Jon Westhoff spent his whole life loving puzzles and games, so when he first discovered escape rooms, he was delighted. After doing his first escape room at his bachelor party, Westhoff’s friend and now-business partner Connor Hickox proposed creating their own escape rooms in Columbia. They created Breakout CoMo, which is, according to breakoutcomo.com, “Columbia’s #1 Escape Room.”
Since its opening two and a half years ago, Breakout CoMo has created five permanent escape rooms. Currently, they are working on opening a new room called the Gambler on Nov. 30, which will replace former escape room, Missouri Stock Exchange.
Though they first opened in conjunction with Kansas City’s Breakout KC, Westhoff and Hickox have since bought out Breakout CoMo. Most of the room designs were passed down from Kansas City, but Westhoff and his team have designed several temporary rooms for True/False Film Festival.
“Putting in rooms is super exciting because we don’t do it very often,” Westhoff said. “Even when we do designs from the KC team, we still put our own spin on it. We like to go through and [say], ‘I feel like this could be a little bit better. Let’s tweak this.’ That’s why we got into it is because we love games and puzzles and designing them, so we always try to do what we can.”
When Westhoff begins designing a room, he starts with a general concept of what the room will be about. From there, he and his team begin to brainstorm, beginning with larger overarching puzzles before moving to smaller details.
“A lot of the way we start is with the theme,” Westhoff said. “Like this is going to be the room, these are the characters the room’s based off of and we have a narrative in mind, and then we work out from there. We ask the questions of what kind of stuff would be in this room, what objects are we going to be interacting with, what do we want. A lot of times we work backwards too.”
From discovering Mark Twain’s manuscripts, to being locked in an enemy bunker, to attempting to escape a haunted hotel room, the theme of each room is an important aspect to Breakout CoMo. Westhoff believes a more developed story helps keep players immersed in the game.
“More narrative is one of the goals we have for ourselves,” Westhoff said. “A lot of escape rooms, [you discover the story], but it isn’t progressing....A lot of people, they get in the rooms and when they’re doing them, they kind of throw the narrative out, which is fine too,...but we’re trying to do little things that draw people back into those narratives and keep them present and active within the rooms.”
Breakout CoMo stands out from other Columbia escape rooms both in its high number of rooms as well as the owners’ “spare no expense” mentality and attention to detail, Westhoff said. The rooms at Breakout CoMo tend to be ambitious even to the point of overzealousness.
“Not only do I want really clever puzzles and a really strong narrative and the flow, [...] a big factor for us is we want people to walk away feeling like, ‘Oh, I couldn’t have just done that in my basement,’” Westhoff said. “Because of that, we try to push the boundaries with tech and gadgets and stuff like that.”
Junior Janelle Popish completed the Mark Twain Museum with a group of friends. She had fun and was impressed by the room as a whole. What brings her back to Breakout CoMo is the level of the puzzles in the rooms, which proved the perfect difficulty for her team to escape.
“The rooms [at Breakout CoMo] are always fun, all the way through,” Popish said. “I've been to a couple of escape rooms where the clues varied from impossibly hard to obviously easy, but I've never had that problem with Breakout [CoMo] rooms. They're consistent and the right level of challenging.”
This balance is what makes Breakout CoMo so great to Westhoff, who emphasizes the differences in skill level of everyone who walks through the door. Focused on screens in the back room, runners watch players’ body language and listen to them over headsets to provide clues to not necessarily get players out of the room but help them get their money’s worth, Westhoff said. Afterward, room runners walk players through the room, pointing out how they solved each puzzle and what clues they missed.
“You’re giving these little nudges here and there where they’re still solving the puzzles, but we’re making sure that even if they’re not getting out, they’re having a positive experience, a sense of accomplishment and seeing the majority of the room,” Westhoff said. “That’s really important to us.”
Before each room is open to the public, they go through a series of test runs to ensure groups have the best possible experience. Gambler just finished this stage of production. When this stage is over, Westhoff’s favorite part of implementing a new room plays out.
“There are definitely some moments in each one of our rooms where expectations are defied and those are my favorite moments,” Westhoff said. “The short answer there is the player reaction is my favorite part. Watching players interact with and react to the room...is really really cool.”
Along with the Gambler’s opening, Westhoff is looking to add a new room in the spring as well, called the Orphan, which will be his first permanent design without the help of Breakout KC. This room would be based on an idea he has had for the past year and a half.
Currently, Breakout CoMo also features the rooms Civil War, Y2K and Room 13. Each room presents a different theme and level of challenge. Groups can book reservations on (Breakout CoMo’s website)[breakoutcomo.com].
Edited by Alexandra Sharp | firstname.lastname@example.org