San Diego, CA: Room Escape Recommendations

We spent almost all of our 24 hours in beautiful San Diego locked in giant puzzles. Regrets? None.

It’s a fun, puzzley escape room market. It has a surprisingly different feel from Los Angeles, considering how geographically close they are.

Here are a few of our favorites broken out by category.

4 tall palm trees along the beach, the horizon in the background.

Market standouts

  1. The Parlour, Puzzalarium
  2. Mysterious Stranger, Steal and Escape 
  3. The Escape, The Unlockables 

The puzzle-centric

The newbie-friendly

The spooky & scary

Not an Escape Room but recommended

You are always welcome to contact us if this recommendation list doesn’t answer your specific questions.

Puzzalarium – The Floor is Lava [Review]

“Oh my.”

Location: San Diego, CA

Date played: December 3, 2017

Team size: 7-25; we recommend as many players as you can gather

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $30 per ticket, $5 discounts for students, seniors, and veterans, or parties of 15 players or more

REA Reaction

The Floor is Lava was not an escape room at all. It was a human-scale social deduction game that happened to be at an escape room facility. It was massive and fun. The set was fantastic. I wish that it weren’t on the other side of the continent.

Who is this for?

  • Social deduction game players, think Werewolf or Mafia
  • People who can handle winning and losing like an adult
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • It was a gigantic board game where humans were pieces
  • Skill-based gameplay where we could build mastery
  • The set

Story

The Floor is Lava was not an escape room. It was a social deduction game like Mafia, Werewolf, or Two Rooms & A Boom. The gamemaster secretly and randomly divided the group into two teams and assigned each player a special power. Then we chose our places on the islands. Falling off… or being “encouraged” off an island meant death… because the floor was lava.

In-game: The Floor is Lava set, a series of islands within a volcano linked by glowing blue paths.

Setting

The Floor is Lava was set within a volcano. There were islands (yoga mats) connected by illuminated paths that were safe to traverse. Everything else on the floor was – you guessed it – lava (shredded tire rubber).

Gameplay

The rules of The Floor is Lava were simple to learn and clearly explained in this video narrated by an amazing George Takei impersonator:

In a nutshell, as we entered the gamespace we reached our hands into a bag and each player removed on orange chip.

One side of the chip had a red or black dot on it. That indicated our team. The other side showed a special power that we could use for that round of the game.

More powers with increasingly complex and nuanced mechanics were introduced with each subsequent round. Two of the starter powers included:

  • “Phoenix” allowed the bearer of the power to immediately reenter the game after being killed one time in a round.
  • “Vindictive” allowed the bearer of the power to name any other player to die too, upon the bearer’s death .

The gameplay was simple. If I was standing on an island with another player I could ask to share my chip with them. We could:

  • Share team
  • Share power
  • Share all

Once a duo committed to a share, there was no backing out.

“Combat” within The Floor is Lava took the form of hip-checking. We could not use our arms, but we could bump other players off of an island with our hips.

If we touched the floor at any point in the game for any reason, we were out… because the floor was lava.

Once out, dead players could impact the game by voting to send dead players back in and by voting to sink or surface islands.

Standouts

Everyone had a ton of fun. Whether a player was introverted or extroverted, passive or confrontational, The Floor is Lava was entertaining.

The set was incredible. It glowed. It was gorgeous.

The set was also comfortable on our unshod feet. Puzzalarium constructed yoga-mat islands and tire-rubber lava. We could balance, jump, or fall without injury. We never had to worry while strategizing gameplay.

In each round, we each drew a power and a team. The powers were awesome. They balanced each other. They also forced us to continually change our own gameplay strategy. There were some seriously entertaining powers.

Puzzalarium introduced The Floor is Lava through an entertaining and informative video. From there, our gamemaster added more complexity with each round. The Floor is Lava could quickly become overly complex, with so many different “powers” available (at random) to the players. Puzzalarium’s smooth onboarding enabled us to just get a handle on things before they threw another wrench into our strategizing.

The Floor is Lava was replayable. In fact, I’d imagine the more you play, the more fun it could be. I would absolutely love to play it again with an experienced, competitive group. I imagine that the dynamics would change dramatically with a group where everyone fully understood the game from the get-go.

When we died, we could watch the game on a screen in another room and take actions that affected gameplay.

Shortcomings

While we did get to participate after death, players who died early struggled to be relevant and engaged.

The hip checking game mechanic meant that size was a huge advantage in the The Floor is Lava. Our group included some small women, a few big guys, and a lot of folks in between. To a large extent, size determined strategy. In some cases, it meant avoiding confrontation with the big guys.

It was hard to notice when an island was sinking. We would have liked more dramatic lighting or sound cues for that. It wasn’t fun to die on a sinking island, never having realized that we were in danger.

Due to the learning curve of rules, strategy, and tactics, the pacing was uneven. As an inexperienced group of players, most of the excitement didn’t unfold until the third and final round. Earlier rounds felt a little sluggish. I expect this would change with a more experienced group.

Tips for Visiting

  • People will see your socks.
  • Wear comfortable clothing.
  • It’s a light contact game.
  • If you have a group of serious gamers, think about booking a double session.

Book your hour with Puzzalarium’s The Floor is Lava, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Puzzalarium comped our tickets for this game.

Boss-Play Escape Rooms – The Chocolate Factory [Review]

Let’s rob Wonka!

Location: Oceanside, CA

Date played: December 3, 2017

Team size: 2-10; we recommend 3-4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $29 per ticket public booking, $34 per ticket private booking

REA Reaction

Boss-Play Escape Rooms’ homage to Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was an awesome, family-friendly puzzle game.

The Chocolate Factory had a whimsical set and interactive puzzles referencing key moments of the film. While homemade and at times messy, it turned one of my favorite movies into a charming and playfully escape room.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Willy Wonka fans
  • Sugar addicts
  • Oompa Loompas
  • Families
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Nostalgia
  • Movie call-backs
  • Interactive puzzles
  • A bright and playful environment

Story

With coveted golden tickets in our hands, we approached the mysterious factory of a hermitic candy maker. Prior to our entry, a rival candyman had offered us a reward to steal a secret recipe while touring the famous facility.

In-game: A Wonka-esque factory with green grass, brick walls, and lollypops growing from the ground.

Setting

We entered a candy land… with oversized lollypops as landscaping in front of a chocolate river. Brightly colored pipes  traversed the set to give the place a factory vibe.

Gameplay

The Chocolate Factory was created in the image of the Gene Wilder Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. The puzzles, set and gameplay all pulled from the classic film.

The puzzles traversed the larger props and set pieces, requiring us to touch, position, and manipulate these items. The puzzling was hands-on and interactive.

In-game: A wall of fudge made to look like a chocolate waterfall flowing into a river of chocolate.

Standouts

Knowledge of the source material made The Chocolate Factory both predictable and unexpected.

Boss-Play Escape Rooms’ take on that familiar but imaginary space was seriously entertaining. We especially enjoyed the final puzzle sequence and the resulting recreated “magical” effect. Half of the fun was seeing how they would achieve something that we knew was coming.

Boss-Play Escape Rooms surprised us with an innovative transition that threw us for a loop.

The mechanical puzzles in The Chocolate Factory were entertaining to play with and satisfying to solve.

Boss-Play Escape Rooms focused on the details that delivered the magical and playful aesthetic. This especially came through in the larger, deliberately designed and handmade set pieces.

Shortcomings

At times the handmade aesthetic looked too unpolished. That river of chocolate… Let’s just say that it looked more like Augustus Gloop had already digested it.

Boss-Play Escape Rooms could cut some paper from the escape room and better integrate instructions into the set itself.

One set key piece was needlessly messy and distracting to rummage through.

One sour note was a puzzle clued such that we misinterpreted the task as far more challenging than it really was. Not realizing we’d already solved it, we continued to spend an inordinate amount of time on it.

Gameplay stopped at a crucial transition for an experiential interlude. This was an uncomfortable and slow part of the game and the movie it was riffing off of. (Yeah, you know what I’m talking about.) We felt this whole sequence needed substantial editing as we stood there feeling the time tick off of the clock.

Tips for Visiting

  • Boss-Play Escape Rooms is located upstairs, in a plaza with plenty of parking.
  • There are plenty of dining options near Boss-Play Escape Rooms.
  • We did not have to consume any candy in this escape room, but candy was available and appreciated.
  • For peanut allergy sufferers, this escape room was nut-free.

Book your hour with Boss-Play Escape Rooms’ The Chocolate Factory, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Boss-Play Escape Rooms provided media discounted tickets for this game.

Quicksand Escape Games – The Diner [Review]

“Come on, Yolanda, what’s Fonzie like!?”

Location: San Diego, CA

Date played: December 4, 2017

Team size: 2-8; we recommend 4-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $40 per ticket for 2 players, $33 for 3-4, $30 for 5-6, $28 for 7-8

REA Reaction

The Diner would be a solid entry into escape rooms. We appreciated its retro charm and puzzle flow.

The Diner combined pretty standard gameplay with puzzle depth and a few more unexpected interactions, all as part of an adorable 1950s restaurant set. While we would have preferred a more dynamic final puzzle, we appreciated how the gameplay moved the narrative.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • 50s diner aesthetic
  • Themed puzzles
  • Being the bad guy

Story

We thought that we had escaped our lives of crime, but an accidental run-in with our former mob employers dragged us back in. The job: rob a diner. We weren’t sure why were hitting a diner, but we were told that if we could get away with it, we’d be free from our commitments to the Family.

In-game: A 1950's diner with red and white furniture an old jukebox, and records on a sky blue wall.

Setting

From the bright walls with celebrity photos to the checkered floor and vinyl seating, Quicksand Escape Games captured the classic diner look.

Gameplay

The Diner was a straightforward, cleanly executed, low tech escape room.

We puzzled through the various diner props and decor. These were primarily layered puzzles that led to locks. The Diner included a few exciting and less straightforward interactions.

Standouts

The Diner looked and felt the part. From the vinyl to the wall decorations, the set was on point. Even the menu pricing was era appropriate… inflation is crazy.

Quicksand Escape Games worked the most exciting diner props into the puzzles. We felt resourceful using one diner prop to puzzle advantageously.

One sweet moment involved a small prop that clearly clued a well-hidden and exciting interaction.

At the onset of the escape room, the story seemed downright silly. It all came together, however, as we shifted the narrative by solving the puzzles. It worked well.

The puzzles flowed well and achieved opens. While most solutions led to a lock, it never felt like there were too many locks.

Shortcomings

While locks and puzzles generally connected well, we still solved for a lot of 4-digit numbers. The gameplay would have been more intriguing with more variation of solution types.

The later act of The Diner consisted primarily of a process puzzle. Once we knew how to attack this, working it killed a lot of that scene’s drama.

Although The Diner built towards a dramatic conclusion, the excitement petered out. The final puzzle was anticlimactic.

Tips for Visiting

  • Quicksand Escape Games was located in a neighborhood that looked exactly how I had always imagined San Diego.
  • Bring quarters for street parking.
  • There were plenty of restaurants and other shops around Quicksand Escape Games.

Book your hour with Quicksand Escape Games’ The Diner, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

The Unlockables – The Escape [Review]

Escape the crates.

Location: San Diego, CA

Date played: December 3, 2017

Team size: 4-8; we recommend 5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $30 per ticket, minimum purchase of 4 tickets

REA Reaction

This was an escape room for enthusiasts by an enthusiast. We had a ton of fun.

The Unlockables chose the right theme to build up their escape room knowhow: the homemade, hacked-together construction, combined with a dramatic opening, large gamespace, and puzzle-driven gameplay, fostered the adrenaline and urgency of a serial killer escape. While the gameplay in The Escape didn’t quite evolve enough to support the narrative shift, this didn’t dampen the energy or excitement of the experience.

Who is this for?

  • Players with a least some experience
  • Adventure seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Horror fans
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle
  • Players who are not claustrophobic

Why play?

  • Dramatic opening sequence
  • Intensity
  • Hacked-together serial killer vibe
  • Fun puzzles

Story

While attending a lavish Southern California party, we were invited to the VIP area. Tragically there was no VIP area. We were kidnapped, blindfolded, handcuffed, and locked in a grim place.

In-game: A massive blood covered maze and a gory circular sawblade.

Setting

The Escape felt like a serial killer’s warehouse. The space was unadorned, hacked-together, foreboding, and just a bit creepy. As we opened up more of the gamespace, it felt more homey, but not comfortably cozy.

Gameplay

Incorporating both solo and collaborative puzzling through non-linear gameplay across a large gamespace, The Escape hinged on successful communication.

The Unlockables built some puzzles into the physical gamespace and they’ve worked to convert their more paper-based, layered puzzles into larger, more interactive challenges. The effort showed and was well worth it.

In-game: A series of red, orange, and blue switches with strange letter/number codes beneath.

Standouts

From the first moments, The Escape built up adrenaline. We don’t see many escape rooms where blindfolds make sense. In The Escape they were both necessary and handled well. The blindfolds added intensity to the opening puzzle sequence and set the tone for this kidnapping escape.

The Escape balanced individual thinking with collaborative puzzling. The time and space allotted to these different types of challenges were deliberate and logical throughout.

The puzzles in The Escape flowed well.

In-game: A wooden wall lit with a light bulb. The wall has a bloody handprint.

The Unlockables created a space that continually instilled an urgency of escape. As it became familiar, it never felt fully discovered or comfortable.

The Unlockables had complete control over the technology in The Escape. When one interaction malfunctioned during our playthough, they manually overrode their system and triggered it to occur differently. We never knew they’d had a problem.

Shortcomings

The Escape had a hacked together feel. While this unpolished look generally worked for the scenario, it didn’t function seamlessly. The Escape suffered from wear on their less sturdy construction.

The Escape included a number of paper-style puzzles. While The Unlockables had made strides to remove paper or better integrate their puzzles into the set, they still had a ways to go. Particularly for this adventure-style escape room, we’d love to seem them continue to shift toward more physically interactive challenges.

One puzzle suffered from reliance on color perception in low lighting.

When the straightforward narrative shifted dramatically later in the escape room, it felt forced. The Escape couldn’t support its narrative arc. To achieve this, The Unlockables would have to shift the late-game aesthetic and gameplay from what had come before.

Tips for Visiting

  • The opening sequence varied considerably for each player on the team. Some players will have more challenging beginnings than others.
  • Note that The Escape involved some crawling, small spaces, low lighting, and color perception. The Unlockables made this abundantly clear on their website. Contact them if you have any concerns about booking.
  • The Unlockables is located upstairs, in a plaza with plenty of parking.
  • There are plenty of dining options nearby; we enjoyed the Dumpling Inn & Shanghai Saloon.

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

Disclosure: The Unlockables provided media discounted tickets for this game.

Escapism – Gallery 3919 [Review]

A colorful mission.

Location: San Diego, CA

Date played: December 4, 2017

Team size: 1-12; we recommend 3-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $35 per ticket, purchasing 8 tickets makes the game private

REA Reaction

Gallery 3919 would be a fun and exciting entry point into escape rooms.

Gallery 3919 overlaid standard escape room gameplay with some exciting twists. Considering how long Escapism has been running this game, it was ahead of its time. While it sometimes tripped up on puzzle flow, puzzling through it was generally a lot of fun.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Families
  • Best for beginners

Why play?

  • Original art turned into puzzles
  • Fun twists

Story

We were summoned to an art gallery by a clandestine organization and given a training mission to either initiate or expel us.

In-game: A key covered hour glass sculpture in the middle of an art gallery. Massive colorful paintings hang in the background.

Setting

Gallery 3919 was a typically white gallery with colorful, original art on the walls. The staging also included a variety of unadorned pedestals displaying sculpture.

The large space was neither busy or bare.

Gameplay

Gallery 3919 was a traditional escape room.

Much of the puzzling was hidden within the art. We needed to make connections between artwork, unlocked items, and the locked spaces.

Standouts

The art in Gallery 3919 was original. We didn’t know the pieces or what secrets they might be hiding.

Escapism set up the experience such that their unassuming set would change. Escapism employed techniques that delivered the effects dramatically. This was an older game and in choosing these methods, Escapism was ahead of the curve.

Escapism assigned a few roles before we entered The Gallery. While their selection method felt random, it gave them a bit of control over key interactions for extra safety precaution.

The Gallery followed a narrative arc.

Shortcomings

While Escapism created overarching narrative, we didn’t experience it through the puzzles. The puzzles were disconnected from the purpose of our adventure. In general, The Gallery struggled against escape room logic where solutions only made sense in the context of a room of puzzles.

Most puzzle solutions led to a lock. There were a lot of locks, some of which were not clearly connected to their partner puzzles. It could be challenging to ascertain exactly where to input a solution.

One interaction required a substantial amount of force. More experienced players who tend to be delicate with props and sets will likely be tripped up here. We lost a lot of time despite having the right idea.

One of the coolest interactions would benefit from a locking mechanism to hold it in place after it has been used. In its current state, it could move unexpectedly as players move through the gamespace.

Tips for Visiting

  • Prepare for street parking; bring quarters.
  • There are lots of restaurants in the vicinity. The burgers and shakes at Burger Lounge were yummy.

Book your hour with Escapism’s Gallery 3919, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Escapism comped our tickets for this game.

Steal and Escape – Mysterious Stranger [Review]

I thought my neighbors were difficult.

Location: San Diego, CA

Date played: December 4, 2017

Team size: 3-6; we recommend 3-4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $32 per ticket, minimum purchase of 3 tickets

REA Reaction

Mysterious Stranger was an intimate escape room.

Steal and Escape lovingly crafted Mysterious Stranger to surprise and delight players of all experience levels. It drew on well-established, successful gameplay tactics and combined these with original concepts. While it was search-heavy, search solves were unusually rewarding.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Inventive puzzles
  • Surprises
  • Great execution
  • An amazing lobby puzzle (not kidding)

Story

Our quiet night was disrupted when we received a phone call from Government agents. They had detained our neighbor and believed that he was in possession of a device that would destroy America before they got there to stop it. They demanded that we break into his home and steal the weapon before it could turn the Cold War hot.

Setting

Mysterious Stranger was a break-in game. We began outside of our neighbor’s home, and had to find our way inside.

In-game: A front yard at night. A locked red toolbox sits in front of an ivy covered white picket fence.

Once within, we found ourselves exploring a home from roughly the 1970s, complete with the color pallet that has been the butt of many a joke.

Gameplay

Mysterious Stranger was a puzzle-driven escape room with a lot of interactions built into the set. One key difference: instead of escaping a room, we were breaking into one.

Mysterious Stranger also involved a lot of searching, but it was a lot more clever than in most escape rooms. When we found things we felt accomplished.

Standouts

The unexpected opening set up a sense of adventure. This was complemented by exceptional voiceovers.

Steal and Escape hid secrets well. Much of the intrigue was in uncovering oddities. While this may be an older, search-heavy style of gameplay, it was executed in a such a way that it was interesting and entertaining even for seasoned players.

The puzzling also relied substantially on mechanical and physical interactions. When Steal and Escape needed paper-style cluing, they found tangible ways to connect them to the environment.

In-game: A desk with a typewriter.

Our favorite puzzle sequence traversed set pieces that had initially seemed unrelated, and resulted in an unexpected open.

Mysterious Stranger required us to make a choice with consequences.

The lobby puzzle that is available before this game was fantastic.

Shortcomings

Mysterious Stranger could feel cramped. While there was a lot to puzzle through, the layout of the space made it hard to involve too many people.

Mysterious Stranger looked aged. While this was stylistic and deliberated, at times the game also showed signs of wear.

We didn’t internalize enough context from playing through the story to make an informed decision. Thus the choice wasn’t as impactful as it should have been.

Tips for Visiting

  • Steal and Escape had a fantastic mini game in a room off lobby. Get there early and play it.
  • Steal and Escape had ample free parking and plenty of dining options in the area.

Book your hour with Steal and Escape’s Mysterious Stranger, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Steal and Escape comped our tickets for this game.

Puzzalarium – The Parlour [Review]

A whole from fragments.

Location: San Diego, CA

Date played: December 3, 2017

Team size: 2-6; we recommend 2-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $35 per ticket, minimum purchase of 3 tickets

The 2017 Golden Lock-In award, the REA logo turned into an open padlock with a golden ring around it.
2017 Golden Lock-In Award winner

Story & setting

J. D. Howell’s mind was shattered and he was lost within himself. The scientists of Streeper Industries tasked us with entering the broken man’s thoughts and puzzling them back together.

In-game: a small chest covered in labeled keys.

Set within a bepuzzled parlour representing our patient’s mind, we worked to gain access to various compartments in beautiful antique furniture. All of this was overseen by an in-room and in-character gamemaster perched behind a casino card table.

The set wasn’t complicated or detailed, but it was atmospheric. It set a mysterious mood.

Gameplay

This was not a typical escape room; we had to earn everything within The Parlour.

In-game: A deck of cards and a stack of poker chips.

“Fragments of thought” in the form of poker chips served as our currency. We earned them by scavenging as well as solving puzzles. They in turn could be traded to our mysterious gamemaster for the keys to new puzzles or hints.

Our goals were to earn the door key and exit with as many “fragments of thought” as possible.

Standouts

The Parlour was almost entirely puzzles. The minimalist set and deliberate lighting focused all of our attention on the gameplay. The puzzles were engaging.

“Fragments of thought” were both in-game currency and a scoring mechanism. We played a game of puzzles and of resource management and optimization. The Parlour even included bonus options, to further complicate that puzzle. We enjoyed this additional dynamic.

Our gamemaster was a character in The Parlour. He was a gate to the puzzles, confirming solutions and distributing new challenges. With some he played a more involved role than with others. He was a calculating and mysterious puzzle purveyor.

The Parlour had an inventive and amusing introduction and conclusion. The fail state ending was hilarious. We escaped, but it might have been more entertaining to lose.

In-game: A beautiful antique with many drawers, cabinets, and 3 shelves covered in preserved butterflies.

Unlocking the puzzles through currency and a gatekeeper created a different dynamic, unlike most escape rooms. That said, the room wasn’t entirely for ambiance. When a new puzzle opened, we had to turn back to the room to start making sense of it. The Parlour merged traditional escape room dynamics with other forms of gameplay.

Shortcomings

Our gamemaster was a character, but his persona felt forced. He was not a natural actor. This strained the game at times because the puzzle purveyor was a pivotal part of The Parlour.

Some of the items we unlocked in The Parlour needed a bit more polish. Puzzalarium could enhance the overall experience by replacing scraps of paper with more refined components. This was especially true for the small and hard-to-read items written by hand.

Should I play Puzzalarium’s The Parlour?

The Parlour was a puzzler’s paradise. The setting was moody and atmospheric, but set wasn’t the show. The puzzles and gameplay were the focus… They more than carried the escape room.

Everything within The Parlour was an abstraction meant to facilitate gameplay. In a lot of ways, The Parlour was more akin to a tabletop game than it was to most escape rooms. We had currency and stakes; much of the gameplay occurred on a card table. It felt different because it was different.

If a puzzle-driven game in an elegantly simple environment sounds like a good time, then Puzzalarium’s The Parlour will be an absolute delight regardless of your level of escape room experience.

Book your hour with Puzzalarium’s The Parlour, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

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