Dextrophobia Rooms: Escape Is Sweet!
04.11.2014 § 1 Comment
Success stories seem so few and far between in Bulgaria these days, so it is extremely heartening to be able to report some good news. This past month, alongside the colossal scandal of Bulgaria’s Corporate Commercial Bank imploding to the tune of a 2 billion Euro deficit, some great things have happened in spite of the usual grey mass of doom and gloom. Sofia’s iconic Lion’s Bridge just reopened after extensive renovations, the latest in a string of long-overdue infrastructure improvements presided over by Sofia’s most successful mayor in decades, Ms. Yordanka Fandukova. Four Bulgarian entrepreneurs just sold their hugely successful homegrown software company Telerik to Progress Software for $262.5 million. Finally, Dextrophobia Rooms, a real-life escape game business created by seven dreamer friends in their spare time, is neck-to-neck with St. Alexander Nevski cathedral as the best reviewed attraction on TripAdvisor in Sofia, barely six months after opening.
What is Dextrophobia and is it worth seeing? Read on!
Real-Life Room Escape Games
This is the full title of a sub-genre of games in which a group of players is locked in a chamber and has to work together using the objects and clues inside to solve a series of puzzles in order to escape within a set amount of time (typically an hour). In a twist on the typical technological progression of such things, real-life escape rooms were modelled on point-and-click video games, which introduced the concept some decades before. The first real-life room escape was created in 2005 in Silicon Valley and was based on the works of Agatha Christie. Since then such puzzles have been popping up around the world, with interest in them has been steadily rising as more elaborate and imaginative themes and quests are added.
The Pledge: Starting Out
Young Bulgarian Alexander Grozdanov was on a WizzAir flight when he read about a real-life escape puzzle in Budapest, Hungary and was simultaneously inspired by the concept and underwhelmed by the execution. Armed with the belief that he could do as well or better than the Hungarians, he resolved to try. Soon a team was assembled: Alexander, Angel, Bozhidara, Dimitar, Mariela, Petar and Svetlin, seven close friends and university colleagues, all under 25, many with “real” jobs which they had to work around, began planning to open a real-life escape business in Sofia. They drew up an initial plan and entered the concept into the first season of Start It Smart Pre-Accelerator: a comprehensive startup mentorship workshop meant to encourage entrepreneurs to develop and rapidly iterate their ideas. After sinking most of their savings into purchasing a run-down building with a murky past in an inner courtyard in Sofia and spending countless evenings and weekends renovating, programming, building and learning, they were ready. Dextrophobia Rooms opened on June 10, 2014.
The Turn: Inside The Room
When I visited the room in the middle of August, they were almost completely booked for months ahead. The first room of its kind in Bulgaria, Dextrophobia was taking off and I was incredibly excited to try it. What I saw exceeded my every expectation.
The butterflies-in-the-stomach excitement began building before we had even found the venue. Dextrophobia is tucked into an inner courtyard off a side street behind the Palace of Justice in Sofia, close to everything but just a touch out of sight. No clues to its existence anywhere on the street, we walk into the courtyard and are faced with a two-storey yellow facade with boarded up windows and “DEXTROPHOBIA ROOMS” painted in black above a thick, securely locked metal door. The message is clear: this is not an experience to have on a whim, and you’d better have a reservation. We ring the bell and wait. The door opens with a creak and we are ushered into a basement illuminated in darkroom red to fill out waiver forms, then up a staircase past dangling ropes, bare lightbulbs, and mirrors, to the room entrance. Before the adventure had even begun, I felt like I was part of a finely curated, well-designed experience, and that I was going to have a blast.
I will divulge no details of the puzzle itself, because a) I’m not a good enough writer to do the experience justice and b) I would not spoil this for my worst enemy. I will just say that the same meticulous attention to detail was applied to the design inside, and there was a well-written storyline tying the puzzle together. The room felt clever, immersive, and, most importantly, real. The objects in the room are supremely well chosen and collecting, activating and combining them felt viscerally good. The room had a great balance of mechanical, electronic and logical/cerebral puzzles, some of which required two people to coordinate and collaborate closely. A sense of urgency followed us through the game as our allotted hour ticked by.
An interesting aspect of the room was that we were constantly watched by a Dextrophobia game master, and they were giving us hints at appropriate times to modulate the difficulty of the game. The puzzle was never frustrating, rather we felt that it adapted to our level of enjoyment and challenged us in all the right moments. More competitive participants can request that no hints be provided, in the hopes of beating the game honestly. While many of the puzzles are non-verbal, the language-dependent parts are available in English and Bulgarian. The game was not physically demanding, although neither the majority of the room’s puzzles nor indeed the building itself is wheelchair accessible.
As we neared the end of the game, I caught myself wishing I had more time in the room, more time to appreciate every facet of the puzzles, to explore every nook and just to bask in the atmosphere it created. When the exit door released and the smiling game master greeted us on the other side, I left reluctantly, knowing that I would never be in that room with the same sense of amazement and immersion. I felt the need to hang on to the experience somehow, to keep the adventure going. There Dextrophobia finally disappointed me, ejecting me into the sweltering afternoon heat of the capital, dazed and hungry for more.
The Prestige: Competition and Conclusion
Since starting Dextrophobia, five of the seven cofounders have quit their jobs to focus on the business full-time. The room continues to be booked solid while the crew works on a second room. With plans to release new rooms every 3 months and to eventually expand across Bulgaria, Dextrophobia shows no signs of slowing down despite some nascent and largely unoriginal competition cropping up in Sofia.
Inspired in turn, I set out to see how Dextrophobia compared to other real-life escape puzzles. It turned out that my current city of Toronto is home to over 30 such experiences, run by 6 or 7 different companies. I have tried two so far, and and I found the experiences much more rushed and less immersive. Painted rough plywood, differently themed rooms bunched together among paper-thin walls, and lots of combination locks seem to be the highlights so far. No storyline to speak of, and a common area with board games where participants wait for their turn. What sets Dextrophobia apart the most for me is the immersion of the pre-game, the cohesive storyline and the realism in the room’s decor. I would highly recommend Dextrophobia not only as the best real-life escape game in Bulgaria, but as the best I have played so far.
Given how many of you are likely to end up in Bulgaria on my heartfelt recommendations, I encourage you to trust me just a little further and book a time slot at dextrophobiarooms.com.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that one of the Dextrophobia co-founders is a family friend. Regardless, I have exaggerated neither my experience nor my opinion of their work, and I have not received, nor will I receive, any compensation for this review or for my endorsement.