Puzzle rooms are taking Sydney by storm. Every time we check, another two seem to be popping up out of nowhere – and each one raises the bar with new ideas inspired by the hundreds of escape rooms found across the world. (Apparently Hungary is the place to go for the ultimate mystery room binge – there are more than 100 rooms in Budapest alone).
The concept is simple: solve a variety of puzzles placed in and around the room before your allotted time runs out. Each room has a different theme and stimulates all senses, demanding a variety of problem-solving skills. Time Out took the challenge of visiting nine rooms in the city. Whether we got out in time? Well, that's a different matter.
Escape rooms in Sydney
Even when you escape Ex Libris, you never really leave
Games masters Daniel Thomason and Aaron Hooper ditched their careers as economists at the Reserve Bank to open their first escape room – and boy is it exciting! The two self-proclaimed nerds had relatively little experience of escape rooms before launching Next Level, however, they’ve thrown all their passion into the project and the joy of puzzle solving shines through in their execution.
Thomason, our storyteller and host, meets us at the bottom of an office block near Rockpool Bar & Grill as ‘Daniel of the Night’s Watch’. His childlike joy gets us pumped for the first games room, a 15-minute entrée before the main course. Our team of four is handed an iPad. We’ve got 15 minutes to solve as many Game of Thrones themed challenges as we can – fiddling with strands of Targaryen hair, dragon eggs and one ugly White Walker. Like the reign of a Westeros king, it’s all over too quickly. We completed six challenges, coming out with a score of 564!
But we’re here for the good stuff. Ex Libris is a 75-minute escape room with a difference. It’s designed so that if/once your team has successfully escaped, there are more puzzles scattered around the literary fantasy room to entertain you until your time is well and truly up. Our focus is to power up the portal, find the golden pen and get the hell out of there.
It’s not a linear experience, and so solving a puzzle may require several parts that come together as you progress through the rooms. Our team of half-rookie, half-expert level escapees splits up and applies our individual skills to working out what we have at hand. There are familiar characters: Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes… Any missteps and we’re prompted by a humorous narrator who drops hints like “Hero Amy is getting warmer.”
Puzzles range from cryptic riddles to operating a large telescope – and all four team members are kept busy with props and pointers that lead us in-and-out of spaces, yelling numbers, words and colours in an attempt to unlock one of the many boxes we’ve found. Though the themes link to popular culture, everything you need is in the room – so don’t worry if you’re not a diehard Potter fan.
Creativity of puzzles: ✮✮✮✮✮
Best quote: “Hero Stefan decided to take a closer look at the coloured sand...”
Our tip: If in doubt, work it out on a piece of paper.
Locate the secrets that Agent ‘M’ has hidden somewhere in the room
Down the St Peters Station end of King Street there's a portal back in time to 1945. Venture inside and you'll find yourself in somebody's elegantly furnished study with tasteful wallpaper. Big band music plays quietly on the radio. An unfinished Scrabble game has been hastily abandoned in the corner. And there's an old-school typewriter on the desk.
Welcome to Espionage, the debut escape puzzle at the Cipher Room. You and your co-players have just one hour to locate the secrets that Agent 'M' has hidden somewhere in the room. To find them, you're going to have to look for clues, follow a bunch of hints and crack a bunch of codes. There's no time to waste – enemy agents will arrive when the clock strikes 12.
The Cipher Room is a labour of love for its co-creators, Newtown locals Marise and David. Game designer Marise spent a year researching Escape Rooms around Australia and in New York before creating Espionage. Husband David is the builder who put together the room's ingenious bits and pieces by hand. The two sourced furniture and props from the vintage furniture shops that lower King Street is famous for, which gives the game plenty of period atmosphere.
Time Out sent a trio of players to solve the room's mysteries, but up to six people can play at once (and there's plenty for all of them to do). We are provided with mini-torches, a pen and a notepad, which all come in very handy. We also get a walky-talky which buzzes to life a few times during the hour asking us if we would like a hint. We're happy for the extra help: while some clues we're able to pick up on immediately others are more challenging and the hints help keep the game moving along.
Several times during the hour we gasp with the pleasure of the discovery of something hidden. This is a game that has been cleverly thought out to provide a variety of tactile, visual and aural experiences. Also, unlike many escape rooms, the backstory actually informs the various puzzles you encounter as well as your ultimate goal – a lot of thought has gone into this.
The Cipher Room's second game room The Cabin, which has a serial killer theme, is now open too.
Creativity of puzzles: ✮✮✮✮✮
Best quote: "We're not stupid, honest!"
Our tip: Take a step back and look again.
Slip deep into the memory minefield
Behind a set of ominous green doors on Pitt Street is one of Sydney’s newest arrivals. It's run by three mates, Matt Lee, Barry Skalrud and Piyush Bedi, who are raising the bar for escape rooms, from production to the technical tricks and locks that keep us all guessing. We were tempted by the dastardly dictator story behind the Dr Disaster room, but we chose to tackle the mind-boggling trip through a patient’s memory bank in the Inception-like room In Memoriam.
The operation is independently run by well-travelled, experienced escapees. Upon entering the reception area we're greeted by Lee, who designed the room. It’s clear from the sizeable grin on his face that he and the team are confident in the standard of the rooms they’ve created here. And justifiably so.
Before entering the room we’re shown a video to set the butterflies off in our stomachs. A doctor tells us that we’re entering the mind of a woman who is in a coma. We must relive her memories to have any hope of saving her future. The clock is ticking. Dressed in white coats, we enter the first room and our first challenge. There are doors, but no padlock and no code.
Like the crack-team of professionals we’re dressed to be, we smash through the first two challenges unaided. We’re moving objects, riffling through magazines and CDs and jumping up and down to try to trigger sensors. It’s by far the most dynamic range of puzzles we’ve come across, and some challenges leave us speechless.
When we reach the final stage of the game it's all too much – we’re on sensory overload. Somehow they’ve managed to send us all on a trip down memory lane, while keeping us immersed in the character’s story as well. We've come so very close to completing the sequence in time – but it doesn’t matter. Every puzzle was as satisfying as the next, and we leave the room feeling inspired to come back and do it all again.
As we leave, we meet the couple who were in the room next to ours. It was their first escape room and he had surprised his beau with an extra clue, with help from the Enigma Room team. It read ‘Will You Marry Me?’ She said yes.
Creativity of puzzles: ✮✮✮✮✮
Best quote: “Be still? My beating heart?”
Our tip: Sometimes the simplest of solutions are the ones that works.
Dodge lasers like a thief in this museum heist
Slip through the doorway between David Jones and Rip Curl on Market Street and you’ll find a lift that takes you up to a series of escape rooms created by Jason Tang and Anthony Chiu. CT Adventure Escape Rooms has three themes to choose from: a jungle expedition called ‘Gotcha’, a terrifying room called ‘The Witch’ that has just a five per cent success rate, and a museum heist called ‘MU-T’ – with a far friendlier 30 per cent chance of escape.
We like our odds of busting into (and out of) the museum. Eye masks on, we’re led into the first room knowing we have 60 minutes to work out way through the puzzles and eventually retrieve the ‘T’. Our escape room expert calls out what’s in the room – she’s a veteran games nerd and knows it’s all about communication and teamwork.
We have a few easy wins: A key! A handle! A video tape! It feels like we’re flying through… We’ll be out of here in record time. Then comes the video tape. Like a spoof version of The Ring, we’re told our fate – there’ll be a telephone, there’ll be numbers, there’ll be people out to get us. Why is she dressed like that? Is that a child’s voice?
In the second room, the theme becomes a little clearer but a few clues slow us down. Luckily we have a tall person in the team to reach some of those mechanisms, but we use two phone calls for clues to trigger some of the puzzles – the morse code, for example, doesn’t correspond to short and long pulses. But we’ve come this far, so we push through and smash our way through other mechanical puzzles with the help of four pairs of hands.
We reach the final room, but time is running out… Our smallest thief weaves her way through laser beams as others yell numbers from rooms one, two and three. Ten minutes on the clock. Three codes disarmed. We watch the video again… We’re so very close, but out of luck. Undeterred by our failure, we know we’ll be back to tackle The Witch.
Creativity of puzzles: ✮✮✮✮
Best quote: “This room isn’t made for short people.”
Our tip: Listen to that videotape very carefully.
Bust out of Sing Sing, jailbirds
Hailing from the motherland of escapism, joint directors Akos Viktor Oldal and Martina Oldal-Horvath have brought with them all the tricks of the Hungarian trade. They’re confident in their designs and if there’s a puzzle sequence they haven’t seen before, they’ll eat their blindfolds.
Found inside a historic property in the Rocks, this suite of escape rooms has two themes, Military Bunker and Supercell 117, with another one on the way. There were no qualms about which one we’d take – it had to be the real-life Prison Break offered in room 117. Anxiety levels skyrocket as all four players are handcuffed and escorted into the darkness.
Sixty minutes on the clock. Two players in one cell, two in another, our first challenge is to locate the one key that’ll free us all so we can continue the game. There are padlocked cabinets, exercise equipment, lads’ mags and a chessboard – red herrings? Or the keys to freedom? There was only one way to find out.
The key to unlock our handcuffs was easy enough to find and we found a way to share the success with our neighboring cell. Noisy and reckless, we yell long numbers around like traders at the New York Stock Exchange. If there was a three-digit number in the room, we found it and used it, no matter how useful it turned out to be. Each unlocked puzzle generated more mess and more noise. Were we getting closer, or going around in circles?
Unlike other rooms we’ve experienced, the only way to signal for help in this escape room was to look as desperate as possible and hope that the games master was feeling generous. We looked desperate. Clattering down a makeshift shaft, a dumbwaiter delivered scraps of paper to nudge us in the right direction: “Brick wall!” “Wooden box!”
Paniq Room have incorporated as many varied challenges as possible, and though each one was much deliberated by our team they were all achievable tasks – the test was whether or not you could solve them all in time. Sadly, we couldn’t.
Creativity of puzzles: ✮✮✮✮
Best quote: “Maybe the answers are in the Bible?”
Our tip: Communication is key. Talk with the players in the neighbouring cell and share as much information as possible.
Make a deal with the devil in a paranormal adventure
Hungarian expats Noemi and Laszlo Agocs have set up one outstanding escape room in the business and industrial zones of Mac Park. It’s the only exit room north of the bridge, and they’re giving Sydney’s more established companies a run for their money with the expertise and backing of ParaPark – a global network of puzzle rooms that started in Budapest.
There’s just the one theme, but the couple have plans to develop two more rooms that will book-end the experience: one for newbies or families, and one for experienced gamers. We’re a little nervous about the paranormal edge of Passage no. 9, which requires a minimum of three players, but our games masters prepare us with one radio, a torch and a notepad and pen. Our first, untimed challenge is to locate the key to open the door – hidden in a wall of key shapes. Success! We’re off, scurrying around the dimly lit space for unusual objects or padlocks.
Horrifying sounds echo through the room. Four pairs of eyes dart to the bookshelf, the mirror, the strange basket in the centre – why is that there? As we collect clues it creates a breadcrumb trail and for the most part every member of the team is engaged in a different activity. One navigates a map of symbols, one is on hands and knees searching for a monkey wrench, another pieces wooden blocks together and the final player toys with a remote controlled car. It’s all hands on deck, but we’re solving brain-teasers faster than Scooby Doo and the Mystery Gang.
To be clear, this room isn’t easy. Tokens, numbers, pictures, nuts and bolts all pile up, seemingly unconnected. We shriek with joy when the wildest ideas give us the result we need. As we get closer to unlocking the final safe, we don’t want to leave – we’re having too much fun. An alarm is triggered, ramping up the tension. There’s nine minutes to spare but our hearts don't stop beating any faster. Shaky hands fumble at the last lock… and we’re out! We're exhausted, exhilarated and totally hooked on the escape room phenomenon. Bring on the next one.
Creativity of puzzles: ✮✮✮✮
Best quote: “Tell me that doll didn’t just move!”
Our tip: If you find something that doesn’t seem to fit, it’ll probably come in handy later.
Get out, before the butcher returns
Darling Harbour’s escape rooms are the easiest ones to find – they're part of the Strike Bowling network. The three themes are the same ones that you’ll find in Melbourne: Forensic, The Garden and Butcher’s Burrow. Throwing ourselves straight down the middle in terms of the rooms’ difficulty rating, we opt for the petrifying Butcher’s Burrow. This one also sounded the most like a scene from the Saw movies.
Blindfolded and led around in circles before entering the room, we were bricking it before the clock had even been set. Our phones were locked away in a safe, and we were given a walkie-talkie if we needed to ask for help. We’d need it.
For the onlookers, watching closely by video monitors, seeing the four escape room newbies enter the room would have been laughable. After removing our blindfolds we stood, terror-struck, in the middle of the tight, dark space, too afraid to touch anything. Is that a bucket of blood? What’s that noise?
Totally clueless, we scramble through the darkness giggling like school girls. Then we find a battery, presumably for a torch, and bam! It’s game on. With newfound purpose we cast aside our fears (temporarily) and get down to business. We had to radio for help a lot, but each time we did the clues offered over the phone didn’t kill the experience. The team offered hints, never solving the puzzles for us.
The puzzles ranged from visual challenges to extrapolating numbers and codes from items we’d found around the room. It took lateral thinking, brainstorming and a lot of guess work. It was down to the wire, but we made it out – just in time.
Creativity of puzzles: ✮✮✮
Best quote: “I’d never make it out alive in real life”
Our tip: If something doesn’t work, keep looking. Split up and search the room.
Enter the Vampire’s lair
Found between a Vodaphone shop and a TAB, this back-room set up is proof that you don’t need a big budget to produce a captivating escape room. Our games master is bouncing from the walls with excitement for us, and the bowl of free Minties is a nice touch. ‘Only three clues’ we read on the preparation sheet. Yikes.
Blindfolded and led into the Vampire Room, we're told to clasp our hands onto the metal rail. “Don’t look,” she says. “Not until I leave the room.” Hot with anticipation we rip off the blindfolds to face an empty bed – a vampire’s cloak laid out on the sheets. One player gives out a shriek. We’ve entered a medieval castle and we need to solve the supernatural mystery.
Still spooked, we search for clues under the bed, on the tables and in the cracks of the room. Four lonely hooks stick out on the walls – what are they for?
With just two players, we quickly work our way through the cryptic puzzles and onto the next room. We’ve never seen laser beams before – how cool! With trepidation, we drop things into water, dodge lasers, do our best Game of Thrones impressions and all in what feels like record time. At the final post we’re held up by loose screws and inaudible hints across the radio. But we make it out, with eight minutes to spare. And as sweat glistens on our brows, it’s official: we’re addicted.
Creativity of puzzles: ✮✮✮✮
Best quote: “You put it into her hands. I’m not doing it!”
Our tip: Any more than three people in this room would feel crowded.
Uncover the truth behind an ancient conspiracy theory
On the fifth level of a business block in Ultimo, Hungarian expat Viki Laubal briefs us on the dos and don’ts of the game – no dismantling furniture, leave the pictures in their frames, no clues in the air-conditioning unit or electrical wiring. It seems they’ve experienced excitable escapees in the past. Still wet behind the ears in the world of exit rooms, we give Leonardo a run for his money in the Da Vinci room with just three hints from the puzzle master at our disposal. Oh, how naïve we were.
Clues are numbered according to how you should play them, and everything should make sense at the end, Laubal promises. No blindfolds or scare tactics, we enter a fully lit room to find ourselves in ancient Rome. Our challenge is to decipher the codes before the pope returns. Mona Lisa proffers a judgmental stare.
We open books. Empty boxes. Turn leaves. But what we find doesn't seem to lead the way.
This may be the toughest room yet. We wave to the camera for help and Laubal points us in the right direction. We fumble through long division and try every possible equation. When we think we’ve got something, we’re rewarded with the Fibonacci sequence. Bellies to the ground, pitifully repeating the same mistakes with the final challenges, we hear the alarm sound. Time’s up on this bunch of wordsmiths – next time we’ll wrangle a team of analytical minds (and smuggle in a calculator).
Creativity of puzzles: ✮✮✮✮
Best quote: “Maybe it spells Avicii? I mean, Da Vinci.”
Our tip: First-time exit roomers, beware: this is a challenge for more experienced gamers.
Elementary, my dear
Part of a global chain of escape rooms conceived by UK expat Paul Bart, who is based in Thailand, the Escape Hunt Experience is a well-oiled machine that caters for team building events, parties and walk-ins. In the reception area there are large leather sofas, iPads for checking in and signing the Ts & Cs, and shelves of merchandise should you wish to dress up like Baker Street’s famous detective.
They’ve tailored the themes to attract Sydney’s tourists, with rooms based on crime-riddled stories of the city. There’s Robbery in the Cottage, set in the Rocks during the 1900s; there’s Murder in the Pub, a nod to the historic hotels around the city; and Extortion in the Dockyard, the story of an adulterous captain who wants to protect his reputation. We opt to set sail into the latter.
As we enter the room, it’s dark, but not scary. Ropes, boxes and wooden crates fill the space and there’s an intercom system right next to the light switch should we need tips. Our games master hints that we should search through the hessian sacks to get going – but it’s not long before we call him back to help us out with some mental arithmetic. Having the games master in the room each time is a mood-killer, and did nothing to ignite any fire in our bellies to proceed any further.
Our pace is slowed even more when we come across a second room filled with clues, and we’re baffled. Where do we start? The big red timer on the wall is blinking back at us. We make it through to the final room, deflated but too embarrassed to ask for more help. Fingers scramble to unlock combinations in time, but we’re too slow. The final key is in our hands, but victory will have to wait for another day.
Creativity of puzzles: ✮✮✮✮
Best quote: “I’m not sure I’m morally down with helping out this cheating scoundrel”
Our tip: Look at everything. Then look again.
Yo, ho, ho! A pirate’s life for me
Found on the first level of a commercial office building, the Mystery Puzzle is suitably placed to capture the corporate market at the business end of the city. On arrival we’re presented with a dressing up box of pirate hats, fat cat pinstripes, wench blouses and oversized hats. Side-stepping the potentially mathematically challenging Casino Revenge room, we gung-ho for the family-friendly Pirate Adventure.
Inside, we're introduced to the story: a young merchant sailor has found a map that guides her to a hidden island of pirate treasure. Looking around the room (which still feels like an office space) there are books, treasure chests and a seat facing a flat-screen TV mounted to the wall. Frantically, we search for clues to unlock the padlocked chests.
Everyone’s forgotten about Sam the merchant sailor and her missing treasure. Unrequested, a clue pops up on the TV screen to point us in the right direction. Apparently, pirates hide things in red books. Who knew?
It takes five people to piece together the first set of numbers to unlock the box. After that, a few players were left redundant as the more intricate challenges required just one or two people to move us on to the next stage. Aside from a surprise puzzle box, much of the game seemed to rely on the same skills and a couple of glitches in the puzzles caused some frustration. In the end, we smashed it out of there with 15 minutes to spare.
Creativity of puzzles: ✮✮
Best quote: “Pirates like to hide things where?”
Our tip: Make sure there’s someone in your team who’s quick at maths. Or good with maps. Or a compass.
Your first challenge is to find the new escape room venue Break the Code, hidden down a laneway in Haymarket. Your second challenge is to assemble a crackpot team of Indiana Jones wannabes who don’t mind being locked in a room together for 60 minutes as you stumble through physical and mind-bending puzzles.
Find more indoor adventures
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