It takes just 16 minutes for Jamie Imperial and four friends to solve the puzzle that opens the door to the mad scientist’s lab.
Immersed in their game at Escape Live Columbia, the group crowds into a room where an eerie green light emanates from the doomsday machine of the evil Dr. X. The machine, really just a prop, alternately changes color from red to blue to green.
“We should all pick one thing,” Imperial says as they file in.
Three of them gather around a wooden plaque on the wall, a series of letters and numbers lit in white, blue, red and green. More number and letter sequences adorn walls and doors, and various cabinets and secret compartments fill the room. They have an hour to solve the various clues, algorithms and puzzles to shut down the machine, save humanity and win the game.
It’s all part of the scene for the latest escape-room attraction to open in Columbia. This fast-growing segment of the entertainment industry reached Howard County last fall with the opening of Breakout Games in September, followed by Escape Live. Both offer life-size, interactive puzzles that players solve using teamwork and pure brainpower to crack codes and clues.
As the clock ticks down to the final minutes in the game at Escape Live, the energy of the players lags. It’s been 15 minutes since the last solved puzzle.
“I think we’re stuck, you guys,” Imperial says.
“Show us a sign,” adds Marie Oliverio, 24.
Laurel resident Stephen Nyce, 23, isn’t too hopeful. “I guess we’re just going to get sucked into the machine,” he says.
But teammate Mario Murillo isn’t ready to give up. The 22-year-old Germantown resident revisits puzzles, searching for what the group had missed. “We’ve got to be able to at least figure one of these out,” he says.
When they ultimately reach the solution, it’s a surprise, the door to the final puzzle silently opening.
“What a rush!” Imperial says.
For these friends, who met as students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Escape Live Columbia is a unique outing.
“It’s something different that’s not a happy hour,” Imperial, a 22-year-old Ellicott City resident, says. She suggested the activity after playing an escape-room game for a work team- building activity.
Escape rooms appeared internationally in 2006 and were first introduced in the United States in 2012. They’ve been growing steadily since, increasing from 22 locations in 2014 to 450 by the end of 2015, according to Room Escape Artist, a blog tracking the industry.
The growth is accelerating. In November 2016, the website Escape Room Directory listed 948 locations in the U.S.: that number grew by 17 percent, to 1,110, in just four months. The site lists 14 escape-room attractions in Maryland.
At Escape Live, the Mad Scientist Lab game relies heavily on mathematical equations and code-breaking machines, but escape rooms can include locks, safes, keypads, crossword puzzles, written riddles and more.
A second room, Wonderland, was slated to open by press time. In that game, players help the White Queen overthrow the red queen in a game that features a near-life-size chess board, keys and locks and visual puzzles and patterns.
Escape Live Columbia is the second location for owner Linar Yagudin, who opened Escape Live Ocean City in 2015. Yagudin designs the scenarios, rooms and puzzles himself.
“I enjoy [designing the rooms], each time trying to do a better one so people can enjoy a different experience. I try to create the ‘wow’ effect,” Yagudin says.
Columbia resident Adam Walker, 26, opened Howard County’s other escape-room business as part of an expansion for Lexington, Ky.-based Breakout Games.
Breakout Columbia has four different games — the Kidnapping, Museum Heist, Operation Casino and Hostage — with two additional rooms set to open later this spring. The games include technology-rich game features — lasers and black lights are part of the puzzles. Each room has its own game master, with players asking questions out loud and the game master answering on intercom.
The Kidnapping room is the most popular: Players begin blindfolded and handcuffed to a cot, tasked with breaking the keypad code that will allow them to escape the room.
Lisa Walker, 39, found herself cracking clues in the Kidnapping room while celebrating the birthday of a friend. The Severn resident, who had never played an escape-room game before, worked to escape with two other friends and four strangers, part of what Breakout Columbia calls a shared experience.
“I felt like it took a long time to warm up to figure out where I wanted to focus,” she says. “It was a little overwhelming … trying to figure out what you need to use and what you don’t. It was good critical thinking and problem-solving.” And, she says, “You get to meet new people.”
Breakout Columbia is open seven days a week, with a focus on providing private team-building sessions for businesses and other groups during the week. Escape Live, meanwhile, is open Thursday through Sunday in a glass-covered office building that is largely quiet during office hours.
Despite the industry’s rapid expansion, Walker doesn’t see an end to the popularity of escape rooms.
“We are very much a part of the experience economy,” he says. “We see it as something that’s a little bit counter with bringing people together and having no distractions. And we think there will always be a need and desire for people who want to go experience things with each other.”