Why Trick Locks Are Awesome & Don’t Belong In Escape Rooms [Design Tips]

Those who have been reading for a while know that I am not one of those escape room players who gets pretentious about the use of locks in escape games. I love locks, I simply want to see them used in the best ways possible.

What’s a trick lock?

Trick locks are designed to function more as a puzzle than a security measure. I am a big fan of them.

Trick locks have unusual triggers to open them. Some are simple; others are multi-step insanity. Some are solvable with few minutes of effort while others may take hours of experimentation.

As with so many puzzles, what is intuitive to one person may be a nightmare for another.

Trick lock examples

A Houdini trick lock. It appears as a normal padlock with a key and the addition of a small, numbered brass dial on its face.

The most common trick locks around are these Houdini locks that are available on Amazon. They aren’t immensely complex, but if you have no idea that trick locks even exist, they will throw you for a loop in an escape room.

A small but ornately decorated brass trick padlock with its key.

Then there’s this bastard. I own this and I don’t like it at all. I have seen it once in an escape room and I thought that it was both cruel and silly to include it.

The various Houdini locks notwithstanding, most of the trick lock market is expensive and niche.

Iron Puzzle Lock

A beautiful and ornate trick lock with 4 keys

I love this puzzle lock and recommended it in our 2016 Holiday Buyer’s Guide. Without detailed cluing, this thing would be a beast to solve.

Crown Puzzle Lock

A massive and intricate puzzle lock that is shaped like a crown.

I haven’t gotten to play with this crazy-looking thing yet because it costs a little more than $300… and that’s not in the budget. From what I hear, it’s a tough solve.

Popplocks

A T10 tick lock produced by Popplock. It is steel and brass, and looks like it has a laminated construction (but it isn't).

Rainer Popp has designed 11 different puzzle locks. Each run is exceedingly limited as he hand machines them. They are both tough to find and expensive. (The one above would cost $800 on the low end, but would likely be far more expensive in the secondary market.)

They are gorgeous. They are glorious. They can be punishingly challenging.

I have handled 3 of his locks in the past, and solved 2 of them.

Do not put a Popplock into an escape room. These things are irreplaceable works of art.

Why trick locks don’t belong in an escape room

They are standalone puzzles.

A good trick lock is a standalone puzzle that could easily take more than an hour for one person to complete. If you’re going to put a lock like that in the room, then you’re going to need to build a clue structure around it to compensate for the difficulty… and that kind of kills the original point of the lock. You’d be spoon-feeding the solution to a beautiful puzzle.

They are for a single puzzler.

Like the Rubik’s Cube, puzzle locks are one-player games. That’s rarely ideal for an escape room.

They rarely make sense in a narrative.

Puzzle locks are esoteric. If you’re striving for a higher level of storytelling, most trick locks simply won’t make sense in most escape room narratives.

They are often fragile.

Trick locks are made of metal and are fairly durable. They are, however, designed primarily as puzzles, not securing devices, and they usually have a lot of moving parts… Moving parts break.

The solutions are knowable.

If a player knows the solution already, then there is no puzzle.

These are all commercially available. If you build a challenge around one, it’s possible that someone will walk in with all of the knowledge that they need to open it.

Where should I use trick locks?

I’ve seen one company work a complex trick lock into the room escape’s narrative. They also included detailed cluing for how to operate the trick lock. This was the rare exception. In this particular instance, the company literally built the entire game around the lock.

Beyond that…

Buy some for yourself or put a few in your lobby.

Speaking as a lover of mechanical puzzles, the great ones are exceptionally fun.

Puzzle locks are a wonderful thing in the right context, but an escape room is rarely the right place.

(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.)

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