Larkin Garbee plans a birthday party for herself every year. The bash, unabashedly named Larkin Day, always has a theme. This year, the Facebook invitation was decidedly steampunk. And as if Josh Czarda had planned this (which conveniently is exactly what he does), he and his Escape Room RVA had the puzzle piece that fit right into Garbee’s party scene.
Ravenchase Adventures isn’t new to Richmond. Created in 2001 by Czarda, Ravenchase was named in homage to Edgar Allan Poe, a cipherist and Richmonder. Twelve years ago, he introduced a simulated bank heist game, but it never took off. Czarda, a former lawyer, maintains that Richmond just wasn’t ready and that the game took too long, at three hours.
“Everyone thinks about robbing a bank — in one way or another; they’ve all thought about it,” says Czarda.
Fast-forward to now, and it seems the city can’t get enough of his new project, which opened in June. As escape rooms came into vogue around the country, Czarda and Ravenchase were well positioned to meet the demand, having worked with high-profile clients such as DreamWorks Studios, the Indianapolis Colts and the Central Intelligence Agency on offering adventure games.
Located behind a Martin’s grocery store at the Village Shopping Center on Three Chopt Road, the black door is easy to find, but unassuming. Inside, that all changes. Red walls and candlelight sconces lead visitors downstairs to three rooms, each with a very different theme. The rooms are meant to make guests’ heads spin with intrigue.
A hallway leading to rooms guests must solve ciphers or clues to escape. (Photo courtesy Escape Room RVA)
At least 10 people are typically needed (the maximum is 12) to get out of the contrived spaces. The very basic objective: Work your way out of a room that is filled with locks of various kinds, each opened by solving a corresponding clue or cipher. Find all of the hints or indicators that match the locks in the span of an hour and you’re free. Sound easy to you? You’d be wrong.
At Escape Room RVA, candlelit scones lead visitors to rooms where they solve clues to open a series of locks, using items such as this cryptex and cipher wheel. (Photo courtesy Escape Room RVA)
Ask the Garbee party. The group opted for Czarda’s third room, called Steampunk STEM (using science, technology, engineering and math challenges), which has a 50-percent solve rate. Tiffany Jana, a guest at the party, says she thought a notebook would have been helpful at some points, and having a diverse group of minds was key. “If you hate the people you’re with or you are with terrible communicators, just bring a sleeping bag. Because you aren’t getting out in time by yourself,” Jana says.
Other rooms have even lower solve rates. Mind Trap Room is loosely meant to mirror Hannibal Lecter’s office. It’s outfitted with multiple faux Rorschach paintings, a small but intriguing desk with deceptively real-looking psychological files and drawings, handcuffs and eight locks that can be opened by solving a series of clues. While giving a tour, employee Madison Guare says that at least one guest gets stuck in the handcuffs a night. This room has a 33-percent solve rate and is the most difficult room in the collection. To decipher it is possible, but Czarda says it’s meant to be challenging. He isn’t shy about letting each group know that the more silence in a room (this one, specifically) the less likely they will solve the “puzzle.”
Becky and Andy Mudd in the Mind Trap Room. (Photo courtesy of Escape Room RVA)
The second room, Seven Deadly Sins, is as creepy as it is hard to unravel. With a 34-percent solve rate, it pushes players to walk through multiple sins (or clues) to reveal seven lock combinations to the table in the center.
The rooms will change every three months, so those who want to practice nonlinear thought can continue to participate.
A fourth room, Plato’s Cave, added Sept. 6, involves complicated puzzle solving in the dark, with night goggles. Right now, people are lining up at $25 a head (per room) to be stuck with each other for an hour with only beer and ice-cream sandwiches (provided refreshments, if desired) to sustain them. Tickets may be booked online (escaperoomrva.com) as far in advance as three months. Groups with fewer people than 12 may be placed in a room with another party.
Czarda does have a few tips: Come with an open mind. Players prepared for anything do the best. Younger children tend to move more quickly through the clues than adults. Czarda suggests talking about the clues with your group.
The Ravenchase team isn’t going to leave you on an island. Should you get pointed in the wrong direction, they are happy to offer clues (every 15 minutes, but not without a price — each clue takes five minutes off your hour time-frame).
As for the Garbee party (a large, inquisitive group of 10), they were able to get out of the Steampunk room in plenty of time, well before the hour cutoff, and moved on to the Seven Deadly Sins room, with repeated success.
Meanwhile, Escape Room RVA continues to create new challenges. Two new rooms, Madame Zola’s Spirit Room and The Cursed Crypt, were scheduled to open on Oct. 1 (replacing Steampunk STEM and Seven Deadly Sins).