Brute-Force and Escape Games

Brute-force

This does not mean breaking shit.

In the context of an escape game, this usually means the act of plugging numbers into a lock until it pops. This is not usually elegant.

Common use in Escape Games

You’ve figured out three numbers in a four digit combo, then spin the final disk a few times until you hear a click.

The reason this trick works is because some games have players derive individual numbers one at a time.

Lock Brute Force Room Escape Artist

When doesn’t this work?

It works really well when you know all but one digit of a combo because there are only 10 options remaining (assuming that you have a typical number lock).

Depending upon the lock and your ability to manipulate it, brute-force can work with two numbers remaining because there are only 100 possible pairings. It’s not necessarily fun to do, but in a pickle, it will get the job done.

Once you get past two digits, you’re looking at different degrees of why bother?

3 digits = 1,000 number sets

4 digits = 10,000 number sets

5 digits = 100,000 number sets

6 digits = 1,000,000 number sets

The thing about brute-force is that if you have enough time, it always works… But it isn’t fun and you have less than 60 minutes in an escape game.

No brute-force policies

Some companies forbid brute-force of any kind. This is a sign that at least one puzzle in their game is intellectually fragile. They do not believe that their game is tough enough to allow players the freedom to improvise.

No brute-force policies are bad. They are tantamount to saying, “welcome to our game, now turn off your imagination.”

If game designers don’t want brute-force, then they should avoid triple digit locks, and puzzles that make you piece combos together one digit at a time. It’s immanently doable.

We’ve seen some very interesting counter brute-force strategies from smart companies.

I’m not keen on being babysat by a game-master. Take my money, put me in a sturdy, challenging, and fun room, then let me loose to solve the puzzles. Don’t fuss about how I do it.

For more tips

Brute-force is one escape room tactic. For more tips, check out our Player Tips section.

13 thoughts on “Brute-Force and Escape Games

  1. I completely agree. As long as the players don’t bring in any tools, all creativity with in game objects should be legal.

    We had some folks play who were part of a lockpicking club and they were able to open some of our combo locks by hearing clicks as they spun the dials.
    I found that perfectly acceptable, and they actually lost. If they had found a paper clip or something In game that allowed them to open locks I would have felt the same.
    It is up to designers to nerf the game so players feel like anything is possible.
    If you plunk your cash down, you are now the star of a heist film, and within clear guidelines you should feel free to make bold choices and play hard.

  2. I really don’t like the term “brute force” for this kind of activity. As an escape room designer and operator, the use of actual brute force is a nightmare, and is used by jerks unable to really play the game.
    Why can’t we refer to this as a kind of “hacking”? As in “I got 3 of the numbers, and I hacked the last one.” Is there a precedent for referring to this practice as brute force?

    Aside from the semantic critique, as a game designer we have a couple 2 number locks in our rooms that just asking to be hacked, and doing so doesn’t interfere with game play. BUT if players decide to hack a more complex lock, there’s a good chance they will be disoriented since they haven’t followed the path, and can no longer determine what is a relevant clue, or if they have all the pieces to it.
    Just my 2 cents. Great blog!

    1. “Brute-force” really is the correct term (which is why we opened the post explaining that we don’t condone breaking things); the term is from cryptography and has a long and distinguished hisory.

      The word “hacker,” while not totally inappropriate has a broad and fuzzy definition. From my perspective, an escape room experience is a giant hack on the part of the players. Brute-force is a tool that can be used as part of that hack.

      As far as puzzle circumvention resulting in player confusion is concerned, I think that it is a risk, but it’s a risk born of the players’ decision. It’s better to have a player make a decision that results in them losing, then it is to limit their decision-making options and have them leave feeling like the rules prevented them from playing the game the way they wanted to.

  3. Interesting tactic – didn’t realise until now but it makes complete sense to try out all the combinations if you’re missing out on the last digit on a combination lock.

    Next time I run into a combination lock, I’m going to remember this.

    Essa 🙂

  4. P.S. I was thinking of this post last week when I had to brute-force my own 3-digit combination lock in the Space Station — a team had somehow managed to accidentally reset it…

  5. Hi David, you say “We’ve seen some very interesting counter brute-force strategies from smart companies.” Can you elaborate?

    1. We’ve seen puzzles that make players derive a solution one digit at a time, but the final puzzle solution makes the player shift the order of those digits. This prevents players from solving most of the puzzle and then brute-forcing the final digit or two.

  6. The problem with picking locks and brute force is —- later in the game when members of your team work hard to figure out the proper code then find out the lock was already opened it ruins their experience.
    Ive seen it a hundred times – one goof in the group sits there picking a lock and ruins the experience for others. A well designed game will lead you to the code.

    The worst player is the one who thinks they know everything and goes in the escape room the owner has spent 20 to 50k to build and breaks everything because they did not listen to the rules. Bosses everyone else around because only their ideas are valid.

    Call it brute force or whatever you wish but if your car was locked and I decided to wedge it open with a screwdriver – would you appreciate it??? Have some respect for the owners of these games – we do everything we can to provide a great experience – we don’t need people ripping wires out of the walls or brute forcing anything. Its bad enough we deal with the drinking crowd who breaks everything by mistake. Don’t need it on purpose.

  7. I understand using this to find the last digit of a code, but just plugging in every combination to open the lock without a clue as to what puzzle will solve the lock seems like cheating. You paid to solve puzzles. If you just want to prove you can crack locks, just buy locks and have your friends set and scramble them for you to show off. The point of an escape room is (usually) solving the puzzles, not just physically leaving the room.

    1. There are players who pay for tickets and do absolutely nothing. When you design an experience, you get to choose what you design, not how people choose to interact with it.

      I think that the idea of randomly guessing a thousand options on a 3 digit lock is immeasurably stupid, but it’s a choice.

      As far as cracking locks is concerned… if you truly don’t want people to do it, there are higher quality locks that are very difficult to bypass. It’s also been my observation that people don’t crack locks when they are fully entertained by the game. I have cracked a couple locks in my almost 400 games, but it’s been in games that were terrible, and the gamemaster wasn’t responding to our request for a hint or help with a broken prop. Under those circumstances, my teammates thanked me.

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