Palo Alto teen creates 'escape' game out of his garage

Leo Vershel's class project has become a successful business venture

Keys, books, utensils, pencils, markers and scissors -- these are all items that could be found in any garage. But Leo Vershel's garage is a little different.

The 15-year-old Palo Alto resident is the creator of "Escape the Pyramid," a game where players are locked in a room and try to escape by solving puzzles and clues to find the key that unlocks the door.

Vershel, who attends the Nueva School in San Mateo and said he "always had a passion for puzzles and video games," came up with the game for a school project. After experiencing an "escape" in San Francisco, friends challenged him to emulate the game for class.

"It was like living up to all the hype to see if I could actually do it," Vershel said. "It seemed like a really fun project to try.'"

The project worked, which Vershel said impressed classmates and teachers alike. Vershel attempted to find a job working for one of the "escape" companies in San Francisco over the summer but was told the minimum age was 16.

Their loss was his gain. Vershel's parents encouraged him to continue working on it as a way to make money.

And so, the garage in Vershel's home on Guinda Street turned into an unexpected hub for puzzle cravers this summer. Ten groups have tried the challenge so far and several more are lined up.

Admission costs $40, and teams have an hour to solve the mystery. With nondescript objects from a world atlas to a periodic table, the game is more sophisticated than it looks.

Once a team enters the room, they'll find a couple of tables with various supplies on it. In order to know what to do, they must solve a series of clues -- be it a puzzle or a riddle -- and use the materials provided to help. To make things more difficult, teams don't know what a certain clue corresponds to until after they solve it. One clue leads to another, and so on. The end goal is to figure out the password that opens the box housing the key to unlock the room.

"You come in with the mindset that you're not only going to have to solve things -- but you're also going to have to find things," Vershel said. "It's a lot of interlocking clues and puzzles that you'll find in one thing and they'll correspond to something that you haven't solved yet, not just to the end point. There's a lot of seeing the big picture, rather than just being puzzle-smart."

Vershel gives the groups warnings every 15 minutes and also asks if they need any tips. The fastest group to escape, he said, found all the clues and assembled everything in the center of the room before trying to solve them.

"Everyone except one of the people was solving, and that person was walking around, looking at the big picture," Vershel said. "They were able to do it really effectively."

Less than half of the groups have been able to escape the room so far. According to Vershel, the ones who have succeeded worked as a team and thought broadly.

"It's less about how smart you are and more about how effectively you can use your team," he said. "Teams that communicate a lot do a lot better than teams where everyone goes off on their own direction. It's less about the puzzles being hard than people being able to see the whole picture, which is what a lot of the people have struggled with -- linking everything together."

The reaction from patrons has been all positive, according to Vershel, who will "probably" continue hosting escapes on weekends once he goes back to school (though Vershel's parents may start charging him for rent).

Verschel speaks modestly about his creation, but the details and complexity make it apparent that he is savvy beyond his years and that a school project he described as a "window to expand your horizons and try something new" has grown into something much bigger than he imagined.

"Everyone wants to try it out and see what all the hype is about," he said.


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6 people like this
Posted by Geri Spieler
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 20, 2016 at 9:37 pm

It is really exciting to see how smart, talented and savvy young people are these days. I'm convinced that the next generation will come up with great ideas and solutions to things we have been struggling with for years.

Leo is a perfect example of one such person. He has a great future ahead of him.

2 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 21, 2016 at 8:32 pm

I love that the Weekly is starting to celebrate and inform us all about more than just the arhletic endeavors of our youth. Sounds like fun!

Like this comment
Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 22, 2016 at 9:54 am

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

I've played those escape games on my phone, they're pretty fun. How neat to be able to play in real life (IRL), as a team competing with other IRL teams. Seems like it could be more challenging IRL, since in the game your potential actions are necessarily constrained, while in IRL you could waste your time unnecessarily disassembling a toaster for a clue inside, when really it's just a part of the scenery...

Like this comment
Posted by Be Positive
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 22, 2016 at 10:21 am

Be Positive is a registered user.

Wonderful story!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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