It was definitely a moment of discovery.
Locked inside a trapper’s cabin at Tacoma’s Fort Nisqually and scrambling for the clues to get out, I realized that in the dim candlelight of 1855 I couldn’t see a thing. I needed glasses.
It’s probably not exactly what the creators of the historic Fort’s new escape room had in mind for audience education. But “Trapped,” which opened last week at the museum and runs through spring, does more than just give you an hour of puzzling thrills with total strangers. It shows you, in a relentlessly hands-on way, just how tough 19th century life could be.
“What were the numbers again?” asks Crystal Gosciniak with a grimace. She’s on her knees on the dusty wood floor, squinting intensely at the first lock our group needs to open in “Trapped.” The room — a historic fur trapper’s cabin with sparse wood furniture, blankets, pots and pans — is lit only by candle sconces on the walls. I bring an extra lantern over and still can’t make out the numbers. I’m tempted to fish my phone out of my pocket, but that’s against the rules, not to mention the spirit of the thing.
Finally, after double-checking we’ve solved the number code correctly, Gosciniak clicks the lock open.
“Thank God for electricity,” says someone wryly, and we all move on to the next puzzle.
Puzzle rooms, or escape rooms, are one of those trends that just hasn’t gone away. Wildly popular in Hungary and China, where they take over enormous venues with dozens of participants, they’re theatrical experiences where you pay money to get locked into a room with strangers and have to find the clues that will lead you to the door key. The chain of puzzles runs from codes to visual patterns, logic, anagrams and simple math — something for everyone, and usually requiring folks to organize and collaborate. Tacoma’s first puzzle room launched last summer and runs by appointment downtown at the old Post Office.
But the thing that sucks you into a puzzle room and keeps you entertained is the theme — and Fort Nisqually has that in spades. The storyline is that your group needs to find evidence that a certain fur trapper has been stealing from the Hudson Bay Co. store before he returns to his cabin, and from the moment you arrive at the pitch-dark fort and make your way down the lantern-lit path, you’re immersed in a historical experience.
Clues are hidden among authentic artifacts such as traps, pelts and parchment, and include language and customs used in daily life at the fort during the 1800s. Hourglasses show you how much time you don’t have left. There’s nothing newer than 1900.
And then there’s the candlelight, which gives everything a suspicious, spooky flicker and makes you realize how good we’ve got it today.
“It’s been one of the challenges, to have enough light,” agrees Allison Campbell, the fort’s events and volunteer assistant, who dresses in period skirt and hat to accompany groups to the locked cabin (and, if pressed, give a tiny bit of help). Campbell brought the whole idea to the fort after she did a puzzle room at a museum she worked at previously.
“I don’t know any other historical museums around here that are doing it,” she says. “It’s an education program as much as for fun. And it brings in a new audience.”
Campbell also lucked out with the company they found to create the room: Portland’s Labyrinth Escape Games, whose owner Andrew Lind is from Tacoma and volunteered at the fort during high school.
“Andrew just grabbed all these (artifacts) from the fort to get ideas,” says Daniel Smith, part of the Labyrinth creative team who — also dressed in 1850s garb — hovered inside the puzzle room to observe how it was working for our group. “We know puzzles. What’s important is, what story did we want to tell?”
Lind and his team mined the Journal of Occurrences, a daily log of events kept at the fort, for ideas and characters, eventually lighting on the thieving trapper.
“Trapped” has been a huge success. All 27 of the original event times in January, February and March have sold out, and Campbell has added more, including family-friendly ones plus the 21-and-older shows, which offer beer and wine while you wait in the gift shop before the event. (Mind you, alcohol doesn’t always help your deduction abilities or dexterity.)
Meanwhile, back in the candlelit cabin, my group is forging ahead through the clues and gradually getting ourselves organized. Gosciniak has gotten more nimble with the finicky old locks, along with her friend Nicole Warren, who has previous puzzle room experience. Manny Gnad, who signed up for the event because she loves playing puzzle games on her phone, has become our project manager, directing and keeping us on track. Teresa Di Giulio, quiet and calm, proves she’s a whiz at arithmetic and map reading. I become very good at holding the lantern. Our photographer takes some pictures and then sneaks out.
Unbelievably, we make it out with three minutes to spare — the first team to do so.
“That was amazing,” says Gnad, her face lit up.
“This one’s a lot harder than the other one I did,” says Warren.
“Everybody did great,” adds Gosciniak, and it’s true — a bunch of strangers ended up solving something as a team, with everyone contributing and all of us enjoying the historical ride.
But next time, I’ll definitely bring glasses.
What: A puzzle escape game in a 19th century historical setting, that accommodates up to eight people per game event and lasts one hour.
Where: Fort Nisqually Living History Museum, Point Defiance Park, 5400 N. Pearl St., Tacoma.
When: 6:30, 8 and 9:30 p.m. Feb. 9 and March 9 (ages 21 and older); 6:30, 8 and 9:30 p.m. Feb. 12 and 26, March 12 and 26 (ages 14 and older).
Cost: $25 per person.
Information: 253-591-5339, fortnisqually.org.