Puzzle rooms are a relatively new form of entertainment and they've been absolutely blowing up and gaining in popularity over the last few years. They're a super fun option for friends night out, a date, or even a team building exercise with coworkers - and, there are actually a lot of great ones right here in the San Diego area! AJ is a huge puzzle room enthusiasts., so he was this episode’s expert guide!
He shared some of the best ones in town and his pro tips to make sure you have the best experience possible!
Click here to go ALL IN on San Diego's best puzzle rooms, or read on for all the tips!
What is a Puzzle Room?
I’m really excited to share this list of the best puzzle rooms in San Diego. I went to one on a whim with some friends a couple of years ago, and we were immediately hooked – and we've done about one a month for a couple of years. It's become a real hobby!
But, if you’ve never been to one you might want to know how they work and what to expect.
Puzzle Rooms are games, but you and your friends are actually put into the experience. You're not looking at a screen, you're not doing something virtual. You will solve puzzles and figure out clues and do things to, in most cases, get out of that situation in 60 minutes or less. If you're intimidated by that idea, you shouldn't be because there's a game master who is going to be watching you on a camera and they'll kind of nudge you in the right direction. If you're really not doing very well, or you can even just ask for a clue, they'll help you out.
Can I Take Kids to a Puzzle Room?
One thing people always want to know is if there a good puzzle room to take kids to, and I think you know your own kids better than I do. I would say if your kids are under 10 years old, even if they like the theme of the room, they're not going to be able to help much and therefore they get bored. Even though puzzle rooms seem like such a fun thing to do with kids, I would almost always say no.
But, again, you know your kids and if you do think you want to take them to one, there are two or three in the San Diego area that might be good to take your kids (I note these below).
I really think someone needs to build a place that just for kids where the puzzles are age appropriate and the theme is age appropriate. And the guide is literally in the room with them, nudging them towards the right answers. Somebody get on that please.
With that, here is my list of the BEST Puzzle Rooms in San Diego!
Exit Game in Kearny Mesa
If somebody says “I've never done an escape room or a puzzle room before, where should I start?” I always say you might want to start at the Exit Game. First of all, it's super centrally located in Kearny Mesa right off the freeway, so everyone can get to it.
And they have four different really, really high-quality games. A lot of these puzzle room owners build these rooms and sometimes they feel very homemade. Other times you feel like you walked onto a Hollywood set and the Exit Game is the second kind. It's really, really high-end presentation.
They've got several different rooms. They've got the “AI” room where you and your team are going to face off against an evil artificial intelligence. They have “Escape from a North Korean Prison,” which sounds very dark but it's actually not dark - think of it as a “South Park” episode, it's done very over the top, very tongue in cheek.
They have the “School of Sorcery” room now, which you’re going to enjoy if you're a fan of Harry Potter. That's an amazing room. I don’t want to spoil it, but I will say you're going to have a really unique experience when you get to the end of the wizard room. The “School of Sorcery” is a puzzle room where you might take a kid (see my advice on bringing kids above).
Quicksand Escape and Games in PB
In Pacific Beach, you're going to find Quicksand Games. Now this one is not hard to find (a lot of these places are hard to find) – it is on Garnet Avenue. They have three different rooms and you cannot go wrong with any of them. Their “Diner Room” is where you're trying to break into a bank through an old-school, fifties diner is a lot of fun. But my favorite one here is the “Chinatown” experience where you're in a simulated Chinatown and it's a really great room.
Lockdown Rooms in Hillcrest
So over Hillcrest, you're going find Lockdown Games right on University Avenue. These are high quality well-built games. They have a bunch of different rooms, but I’m going to describe the “Western Room” and I'm going to give you a spoiler that's kind of fun. You'll go with your group and you'll enter through two different doors and start the game locked in two different prison cells in an old timey, old west prison. And this is a little bit spoiler-y, but I will tell you, at some point in this game, you will have to use a lasso and lasso something. They also have a “Voodoo room”, which is fun and I will say that room is the only one I've ever done that has a puzzle that you need to solve using your sense of smell. It is a totally unique experience.
Unlockables in Clairemont Mesa
Unlockables is Clairemont Mesa area right there on Clairemont Mesa Blvd. There is a genre of escape games that are horror games and horror is just not my thing. I don't love horror movies. I don't love horror games. These are scary, but they're more like a thriller movie. A couple of their games you’ll hear about and think “I'm never doing that one”, but if this sounds fun to you, you're going to be all in.
So, one of the games is called “The Escape” and it's their original. The story of this game is you were at a big fancy party at a mansion, and all of a sudden you and your friends are in the basement and you don't know why. Before the game, you're all blindfolded, you're all walked in and you're all put into your own scenario. In my case, when the voice came on and said “the game has begun”, I was in a dark box and I couldn't see anything. It's very immersive.
And the unique thing about Unlockables is the next room they offer is a sequel to “The Escape”. So, you escape and then you can come back a few weeks later or whatever, and do the next room that continues that story. That one's called “Sister Secret” and it's great. It's actually one of the best storytelling rooms in San Diego.
SUBScape in Poway
Right there off Scripps Poway Parkway is SUBScape Games. I am going to recommend their nineties themed room, which takes place at 11 o'clock on New Year's Eve, 1999. And you know what you're dealing with when the clock strikes midnight… Y2K. Y2K is the big, scary thing you're trying to avoid in this game. It's full nineties-themed and the room looks almost like the apartment on “Friends”. There is a radio station playing during your adventure and it’s playing nineties music and counting down to midnight (and you might recognize the DJ on that radio station as me!).
They've got rooms in Kearny Mesa as well and they’re all good. Another really fun theme is the “High School Detention” room where you and your friends are “The Breakfast Club” you've been sentenced and you start off in your desks and you need to literally break out of school. And SUBScape also has something unique… they have two versions of the detention room! So, if you are doing a team building exercise at work, you can have the sales team go in one version and the marketing team go in the other version and start at the same time and see who can get out faster. You can basically race to get out of the room, and that's something you don't see everywhere.
Boss-Play in Oceanside
Right there on El Camino Real is the one puzzle room that Sarah has done at Boss-Play in Oceanside. They have a room called “The Chocolate Factory” which is whimsical and fun. This is another one where your kids might not be able to help much, but it's as kid-friendly as they get.
MindFox Escape in Miramar
When I was putting together this list, I called a friend who is a bigger geek than me with these things and they said the only one keeping me from having a definitive list is MindFox off Miramar Road. It sounds amazing and actually shot to the top of my list of ones I want to try.
One room they have right now is called “The Black and White Café” and you actually enter a cafe where everything is black and white and your job by the end of the experience is to return color to the world. So, if you do this right over an hour's time, you'll transform the cafe from a black and white experience to a color experience.
How cool does that sound?
Steal and Escape in National City
There is a spot in National City, right off the 5 freeway called Steal and Escape and they've got a game called “The Lost Expedition.” Now, in almost every other game you're ever going to do the resource you're trying to manage is time - you're trying to finish the challenge or get out of the room in 60 minutes. In this case, you're on an Indiana Jones style adventure and you have a finite amount of fuel to fuel all your stuff. So, if you start off the generator to show light on something, you lose some fuel. If you turn on the radio to get a clue, you use some power. And if you run out of power in this game, you lose the game. Another unique thing about this one is everyone's given a specific role on the science team and that only that person can do certain tasks. If you're ready to get your Indiana Jones on, Steal and Escape in National City.
Escapology in Mission Beach
Another one that is worth going to for the location alone is Escapeology, the escape room in Belmont park. You can see it right there as you come in, it's got that great corner location. This is another one that is owned by a giant company, so they have some budget to put into these games. They look and feel very real. They've got a few games, I've done them all by far and the best one is “Budapest express”. That is a murder mystery on a train. And it's cool.
In most rooms (this isn't a spoiler, it's just the fact), you usually you start off in one room and then you'll find the secret passage to another room. And then you might go through two or three different spaces before you're done well. In this case, you're getting yourself from train car to train car, to train car and the murder mystery element is totally insane. In fact, my friends and I (who again, are super enthusiastic with this stuff) kind of forgot we were supposed to be solving a murder! We got to the end and realized we forgot to figure out who killed the person. We had to backtrack and run around and get the clues. So, if you do “Budapest Express” at Escapology, remember to solve the mystery and don't just get off the train. It's a fun one.
Clue Avenue in Escondido
Back up to north county, we're going to Escondido another one that's very easy to find because it's right off Grand and everyone knows Grand Ave in Escondido. This is Clue Avenue. They've got several different rooms. They've got some super abstract and original rooms, and those are probably fun once you've done a few of these. For a straight up new player experience, I would say, do “The Villain’s Layer”. The premise is a super villain is planning on releasing poisonous gas over all of San Diego and you've got 60 minutes to stop the super villain.
And, because this one is right on Grand Ave, you can walk out and grab a burger or have a drink with your friends. That's not true for all of these puzzle rooms, so you can really plan on having a good time there.
MindTrap Escape Room in Temecula and Murrieta
We've gone south. We've gone central. We've gone to PB, unfortunately, East County, I'm sorry, there's nothing really out in East County for puzzle rooms. But we're going to go as far north as you can get and even be kind of San Diego, but it's worth it because there's some of the best rooms I've ever done: MindTrap Escapes.
They've got rooms in Temecula and Murrieta, and I would say they're that same high bar as Exit Game as far as feeling like you walked onto a movie set. Really well-built rooms and also super fun. They have an Excalibur room where you've got to figure out how to pull the sword of Excalibur out and be the chosen one. They have a “Gold Rush” room, which is fantastic and it has a really cool ending.
Also, they just added this… they have a new location in Old Town Temecula, which is pretty awesome. During COVID they created an outdoor experience and family took me for Father’s Day, and it's amazing. They give you this duffle bag full of stuff and you go out into Old Town and you have to figure out who's been vandalizing Old Town. It's a great fun outdoors.
PRO TIPS for Puzzle Rooms
- Get a group together and make a reservation. You absolutely have to reserve in advance. I would recommend never doing it with less than four people, unless you get to kind of a very advanced level. Everyone kind of thinks a little bit differently and it's just more fun with a group. Make that reservation in advance have at least four people and know that often times the slot will be available to 10 people. So, if you book your party of four, you may be put in their room with another party of four or a party of two or a party of six. But, the bigger your group, the more you have a chance of crowding out the strangers and doing it by yourselves.
- Know where you’re going and get there EARLY. This is really, really important because it could have a huge effect on your day. Look at that location. Put it in your phone, really do your research on how to get there because a lot of them are in these kind of obscure, a little business parks. Make sure you have a plan to get there on time or a little bit early because you need to fill out a release form that takes a couple of minutes. If you have a 12 o'clock appointment and you get walk in there at 12:15, your 60 minute experiences turns into a 45 minute experience because they have another one starting after. You'll be so glad you got there early and told your friends to get there early. You'll have a better experience.
- Know that you won’t have your phone in the room. You're asked to take your phone and your keys and stuff into a locker that you lock yourself. It's totally safe, but they don't want your phone ringing. They don't want you taking pictures and putting spoilers on the internet. You owe yourself an hour every once in a while, without your stuff on you.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for clues. I'm not going to do a ton of pro tips on, on how to play, but I'll give you a couple, first of all, don't be afraid to ask for clues. You're there to have a good time, they want you to have a good time. If you're stuck for more than a few minutes, you're probably missing something.
- Communicate with your team. When you walk in, just start talking stuff out. If you walk in and someone just says “Hey, there seemed to be a lot of these dominoes. Let's start collecting them on this table over here, because eventually I think we'll need them. Just yelling that stuff out is going to help you along the way. Just there's no such thing as over-communicating along the way.
- Wear comfortable shoes. You're going to be moving a little bit more urgently than you would walking through a CVS. So maybe don't wear heels or flip flops.
- Make a day of it! I would say this is a really big one that a lot of people don't think of. If your plan is JUST to meet at the puzzle room at noon, you've cheated yourself out of some of the fun. A lot of the half of the fun is sitting around the bar or the coffee shop or the restaurant afterwards going talking about the experience you just had. It could just be getting a cup of coffee, it doesn't have to be anything elaborate. But the few times we've all met up and then been like “all right, that was fun” and we all walk to our cars and drive off, it sucks. Don't do that! Make this the beginning of the plan.
- Do Two Rooms. If you can, if your time and budget allows, do two rooms. That's kind of the high level mark of fun for me, because once you do one, you had so much fun, you can't wait to go in again. So, book a room for 11:00 and maybe give yourself an hour to go have a bite and then do another room. I always feel super satisfied after doing two rooms.
- Share Your Experience You'll almost always have an opportunity to take a picture with your team holding some props. They make sure these are cool photos. This is more for the industry than for yourself, but share those pictures, especially if you had a good time. These places don't have huge marketing budgets, and that's one of the ways they get people in. Hashtag and share your picture of your fun day out.
- 10.Check out Groupon. I know these room owners don't mind me telling you this, because they want you to use them, check out Groupon or whatever to get a deal. It's a way to get the whole group in there at a slightly better price sometimes.
So, get out there and get into a puzzle room! Please let me know which one you did and how much fun you had, because I've had some of my best times with friends doing these things. Nothing's everyone's cup of tea, but if you got a little geeky in you like I do, I think these are so fricking fun! I've tried all of them, and these are my best of the best of the county as of right now. It's always changing, but you can't go wrong with the places I've shared here.
Check out the whole episode here!
And if you are ever looking for a great playground or park around San Diego check out