Imagine this: The year is 1518. You are a Native American living in western Connecticut in an area known for its medicinal plants. Your tribe gets word that another tribe, in a nearby village, needs help to battle sickness. You have 24 hours to gather medicine, water and food before you head out to help them.
That is the premise of Wigwam Escape, one of the state’s newest escape rooms that opened in December. The attraction is at the Institute for American Indian Studies in Washington.
Like other escape rooms, Wigwam Escape wants to entertain visitors and function as a teamwork exercise. But unlike other rooms, Wigwam Escape also wants to educate people about how tribes lived in that era.
“We want people to be interacting with history, but we want you to have fun,” said Lauren Bennett, the institute’s program coordinator and museum educator. “To win, you have tasks that people would have done in the 16th century, how to get food, stay warm, start a fire, what medicines were made of.
“That’s what people had to know every single day,” she said. “We want to teach people that [Native American] lives were different than ours, but not lesser than ours.”
The escape room is part of the Institute for American Indian Studies is a historical museum about an hour’s drive west of Hartford, at 38 Curtis Road in Washington. Along with the escape room, there are exhibits of artifacts from various tribes that illustrate daily life before and after contact with Europeans, up to the present day. Another room is a recreation of a longhouse, a large-scale wigwam that was a dominant presence in native villages. (iaismuseum.org)
Who designed the room?
Griffin Kalin, creative director of the room and an educator at the museum, walled off half of a large, underused meeting space to create the 20 foot-by-20 foot escape room. He researched Native American life and flora and fauna of the area and visited other escape rooms for inspiration. His design had to take several things into account that other escape rooms don’t, he says.
“The vast majority of rooms, their puzzle involves key codes and locks, sets of numbers. I tried to avoid all that. There were no locks [in 1518]. I wanted to use the types of resources people would use,” says Kalin, who has Cherokee and Seneca ancestry. “They weren’t even using written language.”
Many of the challenges involve dexterity and kinesthetic and spatial reasoning, Kalin says.
The escape room has, of course, a wigwam, made from locally sourced bark, harvested after a storm last year felled a lot of trees in the area. It sits among plants, a water source, objects typical of 16th-century Native lifestyles, boulders and wildlife. The walls are painted in a wilderness mural. An audio track features the sounds of loons, owls, hawks, insects and mourning doves.
Some rules to enter the 16th century
Visitors must surrender cellphones, watches, FitBits or any other portable 21st-century technology before they go in. The devices are locked in a box and retrieved when the game is over.
However, the gamers are watched on closed-circuit TV by Bennett and Kalin. If the gamers seem to be having trouble, clues are piped in via the audio system.
To help future gamers immerse themselves, guests must sign a waiver that, among other things, forbids them from revealing puzzle-solving secrets.
If it’s educational, can it really be fun?
A group of seven adults who played the game recently all came out smiling and laughing. They munched popcorn, which Bennett makes for visitors, as popcorn was a well-known food among Native Americans.
“Everybody seemed to play to their strengths,” says Lanny Ball of Bantam.
“It was nice when I did something and nothing happened and somebody else would suggest something different,” says Jamie Spannhake of Washington.
Abbey Taylor of Washington says the 16th-century vibe works well: “When we all realized that we had to think like the 1500s, it went from crazy chaos to living in the moment.”
How long does it take?
Each group is booked for one hour. A six-minute grace period is offered to people who haven’t solved it by 60 minutes. Time is not marked by a clock – there were no clocks then – but by light. At the beginning and the end, the room is dark. Like Natives in 1518, participants need to take full advantage of the sunlight.
Can I skip the museum?
Yes, but “you learn a lot in the museum, things that will be useful when you’re inside the room,” says Chris Combs, executive director of the museum
The cost, hours, age range
Bennett said the age range is 12 and older, but exceptions are made if the party has at least one adult for every small child. She said a family with two kids – one 4 years old — recently visited the room and solved it successfully.
Admission to Wigwam Escape is $25 per person, $20 for IAIS members. Admission to the museum is $10 a person, but those who book a time in the escape room can get into the museum for half price.
On Fridays, sessions can be booked for 3, 5 or 7 p.m. On Saturdays, noon and 2, 4, 6 and 8 p.m. On Sundays, noon and 2, 4 and 6 p.m. To book your group, go to wigwamescape.org.
Susan Dunne can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.