One of the main questions I get asked when people learn that I design the puzzles for the room is "how do you come up with this stuff?" While a lot of the process is a "throw it at the wall and see what sticks," there are some basic rules of room design I try to stick to.
Choose Your Theme First
Every great escape room starts with a unique theme. Whether a mad scientist has mere moments to return to the group he plans to experiment on or a bomb threatens to blow up the room if the team can not figure out how to defuse it, the theme dictates the entire direction of the room — puzzles included. A theme can help determine exactly how technology-reliant a room will be. Is the room set in Victorian London? Puzzles should focus less on technology, and approach puzzles in a more hands-on fashion. Conversely, if it takes place on an advanced spaceship, technology should be at its heart.
Avoid a Heavy Dependence on Combination Locks
At DECIPHERED, we take care to make our puzzles as diverse as possible. A major complaint we hear from clientele who have experience with other escape rooms is that “the room had too many combination locks.” Room design centers around a slow information trickle and limiting access to certain aspects of the room till later in the game. Obviously, that means locks play a central role in designing a room that takes 50-70 minutes to solve (the range we attempt to hit in test marketing). However, while combination locks tend to come to mind first when thinking of ways to limit access, a plethora of creative lock solutions exist to keep participants out of puzzles until you want them in. Electromagnetic locks, word combinations, keys hidden in interesting ways, and a gamut of sensors used with an Arduino can diversify the puzzles in a room enough to keep participants engaged.
Keep Room and Group Size in Mind
We take into consideration the size of our rooms before designing puzzles that will take up a considerable amount of space. For example, in our room Our Last Breath, we had two rooms with less than 125 square feet per room. Only two props took up any floor space — a small platform in the first room and a small locker in the second room. Aesthetically, the props worked to represent a space station. More importantly, the minimalistic design allowed for groups of six to fully participate in the room without feeling too cramped.
Idle hands spell disaster in any escape room. So, our rooms have to engage all participants throughout their hour in the room. If you notice too many people standing around for too long, you either have too many participants in each room or have too few props and puzzles in the room to vie for attention.
Think of Puzzles in Layers
An effective escape room puzzle takes two elements from the room and combines them to create a solution. A highly effective and more challenging puzzle takes multiple elements from the room and combines them to create a solution. Maybe participants must use a poster, an audio file, and a cipher to lead them to a word. The audio file could lead them to a specific word on a poster in the room, then they must use the cipher to extrapolate the word needed to unlock a word lock. Even bringing in one additional element creates layers that lead to the coveted “aha” moment.
Backtracking is another way to create depth to your puzzles. Often players believe that once they’ve used a prop, they will no longer need the prop for the remainder of the room. Maybe a book served one purpose at the beginning of the room, but the group needs to revisit that book in the latter third of the game. If one of your scenarios uses two rooms, make the players utilize something in the first room after gaining access into the second.
Scale the Difficulty to Create Rhythm
We think of our escape rooms as a symphony. A good piece of music moves in waves. Some parts are loud and fast and intense, while others slow the tempo to create focus and tension. A similar flow must exist in every successful escape room. Every group that participates in a room should feel some sense of independent accomplishment (without the need for hints). While some will find this in the most difficult puzzles in the rooms, others will find it in the simplest ones. Make sure to have a good balance of challenging, layered puzzles and easy, fast-moving ones.
In our rooms, we know pretty well at which point groups will need to call for a hint. However, after these difficult puzzles, we like to ensure that there are two or three more obvious steps to create a sense of progress in the room.
The Fun in Success
Group success is not the enemy of a room design. Some establishments pride themselves on having rooms that only see a single digit percentage of participants escape. In our experience, however, no one has ever left our escape rooms upset because they solved our puzzles. That isn’t to say that we want a 100% success rate (we aim somewhere between 40-50%), but at the end of the room, we want most groups to be within a puzzle or two of solving it.
Ready to Experience the Thrill?
At Deciphered, we aim to provide the best escape room experience we possibly can. Period! Our meticulously-crafted rooms help give people a night they will remember. Are you ready to make a memory at Deciphered? Visit the Our Rooms page to see the rooms we currently have available!