Escape Rooms (or escape games or puzzle rooms) have exploded in popularity over the last ten years. These are physical action adventure games that require quick thinking, problem solving, and teamwork. If you’ve never done one, you’re missing out. As a connoisseur of the genre, I am here to provide guidance for anyone curious and excited to break in to (or break out of) some of the local rooms around here.
The C-U community is lucky enough to have three separate escape room establishments in town. Each one offers multiple rooms to play, and has a unique take on escape rooms. Here is a quick guide to the local rooms and tips for beginners!
First, let’s talk basics about each escape room purveyor:
Photo by Anna Longworth
CUATS is wildly imaginative and easily my favorite place to go puzzle-ing. Built by and for puzzlers, it has the largest number of rooms, meaning they have a really excellent variety to choose from. Their rooms aren’t “escape” rooms in the sense that you’re locked in, and the point of each room is not breaking out. You’re solving puzzles, unraveling a mystery, and interceding in a series of terrible events that are about to bring the world to an end. High stakes over in Urbana! There’s a huge variety of puzzles and problems to solve, and the world building is unmatched.
There are five (soon to be six) rooms available split between two locations: 302 N. Broadway and 110 S. Race. Groups sizes can range from 2 to 10. Costs per room are $25 per person, $20 for students.
LabEscape is an amazing gem for our local community. It’s the only science-based escape room in the country and it’s a non-profit. At LabEscape there’s no requirement for serious science knowledge (my degree in Roman History proves that) and they give you all the information you might need to solve the puzzles. This room is run by members of the physics department at UIUC and your guide is likely to be undergrad within the department, so if you do get stuck on the science, they’ll know how to help.
They have two scenarios and either can be played at a novice or challenging level for groups of 3 to 6. They are directly related, so you’ll need to play “Professor S is Missing” before playing “Return to the Lab.” Both are at their location in Lincoln Square Mall. It’s $20 for most and $15 for students.
Brainstorm Escapes is the only one located in Champaign, and provides four room options for you to choose from. The rooms are interconnected and completing all of them will unravel a larger mystery, though, unlike at Lab Escape, you do not need to play them in sequence. The rooms here really do lock you in, though there is an emergency key just in case. Their website includes difficulty ratings for each room, so it’s easy to choose a room that’s right for you and your group.
There are four rooms available for groups up to 10 to play at their location at 61 E University Ave. Costs are $25 for adults, $20 for students, and $15 for those under 18.
Now, for the rooms.
There is a local theme (I can’t imagine why) of professors and students having to solve the puzzles left by said professors. You’ll notice each company has at least one professor themed room. At LabEscape that’s the whole shtick — though considering who’s in charge, it’s not a shock. Both CU Adventures (The Lost Temple) and Brainstorm (The Professor Hunt) have professor themed rooms as well, and the three vary in complexity and overall experience.
Photo by Julie McClure
Of the three, the most thorough and immersive is CU Adventures The Lost Temple as the setting is chock full of knick-knacks and clutter, and I’ve never seen a professors office or lab that isn’t wedged full of books, papers, instruments, or other materials. It also helps because so many of the things are clues or play into puzzles, though not everything does, so you’re required to triage items and clues. At LabEscape pretty much every thing you encounter will be part of a puzzle, so there’s very little critical thinking needed in that regard. In The Lost Temple and LabEscape you’re following in your professor’s footsteps and going through their work to solve a problem and save the world or stop a major event. In The Professor Hunt, your professor is more the enemy, having locked you into the mountain. So, depending on how you feel about your mentors, that may be a better fit for you.
LabEscape comes in two difficulty levels, novice and challenge, so it’s very easy to customize your experience there. The Lost Temple is one of the easier rooms at CU Adventures, so it’s a great starting point for new escapees. The Professor Hunt is ranked a 3.5/5 at Brainstorms and is their second hardest room. Just like picking a major, select at your own peril.
We also have some scary rooms in town for those of you who like to be spooked. At CU Adventures you can find Revenge of the Cabin, and Brainstorm Escapes presents Rise of the Zombie Pets to get your blood pumping.
Photo by Anna Longworth
If you never played the original The Cabin at CU Adventures, don’t worry! You can still play and enjoy The Revenge of the Cabin without losing anything or being behind on clues and information. One of the great strengths of CU Adventures is the multiple room, highly detailed, complicated sequences they can dream up. The Revenge of the Cabin is no different. You’ll need eyes everywhere and a large enough group to keep up on the various clues and solutions going on throughout the spaces. The Revenge of the Cabin, like the original Cabin, has some more graphic aspects so it might not be a good outing for kiddos.
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Rise of the Zombie Pets is a real thrill and requires escaping several things, including separation from some of your group members. If you want to really get your brain (and heart) going this could be a great option for you. This is definitely one of the most challenging rooms in the community with only about a third of teams escaping.
Going for more of a knight in shining armor vibe? Looking for a way to show off your wand skills? Hoping to practice for your next prison escape? There are rooms for you too.
Photo by Anna Longworth
CU Adventures has a great diversity of rooms and almost everyone can get excited about at least one of them. The Sword of the Dragon provides a really unique experience compared to other escape rooms as it’s one open space with most clues and puzzles in full view from the moment you enter. This makes it trickier in a lot of ways, and since it’s so different from other rooms I’d recommend it for people who have done a few and want to change it up a bit. It could prove a bit much for those who are brand new to the field. They’ve also got a new room called the Wizard’s Curse if you’re hoping to practice your swish and flick technique. This one is recommended for groups no larger than five as the space is smaller and more unusual. Only bring your smart friends. Their other and final room, Artificial Intelligence, is also the hardest. It’s a Terminator-esque world out there and you’ve got to stop an evil, sentient robot from destroying humanity. Just try to not download a virus.
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Brainstorm Escapes has two other rooms we haven’t yet talked about as well: Abstract Larceny and Big House Breakout. Abstract Larceny is their newest room and requires you to track down art thieves in order to avoid getting canned from your museum security job. The looming terror of not making rent hangs over this room, though it may hit too close to home for some. Their other room, Big House Breakout is considered their easiest room with about 90% of teams making their way out. It’s a great starting place if you want a classic, manageable room experience without having to manage too many plot points and competing priorities. This is also one of their most popular rooms, so book it well ahead to ensure you can practice your breakout.
LabEscape, of course, has one other room called Return to the Lab. As we said, it’s recommended to have completed Mystery of Professor S. Return to the Lab is significantly trickier than the first room, though it still has novice and challenge modes. Since the rooms happen in the same space, you’ll see puzzles and parts cross over. However, anything you don’t need will be covered in purple tape.
With three companies and 11 rooms in town, you’re never short of options and opportunities to hone your problem-solving skills. The hour format is perfect for a group bonding experience or afternoon out of the house when you start to go stir-crazy. So get your friends, choose a room, and save the world!
Top photo by Anna Longworth