Break Out

As game master and one of the owners of the Hill Country’s first escape room, Lorrie Hess (right) supervises a group of players inside the Shady Hills Vineyard. Players left to right: Polly Rickert, Robin Grumbles, Terry Guajardo, Francis Morales, Lynda Donato, and Terry Holland. Photo by Phil Houseal

May 3, 2017–Back in the dark ages of computing, when screens were black, letters were green, and images were created using backslashes, asterisks, and parentheses, we nerds played “escape” games.

Those early versions were crude, with simple dialogue and limited interaction.

A scenario might go like this:


You would type in a command such as: LOOK ROOM

The computer would return: THERE IS A TABLE AND A STAIRWAY

You would type: GO TABLE



And so on. After hours alone of LOOKing, GOing, and TAKEing, we might finally find the gold and escape the dragon.

I know, I know. Tedious. Lame. Hard to believe we thought this simulation was stimulating.

Today, gamers have amped the interest factor by turning them into real-world scenarios. Well, fake real-world scenarios. They’re called escape rooms, and now, thanks to Lorrie Hess, with her brother and sister-in-law Ben and Rosalee Scoog, we have the first ones in the Hill Country.

“Hill Country Escape was my brother’s idea,” Hess said. “He told me about the idea two years ago, and thought it would be a good game for this area.”

Hess was not convinced. A year passed before her brother brought it up again. Finally, he talked her into trying a game.

“He said, you don’t get it, so we went and played a game,” she said. “Once I played, I went, oh, yeah, Fredericksburg would be excited to have this.”

It is challenging to describe a game to anyone who has not been in one. Like me. So I went through one of the escape scenarios.

While I can’t reveal details, the basic concept is that you are “locked” in a room with group of two to 10 players. Your goal is to unravel the clues, puzzles, and red herrings so you can “escape” the room. You have one hour.

I joined my six playing partners, and off we went.

Most interesting to me as a former teacher was observing the strategies players used. At times we gathered to brainstorm. At other times, individuals broke out to work on separate clues.

There were no leaders or followers or committees or owners or managers. When you are facing a group challenge, titles and credentials mean nothing. Everyone bumped and jostled and laughed. There was lots of cheering each other on.

Nor did one personality type dominate. Puzzles were solved by the thinker, the tinkerer, the artist, the engineer. Creativity was prized; but so was logical thinking. That is intentional, according to Hess, who has a background in career coaching.

“You don’t even have to be outgoing to enjoy this, but you do need to be a game player,” she said. “People say I’m not clever enough to solve this. They’re right. No one person is clever enough to solve this by themselves. You need different people, because there are so many puzzles within a game.”

You could sense some trepidation going in. What if I need to use the bathroom? What if we are embarrassed? What if I’m stupid?

Needless worries. Of course, you are not really locked in the room. And you have a “game master” observing at all times, offering clues and assistance if requested. But we were all so instantly absorbed in the game we didn’t realize an hour passed. The experience is immersive on every level.

“You are doing stuff, thinking through things, physically moving,” Hess said. “You are so intent on solving it, you are not thinking about the pings on your phone. The feeling of having to solve it in 60 minutes hypes you up by itself. Then there is the feeling of euphoria when you figure something out. You are in the ‘now.’”

Hess envisions it being popular for team building, and, as it’s multigenerational, for family reunions. But it is also just fun.

What if you don’t finish? Many won’t. The best games are designed to have a certain success rate, and can be tweaked for different levels of expertise. But not finishing does not diminish enjoyment. You can have the game master explain the rest of the clues, or you can return another day and try it again. Or you can choose another of the three scenarios.

My six teammates all said they would do it again. Some for unexpected reasons.

“I’m not much of a team player, so it was challenging for me to see if I could get along with people,” admitted Lynda Donato, who plans to become one of the game masters. “But I learned a lot about these people that would not have come out if I wasn’t interacting with them. So I’d do it again… if it was with smart people, because I’m not very smart.”

So, did we escape? No, not from the room.

But we all broke out.


Hill Country Escape opens May 4. It is located next to Mr. Gattis in Fredericksburg at 162 Boos Lane.