How Difficult Should an Escape Game Be?

Escape games tend to have a 15-30% escape rate. They aren’t good odds, and that’s what I love about them.

My favorite types of fiction usually feature a ragtag group of misfits fighting against impossible odds. In both business and pleasure, I get a kick out of the odds being stacked against me.

My personal proclivities aside, one of the most common topics of conversation when discussing room escapes is the question: “How difficult is too difficult?”

This room is too hard

We’re batting 50% on games with escape rates in the low single digits, but the more I reflect on them, the more I think that they might be missing the point.

We visited a company, they had two games, one with ~1.5% escape rate, the other with ~2.5% escape rate. From a statistical standpoint, those rooms are designed to be inescapable and have a margin of error.

A 2% escape rate is a joke. It’s an inescapable room that failed at its job.

This room is too soft

The easiest rooms I’ve played have approximately a 50% escape rate.I think this is too easy, but it’s just barely acceptable.

If there are better odds than 50%, the room is problematic, because if you lose, you will leave feeling very inferior. If a room has a 70% escape rate, and you fail… You really suck.

These games should be tough, but they shouldn’t be cruel. Making a game too easy is bizarrely cruel to those who fail.

This room is just right

I think the sweet-spot for non-beginner rooms hovers between 10% and 20%. These are respectable numbers that demonstrate a room is very challenging yet balanced.

Photo by Marc Spira
Photo by Marc Spira

If you lose to a room that 1 in ten teams makes it out of, you can leave knowing that you were defeated by a worthy yet beatable opponent.

When you get crushed by a room that 1 in fifty teams makes it out of, that is meaningless… Of course you were going to lose. You really didn’t have much of a chance.

When our team won a game with a 4% escape rate, we knew we played well, but we felt like there was a lot of luck involved. In a weird way, that made the victory less satisfying.

I think that a very challenging game is fine when a company has a series of games, and the ultra difficult one is available as a final boss level of sorts. Jumping straight to that level of difficulty comes across as a bit callous. It can also be lazy if your room is only difficult because you have a final puzzle with a goofy esoteric solution.

I like to leave a room feeling like I either won or lost to worthy opponent. When a room is designed to be difficult yet fair, the win or the loss is owned entirely by the team that played it.


    1. That’s a perspective that I haven’t heard before on the subject. Help me understand why you think the escape rate should be 100%?

    2. I agree! Especially when you are team building, you want people to feel like that succeeded at the end. This however may or may not be realistic since people have different levels of problem solving skills.

  1. I thought we were meant to think “it doesn’t matter whether we win or lose, but whether we enjoyed the experience….”.

    In the UK you generally play rooms with your own team, rather than random players, but I can’t help but feel our games must be easier as I’ve only failed at one escape room from forty, and even that was when we played with just two of us. I’ve been down to the last seconds on a couple more, but generally they seem to be very much geared towards you escaping.

    I don’t have hard stats, but looking at photos posted, I’d suggest that most places are at least 70% in the UK, and some places are close to 100%. There are a few notable exceptions that seem to take delight in people not getting out, but my experience is that they sometimes do so by having obtuse puzzles. I don’t think anywhere has low single digit success rates, and the ones who come close, do so for their most difficult games.

    So, what am I trying to say? I’m not sure. I guess, I think the chance of you escaping (if you’re experienced) is more related to the host and poor design choices than the fair difficulty of the room and that I don’t entirely trust hosts when they say “only X% escape” because most rooms seem to have far too many photos of successful escapees for that to be true.

    I don’t really approve of games that fail the players, because then they miss out on the story/journey. I’d much rather have a non-binary win condition. You survived, but you didn’t rescue the hostage. You robbed the bank, but you only stole 5.3 million pounds out of the 10 million available. You exonerated yourself, but you didn’t find the perpetrator. You found 3 of the museum’s artifacts, but not the full five. You escaped, but you needed seven clues. We’ve paid a lot of money for this entertainment, so I think you shouldn’t go away feeling like a loser.

    But maybe I’m a symptom of all that’s wrong with society 🙂

    1. I’m with you on non-binary win conditions, and alternate endings.

      And I too no longer trust the reported win/loss ration from most companies.

      I still prefer games that are truly challenging. But I think a well designed room should have most teams failing on the final puzzle, having experienced at least 95% of the game.

      If these games are too soft, then their is nothing to aspires towards.

      1. I’m absolutely not trying to remove challenge, just add in levels of success. Half the people go home thinking “yes, I’m great, because I escaped!”, half the people go home thinking “yes, I’m great because I got an above average score” (and a few of those go away with record times, record scores, best of the week etc.)

        The thing that kills me is where they get you to pose with a loser/failure card at the end. That’s not my idea of fun. I want to move as far away from that as possible.

  2. The first escape I went to there were 5 of us. All middle aged adults from various walks of life. It turned out to be a great team. We had all types from logical to creative, husbands and housewives. We had no clue what we were doing at first but caught on quickly and solved it with the allowed 3 questions asked by the room keeper that was present in the room. We ranted and raved all night long and rethought each step we took. We were hooked!

    The second room I went to with my family of 4 was a nightmare. I should have known by the fact that no one had completed it to date. A different team we were that night with two very savvy kids AND this time we knew what to look for (ie you see a numerical lock so you hunt numbers). We had read up and knew a lot of puzzles that could be thrown at us as well. The room was poorly put together and we felt totally disappointed at the end. It’s like the owner never really tested it. The lighting was so poor (probably for the black light) my husband and I couldn’t read the lame notes written in pencil on a notepad. They wouldn’t allow us to use a flashlight which we totally needed with our old eyes! Not to mention the note pad was like 12 pages long of hand written notes (I didn’t want to spend my whole time trying to read it to answer one clue) that wouldn’t last more than 3 teams without tearing or getting smudged to oblivion. In addition, the clues were typed over a computer screen so who has time to keep looking up in the ceiling corner for that?

    Overall, I think the success depends on the people behind the scenes doing the puzzle choices and sequences. I’ve since found that I like to do fun puzzles you can figure out on the spot not ones you have to have proir knowledge of, like how the pieces move in a chess game. Only one of us played chess and we were lucky to have one to solve that puzzle or we would have been stuck.

  3. Yes, we absolutely agree that outside knowledge is problematic. Not all forms of difficulty are equal. Many companies make games harder by removing puzzle flow and clue structure. That makes the games hard, sure, but not fair. It’s very challenging to make a difficult yet fair experience.

  4. Most escape rooms are driven by the clues fed to the participants as the game progresses. A good room master will feed clues to generate tension as the time approaches the limit. It is not so much the success rate but the number of clues that should be used as the performance measure. The puzzles themselves should then be balanced and reasonably achievable within the time, including a few clues, so that the players receive the full experience as they are unlikely to want to retry the same room, having done most of it already.

    1. This is one of our oldest pieces, we’ve addressed a lot of these ideas in different ways over the past 5 years. I absolutely agree that a lot of this comes down to gamemastering and questions of how many clues are generally needed by the average team.

      In 2019 escape rooms are mostly about the experience. In 2015, in a lot of cases the challenge was the point.

  5. I think 10%-20% is extremely too low. The point of an escape room is to feel the high when you solve something. Making that too hard completely defeats the purpose. I think it’s important to have varying room. Meaning a begginers room at like a 70% escape rate, a mid room at around 40%, and a hard room around 30%. But, no matter what you still want your puzzles achievable. You don’t the puzzles so hard that the team is sitting there pulling their hair out. Not to mention….NOT GETTING TO ESCAPE DEFEATS THE PURPOSE. Some of the best puzzles are near the end of the room and it’s a let down not getting to reach the end of the story. I hate the mentality of gearing the average room towards enthusiast when it should be geared towards all potential players.

    Additionally….for new players who don’t escape I always tell them this. Escape rooms have a 20 minute learning curve. During your first escape room your not only solving the puzzles your also learning how to play an escape room. Because some teams don’t escape the easy rooms and that’s okay.

    1. I agree with you. I’ll add that this is a pretty old post being from 2015 – times and expectations have changed a lot since then.

      This post is overdue for a significant overhaul.

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