Edina Entrepreneurs Leverage Our Love of Puzzles

Travis Ruthig and Anthony Ulrich invite adventure seekers to attempt an escape.

It’s not easy to track the rising popularity of escape rooms. From a gaming trend in Kyoto, Japan, to one of the biggest casual party scenes in the U.S., escape rooms today sit at the top of tourist destinations on TripAdvisor.com for New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle and other metro areas. Escape rooms took off in the Twin Cities just last year.

If you’re unfamiliar with escape rooms, Scott Nicholson, a games scholar at Syracuse University, defines them in a 2015 survey as “live-action team-based games where players discover clues, solve puzzles and accomplish tasks in one or more rooms in order to accomplish a specific goal (usually escaping from the room) in a limited amount of time.”

IRL Escape is an escape room center that opened in November in Edina. Within two to three months since then, escape rooms in Minnesota tripled from around four to roughly 15. Midwest entrepreneurs, catching wind of escape rooms’ success, pushed into the market all at once. More simply, of course, “They’re a lot of fun,” says Travis Ruthig, half of the team behind IRL Escape.

In one IRL Escape example: You and a few close (or soon-to-be close) friends get locked inside a room. The room boasts a theme, in this case World War II, its walls outfitted with props authentic to the 1940s, scavenged from eBay, antique stores or, in the case of a rolltop desk, offered up by a friend of the owners. To win, you have to line up clues pertaining to a pulp-fiction plot in less than one hour. Then you must sleuth your way out of the bunker in under 60 minutes. Even your shy friend, embarrassed by make-believe, would have to exert some real stick-in-the-mud standoffishness to keep the room’s wartime ambience—the broadcast sounds of battle, the sense of exigency—from creeping into the addictive, bait-and-reward stimuli of puzzles clicking into puzzles, all completed through gregarious, back-and-forth teamwork.

“Escape rooms are a social kind of game,” Ruthig says of the format’s growing popularity. “You don’t really get that experience right now in any other medium. Everyone’s so focused today on their cell phones, social media, with their heads down. They don’t really communicate with one another.”

Ruthig’s partner, Anthony Ulrich, noticed the Minnesota escape room market as an enthusiast, completing seven rooms over the course of a couple weeks. He graduated from Minnesota State University, Mankato, with a degree in finance. Knowing Ruthig through a shared love of gaming, Ulrich enlisted Ruthig’s skills in engineering to build their own rooms.

Market research taught them what they liked and disliked, so for the World War II puzzles, the duo prioritized logic over tedium—problem solving over plugging permutations into a padlock until one fits. Although they aim for a superior product, what’s currently unique to the escape room business model is a lack of competition.

After all, players can complete a room just once; business depends on those players wanting to visit other rooms. Just as suppliers boomed because people including Ulrich fell in love with the experience, demand feeds off a player’s satisfaction with his or her last room.

Thus, the motto Ulrich and Ruthig follow, for themselves and for room builders everywhere: “Don’t make a crappy room.”

The way things are going, so far so good.