Puzzling Out How to Escape a Room

Article by Jason Shaltiel and photos by Irina Groushevaia

Four people slowly inspected the modestly-furnished room. A picture frame displaying a set of playing cards drew their attention. They searched the room, opening several compartments, and found a note with identical markings to the cards in the frame. “There must be a pattern,” said Joshua Josephs, one of the players, holding the note to the frame.

He moved to the chess table, placing several pieces on the board, referring to the note and the picture frame. Lights went off atop the table and a door creaked open. But it was not the exit; the group was still locked in, the mystery not yet solved.

From Prof. Scott Nicholson’s “Peeking Behind the Locked Door: A Survey of Escape Room Facilities” (2015).
From Prof. Scott Nicholson’s “Peeking Behind the Locked Door:
A Survey of Escape Room Facilities” (2015).

A new gaming trend has made its way to the United States. Escape the Room, also known as Escape, offers the challenge of solving a variety of puzzles through teamwork, with the goal of escaping from a room. Mission Escape Games, in Manhattan’s Chinatown, is among the companies providing such experience.

Players have one hour to solve various puzzles and escape. At Mission Escape Games, four rooms are available, each with different puzzles and themes. The horror-themed room is played in total darkness with a flashlight; the future-themed room looks like a space shuttle; another has a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde theme, and the fourth is an art studio.

Three-quarters of the customers are women, said Derek Tam, who founded the company in February 2014. “A lot of girls really like to solve it with their girlfriends or as a couple situation,” he said, adding that most customers are ages 24 to 45.

Success rates vary by room.
Success rates vary by room; only 18 percent of the participants have escaped the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde room.

The company held approximately 4,000 games in 2014, its first year of operations, according to Tam. Success rates vary among the rooms. Only 18 percent of the participants have escaped the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde room since it opened.

Mission Escape Games, at 55 Chrystie Street, on the first floor of an office building, charges $28 per person, and four to 10 people can participate in one game. Most days, said Tam, Mission Escape Games holds 25 to 30 game sessions. Large groups get a room to themselves, while smaller groups or individuals tend to be paired with others.

Escape the Room originated in Japan sometime around 2007. Scott Nicholson, a professor in the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University, published a paper that said the earliest document he could find of an activity calling itself “escape game” was from a Japanese publishing company, SCRAP, which began holding escape games in July 2007.

An online escape room global directory, escaperoomdirectory.com, lists 1,730 escape rooms in 346 cities in 58 countries. Budapest has more than 50 escape companies, Istanbul 16 and New York City just four.

From Prof. Scott Nicholson’s “Peeking Behind the Locked Door: A Survey of Escape Room Facilities” (2015).
From Prof. Scott Nicholson’s “Peeking Behind the Locked Door:
A Survey of Escape Room Facilities” (2015).

At Mission Escape Games, players are encouraged to move around and finding puzzles can be a challenge in itself. “Americans like to find things,” Tam said. “They like to go around and put things together and solve mysteries.”

Nicholson found that each continent favored a different type of puzzle. In Asia, escape rooms were more likely to have counting puzzles, in North and South America players favored assembling a physical puzzle, and in Europe, players favored searching for objects and images.

Limited space and high rent influence the size of the rooms. At Mission Escape Games, each
game room is roughly 15 by 20 feet. In Japan, some escape rooms are half the size of a football field.

As the head of operations at Mission Escape Games, Tam creates the puzzles, designs each room and oversees most of the operation. A gamer himself, Tam grew up playing video games; one of his favorites was “Myst,” a computer puzzle game. He graduated from Stony Brook University in 2006 with a degree in chemistry. Mission Escape Games is the fifth business he started, and he said most of them are still in operation.

Some challenges involve finding objects within the room, others with solving problems.
Some challenges involve finding objects within the room, others with solving problems.

Tam has two partners at Mission Escape Games, David Chen and Barney Lam, both friends since college.

Traffic is steady throughout the year, Tam said, but the demographics vary with the seasons. Families provide much of the business during the summer, and corporate groups are more prominent during the winter.

Business owners have sent employees to play the game as a way to evaluate staff. “You have the business owner sitting in there calling it a team building exercise,” Tam recalled, laughing, “and after they’re done he would do a full debrief with his employees in the waiting area.”

JPMorgan Chase, NBC and Google are among the companies that have used Mission Escape Games for holiday events and team-building exercises.

Once, staff from DreamWorks contacted Mission Escape Games after playing and arranged for Tam to build an escape room based on the “Penguins of Madagascar” film, as part of a promotional deal. “It was a big deal for us,” Tam said. “When DreamWorks called I was sort of like, ‘Excuse me, what?’”

Some companies maintain accounts with Mission Escape Games, but Tam said revenue from corporate clients made up less than a quarter of total sales.

The escape games industry has grown in part by appealing to various demographics. Greg Aschoff, a 26-year-old high school math teacher, established Room Escape Games in Montclair, N.J., in February 2015. Aschoff identified teenagers as a key to industry growth.

“For a teenage kid, they’re a little too old to do the things that they did as children,
like going to Chuck E. Cheese’s, and different types of places like that,” Aschoff said. “They’re also too young to do things that older people want to do like going out to casinos.”

A room can take three to four months to build at Mission Escape Games. Once Tam starts development, props and furnishings need to be built or purchased. Tam owns custom print and apparel companies, which he employs to help furnish each room.

Rooms are tested by Tam’s staff and a few guests before being opened to the public. The space shuttle room, after two weeks of testing, was largely redesigned, for example.

Josephs, a student at Lander College in Queens, and his group of four, succeeded in escaping the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde room. He said he had learned about Mission Escape Games from his sister, who had played elsewhere.

“I thought it was very puzzling and perplexing but very enjoyable,” he said, after the game. “It was definitely a bit of a rush going through and figuring out the stuff. It’s a good mix between hard and easy.”