It was just the four of us in a small, dark room — my husband and me, and our friends Esti and Benjie. To proceed to the next room we had to feel for the ringing mobile phone and the flashlights that would help us locate and correctly match up at least half a dozen locks and keys leading to the main door lock.
This task took us about 15 minutes, a quarter of the total time designated for our escape-room adventure at Secret Room Jerusalem. Not surprisingly, the clock ran down before we found the hidden stash of cash in the third and final room. But we had a heck of a good time trying.
If you haven’t already heard of real-life room escape games, you will soon — no matter where you live. Escape rooms have been popping up all over the world, and Israel is no exception.
The concept, inspired by Agatha Christie mystery novels and the 1980s Quest computer game, started in Silicon Valley around 2006. The challenge: Your group (usually two to five people, ages 12 or 14 and up) must escape a room or series of rooms within 60 minutes by scouring the environment for clever clues to solve puzzles leading to the exit. A theme, like escaping a prison cell or hunting for a treasure, heightens the fun.
There are now about 15 escape rooms in Israel, mostly in Tel Aviv. Nearly all of them offer a choice of English or Hebrew, and sometimes other languages. It can be a great activity for tourists at night or on a hot or rainy day, but you must register online in advance.
Olga Pasitselskaya from Secret Room Jerusalem says that people are still just learning about the concept. When Secret Room opened last March following two months of design and construction by founders Vladimir Shevelevich and Konstantin Karelin, they offered a Groupon deal that started the ball rolling.
“People still ask us what they win at the end,” Pasitselskaya said with a laugh. Of course, there’s no actual prize aside from the satisfaction of successfully escaping, or the fun of trying. Many corporations use escape rooms as a team-building tool.
Some escape rooms have Israeli twists.
Jerry Glazer made aliyah from Passaic. He established Jerusalem Puzzle Quest, which poses would-be escapees — in groups of up to eight — with this question: “In the Nazir’s apartment are 4 wine bottles in a cabinet near the door. Get them and get out. Sound easy
“Two problems. The cabinet is locked and the Nazir is trying to stop you.”
(The choice to become a nazir is detailed in the Bible. A nazir is someone who has vowed not to cut his hair — or, more relevantly in this context, to drink wine. It is a vow viewed with some ambivalence by our tradition.)
Participants have the option of adding an actor who plays the nazir. This actor “seeks to neutralize the participants” as they try to unlock the wine cabinet.
“The Nazir is not violent or scary, but he can slow you down,” according to Jerusalem Puzzle Quest’s website, www.jpq.co.il, but “you will need to work fast and brainstorm off of each other. Teamwork is key.”
Questomania is another escape room offering an Israeli twist, with its “Iron Dome” themed game, based on the technology that protected the country during last year’s Gaza war, coming soon.
Some of the larger escape rooms — like EscapeIt Israel in Tel Aviv — allow two teams of up to five members each to play against one another in identical setups.
Ofer Samuel, co-owner and founder of EscapeIt, experienced his first escape room in Berlin last year. “My girlfriend suggested it; she’d done one with her family in London,” he said. “And it was awesome.
“Then we did one in Amsterdam, and I decided I wanted to do something like this, on steroids. So I built EscapeIt Israel and opened last April.”
In EscapeIt’s Syrian Spy Room, players assume the role of Mossad agents who must neutralize an assassination threat after Israel’s downing of six Syrian MiG-21s. The plot is based on an actual situation, which happened in April 1967.
“I knew at least one of my rooms would be specifically Israeli,” said Mr. Samuel, who had been a chef and marketer before beginning this new venture. “We have so many stories here, from biblical times on. I came up with the Syrian storyline in 12 minutes, based totally on history.”
Mr. Samuel said that while many of Israel’s escape rooms use imported Russian games and technology — escape rooms are popular in Moscow — EscapeIt and a few others developed all their software and hardware in Israel.
“Every game we will have in the future will be made in Israel as well,” Mr. Samuel said. “Our next branches in other cities will be phenomenal. I’m planning on doing it really, really big.”