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Players find hidden clues throughout the story-theme rooms and have one hour to figure out a puzzle

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AZTEC — A new gaming option is now available to local residents interested in interactive, mystery-solving fun or those seeking an out-of-the-ordinary experience.

Escape Games is located at 200 S. Ash St. in the building that formerly housed the Red Barn Barbeque restaurant. It is owned and operated by Deanna Haynie and her mother, Vonda Stowell.

The mother-daughter team, along with Hayne's father, Dean Stowell, renovated the 5,000-square-foot facility and turned it into an interactive entertainment center that eventually will house six escape rooms, each with its own theme.

"Escape rooms are the newest thing. Big cities have a lot of them," Haynie said. "We noticed a need for something to do in the county that offers clean, wholesome family fun and chose to open it in Aztec because it's centrally located."

Part game, part theater, part team building exercise, escape rooms involve a group of players who use clues and strategy in a story-theme room to solve puzzles. The players are given a time limit — in this case, an hour — to solve a puzzle that will "release" them from the room. Group members work together to interpret clues and solve the mystery.

"But we don't lock the door — the players can leave at any time," Haynie said. "If they can't solve the puzzle in an hour, we'll walk them through the clues to reveal the puzzle, or they can come back and try again for half price."

Vonda Stowell said operators of escape rooms can choose to purchase the room themes and clues from game suppliers or they can make up their own room themes. For Escape Games, the owners decided to try a combination of both.

"We basically purchased a rough draft of the room idea, and they sent us a link," Haynie said. "You can also purchase all of the clues, furniture and equipment for the rooms, but that's super expensive, so we just paid for the game ideas and are making them our own by tweaking them a little bit."

One escape room with the theme "Quest for the Throne" is already open and taking players. The room is elaborately furnished with replica medieval furniture, complete with a suit of armor and period-style swords hanging on the wall. At the start of the allotted 60 minutes, players receive information that the king and queen have died unexpectedly. A tyrannical brother has taken the throne and devised a secret plan to leave the players exiled from the kingdom. Players are told that, disguised as paupers, they must find proof of their birthright and get out of the room before the castle guards find them.

For $25 per person, a minimum of two players (up to 10, depending on the room) can come for one hour to attempt to "crack the code" in one of the rooms, and there are also two- and three-hour options that include the use of the party area, Haynie said. Booking must be done online at least three hours in advance.

The game facility is open 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Fridays and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturdays, but the hours will be extended soon to include 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Thursdays, Haynie said. The facility also can be rented in advance for other days and times.

"People can bring their own cake and ice cream for parties or have a party catered," she said.

The only food offered for sale at the facility will be donuts from Johnny O's Spudnuts, as well as coffee and soft drinks, which customers also can purchase from a drive-up window.

"My brother owns Johnny O's, so we'll be partnering with him," Dean Stowell said.

In a week, a new room will be open with the theme, "Aunt Elna's Inheritance," Haynie said. It will be decorated like a 1980s condo and will utilize some technological clues. In a month, a room called "Carat Capers," in which players pretend they are expert lock pickers and must figure out how to break into a jewelry store, will be opening. In the planning stages are a camping-theme room and a "Super Bowl on the Rez" room, as well as a mobile escape room that can be taken to businesses for team-building exercises.

For corporate team-building exercises, each room is equipped with a camera and microphones, and participants can choose to have their escape session recorded.

"Company groups can then watch the recording out in the common area and compare how teams interacted," Vonda Stowell said.

Since the game sessions are monitored, if players get stuck on the puzzle and need help with a clue, they can ask for it.

"A lot of escape rooms try to make the puzzles really hard to solve, and they throw out a lot of red herrings, but we want people to succeed here," Haynie said.

Building and designing Escape Games with his family and trying to find hidden surprises for each room has been challenging, Dean Stowell said.

"That's the thing with escape rooms — anything might happen," he said. "We've really had a lot of fun building it."

For more information on Escape Games, visit EscapeGamesNM.com or call 505-333-7195.

Leigh Black Irvin is the business editor for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4621. 

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