There's a lot of work that goes into trapping ten people in a room for an hour.
Much of that work happens in a suburban garage, where Nir Chezrony, the brains behind Enigma Productions, hefts a four-foot-long pole that's been threaded through ten wooden dials -- once complete, these will serve as tumblers for a supersized cryptex.
"We are building, essentially, a giant combination lock," Chezrony says, describing what he calls the "master piece" of Trapped: A St. Louis Room Escape Volume 4, which will run May 27 to June 7.
For more than a year, Chezrony, an engineer, and his partners -- two fellow engineers and a high school English teacher -- have enjoyed notoriety as St. Louis' only room escape operation. To date, more than 600 people have tried tackling Chezrony's devious mind traps, aiming to escape a locked room before the time limit expires. That number is set to grow significantly with Enigma Productions' latest venture: selling custom escape room designs at thousands of dollars a pop.
"I've had people contact me from around the world," Chezrony says. "Australia, British Columbia, England, Spain, Egypt, Greece. What we're finding is no else has these kinds elements that we're doing."
As Riverfront Times chronicled in a feature story last year, Chezrony, a self-described "mad genius," takes inspiration from movies, video games and pop culture when designing his brain-busting puzzles.
"There's two schools of thought," he says. The first (and most common) model is known as the Japanese style, which challenges teams to use observational skills to find hidden clues in a large themed space, such as a haunted house, prison block or submarine. The Norwegian style puts the focus on the puzzles themselves.
Chezrony's designs are clearly in the Norwegian vein, but the puzzles' unique precision and daunting degree of difficulty have caught the eye of room escape entrepreneurs like Manolis Metridis, an architect who recently founded his own burgeoning escape room business, called Loopers, in Athens, Greece.
"I have been in more than 30 other escape rooms. I found Nir's work very innovative," says Metridis, who's been in business since February. "His ideas are very particular. So I start talking with him, trying to find out ways we could cooperate."
After first making contact in September, Metridis ended up buying three of Chezrony's custom escape room designs, at $5,000 each. After Chezrony sent him detailed plans for materials and building instructions, Metridis asked to buy three more.
According to Metridis, the escape room business is booming in Athens. When he first reached out to Chezrony, the Athens region only boasted two such escape rooms. Just six months later, he says 21 companies are battling for attention. Many of the new businesses are offshoots or identical franchises of large room escape operations based in other European countries.
"I have seen many different companies in Greece, but all the different companies are franchised and this means that they take already-made escape rooms [designs] and they just put it there and move along," Metridis says. "None of them have started as we started, having another company creating for us the rooms."
While escape rooms in the U.S. have not hit the level of mass market appeal they enjoy in Europe, China and Japan, the popularity of these team-based challenges appears to be rising. Two companies are running escape room productions in Kansas City. Room Escape Adventures, which operates more than 20 escape rooms across the U.S., will be opening a St. Louis location in May.
As for Chezrony, he says he received so many calls from people interested in commissioning escape room designs that he decided to increase the price to $10,000. He and his partners are also putting the final touches on a corporate team-building program.
Where Chezrony draws the line, however, is patents.
"I just don't know that it's worth it," he says. "If someone were to try to steal my designs, all I have to do is release the solutions on the internet and there goes their business model."