What is an escape room?

An escape room is a team game that involves exploring a room and solving the puzzles you find there in order to get out.

In practise, that means being put into a room with a team and figuring out how to open and/or unlock various things. In Canberra, it is illegal to actually lock the room so although there is usually a large obvious padlock on the exit door, it is purely decorative (eg put on a second handle while the first handle actually opens the door). You can leave at any time (and come back in, eg after going to the bathroom or getting some air).

Most escape rooms take place in a single physical room, although some start in one room and take you through others as you progress through the various puzzles. Mine are one-room games that can be restricted to a tabletop if necessary, and they are macguffin-based ie you ‘escape’ by finding a specific magical item in one of the boxes, rather than by ‘opening’ a door.

Most escape rooms start you off in very dim light, so one of your first challenges is finding more sources of light. The darkness and lack of torches enhances the stress and forces you to work with your team-mates. Stress, frustration, and cooperation are huge elements in a well-designed escape room.

Another vital element is skill-sharing. A good escape room has a wide range of puzzle types, so different team members’ strengths can come to the fore eg. A puzzle box, a simple maths problem, a clue hidden in an unexpected location. I am terrible at puzzle boxes and not super mobile (so I won’t be crawling under tables if I can help it), but I can do maths.

Puzzle rooms tend to steer away from any maths harder than primary school level, because a lot of people hate maths. I have found that having a simple maths problem towards the end of the game is hilarious as people panic and can’t count good no more.

Each escape room has a fictional scenario to fire the imagination, and a timer counting down (usually the time limit is 1 hour, or 1.5-3 hours for much more complicated rooms).

During the last week both my parents and my siblings attempted my magical steampunk game, MADAM ALCHEMIST, and each session was filmed. If you’d like a better idea of how escape rooms work, I recommend watching the first and second videos. If you just like watching people alternatively swear and cheer, the third video is pretty much just that.

The first video includes an opening spiel by yours truly, and a few minutes of play by my parents.

The second shows a cut-down version of my brother and sister playing the room from beginning to end (complete with my patented sarcastic subtitles). It contains very mild spoilers ie you can still enjoy the game fully after watching (I edited it very carefully), but if you’re an experienced player I recommend playing the room before watching it. Of course, if you don’t live in Canberra/NSW then you might as well watch it.

There is some mild swearing.

The third is a super-short montage of my brother and sister’s play-through (all of which is also part of video #2). There’s almost no context, just the usual escape room experience of intermingled frustration, bickering, cooperation, and joy.

 

All clear? Good.

You can book through the store link above, or email me at MagicInTheMailStories@gmail.com to arrange a time and place of your choosing.

Escape Room Accessibility

The typical escape room company is located in a hard-to-find corner—somewhere with small windows, ill-suited to shopfronts or homes. There are usually stairs, and almost always darkness.

MADAM ALCHEMIST, my portable magical steampunk escape room, is designed to be suitable for most ages and abilities. It is G-rated and has no physical challenges.

This blog post is a fluid document that will evolve as I find better ways to serve a diverse group of customers. If your own physical or mental challenges are ill-suited to the game let me know (privately, if you like, at MagicInTheMailStories@gmail.com) and I’ll see if I can figure out a way to make the room accessible to you.

Age/Anxiety Guidelines:

MADAM ALCHEMIST isn’t scary, unless a player is particularly disturbed by darkness or stress or vaguely-defined monsters.

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This is a photo of a large poster representing a window outside as soulless monsters attack.

I can leave out the poster and/or keep lights on if younger/more imaginative/anxious people are playing the room.

Having said that, escape rooms take around an hour of focused attention and part of the experience is frustration (not to mention problem solving). Most kids under ten will struggle with focus, and find most of the puzzles too difficult.

Kids 10-14 who are able to deal with frustration will be useful team members, but should have adults with them (at least 1:1).

Kids 14+ are often as good or better than adults, but could have a bad experience if they are already low in confidence, especially academically. (There are some simple maths problems that any 14 year old could solve but if they panic and recoil at the sight of numbers then this will just confirm their bias.)

People aged 16 and above will, in my opinion, be just fine, and can act as the adult for kids aged 10-14 (if they’re willing).

My own children are 4 and 7, and helped play-test the game (with lights on, and assisted by their dad). Although they enjoyed the edible clues, the frustration of the game made them behave badly (snatching etc) and they were not rational in their problem-solving attempts (eg they believed they could guess the padlock combinations). But a well-behaved younger child can certainly tag along if their guardians can’t arrange babysitting (and are confident their kids won’t break anything).

Sight/Hearing/Dyslexia:

I’m still working on making the game accessible to those with sight/hearing limitations.

Those who are slightly sight-impaired or dyslexic can have a typed version of written clues (rather than the twisty scrawl of the mad alchemist).

The lights can be left on or off, the props can be laid out on a single large table to make searching simpler, and the number of torches can be increased or decreased. I have a friend who’ll be play-testing the game in March and will help me identify aspects of the game that need adjustment. Not all the clues are visual, so if the team has a range of abilities cooperation is always necessary and will help here.

No clues require good hearing (although communication within the team is essential). I can improve access for hearing-impaired players by simply turning off the sound effects. My father has significant hearing issues that didn’t impair his enjoyment at all since he played with my mother, who is an expert at talking with him.

Mobility:

Anyone who has trouble moving around/standing/crouching can play MADAM ALCHEMIST, depending on the venue.

My personal mobility isn’t great, so I’m pretty good at arranging things for chronic pain conditions. The simplest step is to have all the props and clues placed on a single table, so players can simply sit around and pass objects to one another. Someone without the use of their arms will need an assistant.

Venues:

The gazebo in my yard in Macgregor is accessible by wheelchair. There is some lumpy fake grass but no steps (other than a one-inch foam ‘carpet’ within the gazebo). I usually leave the gate open but sometimes the wind blows it shut (in which case it needs someone to reach up quite high to unlatch it).

Capital Pancakes has a very long flight of stairs and no lift.

Other venues (such as the home of the host) will vary dramatically.

Cat allergy:

My backyard is not an option, as the cat is difficult to contain and is sure to snuggle up to whoever is most allergic. But of course there are plenty of other venues.

Food/scent allergies or intolerance:

There are 3-4 edible/drinkable clues in the game. None contain nuts of any kind.

The ingredient list varies by availability and location, so if a player has a serious allergy other than nuts, please let me know so that I can ensure they don’t come into contact with anything that could harm them.

If players have a range of food intolerances/allergies, I can cater to you specifically or adjust the edible clues into written clues as needed.

People with epilepsy/migraines:

The possibility of flashing lights can be eliminated by keeping ‘normal’ lights on rather than depending on torches.

Madam Alchemist

This weekend is CanCon, and I have a stall there, with the tabletop version of my escape room (now called “Madam Alchemist” since it takes place in a mad scientist’s secret laboratory). I ran five play-tests during the day yesterday, and all of them went off without a hitch.

I also had people approaching me asking about party and conference packages. I seem to have discovered a market. *blink blink*

I’m already developing a second room, scifi/horror/comedy called “The Amazing Shrinking House” (adjective may vary) so I can run two different games at the same time… and sell a “Party Package” that lets party guests swap rooms so they can do two in one night.

Sometimes I wish I could buy my own products!

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This is the CanCon setup; the stall in its entirety. Also corset and tutu 🙂

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It was nice to see fairly equal proportions of men and women, and this notice in the ladies’ bathroom:

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Plus plenty of teens, some (usually slightly bored) kids, a range of age and fitness levels, and several gay couples and singles. CanCon is a happy place.

 

Shooting Through: the escape room that comes to you

It’s happening.

I’ve playtested the escape room three times so far, spotting serious mistakes on my part every time and fixing them for the next time.

Today is the beginning of the Invasion Day long weekend, so I’ll be at CanCon—Canberra’s annual board gaming conference.

The perfect place to test it way, way more!

This weekend I’ll be running free tabletop versions of the game… and signing people up to play it for real.

Here are some gorgeous pics, all taken by Louisette!

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Zipper investigates.

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Zipper cheats her way out.

Naturally, Louisette focused on the lollies (literally).

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Everything in the above picture was laying around the house, waiting for this moment.

 

Tentative price list:

$25 per person, with the following minimums:

$100 minimum if it’s in my back yard (running approximately 8-9:30PM including introductions).

(NB This will be moved inside if the weather is too hot/cold/rainy, which is rather cramped by climate controlled. It should be noted that my cat will almost certainly come and say hello, and that I supply bug repellant.)

$200 minimum elsewhere in Canberra (or by appointment when I’m at a nearby conference/fair/festival).

(I require a room that can be darkened, free of trip hazards, with a table and chairs—in a house that is fairly accessible by moving trolley.)

 

I’ll almost certainly increase the price when I’m more confident.

How to book/ask questions:

At the moment, email fellissimo@hotmail.com and/or magicinthemailstories@gmail.com to talk dates and times. Most Saturdays are good for me coming to you, and 8pm is usually good at my place any night except Wednesdays (but definitely including Saturdays).

How long does it take:

Theoretically 1 hour, but usually closer to 2. Allow 2.5 hours if you can, and advise me if anyone in your team has specific time restrictions.

Physical restrictions:

It’s great for wheelchair users (because you can play sitting at a table—although your team members will need to cooperate to pass things close enough for you to examine).

I think most physical or mental restrictions can be balanced by having a range of ability in the group (in much the same way that there’s bound to be ONE person who can add a string of numbers without screwing them up… right?)

There are no physical challenges.

Is it scary?

You will be operating under a threat of (fictional…) monsters, competing against a clock, in near darkness. So the level of scariness depends on your imagination. But it’s definitely rated G, and safe for kids of virtually any age BUT escape rooms are intrinsically frustrating and some items are fragile or sharp. Use your discretion. Kids 10+ should be genuinely useful in places; kids 4+ should be okay IF they’re very well behaved and calm.