Field Report: Israeli Escape Rooms

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 speakers 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.

A heart-shaped pizza with a pizza cutter on one side and three tomatoes on the other.

Across the 22 rooms I played in Israel, I observed certain distinctive trends:

  • Unique Theming: Fandoms & Food
  • Family-Friendly
  • 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 โ€” The Sting, The Intervention, Hollywood 117, Action, and Kofiko โ€” 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.

Family-friendly

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.

Everyone Finishes

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.

Nascent Translation

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 โ€” 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.)

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.

2 thoughts on “Field Report: Israeli Escape Rooms

  1. Hi, I am an another enthusiast who recently found his way to Israel. I played 27 rooms there :). I would like to compare a few points from this to my perspective

    1) Wear and tear. Maybe your experience was different, but right now I can’t recall even one wear and tear victim. Maybe there was something I don’t remember now, but it was definitely not something that stood out for me.

    2) Difficulty. Maybe it is true that these are on the easier end, however these games still definitely felt more puzzley than ones I played in Athens (except Paradox of course). I presume that stems from different ways of how the difficulty is built in various markets, but I think it could still cater to puzzle enthusiasts (but the smaller teams may be a good point, though 4 felt fine for us anyway)

    3) Translations. It is true that not everything is translated and that even ones that claim to be translated sometimes have some shortcomings, but the overall situation is pretty fine. We got substantial help from local enthusiasts helping us with translations in various games (so we did not have to limit to ones available in English), but in the end out of my 10 favourite games that we played only one was not English ready, but it still was already half translated and the rest of the translation should be coming shortly. Other one did not have some non-essential audios, but all puzzle-essential text was there and the videos were subtitled and the other eight were fully playable in English. All GMs we met spoke easily understandable English (but maybe there is some bias stemming from the fact that we actually met them :P). And the international enthusiasts in Israel are still a rare enough sight that Gai should be happy to either play with you or find somebody else willing to help. Don’t discard this destination cause of English availability

    4) Everyone finishes. I believed it is a fundamental property of all non-prehistoric games. In Poland it is the same. Apparently escape percentages are still a thing in some places even in Europe, but I am a firm believer that anything below 90% is a design failure (10% reserved for terrible beginners, drunk etc :P). Perceiving escape rooms as “challenges” is not the way to go – “adventure” is (and you won’t find a more competitive person than me)

    5) Prices shock. I am quite surprised to hear about your sticker shock given you are coming from SF :P. I spent almost a year in Sillicon Valley and it felt similarly priced (and the same goes for Germany, Netherlands etc). Imagine the prices for someone as me coming from Poland which is like 3 times cheaper than SF

    In general I got an impression that Israeli market is the closest one I’ve seen compared to the Polish rooms. Maybe not many gigantic sets, thrilling moments, immersive introductions from the very moment you enter the venue (but “some” of these – yes!), but generally strong on puzzle design, quality sets, humour, no immersion breaking, professional finish and having fun in general. Probably not yet at the level of holy trinity of Athens, Spain and Netherlands, but along with Poland coming strong as contenders for the best places to go on the east side of Atlantic apart from the mentioned trinity

    1. Great to compare notes!! Responding to each of your points:

      1) Most rooms were still in great condition, but there were a nontrivial number of top rooms, or rooms that had once been on top lists, that were in not-so-great condition. I wouldn’t say it was characteristic of the scene overall by any means, but it’s still something to consider โ€”ย especially if coming after high-traffic holiday times.

      2) Low difficulty but absolutely still quite puzzly for most rooms! There were definitely a few rooms that had gotten watered down over time (I’ll be addressing this more in individual reviews) but generally, top rooms had smooth, enjoyable, highly approachable puzzle flow.

      3) 100% still playable as a non-Hebrew speaker with the assistance of a translator in some parts. Most games were not very language-heavy, but some of our favorite rooms of the trip did require translations. And not all GMs we encountered spoke English. We actually had one room canceled on us last minute by the company because they couldn’t get an English-speaking GM for us and we didn’t have our Israeli teammate with us then. (Though that was mainly because they wanted us to have a proper game intro, not because the game itself wouldn’t have been playable.)

      4) That’s great to hear that’s the case also in Poland! Sadly not the case at all in the US, where a ton of companies still proudly advertise <50% escape rates and cut off right at the hour. While certainly not unique to Israeli escape rooms, it was great seeing that that was already standard there.

      5) In general, Tel Aviv prices were commensurate with those in SF. For escape rooms, though, average price per room was in the $40-45 USD range, even for older or more mediocre rooms. Generally in the US, that's starting to get into a more premium tier of pricing (with some exceptions, of course.) Average restaurant food also seemed 5-10% more expensive, at least from the sampling of places I visited, except for things like falafel and fresh juices (yum!!)

      Sounds like I should go on a Poland escape room tour next! My band plays a ton of Polish folk music and we've been thinking about a trip sometime soon...

      Thanks again for all your comments. Great to collect and compare more data points!

      ~Matthew

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