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AFSVA on trend with mystery escape rooms

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas -- Master criminal James Moriarty is expecting Sherlock Holmes to walk into his parlor. He's laid a trap, of course, for the brilliant detective. Unfortunately, you and your companions have arrived instead. Now you have 60 minutes to outsmart Moriarty and escape. The clock is ticking...

Interactive, immersive escape rooms, such as Moriarty's Parlor, are gaining popularity worldwide as entertainment and team-building experiences. The Air Force Services Activity is offering a choice of six room scenarios to 20 Air Force installations enterprise-wide as part of its Recharge for Resiliency initiative.

"We're on trend and on time," said Sandy Hillard, community and leisure branch chief for AFSVA Programs Directorate. "Mystery Escape Room concepts/businesses are popping up across the nation. We are ecstatic to serve our military communities with the opportunity."

Participants are provided a background story before being placed in a themed room containing puzzles, clues and riddles. A story unfolds as they work together through the room's challenges, which may include math, science or word puzzles; puzzle boxes; secret codes; or history questions.

AFSVA contracted with Mystery Escape Room LLC, a family-owned business based in Salt Lake City, to provide the room kits and train community center and outdoor recreation staff members or designated force support squadron personnel and volunteers.

"The rooms are designed to be challenging and be a series of small victories for the participants," said company founder Les Pardew, who trained the first set of community center staff members in early March at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland's Arnold Hall featuring DaVinci's Secret room. Other themes are Moriarty's Parlor; Houdini's Challenge, inspired by escape artist Harry Houdini; Port Royal: A Pirate's Mystery; the Invisible Files, a spy game; and the Ghosts of Christmas, inspired by "A Christmas Carol."

No matter the theme, communication, collaboration, teamwork and sharing are keys to success, Pardew said. But don't expect complete victories: Most escape rooms have a success rate of 15 to 20 percent. Room moderators or game masters, dressed in character to suit the room's theme, can help lead participants to solve clues for themselves.

"Participants should be right on the verge of getting out after the 60-minute time window," Pardew said. "Say, they get out in 62 minutes; that makes them want to return and try to escape within the allotted time."

Moderators help keep the mood light. One group of Airmen was asked to sing the Air Force song in exchange for a hint during a DaVinci's Secret game. They enthusiastically obliged.

"The puzzles take different skill sets to solve. In DaVinci's Secret, some puzzles involve math, some engineering, and others art. In order to solve the puzzles, they have to collaborate and use each other's strong points. It's a microcosm of what Airmen would do on a mission," Pardew said.

Capt. Christopher W. Dillard, AFSVA's chief of new products and program development, praised the program for being a mental team-building activity.

"The Air Force has become a total force, with military and civilians. Every time we have team-building events, they're built around the military section," Dillard said. "This is strictly a mental challenge. So much of the military is hierarchal. In this scenario, it's without a formal structure. You get leadership from every different level based on a participant's skill set or capability rather than rank."

"Squadrons, families and office groups will definitely want to take part in this fully interactive and immersive experience," Hillard added.

In addition to JB San Antonio-Lackland, escape rooms will be available at Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma; Dyess AFB, Texas; Incirlik Air Base, Turkey; Keesler AFB, Mississippi; RAF Lakenheath, United Kingdom; Little Rock AFB, Arkansas; Luke AFB, Arizona; March Air Reserve Base, California; McConnell AFB, Kansas; Minneapolis-St. Paul Air Reserve Station, Minnesota; Moody AFB, Georgia; Morón AB, Spain; Osan AB, Republic of Korea; Patrick AFB, Florida; Ramstein AB, Germany; Schriever AFB, Colorado; Seymour-Johnson AFB, North Carolina; Whiteman AFB, Missouri; and F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming.

Roll out of the escape rooms is being planned now. Check with your force support squadron for dates, and be sure to brush up on Italian polymaths, escape artists, pirate lore, spy games, and classic British literature. Or just wing it.
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