Hosting a Real-Life Escape the Room Game

If you loved the virtual reality “Escape the Room” games, then I have really good news for you: those games exist in real life!

Multiple Escape the Room games now exist all over the country, especially the big cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. A few are also in other countries, like Vancouver in Canada and Leeds and Edinburg in the UK.

I’ve never had the patience for the virtual ones as I always get frustrated and look up guides (my MO on playing any video game; I’m looking at you Pokemon and your dumb sliding ice puzzles). But I’ve played a total of five real-life escape games thus far and loved every second of it. You get to form a team of 4–10 people depending what kind of game, and then y’all get locked in a room together. There are puzzles and tools hidden all around, such as under a drawer, in desks, on various containers, and they all come together to point you in the direction of finding the key that will unlock the door. Some furniture is tricky and will have hidden compartments, or some clues will have multiple interpretations. Most games will have a theme; I’ve played a time-travel one (which I highly recommend) and even a Shingeki no Kyojin one in AT&T Park. But the requirements are always the same: find the key in one hour. Or you lose.

So for my 24th birthday, I decided that I wanted to host one of these games for my friends. Here’s my process.

The Plan

What does an escape game look like on paper? Well before I could even get there, I had to find stuff. Lockable things, hideable things, things to hide clues in, etc. Just searching for lockable stuff around my house I found a suitcase with a built-in 3 number combo, an old diary with a lock, a small box that I could padlock, and of course, my computer. I gathered all kinds of small knick-knacks (finally the hoarding pays off) to hide things in, and very luckily, I had a bunch of extra furniture from moving back from college last fall.

We have an empty room that was previously used for storage downstairs, so I arranged all the furniture and extra props in there as best I could. Then I got down to paper planning.

I have no idea how the pros do it, but here’s general map:

There were three basic stages: the 10-part crossword, the item name puzzle, and the final puzzle. (The computer puzzle was meant to be very easy.)

A 10-part crossword means 10 clues. Which means 10 different mini-puzzles. But I also had to unite all these crossword answers under a common theme so that the players could have clearer path to victory. So I drew on one of my favorite categories of words: obscure colors. Colors like razzamatazz, chartreuse, carmine, or celadon.

I didn’t want to spend money on number combo locks, so I had to rely on word answers for a lot of my puzzles. To accommodate this, I added an element where my friends could obtain certain items only if they knew the “name” of it. In this case, the item name puzzle consisted of two parts, solving both with give them “metal turtle,” a little metal turtle with a key inside to open the next lock.

The Making Part

I dove into a multitude of different ciphers to make the clues, and constructed interactive object puzzles while also trying to make the game a little more relatable. One of the clues using a Caesar cipher (a three-letter shift down the alphabet) translated to “divergent erudite”. Erudites in Divergent were associated with blue. One of my friends was a fellow biotech major, so one of the puzzles involved correctly pairing nucleotides together. And of course, one Harry Potter reference was thrown in there.

The physical puzzles were definitely more difficult to make. Creating ciphers in Illustrator was easy, but making riddles that involved interacting with objects required a lot of outside of the box thinking. One physical puzzle was a strip of paper that made no sense had to be wrapped around a candy tube to produce the answer, “cream.” Another puzzle had to be held to a mirror to be understood.

The hardest part about all of this was figuring out how difficult to make the puzzles. After a while, I felt like I’d lost the ability to judge how hard I was making things since I knew the answers to all of them. The final puzzle involved Set Cards where one card (attached to the final key) was needed to complete six sets. I sat on the floor surrounded by set cards for about an hour before I found the correct amount of variables and sets that would be solvable.

The Game

After wrestling and pleading with my printer to please just no more paper jams I had everything ready to put into place. I scattered clues underneath cushions, taped them to the ceiling, even taped a small diary to the underside of a desk tray with the aid of a shitton of tape. I added decoy decoration objects to hide key objects. Then my friends arrived, and the game began!

Lessons Learned

One of my concerns as I watched my friends play was constantly thinking “Oh shit no, that clue goes with a different object!” or something along the lines of “I’ve made this game too confusing!” It was really hard for me to hold back when someone put one clue with a mismatched one. But as time went on, it proved to just be a natural part of the game. My friends were very impressive detectives and problem solvers. Some puzzles which I thought would be the most difficult turned out to be solved almost right away, while others that I thought were easier turned out to be the most difficult. Many times they would give me their theory about how the puzzle worked, and I would say, “No, but man, I should have done that.”

I figured out late in the game about how I should really check for multiple solutions thoroughly. One of my main puzzles unfortunately had many ways it could be solved, which stalled the entire process.

Based on Flow Free, and solvable in many different ways

Another big thing was how unambiguous objects should be. I placed a bunch of books for ambience and to hide stuff underneath, but few of my friends searched through them page by page. Another friend emptied a piggy bank that I hadn’t realized even had money in it. Oops. Next time I know, no placing anything that could be misinterpreted as important!

All in all, everyone had a good time even with the kinks. A huge thanks to everyone for rolling with it and playing. It was really fun to watch, and I had a blast creating the game itself. I’m ready for next year!