Designing Your Own Escape Room Event!

One of the most interactive puzzly challenges available to modern solvers is the escape room.

Although themes and scenarios vary greatly, the basic idea is this: a group of people are locked in a room, and tasked with escaping from it within a certain time frame (usually an hour).

They do so by searching for clues, completing tasks, unraveling riddles, and finally, unlocking the door to escape. Some rooms employ riddles. Others use word puzzles. Others still involve working together to overcome obstacles. (For instance, I hear about one escape room where the group was split in two and separated, and they had to work together to unlock the door that separated them.)

There are endless variations available to the intrepid puzzler. And a week or so ago, I had a go at creating my own and running it for a friend’s birthday. I’d never run an escape room per se, but having run roleplaying events before — as well as murder mystery dinners — I was excited to pit my dastardly puzzly mind against a worthy group of heroes and miscreants.

And so, I thought I’d offer a few tips on creating your own puzzly escape experience.


1.) Know your audience.

If your players aren’t engaged, the event is pointless. So you have to make sure that whatever obstacles you lay before them will interest them. If they aren’t partial to brain teasers, mechanical puzzles, or physical challenges, they’ll quickly lose any investment in completing the game.

In my case, I tried to use every puzzly tool at my disposal. There were riddles, puzzle boxes, combination locks to crack, door locks to “pick”, and tricky clues to unravel.

[I drafted two puzzle boxes from my collection into the game.]

2.) Give everyone something to do.

Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to things like this. So use that to your advantage. Let the hardcore puzzlers tackle the puzzles, while the less puzzly people complete tasks like uncovering backstory, hunting for hidden items, or even doing battle with threats to the players.

Adding a live-action roleplay element like combat can not only add flavor to your game, but it allows players to contribute without having to struggle with puzzles that might not be their strong suit.

If everyone feels like they’re contributing, all successes feel shared. And shared successes are the best ones.

3.) Let imagination drive the game.

When tackling an event like this, it can be easy to splash out on locks, puzzle boxes, and all sorts of trappings for the game. After all, you want it to be an immersive experience, but that sort of immersion can grow expensive very quickly. And you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars to create a great solving adventure.

[A 5-digit combination lock that lets you spell words (or mix letters and numbers), a directional combination lock, and two standard four-digit locks]

I had a small budget, so I bought a few combination locks, four small briefcases (so there was something to unlock and open), and some other bits and bobs. Locks run between $6 and $12, but there are few things more satisfying than cracking a puzzle, dialing in your answer, and feeling the lock open in your hand. The sign of a job well done.

But you can build one without spending much money at all. Get creative with it! You can replicate practically anything with a piece of paper — locks, puzzles, riddles — and a little imagination. Any box can become a treasure chest or a lockbox. Any room can become a laboratory or a dungeon or a high-security vault.

[I picked up this little lock for cheap on Amazon, drew the various characters in the combination on little slips of paper, and hid them around the room. It was up to the players to find them, put them in the correct order, and open the lock.]

The low-budget solutions are often the most satisfying. For instance, I mentioned above that, in my escape room, there were door locks to “pick.” I used quotation marks because I didn’t buy door locks to actually pick. Instead, I swapped in another, simpler method for testing someone’s digital dexterity: Jenga.

I stacked up a Jenga tower, removed 8 or 9 pieces, and then challenged the group’s lockpick to remove two or three pieces per door they “picked.” This simulated both the tension of the act and the level of skillful manipulation necessary, and for a fraction of the possible cost.

4.) Tell a story.

I’m a roleplaying fan. I love telling stories in my gameplay. And, to me, nothing adds flavor and depth to an escape room like a story. My favorite escape room experience was a Houdini-themed room that was loaded with the famous magician’s history and trappings — shackles, a straitjacket, and more — and all those little touches added so much to the atmosphere and the tension of the game itself.

So craft a story! Why are the players there? Why do they need to escape? Is there a villain? A curse? An evil artificial intelligence to battle? A diabolical millionaire or a mad scientist with an axe to grind?

All those elements can add to the experience. The escape room I designed and ran centered around a evil wizard and the aftermath of his reign of terror. My players warded off ghosts, avoided automated traps, and even held a Beauty-and-the-Beast-inspired seance — since the wizard had turned several of his staff into furniture — as they moved from place to place.

[The remains of a room well-escaped.]

With a little ingenuity, forethought, and creativity, you can craft a one-of-a-kind puzzle experience.


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How to Get Started in Games

[Image courtesy of The Board Game Family.]

So, it’s after Christmas, and you’ve been gifted with a new game, or a roleplaying book, or someone showed you a new card game and you want to know more. Or your New Year’s Resolution is to learn more games, play more games, solve more puzzles, or even make some puzzles yourself.

Basically… how do you get started?

Here. You get started right here. I’m going to run down my favorite guide books for gaming, puzzles, tabletop play, roleplaying, and more, creating the perfect first step to a new world of play for you.

Let’s get cracking!


My first recommendation is also the most recently published book on my list.

The Civilized Guide to Tabletop Gaming by Teri Litorco is a perfect introduction to all things gaming. This delightfully nerdy tome is loaded with thoughtful advice covering everything from choosing new games to teaching them to others, as well as building a game group for regular sessions or roleplaying games, and more.

From how to deal with cranky gamers to how to host your own major gaming events, Teri has dealt with every obstacle imaginable, and she offers her hard-won first-hand knowledge in easily digestible tidbits. Even as an experienced tabletop gamer, roleplayer, and puzzler, I found this to be a very worthwhile read, and I think you will too.

If card games are your poison, then what you need is a copy of The Ultimate Book of Card Games by Scott McNeely.

What separates this book from many other card game books — namely the ones attributed to Hoyle (the vast majority of which had nothing to do with him) — is that it doesn’t claim to be the definitive source. It provides the key rules for how to play, and then offers numerous variations and house rules that expand and refine gameplay.

There are more than 80 pages of variations of Solitaire alone! Kids games, betting games, games for two, three, four or more, this is my go-to guide for everything that can be played with a standard deck of cards.

What if you’re already a fan of games, but you want to play them better? If that’s your goal, check out How to Win Games and Beat People by Tom Whipple.

Monopoly, Jenga, Hangman, Operation, Trivial Pursuit, Twenty Questions, Checkers, Battleship… heck, even Rock, Paper, Scissors is covered here. With advice from top players, world record holders, game creators and more, you’ll find advice, tactics, and fun facts you won’t see anywhere else.

For instance, did you know that letter frequencies in Hangman are different from letter frequencies in the dictionary? ESIARN is the way to go with Hangman, not ETAOIN.

That’s just one of the valuable nuggets of info awaiting you in this book.

Ah, but what about puzzles? There are so many amazing puzzle styles out there, how do you know where to begin learning to construct one of your own?

I’d suggest you start with Mike Selinker and Thomas Snyder’s Puzzlecraft.

If you’re a puzzle or game fan, you already know their names. Selinker’s The Maze of Games is featured in this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide; Snyder is better known online as Dr. Sudoku, and we explored several of his creations in our Wide World of Sudoku post a few years ago.

Snyder and Selinker break down the fundamentals of dozens of different puzzles, explaining how they work and what pitfalls to avoid when creating your own. You can easily lose hours within the pages of this in-depth handbook — I know from firsthand experience — and you always come out the other side a stronger constructor.


Do you have any favorite books about puzzles and games that I missed? Let me know, I’d love to hear about them!

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5 Questions with PuzzleNation Social Media Manager Glenn Dallas

Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!

It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

For the entire month of August, I’ll be introducing the PuzzleNation readership to many of the members of the PuzzleNation team! So every Thursday this month, you’ll meet a new name and voice responsible for bringing you the best puzzle apps on the market today!

And we’re continuing this series with me, your friendly neighborhood PuzzleNation blogger, as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

My name is Glenn Dallas, and I’m not only lead blogger for PuzzleNation Blog, but also Social Media Manager for PuzzleNation, maintaining and providing content for all of our social media platforms. A lifelong puzzler and board game enthusiast, I try to infuse every blog post with that same level of dedication and passion. Hopefully, I succeed.

I consider it a privilege for me to take some time out to talk to the PuzzleNation audience, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!


5 Questions with Glenn Dallas

1. How did you get started with puzzles and games?

Looking back, it seems like puzzles and games were always around. My mother has always been a dedicated crossword solver. I can remember my older sister playing “School” with me and my younger siblings, using brain teasers and puzzles from old issues of GAMES Magazine as “lessons.” The classic board games were played often — Monopoly, Sorry, Mouse Trap, Battleship, even Trivial Pursuit, which I was probably too young for. But I’ve always been a trivia nerd.

Although formal puzzling fell by the wayside as I got older, wordplay and riddles and the like remained a recurring interest. I would often create puzzle content for friends’ websites or my own blog that involved Say That Again?-style rewording, palindromes, puns, anagrams, portmanteaus, brain teasers, and other forms of wordplay. (And, for a bit of context for long-time internet users, I’m talking about Geocities and Angelfire websites, as well as a blog that pre-dated LiveJournal.)

I got back into puzzles more directly in college when I began playing Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games, because I enjoyed challenging my players with tests beyond the usual monster hunts. So mechanical puzzles, sliding-block puzzles, and more Myst-style puzzle-solving became an interest (along with riddles and such).

After college (and a stint as a TV cameraman), I had an interview at Penny Press and was hired as a puzzle editor, bringing my amateur puzzly skills into a professional setting working on traditional (and non-traditional!) pen-and-paper puzzles like word seeks, crosswords, cryptograms, fill-ins, etc. And more than a decade later, I’m still at it.

2. You’re one of the senior members of the PuzzleNation team, dating back to its earliest days. How has your work for PuzzleNation changed over time and what can you tell us about PuzzleNation as it evolves and moves forward?

That’s true! Originally, I was just pitching in occasionally as a product tester — helping look for bugs or problems with early versions of apps — and I started providing ideas for content to our social media person for Facebook posts. I was a big proponent early on of expanding our efforts to include a blog; it’s a great centerpiece to a social media platform (and one that allows for more control than your average Facebook post).

But I also wanted PuzzleNation Blog to be a hub for all things puzzles and puzzle games, because there’s not really anywhere like that on the Internet. If you like movies, there’s IMDb. If you like books, there’s Goodreads. You’ve got Gizmodo for tech, science, and sci-fi, and Board Game Geek for board games. And although there are plenty of terrific crossword blogs out there, there’s not one central place to go to talk about puzzles in general. I always envisioned PuzzleNation Blog as that place.

When our previous social media person left the company, I was already writing blog posts once or twice a week (alongside Eric Berlin, who was our top contributor to the blog in its early days), and I inherited his position, along with the Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest accounts that went with them. (I have since added Tumblr and Instagram to our bevy of social media platforms.)

So, as you can see, I’ve gotten a bit busier as time passed, expanding my duties and becoming the lead blogger on the site, writing three (and sometimes more) blog posts a week.

[Here I am, hard at work trying to beat a stuffed teddy bear in Jenga… and failing.]

I feel like the blog has grown and matured into what I originally envisioned — though there’s always room for expansion and improvement! — and my goal right now is continue maintaining that level of interest and quality.

As for our Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets, I’m always looking to encourage more interaction with the PuzzleNation audience. I’m hoping at some point to have recurring puzzle features on every platform. (For now, we’ve got the Insta-Anagram game every Monday on Instagram, and the Crossword Clue Challenge every weekday on Facebook and Twitter.)

3. The crossword has been around for over a hundred years, and many puzzles (whether pen-and-paper or mechanical) have roots that can be traced back even farther. What, in your estimation, gives puzzles such lasting appeal?

I think it’s the Eureka! moments that keep people coming back. They’re certainly what I find the most enjoyable and the most motivating factor. And puzzles provide those in spades.

[Image courtesy of tnooz.com.]

When you approach a particularly fiendish brain teaser, or a crossword clue that keeps eluding you, or a mechanical puzzle that has you stymied, and then suddenly, that light bulb appears over your head. You’ve cracked the code, found the hidden latch, connected the missing pieces, made a deductive leap that would make Sherlock Holmes proud…those Eureka! moments never fail to make it all worthwhile.

And when you work with puzzles, you get to see those moments more often than most people.

4. What’s next for Glenn Dallas and PuzzleNation Blog?

For me, quite a bit. My writing partner and I just launched a new promotional blitz for the novel we published last year, Sugar Skulls (my first novel!), and I’m deep into several ongoing writing projects, one of which is on track to wrap up before the end of the year.

On the side, I’m a freelance book reviewer, and I recently posted my 1,200th book review. I’ve also started work on another in-office murder mystery that I’m hoping to run at our summer picnic event next month. (And I’ll be sure to share pictures here and on Instagram of that!)

As for PuzzleNation Blog, I’m proud to announce that, after the recent success of our PuzzleNation team series of interviews, 5 Questions will be returning as a regular, recurring feature on the blog!

It will be at least once a month (but hopefully twice a month), and I’ve already lined up our first guest for September, with more terrific puzzlers, constructors, and personalities to follow!

5. If you could give the readers, writers, puzzlers, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

Make time for yourself every day to do something that fuels you. If you want to write, write something every day, whether it’s just a haiku or a journal entry or a limerick or whatever. If you like games, play a round at lunch with friends or coworkers. There are plenty of quick-play games and puzzles that fit that bill. (Oooh, that gives me an idea for a blog post…)

But I digress.

We spend so much time worrying about, well, everything, it’s easy to let the good stuff, the stuff that reinvigorates you and keeps your spirits up, fall by the wayside. So make a little time for you every day. It does wonders.


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You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

Stopping at the McDonald’s on Memory Lane

I mentioned last month that I’ve been doing a bit of late-Spring cleaning, and the process continues. This weekend, I was poring through some McDonald’s toys my mother had saved over the years (and when you’re one of six kids, those toys add up quickly).

(One section of the counter absolutely covered with toys.)

And as I was organizing and sorting an egg box full of these silly little gems, I couldn’t help but find the puzzliest among them to share with my fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers.

It seems appropriate to start with toys that resemble the brand’s signature food items.

When it comes to puzzle toys, you really can’t go wrong with something that transforms. Figuring out the proper steps to reveal the hidden character or form inside can be simple or complex, depending on the toy. Obviously McDonald’s kept it simple with these Happy Meal handouts, but it didn’t make them any less weird or delightful.

These faux foods are from two different series of McDonald’s toys — the fries and hot cakes & sausage from 1986/1987, the burger and hotcakes from 1990 — and each transforms to reveal something unexpected.

As you can see, the late ’80s toys become robots (keeping in line with the whole Transformers mentality) while the 1990 toys become curious food/dinosaur hybrids.

1992 brought us these stackable circus characters, testing the balance and dexterity of younger minds to see what diabolical human towers they can cook up. In my house, this quickly became a Jenga-like game of each person selecting a piece and taking turns to stack them, often with disastrous results.

(My tower…just before it collapsed.)

But by far the puzzliest of the toys I uncovered was also one I’d completely forgotten about.

Back in 1991, McDonald’s partnered up with NASA to spark interest in space exploration with a run of Happy Meal toys all about astronauts, space technology, and more.

One of the best and most challenging sets was this small space module, complete with two astronauts, logos, and flames.

If memory serves, there were also a lunar rover and a satellite, all built with these wonderful double-sided cardboard pieces.

It was a blast to rediscover these puzzle-fueled delights amidst a plethora of TV and movie tie-in toys, animated characters, and other nuggets of fast-food childhood fun.

Did this post remind you of any puzzly toys you found in cereal boxes, fast food orders, or the like? Let me know in the comments section below!


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: TableTop Day Eve edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, I’d like to return to the subject of puzzly holidays!

Saturday, April 30, is the fourth annual International TableTop Day, a day that has been set aside for family and friends to get together and play games. Board games, card games, role-playing games, puzzles…anything that involves gathering in person and having fun around a table fits the bill!

Although the actual holiday is tomorrow — making today TableTop Day Eve — we celebrated early! The PuzzleNation Crew got together with our friends from Penny Dell Puzzles for a few hours of TableTop Day fun on Tuesday! Games were played, snacks were consumed, and fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers were introduced to some terrific games.

[The spread of games available for the event. Can you name them all?]

As usual, the event started with people picking out their favorites and introducing new players to the game. This was the case with Just Desserts (a card game all about serving desserts to hungry customers; guaranteed to make you hungry) and Timeline (a card game about history where you don’t need to know what year things happened, just if they happened before or after other important moments).

One attendee opted to tackle the challenge of Puzzometry (a diabolical jigsaw puzzle) while I played a few rounds of Geek Out! and tested the pop culture and trivia knowledge of my fellow puzzlers.

[The conference room is abuzz with TableTop Day energy and fun, players strategizing deeply.]

I started recommending some new games to the players at this point, and the hit of the day was easily Red Flags, a Cards Against Humanity-style game all about building the perfect dates for other players.

The uproarious laughter inspired by the game was constant background noise while I explained the ever-changing rules of Fluxx to some curious players.

[Forgive the lack of further photos. I was so busy explaining games that I neglected to take more pictures. As a small gesture of apology, please accept this picture of me beneath a half-collapsed puzzle fort.]

We then closed out the event with two terrific card games for smaller groups: 12 Days and Loonacy. (12 Days is a lowest-card-wins wagering game based on the 12 Days of Christmas, and it has the most beautiful cards I’ve ever seen; Loonacy is a pattern-matching card game that rewards quick reflexes.)

The day was a total success, and it was a wonderful break in the middle of the day, allowing for a fun way to interact and recharge before returning to a thoroughly puzzly workday.

But that wasn’t all! To include fellow puzzlers who couldn’t attend the event in person, we had our own in-house session of Schmovie running all day.

I gave participants five What? cards (Undercover, Magical, Teenage, Flying, The Last) and five Who? cards (Barista, Chef, Princess, Pro Wrestler, Spy) to combine as they saw fit, and then challenged them to come up with the funniest Schmovie titles for those subjects.

Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Undercover chef: The Tsai Who Loved Me
  • Teenage barista: Latte to Class
  • Magical barista: Starbucks: The Foam Awakens
  • Teenage princess: Medieval Times at Ridgemont High
  • Flying spy: The Airborne Identity
  • Undercover princess: Leia Confidential

Are you celebrating TableTop Day? Let us know your plans in the comments! We’d love to hear about it, see photos, and share in the fun!


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Touching a Piece of Puzzle History

Friend of the blog Peter Kanter came by the other day and showed me this curious piece of puzzle history that his brother had stumbled upon in a garage sale or a flea market.

Little did I realize I would soon be holding a puzzle that predates the crossword puzzle by over twenty years.

According to the instruction manual — which features rules for ten different spelling and anagramming games, one or two of which bear no small resemblance to Bananagrams in play style and spirit — this game was copyrighted in 1890 by McLoughlin Bros.

According to one of their catalogs, this game “consists of a box full of letters, so selected as to be most useful in a number of exceedingly interesting spelling games. The letters, printed on cardboard, are easily distinguished and handled. The box label is unusually bright and attractive.”

Yes, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I’ve been able to do a little research on this marvelous find.

McLoughlin Bros. was a publishing firm based in New York that operated from the mid-1800s until the early 1900s. They specialized in children’s books and picture books, but also published linen books, games, paper dolls, puzzles, and toys.

They were among the first publishing houses to employ color printing techniques in products marketed specifically for children. (They also helped popularize the works of Thomas Nast, curiously enough.)

[A sampling of McLoughlin Bros.-style art, a style definitely reflected in the box art of the anagram game above.]

As it turns out, after the death of one of the founders, the company was sold to none other than Milton Bradley — makers of Battleship, Axis & Allies, Candyland, Connect Four, Operation, and Jenga, among many many others — who had continued success with some of the McLoughlin Bros. products, including mechanical paper toys called “Jolly Jump-Ups.” (You might know “mechanical paper toys” better as pop-up books.) Production of those toys was halted, however, during World War II, presumably to save materials for the war effort.

There is now a collector’s market for McLoughlin products — check out this listing for a game board produced by the firm — and if this anagram game is any indication, the color and striking artistic designs from a century ago still hold up today.

And although I can’t definitively say that this exact game predates the crossword, there’s no doubt that this sort of wordplay was delighting kids and adults alike well before Arthur Wynne’s “Word-Cross” puzzle saw the light of day.

How cool is that?


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