Confessions of an Escape Room Tourist

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Americans in London

Hello! My name is Dan Egnor, and I’m honored to write a guest post for this esteemed blog.

In April 2016, I organized an escape room holiday in London for four people (two couples: myself and Ana Ulin, plus Wei-Hwa and Trisha Huang). We had five full days in town, during which we played 15 escape rooms and the Crystal Maze.

We live in the San Francisco area, and we’ve been involved in the puzzle hunt scene for many years (“The Game”, the MIT Mystery Hunt, BANG, DASH, and the like). In 2012 I caught the escape room bug after playing SCRAP’s “Escape from the Mysterious Room” in San Francisco. In 2014 I organized an “escape crawl” visiting six rooms in one day, which covered every room in the SF area at the time and seemed like a big deal! But now, of course, there are dozens of escape rooms open in the area, hundreds in the country, and thousands worldwide.

Still, we’re always eager to play more, and when some of us were invited to join a group for the Crystal Maze in London, we figured we should make a proper holiday of it and visit as many London-area rooms as we could manage.

Logistics

We were in town from a Thursday afternoon through the next Wednesday morning in late April. On Thursday we checked into our rental flat (chosen for its central location and Tube proximity) and got a good night’s sleep; escape room bookings started the next morning:

Friday: Enigma Quests, Agent November’s Murder Mystery, both rooms at Escape Land, and Lady Chastity’s Reserve
Saturday: Escape Plan, Secret Studio, Enter the Oubliette
Sunday: Time Run, all three rooms at clueQuest
Monday: Both rooms at Escape Rooms (and a bit of a break in the afternoon)
Tuesday: The Crystal Maze and Archimedes Inspiration

The Crystal Maze date was set first, of course, and everything else planned around that. The rest of the rooms were selected based largely on this site’s fine ratings and reviews. Scheduling was mostly opportunistic based on physical proximity and time slot availability, and I tucked in a few extra bookings later as spots became available.

On top of jet lag, this was a bit tiring — some of us took cat naps in escape room lobbies, which fortunately the staff accepted with good humor — but it worked out quite well. I’d recommend a similar schedule to like-minded travelers, with 3-5 rooms a day, allowing for an hour travel time between venues, and a two-hour gap for meals. You can always sleep on the flight back home…

Which room was your favorite?

They were all amazing!

How do British and North American rooms differ?

I can only speak with authority about how London and San Francisco rooms differ, but I’ll run the risk of generalizing.

The basic idea is broadly similar, as it seems to be everywhere around the world. We share some of the same rooms in fact; Omescape has branches in the US and the UK, and London’s Enter the Oubliette shares lineage with Spark of Resistance in Portland, Oregon.

London has more of what I might call “experience rooms” (story-based challenges centered around manipulating objects in a sophisticated setting, generally with automation); the San Francisco area has more “puzzle rooms” (rooms with a loose theme and many puzzles that solve to lock combinations, often employing pencil and paper). Both types are mixed in both places, though, and I think there may be a worldwide shift toward “experience rooms” (some call this the “second generation” of escape rooms). The most elaborate London outfits (rooms like Secret Studio, Lady Chastity’s Reserve, and Time Run) take interactive theatrical storytelling well beyond anything I’ve seen so far in the US.

Rooms in London generally take 3-6 people (our group of 4 felt like a good size), and it’s rare for the booking system to combine strangers in a room. Many rooms in the SF area take 10-12 people, and SF-area rooms will almost always combine strangers unless you pay for the maximum team size. I think I prefer the smaller team size, and I definitely prefer not playing with strangers, though a room that soaks up the attention of 12 people can be satisfyingly epic.

Rooms in London have a higher escape rate. For rooms in the SF area, a 30% success rate is typical, and in some rooms as few as 3% of teams escape; most London rooms are well north of 50%. London gamemasters will try to supply hints as necessary to keep the team on track; American gamemasters will do likewise, but also expect teams to call for hints. (Some London gamemasters seemed surprised when we did so.) And yes, we escaped all 15 London rooms we played!

To speculate a little, it’s generally accepted that escape rooms originated more or less in parallel with SCRAP in Japan and ParaPark in Hungary. The offspring of these two strains are visible worldwide, but I would hazard to say that San Francisco’s rooms have a bit more Japanese influence, and London’s rooms have a bit more Hungarian influence. San Francisco’s rooms may also have soaked up some of the local puzzle hunt culture, where London’s rooms may have drawn from the city’s robust immersive theatre community.

Finally, of course, the Crystal Maze is its own very special and unusual thing. It can be compared to Boda Borg (a Swedish outfit which operates in the US and Ireland as well) but that’s still a very different animal; the Crystal Maze is a thoroughly unique experience.

What, Americans have actually heard of the Crystal Maze?

No, not really. We get plenty of British TV — I grew up with my friends constantly quoting Monty Python, proudly declaring themselves Whovians, and hosting Red Dwarf parties; more recently, one of our group actually wrote clues for Only Connect — but no, the Crystal Maze never made it to our shores.

Still, I try to keep up with escape room blogs around the world, and couldn’t help but notice that UK-based escape enthusiasts have a certain fascination with the Crystal Maze. I even watched some episodes to see what the fuss was all about. (“This is supposed to be one of the best episodes, but I don’t understand, this team seems to be completely failing at everything they try! … Wait, is that the idea?”) And my UK friends all seem to have fond memories of the show.

So, when invited to play, I was certainly game; but unlike most of the other players, I felt no echo of childhood nostalgia; it was just a fun time. Some bits were more or less inexplicable (as a capstone finale, the Crystal Dome itself is kind of… odd) but all told it stood very well on its own merits as a delightful hour spent yelling questionable advice at fellow players.

So, how did it go overall?

It was awesome!

Oh, but wait; I’m addressing a British readership, and my Californian exuberance may be discomfiting. Let me see if I can translate into British understatement: “It wasn’t half bad, my dear chap, not half bad at all”; a highly recommended experience for anyone so inclined.

(And as a bonus, you get to visit London, which is always a good time.)

4 Comments


  1. // Reply

    Hope you had a great time in our London 🙂 *off to organise an escape room trip* Thanks for the tips!


  2. // Reply

    I too was introduced to escape rooms in California (LA), and I have done over 40 around the world. I am wondering why the vast majority of UK escape rooms require a minimum of 3 players??? My husband and I love doing escape rooms for date night, but are finding it hard here in London.


    1. // Reply

      I think it’s a cost issue. In the UK all room bookings are private. In London it rarely makes sense to allow a two person booking option because it would cost so much that no one would play. Very few of the rooms actually require more than two people (either for individual puzzles or even for the volume of puzzles).

      That said, there are a few you can play as a pair – either on your own or via a ticketed system. AI Escape, Poppa Plock/Handmade Mysteries, Trapped in a room with a Zombie, Lock’d and a handful of others.

      IF you’re willing to pay for three people then you can play almost anything and it’s always worth phoning a company up if you’re willing to go in an off peak slot.

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