[Correction: in the original version of this article, Escape was said to have 20 rooms open. This didn’t include the two escape rooms at its Noughts and Coffee branch in Edinburgh. This has now been fixed below]
Escape rooms in the UK and Ireland range from single room locations up to multi-site brands and everything in between. With over 400 rooms and 170+ venues, it’s no surprise that we’re starting to see some brands starting to really spread across the countries. Whether you prefer the “boutique” escape rooms, doing a single room incredibly well, or the mass-market companies that are perfecting how to deliver escape rooms across several locations, it’s fascinating to see what the movers and shakers are in the UK.
The analysis below is based on the room list here and will likely be out of date within a few days even if it were correct at the time of publishing. Any corrections gratefully received by email or in the comments below.
What’s the biggest brand?
Quantity isn’t necessarily more important than quality but, in terms of being a profitable company, it surely has to help. There are four main contenders for biggest operator in the UK and Ireland, all of them with approximately twenty rooms, although the number of locations varies significantly. Note that this totally ignores any venues outside of the UK/Ireland which would change the picture significantly given that some major international brands have opened in the UK.
||Escape sneaks the title for most rooms with 22, but are the clear leaders on the venue front with nine. They opened the doors of their first location during May 2014 and have been growing steadily ever since, opting for large numbers of small venues. From their first location in Edinburgh to their most recent opening in Doncaster, they have never opened more than three games simultaneously in one site.
||Breakout, spread across four locations sit just a single room behind with a total of 21. There must have been something special during May 2014 because they opened their first room the same month as Escape and have been steadily growing, developing new rooms and new venues, with two in their home town of Manchester, one over in Liverpool and their latest franchise opening in Cardiff just a couple of months ago. It seems that their model is to go after sizable venues in major cities with a good potential audience.
|Sitting right behind those sites, ready to pounce, are Clue HQ and The Escape Room, both with 19 rooms:
||Clue HQ started life in Warrington, just a month after Breakout and Escape, and grew steadily at that site before taking the plunge with their first franchise after almost a year. Since then, they’ve been driving forward opening their sixth venue back in June. They’ve generally gone for medium sized population centres but the site sizes vary hugely. One particular strand they seem to be following is co-locating with laser tag – that’s true of their Sunderland, Blackpool and Glasgow sites.
||The Escape Room is the only one of the top four which didn’t start life in Britain, instead opening its doors initially in Malaysia. It was also a relatively late developer here with the first room only opening in early 2015 in Manchester. Since then it’s spread its wings to Preston, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Barrow-in-Furness, seemingly favouring smaller population centres after that initial opening. As you might expect with an international brand that has plenty of rooms in its portfolio, there’s a huge variety of games on offer although Prison Break is a firm favourite, being present at all of the local venues.
What other companies are there?
Those four companies are way out in the lead (no other companies have even reached double digits) but there are still plenty of interesting franchises out there.
||Locked in a Room are a fascinating company because they have just two distinct games but, with four copies of each, they sit quite high on the rankings with 8 rooms. What makes them even more interesting is that, in the next couple of weeks, they’ll be opening 13 rooms in the ExCel centre in London (which will become the biggest UK venue), bringing their total up to 21 and seeing them tied with Breakout for first place. It seems unbelievable that a company with just two locations and two games could have a total of 21 rooms.
||Tick Tock Unlock have four venues across the UK and a total of nine rooms across them with a clear preference for large cities – Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow and Leeds. There must have been something special about May 2014 because this is yet another major brand that opened their first room during that month.
||Breakout Games (not to be confused with the Breakout mentioned above) opened in Aberdeen first before expanding to Inverness. They rotate their rooms rapidly which is probably not surprising in relatively small locations but still manage to have a total of nine rooms open.
||The final company with nine rooms is clueQuest – the second oldest game in Great Britain and already on its third different location. Having started life in the relative outskirts of London, it’s moved towards the centre, finally alighting in a single venue in Kings Cross.
Other smaller companies of interest include:
- City Mazes (eight rooms across three venues but two more imminent in Oxford and maybe more)
- the Panic Room (about to open a third venue and potentially a total of nine rooms)
- Handmade Mysteries (only four rooms, but spread across three different venues)
- Xscape Reality (five rooms in a single venue but plans to open in a couple of other cities soon)
And that’s about it. Inevitably some interesting companies will have missed out on a mention here – this site tries hard not to play favourites but a line has to be drawn somewhere. Apologies if you feel that your favourite company deserved a mention here and didn’t get one. Feel free to leave a comment below to explain why!
Several sites have refreshed their line-ups recently; others have just plan expanded. Here are details of the new rooms at existing sites that Exit Games UK has found recently. If your new room is missing, please let Exit Games UK know and the list shall grow longer.
- Let’s go very roughly north to south, so that this way the list can start with a site with two new rooms. Breakout Games Aberdeen of the Granite City have overhauled their offering to introduce a pair of new treats for 2016. The Amazon has opened with a bang to become the most challenging game on site and is not recommended for beginners. “Plunged into the depths of the Amazon your team are charged with finding a priceless ancient artifact in an escape room filled with twists, turns and surprises. Will you be lost in the jungle for all eternity?” The two Lock and Key rooms have been replaced with two Deadlock rooms, enabling teams to race against each other: “DEADLOCK is the perfect escape game to introduce new groups to escape games in a race against the clock! With two identical escape rooms of DEADLOCK teams of 12 can race to escape completing exactly the same puzzles. With riddles, codes to crack and some twists and turns along this way this new puzzle is fantastic fun with a three star difficulty rating!” The site is also installing two identical copies of Black and White in March, which will make it one of the biggest sites in the land.
- Down to Newcastle where Lost and Escape were feeling excited on Facebook about their new room, The Dungeon. Follow that link for the pictures; the story for the room suggests that “You accidentally went into an ancient house. The door of the house is a time machine, which brought you back to the 1900s. You found strange symbols everywhere. The only way to go back is to get the key in 60 minutes. The person who runs out of time will be locked in the past. Can you travel back successfully?“
- Next to Manchester where Breakout Manchester have added their ninth room, this one in their High Street offshoot. In Most Wanted, Ray Cokes chats with production and viewers while introducing… oh, not that Most Wanted. “It’s another race to escape although this time the bigger reward you collect, the higher up on the leaderboard you will go! ((…)) Think of yourselves as Bounty Hunters of the Wild West breaking in to a Saloon in search of loot! Make sure you’re out by the time the Sheriff returns, even if it means leaving some of your riches behind, or you’ll end up spending the night in a cell as Breakout Manchester’s Most Wanted!” There have been rooms which award scores in the past; sometimes scores can be analogues for solving time, as the longer you spend cracking the pre-scoring puzzles, the less time you have to work on the additional challenges which determine your score. Here, it’s clear; “Time is important to your game… but the reward means more to your team!“
- At the south end of Greater Manchester, Code to Exit of Altrincham have now opened their second room full-time. In The Test, which they describe on Facebook as being without keys, padlocks or furniture, “An alien life force has been experimenting with the human DNA. They tempered with few of us and mixed their genes with ours. You are being abducted to complete the tests and find out if it was successful. Are you intelligent enough to represent our species? If you pass you will be set free.” The site have also suggested that their third game is only two or three months away and will feature quite an unusual theme that this site is looking forward to. Code to Exit now offer discounts to people booking off-peak, to students and to birthday parties; they also offer team-building days during office hours as well.
- Bristol is apparently further north than Gravesend by scant seconds of latitude, so Puzzlair have announced that they are taking bookings for their fifth room, The Poltergeist Room, which opens next week in their Puzzlair 2 location. “A widow lived in this room with her daughter, and suddenly they disappeared. Every once in a while people seen the silhouette of a woman walking around in the rooms. The players have to find out the reason behind the disappearance and also produce a successful ghost exorcism in order to escape the room in 60 minutes.“
- The Panic Room of Gravesend are running their current room for another week and a half, then will be taking a few days off to change it over to The Witch House, running in March and April. “Our next mystery begins with a student who rents a room inside an old house with a long and dark history. His dreams are haunted by those of a Witch from the town’s legend. During the witch trials of 1692 she disappeared never to be seen again. It’s 11pm and your team has been sent to help the poor student uncover the mystery that lies within the room. What happened to the witch? Can you break the curse before the clock strikes midnight?” Eek!
- Salisbury Escape Rooms write to say “Since initially opening at Easter 2015 with the Magna Carta challenge, in October 2015 we changed the theme to Murder in the Museum. Players are met and briefed by a detective then led to the reception of the Salisbury Smithsonian Museum. A body has been found and a suspect is in custody. Police have one hour left to either charge him or release him. The team are required to find the missing evidence and get out within the hour. The new game, again designed, built and run by retired detectives is proving to be very popular. Tripadvisor reviews have been excellent and several teams who have completed many escape rooms have said that this is the best they have done!“
- Lastly to Exeter where Mission Escape have added a third room, with more promised to launch this year. This one is deliberately designed to cater for teams of no more than four players. In the Pharaoh’s Anger room, you must “Make your way through the tomb of the Kings… be careful not to disturb the dead. Align the Celestial bodies to release you from the Pharaoh’s wrath or be entombed forever“. Nobody wants that!
Here’s a collection of stories of exit games making their impression on the public.
- This isn’t just an article about newspaper stories; Pirate Escape of Whitley Bay, near Newcastle, was recently featured on Made in Tyne and Wear, the local (Freeview channel 8) station broadcasting from Pontop Pyke and its relays. You may be able to catch up to see the show from 12th January.
- The Panic Room of Gravesend picked up two pieces of local newspaper coverage for its launch at the start of the month; the piece in the News Shopper talks about the team behind the site and their background, while the piece in Kent Online> discusses their future plans: as players, they plan to enjoy seven London rooms on Valentine’s Day (sounds like an excellent way to spend it to this site), and as owners, they think Gravesend has more to offer.
- Clue HQ Birmingham has announced an opening date of February 19th on Facebook, but already they have earnt coverage in the Birmingham Mail. The exciting suggestion is that the site will eventually grow to feature a total of nine games – which, as claimed, would make it the largest site in the country (after The Escape Hunt Experience with ten became Escape Entertainment London with eight!) unless another site beats them to it.
- Less good news in Reading, where one site’s plans to adapt part of a listed building for an exit game were not accepted. That said, fingers crossed that they can be successful adapting another property and it’s not as if they are the only metaphorical game in town.
- This site has chosen not yet to feature the opening of Oubliette, though there is rather more of it to come and there was mention of its crowdfunding campaign. That said, it has opened and earnt coverage on alphr with a stronger discussion of the influences on the game than most pieces of commentary. Recommended.
- The Great Escape Game of Sheffield were covered in The Star of Sheffield, discussing the site’s founding and the employment that they offer to others.
- A little further away, The Headlands Gamble is a travelling puzzle adventure that this site mentioned a couple of months ago; the Style magazine of the New York Times were only a little behind. ((Edited to add:)) Dan Egnor of the Escape Room Directory also took part and posted about his experience. More adventure-y than puzzle-y, Dan writes “Some rough pacing and occasional consistency slip-ups aside, we loved it“.
- Again following up an earlier story, today is the deadline for submissions for the puzzle on the GCHQ Director’s Christmas card… and the several stages of puzzles that followed on from it. Apparently 600,000 people followed the link from the QR Code to get further within, but only 30,000 entries had been made to the final fifth stage of the puzzle, as of a couple of days before the deadline, with none being completely correct. This attracted coverage from newspapers including the Guardian, with discussion of how much fun it can be to solve puzzles with your friends, mentioning no Pints, and the Telegraph discuss the puzzles within the last part. The complete solution is expected to be published in early February; that will certainly be worth looking forward to!
The above logo, with a delightfully Mexico 70 font, belongs to The Panic Room of Gravesend, which opens tomorrow and is the first new exit game to open in 2016, by a small margin. The venue is a business suite within Gravesend’s Old Town Hall. To begin with, the site will open with a single room, which can host teams of two to eight and has a 60-minute time limit. Additional rooms are promised but may have lower team size limits. The site will open on weekday evenings and all day at weekends.
The name of the first room is The Panic Room, matching the name of the site. “You are a team sent to a crazed conspiracy theorists mansion where he has been found dead. He found out something he shouldn’t have and clearly someone wanted to cover it up and hide it. The room is trashed and clearly in the murderer’s haste he couldn’t find the secret file. It is now your job to solve the trail of puzzles and riddles left by the conspiracy theorist, find the exit code and escape before the 60 minutes is up.”
The charge is reasonable at £15/player for teams of two, three or four; the rate ramps down rapidly for larger teams, with a team of five paying £70 total and teams of six, seven or eight paying £75 total. T-shirts are also available, which is rather neat. You’ve played the game, now wear the shirt!