The Steal is the second escape room created by Denver-based Puzzah! The heist adventure opened to the public in the spring of 2015, and I played it as an off-the-street customer teaming up with three college friends. Later, as a Puzzah! employee, I briefed, debriefed, and reset hundreds of Steal sessions. I cleaned the room, fixed the props, revised the puzzles, edited the media effects, and, this week, I helped tear the room down. Puzzah! retired The Steal to make space for a new adventure at our downtown location, and we have no plans to rebuild the room because it doesn’t conform to our current reset-free philosophy. I want to share my memories of The Steal and why it’s a contender for the best escape room I’ve ever played.
Heists make very popular escape room missions, and The Steal was presented with a traditional premise of the genre. Players portray a team of thieves attempting to recover artifacts illegally obtained by the criminal organization INTERCEPT. The heist is organized by a hacker named Nox who provides the team information on the artifacts and the private gallery in which they are displayed. She later hacks into the gallery’s public address system to help the players when needed. The team must circumnavigate security systems to collect six artifacts, finishing with a rare Qin Dynasty coin. A team that trips an alarm must restore the artifact being stolen and wait for the security system to reset. If an alarm is not properly silenced, INTERCEPT is notified and the team fails the mission…until a staff member gives the team another chance by restarting the game at the point it was interrupted.
The Steal had the trappings of a classic crime caper but set itself apart from other heist rooms in key ways, starting with the scoring. The mission was designed to reward accuracy over speed. Teams had a 60-minute time limit to complete the mission but were ultimately evaluated by how many alarms they tripped. A team might complete the mission quickly using brute force, but wouldn’t earn as high a score as a time that spent more time analyzing the security systems to avoid errors. The average team tripped 20 alarms during the mission. One determined but impulsive team snagged the coin only after setting off a record 127 alarms. Over the game’s lifespan 30 or so teams made the leaderboard by completing the mission with 0 alarms. My college friends and I set off 2.
The room was richly decorated but was more notably attractive for its realism. No escape room paraphernalia broke the illusion of being in an actual art gallery. The puzzles were the authentic, functioning security systems, all plainly visible and waiting to be solved with the right insight. All the furnishings were natural to the setting, but purposeful in subtle ways. In fact, the fundamental puzzle of the mission required a holistic understanding of the surroundings. In the briefing teams learn that the artifacts must be stolen in a specific order. A team might expect to find the order revealed explicitly or as the solution to an abstract, arbitrary logic puzzle, but find nothing along those lines upon entering the room. After a bit of exploring the team will realize that every artifact is a tool to steal the next artifact and thus the order is based on practical task management. Most escape rooms use combination locks, RFID technology, and similar artifices to create a solving path. The Steal was supported by advanced technology but preserved an organic structure relying on the essential attributes of the objects. I’ve never played an escape room that combined immersive detail and puzzle savvy so well.
Not all escape room enthusiasts shared my affinity for The Steal. Some felt the organic structure was too abstract and wanted the objectives presented in more explicit terms. Some found the puzzles too task-oriented and preferred more traditional puzzles based on ciphers or mathematical calculations. The emphasis on accuracy benefited more tentative players, and Puzzah! recommended The Steal to novices and groups with children. Experienced players, used to speed-solving, dispatched the room in under thirty minutes and deemed it too easy. These criticisms are not unfounded, but The Steal also produced legions of fans who, like me, appreciate elegance over difficulty and can turn off a traditional puzzle-solving mindset to savor the experience.
A few hours before the scheduled demolition I played The Steal one last time.
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Some photos from my final heist.
Players originally entered a dimly-lit gallery armed with a flashlight, and thwarted a light sensor so they could turn on the overhead lights. The ancient cup is protected by a tilt sensor. Steady hands and good teamwork are required to steal the cup without triggering an alarm.
Some examples of using artifacts as tools: The metal carousel is just the right size to connect the circuit leads on a display case. The antique eyeglasses can pick the lock on the wall safe.
A set of mirrors diverts the laser and allows the coin to be removed from its case. Puzzah! allowed successful teams keep the coin as a souvenir.
I took one more photo to remind me that reset-free rooms have some advantages.