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Escape artists: Mystery, danger, entrapment are all part of the fun at new game venue

SANTA FE, N.M. — Santa Feans can now find their way out of an Egyptian tomb, defuse a bomb for the CIA or evade the mob, and they have one hour to do it.

These adventures are available at the city’s first escape room, which opened early in February.

“I really wanted to bring something fun to Santa Fe,” said Escape Santa Fe owner Mary Nungary.

Over the least several years, major cities across the U.S., including Albuquerque, have opened escape rooms, immersive games that initially became popular in Asia and Europe about a decade ago.

Players must solve puzzles and riddles to escape situations in a limited time. Popular themes include prison breaks and bank heists.

Nungary, a former litigation assistant at an international law firm in Los Angeles who moved to Santa Fe four years ago, had never heard of escape rooms before her husband, Bill Hernandez, went to one as part of a business trip back to L.A in June 2016. As a team-building activity, he and fellow executives were taken to one and challenged to work together as a group to figure out solutions.

“And we did not get out,” Hernandez said.

Almost immediately, Nungary started working on establishing her own company to bring the experience to Santa Fe.

Groups of four to eight people (the experience is recommended for people age 16 and over) pick one of three storylines when they book a time slot.

In the Egyptian tomb-themed game, the escapees must get out before an evil mummy traps them forever.

In the Lost in the Tomb room at Escape Santa Fe, participants have to get away from an evil mummy

In the Lost in the Tomb room at Escape Santa Fe, participants have to get away from an evil mummy. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal )

Another, which Nungary said is the most challenging, starts as a fake insurance company that is revealed to be a front for a CIA office. The team must figure out how to defuse a ticking bomb before it detonates and destroys all of the classified information inside.

The third room is set in an Italian restaurant whose owner stole $500,000 from the mob. The mob already took care of the owner, but the group must find the hidden money and leave “or you meet the same fate,” Nungary said.

The games are not scary, but “pressure can be scary,” Nungary said. Teams have 60 minutes to get out, or they lose.

Teams are given clues when they begin a game. Each room is actually made up of multiple physical rooms, and the team must solve additional puzzles and riddles to make their way through the rooms. So far, only one group in Santa Fe has fully escaped.

If participants want additional clues, Nungary said, the staff can sometimes make the teams do silly things in exchange for their help. She recalled making one team do the worm (look it up) for an extra hint.

“You really need to think outside the box a little bit and find something that isn’t quite as obvious as you might hope it would be,” she said of the key to escaping. “Just really look around, read the clues carefully and think outside. Just don’t go for the obvious.”

Hernandez and Nungary described Escape Santa Fe as “second generation,” meaning its games are equipped with electronic and technology-based systems. This is opposed to the “lock-and-key” puzzles in the earliest escape rooms.

These up-to-date features include a television screen in each game that the staff can use to communicate with the groups inside and doors that automatically open or props that move on their own when puzzles are solved. Hernandez, who is not a co-owner but helped his wife in her planning and building, redesigned parts of the games they purchased from escape room vendors to make them more technologically advanced.

Bill Hernandez runs games from a control room at Escape Santa Fe

Bill Hernandez runs games from a control room at Escape Santa Fe.

“We’re just so new right now, we’re still thinking about the future and how to keep this fresh and evolving,” Nungary said. She added that after several months, she could switch out all of the games for new narratives.

Groups that have signed up so far have ranged from high school groups, to families, to friends in their seventies, Nungary said. She also hopes to attract corporate groups, including any who may be coming into town on business trips and are looking for a teamwork activity.

So far, most customers have been from Santa Fe and nearby locales such as Los Alamos and Española. Nungary said she created Escape Santa Fe with the locals in mind.

“I think a lot of people in Santa Fe feel like they don’t do things because it’s just for, quote unquote, ‘tourists,’ ” she said. “But no, I want everyone to come here and be welcome and feel this is for the people here.”

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