Edmonton Business Review: Escape City

Friends and escape rooms = fun!

I’ve been hooked on escape rooms ever since they were initially introduced to Edmonton back around 2014. I lapped them up and I would go on gaming sprees, usually dragging along a newbie or two. When we left, they were addicted as well. For those who don’t yet know, an escape room is an immersive experience whereby a group is “locked” in a themed room and they have to work together to solve riddles, clues and puzzles in order to breakout. They typically range between 45 to 60 minutes in length and cost about $25 per person to play.

About a year after I delved into that world, more businesses in this vein finally started to pop up, including one of my all time faves, Escape City. Located on 59 Avenue and 104 Street (Calgary Trail), it’s tucked away in the corner of an old strip mall. Walking through the doors, there has always been someone sitting behind the counter to greet patrons. Otherwise, it’s a very minimalist space with white walls, a couple of long benches, and cabinets for lockers. A large bulletin board next to the till showcases the teams who have broken out of their rooms in record time (Note: the times listed are remaining minutes in the game, not total minutes played). On the opposite side of the room is an accent wall with “Escape City” scrawled in red, which is great for photo ops.

It’s ideal to arrive 15 minutes in advance of your allotted time to ensure everyone has a chance to pay and sign the waivers (if you’ve played here before, they do keep them on file, so you don’t have to sign it again). As with any other escape room place, you are not to bring in any of your belongings. Phones, especially, should be locked away as it’s all too easy to cheat or make the game easier with them on hand. Plus, it’s important that photos aren’t shared of the room and its puzzles because the whole point of playing is to be challenged. Where’s the fun in knowing in advance what’s going to happen?

When the team is ready to go, a staff member will lead the way. They’ll present the house rules: no lifting carpets, no pulling on things that are nailed down, no climbing, etc. Then, a video introduction is played before the countdown starts and the game begins.

As an early subscriber to Escape City’s newsletter, I was invited to beta test for them. The very first room I got to experience was Keller’s Magic Emporium. At the time, I didn’t realize it was rated as their easiest room. Admittedly, I found it to be too quick to work through as we got out with probably 20 minutes to spare on an available 45 minutes (sometimes I don’t care about breaking a record; I just want to be entertained for as long as possible while still breaking out). What I did like was that they found a way to personalize the game a bit. Everything was quite linear, and the design was superb. They utilized some locks in the room, but there were a lot of other styles of puzzles, too. This one is best for beginners.

A taste of The Cabin. Photo courtesy of Escape City.

My second go at one of their rooms was with The Cabin. This was a well-though-out game and our group was literally a minute away from solving the whole thing. Alas, we failed, but it was very close. While it is considered to be one of the more difficult challenges at Escape City, I believe our ultimate downfall with this particular room was the size of the space and the number of players. Most of the time I struggle to get more than four or five people to come out. In this case, I recall having seven or eight in all. With limbs everywhere, visuals were blocked, hindering our ability to fully grasp everything we were supposed to see. My recommendation with the majority of places I’ve been is to have no more than six people.

Room number three at Escape City was The Inheritance. I’d only just started dating Kirk at the time. He was so enamoured with The Cabin that, on a whim as we were passing by one night, he decided we should zip into the front doors an hour before closing to ask if we could play an impromptu game. The staff was happy to oblige. I feel like we used a lot of hints (you can have up to two, if you want your time to count towards their rankings; otherwise, you can have as many as needed). But, what do you expect when you only have two brains trying to decipher stuff like this at 10 o’clock in the evening? We managed though. There were a couple of puzzles that we solved without doing it the way the room was planned (it happens on occasion). We also wouldn’t have gotten out within the actual 45 minutes. Thankfully, the employees working that night were nice enough to give us extra time. It’s been designated with a three out of five star difficulty rating and I think that’s a fair assessment.

Adventure four was The Great Discovery. It’s no longer running, but this one had a lab storyline and made sure to encourage the use of multiple senses in order to solve the puzzles. Our team worked well together as each person brought something to the table, and we felt really accomplished when we escaped this room.

The Hunt for Arms Magee (previously known as Quarterback Sneak) was the fifth room played at Escape City. It’s also classified as middle of the road in terms of the overall challenge. I have to say though, this was most likely my least favourite out of the handful of games we’d played here at this point. I didn’t think the quality of the room itself or the production value was as high as the others. Mainly in the first half (the second portion had a fun element), the premise felt silly and oversimplified in comparison. This room was a joint effort between Escape City and Explore Edmonton. It was originally meant to tie into the Grey Cup and pitted the idea of the Edmonton Eskimos against the Saskatchewan Roughriders. I thought they just tried way too hard to tie in Edmonton elements. They’re best left to making rooms where the imaginations of the designers aren’t hindered by the tourism board’s vision.

We excelled at Neurological! Also, this is apparently my lucky shirt.

Approximately ten months later, I finally found an excuse to go back. This time, we were celebrating Escape City’s third birthday (August 2018). It’s crazy to think that they’ve graced us with their presence for this long and even weirder to realize I hadn’t played any escape rooms in over half a year. We tried our hand at Neurological, one of their hardest. I’ve been told by many people who tackled it before me to go with a large group (eight to ten). In the end, I managed to wrangle together a total of five people. Needless to say, I was a bit concerned that we didn’t have enough brain power. Turns out, that worry was unnecessary. We demolished this room! Unlike the others, you start with 60 minutes on the timer, and we completed it with 11 minutes left to go. This one splits the team up at the beginning and the goal is to come back together to alight all the senses. It required clear communication and a lot of teamwork to succeed. We were told at the end that only 14 per cent of of the people who play this one break out, so we felt like superstars.

For those that want to hang out a little longer, you can either get there early or stay for a bit at the end and commiserate over a drink because, surprisingly, Escape City does sell cans of beer and a few other non-alcoholic beverages. Basically, it’s a great option for parties of any kind. While I’m not likely to throw a shindig here myself, they sure do know how to reel me back in. Seeing as how I had pretty much tackled all of their rooms, I wasn’t expecting to be return again any time soon. But, lo and behold, for their anniversary, they’ve just launched a new one called Frank’s Revenge about an uncle looking to even the score. If I have my way, curse be damned. Our winning streak has to live on! I’ll be back with friends in tow!

Edmonton Happenings: Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids

The stage at The Arden Theatre in St. Albert.

About two weeks ago, I dragged my fiancé to the latest Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids (GRTTWaK) event in St. Albert. It was the second one I’d attended. The first was two years before at The Mercury Room in Edmonton. I was, and still am, just a listener though. I’m not sure I’m brave enough to get so personal with a room full of strangers.

My ticket into the event as an attendee.

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, the name of the event pretty much speaks for itself. However, to expand, this is essentially a ticketed touring open mic show run by Dan Misener and his wife Jenna. They’ve been doing this since 2007 after a Christmas trip the year before led them on a journey through Jenna’s old diaries and inspired them to gather friends to do the same. It’s now become a podcast hit with recordings made live during dates that are frequently scheduled across the country.

Grownup

Locals in each city they visit sign up to go on stage for about 5 minutes per person to read something from their past. It could be anything from a short story to a poem, or a letter to a class assignment, or something from one’s journal. Those who enroll have to check in with Dan and Jenna before the big day, so they get a sneak peek of what’s to come. Nevertheless, watching Dan react to each person’s share, I could tell he was just as surprised and delighted as the audience was whenever those big “oh my god” moments happened.

Admittedly though, GRTTWaK isn’t my first foray into this world of teenage and childhood artifacts. In fact, I became obsessed with the film Mortified Nation when I saw it on Netflix a few years back (they now have a Netflix series called The Mortified Guide). The premise was pretty much the same. Yet, the founder of Mortified, David Nadelberg, was based out of the United States and launched his similar endeavour in 2002. I loved it so much that I wanted to be the one to bring it north of the border.

Little did I know that Dan Misener already beat me to the punch. It was my friend who introduced me to GRTTWaK, which really doubled my fun when it came to hearing these stories of adolescent horrors, gut wrenching heartbreak, true happiness, etc. that almost everyone can relate to whether or not they realized it when they were younger.

I guess that’s the irony of it. Things always seemed like such a huge deal as kids. We blew things out of proportion and we assumed we were the only ones to be feeling the way we did. More than likely though, our neighbour or our friend was experiencing it, too. It shows us how caught up in ourselves we can become, but I also think that we sometimes have a depth that goes beyond our years. Many of the things people have shared are so insightful and introspective. Others are lighthearted and hilarious.

What I do think is important to remember is that, whatever it is we have in our history, whether it’s good or bad, we’ve come through it. We can look back and learn from our pasts and, hopefully, we can have a chuckle at it as well.

I definitely recommend that if you’re located in Canada, register for the GRTTWaK newsletter. You won’t get a ton of emails. You’ll just be looped in on upcoming events that you can attend. Also, be sure to check out the podcast. It’s available through their website, Spotify, Apple, or Google. While each episode of the Mortified podcast delves deep into the share of a single individual (even doing a follow-up with the reader who provides a bit of extra discussion about their story), GRTTWaK episodes are usually about 25 to 35 minutes long and cover multiple brave souls in one sitting. It can lead to a roller coaster of emotions, but it’s worth the ride.

Check out this GRTTWaK episode, posted on August 27, 2017 where my friend Michelle decided to read an original story she penned about a horse family:

https://art19.com/shows/grownups-read-things-they-wrote-as-kids/episodes/883b32c2-7483-4bb7-8048-7c7c87fd0f9b/embed?theme=light-custom

If you’re interested in hearing an episode from Mortified, listen to this one about Amy, a first generation kid, growing up in America:

https://play.prx.org/e?uf=http:%2F%2Ffeeds.getmortified.com%2FMortifiedPod&gs=_blank&sp=all

Edmonton Business Review: Board N Brew

The interior of Board N Brew.

There’s been an influx of board game cafes in Edmonton over the past few years. One of the newest ones is Board N Brew. Situated on 99 Avenue and 103 Street, it’s probably the most spacious and better designed spots of its kind in the city, and it’s only a hop, skip, and jump away from my office. It’s sort of easy to miss though. Unless it happens to be on your route to and from work, there’s a good chance you’d be unaware of its existence.

Alcohol is served here.

Now open for about 15 months, I gathered some friends for an evening of board games after work in the middle May. Since groups can reserve space before 8pm, I took the opportunity to book us a table just in case. The six of us trickled in between 4:15pm to 5:30pm on a Wednesday night. At first, the staff seemed to be attentive. Someone came over a few minutes after we arrived to take drink orders (a can of Stiegl Radler was $6.50), and another returned a short while later to put through any food we wanted.

The menu is quite succinct with a focus on snackable items. However, they do offer Battista’s calzones and a few entrées that seemed to require more than a microwave or panini press to cook (most of the other board game cafes tend to stick with sandwiches and wraps). One such item was the Chicken & Waffles ($15), which I opted to try.

Chicken & Waffles with Kettle Chips

Really, when it comes down to it, this is a fairly simple dish. It requires batter, a waffle maker, chicken, a fryer, and some maple syrup. I found the waffles to be good. They were crisp, but still a touch fluffy on the inside. The chicken was breaded and seasoned nicely. The meat was clearly solid white chicken breast and it was still juicy. Whatever herbs and spices they used had some heat to it, too, giving the meal some added flavour. A cup of maple syrup sat on the side, so I was able to apply it as I felt was necessary. Served with the waffles was a bowl of plain kettle chips. I’m not sure what brand they were. I doubt they make them in-house or anything. I would have preferred a dip to go with them. Thankfully, my friend gave me her leftovers from her Naan Sampler, so I could have something to jazz them up.

After our mains were had, that’s when the service went down hill. They kept forgetting to bring over things people had ordered (not unlike my previous experiences at places like The Gamers’ Lodge or even at Table Top Cafe on occasion), and they eventually stopped checking on us.

Board Game Legend

Staff aside, Board N Brew is awesome when it comes to their selection of games. At a rate of $5 per person to play as long as you want, it’s worth it. I love their game legend, which breaks down how they’ve sorted everything on the shelves. It makes it easy to find what one is looking for. Also, maybe it’s because the place is relatively new, but most of the cards and pieces in the games we chose to play — Cards Against Humanity, Taboo, Spank the Yeti, Rhino Hero, and Rhino Hero Super Battle — were clean and in excellent condition. I really appreciated that as I’m a bit of a germophobe and feel absolutely disgusted when I come into contact with sticky surfaces. So, score one for Board N Brew in this respect!

As I mentioned previously, the layout of the venue is great. Large booths that seat six people each line all of the windows. Other configurable tables are located in the center of the space. At the back, there are two private rooms. Both can be booked in advance, although they do require minimum spends. The lighting is also pretty good, especially during the day when sunlight comes streaming right in. Staffers are also supposed to be able to assist with game explanations, but it depends on whether or not they’ve played it before.

Overall, we had a wonderful time. Sure, the staff can use some additional training to bring the service level up. Otherwise, the food and drinks were satisfactory (for the majority of us; likely to each their own), the shop was orderly, and, best of all, it was an incredibly affordable outing.

Edmonton Happenings: Streetcar Shows Edmonton

Singer Ken Stead performs for us atop the High Level Bridge.

Streetcar Shows Edmonton has been chugging along since 2013. Founded by Tad Hargrave and Zizi Lievers with Peter Seal hosting and photographing events, it’s probably one of the city’s true gems. These are intimate concert experiences taking place on electric streetcars run by the Edmonton Radial Railway Society. I’ve been registered to their mailing list — currently closed on their site, so check their Twitter page or join their Facebook group for updates — for two or three years now, but I always found it difficult to get my hands on tickets. By the time I’d read the newsletter and linked over to Eventbrite, the 32 spots would already be sold out.

The streetcar being prepped for our trip across the High Level Bridge.

This year, I happened to sign into my webmail account at just the right moment and I snagged two tickets for the inaugural show of the 2018 season. I was ecstatic to finally be going to a Streetcar concert. Taking place last Thursday, May 17, we arrived at the train platform located behind the ATB Financial Arts Barn in Old Strathcona about 15 minutes prior to embarking. Peter checked our names off of his list and we waited until we were told to climb on. NOTE: There are no washrooms on board. If needed, make sure to use the one in the barn beforehand.

Ernie, one of the drivers of the streetcar, gave us a history lesson.

The restored streetcar had two drivers for the night, but Ernie was our guide. He gave us a little bit of a history lesson as the vehicle made it’s way down the tracks towards the middle of the High Level Bridge. Moving along, Edmonton’s downtown skyline eventually game into view. Once we’d come to a full stop, Peter introduced our performer of the evening, Ken Stead. While he sang (and joked), the river and traffic flowed quietly beneath us as we basked in the slowly setting sun.

 

Ken Stead, born and raised in Edmonton, and now residing in Calgary, has a soulful voice. Despite living in Canada, his Irish-Scottish background seems to come out, in the form of a slight lilt, when he speaks. He flipped between his own original songs and covers that ranged from Foy Vance to Bill Withers, fully encompassing the persona of a down-to-earth folk-rock artist.

 

Lasting about 45 minutes, the first half of the show went by quickly. The streetcar then trundled northward towards the other side of the High Level Bridge. We were supposed to take a break at the stop directly across the street from the Legislature Building, but the driver overshot it, and we ended up going all the way to the Grandin Station terminal. There, we were able to get off and stretch our legs while the musical equipment was shifted to the other end of the streetcar. The backrests of all the seats were flipped to face the opposite direction, allowing passengers to be seated again in the direction of travel. It also gave all of the riders an opportunity to be closer to the show as those who previously sat at the front were now at the rear of the train.

Out on the bridge once more, we were treated to another 45 minute set. Being above the water, it started to get chilly as the darkness fell, but the close quarters and the music helped to warm me to my soul. As we returned south, we came to a surprise standstill in a heavily graffitied tunnel for one final (sing-along) song. It sounds like this is something they do at every show, but I won’t give every single detail away. All I can say is that it makes for a special moment.

Inside the tunnel at the end of the night.

Two hours after our departure, we found ourselves back where we started our musical journey. It’s definitely a night that neither my fiancé or I will ever forget. It was so much fun, and I’m already itching to go to second Streetcar Show as soon as possible. Haven’t been yet? I urge everyone to follow their pages. You may luck out and catch a post about tickets in the nick of time.

Edmonton Happenings: MINBID MINBattle 2018 Launch Party & Art Battle

Co-founder of MINBID, Michel Côté, was one of the artists drawn to participate.

From what I know, MINBID (short for Minimum Bid) has existed for at least 5 years in the underground art scene of Edmonton. The collective began as a gathering of local creators; it gave them an outlet to share work with their peers and the public. The showings doubled as auction events, too, providing a way for artists to gauge the value of their pieces based on the highest bid received.

The banner ad for their 2018 MINBattle.

One of the things that MINBID has become known for is their annual MINBattle. Friday, May 11 marked the launch of the 2018 series and my initial visit to one of their functions. Kicking off at Vacancy Hall (103 Avenue and 104 Street), sixteen artists registered, but only eight had the opportunity to compete through a lottery draw. There were two rounds of four contestants. Each person had an hour to complete a 24 inch x 24 inch canvas.

Audience members voted with tickets stubs dropped into each artist’s bucket. Bids for the finished pieces could also be placed on the cards.

A group of three to four judges circled the room as they all painted. Audience members even got to partake in the judging process with ticket stubs to be deposited as a vote towards their favourite in both rounds. Plus, all of the pieces were up for auction with bidding starting at $50 and going up in increments of $10. The selling price would count in the final tally of each artist’s score as well. Whoever prevailed in each round (we didn’t stay for the announcement of the winners) will move on to the final MINBattle later this summer.

Co-founder Darren Bolz DJ’d throughout the evening.

Speaking to Darren Bolz, one of the co-founders of MINBID and the evening’s DJ, we found out that this is the first time they’ve used this particular format. Usually they’ve only had two artists battle head-to-head on any given night. This year, they thought they’d change things up, bringing in multiple artists at a time with the top two at each battle duking it out in a huge showdown later this year.

For the launch event, the ticket price was $25 plus fees in advance through their website or Eventbrite. At the door, the cost was $30. Although notes on the Eventbrite page said the cost covers gallery membership, it’s not like buyers receive a card or anything. Ultimately, the money simply covers entrance and the open bar.

Bartender for the night was Christopher Hughes.

Speaking of the bar, it could have been a little more diverse. There were only four drinks available, which I realize is essential to keeping things easy for the organizers, especially in a space that isn’t equipped for bar service. However, the options were so-so, and there was only one non-alcoholic choice. It was a PC brand watermelon soda that was sweet. I think offering just a simple cup or bottle of water would have been appreciated. Not everyone wants something carbonated and sugary to drink. Water would have been a nice alternative to help cool off in the warm space.

The lighting in the space is dim to create a non-intimidating vibe for the artists, allowing them to work without feeling too exposed.

They also struggled a bit with lighting in the basement of the Mercer Warehouse. In order to keep the vibe, the lighting has to be relatively dim. Nevertheless, it’s equally as important to allow enough brightness for the artists, which means there’s a balancing act that’s required. Being that this is a nighttime event, the place emptied out quite a bit by the second round. Yes, it’s unfortunate that people didn’t stick around to watch it all unfold. But, if I’m being honest, I was happy for the extra breathing room.

The participating artists were allowed to paint whatever they wanted within the allotted time, leaving it open ended. Still, if they haven’t already done this in the past, I think it could be very interesting to see them paint to a specified theme. It’d add another dimension to the competition. Additionally, for those not already in the Edmonton art industry and who didn’t know the competitors personally, it would have been beneficial for the emcee to announce the names of the artists before they started each battle

There was only one person, Peter Gegolick, who blatantly advertised himself and had a sort of “I don’t give a shit” attitude as he painted while wearing sunglasses. He actually had a finished piece of art already hanging on the gallery wall with an asking minimum bid of $700 (his battle piece could have been purchased for less than $100). The rest of them were pretty low key. While their first names were listed on the bidding cards, their last names weren’t always there, so it was otherwise hard to follow-up on some of the artists after the fact.

Another piece from Michel Côté was hanging in the MINBID gallery for sale.

I understand that one of the goals of these parties is to assist artists in determining how their work should be priced. It’s a bit of a catch-22 to do that though. I mean, it’s entirely reliant upon the audience that shows up. If there are people with the income and they happen to like the work they see, there’s a chance that a piece will go for much more. But, based on this particular event, I’d say it was mostly a youthful crowd that didn’t necessarily have the money to burn. Most didn’t seem willing to shell out the extra cash after what they spent on the actual event ticket.

The 2016 MIN Royale breakdown.

Maybe I’m wrong and it was an anomaly, or maybe they simply didn’t like what they saw. Either way, this aspect kept the number of bids to a minimum and kept the overall price of the bids low with most going for under $100. For comparison, I looked at how much battle auction pieces went for back in 2016. Of the 30 creations born out of MINBattle events, a dozen sold for over $150. That included one from my favourite artist of the 2018 launch night, Reece Schulte, that went for a cool $450.

I loved his dynamic Edmonton skyline piece so much that I put a couple of bids on it to the tune of $90 (this was a total steal). I left my name and number on the bidding card and walked away. Since the art is still wet on the evening of the event, they just phone or text the winning bidder to make arrangements for pickup and payment (either cash or credit is accepted) over the following week. Sadly, I didn’t end up hearing from MINBID by the end of the weekend, so I assumed someone else swooped in at the last second to snag it. Then, to my surprise, I received a message on Monday afternoon. It turns out that the person who outbid me couldn’t be reached, so it went to the next highest bidder! I’m super excited to add Reece’s work to my modest art collection.

Aside from the late start (listed as 9:00pm, yet didn’t truly begin until 10:30pm) and the crowdedness of the venue during the first round of the evening, my fiancé and I left with an awesome appreciation of what MINBID and MINBattle had to offer. Sure, I initially felt a little out of place. The majority of the other attendees came across as younger and artsier than me.

Nonetheless, MINBattle certainly made for a different kind of date night where we got to experience something new to us. We had some drinks, danced to music, mingled with the artists, and watched canvases come to life. What I like best is that it’s an excellent way to potentially find and buy art for an affordable price.

The next MINBattle event date is still to be determined. Make sure to sign up for their newsletter through the MINBID website to be kept in the loop. In the meantime, think about attending their Udell X & MINBID Collaboration (buy tickets here). Two parties will take place at the Udell Xhibitions Gallery (103 Avenue and 124 Street) on June 22 and 23. Any art aficionado won’t be disappointed. I know that we’re definitely looking forward to our second outing.

UX MB Art Xhibition + Auction