Escape rooms are a big deal right now. From being an obscure pastime for a small few to a mainstream hobby that’s enjoyed across the world, the rise of escape room games is incredibly impressive. Big cities across the world often host dozens of escape rooms as there are now TV shows, magazines, websites and discussion boards all dedicated to the hobby.

Although the technology within them has made leaps and bounds the concept of escaping from a space, using only clues from your environment, is not a modern one. The labyrinths of Ancient Egypt, for example, date back to the 5th century BC. Mazes are puzzles meant to be solved, usually with the goal of discovering whatever resides in the centre. They share many features with escape rooms, although fortunately Minotaurs are not one of them.

The inspiration for modern escape rooms is thought to be ‘escape-the-room’ style video games. These games involve clicking to discover clues which help you exit a room, including riddles and logic games. A number of simple versions were produced from around the 1980s, such as John Wilson’s ‘Behind Closed Doors’ (thrillingly set in a toilet!) In 2004, the Japanese game ‘Crimson Room’ was released, designed by Toshimitsu Takagi, which further popularised the genre.

The concepts behind escape rooms can also be seen in other forms of popular culture. TV challenge shows have been very prominent over the last few decades. Perhaps the most famous in the UK is ‘Crystal Maze’. In this show, teams completed puzzles in a labyrinth to earn crystals (or they fell into water and didn’t). The crystals gave teams extra time in the final challenge, set in a central crystal dome.

The ‘Crystal Maze’ has been recently reincarnated, as result of the success of escape rooms.  The Crystal Maze live experience opened in London in March 2016, and has been hugely successful, with an additional site in Manchester. Channel 4 also did a remake this summer, in which celebrities faced the maze.

It was, however, in Japan that the first modern escape rooms were built. The company SCRAP co. Japan invented the ‘Real Escape Game’ in 2007. Escape Rooms then started popping up across Asia before spreading across the globe. The first escape room in Europe was opened by Attila Guyrkovics in Budapest, Hungary in 2011. Named ParaPark (Hungarian for Park of Fear), this was the first of many escape rooms in Budapest, a city which is now as famed for this entertainment form as for its ‘ruin bars’.

There are now almost 100 rooms in the UK alone, with this number increasing everyday. There are even escape room discount cards for the real enthusiasts among us. They cover a large variety of themes from modern espionage to science fiction. There is an escape room set in a working church in Norfolk. Enigma Quest’s ‘School of Witchcraft and Wizardry’ is sold out 2 months in advance (aided by being a shameless Harry Potter rip-off). You can even be trapped in a room with a Zombie – what better way to spend a Saturday night! The production value and difficulty of escape rooms definitely varied, and is worth investigating before booking. Escape rooms are certainly not cheap, varying from around £15-40 per person (based on London prices).

The ITB team recently put their skills to the test against Time Run’s highly rated Lance of Longinus Escape Room. If you are looking for a strong background narrative, a good variety of clever puzzles, high production value and an altogether great experience, then look no further!

Escape Room Board Games

In addition to being loads of fun, Escape Rooms have also recently inspired the creation of a number of board games. At first this seems to be a great concept. Escape Rooms and board games share many features. They both involve problem solving, teamwork and are at their best when designed with a strong narrative.

Here are some examples on the market at the moment:

Name Players Price Description
Escape the Room: Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor 3-8 £15 Puzzles are in a series of envelopes representing different areas of the manor. Solution wheel used to show if a puzzle has been correctly solved.
Escape Room: The Game 3-5 £40 Four unique 60 minute puzzles are included, with the themes Prizon Break, Temple of the Aztec, Nuclear Countdown and Virus. Features an electronic ‘Chrono Decoder’, which acts as both a timer, and the device into which keys are inserted to ‘escape’.
Exit: The Game 1-6 £12 Comes in at least 5 different themes already.
Unlock! 2-6 £25 A cooperative card game, where different decks are used to explore different rooms and solve riddles. The main set contains 3 scenarios. More sets are available. Requires an app to be downloaded.

 

Unfortunately these board games seem to suffer in similar ways to Escape Room, namely in replayability. If you have solved a puzzle once, it’s usually no fun to play a second time. A possible solution for this is passing on a game to a friend, and some games are designed for this. However, it is sometimes the case that things in these games must be destroyed in order to solve a puzzle.

Escape the Room have come up with a solution of sorts for this, with their ‘Chrono Decoder’. Expansion sets can be bought that utilise the same Decoder. Unlock! works similarly with the mechanism acting as the constant feature, and new decks of cards as the variable. This very much mimics what live escape room companies do, in designing new escape rooms. The companies maintain the same customers by producing new games with different themes.   

Another issue that seems almost universal across the games is that of player number.  For example, whilst the recommended player number for Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor is 3-8, customer reviews seem to suggest it is best for only 2-3. It seems that a greater number of players leads to less enjoyment, especially when some of the games contain very simple puzzles and are advertised mainly for families. It may possibly be the case that higher player counts are suggested to slow down the speed of play.

So, is this a match made in board game heaven? It is hard to be convinced so, with large problems such a replayability. However, for many the price and location of live escape rooms is a barrier to experiencing them in their current form. Board games will always be a more accessible, affordable, varied and enduring form of entertainment. Perhaps with the right mechanics, and a solution to the issue of value in one-and-done games, with a sprinkling of production magic, these games will take over from live experiences and create a democratised immersive experience for everyone.

Issy Newell is a biomedical undergraduate student and the events intern at ITB Board Games.