Sometimes you can solve a puzzle correctly and still be incorrect. This is because you found an alternative… solution, another perfectly rational solution that wasn’t the one that the puzzle designer had intended.
What is an alternative solution?
An alternative solution is another way to correctly solve a puzzle.
Let’s imagine a scenario as follows: a clue directs players to count the number of eyes in a picture.
Is the answer “6” or “9”? That depends whether the player interprets the letter “I” as another “eye.”
The puzzle designer may have intended the answer to be “6”, referring to the 6 eyeballs (or pixels) in the picture. However, a player could easily think that the letter is equally relevant in the puzzle, thus concluding that the answer is 6 eyeballs plus 3 letter “I’s” and select “9.” And that wouldn’t be an incorrect interpretation.
In this scenario, there is an alternative solution to the puzzle that is equally correct.
How do I discover if I’ve created an alternative solution?
If your players repeatedly try the same incorrect solution to a puzzle, consider whether it may be an alternative solution.
When one player solves the puzzle incorrectly, it’s likely that they are simply incorrect. When multiple players suggest the same incorrect solution, it’s likely that there is a different rationale where this solution is correct.
Observe player behavior to discover instances of alternative solutions.
How do I design around an alternative solution?
There are two options for designing around alternative solutions.
1: Remove the ambiguity.
Determine what is causing players to suggest an alternative solution and remove that element from the room escape.
In the scenario above, if you don’t want some players to think that “9” is the solution, then remove the text from the image. If the text is necessary, put it on a plaque below the picture.
2: Accommodate the alternative solution.
Depending on where the solution is input, you can make both solutions acceptable within the room escape.
In the scenario above, if the solution to the number eyes is the last digit of a four digit combination that begins “1, 2, 3” you can make both “1, 2, 3, 6” and “1, 2, 3, 9” acceptable inputs.
Note that this solution will work well for a digital or software lock, but it isn’t an option for a combination padlock.
If you are able to accommodate alternative inputs, your players will move through the room escape uninhibited without ever knowing that a particular puzzle could have been solved differently.
Occasionally you might have players who argue with each other over the solution.
In the example scenario above, if two players are working on the puzzle together, they might disagree whether the answer should be “6” or “9.” If you’ve set up your software to accommodate both answers, whoever attempts to open the lock first will be proven correct.
In these situations, it might behoove you to explain the existence of the alternative solution to the group during a walkthrough. At the very least, it will keep peace among team members. It may also give them a fuller appreciation of your attention to detail in room design… However,in order to achieve this, you need a gamemaster who is honestly paying attention.
Alternative solutions can creep up on room escape companies; they may not be equipped to handle them. Always try the most obvious solution first before you start getting creative.