By Léo Azambuja
You and your friends are locked inside a dimly lit small room. You have no idea how to get out, but you know many objects — hidden or in plain view — will help you navigate the puzzle. It’s time to think; and be curious. You have an hour to find the clues to solve a mystery and escape the room.
Yacine Merzouk and his wife, Michelle Rundbaken, opened the Kaua‘i Escape Room in Lihu‘e last summer, following a phenomenon that took over the globe in the last few years.
“It’s a group activity for two-to-eight players, you have 60 minutes to enter a room, find clues, solve puzzles, work together and achieve the objective,” Yacine said of the Escape Room.
The Kaua‘i Escape Room has two distinct challenges; The Missing Scientist and the newly opened Curse of the Tiki Lounge. While it may be a fun group activity, the odds are not on your side. Good luck is not enough; you’ll need to be clever. More than half of the people fail. Most of those who succeed do it in the last few minutes.
“In here, there’s about a dozen puzzles or mysteries to unravel. As you start looking closer at things, things reveal themselves, things get unlocked, secret messages and puzzles are put together and eventually you win the game or run out of time,” Yacine said.
The first escape room opened in Japan in 2007. In 2011, Singapore had its first escape rooms. That same year, escape rooms opened in Europe and Australia. San Francisco opened its first one in 2012, brought by a friend of the original Japanese developer. It’s now all over the world.
Michelle said it took a long time for escape rooms to make it to Hawai‘i. The first one opened only about a year-and-a-half ago in Honolulu. Now, there are at least six on O‘ahu and one on Maui, with another room opening there in a couple months.
Even President Barack Obama joined the fun. Last Christmas, he unexpectedly showed up with his daugthers — and the Secret Service — at the Breakout Waikiki, an escape room in Honolulu. The Obamas unlocked the Mission Manoa room with 12 seconds left on the clock, and became part of the select group of 18 percent who get out of that room.
The Curse of the Tiki Lounge at the Kaua‘i Escape Room has a success rate of 48 percent, while The Missing Scientist has a success rate of 51 percent.
Michelle and Yacine played their first escape room in the summer of 2015 in Montreal. They liked it so much that they came back to Kaua‘i and built an escape room for their friends at their home for Halloween. Then they built another one for Valentine’s Day. They saw the response and decided to open an escape room.
“We do all the designs ourselves, we build everything, we come up with all the puzzles,” said Michelle, adding Yacine is a programmer, so if there are any tech puzzles, he programs it himself.
“The goal is to create cinematic moments, so as you uncover the mystery, you start to understand the story, so we raise the stakes,” Yacine said. “It’s like you’re in your own action movie.”
The Missing Scientist was the first room they built. They also had a room built for Halloween, another for Christmas and one called The Lost Elvis Record, which is now retired to make room for the Curse of the Tiki Lounge.
“We try to make games with a local feel,” Michelle said. The Tiki room is totally fictional, it takes place on an imaginary Tiki Island, and all the tiki gods are not Hawaiian. She said she didn’t want to upset anyone by using religion, so the props are fictional but the room “definitely has that Hawai‘i feel.”
Michelle said when she and Yacine decided they were going to open the Kaua‘i Escape Room, they took a road trip from Florida to New Orleans. On the way, they played in several rooms in different towns. Altogether, they have played about 25 games, and in their next trip, they are planning to play another 10.
But judging by the number of locals — half of their customers — playing at the Kaua‘i Escape Room, Yacine and Michelle are not the only enthusiasts on the island.
“We’re making addicts on Kauai,” said Michelle, laughing.
The games are designed to be played once. All games are private. Yacine said the puzzles are calibrated for 14-years-olds and older, but kids 12 years old should be able to participate. Younger kids can come but have to be accompanied by an adult. They might not be able to participate in everything but can still have fun scavenging and finding things.
“We’ve had groups of people in their 60s and they’re having a blast too,” Yacine said. “There’s really no age limit, as long as you like puzzles.”
The Kaua‘i Escape Room is at 4353 Rice St. in Lihu‘e. Prices range from $25 to $40 per person, depending on the number of players. Visit www.escaperoomkauai.com or call 635-6957 for more information or to book a room.