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You’re locked in a room, 60 minutes on the clock. What on first glance appears to be an ordinary household kitchen is, in fact, one giant puzzle.

Unraveling the mystery means escape and your team’s name up on the leaderboard. Failure means walking away with nothing but the story of just how close you were to success. It’ all part of the fun with STAR Escape Rooms, Columbus's first ever puzzle adventure.

An escape room is a physical adventure game where players have to solve puzzles, complete tasks and tackle challenges in order to complete a set goal and win. The first escape room opened up in Japan in 2007. Ever since, they’ve been popping up in major cities all over the world, each with their own unique themes and puzzles.

Randy Mueller and his spouse, Joanne Mueller, first encountered one during a family visit to Reno, Nevada, about a year ago. After their first room, they were hooked. Although there are places like Escape Room in Lincoln and House of Conundrum in Omaha, the couple soon grew tired of having to drive out of town to play. Mueller's friend and co-worker Aaron Muller had just experienced his first escape room in Omaha and the two started talking about the concept. That was when Muller pitched to Mueller the idea of starting an escape room of their own, right here in Columbus. 

“We just enjoyed it so much, we wondered about here,” Mueller said.

STAR, which stands for “Scenario Themed Adventure Room,” is set to officially open within the next two weeks and is in the second floor of the former Schweser's department store at 2705 13th St., Suite 300, in downtown Columbus. The 2,400 square foot venue will host three separate rooms, each with their own unique themes and up to 16 to 20 puzzles to solve before the 60-minute timer ends.

One of the challenges of opening the business, Muller said, was explaining the concept to people who were unfamiliar with it. Muller likens it to being a contestant on a game show or the character in a crime-solving novel.

“The way I explain it to people, you’re not watching the movie, you're in the movie,” he said.

The first room is called Granny Schmidt’s Kitchen. Designed by Joanne Mueller, players are tasked with finding Granny’s secret apple pie recipe hidden in her kitchen while she's away at church. The plan is to enter the recipe into a pie contest and use the $100,000 prize to pay off Granny’s debt to the bank.

The second room is The Last Frontier. Also designed by Joanne Mueller, the players act as a group of hikers who have gotten lost in the woods of Alaska. They soon stumble upon a cabin and must search for a flair to signal a plane for help. But if the timer runs out, they’ll miss their chance to get rescued and the hikers will surely perish in the coming blizzard.

The last room is called Will Power. Designed by Mueller, the room is set in the office of a famous movie scriptwriter who has recently passed away under suspicious circumstances. The apparent will is just as suspicious. Players are to act as investigators hired by the family to search the late writer’s residence for the real will.

“We want each room that you’re walking away remembering, a certain puzzle or something. That’s something too, each room has something unique or something special to it,” Muller said.

The owners aim to open additional rooms in the future. The next room they’re working on is based on the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Another is based on Mayan mythology. They hope to eventually have a total of six rooms available.

In the future, Mueller said that they could change up the rooms and add new themes once people get tired of the old ones.

“When it stops getting booked, we’ll replace it with another room,” Mueller said.

It’s $25 per player and bookings can be made online at www.starescaperooms.com or at the business's Facebook page. Walk-ins are accepted, but could there’s a chance a room may not be available. The place is open 6 to 10 p.m., Wednesday through Friday, and 1-11 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

Rooms are designed for six people but can accompany up to eight players. Any small groups will be paired together, so it’s possible players will have to work together with strangers in order to win. Anyone under the age of 16 must be accompanied by an adult and younger children are discouraged from playing as the puzzles may be too difficult for them.

Each room is fitted with a camera and microphone so employees can see and listen in on what’s happening in each room. A TV screen will be used by employees to communicate with players via pictures and text as to not break the immersion of the game. This screen will also display the time.

If struggling, players can ask for hints, which will be displayed on the monitor. But hints will only be given out if all players are in agreement and using more than three hints will make the team disqualified from being on the leaderboards.

Barb Siedlik, the coordinator for the Columbus Downtown Business Association, said that the escape room will be a great way to attract people from out of town in places like Lincoln and Omaha to the area. Since every escape room is unique, escape room enthusiasts will travel far and wide to experience something new.

“Anytime we have a new business open in the downtown, that’s always a good thing. And especially of something of this nature,” Siedlik said. “It's a nice thing to keep the younger generation in town.”

Eric Schucht is a reporter for The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at eric.schucht@lee.net.

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