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?

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[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.)

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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.

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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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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Hall of Fame edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

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 Dungeons & Dragons!

I’ve written about Dungeons & Dragons and other roleplaying games in the past, because I think they are a wonderful, underappreciated part of the world of puzzles and games. Some of the best and most satisfying riddles and puzzles I’ve ever solved were an integral part of a game of D&D.

So I’m excited to announce that Dungeons & Dragons has been inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame!

Housed at The Strong National Museum of Play, the National Toy Hall of Fame recognizes those products and improvised toys that have played a crucial role in the development of children and teens.

Whether they assist in hand-eye coordination, storytelling, deduction, athletics, or creativity, they are all classic examples of toys tied to fond memories of childhood. Previous inductees include the Rubik’s Cube (2014), Hot Wheels (2011), the Radio Flyer Wagon (1999), Jacks (2000), and Play-Doh (1998).

And I for one think Dungeons & Dragons is a very worthy addition to this club.

From the induction notice:

Dungeons & Dragons and its imitators actually changed the nature of play.

In Dungeons & Dragons players assume the roles of characters who inhabit a world moderated and narrated by a Dungeon Master, a player who explains the action to others and solicits their reactions to the unfolding story. The Dungeon Master’s storytelling skills and the players’ abilities to imagine add enjoyment to the game. Some aspects of the play are familiar, such as dice. But the special dice for Dungeons & Dragons hold up to 20 sides. Rolling them determines each character’s individual strengths, plots their complex interactions, and decides the outcome of their encounters.

More than any other game, Dungeons & Dragons paved the way for older children and adults to experience imaginative play. It was groundbreaking. And it opened the door for other kinds of table games that borrow many of its unique mechanics.

For over forty years, Dungeons & Dragons has been synonymous with roleplaying, collaborative storytelling, and good old-fashioned sword-swinging derring-do. And I think it’s fantastic that it’s getting some long-overdue recognition for the positive role it has played in so many people’s lives.

Congratulations to you, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax. Thank you for hours and hours of brilliant, engaging fun.


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