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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The Best of All Possible Puzzle/Game Worlds?


[A sampling of the wide variety of modern puzzles and games. Fluxx cards, Bananagrams tiles, a wooden puzzle box, Pairs cards, David Steinberg’s Juicy Crosswords from the Orange County Register, Timeline cards, last month’s edition of The Crosswords Club, Puzzometry pieces, Cards Against Humanity cards, multi-sided roleplaying dice.]

This is the most exciting time in history to be a puzzler or board game enthusiast.

Think about it. If you want to play a game or solve a puzzle, you don’t have to go any farther than your pocket, since a plethora of puzzly goodness awaits you on your smartphone.

Puzzle apps are our bread and butter here at PuzzleNation, so this might feel like a cheap plug, but honestly, it boggles my mind how much more accessible puzzles and games are now than they were even five years ago.

And the app revolution is only one part of the story.

I was reading a book the other day, as I am wont to do on the long train rides to and from PuzzleNation HQ. Titled The Revenge of Analog, it was all about the cultural response to digital media, highlighting the resurgence of vinyl records, film, and other tangible alternatives to electronic formats.

In the chapter “The Revenge of Board Games,” the author discussed the social aspect of tabletop gaming, and how sitting down with people and playing a game is a far different, more rewarding experience than online gaming and other social media-based interactions. (A fine point to consider, what with International TableTop Day a little more than a week away.)


While I do think that’s partially true, I also think that downplays the ingenuity of the puzzle/game community. I think we’re the best of both worlds.

I mentioned in my Tak review last week that puzzles are being created today that could not have been five or ten or twenty years ago. The advent of 3-D printing and laser cutters for homes and small businesses has brought design, construction, and promotion literally to the doorstep of entrepreneurial puzzlers.

Just last week I received a new edition of Puzzometry in the mail, a perk for supporting a team for a school robotics competition. This laser-cut plastic jigsaw will keep me guessing for hours (if its puzzly siblings are anything to go by), and it was designed and manufactured by a single individual.


Old and new styles are meshing as never before. Many puzzle constructors are partially or fully supporting themselves via email puzzle subscriptions and direct sales to the customer. Events like the Connecticut Festival of Indie Games are organized and advertised mostly online.

Crowdfunding has leveled the playing field for many companies and designers in both puzzles and games, allowing more products than ever before to enter the market. (According to Kickstarter, tabletop game projects raised $52 million dollars in 2013, and that number has surely gone up in the meantime.)

You’ve got a proper board game renaissance as classic games and styles of play are meshing with new technology, and games from across the world are shared on YouTube, at Friendly Local Game Shops, or even in puzzle cafes like Toronto’s Snakes and Lattes or New York City’s The Uncommons.

Whether you’re a pen-and-paper solver or a Penny Dell Crossword App devotee, a fan of classics like Chutes and Ladders or a proud tabletopper experimenting with the newest games, this is an amazing time to be a puzzler or board gamer.

So keep playing. Keep puzzling. And share that with others.

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PuzzleNation Product Review: Lightbox

Puzzle boxes are among the oldest and most intricate mechanical brain teasers in the long history of puzzles, and they’re only growing more complex and ambitious. With the advent of 3D-printing, access to new materials, and computer design elements to help bring ideas to fruition, the only limit at this point is the imagination.

In today’s blog post, we look at the latest innovation in the puzzle box genre of brain teasers: Lightbox by Eric Clough.


This Kickstarter-funded puzzle box arrives in fairly innocuous packaging. When you remove the lid, you find a second box make of lasercut felt inside. These six pieces of this box make up its own little puzzle, as well as doubling as light-absorbing packaging for the main event.


Inside, we find the Lightbox, a stack of ten magnetically-connected acrylic plates, plus the thicker bottom plate containing a USB-rechargeable battery.

I plugged in the USB cord (included, naturally) in order to charge the battery, and twisted a few of the plates into different configurations, watching as the box lit up in my hands. (I only needed to charge it a little bit before pulling the plug and playing with the Lightbox for almost an hour.)


As you manipulate the various plates into different combinations, the lights embedded in the various plates would activate, and light would play off of the holes cut into each plate, creating 3D sculptures of light and reflection within the Lightbox itself. I’ve never seen anything like it.

You can move individual plates or stacks of plates by lifting them off the main stack, twisting, and then repositioning them. (I call it twisting, even though you’re not twisting the box like parts of a Rubik’s Cube, you’re lifting them and rotating them 90 degrees, 180 degrees, or 270 degrees.)

Sometimes, it’s fun simply to see what effect each action has on the interplay of lit plates and dark plates. Getting the entire cube to light up is a real treat.


Eventually, the time comes when you’re ready to put the Lightbox away for a bit. (That little battery ensures that just unplugging the USB cable doesn’t do the job.) And no puzzler worth their salt is going to put it away still lit up, right?

And then, of course, another layer of puzzling begins, as you twist and place the various plates and watch them either light up or go dark, depending on their positions. It can be both amazing and frustrating when you twist a plate halfway up the stack, and suddenly the entire box lights up! Diabolical!


Lightbox straddles the line between puzzle and art, making it a great desktop bauble. (Though I think I’ll leave mine at home. Otherwise, I won’t get anything done at work.) The smart packaging and clever design ensure you’ll return to this puzzle again and again.

Admittedly, some of the lights flicker a bit instead of shining brightly, as if the connections aren’t quite perfect, but that’s a small nitpick for something this delightful.

[You can find more information about Lightbox by clicking here, and explore its long journey from idea to product by clicking here.]

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The Art of the Wooden Puzzle

Several varieties of puzzle fall under the umbrella of “wooden puzzles,” from sliding tile puzzles and jigsaws to puzzle boxes and brain teasers. Heck, I devoted an entire post to wooden puzzles last year, sharing several from my personal collection.

With the advent of more affordable laser-cutting machines, we’ve seen several puzzly Kickstarter campaigns (like Baffledazzle and Codex Silenda) successfully launched, pushing wooden puzzles into the 21st century with more ambitious designs and greater functionality than ever before.

So you can imagine both my surprise and my excitement when The Metagrobologist posted a link to a Popular Woodworking article on how to make your own wooden puzzles!

There are step-by-step instructions on how to create three different 3D wooden “burr” puzzles, and this article covers everything from construction to assembly. Exact measurements are included.

It’s clear the author is all about quality, understanding both the art behind these mechanical 3D puzzles and all the necessary steps to ensure a safe and successful build.

If only shop class in school had offered me the chance to make something like this!

In all seriousness, this post offers fascinating insight into how some of these mechanical brain teasers are made, but when you consider the care and precision it takes to produce one of these puzzles, even knowing how it’s done doesn’t make the puzzle any less fun. What a treat.

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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Kickstarter Roundup 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 crowdfunding.


First, let’s talk about Herbaceous. Ed and the Herbaceous team were hoping for $6500 to make the game a reality, and they absolutely crushed that goal!

The final total was a staggering $59,032! Congrats to everyone involved, and kudos to all the PuzzleNationers that contributed!

And in the spirit of such marvelous Kickstarter success, let’s take a look at four very different projects that might appeal to puzzle fans and game enthusiasts!


I missed my chance to try out Originz: The Superpowered Card Game at the CT FIG event earlier this year — though you can try it out at the CT FIG mid-year event this weekend in Newington, CT! — but I definitely like what I’ve seen from their Kickstarter campaign.

In this deck-building game, you try to equip your villain or hero with the best mix of powers imaginable to keep your foes at bay! This accessible game is richly illustrated and detailed, a sure-fire hit with any fans of superheroics in your household.


If you’re looking for a more traditional style of puzzling, there are only a few days left to get in on the ground floor of LightBox, a Rubik’s-style light-up puzzle box.

By rotating and rearranging the layers of plastic that form the cube, you will illuminate different layers and create different patterns of light! Whether you’re solving to create a particular pattern or to shut the LightBox off entirely, you’re sure to work your brain into knots with this curious puzzle box.


And speaking of short deadlines, there are only a few days left to contribute to Word Domination, an intriguing mix of Scrabble-style spelling and a strategy card game.

The concept is devilishly simple: by spelling words, you acquire artifacts to help you in your criminal escapades. The mix of tactical spelling — sometimes, shorter words have more value than longer words — with the roguish qualities of an evildoer allow for all sorts of gameplay possibilities.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen these two puzzle-game formats combined like this before, and the result could be something great.


Our fourth and final project today has the most potential, simply because of its design. It’s the PinBox 3000, and it’s a foundation for designing, decorating, and constructing your very own pinball game.

Merging DIY possibilities with a classic form of game play seems like a no-brainer, and I can’t believe we haven’t seen something like this on the market before. This is the perfect community builder, and I can foresee forums and Pinterest pages popping up all over, as fans and creators share their unique designs. What an awesome palette to work with!

Hopefully one or more of these projects piques your interest, my fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers! I wish all of these creators the best of luck in shepherding their brainchildren toward success!

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