The Escape Game: Prison Break (Spoiler Free)

Establishment: The Escape Game
Location: Cincinnati
Room: Prison Break

The Escape Game is a chain of escape/puzzle rooms based out of Nashville, with locations across the country.  In addition, they have a board game which Dale has reviewed previously and a subscription puzzle service which we’ll be reviewing soon.  The company graciously offered to let us try out the “Prison Break” room at the Cincinnati location, so today I’ll give you an overview as best I can of escape/puzzle rooms in general and towards the bottom you’ll get our thoughts on this one.  Of course, we don’t want to spoil any of the fun, so no need to fret on that front; we won’t discuss anything too specific.

As with most escape/puzzle room locations, reservations will be required, and it’s not a cheap experience.  Most rooms run between $25 and $30 dollars; here the cost is $33 per person, though they offer discounts for non-peak times. You’ll also have a number of experiences to choose from, as you can see from the posters in the lobby.  This location currently has 4 different “rooms”, and a 5th under construction.

In short, you and your friends will be “locked” in a room for 60ish minutes solving puzzles.  Some establishments might have mixed groups, allowing parties that don’t know each other to play together, and others block off any additional capacity once someone has booked, so you’ll only be solving with your own group. The websites for various rooms will typically list maximum capacities and a suggested number of attendees, but I would usually half those numbers or more.  My preferred experience is 1 or 2 people, as I enjoy the increased pressure. With larger groups (6+), you experience less of the puzzles, and while I don’t need to be involved in each puzzle, I like to at least know it existed, and that can be tough with big groups.

There usually aren’t “rules” per se, other than don’t break things or climb on things. Some locations will place stickers on components that are structural or mechanical to the room and not part of the experience, and others do not.  Most locations will have a game master of sorts who is watching and listening in a remote room and who can help guide you through the process. Typically this person will keep your group on track, offering clues if you’re falling behind a baseline pace, or you can often ask for clues if you feel stuck.  Each establishment has their own stance on if, how many, and which types of clues affect your score/time. (My preference is for the rooms that say “ask for all the clues you want; we just want you to enjoy the experience and aren’t concerned with leaderboards for time.”)

So…what will you actually be doing? Um, solving puzzles?  At their most basic, rooms consist of a series of locks: number combinations, letter combinations, directional, or keyed.  Various clues in the room will lead you to think that information you find in the room can be combined to open a lock. One of the differentiators to me between the rooms that I enjoy less and the rooms that I enjoy more, are how such locks are implemented.  Is there a thematic reason to combine the information? Is there a thematic or any other reason to try that answer in this lock rather than the other possible locks in the room? Some rooms label information, and you’ll know that pieces to this puzzle will be labeled with a red dot, and clues for that other part will be labeled with a yellow square.  I’ve also done a room that had no locks or keys, but relied heavily on magnets and electronics.

You’re essentially on your own to determine how to get out.

For most rooms you won’t see a photo of the inside.  You’re generally forbidden, and won’t need to, use your phone during the experience, and to avoid spoilers you won’t see much on company websites. 

But, um, The Escape Game posts trailer videos that show you the room! (I’ve watched the video below, and after having done the room, I think it shows slightly more than I would have, but unless you study it like the Zapruder Film, I’d feel free to watch.) 

I mean, our host even showed us into another room when we finished so that we could see what the room is like. (Which, I hope she earns commission on because that was a great tactic.  Thinking back, I wish we would’ve asked if we could book on the spot and do it immediately.) We even saw one room which _smelled_ thematically appropriate to the setting.

As you can see from the video above, and is common in many prison/jail scenarios, the players start in separate rooms. (Another common trope in that genre is for the players to start handcuffed and/or blindfolded.)

I stopped keeping track of how many escape/puzzle rooms I’ve done at around 30, and this one is in the top tier.  While I still go if I’m invited for a friend’s birthday or whatnot, I have stopped suggesting them as an activity.  I’ve become fairly jaded on the experience, and more so of the chains with multiple locations. I still look for them when I’m travelling, as occasionally you find one with a hook that just gets you: two identical rooms, so that you can race; an entire house set up as a puzzle “room”; a room where you’ll be in pitch black for 45 minutes and the puzzles are all tactile.

There are sort of three prongs to the experience: the quality of the puzzles; the quality of the production; and the customer service, for lack of a better term, of your game master. All of them were top grade.

There were new puzzles I hadn’t seen before, new materials used that I hadn’t seen before (in an escape room experience), and types of puzzles that required different skills than I’d seen before. Weaker rooms often include locks that you can brute force once you have ⅔ or ¾ of the information, and while I thought this room had one of those, I was unable to make it work, and I commend them for the ways that the clues for that puzzle are specifically laid out –it’s as if they are baiting you into thinking you can brute force it, when it’s not going to work. (There was one puzzle that used a common enough trope that we short-cutted it with something we had at our disposal, but it’s a minor point.)

The scenery, lighting, electronics, and whatnot were well done, and the room used my favorite mechanism for opening the exit door to the room, which, while I won’t say what it is, did not involve the standard punch-4-numbers-into-this-keypad-and-hit-pound (also-it-will-lock-you-out-after-5-tries). 

Joella, our host, was excellent.  One of the things that surprised me after my first room several years ago, was how much we all wanted to talk about it afterwards.  With each other, certainly, but also with our host. We had so many questions, and our host was happy to walk the room with us and discuss everything.  As time has gone on, I generally don’t have questions, but we did this time and Joella was patient, forthcoming, and welcoming with us. If we, ok, I…if I started off down an erroneous approach to a puzzle where I was likely to break or lose something, she would kindly put a note on a TV in the room to let us know that we would not need to be doing that (even though later I used the _lack_ of such a warning as a clue that I would need to break into something I had been messing with unsuccessfully.)   Often times the clues or guidance that you receive is too vague to be helpful, or hasn’t kept track of the progress you’ve made and is for something you are several steps past; here the clues felt on time and were worded perfectly.

The Escape Game currently has locations in Atlanta, Austin, Chicago, Cincinnati, Dallas, Houston, Jacksonville, Minneapolis, Nashville, New Orleans, New York City, Orlando, Pigeon Forge, and San Francisco.  

I thought I was finished saying “hey, let’s go to  escape room”, but it turns out I’m not. There are still 3, and soon 4, rooms here to try.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Dale Y: So, I’m not as much of a veteran of escape rooms as JN is… I think I can still count all of my escape room experiences without having to take off my shoes and socks.   As such, it is much easier for me to make a claim that Prison Break is by far my best Escape Room experience thus far. There are a number of reasons for this claim:

  1. Build out – the physical appearance of the room is fantastic.  The surroundings are much more detailed than many of the others that I’ve done.  Having a realistic environment really helps push the theme and improve the experience.  Also, the size of the room was appropriate for the puzzles. It looks like the room was a custom build for the space as opposed to other rooms which just kinda fit everything into whatever space they were able to acquire for the escape room.
  2. Monitoring – our escape room was monitored via CCTV – both video and audio.  I love the fact that it can be done remotely. I’ve been in rooms where the guide stays in the room – sometimes in a chair, sometimes following you around.  I much prefer not being able to see the guide. Joella was constantly monitoring what we were doing or saying, and giving guidance if needed – not in the sense of giving us free clues – but things like – “you do not need to lick the back of the stamps to see if anything is hidden under the glue” or “you have already used THING X and do not need it anymore”.  This just helps get your team on track and focusing on what you need to do now. All of the hints come through TVs mounted on the wall. Also, if they hear you talking about things which are clearly wrong or out of bounds, you might get a gentle notification that you’re not on the right track. But, with everything being remote – no one extra is in the room to give you unwanted hints by constantly looking at the clue that you’re missing, etc.
  3. Timing – we did the hardest of the four escape rooms available at our location, and the puzzle number and difficulty felt right for a 60 minute time frame. We had two puzzles that stumped us for a bit, probably requiring ten minutes each – but I didn’t feel that either was unfair.  We had all the things we needed to solve them, we just didn’t see how to put it all together for a bit. I also very much like the fact that there isn’t a stated leaderboard in The Escape Game lobby; a common feature of other escape rooms. For me, this isn’t about being the fastest group to get thru, it’s to experience the room on its own for up to an hour.  Whether it takes 15 minutes or 51 (As we needed), I don’t like it when it’s set up to be a competition – that’s not a needed part of the experience for me. Of course, YMMV

I had a very enjoyable experience at The Escape Game with Prison Break, and I would strongly recommend it to other interested gamers.  I can’t speak to the other three rooms they have at the Cincinnati location, but I’m planning on trying out the rest of them in the future, and I would expect the quality to be as high as the room we just experienced. 

John P: I agree with Dale and James Nathan.  The quality of the production of these rooms is off the charts compared to others I have done.  One thing not mentioned above is that you can ask for up to three free hints that won’t cost you any time (for those of you racing to beat the clock).  I will certainly heed the call from JN when he says, “hey, let’s go to escape room”. Highly recommended.

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