For years now, Headless Horseman in Ulster Park, New York, has been one of the premiere haunted houses in the country, complete with hayrides, a corn maze, and hundreds of employees working to surprise and spook you. Celebrated for their immersive storytelling, as well as scares designed to delight and terrify all at once, it’s a Halloween tradition in the Northeast.
But recently, they’ve turned their creative energies toward a more puzzly experience: escape rooms.
This weekend, my siblings and I (plus some friends) tackled one of Headless Horseman’s escape rooms, Houdini’s Workshop, and it was an absolute blast.
Here’s the story behind Houdini’s Workshop, courtesy of the Headless Horseman website:
Houdini, the world’s greatest escape artist and famous magician, made a pact with his wife Bess to try and make contact from beyond the grave upon his death. They also set a deadline by which they would give up and Bess was to move on with her life.
As the hour approaches for the deadline, you and your friends are their last hope. You have one hour to discover the final item so that Bess may make one last attempt to contact her beloved husband.
And so, the ten of us piled into Houdini’s parlor and set out to explore… and there was plenty to explore! Hidden panels, riddles, brain teasers, and red herrings galore, not to mention a plethora of locks that would take cleverness, deduction, and teamwork to crack open.
How did we do? Well, I’m proud to announce that we escaped with 4 minutes, 30 seconds left on the clock. Everyone contributed to the solve, and everyone had a fantastic time.
Now, I can’t give you details on specific puzzles or anything like that, because that would ruin the experience for others who might accept the challenge of Houdini’s Workshop.
But it occurred to me that I could give you suggestions for other ways to exercise your puzzly mind and flex your mental muscles in the real world.
1.) Puzzle Hunts
[Game Master Bob Glouberman instructs a batch of competitors
in the Fantastic Race. Image courtesy of The LA Times.]
Puzzle hunts are interactive solving experiences that often have you wandering around a certain area as you crack codes, unravel riddles, and conquer puzzles. Some only run at certain times each year as annual events, while others (like the Fantastic Race or the Great Puzzle Pursuit) run for a longer time before being retired.
2.) Murder Mystery Dinners
[Image courtesy of Vancouver Presents.com.]
Murder mystery dinners thrive on the theatricality of the event. Attendees can overhear arguments, catch snippets of banter and exposition as they walk around, and engage characters in conversation to learn more. The more you interact with the story, the better chance you have of solving the mystery, but even passive players will get the big picture.
Some restaurants and nightly cruises run murder mysteries, but there’s a growing trend of people running their own as party events. I ran two in the office last year for fellow puzzlers!
LARPing, or Live-Action RolePlaying, takes the fun and imagination of a tabletop roleplaying game like Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, or Legend of the Five Rings, and puts it into the real world.
It might sound a bit bizarre if you’ve never done it, but as a longtime D&D fan, some of my favorite puzzles I’ve ever solved were physical puzzles I encountered during a LARP session.
Whether it’s reassembling a shattered piece of tablet to read the message on it or a mechanical puzzle where a door will only open after I’ve pulled a series of levers in the correct sequence, a tangible puzzle-solving experience gains another dimension of fun and challenge when it’s part of a greater narrative.
In fact, engaging in some of these activities gave me a lot of confidence going into the Houdini’s Workshop escape room. I’d never done an escape room before, but as a veteran of both murder mystery dinners and dungeon romps in Dungeons & Dragons, I was optimistic that my puzzly chops would prove useful.
And I hope my fellow puzzlers get a chance to do the same in the very near future.
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