Escape Artistry

W hen you play an escape room game, you usually have to, well, escape from a room. But Escape New Haven has taken its gameplay beyond the limitations of four walls, with three outdoor games requiring the same kind of puzzling and problem-solving as their indoor counterparts.

One frigid morning, Daily Nutmeg editor Dan Mims and I set out to try the newest of these pandemic-friendly challenges, Time Crimes: Pursuit of the Wallaby. Our game began at the colorful kiosk outside Escape New Haven’s Whitney Avenue headquarters just north of Trumbull Street, where co-founder Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent got us started with an “urgent transmission” from the fictional Timeline Integrity Unit. A criminal nicknamed The Wallaby, TIU’s “#1 Most Wanted time criminal,” had been spotted in New Haven. “She must have heard we were on to her, because she made a quick getaway,” the transmission told us. However, her briefcase had been recovered. We could use its contents, along with “time lapse security cameras,” to track her. The catch: the briefcase had five compartments, each with a different padlock we’d have to crack with the help of clues along the way.

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Unlike Escape New Haven’s other two outdoor games, which rely on the existing environment to feed you information, Wallaby takes you on a tour of five specially constructed history kiosks (aka “time lapse security cameras”). These boxes on poles feature viewfinders that give you an intriguing glimpse into New Haven’s past via dioramas created by artist Sooo-z Mastropietro. Therein are hidden hints. The first kiosk, located on nearby Phelps Triangle, was a scene of the Hillhouse Basin, circa 1828, the historic starting point for boat trips up the Farmington Canal.

We solved our first puzzle quickly, using words circled on a historic newspaper clipping and diorama clues to unlock the first padlock. But that was to be the end of quick-and-easy puzzles. Upon peering into the narrow compartment we’d just opened, we were flummoxed. What were those black rectangles of cloth? What were we supposed to do with the large peg? Was the answer buried in the history blurb we pulled up using the QR code on the kiosk post? After hemming and hawing and rubbing our cold hands together, we caved and called Rodriguez-Torrent for help. (The failure to find the solution, it turned out, was only partly our fault. Escape New Haven promises to have solved this by the time you get there.)

Back on track and ready to conquer the rest of our mystery, we hiked to a point on the Farmington Canal Rail Trail, where we found the second kiosk. Its scenario time-traveled us 10 years forward to 1835 and the canal’s Lock 25. The initial puzzle hadn’t prepared us for the difficulty of this multi-leveled brain teaser, a combination of letters and colors and geometrical logic. As we knelt on the trail, scribbling with a set of colored pencils on a diagram, walkers and runners and a Yale security guard gave us quizzical looks and kept going. After what felt like half an hour, slipping toward despair, we dialed Rodriguez-Torrent again, just as Dan realized the mistake we’d made in our thinking.

Our brain power improved as we went. The next three puzzles, set in dioramas depicting the history of the railroad (1848), Winchester Arms (1900) and the McLagon Foundry (1924), posed new and interesting challenges using audio clues, a brain-teasing maze and more, not to mention the hide-and-seek of finding the kiosks. By the time we crouched in the snow to test a theory about how to use several big peg keys, we were in deep, and we cheered when our attempts triggered a mechanical reaction in the box. We ended our journey back at Escape New Haven about three hours after we’d started. In fairness, part of that time was spent taking notes and photographing for this story. You should be able to finish a bit more quickly.

Neither of us would recommend playing on a very cold morning, partly because you need your fingers to manipulate the padlocks and some of the other tools in the briefcase. “This actually is pretty fun,” Dan said early on as we entered the rail trail, despite gloveless hands and the responsibility of lugging around the briefcase. Shortly after that, we warmed up, both literally and physically.

Normally, Wallaby players won’t have a direct lifeline to Rodriguez-Torrent, who co-created the game (along with artist Mastropietro and illustrator Jeremy Duval). But they will be able to text an automated hint line for increasingly explicit help. If all else fails, support staff back at Escape New Haven will be standing by to answer a phone call. One other tip: The kiosk farthest up the rail trail is a good place to pause for a bathroom break and a hot drink to go from Fussy Coffee, located just across Munson Street.

You could also play one of Escape New Haven’s indoor games—The Crypt, The Gallery, The Game Show and the premium game Before Moonrise, which adapts some of its challenges to the level of its players for a customized experience. Indoor players must be vaccinated and masked, and only teams of eight or fewer are permitted, though protocols are subject to change. You can also simply take a walk and enjoy the dioramas and their accompanying history narratives, accessible via a QR code on each box.

With sister venues in Sacramento and Providence and new games always in development, Escape New Haven aims to please both experienced “puzzle nerds” and newbies alike, Rodriguez-Torrent says. For us, Wallaby’s challenges were a satisfying balance of difficult and solvable—not to mention a great escape from the winter blues.

Escape New Haven
103 Whitney Ave, New Haven (map)
(860) 576-9997 | [email protected]
Outdoor games: $79 (winter rate) for up to 5 players
Indoor games: $79-$84 for 2 players; each additional player $19-$24
www.escapenewhaven.com

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts somewhat-weekly content on her YouTube channel, Better Book Clubs.

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