of public playgrounds.
This also carried over into escape rooms.
Top escape rooms were characterized by smooth puzzle flow, but even the most puzzly rooms still had a relatively low level of difficulty. Most rooms prioritized narrative-driven interactions over more involved puzzles.
Certain rooms offered a separate family and children’s version of the room. Other rooms included “cheat sheets” listing out the puzzles in the room, making the gameplay more accessible for a general audience. Enthusiasts could choose not to receive or look at such sheets for an extra challenge (akin to a standard difficulty level in other markets.)
We also stumbled upon an interesting pattern: some new rooms start off being more puzzly when they first open. Local enthusiasts play that “enthusiast version” of the room within a few months of its opening. Then over the months or years that follow, the puzzles gradually are made easier, replaced by more straightforward interactions, or removed altogether. When comparing notes with Israeli enthusiasts, our experience with a game sometimes differed rather significantly from theirs because we had essentially played different games. This trend seemed to be more pronounced than in other markets where games naturally get refined or streamlined over time, but not necessarily simplified to this degree.
Most rooms in Israel are 60 minutes, with just a handful that are longer. The longest room we played was 90 minutes.
However, given the family-friendly and story-oriented nature of the market, most companies in Israel allowed all teams to finish, even if they go over time. For some 60-minute rooms, the average escape time exceeded 60 minutes.
This also meant that there were no visible clocks or countdown timers in most rooms.
In many other global escape room markets, the lack of an explicit time constraint is starting to become a feature only in premium rooms. In Israel, it already seemed to be common across the board.
It is not yet a given that escape rooms in Israel will be available in English, or that English-speaking gamemasters will be available. If your team only speaks English, it is advisable to check with the company in advance on both accounts.
Many escape rooms seemed to be stuck in a chicken-and-egg loop: they hadn’t translated their room into English because there wasn’t enough demand for the game in English… because their room wasn’t available in English yet. Additionally, some rooms in English had websites that were not yet available in English, making it difficult to search or book online, even though the game was already translated.
More generally, escape rooms didn’t fully seem to be on English-speaking tourists’ radar… yet.
Translation coverage and quality varied wildly from room to room. In all the reviews from my trip, I tried to note particulars on how fully translated each room was, but know that translations are perhaps most subject to change over time.
Translation quality didn’t always correlate with room quality. Some of the top rooms we played were poorly translated. With the number of bilingual Hebrew and English speakers in Israel, I have to think that insufficient translations were more a function of intention than ability.
Safety & Upkeep
Many escape rooms in Israel lacked clear exits.
When doors locked behind us, we were often told that they’d open automatically in the case of an emergency, but we were unable to test this. Push-to-exit buttons or mechanical backups were rare.
A high number of rooms included light physical elements: climbing, crawling, moving walls. In many of these transitionary spaces, it was especially unclear if emergency exits were available.
We also encountered a moderate amount of game breakage across multiple games. Israeli escape rooms experience an above-average volume of family traffic around holidays, and just a month after Passover, certain companies seemed like they were still recovering — or had just given up. It was disappointing to experience certain sets that maybe once were epic but were now in sad shape.
The Secret Sauce
It would be impossible to discuss the Israeli escape room scene without mentioning one particular man: Gai Bosco.
Gai has designed over 150 real-life escape rooms, and he was the designer of a majority of the escape rooms we played in Israel.
But this is where things get rather interesting. While Gai has designed countless escape rooms, he passes the designs off to individual companies who implement them and run the games.
This resulted in an uncommon diversity both in abstract design and physical implementation. With a singular designer across many companies, there was a recognizable design sensibility across Gai’s designs but less repeat of themes or particular puzzle mechanics than you’d expect to see across multiple designers’ work in a given market. We rarely experienced the “oh, that puzzle again?” feeling. Conversely, since many different companies and owners were interpreting Gai’s designs, the build quality, set aesthetics, budgets, and ongoing maintenance of rooms varied wildly.
(Disclosure: Gai Bosco helped us plan our itinerary and was present for some of our escape room debriefs. This does not affect our reviews of particular rooms, though he did provide useful context and history for the Israeli escape room scene as well as his own design process. If anything, he was often more critical of his past designs than we were.)
Update 11/15/22: To learn more about Gai, please check out our interview with him on The Reality Escape Pod.
Tips for Future Travelers
Israel is an escape room destination worth visiting.
The top games in Israel were concentrated within a half hour drive of Tel Aviv, with a handful of additional rooms worth visiting up north near Haifa (which our team was unfortunately unable to visit during our trip.) While a handful of rooms are within walking distance of each other in downtown Tel Aviv, a car is necessary to reach most companies.
As of 2022, it is highly recommended to find a Hebrew-speaking teammate or translator for at least some games. Even rooms that claim to have an English-language version weren’t always fully translated, and there was a selection of Hebrew-only rooms that were must-plays.
For most rooms in Israel, 2-3 players was the optimal team size for enthusiasts. A handful of must-play rooms required a minimum of 4.
Though only a couple of hours away by plane, the audiences for Athens and Israel may differ quite significantly. Athens is best with a 4-player team, while Israel is best experienced with a 2-3 player core team. Additionally, Athen’s long-form horror experiences and Israel’s standard-length lighthearted games could not be more different. Many players may enjoy both, but this is not a given.
Since 2021, Tel Aviv has been the most expensive city in the world. Coming from San Francisco, I was surprised to experience some sticker shock.
Also, the food. Oy gevalt, so delicious.