Escape I: The Escape Game Formula

It is universally acknowledged that an escape game, well-designed, is in want of a winner.

Or, in other words, “good” escape games actually want to be won, and can reasonably be won under many circumstances. A team that knows what it is doing should be able to win, right? Just on the sweat of their brows.

This notion might be incorrect. There is a distinction to be made here: a “good” escape room is what is described above, but that has clear caveats. A “good” escape room can be won by clever players. A “good” escape room has a distinct problem of actually being too reasonable in its design, and thus players, on occasion, can whisk through it at high speed. They are winners, for sure, but they just played 35 minutes out of their hour, and have that strange feeling settling in that they have been duped. Was the game too easy? Was it worth it? Was it challenging? Seeing the time on the clock is a certain way to judge not only your own accomplishment, but if the game was worth the price tag.

There are certainly not-so-great games out there.

“What do you mean you didn’t try counting every other book on the third shelf and try multiplying that by the words in the clue itself and then trying it on one of the ten or so combination locks?”

“What do you mean you couldn’t find the solution in this twelve page packet of information? It was right here, totally blending in with the other 5,000 words we provided!”

“What do you mean the clue we gave you was misleading? It was a red herring! To make it more fun!”

But there is another category: “well-designed” games. I certainly differentiate these, because they are good games with an important twist. A “well-designed” game is able to give challenge and fill the time more densely or completely, without resorting to the ridiculousness above. Often, “well-designed” games know the formula for an escape room, but can manipulate and test the players in just the right way to hit the sweet spot: They feel they reasonably solved their way through everything, asking for hints that all were obvious things that they missed out of simple accident, and still coming close at the end, pushing at the final obstacle. The real winners of escape rooms are close winners.

On that subject, I would like to lay out some observations about escape room design. What makes a “good” escape room? The formula is pretty set, and has led to my play-groups winning a few with unspeakably good times (our best was 17 minutes out of 45, and by no fault other than the game followed the formula so perfectly and reasonably!). I have included some ideas for twists to push the formula away from being predictable.

Onwards!

Escape!

This one is quite simple. It is in the title, after all. Escape rooms often involve a final obstacle, such as a door, and a final component, such as the key or code that opens it (I explain my usage of words in puzzles here). Thus, upon seeing that final obstacle and knowing, usually intuitively, that I am seeking a code or a key, I have simplified my gameplay process massively— if I find a code or key, don’t use it on that obstacle unless everything else is opened/solved, and until then I shouldn’t even try to find it.

A game where an obstacle, such as the final door, can be actively ignored at all times means that it is that much easier to focus on other obstacles.

Potential Twist: Consider final obstacles that are hidden. You don’t know the final object is in a specific place. You can’t see the final door for a while. Make the end goal very clear, and then hide it, so the players don’t know how close they are until it happens.

The Room!

Surprise! The other half of the title. This one is also pretty simple: Escape rooms are self-contained. The formula demands a perfect inventory. If you need a code, it is in the room. If you need a key, it is in the room. If you need a pumpkin, it is in the room.

It seems obvious, but it also means that searching for components and obstacles is procedural and can happen in stages. Obvious stuff, less obvious stuff, then crawling on all fours, then nooks and crannies, and then finally inside books and other ridiculous places. Because everything you are meant to have is in there somewhere, there is an inevitable ownership of the game. If players start to steamroll your game, you can’t quite get in there and re-hide an easy clue in a harder place, now can you?

Potential Twist: Consider a puzzle where the players must ell or do something that makes a component appear, such as slide under the door. Make them question that the whole thing is perfectly self-contained, just enough to slow them down.

The Secret Room

Nearly all escape rooms that I have played have a secret room Or space. I go in knowing this and usually find it before it is open. This is cool and I am glad this is part for the formula, and it does the work: It restarts the process of searching or wonder part-way through the game, which is exciting. Which is “good”.

Here’s the catch, though: If I can identify a secret or secondary room, I can start actively prioritizing puzzles. If there is no clear mechanism, I am thinking RFID tag, and I once even opened the door just by trying objects on a nearby surface (Not great of me, I know, but if you want to impress veteran players, you need to be ready for their veteran tricks!). If there is a lock, it gets checked first with any new code or key, as I assume several puzzles may be unsolvable until the next room is open. Any information I can sense that organizes the chaos makes the room go faster, and while that is pleasing for some players, for me, it is the same old thing: The figuring out of this pattern happened two or three rooms ago, and I desire something new.

Potential Twist: Hide these things better! I know you can do it! Or put secret rooms in secret rooms. Stuff like that.

The Puzzles Want To Be Solved

This is the biggest one. An escape room is, fundamentally, designed to be won. Some might be harder than others, but at the core, that is the business we have made: Make folks feel like winners. Where we set that bar is up to us, but puzzles that are “good” or “clever” are the ones that want to be solved, and arguably are at least able to be solved (What a low bar for success?). A puzzle that combines too many types of solving or steps that are not given through direction are not puzzles that want to be solved. Example: There is a number four on the wall, and beside it there are three pegs, then twelve pegs That are part of a piece of the set that has many, many other pegs. You are expected to take that number (4312) and use it as a combination. There is no signal that the four has any association with the pegs, or the pegs should be counted, or that twelve pegs counts for two digits. Explained out like that might make it seem possible, but that isn’t the point. Puzzles aren’t supposed to be possible, they are supposed to be solved. Think of the poor fools who come through on their first game! They want a chance too.

This is where it gets tricky, because a “good” escape room has “good” puzzles. If the puzzle is one a player has seen before, they have an advantage. If the puzzle follows reasonable expectations, veteran players will burn through them quickly, knowing it wants to be solved, paying attention to the directions the puzzle tries to give. The greatest challenge of the designer is still filling the time limit without ‘cheating’. This deserves another post, but consider the below:

Potential Twists: A good puzzle can still take time. A maze, even solved, takes time. A code, once understood, still needs to be completed for the whole ciphertext. A large number of objects still take time to be physically moved. This is why purely logical/observational/semantic puzzles are the bane of a “good” room, because the moment the player gets that little lightbulb, it is over. Your puzzle that made play-testers scratch their heads for five minutes because they have never seen anything like it before just took fifteen seconds for a veteran player who has. Consider my post that has different puzzle types (here) and diversify puzzle types. Any task that involves physical effort will take a fixed amount of time at minimum, and that can help fill the time more, as long as you aren’t making them do something annoying, like push a boulder up a hill.

Gamemasters and Clues

There is no game without the gamemaster hovering above it all. They monitor for infractions, but also want you to cut it close. This is fine for players that get stuck in a reasonable “good” game, as the clues are often obvious.

“The key was in your hand the whole time!”

“Did you try entering that number in a lock?”

“Doorknobs turn right.”

But to a veteran group, they might not want clues. “Good” games won’t force clues on players, as it upsets them. But then there is the part of the formula that takes a turn for the worse: Saboteur gamemasters. I have had my share of gamemasters, seeing how quickly we are doing, give a clue that is incorrect, poorly worded, or strangely more cryptic than the earlier clue we asked for, like they didn’t want to help us. I have committed this sin as well, seeing players doing well and trying to cook up ways to challenge them more. But because of the above, like puzzles wanting to be solved, or the room having perfect inventory, anything that I half-bake and throw in their way verbally ends up being pretty obvious. Gamemasters trying to make games last the full time is part of the “good” experience, it seems, and that is unfortunate, because it means if I am stuck on something, I can put it down and just do something else. If I go too fast, the clues I ask for will likely suck, and if I just wait it out, the clues will improve. Where is the fun in that?

Potential Twists: Consider having all clues be riddles or cryptic, to set an early standard. Make clues feel like puzzles themselves. Hide clues or the ability to even ask for them, so they must be earned. Instead of cooking up new obstacles during the game, come up with some preset tricks that gamemasters can add to veteran games before they start, and potentially market that you have ‘normal’ and ‘difficult’ modes. Don’t try to trick the players, because if they figure it out, you just lost your customers.

Annendum: I didn’t mention this the first time through, but time limits are a big part of this formula. A game that fits seven players and takes one hour says a lot to a veteran player about components and obstacles and tasks they will recieve, and I can usually gauge our progress pretty well because of the time limit itself. It also pushes the gamemaster to apply more pressure on the experience to fulfill the time limit. It is a promise after all; you paid for an hour, let’s try to make it an hour.

Surprising Your Players

I think there is a focus in design on coming up with the next great theme or set, or making a cool gizmo, or having this one sweet puzzle. I am here to say that isn’t enough. The market is saturating and veteran players I speak to want variety. And they don’t mean that kind of variety. Their experiences, almost always, involve the same old steps. Enter room. Door locks. Search for starting components. Puzzle 1. Puzzle 2. Puzzle 3. Secret space. Puzzle 4. Puzzle 5. Escape. Most of their time was spent unlocking locks, or watching the two arrogant people move down a linear list of puzzles with components that could only be handled by one person at a time.

The formula is pretty set. What can we do mix it up? -JN

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