Escape rooms, the live-action, mystery-solving puzzle activities that take place in a closed room, a kind of Clue board game for grownups, have arrived in Israel.
There’s nothing particularly Israeli about two of the current options, Escape Room Tel Aviv or Jerusalem Puzzle Quest; the draw, said Shai Nathan, manager of Escape Room Tel Aviv, is simple: escape rooms are fun.
“For some people it’s not their thing, but for over 95 percent of people, they do it and they get the hints and they find the money,” Nathan said. “People jump and get super-excited and start screaming.”
The jubilation he’s referring to at Escape Room Tel Aviv takes place once players find a suitcase of hidden cash and a way to break out of the room within the allotted amount of time.
It’s a typical scenario for many escape rooms. The games usually offer a 60-minute contained fantasy involving a supervillain, a super heist or some epidemic apocalypse. Some plots are more Sherlock Holmes than Agatha Christie, but there’s always built-in tension and an urgency to break free of the room.
At Escape Room Tel Aviv, located near the Azrieli Center in a nondescript building on Gershon Shatz Street, players are turned into burglars who have come to ransack a millionaire’s home. Their goal is to make away with the hidden loot before he returns at the end of one hour. If the players fail to get out before the end of the allotted time, a staff member disguised in a rubber mask tells the group to leave.
Everything about Escape Room Tel Aviv is designed to awaken the cranium, from the Rubik’s Cubes scattered across the registration desk to the framed brainteaser in the bathroom.
But the staircase that leads to Escape Room Tel Aviv game space acts as a time machine, descending players into an old-fashioned drawing room, fitted with volumes of encyclopedias, grandfather clocks, a gramophone and armoires.
“The story is about a [millionaire] professor so the room looks like an antique house,” said Nathan. “You may find things that are modern and can be used in ways that you do not expect them to.”
After nearly 20 minutes of rummaging through bookshelves, crawling under furniture and flipping over picture frames, players find that under pressure, escape within the hour is anything but simple.
“It’s very important in this game to be curious,” said Nathan. “We’ve had university professors come here and they had a tough time.”
This particular Escape Room is best played in groups of four or more; once a team reaches six players, Nathan divides the team into two groups, each in identical rooms racing against the clock simultaneously.
Escape Room Tel Aviv wants its two puzzle rooms to be challenging, but not demoralizing, so each team receives a game facilitator who offers helpful clues if necessary. Nearly every group gets at least some help and almost every group wins because of it. When they do, the room erupts in excitement.
“We always play ‘We Are The Champions’ by Queen,” said Artyom Popov, who co-owns Escape Room with his partner, Yuri Eliseev. “Usually they run out, jump in the air, sing the song, and ask if we are building another room.”
Popov, a software engineering student at the Technion, got into the business because of the ease with which one can create an escape room company.
“It’s easy,” said Popov, who first experienced an escape room in Budapest. “The first rooms were not expensive but now each new room wants to bring something different to be the best one and that’s why the expenses to build a new room are rising.”
He estimated that it costs about NIS 100,000 to NIS 150,000 (around $25,000 to $38,000) to build a standard room. Depending on the size of the group, it costs between NIS 80 ($20) and NIS 120 ($30) per person. Those are similar costs — and profits — to escape rooms in the US.
According to financial information website MarketWatch, a one-hour escape room game in the US costs between $25 to $30 per person, and typically allows 10 to 12 players at a time. Other than the initial cost of building the room, payroll and rent, rooms are low-cost to create, and some rooms comprise little more than a table with pens and paper.
Popov said that competition in Israel has spurred an escape room “evolution,” and predicted that the earlier, simple pen-and-paper escape rooms will have a hard time outlasting the emerging higher-tech versions.
It’s clear that escape rooms are popular in Israel. According to Escape Reviewer, an app for escape rooms worldwide, there are currently 24 escape rooms in Israel, from as far north as Escape Challenge in Haifa down to Run Out in Eilat.
“Israeli people are smart people and they like this type of attraction because of their [problem-solving] character,” said Popov. “If we have so many escape rooms coming, you can see it’s profitable.”
Escape Room Tel Aviv plans to open in four more locations, in Bnei Brak, Rishon Lezion, Jerusalem and an additional Tel Aviv room down the street from its present location.
Over in the capital, the location of Jerusalem Puzzle Quest is part of the game’s charm.
Situated at the back of an underground parking garage in the Talpiot industrial zone, the escape room is hidden from view, generating a sense of mystery before one even enters the space.
Still, the goal of Jerusalem Puzzle Quest remains the same as any other escape room — find a way out — but with a different storyline.
This version integrates a sense of Jewish spirituality by introducing the Nazir, based on the biblical persona who vows never to cut his hair and to live a life of teetotalism.
Before the game, players watch a five-minute video introducing “Sammy,” the best friend of the Nazir. Sammy asks players to help keep the Nazir from binge-drinking through a hidden stash of wine. Players must hunt through the Nazir’s belongings and find the alcohol in under an hour, while he sits bound in a chair struggling to break free.
The catch is that the Nazir doesn’t stay silent for long and tries foiling attempts to find his hidden stash by giving false clues or by placing players in a penalty box. Players in the box can’t actively participate and can only offer teammates suggestions of where to look.
The room isn’t locked because the Jerusalem Puzzle Quest owners don’t want players to feel trapped, but all phones are off-limits and stored outside the room so that players must use their own detective skills — rather than electronic devices — to win. The same goes for Escape Room Tel Aviv.
One group of players couldn’t outwit the puzzle on a recent weekday evening.
“There were too many clues,” said Dana Assayag, who was there with friends to celebrate a friend’s 40th birthday party. Still, she said, “It was a challenge and it was funny.”
Another set of players, Lee Ann Morris and her husband, Lawrence, visiting from Sydney, Australia, read about Jerusalem Puzzle Quest online while touring Jerusalem with their 11- and 12-year-old children.
The Australian family had a bit of difficulty locating the room at first.
“She was a bit scared [walking through the garage] and said, ‘Whoa, where are we going?’” Lawrence Morris said of his wife. “But to figure it out was very cool.”
It’s those quirky aspects of escape rooms that have made them so popular worldwide. The industry was inspired by a virtual point-and-click computer game in Japan called “Real Escape Game,” according to MarketWatch magazine. The concept spread through Asia before migrating in 2012 to the US, Europe, and now, Israel.
At both Escape Room Tel Aviv and The Jerusalem Puzzle Quest, game facilitators speak Hebrew and English fluently. Both market themselves as an age-defying activity, though they don’t recommend it for children under the age of 10. Players are recommended to make a reservation online beforehand, although they occasionally take walk-ins. Depending on the group size, rates range from NIS 80 to 120.
Escape Room Tel Aviv, 30 Gershon Shatz Street, Tel Aviv, open seven days a week, 9 a.m. to midnight.
Jerusalem Puzzle Quest, 28 General Pierre Koenig, Talpiot, Jerusalem, open 10 a.m. every day except Saturday, when it opens one hour after Shabbat.