Great Escapes 

Can you match wits with Hannibal Lecter? Adventurous Escape Room experiences finally catch on in Richmond.

click to enlarge Founder Josh Czarda stands in the steam-punk-themed space at Escape Room RVA in the Village Shopping Center.

Scott Elmquist

Founder Josh Czarda stands in the steam-punk-themed space at Escape Room RVA in the Village Shopping Center.

Resting on Hannibal Lecter’s desk are notes concerning his psychiatry patients. One page contains his diagnosis of Dana Scully; another relates to Charles Manson. Images of skeletons adorn the walls of the cannibal’s study, and creepy music emanates from an old record player. The doors and cabinet drawers are padlocked to impede me and others from leaving. The only way to escape is by decoding clues hidden around us.

Welcome to Escape Room RVA, an adventure game that blurs the line between fiction and reality. Participants pay for the thrill of being locked in a room while they solve puzzles to escape. If you’ve ever dreamed of being Lara Croft, Harry Potter or Indiana Jones, escape rooms are a way to live out the fantasy.

Escape rooms can be traced back to a number of sources, according to Scott Nicholson, a professor of game design at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario. But Scrap Entertainment was the first to coin the term. The company created its first escape room in 2007, inspired by point-and-click escape-the-room video games that were popular in Asia.

Escape rooms have seen massive success there and in Europe — Beijing alone has 182 escape rooms — and now the trend is making inroads into the United States. Worldwide, there are an estimated 2,800 escape rooms, and the business is said to be highly lucrative. Scrap reported that revenues grew 800 percent in its first year in the United States. Puzzle Break in Seattle is on track to gross $600,000 this year.

Locally, Escape Room RVA had its beginnings more than a decade ago when founder Josh Czarda was trying to cheer up his younger brothers. The boys’ mother was in the hospital undergoing cancer treatment, so Czarda devised a treasure hunt at Old Rag Mountain using a GPS and a metal detector. The boys loved the game, as did Czarda’s friends.

At their encouragement, Czarda started Ravenchase Adventures to create similar events. Within two weeks of launching his website, Czarda had his first bite — a 200-person, James Bond-themed event off the coast of Malta. Since then, Czarda and Ravenchase have crafted unique events for Fortune 500 companies, sports teams and celebrities.

“We’ve done things all over the world for just about everyone,” says Czarda, who’s simulated bank heists and created “Da Vinci Code”-themed runs through the streets of Paris.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, Brad Pitt and Matthew McConaughey are a few of the celebrities he’s worked with, and one job had Czarda fashion an event for the creators of “The Great Race,” “National Treasure” and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchises. For the Indianapolis Colts he devised a game that gave away six Super Bowl rings.

Czarda first tried to bring escape rooms to Richmond more than a decade ago, but says the market wasn’t ready.

“That was just a giant flop,” Czarda says. “They [recently] started to spring up everywhere, so we decided to take another crack at it.”

This time around, the location at Village Shopping Center near the University of Richmond already has developed a cult following in the two months since it opened.

The facility boasts three different escape rooms and plans for a fourth are on the way. Current rooms include: the Mind Trap Room, based on Hannibal Lecter; a Steampunk STEM Room that focuses on science, technology, engineering and mathematics; and one based on the seven mortal sins.

Of the three, the Mind Trap Room has the lowest rate of completion, with only 33 percent of groups solving the room before time runs out. The seven mortal sins room has a 37-percent success rate, and about half of groups complete the Steampunk STEM Room. For groups that don’t finish a room before time runs out, they can decide to either watch a staff member complete it or try to complete it another day.

Throughout the game, groups can ask for help from staff, though they lose a minute of time for each hint. Because the fire marshal might take issue with a completely locked room, the door the players enter through is always left open. The fourth room it is planning is Plato’s Cave.

“It’s a little more philosophical,” Czarda says. “It’s a sensory deprivation place, so the whole room will be pitch black. You’ll have to rely on your other senses to crack the locks and get out.”

Czarda plans to change the rooms every three months, and says he’s already had a number of requests to recreate the Death Star trash compactor from “Star Wars.” Still based in Richmond, Ravenchase Adventures has a handful of independent contractors scattered throughout the country, and Czarda has plans for Escape Room branches in Virginia Beach as well as Greensboro, North Carolina, and perhaps Raleigh.

So far, Czarda says the games have been most popular with companies looking to do team-building exercises.

“Oftentimes a corporation comes back and says ‘We want to incorporate XYZ into the game,’ and it could be that their CEO has been kidnapped,” he says.

Nicholson says corporate clients are not only more lucrative for escape-room businesses, but also can use the entertainment to help employees absorb new work-related information.

“It creates this intense, team-based experience that gets people to engage with content, so you could use it get people to learn something,” Nicholson says. He recently devised a game at Fort Stanwix National Monument in New York, in which participants used French and Indian War-era codes to learn about history.

“The players in their games got to learn a little bit about the history of the fort, a little bit about how cryptography was done during that time, and they got to experience how things were [back then],” Nicholson says.

For Eric and Ryann Barnum of Midlothian, completing Escape Room RVA’s Mind Trap Room was a learning experience of its own.

“It was interesting to see how people approach it differently,” Eric Barnum says, adding that his wife popped a number of locks while he got lost in the details. “It’s a fun, out-of-the-box thing that everyone should try at least once.” S

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