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Central Standard

'Escape Rooms' Bring New Experience To Kansas City's Entertainment Scene

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Briana O'Higgins
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KCUR
Breakout KC's 'Room 13' may look unassuming, but secrets abound in the small room.

The thought of being locked in a small room with a bunch of math and logic problems might trigger some uncomfortable flashbacks to a 7th grade math test, but for two new businesses in Kansas City's River Market, that's the whole point.

Breakout Kansas City and Escape Room Kansas City both opened up within a few weeks of each other, and they're bringing an unusual experience to the metro area.

The premise is simple: you're locked in a small room with a group of friends for one hour. Your goal is to get out of the room by finding a four-digit code and punching it into a keypad.

But finding that code requires some serious sleuthing. There are riddles, simple math equations and cryptograms hidden all over the room. Eventually, if you solve them all, they'll lead you to the keypad combination.

I was sold on escape rooms from the moment I heard about the them. I love puzzle video games, and I like to think that I can handle any situation I'm thrown into. So I decided to give the Breakout Room a try.

The A-Team

I assembled a crack team of investigators to join me for this challenge. One of my best friends, Anna, is an artist, and I figured her creative mind would be good for solving puzzles. 

My roommate Michael is a biology student and has played virtual escape room games before. And KCUR's Briana O'Higgins, who always seems to have a good idea of what to do next, rounded out the crew.

And me? Again, I like puzzle video games. So I got that going for me, which is nice.

After we were ushered into the small room, the game kicked off with a short introduction video that sets up a back story. The video shows a man trapped in the room we stood in, called Room 13. It appears that we were the next victims in some sort of strange test.

As for the man? Well, he never made it out.

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Credit Cody Newill / KCUR
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KCUR
Escape Room Kansas City's "Theory of Everything" room.

But where did this idea come from?

Escape rooms have their deepest roots in 1980s and '90s adventure video games like Myst. Nowadays, you can find thousands of escape room games on the Internet.

And though escape room games have been around for a while, real-life rooms are a relatively recent creation. They started to pop up in the mid-2000s in Japan and Hong Kong, and now they've spread throughout the United States. 

Breakout co-owner Ryan Henrich says the idea hooked him the first time he tried a room in Nashville, Tennessee.

"We were actually in the room with five other strangers and we ended up getting to know them really well in the course of that hour," Henrich said. "We loved it so much that when we came back to Kansas City we thought, 'Man, Kansas City needs this.'"

Before going into Room 13, I'll admit that I felt confident about our chances of making it out of the room despite statistics being against us. Henrich says that nearly two-thirds of  teams won't make it out in time.

"We have such a high fail rate, but I think we value the challenge," Henrich said. "We don't believe that everybody gets a blue ribbon. You should have to work for what you get."

The game starts

After the intro video wraps up, a timer counts down and the game kicks off. At first, we were all a little timid looking around for the first clues. The room is small, but it's densely packed with mismatched, beat-up furniture.

Small combination locks with letters or numbers bar you from a lot of the cabinets at first, but the first clues are easy enough that we made good progress in the first 15 minutes or so.

But after that time, the rubber starts to meet the road. You're monitored by one of Breakout's operators the entire time you're in the room, and they'll give you three free hints during the game if you ask for them.

You can ask for more than that, but doing so costs three minutes of time on top of your total. So you probably won't make the list of top scoring teams if you ask for more.

After about 25 minutes in the room, we hit a wall. We called for our first hint, and I felt nervous. We spent far too much time solving one puzzle. But you don't really know if you're on track or not while you're in the room. So you just have to keep going.

I found some random numbers strewn about the room a few times, but I couldn't tell if they were actually important or not. 

By the time we reached what I later found out was the final stretch of the room, there was no joking around. The difficulty ramps up significantly, and you have to merge several different types of puzzle solutions together to get the correction combination. 

And it was in the final 20 minutes of the game that the team unraveled. A fairly obvious puzzle eluded us for too long, and by the time we reached the final puzzle, it was too late.

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Credit Breakout KC
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The photo of shame to commemorate our failure.

We failed to make it out of Room 13.

Reflections

Breakout currently has two rooms completed: Room 13 and the Szechuan Secret, a Chinatown inspired room. They're looking to open up two more in the coming weeks.

And then there's Escape Room Kansas City, which has two rooms and four more in the works. I haven't gone through any of their rooms, but I've heard good things about them as well.

Now, to a lot of people, the prospect of paying to be put in a locked room to solve puzzles for an hour probably seems like something out of the latest "Saw" flick. 

But I had a lot of fun at Breakout. The challenge seemed just right, and I don't think virtual escape rooms would give me the same sense of excitement and interaction.

And now, I think I could actually make it out of other escape rooms because I know what to expect. Then again, I thought I knew what to expect out of Room 13, and that ended in failure. 

Still, I'm not upset that we lost. Just give me a little while to nurse my pride before the next one.

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Cody Newill is part of KCUR's audience development team. Follow him on Twitter @CodyNewill or email him at cody@kcur.org.