Better Ways to Handle Letter Codes in Escape Rooms [Design Tips]

Morse Code, binary, Braille, and pigpen:

Letter encoding and decoding is a common thing in room escapes and puzzle hunts.

  • Set a radio to a specific channel and you’ll find a looping pattern of Morse Code dots and dashes.
  • Stick your hands into a dark space and feel the raised bumps of Braille.
  • Decode the line and dot patters scrawled on a wall in a pigpen cypher.

These are all acceptable, fairly common methods of hiding information in a puzzle game.

However, one problem with these can be the order of puzzle element delivery.

Paiting of the numbers "3039". Beneath the numbers are the braille representations of those numbers.

Standard letter codes

While they aren’t relevant to most people, and many are anachronistic, letter codes are standardized.

All rooms that I am aware of will rightly assume that their players have not memorized the translations for Morse Code, binary, Braille, pigpen, nautical flags, or semaphore (among others). If they are using one of these codes, they will provide a clear method of decoding.

Some companies will go so far as to translate Roman numerals.

This is great, but do not assume that no one can mentally decode these standards.

Translation key first, encoded message second

The room should deliver the decoding key before it provides a coded message that is encoded with a standardized letter code.

Players should discover the Braille translation key before they find raised bumps to decode.


Because if a player knows your code, they can and will solve the puzzle before they were supposed to.

Anyone with a ham radio license will know Morse, as will some people who were Boy Scouts.

Additionally, some of us escape room enthusiasts have started to memorize some of these codes (both intentionally and unintentionally).

I have picked up a little Braille completely by accident.

I also deliberately memorized Morse Code numbers simply because the pattern is simple to remember:

1) .—-
2) ..—
3) …–
4) ….-
5) …..
6) -….
7) –…
8) —..
9) —-.
0) —–

From a design standpoint, the key is to make sure that no one disrupts the game flow because they know a letter code.

Simple solutions

This situation can be solved with one of three simple fixes:

Place the translation key before the coded interaction

If you do this, then the player who already knows the translation finds redundant knowledge that doesn’t diminish their game, but it does make sure that all players reach the code on equal footing.

The player who has it memorized will naturally decode the message faster, but they will do it at the right time.

Don’t use letter codes at critical junctures

If a letter code is locking away an item that can be obtained at any point in the game without breaking the game’s flow, then a player popping the lock with outside knowledge won’t break the game.

Make your own letter code

If you create a letter code with your own symbols, then this whole discussion is irrelevant.

This is, admittedly, a tiny detail in game design. The issue won’t surface all that often, but if you plan for it, it will never be an issue.

Lisa in The New York Times

Please forgive the off-topic post, I am a very proud husband.

Lisa was featured in The New York Times Vocations Column this week.

I know that a lot of our readers think that we do this for a living… but we have other careers that allow us puzzle real life problems (and fund our room escape habit).

Screenshot of the headline from The New York Times: "A linguist who cracks the code in names to predict ethnicity."

If you’ve ever puzzled with Lisa, she has an incredible ability to manipulate letters and her pattern recognition skills are staggering. It’s not a coincidence; she does it for a living:

A Linguist Who Cracks the Code in Names to Predict Ethnicity

Komnata Quest – Room 1409 [Review]

“Even if you leave this room, you can never leave this room!” – Stephen King

Location: Brooklyn, NY

Date played: September 19, 2016

Team size: 3-5; we recommend 3

Price: $28 per ticket

Story & setting

We were guests in New York City’s Dolphin Hotel; upon check-in, we found that our room was haunted. We had to escape before an unspeakable horror overtook us.

This escape room was based loosely on Stephen King’s short story 1408, published in 2002 as part of the Everything’s Eventual compilation. Visually, the room strongly mimicked the story. The plot, however, strayed from the book.

A dingy hotel room with a painting of a bishop hanging on the wall. A Holy Bible is in the foreground.

It was not necessary to read King’s story before playing this game. However, hardcore King fans will recognize certain plot points carried out in the room escape. Fandom enhanced my experience in this game.


This room was a typical Komnata Quest design – heavy on immersion and tasks, light on puzzles.

Our favorite puzzle in the game made fantastic use of the setting while incorporating a direct plot point from the King story.

The tasks in this immersive environment were fun, and in several cases, unusual.

Standout features

The set design was the strongest feature of this room escape. As a King fan, the design exceeded my expectations in capturing the madness of the story. For those who hadn’t read the story, the design was incredibly solid, realistic, and eerie in all the right places.

In several instances, we were required to interact with the room in unique and unexpected ways, which we all enjoyed.


Because the room was task-based, it marched along quickly. Our experienced team blew through this game, and the end came far sooner than we expected. 1409 genuinely appeared larger than it was. This illusion added to our end-game confusion.

After the initial scene was set, any semblance of story faded quickly. I wasn’t expecting the room to mimic the King story, but there was an opportunity to design a narrative compelling enough to match the set. It was never really clear exactly who/what we were escaping from and why they/it were there to begin with.

Should I play Komnata Quest’s Room 1409?

If you are looking for a fun, interactive experience in a spooky environment, then this is for you.

If you’re looking for more challenging or layered puzzles then this is probably not your room escape.

Note that this game was a bit creepy. It flirted with horror. Leave small children or sensitive adults at home.

Experienced players will probably finish this room quickly. If getting to Brooklyn is hard for you then consider adding one of Komnata’s other rooms. Their current Brooklyn collection includes a horror murder mystery, a sex dungeon, a claustrophobic coffin escape and a heist.

Book your hour with Komnata Quest’s Room 1409, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Komnata Quest comped our tickets for this game.

(If you purchase via our Amazon links, you will help support Room Escape Artist as we will receive a very small percentage of the sale).

Room Escape Adventures – Still Hungry [Review]

Where the shambling corpse is in better shape than the room.

Location: Somerville, MA

Date played: August 27, 2016

Team size: up to 10; we recommend 6-8

Price: $28 per ticket

Story & setting

In Still Hungry, Room Escape Adventures presented another adventure with their zombie, Dr. Oxy, first created for their original game Trapped in a Room with a Zombie.

Dr Oxy’s lab still wasn’t much to look at. It was vaguely themed as a lab, meaning it had some lab-type items staged in the room, but primarily, it was a room full of toys. Most of the items and puzzles in this lab seemed entirely random and unrelated to the setting or story.

The staging and the props were unabashedly junky. However, the zombie created a fun vibe. This atmosphere and the story were humorous and not at all scary.

Green and white wall with blood red paint reading, "Nice try humans I gonna eat ya!" There is an arrow pointing to a hand bolted to the wall.


Still Hungry was packed full of interactive set pieces, some of which were custom construction while others were toys repurposed as puzzles. We tackled these set pieces primarily through dexterity puzzles, which required us to spend uninterrupted time in various locations around the room.

The puzzles weren’t challenging on their own, but were rendered inordinately more difficult by the zombie’s presence. We had to solve everything with one eye on the zombie. The challenge arose from the disrupted game flow and interrupted concentration.

The more brain-centric puzzles were lower production quality and far less exciting. These were generally written rather than integrated into the game environment.

Standout features

Room Escape Adventures has designed theatrical productions, which they refer to as a “shows” rather than as room escapes. The live actors were by far the best part of this game.

Our zombie, Sam, was hilarious to interact with and fun to escape. Our lab intern, Dominic, was the gamemaster. He stayed in the room the entire game to protect the zombie, help the game progress, and observe our team. He also dealt with puzzle breakage… which he had to do far too often.

Room Escape Adventures was the only company we’ve seen give a walkthrough that focused on our team more than on the game. Dominic was the most alert and present gamemaster we’ve seen in a while, in part because he was in the room with us. After the game, Dominic walked us through the show by explaining the role we each played on the team.

Additionally, Dominic gave us clues in his own way. He was aware of the flaws in the game and helped us move past them.


Many of the props in Still Hungry were broken. These weren’t just little pieces; these were the major interactive set pieces all around the room. While Dominic was able to push our game forward once we’d figured out the solution to a broken puzzle, that didn’t replace the thrill of making that solution happen ourselves.

Messily designed scenic with an orange "keep out sign" and part of a microscope visible.

One major broken prop occupied two people continually (not always the same two people) for the entire game. We knew what to do, but couldn’t get it to work right. We didn’t realize until we had escaped (having circumvented it) that it was actually too broken to use. That prop was a major disappointment.

Room Escape Adventures also included a magic eye. Luckily we had a player who could see it because neither David nor I can.

There were far too many toys that were squished into puzzles. They weren’t integrated into either the set or the story.

Our team of six adults was paired with a family of four including two younger children. Still Hungry took place in a tight space and ten people was too many for the game. We weren’t thrilled to be paired with kids (we have nothing against them, but we’ve seen this pairing go wrong before) but in this instance, it worked out well because the children brought different skills and took up less space. Luck aside, Room Escape Adventures should rethink a ticket model that packs too many bodies in the game and pairs families with groups of adults. This scenario could have gone very poorly for all involved.

Should I play Room Escape Adventures’ Still Hungry?

Room Escape Adventures’ Still Hungry was a junky game, with a junky story, junky props, junky set, and a great pair of actors. It was a one trick pony… but it was a great trick.

The zombie / player interaction was the only thing that made this game special. Because of this, the game was a lot of fun in spite of a long list of flaws.

Still Hungry was an improvement on Trapped in a Room with a ZombieThe game was better designed around the space and its moving character. This made it more engaging and fun. In fact, this game was more fun than it should have been, given the amount of breakage we encountered.

Still Hungry wasn’t a particularly difficult game; our inexperienced team escaped with time to spare. It was a game that was more about the theatrics than it was about the puzzles, set, or story.

This is a game for mobile people who are open to having fun with an actor trying to eat their brains. It’s also worth noting that your mileage may vary in this experience based heavily upon the actors and how you mesh with them (and here are 6 tips for playing actor-based games).

Note that you can play the two Dr. Oxy games in any order; you don’t need to start with the first one. Of the two, Still Hungry was a better game.

Book your hour with Room Escape Adventures’ Still Hungry, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Room Escape Adventures provided media discounted tickets for this game.

Escape Games Canada – Geist Manor VR Demo [Review]

Frightening, fast, and fun.

Location: played at the Chicago Room Escape Conference, but available in Toronto, Canada

Date played: August 13, 2016

Team size: 1

Price: Free at the conference, pricing TBD by hosting facility


Story & setting

Played via the HTC Vive, Geist Manor was a one-player virtual horror escape room experience. I played the 7-minute demo (of a 10-minute game) that was available at the Escape Games Canada booth at the Chicago Room Escape Conference.

This is a game that Escape Games Canada created in partnership with a EscapeVR. The game will be available for players to experience in Escape Games Canada’s facility, as well as a number of other escape room facilities that have purchased the rights to use the game.

Set in a haunted house, the game was dark, creepy, and a little bit freaky. Everything from the staging to the lighting to the sound pushed me deeper into the experience.

In a beautiful way, I felt like I was in a horror movie.

In-game screen shot of a dimly lit haunted room.


The puzzles were your basic seek, observe, and input interactions that I’ve encountered in my previous Vive escape room experience.

Standout features

Escape Games Canada likes to toy with their players’ minds and this game was no exception.

It looked great and sounded even better.

Escape Games Canada did a masterful job of throwing off my equilibrium and playing with my senses.

In-game screen shot of a dimly lit cabinet. A drawer is open and containing a cup of dice. Beside the dice the words "ROLL THE DICE" appear in blocky chalk writing.

The setting truly enhanced the experience. Lisa was a bit rattled by the horror; during her playthrough she had more trouble focusing on the tasks at hand.

The hinting was heavy handed, but well executed; it was clearly designed to keep the player moving.


There were some physics problems, both those within the game and those inherent to the Vive.

It wasn’t particularly puzzley.

If you don’t like horror, then that’s going to be a deal-breaker.

In-game screen shot of a dimly lit long spooky hallway. A small femine figure stands in the shadows at the opposite end.

Should I play Escape Games Canada’s Geist Manor?

Escape Games Canada put me in an experience that I knew wasn’t real and managed to make it feel intimidating.

This is only for folks who are open to a horror adventure and don’t get motion sick in a VR environment.

If you’re down for an excellent immersive experience that is light on puzzles and heavy on brain-tricking interactions, then this is your game.

It’s brief even at full length, which makes it a great add-on to a room escape outing at Escape Games Canada’s Toronto facility.

Contact Escape Games Canada to book your session with Geist Manor, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

The Pre-Game Player Experience [Design Tips]

Every room escape company knows that great products equal great games. They design, build, test, iterate, and maintain their rooms, because that’s where the money comes from. Right?

It’s true: room escape companies live and die based on the quality of their games. However, far too many companies forget that in order to play that brilliant game, players first need to find the company, purchase a ticket, and then get to the facility.

Painting of a rusted Master Lock No. 1 with a yellow base against a blue and white door.

To make sure you don’t cause friction in these pre-game and pre-purchase steps, focus on creating an easy, positive experience for the customer long before they step through your door.

Remember that the customer experience begins as soon as their interest is sparked. A poor booking experience or a weak website can either sour a player’s experience before the game begins or dissuade a player from even booking in the first place.

Sound all too familiar? Here’s a few easy tips to make sure your players are already loving your business before you say ‘Go.’

Continue reading the rest of our guest post on the FareHarbor blog…

Conundroom – The Castle [Review]

Most shall pass.

Location: Seattle, WA

Date played: September 4, 2016

Team size: 2-8; we recommend 2-4

Price: $90 for a team of 2-3, $120 for a team of 4-5, $160 for a team of 6-7, $180 for a team of 8

Story & setting

The Castle took place in a room that looked and felt like a storybook castle. Conundroom designed and constructed a magnificent and fun environment. It was almost entirely handmade by people who clearly knew what they were doing.

A shield, two swords, and a speak mounted to the wall of a castle.

Our mission took place in that castle, using castle-related props. During the game, we fully experienced the environment. If there was a story, however, it wasn’t present.


Unlike all of the other escape rooms we played in Seattle, The Castle was not a puzzle-heavy game. Not at all.

The game consisted primarily of tasks. We had to discern how to manipulate the props and the castle set.

Neither these tasks, nor the few interspersed puzzles, were particularly challenging.

Standout features

From the moment we entered the room, we were captivated by its castle-ness. The set was the highlight of the game. Conundroom designed and constructed the environment themselves.

A collection of golden cups resting on a wooden table. Each cup is filled with different types of stones.

Hidden technology drove The Castle’s magical moments. These moments enhanced the ambiance of the entire experience.

Our gamemaster was on the ball. He realized when the in-game clueing had lead us astray and brought us back from the unrecoverable.


The setting was begging for a cohesive story, which wasn’t present.

This was amplified by unclear game setup. At the outset, we weren’t 100% sure what we were trying to accomplish. Because of how Conundroom designed one of the late-game puzzles, they had trouble communicating objectives without spoilers. They need to either rework this puzzle or rethink how they present the game.

A few of the props fell short of the high standards set by the game’s overall construction.

The Castle included one prop that was, itself, a puzzle, and not a fair inclusion in a timed escape game. We own this particular puzzle and it took David many weeks to figure out how it worked. It really didn’t belong in a room escape.

Should I play Conundroom’s The Castle?

The Castle was a lot of fun. We enjoyed exploring the set and its props. It was exciting to make everything fit together.

This wasn’t a challenging game. The majority of Seattle’s escape rooms – at least those we’ve visited – were formidable opponents, even for seasoned players.

The Castle offered a different experience: a task-centric exploration of a different world.

This design made The Castle approachable for newer players, for whom it set a high bar for set design and magical moments. It would be an ideal choice for players looking for adventure over challenge.

If you play escape rooms for a solid hour of puzzling, then The Castle isn’t for you.

The game needed additional refinement, mainly in communication: story, setup, and occasional in-game clueing. That said, the world constructed for this game demonstrated talent and potential. We look forward to seeing more adventures from Conundroom.

Book your hour with Conundroom’s The Castle, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Conundroom comped our tickets for this game.

Epic Team Adventures – Vault of the Volcano God, Chapters 1 & 2 [Review]

The island puzzle orgy.

Location: Seattle, WA

Date played: September 2, 2016

Team size: 3-10; we recommend 8-10

Price: $30 per ticket

We played Vault of the Volcano God’s first two chapters, Break of Day & Burning Noontime, back to back. Unless otherwise noted, everything written in this review applies to both games.

Story & setting

Epic Team Adventures provided one of the most accurate descriptions of their own game that I have yet to see… and it was a good thing because this game was very different.

“The Vault of the Volcano God is an action-packed series of ten standalone adventures. Each adventure offers new areas to explore, thematic puzzles and activities, additional quests and missions, shifting demands from the Volcano God, and more details about the island mythology that can have game-changing impact. This series is not a traditional escape room game; it is similar to a puzzle hunt adventure. Instead of escaping at the first opportunity, your team will complete as many challenges as possible, and to figure out the best final sacrifice that will appease the Volcano God. Don’t think that there will be time to relax by finishing early. Tiki spirits will offer more quests than any team can complete. Only highly functioning teams that work together can succeed in unlocking the mystery of the island and fulfilling the mercurial demands of the volcano god.”

I’ve lost track of the number of times we’ve heard, “this room isn’t like a ‘normal room escape,’ ours is totally different,” and then played the game and it was just like a normal room escape. Vault of the Volcano God really was unusual.

We were put inside of a tropical ruin-themed setting that looked a bit Legends of the Hidden Temple-y. We were tasked with solving a ton of puzzles. Then we had to solve an overarching puzzle to determine how to best appease the Volcano God.

The staging looked pretty good, but it never tried to be an immersive set. The drop ceiling was still present and the trees and animals were made from flat painted wood.

Painted jungle with a parrot.

The only change I would have made to their description are the words “action-packed.”


There was very little action in the Vault of the Volcano God, but oh my were there puzzles.

The game was literally filled with puzzle dispensers that popped out “coconuts” (or brown tubes) of puzzles.

A tiki puzzle dispenser with green glowing eyes.

Each dispenser contained a different type of puzzle. There was a dispenser for every skill set.

These puzzles were generally generic. They ranged from loosely tied to the game’s theme to not at all related.

Our goal, as mentioned, wasn’t to escape; it was to achieve the best score that we could.

The puzzles in Chapter 2 were largely identical to those in Chapter 1, but they ramped up the difficulty. Interestingly, the Chapter 2 puzzles weren’t always harder because our experience solving the Chapter 1 version improved our skills with the puzzle type.

It’s worth noting that the final puzzles in each version were structurally similar, but different in practice.

Standout features

The puzzle vending machines were awesome. I kind of want to own one.

There were so many puzzles. We never ran out of stuff to do… we came close, but never solved everything.

The overarching final puzzle – in both games – was incredibly clever.

If we encountered a puzzle that we didn’t want to solve, couldn’t solve, or thought would take too much time, we could just cast it aside and solve something else. No penalty, no problem. Note, the exception to this was that big end-game puzzle

This was a functional replayable game.

Playing the second chapter immediately after playing the first allowed us to come together as a team, perfect our approach, and kick ass.


The puzzles were largely divorced from the theme.

We had a recurring tech failure that cramped the completion of a series of puzzles that we otherwise had under control. We also encountered another technical malfunction that occasionally prevented us from receiving our rewards for solving puzzles; this was a more intermittent problem.

There was a key piece of tech that was needed to solve about a quarter of the puzzles. This became an aggressive bottleneck and resulted in a lot of waiting around.

Each player had to put effort into keeping solved and unsolved puzzles organized. A single player’s failure to keep things organized could cost a lot of time or create confusion, especially late in the game.

The puzzles were largely paper-based.

The tubes that contained the puzzles caused some of them to curve in ways that made them far more challenging to solve than they should have been.

Vault of the Volcano God was not particularly friendly to players under about 5’11. Most of the surfaces for people to puzzle on were elevated too high.

Should I play Epic Team Adventure’s Vault of the Volcano God: The Break of Day & Burning Noontime?

The Vault of the Volcano God is a puzzler’s paradise. I’m anticipating that it will grow into one of the more polarizing games out there because those more focused on adventure, scenery, and story aren’t going get it.

The key with Vault of the Volcano God is getting the right team into the room. If you love puzzles and have a bunch of friends who love puzzles, but have different puzzling skills, you’re going to have a blast in this room. We truly did, and we were playing late at night with some heavy jetlag.

This was a fairly new game and Epic Team Adventures was clearly debugging some of the tech and sorting out some of the intricacies of the game. Based on how they seem to be running their operation, I expect that some of the shortcomings I listed won’t be relevant in a few months.

The multi-chapter reuse of the set and reset with different puzzles worked well under these circumstances. While chapters 1 & 2 were fairly similar, Epic Team Adventures has different plans for the subsequent 8 chapters.

The next time I visit Seattle, I plan to play chapter 3.

Book your hour with Epic Team Adventure’s Vault of the Volcano God: The Break of Day & Burning Noontime, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Epic Team Adventures comped our tickets for this game.


Palace Games – The Roosevelt Escape Room [Review]

Maybe a slightly smaller stick?

Location: San Francisco, CA

Date played: September 1, 2016

Team size: 6-12; we recommend 8-10

Price: $410 per time slot

Story & setting

Set inside of another portion of San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts, we were once again cast as the same characters from The Great Houdini Room Escape, attempting to solve Teddy Roosevelt’s challenge. The whole sequel thing felt forced and unnecessary.

The game was deceptively large and the set was pretty damn incredible. Even when the seams showed, it was impressive. It felt like there was always something new to discover in this massive, 90-minute game.

In-game image. A corner with red wallpaper and gold trim. A photo of the Panama Canal hangs on the wall beside an elephant's head.


Like The Great Houdini Room Escape, this was a puzzler’s game. Puzzle after puzzle, there was a lot to figure out and interact with.

The Roosevelt Room included two of the most brilliant puzzles I have ever encountered in a room escape.

Standout features

The aforementioned two incredible puzzles.

The first puzzle was a brilliant on-ramp for the room; it got everyone involved and functioning as a team.

The largely invisible application of technology was very well done.

The scope of the Roosevelt Room was staggering.

It was a large team room escape that truly kept a large team busy throughout the entire game.

Our gamemaster was so damn charming.

Losing teams are granted extra time to complete the experience.


This may be weird to say, but it was a little bit too large. The game felt like it would have been better had some portions been edited down or sped up.

One of those incredible puzzle interactions seriously lacked in clueing. There was no chance that our team was going to figure out how to get started without a push in the right direction from our gamemaster.

Far too many puzzles required a lot of task-based or repetitious work after we had figured out how to solve them. Really cool interactions overstayed their welcome.

The puzzle quality was uneven. There were groups who worked on one series of puzzles that felt cheated when they saw what the rest of the team had been working on.

I had a very annoying technology failure.

Should I play Palace Games’ The Roosevelt Escape Room?

Palace Games is clearly selling a massive, premium experience. Costing a little over $400 per team, in a enormous, custom-built, technology-driven environment, they have made a special game. And they know it. They are all about the experience; they want everyone to experience every last drop of the game, even the teams that lose.

The downside of all of this is that it felt like it was a little bit too much. We ran over by about 15 minutes, but long before we were playing on bonus time, we had players looking at their watches. There was room to edit down or simplify some of the interactions in this game. It would be better for it.

This game is great for teams of experienced players who puzzle together regularly. It was not the best game for the hodge-podge of wonderful friends that I cobbled together on my last-minute work trip. This is a game that requires a cohesive, experienced team to truly get the most out of it.

That said, if you cannot pull the perfect team together, pull a group together anyway and play it. This is an unusual and special game. It’s worth spending a little too much time inside of it.

Book your session with Palace Games’ The Roosevelt Escape Room, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.