Unlikely Ways to Escape an Escape Room!

[Image courtesy of I Googled Israel.]

Solving an escape room is a unique experience, one that immerses you in a story and surrounds you with tasks to complete and puzzles to unravel. Although there are some similarities between rooms (as well as solving techniques you can learn to be better at solving all sorts of escape rooms), each one has its own flavor, its own challenges, and its own quirks.

The same can be said for those groups who tackle the escape room experience. They all have different skill levels, different styles, and different approaches. Some players are terrific at the hide-and-seek portion of a room — discovering hidden compartments, secret caches, and so on. Others are better at identifying and solving puzzles. Still others can be strong abstract thinkers who look outside the box and recognize where patterns are formed and where they are absent.

But sometimes, players think too far outside the box, surprising escape room managers and designers with their curious efforts to complete the game.

[Image courtesy of Snorg Tees.]

In a post on Quora Digest, someone asked what was the weirdest or most unexpected thing that has happened during an escape room event?

One commenter, the owner/operator of an escape room, said that a player once snuck a Swiss army knife into the room, used it to unscrew the boxes containing keys to some of the major lockboxes, and escaped the room in five minutes. Naturally, to the disappointment and chagrin of his friends, he skipped the vast majority of the game itself, missing the point entirely by doing so.

Figuring that there had to be more stories like this out there in the world of escape rooms, I reached out to some of the escape room companies we’ve connected with on Twitter, and wouldn’t you know it, there’s plenty of escape room weirdness to go around!

For instance, the crew at Boxaroo, based in Boston, Massachusetts, have had to deal with the opposite problem: people sneaking things OUT of an escape room:

We’ve had interesting things stolen from our rooms. The usual locks, keys, and even a light bulb once. But the most bizarre was an entire lockbox that went missing. About 4″ by 5″ by 11″.

We had no idea how the person snuck it out until we checked our security tape footage. It was someone sticking it in their trenchcoat, old-school style.

When asked about their most peculiar moment with players, the team at ESC Escape Rooms, based in North Hollywood, Los Angeles, shared a story that explores the dangers of getting into character and immersing yourself too deeply into the setting of a game.

One of the employees was overseeing a game from outside, and instructed the player to go through a door. That’s all, just use the door as you would any other.

The player responded by creating a fake door — like a mime or an actor in an improv show — and pretending to step through it, as if acting out the instruction was somehow part of the solve.

Much like the escape room supervisor who witnessed this, I’m totally baffled.

Sometimes players take instruction in a manner you wouldn’t expect. Other times, they take those instructions all too literally.

Just ask the folks at Red House Mysteries in Exeter, England, who lost visual contact with the solvers in one escape room scenario.

The room had a suspended ceiling, and apparently, this created a blind spot for one of the cameras used to monitor the room.

After not being able to see the players on the CCTV for a good 5 minutes and getting no response on the radio, they went into the room to see if everything was ok.

They found the team of 3 people standing on each others shoulders, having removed the ceiling tiles, and currently climbing into the roof cavity above.

“Whilst technically this is escaping, it’s not really the spirit of the game scenario. Nor do I have any idea where they were going to go from there. Needless to say, they didn’t manage to escape…”


To close out this sojourn into the world of escape room shenanigans, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention something that happened during my very first escape room.

We broke something. We broke one of the mechanisms that released a hidden key.

As a group of ten or so players, we quickly scattered around the room and began looking for clues, hidden compartments, hints on how to proceed, and so on. One team member, an acquaintance of my sister I didn’t know, spotted a small statuette on the mantel.

It was meant to be turned 90 degrees, releasing a hidden key below. Not knowing this, she lifted it off of its small base instead, triggering the hidden key.

And since there was a matching statuette nearby, the group surmised that lifting it would release another key on the other side.

It didn’t.

My best guess is that she managed to lift AND turn the first statuette when she picked it up, triggering the release. The second statuette was lifted straight up, leaving the hidden key still untriggered.

As it turns out, the statuettes weren’t intended to be lifted off their bases, and we’d broken the second release trigger. One of us managed to trigger it with a quarter and free the key, but we didn’t realize we’d actually damaged the game room until the session was over.

Here’s hoping it was a quick and easy repair job. I still cringe when I think about it.

Needless to say, I’ve been far more cautious in all of my subsequent escape room attempts.

Have you ever had or seen any strange escape room moments, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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A New Gaming Opportunity for Opportunity?

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Last month, the world collectively mourned the loss of the Opportunity Rover, as NASA declared that the incredible machine’s marathon body of work on Mars had officially ended.

Its mission was meant to last 90 days. Opportunity vastly overperformed, delivering photos and data for a mind-blowing fifteen years of service. The Little Engine That Could has got nothing on the Opportunity Rover.

The outpouring of sadness and affection for the Rover surprised many, serving as a heartwarming reminder of the amazing things we can accomplish. It also represents our almost magical ability to come together as a people in appreciation of an icon, one we’d come to adore and anthropomorphize into a plucky, inquisitive adventurer.

[Image courtesy of Tom Gauld.]

As you might expect, a character with this much esteem couldn’t pass into history without the game community immortalizing it in some way, shape, or form.

Thanks to WalrockHomebrew, an independent content creator for RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, the Opportunity Rover can now be part of your roleplaying campaigns!

Creating not only full stats for Oppy as a neutral good construct but a plausible explanation for how this real-world scientific device has found itself in a magical universe, WalrockHomebrew has crafted a fun fictional legacy for the much-loved rover.

Understandably, Oppy isn’t much of a fighter, though it can use its rock abrasion tool to scratch at any potential foes. It’s far more capable as an observer, seeing through magical illusions and glamours.

It can even see invisible creatures and creatures in the Ethereal Plane. As far as we know, the actual rover couldn’t.

Though, if it could, I suspect its reports to NASA would’ve been front page material every single day.

[WalrockHomebrew even offered rules for how to restore the rover in-game to full operational capacity. Pretty cool!]

This is a wonderful tribute to one of the most amazing devices ever conceived. Thank you, Oppy, for all of the wonders you revealed.

And thank you, WalrockHomebrew, for letting us hold onto that magic in an unexpected and delightful way.


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All Sorts of Puzzle Goodness in the Month of March!

March is here, everyone, and it’s absolutely loaded with puzzle events all month long. If you’re looking to test your puzzly mettle and spend time with fellow puzzlers along the way, you’re sure to find something to do in today’s post!


This Saturday, March 2nd, if you’re in the Akron, Ohio, area, you can flex your crossword muscles at the 10th Annual Akron Crossword Puzzle Tournament!

Open to all solvers 18 and older, this will be perfect practice for the slightly more famous crossword tournament happening later this month.

Click here for more details, or call 330-643-9015 to register!

Next weekend, you won’t even have to leave your home for a puzzly event to enjoy, as Crossword Mysteries: A Puzzle to Die For will debut on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries channel on Sunday, March 10th at 9:00 p.m.

Starring Lacey Chabert and Brennan Elliott, the film features a crossword puzzle editor who finds her life completely disrupted when several of the clues in her recent puzzles are linked to unsolved crimes. She is pulled into the police investigation, and as you can tell from the still picture above, ends up rubbing elbows with some famous puzzlers.

And for folks to like a little levity with their puzzling, if you’re in the Los Angeles area, you can check out The Crossword Show with Zach Sherwin on March 13th.

Sherwin, who has appeared on Epic Rap Battles of History and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, hosts this “smart, one-of-a-kind show in which two comedians solve a crossword puzzle live onstage in front of an audience. There’s music. There’s comedy. There’s trivia. There’s nothing like it!”

Click here for more details.

If you’re in the Vermont area March 14th through the 17th, you can combine a love of jigsaw puzzles with some murder mystery fun, thanks to the crew at Stave Wooden Jigsaw Puzzles.

As you enjoy a murder mystery event going on around you — complete with actors playing out scenes as the story unfolds — you’ll play detective by solving jigsaw puzzles to reveal clues to the murderer’s identity!

Click here for more details!

And, of course, we close out the month with one of the biggest puzzle events of the year, as puzzlers from all over the country converge on the Stamford Marriott in Connecticut for the 42nd Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, running March 22nd to the 24th.

Enjoy a weekend of puzzly camaraderie, discussions, contests, and crosswords as you compete alongside the best, brightest, and friendliest group of puzzlers in the land.

Click here for more details and here to check out our rundown of last year’s event!


Are you planning to attend any of these events? Or do you know of any puzzle events in March we missed? Let us know in the comments section below!


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An 80-Year-Old Literary Mystery Returns!

[The Doctor, of Doctor Who fame. No stranger to nonlinear stories.]

Avid readers and television watchers are probably familiar with the concept of nonlinear storytelling.

Whodunits often bounce forward and backward in time so that readers and detectives alike can reconstruct the events of the crime, and of course science fiction is filled to bursting with time-travel stories that tie the readers’ minds in knots. Bookworms are used to getting their story elements out of order.

But what if the entire novel was out of order? Imagine every single page out of place. Could you reassemble the story and solve the murder?

That was the question posed by Cain’s Jawbone, a 1934 novel by famed cryptic crosswords constructor Edward Powys Mathers, who published under the pseudonym Torquemada.

Readers were tasked with identifying the six victims of the killers, as well as who killed each victim. Not only that, but a successful solve also needed to include the correct order of all 100 pages of the novel.

A prize of 15 pounds was offered to the first reader who could unravel the mystery. That is no small feat, given that the number of possible page combinations is in the millions.

And yet, two solvers did submit solutions and get their prizes, even if the solution was never shared publicly.

85 years later, Cain’s Jawbone is returning to publication, allowing a new generation of puzzlers the chance to solve one of Torquemada’s greatest puzzles.

From publishing company Unbound’s announcement page:

Subscribers to Cain’s Jawbone will receive its 100 pages unbound in a box. This means that they can be spread out and placed next to each other – so much easier than when pages are bound, as in the original publication.

A space for notes is provided as well as a page to submit with the answer. Only solutions submitted on a page from the box will be eligible.

The competition is returning as well, and a prize of 1,000 pounds is being offered.

With a release date of September of this year, it will be fascinating to see how quickly modern solvers can unravel this classic mystery.


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How Far Away Are Computer-Generated Crosswords?

[Image courtesy of ESLTower.]

There’s no denying that computers play a large role in the world of crosswords today.

Some companies use computer programs to generate their unthemed crosswords, no human intervention necessary. Computer programs like Crossword Compiler aid constructors in puzzle design and grid fill, allowing them to build and cultivate databases of words with which to complete their grids.

And, of course, with those little computers in your pocket, you can solve all kinds of crosswords (like those in our Daily POP Crosswords and Penny Dell Crosswords apps).

Heck, computers are even getting pretty good at solving crosswords — just look at Matt Ginsberg’s evolving crossword program, “Dr. Fill.

An article in Smithsonian Magazine posed the question, “why haven’t computers replaced humans in crossword creation?”

The answer, as you’d expect, is simple: computers are just fine at plugging words into established grids and generating basic, unthemed crosswords.

But unthemed is the key word there.

When people think of The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The American Values Club, The Crosswords Club, or any of the other well-respected crossword outlets in the market today, I doubt unthemed puzzles are what comes to mind.

And when it comes to creating themes, innovating, and playing with the conventions of crosswords in order to create puzzles that surprise and challenge solvers, computers simply don’t have the chops.

They might be able to solve puzzles, but as far as I can tell from my research, there’s no program out there capable of generating and executing a theme with any sort of wordplay element involved.

[Image courtesy of Crossword Compiler.]

There is an art to creating an exciting grid, an intriguing theme, or a new puzzle mechanic that solvers have never seen before. The creativity of constructors is truly boundless.

And, it seems, the potential for crossword grids is just as boundless.

Recently, Oliver Roeder of FiveThirtyEight challenged the puzzle fans in his readership to calculate how many different crossword puzzle grids were possible.

He offered the following conditions:

  • They are 15-by-15.
  • They are rotationally symmetric — that is, if you turn the grid upside down it appears exactly the same.
  • All the words — that is, all the horizontal and vertical sequences of white squares — must be at least three letters long. All the letters must appear in an “across” word and a “down” word.
  • The grid must be entirely connected — that is, there can be no “islands” of white squares separated from the rest by black squares.

Now, obviously, all of those rules can be violated for the sake of an interesting theme. We’ve seen grids with vertical symmetry, islands of white squares, and more. Heck, plenty of grids allow words to go beyond the grid itself, or allow multiple words to share puzzle squares.

[“Cutting Edge” by Evan Birnholz. A puzzle where answers extend
beyond the grid. Image courtesy of The Washington Post.]

But assuming these rules are standard, what total did solvers come up with?

None. They couldn’t find a total.

One solver managed to calculate that there were 40,575,832,476 valid 13-by-13 grids following the above conditions, but could not apply the same technique to 15-by-15 grids.

40 billion valid grids. For a comparison, there are 5,472,730,538 unique solutions for a 9×9 Sudoku grid, and I previously calculated it would take 800 years to use every possible 9×9 Sudoku grid.

Of course, that’s 40 billion 13-by-13 grids. The number of possible 15-by-15 grids must be orders of magnitude larger.

Consider this: There were 16,225 puzzles published in The New York Times before Will Shortz took over the NYT crossword. The current number of NYT crosswords in the XWordInfo database is somewhere in the neighborhood of 25,000 puzzles.

And they’re one of the oldest crossword outlets in the world. Even when you factor in the number of newspapers, magazines, subscription services, and independent outlets for crosswords there are these days, or have been in the past, we barely scratch the surface of a number like 40 billion.

Maybe by the time we’ve run through that many, AI constructors will have caught up.


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How Tweet It Is!

Crosswords occupy a curious niche in popular culture.

They’re a part of everyday life, appearing in newspapers, apps, puzzle books, mysteries, and more. That simple patterning of black and white squares, no matter where it appears, brings them to mind.

And yet, despite their ubiquity, they’re not always viewed as something for the everyman. Some consider them off-putting or intimidating, steeped in obscure cluing and peculiar verbiage intended to keep casual solvers out.

That mix of familiarity and unfamiliarity makes crosswords the perfect fodder for comedians. The crew at HuffPost proved this by compiling a list of humorous tweets focusing on crosswords.

Some of them referenced the odd letter combinations you encounter in grids…

Or the difficulty some clues offer…

Or just the general difficulty of the puzzle…

But other tweets had fun with specific puzzles…

Or with the act of solving itself…

And, given how often wordplay finds its way into crosswords, it’s only appropriate to close out with a pun…

(That last one wasn’t in the HuffPost article. There’s plenty more puzzle humor out there, I just happened to stumbled across it yesterday before writing this post.)

Have you encountered any funny crossword-themed tweets recently? Let us know in the comments section below! (And be sure to follow us on Twitter, where we share little gems like these whenever we can.)


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