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Get out and get locked in: Escape rooms boom in Tri-Cities area

Nathan Baker • Jul 9, 2017 at 11:05 PM

During a night out cavorting with your mobster associates in a Prohibition-era Tennessee railroad town, you find yourself trapped in a speakeasy with G-men outside the door waiting to take you to the big house.

Hoping to avoid the probable hail of gunfire the Untouchables will rain upon your group if they get in, you and your friends have about an hour to find some means of escape.

Say, has that combination lock always been on the wall over there, and doesn’t that picture look a little askew?

Regular visitors to escape rooms may recognize the setup: a group is locked in with a ticking clock. The room is filled with clues to help you get out if you keep your wits and know what to look for.

Businesses offering live physical adventure games got their start in Japan ten years ago, but they’ve only recently appeared in the Tri-Cities.

Tri-Cities Escape Game opened last year on Bristol’s State Street, followed closely by Escape Room Kingsport on Stone Drive in the Model City. Johnson City’s The Enigma Chambers opened last April, and Elizabethton Escape, Escape Depot, also in Elizabethton, and The Escape Game in Jonesborough both opened in late June.

Mike Robison, co-owner of The Enigma Chambers, said it’s the allure of suspense that keeps customers crowding in.

Robison’s and his partner’s introduction to escape rooms was in Atlanta, where they stumbled across one and thought it was a panic room, where frightened home and business owners hide from external threats.

“We played it and had a blast, then we did a couple more, and by that point it was an addiction,” he said.

With no escape attraction in Johnson City, they decided to create one, then set on a 30-room tour of the Southeast, from Nashville to Atlanta to Orlando, to research the game genre.

The result was the previously described Little Chicago scenario, a room with fake bottles of liquor, but real locks. The room was built in the former Johnson City housing offices at 1001 N. Roan St.

In the few months it’s been open, Robison said business beat the owners’ expectations

They plan to open a new room, Initiation, later this month. It will be spookier than the speakeasy, starting when serial killers kidnap the trapped group and plan to broadcast their torture and murders online.

A third room, a Mars adventure and escape game is set to open in the late summer.

The mobster room relies on physical locks and puzzles to drive the “puzzle flow,” the natural progress each group makes toward escaping. Robison said Initiation and Mars Colony will incorporate technology, microcontrollers called arduinos, in their puzzles to unlock doors and advance the flow.

Later this year, he said the business hopes to open a second location, most likely in Greeneville, with a similar stable of rooms. A third is in the works, and the goal is to have 10 locations by 2020.

In Jonesborough’s The Escape Game, players must navigate through three rooms of an 1800s Appalachian jail to rescue Pappy, the patriarch of a clan of hillfolk, played by a wizened dummy.

Owners Kathy Shephard and Rob Phillips ran a similar room a couple of years ago for the Hales Community Haunted Forest before deciding to build one at 101 Fox St.

For the jail break, they covered the walls with rough-cut wood and stocked the rooms with antiques.

“We try to keep it as close to back in the day as possible,” Shephard said. “There’s nothing technological, no computers, just basic puzzles. You have to use your mind and brain a little bit.”

After opening two weeks ago, she said business has been nonstop. The game is supposed to be closed Mondays, but because of demand, the business opened last Monday to accommodate.

Shephard and Phillips plan to rotate new games in every three to four months.

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