Profile and photos by Caryn B. Davis

“Escape New Haven. Sounds like something Harry Houdini would have enjoyed. Imagine being locked in a room, and the only means of escape is to solve a series of puzzles that will eventually open what appears to be the only door. But these aren’t ordinary puzzles like jigsaws-though there are those-or a Rubik’s cube, or a wooden triangle with pegs in it. These puzzles range from the visual to the auditory, from the mechanical to the kinetic, and more. They require the players to not only interact within the physical environment, but also with each other, while at the same time relying on their own wits and ingenuity in order to “crack the code,” and find the way out.

“The point of creating these puzzles is to encourage people to expand their minds. We have puzzles that exist just to make people think outside the box,” says Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent, co-founder of Escape New Haven.

Torrent and his partner, Max Sutter opened Escape New Haven this winter, though the idea had been incubating for nearly a year after Torrent had visited a similar venue in New York.

“It’s a new genre of entertainment that just hit the east coast, and I really liked the concept. The place in New York did a decent job with the execution, but I thought I could do it better,” says Torrent.

Torrent approached Sutter, a fellow graduate from Yale University and also a big gamer like himself. Together they orchestrated a beta version for their friends in Sutter’s garage. Although they were only open for one week, word spread like wild fire. By the end of the seven day test period they had more people than they had time, so they decided to go for it. But first they needed to find a larger space and build more puzzles, all of which they create from scratch.

“We sat down one night and said we had to have 30 puzzles by the end of the evening,” recalls Sutter.

For inspiration, they look to real life and a multitude of sources that include video games, books like the DaVinci Code and Angles and Demons, all the Indiana Jones films, popular German style board games such as The Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne, and a variety of others that include Pandemic, Taboo, Clue, and Scotland Yard.

“One strategy I use is to look up cool tools – objects that people might not have seen before but could figure out how they work,” says Sutter.

“Max hopes you have as much fun solving his puzzles as he does making them,” adds Torrent.

After finding a suitable location and completing the build out, Escape New Haven opened for business in February and has had over 1500 people pass through its doors.

Gamers sign up to play a scenario in The Workshop, The Library, or The Studio. Each room is a different size and can accommodate four, six, or nine people respectively. Within each scenario are 15, 21, or 32 distinctive puzzles that participants have 60 minutes to solve. Resolution enables them to exit the room, which is the ultimate goal. Of course there is a key on the wall for safety purposes, or if the puzzles cannot be deciphered within the allotted period. Additionally, there are sealed envelopes in every room containing clues that can be opened as a last resort to ensure the experience remains fun for everyone.

All three rooms can be booked together, or as a duo or single. Guests can also sign up for a time slot and play with a group they don’t know, which is encouraged as it’s a great way to meet like-minded, creative people who enjoy alternative modes of entertainment.

“You can do anything in the environment. It’s designed to be a free-for-all space. You are supposed to explore and work together as team. Your team won’t succeed if you don’t, because there is so much information in the room,” says Sutter. “One person might find a four digit combination and another might have the lock. So you have to communicate.”

While some of the puzzles are more along the lines of what you might expect, there are many that are so ingenious you’d never conceive of them. Each themed room is filled with different objects appropriate for that setting. Part of the challenge is in figuring how they work. Do these objects go together; and if so, how do they go together? Are they meant to be opened or simply used to solve another problem?

“Everything you need to solve the puzzles you can find in the room. It’s designed to be very intuitive,” says Torrent.

In The Workshop, for example, there is a microscope, a work bench, an FM radio, a mailbox, locked drawers, cabinets with no handles, and a tall glass vase with a key attached to a cork on the bottom, among other items. Obviously, that key will open something and lead to another clue, but how do you get the key out? The top of the container is too narrow to fit a hand; and there is no available stick, coat hanger, or the like to help pry it upwards.

“You have to go back to the first room in the workshop where there are bottles of water. You pour the water into the vase and the key floats to the top,” says Torrent  who only revealed this secret because by the time this article is published, it will have been replaced by a newer puzzle. Every month Torrent and Sutter switch an older puzzle out with a new one, to keep it fresh for repeat players.

Another mystery Torrent will allow to be told is in The Studio. The Studio is decorated with original art by local artist Jeff Gall, but that too will be replaced over time giving other artists an opportunity to showcase their work.

In this scenario, there is a locked door with a peephole. While you can see inside  without the code to the keypad, there is no way in. Somewhere hidden in the hallway is a remote control that operates the car inside. Driving the car around the room, if successful, will divulge another clue that will help unlock the door. This is also an example of the exquisite teamwork required to achieve these results. The person operating the remote must take direction from the person looking through the peephole, as it is not possible to do both at the same time effectively.

Until recently, this type of entertainment could only be found in the virtual world, although board games and puzzles have enjoyed a longer history. One of the earliest board and peg games dates back to 2800 B.C. when it was discovered inside an Egyptian tomb. Backgammon was introduced around the first century A.D. and like chess, is one of the oldest board games for two players. Chess debuted in India and Persia approximately 4000 years ago using miniature elephants, horses, chariots, and foot soldiers carved from wood, as pieces. The Chinese are attributed with inventing dominoes (1120 A.D.) and cards which appeared in the 7th century. In Great Britain in the early 1600s, poet and courtier Sir John Suckling gave us cribbage, while mapmaker John Spilsbury invented the jigsaw puzzle in 1767. More modern games like Monopoly was patented in 1904, and the crossword puzzle, invented by Arthur Wynne, appeared in print on Sunday, December 21, 1913 for the first time.

The room escape has been “in the virtual world for decades; from the cult hit Myst (1993) on to The Crimson Room (2004).” But in 2007, a Japanese company decided to step it up a few notches. They took the concept of the video game and transformed the virtual environment into a physical reality where the players become part of the story. Since its introduction over 3,000,000 people from Japan, China, Taiwan, Singapore, and the United States have participated. Whether the games are old or new, board or virtual or live, one thing is clear: people worldwide love to play.

At Escape New Haven, they don’t have any puzzles that reference American TV shows, literature, films, or other cultural innuendos, because they want to ensure that everyone can play including tourists, foreigners, and children. Only a basic knowledge of the English language is needed.

Both Torrent and Sutter are very community minded and envision the creation of other games that can be played throughout New Haven. Currently they are planning a citywide scavenger hunt where participants will visit tourist and cultural attractions, shops, bars, parks, and restaurants in search of clues.

“We want people to explore the city and get to know parts of town they would not normally be drawn to,” says Torrent.

“We want to help build a community of fun, creative people in southeastern Connecticut who like these kinds of games and alternative entertainment and enjoy challenging themselves in a way that is not virtual,” adds Sutter.

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