And boom goes the dynamite!

Ultimate Lockdown sees a big boom in bookings!

Ultimate Lockdown sees a big boom in bookings!

The past two weeks have been almost overwhelming at Ultimate Lockdown. Fortunately, we were able to staff up before the big explosion hit, and things more or less went off without a hitch.  But two big things happened at the same time which led us to more than double our bookings these past two weeks.  The first was the launch of Asylum.  The second was an incredibly successful Groupon campaign for Infiltrate 51.

The Asylum launch has been excellent. It’s proving to be a comparably difficult room so if you like a challenge, this one won’t disappoint. Early stats are putting it somewhere around the 20% mark for success rate, but we’re still tweaking it just a little bit and ironing out some elements that trip up a larger segment of players.  It will likely end up in the 25-30% range when the dust settles.  It’s more than a little nerve-racking to launch a new room.  We’d had so many players asking when Asylum would launch that I was reasonably confident that people would show up to the party… but you just never know.  I’m so pleased to say that the room has been booking like crazy and our player surveys have been overwhelmingly enthusiastic so I think we have a hit in this room.

The Groupon offer ended almost as quickly as it began. It launched the morning of Sunday September 3, and by that Wednesday afternoon we hit our monthly limit. I sincerely did not want to oversell the offer and leave people unable to get a booking.  Until further notice, Groupon will sell a very, very small number of these offers on a monthly basis, so if you missed out be sure to keep your eyes open and be quick when you see it pop back up again!

A most sincere thank you to all of you who have come out to try a game (or two, or three).  The busier we are, the more resources we have to put into our next room.  Our continuing goal is to keep outdoing ourselves in game design, puzzle creation, and room staging with each new room.  You guys keep being excited about escape games, and we’ll keep trying to make it better and better.  Deal?


Asylum Goes Live! A truly different escape experience.

Ok, so it took me longer than expected by… hmmm… nearly a month.  Sometimes it goes that way.  But Asylum is now completed and ready for bookings!

In the days leading up to having beta testers come through, I was filled with a gnawing medley of anticipation, nervousness, and dread.  It honestly felt like I’d been working on a play and opening night was coming.  How would the critics (beta testers) respond?   Thankfully, beta testing went very, very well. There were a couple small details that got cleaned up – and that’s awesome… that’s why we test – and the response was very positive.  I’m finally able to breath again in the comfort that I have in Asylum another good, challenging, and enjoyable room.

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 1.35.40 AMSo what can you expect from Asylum?

The first question people have asked in anticipation of Asylum is “Is it really scary?”.  That’s really, really hard to answer.  On one hand, keep in mind that if it was a constant bone-chilling horror show, it wouldn’t work well as an escape room. You still need to be able to solve puzzles.  Beyond that, everybody’s tolerance for “scary” is different.  I’ve sat in horror movies and chuckled at the jump scares while the person behind me was tossing their popcorn and curling into a little ball. If you asked each of us if it was “scary” you’d get a very different answer.

That said, Asylum does contain some elements specifically designed to keep you on edge.  There are some jump scares, there is some graphic imagery, and in a nutshell, it’s safe to say “Viewer discretion is advised”.  For this reason, I had made the decision some time ago to restrict the room to people ages 18+.  It might be unnecessary in many cases, but it’s also probably better to play it safe than be sorry.

Beyond the fright factor, Asylum offers a very different escape room experience. It’s a complete departure from the style of games currently offered in Escape Wonderland and Infiltrate 51.  I like those games, and based on our player surveys so too have the overwhelming majority of our players.  I think they’re smart, playable games.  But I wanted to do something very different with Asylum.  Specifically, I gave myself three challenges for Asylum:

  1. How can I make it MORE immersive?
  2. How can I make it MORE non-linear?
  3. How can I build an escape room and not have it so focused on opening locks?

Let’s start with immersiveness. The goal of any good escape game is to have you completely immersed in the experience.  Ideally, you’d forget that we’re even there.  We use props, lighting, soundscape, and various theatrical elements in all of our rooms to try to create that sense of immersion.  However, one of the things that often breaks the immersion is when groups need hints.  With Escape Wonderland and Infiltrate 51, we chose to have the game master come in when you call for a hint so they can work with you, give you nudges, and help you through a puzzle you’re stumped on.  Other escape rooms might have a screen on the wall that they type on, or slide notes under the door to give hints.  In my opinion, all of these approaches break the immersion experience to some extent.  I wasn’t fully satisfied with any of them.  Sure, the games are still fun. But I couldn’t help but think they could be better if that weren’t the case.  I think I’ve got that problem licked with Asylum by incorporating the clues into the characters and storyline of the theme.  You’ll understand that more if you come play the game. 😉

Next up we have the challenge of making it more non-linear (or perhaps ‘less linear’ is a more proper way to phase that).  This is a challenge in many escape rooms as well – my own included.  In actual fact, the map of the games look something more like an inverted tree than a direct line. But at some point the branches must converge to an ending point.  Elements like secondary spaces and puzzles locked behind barriers like boxes or cabinets have the tendency to create funnel points where the game branches necessarily converge and suddenly everybody must be working on the same thing.  My goal was to create a game that was almost entirely non-linear. In other words, there are a bunch of puzzles to solve and it doesn’t matter which you solve in which order.  They ultimately all get you to the same place.  I can’t imagine a more non-linear game design than what I’ve managed with Asylum and of that fact, I’m particularly proud.

And finally… How can I build an escape room that doesn’t rely so heavily on locks?  Locks are the often the meat and potatoes of an escape room.  To some extent, it almost seems unavoidable.  You need to both keep people from getting to the next phase of the game too early, and also give them some reward or outcome for solving a puzzle.  A lock does both of those things quite nicely.  And to be fair, I think there are are a lot of great escape games that rely heavily on locks.  There isn’t inherently anything wrong with that. But I wanted to see if I could design a game that was truly different.  I’m pleased to say that Asylum features only TWO padlocks, and one additional “lock of sorts”.  No spoilers here, but it’s not exactly a lock in the conventional sense.  It merely serves a similar purpose.  But even if you count that lock-of-sorts, it’s only THREE locks.  That pleases me greatly.

That’s about all I can say without giving away the fun.  If you want to see how it all came together, I guess you’re just going to have to come play the game! 😉

Bookings are now available beginning this Friday, August 28th.


Josh, Puzzlemeister

An update after 60 days


One of the many teams to successfully beat Infiltrate 51

Today marks just 2 months since we opened our doors. So far the response has been wonderful and I am so pleased that so many of you have enjoyed our games. Along the way we’ve learned some things we didn’t expect, confirmed some things we did, and have had such a great time confounding and challenging Winnipeggers and visitors alike.

Real life escape rooms are a lot of fun, but to maximize your enjoyment you need to approach the game with the right frame of mind. First off, it’s about having fun. Whether you beat the room or the room beats you, what’s important is that you enjoy the challenge. Groups that have a high energy level, communicate well, and laugh a lot tend to get the most out of the experience. Groups that are singly focused on “winning” may not enjoy the game as much whether they beat the room or not.

Another thing we’ve learned is that well intentioned people break stuff. All. The. Time. It’s shocking sometimes just how hard groups can be on the puzzles and props. I’ve spent far more time fixing broken stuff than I’d ever imagined. This discovery didn’t exactly come out of left field. In my research prior to opening Ultimate Lockdown one of the things that kept coming up from other operators was how rough people are on props, locks, and other items. But try as I did to account for that in game design (and I think overall I did about as well as I could have), I wasn’t prepared for how often we’d need to replace locks or fix broken things. Every room is checked over after every game to be sure that the next group will have a terrific game experience.

The team building element of real life escape rooms is perhaps one of the highlights of operating this business. I really can’t think of a better way to get a group of people to work together to solve problems than to lock them in a room and make them solve problems – while having fun in the process. Teams must develop a strategy, use abstract thinking, and communicate well in order to be successful.

For the last few weeks I’ve been busy working on our next room. Asylum should be launching within the next few weeks. It’s already well under development. I won’t give away too many details just yet, but I can tell you it promises to be an escape room like no other you’ve seen.

A huge thank you to all of you who have supported us in our first 60 days. If you have only done one of our two current rooms, we’d love it if you’d come back and try the other one.




5 tips to beating a Live Escape Room

Having had the benefit of watching many groups go through live escape rooms it’s been interesting to see the difference between the teams that are successful and the teams that aren’t.   Here are 5 tips to keep in mind when you’re going into an escape room that will help you be successful.

  1. Obvious clues are there for a reason.  It may seem like it need not even be said, but a lot of groups will see a clue, know that it must be there for a purpose, but then ignore it if they can’t figure it out right away.   Generally speaking, a clue that is immediately visible in the room is probably part of the early game and there’s a good chance you’ll need to solve the puzzle before you get too far along with the game.  If you’re not getting the puzzle, enlist the help of your teammates on it and see what you can come up with.  It’s ok to set aside a clue for a bit if you’re not getting anywhere with it, but know that you can’t ignore it for long or you’ll likely find yourself stuck.
  2. Don’t travel as a pack too much. It helps to break up into pairs and have different people working different parts of the room or different puzzles.  It also helps to switch it up a bit and let other teammates work on puzzles you’re not getting.  But when groups stay together as a large pack for much of the game, they often find themselves running out of time, or have several members of their group just standing around observing.
  3. Communicate well and often with your teammates.  If you’re following the previous advice and breaking into smaller groups of two, it’s important to be communicating with the rest of your team, filling them in on the items and puzzles you find.  It’s common for one clue to relate to another.  Saying things like “I found a black light over here” or “I’ve got some playing cards and a handkerchief in a box here” loud enough for your teammates to hear could help them with something they’re working on.
  4. Beware the big personality and let your teammates have a voice.  Some people are simply larger personalities than others – more outspoken, more direct, or simply louder.  Sometimes this can be characteristic of the born leader, and leaders can be vital in a live escape room for rallying the team, getting people on track, and coordinating efforts.  However, sometimes a big personality can work against the team without even realizing it.  On occasion, the born leader will be working on a puzzle and have an idea how to solve it that is incorrect.  So convinced are they that they’re on the right track, even after testing their theory and finding it unsuccessful, they can bowl over anyone else who tries to chime in with their own thoughts.  You never know who the stroke of genius will come from.
  5. Manage your time clock and your hints well.  Depending on the game, your team’s objectives, and the house rules, you may have a limited number of hints you can call for. One of the mistakes many teams make is knowing when to call for a hint.  Most commonly, teams wait too long not wanting to use up a hint too soon in the game. Although there’s merit to trying to conserve hints, that’s true only if you’re not burning too much time stumped on a puzzle and not getting anywhere.  Though it will vary from game to game, perhaps a good rule of thumb is to not go more than 7 minutes without solving a puzzle.  If you do that too many times, you likely won’t have enough time to solve all the remaining puzzles even if you find yourself on a roll.

Using these tips can make a big difference in the success or failure of your team.  Remember, live escape rooms are meant to be fun, not overly frustrating.  It’s hopefully about the experience, and not the win, for you and your team.  But that’s no reason not to try and play a better, smarter game.

The first team to ever beat an Ultimate Lockdown room!  Way to go team!

We made it through opening weekend!

A big thank you to all of you who came out this past weekend for our inaugural weekend, and to the beta test groups that came the previous weekend. Our launch was a tremendous success, and so many groups showed us that live escape rooms will be alive and well in Winnipeg for some time to come!

What we learned:

  1. No matter how smart you think you are, someone else is smarter.  We kinda knew that already, but there’s nothing more humbling than seeing someone outsmart your clever game design. Several of our groups found ways to solve or otherwise bypass puzzles that we would have NEVER even conceived of, and good for them!
  2. If you’re going to operate an escape room, own bolt cutters!  That lesson took only one day to learn after some frantic lock cutting with a hacksaw.  Locks fail, especially when you invite lots of people to play with them.  Day two of our launch started with the purchase of some heavy duty bolt cutters.
  3. Hard games are fun.  This was more of a confirmation of what we believed than a lesson.  It’s  been our philosophy that escape games should be difficult – enough so that most groups are NOT successful.  Otherwise, there’s no real victory in beating the room.  Our rooms were about as difficult as we expected them to be, and our player survey results have affirmed for us that even if people aren’t able to beat a room, they have a pretty darned good time in the process.
  4. Be prepared to think on your feet when things go wrong!  With so many people tearing a room apart looking for clues, stuff can get mangled in the process.  As much as we aimed to be able to quickly replace broken locks or destroyed clues, things came up that we were not prepared for and we had to act quickly to make sure the rooms were ready for the next group coming in.  Not everything went absolutely perfectly, but I was proud to see that every group had a very playable room for their experience and there were very few puzzle failures (really only one substantial one).

It has been an amazing joy taking this venture from a seed of an idea to a functional escape room game with (currently) two rooms.  It was a freakish amount of work for a while, but this weekend made it worthwhile.

And I can’t possibly talk about the successes without mentioning our resident game master Holly.  Without her help there’s no way it would have held together.

Thanks again to those who were a part of the launch!

– Josh


The first team to ever beat an Ultimate Lockdown room!  Way to go team!

The first team to ever beat an Ultimate Lockdown room! Way to go team!