"Squires, right this way!" yells Renaissance Man #1, corralling a party of adventurers 10 strong.
One of the younger members of our company, a boy of 12 summers, inquires, "What's a squire?"
"Uh, squires are guys who are studying to become knights. Now, let me have you step right into this shipping crate."
So began our quest to escape a castle at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival.
Over the past couple years, escape rooms have become increasingly popular among James Bond lovers, people passionate about puzzles, and competitive corporate retreat groups. Now we can add "Huzzah!"-hurling Ren Festers to the list.
This is the first year that the puzzle-room organization Escape MSP has hosted Castle Escape at the festival. In a place where you're guaranteed the same tried and true entertainment year after year, we found ourselves intrigued by this new addition to the fair. And we wanted to prove our mystery-solving mettle.
Back to the quest.
Our band of merry squires files into a corrugated shipping crate populated only with a few wooden benches for us to huddle on and get acquainted before the real test begins.
"Good luck squiii-aaahhhs!" Renaissance Man #1 closes the shipping crate on us. The only light we have to see by is a sliver of sun peeking through the door. We wonder for a second if we've been duped, or if this is what it will be like during ye olde zombie apocalypse.
"He sucks," notes one of the boy squires as we wait in the dark for our mission instructions.
A few minutes later, "Hear ye, hear ye, young squires!" booms a voice from outside the crate. The door swings open and a Henry VIII-type casts a looming shadow against all of us. (We'll call him Renaissance Man #2.) "You are about to embark on a dangerous mission put forth by the Baron!"
Renaissance Man #2 tells us the tale of a Baron's family sword stolen centuries ago by a villain most foul. A team (that's us!) assembled by the Baron has made it through the castle where the sword is hidden. We're just outside the hallowed treasure room, where the castle guard on duty is about to go on a break for 20 minutes. The time to retrieve the sword is nigh.
Our intrepid team of squires embarks on the last and most harrowing leg of our quest, stepping into
a new trailer the treasure room where we will be locked inside until we find the sword (or the guard comes back).
Without giving any clues away, here are some notes for planning your castle escape successfully before the guards come back and
throw you in the dungeon make you take a photo with the "Quest Failed" sign of shame.
All types of personalities are equally important
We can't all be the flashiest of knights at the round table, but that's okay. Once you're in the escape room, there will be some folks who take charge and scramble to find the first clues with fanfare and grandiose movements and loud exclamations. That's helpful to a point, but there's also something to be said for the quiet ones that spend a little more time on certain parts of the room with more of a Sherlock Holmes perspective than Inspector Clouseau.
Kids are actually very helpful
It sounds silly to say that kids have a different perspective on things, but they really do. The energetic kids in our group made adventurous mental leaps and scrambled around trying random stuff that plenty of older folks wouldn't have thought of... and it paid off. So, listen to the young'uns on your team, too. And if you don't have any kids in your crowd, you'd do well to look around the room through a childlike lens.
Treat everything as a clue
This is pretty obvious, but it's easy to forget to think outside of the box when the clock is inching ever closer to 00:00:00 and you just want to find that damn sword.
We emerged victorious with the sword after 15 minutes, but that's not to say this thing is easy. As we all waited for our session to begin, there were two teams that had to pose with the dreaded sign of failure for Escape MSP's Facebook page. Of all the team photos from the first weekend of the Renaissance Festival, only six teams brought back the sword and were knighted by the baron (Renaissance Man #2 doing double-duty). Meanwhile, 11 failed teams of squires are presumably still stuck in the castle.
It's $15 to earn yourself a spot on the random squad of sword-searchers, and you only get 20 minutes to crack the myriad locks, codes, and whatever else inside the room. Is Castle Escape worth the extra ducats (on top of the steep price of festival admission)? If you fancy yourself a medieval Miss Marple, then totally. If you don't like puzzles, working with strangers, or the looming threat of failure, maybe you should stick to watching the joust.
Castle Escape is located in section five of the festival, right next to the archery targets. (Which, incidentally, is a great way to pass the time while you wait for your scheduled escape slot.) You will have to sign up for a time slot and sign a waiver before you can storm the castle.
Personal bias: I've been wanting to try out one of these escape rooms for a while, and it was a good low-stakes way to discover I actually do like these things. (Which is good to find out before you're locked in an official Escape MSP puzzle room for 60 minutes with strangers.)
The crowd: A pair of preteen boys, a dad, some moms, a girl with some sweet face paint, a couple that donated blood that morning (and got into the fair for free!), and a couple millennials.
Overheard: Things got dark and deep pretty quickly while we were waiting around in that crate. After being told by Renaissance Man #1 not to mess with certain aspects of the room (or else!), this is the conversation that went down:
Woman 1: "Doesn't it make you want to do it to see what happens?"
Woman 2: "This is why we are going to fail." [laughs]
Boy: "That actually seems more like a reward..."
Dad: "Really? That says you failed?"
Boy: "Well, you get to hold the sign!"
Dad: "At times, failure can be your friend if you can learn from it. This though, it's just over. This is kind of like death. If you fail, it's over! You don't get to learn anything."
It's okay, we all lived happily ever after.