When a group of pharmaceutical representatives entered the Breakout Games site in Lutherville-Timonium on a sunny late-winter afternoon, at least two of them were trying an escape room for the first time.
However, according to the website roomescapeartist.com, with more than 2,300 escape rooms opened by last summer in the U.S. (in 2014, only 24 existed), new participants like DeShaun Stallworth and Earl Brownell will be more rare as the interactive — and seemingly addictive — games become more mainstream.
The Lutherville-Timonium facility will celebrate its third birthday in August after debuting during the peak for new openings in the third quarter of 2016 in what the website calls a “maturing” industry that is now growing at a “steady but less vigorous” pace.
The Baltimore metropolitan area has a slew of similar businesses, including Charm City Clue Room, the only other escape room facility in the Towson area.
Stallworth, 40, a Montgomery County resident whose sales territory is in the Baltimore area, said that she was “a little apprehensive” about trying the critical-thinking exercise with eight of her colleagues at Breakout Games.
“I’m trusting my team to bust us out of here,” Stallworth said before attempting to escape from “Mystery Mansion,” one of Breakout Games’ seven themed rooms, each with its own set of riddles and puzzles to be solved and clues to be uncovered.
“The Kidnapping” and “Hostage” are rooms with the most ominous-sounding names ,while other rooms boast more benign monikers, such as “Museum Heist,” “Island Escape,” “Runaway Train,” “Operation: Casino” and “Do Not Disturb.”
All of the 150- to 300-square foot rooms have distinctive decor customized to their themes and boast the latest technology in the operation housed in a small business park sitting on the corner of York and Aylesbury roads.
Groups are limited to seven or eight people in relatively tight spaces, although an exception was made for the slightly larger pharmaceutical sales personnel that day.
Costs range on a sliding scale from $24 to $34, depending on the number of people in the group.
“There’s nothing graphic, gory, spooky or scary about the rooms,” said Adam Walker, the 28-year-old owner/operator of Breakout Games’ two Baltimore-area locations who splits the difference between the Columbia and Lutherville sites by living in Catonsville.
Walker added that Breakout Games can accommodate around 50 players in an hour while guaranteeing private experiences for groups or families no matter their size.
“Groups won’t be mixed with strangers,” he said.
Perhaps unconsciously, Stallworth had accurately identified one of the key elements of team-building — trust — that most groups experience while trying to figure out how to escape within the 60 minutes allotted to participants.
During the week, many of Breakout Games’ clientele, or “guests” in company parlance, are composed of groups of people that work together and who strive to foster a team-building effort that ultimately becomes the activity’s centerpiece.
Weekend clientele tend to be geared more toward birthday, bachelor and bachelorette parties — friends and family rather than co-workers or similar groups.
Regardless, Walker, whose educational and business background was in marketing before running Baltimore’s Breakout Games sites for a company that has 42 other locations across the country, said that escape rooms offer a chance to connect with other people in a more personal manner.
“No cellphones are allowed in the rooms,” he said. “We have had groups with three generations of people, all with smartphones, and we have the unique ability to get people off their phones for an hour. For that hour, they’re all on the same team with only one purpose — to beat the clock.”
Walker said that the rooms are fashioned so that figuring out how to escape takes teamwork and the ability to problem solve.
“It’s tough and challenging to break out,” he said. “We’ve learned how to make it difficult without making it impossible — it’s exhilarating when it gets down to the wire. If you work together as a team and really pay attention to the clues, you should be headed for victory.”
To that end, participants strive to find the final step to escape — a four-digit code to “unlock” a door that is not really locked for safety reasons.
Walker said that one group from another business in which all of the members worked remotely quickly formed a strong bond at Breakout Games without really knowing one another.
“What comes out of an experience like that is a deepened sense of relationship and community,” he said. “Once inside, it’s when fun and team-building intersect at a high level. There are many different fun experiences to choose from. There are also many different team-building-oriented activities. We have the unique ability to hit on those really well.”
Unfortunately for Stallworth’s group, a clock that begins a countdown once the guests begin sleuthing turned to zeroes before the door was opened, an outcome that happens about 60 percent of the time in “Mystery Mansion.”
Nevertheless, she said that she and her work colleagues enjoyed the time spent together during a transitional period when the group’s leadership is changing.
“It was a lot of fun,” she said. “We probably had two more clues to go. I think we might have spent too much time on the first clue. It was exciting to witness all the different mental strengths and unique approaches my team members added during each clue. This was a fun and ideal way to build on the chemistry of our team, especially considering that we are transitioning from one leader to another.”
While a person called a Game Master is charged with giving each group a brief orientation, guests are on their own when it comes to finding clues that range from musical or other sounds to black lights, puzzles and lasers.
Stallworth’s co-worker, Earl Brownell, said that the group might have underestimated the difficulty of finding its way out of the room.
“It was a lot harder than I thought it would be,” the Towson University alumnus said. “I thought that there would be many more clues than there were. And we were just coming out of a six-hour meeting, so maybe we weren’t as alert as we could have been.”
Walker said that the rooms are fashioned so that figuring out how to escape takes some doing while trying to decipher clues.
“The majority of teams do not break out,” he said. “We’ve learned how to make it difficult without making it impossible. We like it when it goes right down to the wire.”
Prior to entering the room, Brownell had said he was looking forward to seeing how a large group gathered in a small room with so many “Type-A” personalities would mesh.
He added that he kept yelling “no” when other colleagues asked the Game Master, who observes the proceedings on eight cameras from a control room and can communicate verbally with participants, for more clues.
Even so, Brownell had a positive take on the proceedings.
“I had a great experience and I would totally do it again, but maybe with less people and in another room,” Brownell said. “And maybe I’ll have my thinking cap on next time. Everything seems so obvious once you’re out of the room.”
Tyler Ehringer said that his affinity for puzzles and games led him to try Breakout Games many times.
“I heard from friends that the rooms at Breakout Games were fun and challenging, and having done escape rooms in various other locations, I decided to give them a shot,” he said. “You definitely experience an adrenaline rush when you’re racing against the clock to beat the room.
“Whenever my friends and I finish a room at Breakout Games, we stand out in the lobby for an additional 15 minutes just laughing and talking about the puzzles.”