Intro

On Memorial Day 2015 I was invited to play my first escape room1 with my local puzzling group. The room was unremarkable and full of red herrings, but the feeling of escaping is addicting. Ever since, I have been chasing the high and playing every escape room I came across2. Now that I have escaped from more than one hundred rooms I wanted to create a list of the most memorable experiences. This is that list.

Mary in the Black

This room is a philosophical thought experiment brought to life.

Mary lives her entire life in a room devoid of color so despite being capable of perceiving color she has never experienced it. While in the room Mary becomes an expert on color by consuming all books and other references about color. The experiment then asks, “will Mary learn something when exiting the room and experiencing color for the first time?”.

I don’t know the answer to that question, but the sensation of entering a vividly colored room after being trapped with only black and white was disorienting.

Depriving players of color also provides an unusual constraint on puzzle design: every puzzle must be presentable in black and white. This constraint lead to many unique props and puzzles.

We played this room at the Herndon Escape Room in Herndon, VA.

Jail Bus

This room is contained completely within a small bus. The players are prisoners being transported back to the jail after their day in court. The bus has broken down and the officers are incapacitated (the cause of these events are left to the imagination, but heavily implied that you were behind their orchestration).

Despite the size there were plenty of thematic puzzles and clever use of props (e.g. things hidden inside the jumpsuit costumes players are told to wear and shorting a circuit with the sheriff’s badge you lifted from him earlier).

We played this room at Escape The Room in Fairfax, VA. Small, transportable room built into a bus

Dreamscape

Inspired by the movie Inception this room is all about perspective. The first thing you notice in the room is that the hardwood floor curves up onto the wall. After that set piece you see that everything in the room is placed in unusual positions. Clocks on the floor and ceiling, a door in the floor, and an elevator to nowhere. The puzzles also play with perspective. For example, you have to look through a glass window to line up markings with other objects in the room in order to know where to place objects and you have to look at a series of objects hanging from the ceiling in a specific orientation to reveal a code. Overall, the impressive set design and consistent focus on perspective are the reasons this room is on the list.

We played this room at the Herndon Escape Room in Herndon, VA.

S3rial

This room is on the list for one reason; it contains the best chained opening of any room we have played. Players start by being chained to various objects around a bathroom in the dark and must work together to figure out how to get unlocked. The variety of puzzles and interactions between players in order to escape is the main reason why it is my favorite opening.

We played this room at Exit Plan in Leesburg, VA.

Vanity

This room starts by having players experience the desire and social pressure to be attractive and then takes you through the journey of how that can cause you to become insane as well as the damage that will cause.

This room is an excellent example of how escape rooms can provide a deep emotional journey beyond a swashbuckling adventure with your friends or a thriller in the woods.

We played this room at Escape Room Richmond in Richmond, VA.

Enter the Imaginarium

Not a room, but a location. The rooms at this location are solid and contain some excellent puzzles, but the reason to visit is the pre-room experience. Hard to say much more without spoiling the experience.

Enter the Imaginarium is located in Pittsburgh, PA.

Gold Rush

Outside a miner’s cabin you begin your search for hidden treasure. From there you unlock rooms with ever increasing set design. The puzzles in each room make excellent use of the environment leaving nothing to remind you that you are in an escape room other than the locked door. All of the activities I would associate with a gold miner made an appearance as part of at least one puzzle.

We played this room at Escape the Game in Orlando, FL.

The Quest

This room has the highest level of set design and prop selection of every room I have played so far. From the hand made dragon eggs, to the mythical animal trophies mounted on the wall, to the custom cryptex, and the custom weapons, everything in the room is exactly what you would expect to find in a wizard alchemy room. As we found out later by interviewing the owners, the set design went as far as mixing hay, plaster, paint, and wood stain in order to make the walls look like they were part of a hut.

The puzzles were solid and maintained the illusion/suspension of disbelief.

We played this room at Escape Goat in Orlando, FL.

Narcos

The room starts with game control handing you a brick of “cocaine”. Immediately you are immersed into a early 00s drug ring somewhere in Central America. Solid commitment to a unique theme (at least amongst escape rooms) combined with my love of Breaking Bad and solid puzzles are the reasons why this room has made the list.

We played this room at Escapeology in Orlando, FL.


  1. What is an Escape Room? In an escape room you are locked into a room and told to locate clues, find items, and solve puzzles in order to escape before time runs out. Every room attempts to tie the puzzles, props, set design, and motivation for the time limit into a theme. Themes can be anything from invading a pirate ship, to breaking out of prison, to preventing unicorns from destroying your vampire lair. The most appealing aspect of escape rooms is the other people that are trapped with you. The clearly defined goal with a tight deadline forces everyone to use their brain and cooperate in order to escape.
  2. Including going out of my way to plan trips with the only goal being “do as many escape rooms as possible”.

The intro story to an escape room must be concise. Players are excited to start exploring the room. Model it after a “previously on” segment in the middle of a TV season rather than a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the world you created.

Bonus points if it is presented after a cold open rather than up front with the rules.

When writing a story for an escape room the main competition is not other escape rooms but the story players come in with; “I’m going to have a fun time with my friends”. This is a high bar. There was even a TV series about it. I think it was called Acquaintances. Something like that.

1. The band is crucial.
2. Loose straps are more recognizable than taut straps.
3. Use small paint brushes; pencil erasers are insufficient.
4. Skip the small details, such as bows and lace.
5. Do not fill in the cups unless you want sunglasses.

Why? 1


  1. Last week we ran the third DCPH® and for one of the puzzles we built a carnival game, Snowball Toss. This puzzle was presented as a rebus painted with thermochromatic paint on a piece of plywood. When warm (above 85℉) both the background and the symbols are white. Teams threw water balloons to cool down the board, revealing the rebus in grey. The trickiest symbol to paint was “bras” which inspired this post.