Room escape games are taking the world by storm so Elisabeth Easther took a posse of puzzlers to find out what all the fuss is about. We promise, no spoilers.
A game trend is spreading across Europe, America and Asia that leaves computers behind in favour of real-life, hands-on puzzles. Players are locked into mysterious rooms and have to work their way out, Houdini-like, using creativity, science and logic to decode a series of clues.
It was only a matter of time before New Zealand had a room of its own. Opened in November, Auckland's Great Escape is the brainchild of Tibor Nagy.
"In my home city of Budapest, the games have been running since 2011, and today there are over 60 venues there to choose from."
From the moment we entered the narrow door on Lorne St and climbed the wooden stairs, the tension mounts - what were we letting ourselves in for? I'd shrewdly brought some of my smarter relatives along for the ride - my secret weapons were one 13-year-old and two 9-year-olds.
We'd chosen Prison Break as our challenge (although we could have gone for the Psych Ward if we'd preferred). Our mission - our main and only goal - was to escape.
Tibor gave us the backstory: a few weeks ago we'd been relocated from Cell Block 3 to Cell Block 1, where our new cellmate, Gomez, shared his big secret. He'd been planning an escape for three years and had it finally sorted, down to the last detail. Only, on the night the stars were aligned for breaking out, Gomez was put into solitary and we would have to go it alone.
With our hearts pitter-pattering, the door was closed and locked behind us. Two adults and three children confined, at the mercy of our wits, with just one hour to search for a variety of clues, while a timer counted down the limited minutes.
At first we were simply agog to be in the cell. Taking in our surroundings, we quickly began investigating. There were two beds, a toilet, a shelf of books (with some very curious titles), a basin, a bucket, some photos and a locked door with four padlocks. Audio of prison sounds served to ramp up the already palpable tension.
We'd been told that we wouldn't need to use physical force, and that nothing would be too ambiguous: clues would obviously be clues, although many of them don't appear to make a lot of sense on their own.
As the clock ticked, we put our brains into gear, trying to suppress the adrenalin and think logically. We looked under beds and buckets, peeked inside books; the mirror had writing on it, how would that help? We chipped away at the cryptic clues and figured out the combinations to various padlocks, working together for a common cause - our freedom.
Happily, there's a help button if it all gets too much and, with Tibor watching from outside, if he feels a group needs assistance, clues may be offered via the screen - although you will never be handed the solution outright.
Only once has Tibor seen a group turn nasty when a particularly heated discussion broke out between two lawyers arguing about who was the more stupid.
Not wanting to give too much away, one thing I can let slip - Great Escape is fantastically good fun. The hands-on experience is so much more visceral than games played on screens and devices; constantly thrilling but never frightening. Our one slightly claustrophobic jailbird was far too busy cracking clues to think about cracking a nervous sweat.
As for the collective rush we felt when we found a key and made it click, or located a secret hiding place, it was hard to beat, especially with the clock ticking down.
A few clues turned out to require a degree of adult cunning, but the kids were invaluable, with their dogged determination and ability to see things from different angles. One lock needed a tool, and when we figured out what the tool was, our pleasure at our cleverness was priceless.
You can imagine our pride when we solved it all in half the time - or so we thought. The smug smiles were soon wiped from our faces when we found there were more clues to solve and more locks to undo.
Did we finally make it out? Yes. Would we go back? In a heartbeat.
Perfect for birthday parties, work dos (see warning above), team-building or friends looking for adventure - Great Escape is inescapably great.
NEED TO KNOW
Great Escape is at 28 Lorne St, Auckland. Choose from Prison Break or Psych Ward with a third room to open soon. Minimum of three people, maximum six, aimed at ages 10+. From $22 to $30 a person per game.