Eric’s Puzzle Party 17 and Team EMBU

This past weekend, Lisa and I had the honor of attending Eric’s Puzzle Party (EPP) 17 in Auburn, Alabama. This annual puzzle hunt event hosted by Eric Harshbarger was an 11-hour team-based puzzling competition.

In total, there were 28 puzzles. To complete the hunt, we had to find clues hidden all over Auburn.

The puzzles were considerably more involved and challenging than what you’d find in an escape room.

I’m incredibly proud to report that our team walked away from competition with a victory.

Image of an eagle biting the EPP 17 Trophy.
WAR EMBU!

A few of our favorite puzzles

This EPP was held on April 1 and all of the puzzles were themed on pranks and bad jokes.

The 21 puzzles that made up the main game are all available on Eric’s website. Lisa and I supported the solving of quite a few of these, but the bulk of them were deciphered by our teammates. This being our first major in-person puzzle hunt, we needed some time to find our place on our team.

My favorite of the original 21 puzzles (which it seems many disliked) was the sphere assembly puzzle, “Having a Ball.” (Unfortunately it’s one of the few that you cannot play from home.)

Having a Ball sphere assembled.

Having a Ball

I adore mechanical puzzles and this 3D printed sphere was a great challenge. One of the highlights of the day was when I went to have the puzzle “graded” by Eric. I decided in that moment to take it apart and quickly reassemble it for a higher value victory. I sat down in a big chair in the coffee shop that he used as his base. I was deeply focused, trying to not completely wreck my sphere while improving upon it. A young woman sat down next to me and started interrogating me about what I was working on, why I was working on it, and if she could play. I did my best to be kind and answer her questions… but I desperately wanted her to leave me and my focus alone. Fortunately, everything worked out and I got the thing back together at a higher value.

Finding the Toy box 

After solving the 21 main puzzles, we worked on the metapuzzle (a puzzle that was built from little bits of information pulled from the puzzles of the main game). This culminated in us searching a wooded park for a toy box filled with the second set of puzzles (for those who could find it).

Searching for this box felt like looking for a hidden immunity idol in Survivor. We were wandering down a trail looking for “three oak trees.” Running through the woods in the middle of a day of heavy puzzling was good fun. Plus we had a silly mishap on our end while working with our incredibly talented rival for first place, the ImPEACHables. They got to witness our only major stumble of the day, which is too difficult to explain if you weren’t there. Fortunately it didn’t set us back more than about 15 minutes.

The Toy box puzzles

These were our favorite puzzles of the day. They are not available on Eric’s website. With his permission, however, I am posting two of them. They are, in my opinion, magnificent.

All that I will say is that if you solve them, you will know that you succeeded. If you solve them, reach out. I’d happily fill you in on the context.

Puzzle 1

Puzzle 2

Team EMBU (with a silent b)

Rex Miller, one of our earliest readers, assembled team EMBU. Rex brought us onto an incredible team of puzzle hunters, including Rich and Jonathan from the world famous ClueKeeper platform.

Team EMBU puzzling at EPP 17.

In addition to being a fun and brilliant bunch, under Rex’s leadership our team was highly organized and staggeringly efficient. After the dust settled, we learned that we jumped out to an early lead solving 7 of the initial 21 puzzles before any other team had completed any of them.

Early on, Lisa and I were a little intimidated by the experience and insane speed of our teammates. We were simply trying to make ourselves useful. After we both had a few solves under our belts, we captured the majority of the clues hidden around Auburn, and had become truly functional teammates.

There were a couple dozen clues hidden around Auburn. Our group worked hard to gather them all, which took some doing, considering that none of us were from Auburn. In fact, more than half of our team hadn’t even set foot in Alabama prior to this puzzle hunt.

We knew in the moment that we were doing well, but we truly didn’t realize just how great we had done until the scores came in at the end.

EPP 17 score graph shows EMBU decisively in the lead throughout the entire competiton.

I’m not just saying that because we decisively won. We truly weren’t sure. We even prepared for the incredibly unlikely tiebreaker challenge.

That said… I think that Rex knew we had won.

Last thoughts

This was the first and last time that Team EMBU will compete at EPP. We won’t be able to remain a team based on the rules for team structure at EPP.

Team EMBU victory photo in the Auburn University Student Center. The team is gathered around the war eagle holding trophies.

Puzzling with this particular group of people was a joy. It was intense. It was fun. And it was hilarious.

Wrecking puzzles and escape rooms across Alabama and Georgia with this crew was one of the most delightful experiences that I have had in my puzzling career and I am going to treasure the memory of this weekend. Yes, there is an escape room company in Auburn; get excited for the forthcoming reviews.

I had heard a lot of great things about Eric’s Puzzle Party prior to attending. Someone had described it to me as “the best kept secret in puzzling.” Based on what I saw, I think it’s true. EPP offered a high quality and exceptionally fair puzzle hunt. Eric’s care and attention to detail were on display from the opening moments of the hunt through to his closing, detailed walkthrough at the end of the day.

This puzzle hunt was one cohesive vision. That was truly impressive.

Thank you to Eric and all of the people who helped him organize this event.

Thank you to our teammates.

Thank you Rex. We wouldn’t have even heard of EPP without you. We’re thrilled that you asked us to be a part of your team.

I hope that we can return next year with a new team.

One last time:

WAR EMBU!

Escape Room and Puzzle Hunt Directories: Interview with Dan Egnor

Dan Egnor’s Escape Room Directory was the first of its kind, an international listing that’s been around for nearly as long as escape rooms have been in North America. We are thankful for his work documenting the global proliferation of this industry. We recently asked Dan to share his insights, both on the growth of these games and the other, more complicated puzzle events he enjoys .

Room Escape Artist: What is the Escape Room Directory? Give us the basics.

Dan: The Escape Room Directory is what it says on the tin — a directory of escape rooms. You can find it at escaperoom.directory. It’s been up since October 5, 2014, so, 20 months or so as of this writing. There aren’t any reviews or maps or details — it’s just a big list of cities worldwide and escape rooms in those cities.

How did you get started?

I was just getting into escape rooms, and they were just starting to multiply, and I wanted some way to keep track of them. Putting every escape room in the world on a website seemed like a reasonable weekend project (ha ha), and seemed like a natural extension of puzzlehuntcalendar (which I also run, but is trivial by comparison).

When I started the Escape Room Directory, I thought it was the first worldwide directory, but it wasn’t; Essa’s Intervirals site came first by a long shot.

And how did you discover escape rooms?

I’ve always been into puzzle hunts. I was working at Microsoft when I got my start with “The Game” (note, the Wikipedia article is a little… exaggerated) which was a weekend-long, no-sleep, team-van-based hunt run by enthusiasts for enthusiasts. My first hunt was “ISETV”, an alien-themed game run in Los Angeles in 1998.

Since leaving Microsoft and Seattle, I’ve kept an interest in puzzle hunts — though I prefer them a bit more cerebral than the classic “Game” was. As I noted above, I run a little calendar of puzzle events, which mostly exists so different people don’t accidentally schedule puzzle hunts on the same day!

Anyway, when SCRAP opened “Escape from the Mysterious Room,” which as far as I know was the first North American escape room, we in the puzzle hunt community were naturally intrigued and excited by this amazing new concept. As more rooms opened I organized an “escape crawl” where I and some friends tried to do all the local (SF Bay Area) escape rooms (that we hadn’t already done) in one day. That would be a preposterous idea now! But then, that only meant doing six.

Where are you when you aren’t escaping rooms?

I’m a programmer at Google; I live in Palo Alto, which is a town about 30 miles south of San Francisco.

So, six in one day to jump start this hobby… what’s the count now?

At this point I’ve played… somewhere in the neighborhood of 40-50 rooms, I think? (I need to update my spreadsheet.) Which is not actually that many. It’s certainly not enough!

Any favorites?

My favorite is probably Time Run in London UK. Actually I’d say overall London has the best rooms I’ve seen overall. Closer to home I’d give a shout out to the Great Houdini Escape Room, which is probably the best in the area.

My taste is the same as most people’s, I think — I like a good mix of inventive puzzles, an immersive experience, and magical technology (that works); I think the rooms I named above hit the spot on all of those dimensions.

Back to the directory… How did you amass this vast amount of data?!

So, originally, I assembled the directory by doing a lot of searching. I’d look for other lists of escape rooms (mostly local), I’d search business directories (like Yelp and TripAdvisor), and I’d just google “escape room <place>”. Like, I’d find that Malaysia has some escape rooms, so I’d just start searching for “escape room <city>” for every city in Malaysia, and copy down everything I saw.

Remember, this was early days. I figured, how many escape rooms can there be in the world? A couple hundred, tops? Even then, that was terribly naive. Anyway, this got old fast as you might imagine. I have a day job after all! And it’s not like I want to make a business out of this or anything. So I put up an invitation to send me mail with listings or corrections.

What is the multi-submitter? How does that fit in?

Somewhere around then, Chris Dickson (then of exitgames.co.uk, now of exexitgames.co.uk) had the excellent idea that there should be a one-stop shop for escape room owners (and others) to post details about a new escape room, so they wouldn’t have to go add their listing to every directory individually. Owners get an easy place to register updates, directories get more updates sent to them, it’s a win-win!

As Chris handed off day-to-day maintenance to other local enthusiasts, I ended up taking over the multi-submitter, and took the opportunity to revamp the form after some conversation with other recipients (such as the owners of this lovely site!). It’s pretty low-tech, just a Google form that fills out entries into a spreadsheet and emails updates to all of us. You can find it at escaperoomsubmitter.com.

We know how much work it is to keep a US map current. How are you doing keeping track of the entire world?

At this point, I mainly just take updates from the submitter, and from whatever else gets sent to me — from the submitter alone, in the last week, for example, there have been 33 reports — almost all of them for new facilities.

I haven’t been doing a lot of proactive research. As a result other directories, especially local/national directories (like this one!) tend to have better data. I occasionally think about retiring my directory, or somehow federating data in a better way, but it’s all work! Meanwhile I hope it provides a good service to people who enjoy its global reach and simple presentation.

After following the global spread, what’s your sense of the growth of the industry?

I really only have subjective impressions, which would be that the industry is continuing to expand rapidly (understatement!). The usual pattern is that a region gets seeded, followed by rapid hypergrowth as the trend is imported, followed by “merely” exponential growth, which is where most of the North American market is at now. You’d expect saturation to follow, and there are anecdotal reports of saturation in some markets, but I haven’t seen the numbers to bear that out.

I am always happy to see escape rooms taking root in new countries, especially when it looks like a local operation rather than a flag planted by some global franchise.

I was super interested and happy to see your post about growth rates. This is something we’re all interested in, and whenever I get interviewed by the press, it’s always something they’re asking. (In fact, if you ever feel like a follow-up post, I’d love to see growth on a regional/metro basis.) I’ve always thought it would be fun to dive into the data to try to get that kind of thing, but there are a lot of challenges, particularly since my data is mostly submitter-based and thus rather noisy (especially around closures and updates and timing).

Room Escape Artist: Stay tuned. We are struggling with some of the same data issues, but we are looking at how best to organize a regional study.

You grew into room escapes from puzzle hunts, while we are expanding from room escapes to other puzzl-y and interactive experiences. Which puzzle hunts do you recommend? For us and for our readers?

Puzzled Pint (a once-a-month puzzle-fest at a local bar or pub) and DASH (a once-a-year walking hunt) are great places to start, if they happen to be where you live! Online from anywhere, Shinteki’s Puzzle of the Month (free) is a monthly puzzle; P&A Magazine (US$10) is a fun monthly puzzle hunt magazine. In all these cases, sample puzzles or back issues are available, so you can get a sense of the style before you dive in. Happy solving!