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The Comedy of Errors

6 Escape Rooms to Tackle in Nottingham

22 February 20 words: Ashley Carter
illustrations: Agnes Papp

Nottingham’s escape room scene has a reputation for being one of the best in the country. So, during two weeks of searching, puzzle-solving and code cracking, we decided to see what all the fuss about...

For some, being trapped in a room full of puzzles, locks and (sometimes) frights is the stuff of nightmares. But for an increasing number of people, escape rooms are becoming an obsession, and recent statistics show that there may be as many as 60,000 rooms around the world, with almost 1,500 in the UK alone. The premise is simple: you’re locked in a themed room, usually for an hour, and have to solve a series of tasks in order to escape. With Notts considered one of the strongest locations in the UK, there’s plenty to choose from...

Escapologic

Rooms: Having already tried Howitz and Heistakes, we swung by Escapologic to try out Robin of Lockskey and Curio, both of which immediately entered my top ten favourite rooms ever. Curio is somewhat notorious for its difficulty and, although we didn’t escape, it was one of the most challenging and enjoyable experiences I’ve had in a room yet. For those who haven’t tried it: you should prepare yourself for the unexpected. Other rooms include their notoriously terrifying Butcher, Epi-entre, Cryptic and Contraption, as well as their brand new Warhammer 40,000 room, Immaterium.

What we say: There is so much to love about Escapologic and their approach to creating truly immersive, innovative experiences. They host some of the best rooms I’ve ever attempted, combining a mixture of horror, intrigue and action experiences that always deliver a challenging balance of invention and excitement that bring people in from all over the country. And talking to Simon Stokes, their charismatic Key Master, you can see that much of their deserved success comes from his genius, ambition and drive. He’s like a benevolent mad professor, constantly conjuring new ways to push the limits of what the experience can be, and it boggles the mind to think of what he would be doing if escape rooms had never taken off. You also get the sense that he’s the unofficial leader of Nottingham’s escape room community, offering help and support to new and established rooms in the city. Unlike other industries, there is a distinct lack of competition between rival escape room companies. A strong escape room scene helps all of them equally due, in part, to their addictive nature: once you’ve completed one, you immediately want to try another. Whether you’re a seasoned escape room veteran or a newbie, Escapologic’s eclectic selection of rooms doubtlessly have something to suit, and should be the first port of call on your escape room journey. 

What they say: "I’ve been quite creative since I was a kid, so when I’m coming up with the room concepts, I try and sit in the space and literally see what comes out of the walls to me. Curio, for example, took eight weeks to write. It was a frustrating process because I threw it all out and started from scratch because the story I’d created didn’t match the space.

Sometimes it’s frustrating when you’ve made what feels like a really easy puzzle, but people are stuck on it for twenty minutes. People’s brains just work differently. I always try and create something fresh when I’m designing our rooms; I want to be the first person to make a room that floods with water, so at the last minute people are gasping for air. I’d love that! I also wanted an electric fence in our Butcher room, but I was told no.

Even the Eiffel Tower gets bad reviews, so you’re never going to please everyone, especially because we get such a wide variety of people – from corporate teams to 86-year-olds – trying our rooms. I’ve played so many rooms that are just based in an old office space, but you’re told that you’re on board on old galleon ship in the middle of the ocean. But there’s an air conditioning unit to one side of you, and shoppers on the other, which is just a total immersion break. It has to look and feel authentic when you’re in the room. That’s why it’s our policy that if the games master has to come in the room, for any reason, you’re instantly given a refund and a ticket to come and play again.

If I had an unlimited budget, I’d love to build a Back to the Future room. I have no idea how it would work, and I said I’d never mess with time travel, but I’d love to make a room based on a big movie. It would be great, wouldn’t it?" Simon Stokes, Escapologic

21-23 Castle Gate, Nottingham, NG1 7AQ
Escapologic website

Escape Stations

Rooms: As the newest member to Nottingham’s growing escape room community, Escape Stations have just launched their first room, Prometheus. As a history geek that spent three weeks unsuccessfully trying to find an Ancient Greek themed room in Athens, you can probably imagine my excitement when they kindly agreed to let me have an early preview attempt at the room. It did not disappoint. The room leans towards logical, tactile puzzles, and there’s attention to detail in the craftsmanship that clearly shows it was designed by a real enthusiast. It’s Nottingham’s newest room, and could well prove to be one of it’s most popular. 

What we say: If there’s one thing that Nottingham’s escape room owners have in common, it’s a genuine enthusiasm for the crafting of original, challenging rooms that don’t rely on the usual tropes. Within a minute of talking to Escape Stations’ Managing Director Tom Armstrong, you feel that enthusiasm emitting from every pore in his body. The room has clearly been a lengthy labour of love and, having experienced both their first room and seeing what they have in store for the future of the location, it all seems completely worth it.

What they say: "No-one else in Nottingham had done an Ancient Greek room, so I thought, ‘why not us?’ I knew I wanted to use an Archimedes screw, but didn’t have a clue how. But after a few frantic phone calls to welders, I got it sorted. I also didn’t realise that the Ancient Greeks didn’t use numbers – they used letters – so there was a lot of obstacles to overcome. The original concept was to have the entire room in an ancient temple, but it just became too hard. In the end I halved it: modern day meets ancient world, so we were able to use padlocks and codes without using ‘escape room logic’, as it’s called.

But it’s not just the game that has to be right – it’s everything around it too. Has everyone got somewhere to sit? Somewhere to hang their coats? Are there working toilets? These people are spending £100 to be with you for an hour and a half, so everything needs to be polished.

We searched for a venue for quite a while. We originally looked at a venue up on the Ropewalk, but it was a bit of a weird space, and I didn’t want to rush. Every other escape room owner we talked to told us to open up on another venue’s doorstep. It’s weird, because you don’t want to encroach, but people play multiple rooms, and they’ll eventually run out of rooms in Nottingham.

I was in retail for the best part of fourteen years, and for me, it was never about selling, it was about the people that came into the shop. This was my ethos when it came to customers, and it’s the same now with Escape Stations. The reason we all do this is to see customers smiling at the end of it." Tom Armstrong, Escape Stations

Gothic House, The Basement, Barker Gate, Nottingham NG1 1JU
Escape Stations website

Pieminister

Rooms: Having already completed Germageddon, their science-themed room in which the aim is to stop the spread of an apocalyptic chemical outbreak, we headed over to Pieminister to try The Demon Barber. Inspired by the story of Sweeney Todd, the room begins in an eerie Victorian barber’s shop, and only gets more macabre from there. The Demon Barber had some wonderfully grizzly elements and a clear, linear narrative that makes it ideal for those less experienced in escape rooms.

What we say: You can’t help but admire the faith Pieminister have in their menu in building a Sweeney Todd themed room inside a restaurant that exclusively sells pies. The fact that they’re the only escape room in Nottingham that also serves as an eatery, as well as allowing (and encouraging) alcohol inside the rooms, ensures they offer something different to the other venues in Notts. Their rooms are fun, the food is great, and the combined offer on both presents something entertaining and unusual to do with your mates. 

What they say: "Nottingham’s escape community is thriving; we’re still relative newcomers to the whole thing. But all of the escape room ‘veterans’ we have been in contact with have incredibly friendly – they can’t do enough to help you. We never expected the reception from the community to be this great; we thought we would be seen as imposters because it isn’t very often that a restaurant decides to start locking people in rooms. We never expected to be as busy as we have been with the rooms, and getting honest feedback from the players allows us to constantly adopt the rooms for better play. 

We allow players to drink while inside of the rooms, which sets us apart from the other rooms in Nottingham. We’ve even had players order more drinks over the walkie-talkie in the middle of doing a room! We noticed that players who are drinking throughout the games seem to have a better understanding of the process, and stop overthinking things so much. We are a really good place for beginners to start their escape room experience as we are much more relaxed in giving clues and having a laugh with all of the groups that come through. It has been noticed that it is a comfort for first-time players that we do not lock the first door to the rooms and we have even had players that have been terrified of the thought of being sealed in, but end up enjoying the whole experience."  Lauren Craw - Pieminister

57 Long Row W, Nottingham NG1 6JB
Pieminister website

iLocked

Rooms: iLocked is home to three high-tech rooms; you can travel back to Ancient Egypt in The Mummy, confine yourself to a submarine-setting in Deep Blue: Sabotage, or travel deep into outer space in Alien. We tried out the latter, finding it not only challenging, but also impressively immersive and hugely enjoyable. It’s clear that the iLocked team place two factors above all else: technology and production value. The spaceship setting envelopes you completely, and care has clearly been taken to ensure that there are no off-theme elements to the room which would threaten to break that. There’s also a stimulating balance of both team and individual challenges, as players are separated in order to work on multiple puzzles concurrently. There’s more than enough here to exhilarate and test all levels of escape room enthusiast. 

What we say: The more of Nottingham’s escape rooms we completed, the clearer it became that each location had its own unique selling point. Whether by design or a happy accident, it’s ensured that the city has an eclectic array of rooms that provide something for all experience levels. With iLocked, the focus is clearly on technology. Priding themselves on being different from traditional rooms, their three experiences are all completely computer automated, made possible by over eight miles of cabling and a seriously impressive computer setup. As much as they’re creating great rooms, iLocked are creating compelling, memorable experiences. A consistent factor across all of the locations in Nottingham seems to be a desire to push boundaries and take escape rooms to the next level, which was evident with iLocked’s use of technology, including VR. It’s a healthy competition that keeps the experience fresh and interesting, as well as pushing the limits of immersive entertainment. And it’s working; while being absorbed in one of iLocked’s rooms, it’s all too easy to forget that you’re doing an escape room at all.  

What they say: "iLocked is extremely different to other escape rooms. Often the rooms we visit are the ones our customers visit, where you’ll be solving puzzles with padlocks and keys. Once you’ve done this once or twice, it can feel like it is the same thing everywhere. So, we want to provide a different experience, especially for enthusiasts and people wanting something different. That is what we provide. In the Alien room, we have key cards and future technology, computers, tablets, wires, things you’ll need to fix a spaceship. It’s all part of the immersive experience.

We have a range of different rooms that range in difficulty. Submarine is a lot more technical, and we recommend well-experienced people for that. But people have managed to complete it during their first time. For first timers we do recommend the Mummy, it doesn’t have as many puzzles and it’s in a Pharaoh’s tomb, so they’re not going to have the tablets and computers! So, it’s a bit simpler and more linear compared to our other ones.

You can figure out how experienced customers are pretty quickly. For example, a lot of times people will stand around and do nothing. But if people are experienced, they will be scouring everything and looking for things. Normally, we have a set time for where a group needs to be in a certain area, and if they’re not in there by then, and they’re taking a long time solving something that is simple that’s a clear sign. We do have hints; we have an automatic hint system but we also give manual hints very often. We try not to all the time because of authenticity and immersion. But that is why we use the computer system to deliver the hints. We’ve got the radio that is the communication to their team on the surface of the excavation. We get such a range of clientele, from corporate team-building groups, to first-timers and veterans." 

Marco Island, 1 Huntingdon St, Nottingham NG1 1AQ
iLocked website

Cryptology

Rooms: Another venue with an impressive array of rooms to choose from, including the Robin Hood Discovery Tour, Nottingham’s only outdoor escape experience, in which players walk almost three miles around the city finding clues, solving puzzles and uncovering codes. Having previously tried Rameseize, their Ancient Egyptian themed room, and the incredibly well-crafted, multi-faceted Dreamscape – which takes you on a journey through the dreams of Dr. Lucy Dee – we tried out their newest room, Daylight Robbery. Perfectly situated in an old bank vault, the objective of the room is less to escape, and more to steal as many valuable items, bundles of cash and priceless jewels as you can before moving on to the ultimate prize: the Daylight Diamond. Great escape rooms always leave a lasting impression, and I was thinking about Daylight Diamond for days after completing it. The sheer number and variety of puzzles ensured that there is no risk of getting stuck, because there was always something else to do. By subverting a number of traditional escape room tropes, its multi-layered approach to puzzles tricks you into over-thinking simple tasks and under-thinking complex ones. In a word, it’s superb. 

What we say: If iLocked are the kings of technological rooms, Cryptology have blazed a trail in creating the multi-layered, non-linear escape rooms in which not all puzzles and tasks need to be completed. There’s a beautiful frustration in knowing that the clock is ticking and not everything in the room can be accomplished within your given hour, but their rooms are unique in that they can be played multiple times, with each being a completely different experience. Owner Mark Thompson is another member of the community that seems to live and breathe escape rooms, and the energy and enthusiasm he has for his craft is infectious. As his brainchild, it’s clear that Daylight Robbery was an enormous enterprise, taking nine months and a lot of testing to complete. It was definitely worth the effort and, after finding out what they’ve got planned next, Cryptology look like they will continue to go from strength to strength.

What they say: "On our first day we opened in July 2015, Escapologic’s Simon Stokes visited us with a bottle of champagne. And recently, the Cave Escape team came round to play all of our games. This March, Simon, Nick (Cave Escape) and I are planning MERKIN – the Midlands’ Escape Room Knees-Up in Notts for all of the escape room owners and enthusiasts in the region. It’s going to be fantastic. We enjoy talking about the fantastic community in Nottingham, because it has become an escape room hot spot.

Escapologic (and now Cave Escape) have fantastic sets, it was very hard to compete on this front. When we first opened nearly five years ago I wanted to make good looking rooms capable with my low budget, but crammed full of unique puzzles. Move on to 2020 and I believe we have upped our game on the presentation of our rooms, but our clue system and tech integration is what sets us apart. The clue system is a terrible explanation of what it is, because it often interacts with the game to tell the story, giving notifications and feedback; it is not just clues. You can think of it as an extra player in the game, and a storyteller where necessary. One of the games' clue systems in our Sheffield branch took six months of programming, filming, testing, and integration. I am very proud of it and am always looking for new (and most importantly fun) ways to assist our groups.

The other focus for Cryptology Nottingham is to give all teams of all abilities as close to an hour as possible. While it can be rewarding to complete an escape room in thirty minutes, it makes an expensive half hour. You should never, ever write an escape room for an enthusiast, 95% of customers are new to escape room or only done a handful. Therefore we have games with variable success. Rameseize has up to three ancient relics to obtain; only 25% of teams get all three. Dreamscape has five separate dreams where there are five puzzle chains in each, teams will not solve everything but the more they do makes the final dream easier. Our latest game Daylight Robbery has far, far too much in the game for any team to get everything. This game mechanic has been carefully structured so that new players have the full hour and the high bar for experienced escapers give them the same. It is being very well received.  

The building we are in used to be Barclays bank, and in the basement was their old bank vault. This naturally gave the theme for our fourth game. There is room for another three-four games, and we have many theme ideas. It is important to try and be unique and offer mass appeal. At present, we have not gone down the scary route in Nottingham as Escapologic do this so well. The beauty of escape rooms are that, especially if you do not focus on focus on "I have to escape", the sky really is the limit in what you can create. 

City Centres are evolving; they are less about shopping and are transforming in a place to go to enjoy yourself. This could be food, drink, an activity, or a combination of these. As retail and office space goes unused, escape rooms started mopping up these empty units. We still get people who have never played an escape room; many get the bug for them on their first one. You struggle to find any town/city that does not have an escape room any more. While bowling, pool, and other leisure activities still exist, escape rooms offer an alternative environment focusing on teamwork rather than the one outright winner. People are asking will the bubble burst? I think those who continue to evolve will stay strong." Mark Thompson, Cryptology

107 Upper Parliament St, Nottingham NG1 6LA
Cryptology website

Cave Escape

Rooms: We tried out both of the rooms on offer at Cave Escape, starting with Carfax, a take on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Several themed rooms that I’ve done outside of Nottingham simply use a popular franchise to attract fans in, only for the room itself to have little or nothing to do with it at all. Refreshingly, it was obvious from the opening minutes that Carfax had been crafted by genuine fans of Stoker’s work, and the amount of detailed information and key plot points covered was seriously impressive. Next, we tried Monuments, a WWII-themed room based around the Allied effort to retrieve priceless artwork stolen by the Nazis. The initial plan to rank all of the rooms we tried in Nottingham was quickly abandoned after realising that, for different reasons, they were all excellent. But had we stuck to that plan, Monuments would have doubtlessly been near the list’s summit. The innovative use of space, technology, a video element and variation of puzzle types was superb, leaving me with the excited feeling of immediately wanting to play it again. A genuinely brilliant escape room. 

What we say: The Cave Escape experience hits you as soon as you walk through the doors of their Mansfield Road location. Everything from the antique furniture to the decorative wall art reveals a punctilious approach that makes all the more sense when you learn that Cave Escape’s owners, couple Nick and Jenny, were set designers in their previous profession. It would have been easy to rest on the pull of having rooms based in Nottingham’s caves, but for them, that was just a starting point upon which they’ve built two truly first-class rooms. The passion for the process is clear in both of them and, with family dog Obi never too far away, they’ve created a beautifully-crafted, warm and welcoming atmosphere for real enthusiasts. 

What they say: "We used to be set builders working in advertising when this amazing space became available. There are quite a few husband and wife teams in the escape room industry, and we’ve worked together for years. It doesn’t always work out as well for couples doing the rooms together though! We had a pair of owners come up from Devon who nearly had a punch up during a room! I don’t think they’re together any more…

Simon from Escapologic helped us a lot – he’s amazing, and mentored us when we first set up.  Rather than see us as a potential threat, he took us for coffee and told us all about the ups and downs he’d experienced, and told us to just go for it. Since then, we’ve become really good friends.

The fact that our two rooms are in caves is our USP, so what we do is dictated by our space, but that’s not where we stop. There are other caves in the city, but they’d be a bloody nightmare to use! Our two were hard enough – and we’ve got some great rooms planned that don’t need to be set in caves.

Getting customers in to try the rooms was nerve-wracking to say the least. We built the rooms and thought they were good, but it isn’t until people actually play them that you know for sure. It’s our baby; we’ve built it ourselves. Some escape rooms buy games in, some hire people to build and design their rooms, but because we did it from absolute conception to build, you’re a lot more invested when you watch people in the rooms. You’re just thinking, “Don’t say anything bad…” But we couldn’t have asked for anything better with the reviews we’ve had. From opening eighteen months ago we’re ranked #2 on TripAdvisor for entertaining and fun things to do in the city." Nick Scott and Jennifer Gilbert-Scott, Cave Escape

63 Mansfield Rd, Nottingham NG1 3FN
Cave Escape website

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