Paying a stranger to lock you and your friends in a room filled with fiendish puzzles sounds an unlikely holiday activity, but “escape rooms” are springing up around the world. Shafik Meghji got locked up in Budapest

The email was brief and ever so slightly unsettling: “Please arrive punctually at 16:30 to Erzsébet Körút 8, and ring the doorbell number 10. After you enter the main entrance, there will be another door before the stairs. Open it fast, if not you will get stuck between the two doors. Please note that we do not have a toilet!”

Hungary, capital of Budapest, Europe

A few hours later, on a frigid Sunday afternoon, my friends and I stand outside a looming, grey apartment building on a nondescript street in downtown Budapest, trams thundering past behind us. A “Claustrophilia” sign hangs above the door.

We are buzzed in, narrowly avoiding getting stuck in the atrium in the process, and head up a creaking staircase to the Wicklewood Heritage room. The door locks ominously behind us. There’s no one inside, but a sign instructs us to sign a waiver form absolving the company of responsibility for any foolish behaviour on our behalf. As soon as we post the form into a letter box, the game begins.

We quickly scan our surroundings: a narrow room with three doors, all of them locked and one without a handle; a wooden chest filled with golf balls; a padlocked box; a collection of variously-sized spanners; and several vintage hats hanging from hooks. There are no obvious clues or instructions. We glance at each other, and then at our watches: three of our allotted 60 minutes have inexplicably passed. I grab an old tweed deerstalker in an attempt to channel my inner Sherlock Holmes. We set to work.

Sherlock Holmes, escape rooms

On the surface, escape rooms seem to be an unlikely tourist phenomenon: solving a series of tasks and puzzles to get out of a locked room (or, in many cases, several inter-linked rooms) within a set time limit (usually one hour).

Yet the games are springing up all around the world: they are particularly popular in Europe, the United States, and parts of Asia. At the latest count, one of the sector’s leading operators, Escape Hunt (www.escapehunt.com), has over 20 franchises in locations as diverse as Ho Chi Minh City, Lisbon, Pattaya and Cancun, as well as London and Melbourne.

Influenced by computer and online games (notably Takagism), as well as horror movies, detective stories, and even the 1990s cult TV programme The Crystal Maze, each escape room game has a distinct theme. One of Escape Rooms’ games in London, for example, plunges you into Ancient Egypt and the pyramid of Pharaoh Khufu, while Escape the Room in New York runs a game in a more contemporary – and relatable – setting: an office with no exit and a rapidly approaching boss. Some of the games, meanwhile, are designed to give players a fright: the Saw Experience Room in Las Vegas is based around the horror film series of the same name.

Claustrophilia is one of scores of escape rooms that have sprung up in Budapest over the last few years, taking advantage of the many atmospheric (and underused) buildings in the city centre, relatively low rents, and a steady stream of young travellers. The Wicklewood Heritage game is based in the apartment of a recently deceased nineteenth-century British explorer, “Lord Wicklewood”. The Victorian era is evocatively recreated through aged globes, stamps and paintings, bird cages, bookshelves filled with mysterious tomes, creaking wooden floors, heavy locked desks, and other trinkets. Some of them are clues – many are red herrings.

Old-fashioned globe, world map, escape rooms

The game quickly sucks you into another world, testing your logic, problem-solving and – perhaps most crucially – teamworking skills. The tasks and puzzles are challenging, and only around thirty per cent of groups manage to escape within the time limit, though you can use a phone in the first room if you get stuck on a particular problem. And despite what the company’s name might suggest, the game is not just for people with a penchant for confined spaces (claustrophobes, however, should avoid certain escape rooms).

The team behind Claustrophilia requests that players don’t ruin the experience for others by giving away too many spoilers about what the games involve. Suffice to say that with the tension steadily building, we manage to solve the final puzzle and escape from the Wicklewood Heritage room with two minutes to spare.

Back on the street outside, my friends and I have a real sense of satisfaction. But it isn’t long before talk turns towards Claustrophilia’s other escape room, Voodoo Tales. Apparently some intrepid adventurers are needed to break in – and out – of the “temple of Gaa Enn Jama”.

Claustrophilia is designed for groups of two to six people and costs €27–40, depending on your number of players.

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