As passersby stopped to peer into a new downtown storefront with a name, Smart Rooms, that occasionally leads people to walk in and ask what exactly this place is, owner CJ Wells kept his eyes trained on a camera monitor propped up on his desk on Nov. 6.

On two flip phone-sized screens, it showed areas of a room filled with Prohibition Era furniture, a typewriter and the kind of phone Hildy Johnson used to call in scoops at the Morning Post. It also showed 10 of Wells’ neighbors fiddling with nearly everything they couldn’t unmoor from the walls in an effort to solve a collection of puzzles and get out of there in 60 minutes or less. Into the center of all this, someone had lugged a heavy treasured chest.

Tatum Harstick took a break from her homework to join her stepdad and stare at the screen. Harstick, 15, and four of her friends -- Cinco Amigos was the team name -- performed a successful test run at Smart Rooms Lincoln before the escape room opened for business last month. So she knew when the participants had found relevant shelves or objects, and when they’d hit on key clues or botched combinations. Wells at this point has memorized every code, combination and equation in the place he began designing on scratch paper at a desk job. Both knew the chest has nothing to do with anything.

“Hey, where’d the chest go?” Harstick said, looking at the screen where it was supposed to be.

“They brought it in here,” Wells said, pointing to the other screen as Harstick smacked her forehead. “I’ve never seen that one before.”

The 23rd team to try and get out of the escape room next to the Rococo Theatre didn’t make it out in 60 minutes that night. When Wells asked them afterward whether they’d left any coats or phones inside, one of them said, “just our pride,” and everybody laughed.

Lincoln’s three escape rooms -- Smart Rooms, 134 N. 14th St.; Escape Lincoln, 140 N. Eighth St., No. 60; and Lincoln Escape Room, 3700 S. Ninth St., Suite D -- all opened this autumn. In the brief time that they’ve been opened, the owners said, they’ve all spent time watching the escapees on surveillance gear set up on the sites.

Mostly, they want to watch to make sure the players who try to solve their rooms don’t get hung up and overly frazzled during one part of the game. (Some frazzle is OK -- it’s not supposed to be a waltz.) They also use what they see to improve on their current and future room designs, while also learning a little about human behavior along the way.

“This is so interesting watching people,” Harstick said. “It’s so cool.”

When you lock a group of people in a room and tell them that the clues inside will lead them out, Abby Bartholomew has learned, people will look everywhere for clues. Every. Where. The co-creator of Escape Lincoln said she and Anh McClure have had to remove old framed photos from one of the rooms, because people spent 20 minutes thinking their ticket out was somehow concealed in them. They were just decor. The two have now tailored their instructions for the three themed rooms they designed to ignore features that aren’t meant to be in play, just in case.

“One has windows, so we try to tell them not to climb through the windows,” Bartholomew said.

Before a group of potential escapees enters Smart Rooms, Wells reads from an index card featuring bullet points of advice. On the back of the card are a few more incredibly specific points, which Wells calls “cousin Kyle rules” after his relative who gave the room a very thorough trial run. Cousin Kyle rules include “don’t unscrew lightbulbs” and, of course, “there’s nothing inside the picture frames.”

Now that the escape room operators each have 25 or more group runs of two to 10 people through their respective setups, here are some bullet points of advice from them, and from one successful escapee, on what it takes to get out of there:

* Communication is as key as, well, a key -- Each escape room owner said they tell players to talk to each other through the process. McClure said she remembered watching one group where a guy was carrying around a clue for a good portion of the 60 minutes. “He never told anyone he had it,” she said. “They had been working on deciphering without the decipher.” The team members who talk to each other tend to work much better together.

“It’s a place of synergy,” said Jake Jensen, who co-owns Lincoln Escape Room with Travis Cornelius. “That’s what we’ve really enjoyed watching. When people come in, that’s fun to watch how that works.

"A group leader is able to listen, communicate and lead. But you’ll see someone is a little timid, but has a knack for a certain kind of puzzle. And a good leader says, ‘You’re onto something.’”

* Don't spend too much time on one thing -- The escape rooms are meant to be fun, not chores, Wells said. There may be a bookshelf. One of the books might be upside down on the shelf. Maybe there’s something of interest in the book. But it won’t be a whole chapter.

* If you’re enthusiastic about it going in, it seems to help -- McClure said that having a positive attitude going in is a big key. Some people look like they know they’re going to lose. Some have looked like they were coaxed by another group member to come along. By the time they’re halfway through, they’re having fun, but it’s too late. 

“You are going to make this the experience you want to have," Bartholomew said. 

* If you're going with a significant other, hopefully he or she is truly significant -- "I do get worried when couples go in,” McClure admitted. So far, there are no known breakups as a result of the 60 or so minutes trapped in Lincoln's escape rooms together, though there has been at least one instance where someone said, "At least I am trying to get us out of this room." Hey, tension mounts when the clock ticks. 

On the other end of the spectrum, there's Jamie Snell and Kristie Seybert, and the group they brought to Smart Rooms. Snell drafted a collection of 10 friends to book a private gathering. 

"One of the biggest things was, we broke up into small groups and that kind of happened just organically," Snell, who works at Hudl, said. "We had couples -- boyfriend-girlfriends, husbands-wives -- who went together to try and solve things." 

Snell credited his girlfriend, Seybert, with finding a key piece of paper that led them on to the next puzzle and everyone in his group for not freaking out.  

“Don’t yell at each other,” Snell said. “Just be calm. If someone’s not figuring something out, don’t overreact.”

That sage relationship advice helped them escape the Smart Room in 40 minutes, 41 seconds. They rank second overall there, and, Snell said, he's intent on escaping the rest of Lincoln's rooms.

“I think the mystery of how it’s gonna all pan out was intriguing, and also it’s something to do with friends that doesn’t involve bar drinking,” Snell said.

To look at rates and rooms, the escape rooms' websites are the best place to start. They are lincolnescaperoom.com, escapelincoln.com and smartroomslincoln.com.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7438 or cmatteson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSMatteson.

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Features reporter

Cory Matteson is a features reporter.

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