11 Principles of Tabletop Escape Game Design

We’ve played a ton of tabletop escape games over the past few years. Some were play-at-home escape games. Others were framed up as subscription mysteries. We’ve also played self-service puzzles games with narratives.

However the creator frames and markets these games, there are a few basics to abide by.

We see the same few mistakes entirely too often. Here are some of the biggest categories of problems. We’d love to see these permanently banished from our table.

An abstract, Picaso-esque image of red/blue 3d glasses, a cipher coin, and a joker playing card.

1 – Inventory

Each package should contain an itemized list of what’s included so that I can verify that everything arrived.

This list should be functional, not cute. Without any knowledge of the game, I should be able to compare the list of items to what I see in the box and quickly ascertain that everything has arrived.

This list should be exhaustive. If there are 9 items on the list, I should count 9 items in the box. No more, no less.

A missing item in a tabletop puzzle game is like a bad reset in an escape room with a derelict gamemaster.

2 – Case Sensitivity

CaSe mAttERs in self-administered puzzle games, especially when digitally inputting solutions.

If a puzzle resolves to a URL, depending upon how the site is built, the case may matter in the URL. We’ve played games where a puzzle resolved to an answer like “NASA” and we had to drop it at the end of a web address, but it only worked if we input it lower case even though the puzzle itself spit out uppercase letters. “/NASA” & “/nasa” aren’t the same thing.

The same thing goes for password inputs.

Ideally create software such that case sensitivity doesn’t matter at all. Either force all letters into a particular case or write the application to disregard case.

If I derive the word “Sherlock” as a password, the following should all work for this password: “Sherlock,” “sherlock,” and “SHERLOCK.” If they don’t, I might accidentally discard a correct answer… which sucks.

3 – Hint Systems

In my experience, the fun of a tabletop puzzle game can die in the hint system.

Crowdsourced Hints

Web forums or slack chats where players are supposed to help one another are a lazy and terrible idea. They lead to chaotic situations where I’m constantly receiving too much or too little information, if I can even find what I am looking for.

As a player, when I use forums I run a high risk of seeing hints and discussions about things that I don’t want to see.

Also, I bought your product; I’m not your %^&*ing customer service rep. Hint your own puzzles.

Email

I totally respect that you or one of your employees has to sit at a computer writing back stock hints. This can be fantastic if you’re sitting at your computer responding in realtime. If you aren’t there, however, needing a hint means my night of puzzling with your game has come to an unexpected and unwanted end.

Email is critical for problems that extend beyond a structured, self-service hint system (broken/ missing components or other critical failures). Email is subpar and a lot of work for run-of-the-mill hinting.

A small treasure chest with coins inside.

Structured, Self-Service

My favorite hint systems are structured and self-service. I can access the hints for a particular puzzle and get a series of progressively more detailed hints that set me straight. The more layers, the better:

  • Early hints should ask me basic questions that gently push me in the right direction or make sure that I have solved the prerequisite components.
  • Moderate hints should ask me questions about critical components and direct my attention at the nuance that I am missing.
  • Late hints should provide me with a foundation to finish the puzzle and provide as many granular hints as needed to provide coverage of every step of the puzzle.
  • Solutions should be the last resort. Solutions should explain how the puzzle was supposed to work.

The hint system’s goal is to nudge me just enough to make me self sufficient and get me puzzling again.

Similarly, the hint system should have as many steps as needed to provide nudges, regardless of where I am stuck. I hate it when I have solved 95% of a puzzle, but need to take a solution (especially one that isn’t explained) to finish out the puzzle. This is kind of heartbreaking.

The hint system can be printed and included in the game or it can be made available via a website. Either can work well.

I’ve already paid for your product. Let me experience it on my own terms.

PostCurious did this magnificently. If you’re making tabletop puzzle games, I’d suggest checking it out. 

4 – Tchotchkes & Other Junk

Why do so many play-at-home puzzle games add meaningless, cheap, junky props into their games?

If it doesn’t add to a puzzle or substantially embellish the narrative, cut it.

I’m always amazed when we receive a paper-based game in a cardboard box just so that the packaging can accommodate a piece of 1/2 cent plastic that added no value to the game. It boggles the mind that a garbage toy traveled halfway across the world on a journey that cost more than its own creation just so that I can be confused about whether it’s a clue or not.

The same goes for your branded pencils and other stuff.

We played a game where everything seemed relevant. When we received a pencil, we spent a stupid amount of time slowly sharpening the thing into a nub to make sure that no messages were somehow hidden in the wood. Boring.

5 – Auto-Responder Response Time

It’s pretty nifty when we email a “character” and receive an immediate automated in-character email response.

You know what’s not cool? Getting that response 20 minutes later after we’ve sat around staring at an email client and chomping on pretzels.

It’s ok to abandon some realism for expedited storytelling and gameflow. It’s lame when I send a character information for them to “act on” and then get a message saying, “I’m going to do that… It will take me about 20 minutes to get there” and then literally have to wait for that 20-minute timer to get more information.

6 – Assumed Gear

There are plenty of things that you can assume your players have access to:

  • Writing implements (pens, pencils, markers)
  • Calculator
  • Straight edge
  • Computer or mobile phone
  • Scissors
  • Tape
  • Glue

You are absolutely free to go more outlandish, but do so knowing that it might be a major strain on your players. The farther out of my way I need to go to acquire additional gear, the higher my expectations will be for the interaction.

Black & white image of a cassette tape on a map of the US.

For example, if you want me to get a cassette or record player, I am going to feel pretty peeved if there was no practical reason why I couldn’t just get a digital recording other than the “purity of your vision.”

My preference is to be able to open the box and puzzle without having to stop because I need to go to the store or borrow something from a friend. If I truly need special gear, I’d sure be appreciative if y’all just said so up front.

7 – Responsive Web Design

If you’re incorporating a website into the game, please, for the love of puzzle, make sure that there is 100% parity between the desktop and mobile versions.

As of February 2018, 20% of Americans only access the internet via mobile phone from home (Pew). Maybe none of them are puzzlers, but that number is significant.

Pro Tip: This means that you cannot rely on mouse hovers for anything. They are garbage on mobile.

8 – Expectation Setting

A lot of these boxed puzzle games are shockingly opaque.

  • How long should I allocate to play?
  • Should I play in one or multiple sessions?
  • How much table space do I need to play?
  • Do I need an internet-connected device? If I do, how much do I need it? (Just for hints or for most everything?)
  • How many people should I play with? And I don’t mean, “how many people can I play with?” I want to know how many people the game was designed for.
  • Will I need any puzzle or craft supplies that I am unlikely to have on hand?

9 – Legacy (answer tracking, backtracking)

If your game spans more than one session… please, please, please tell me up front if I need to track all of my work and previous answers.

While we’re at it, make it clear if I need to retain certain items from earlier episodes for backtracking.

Also… please don’t make backtracking a hellish slog. Flag items that I’ll need multiple times or clue me directly to the thing that I need.

The longer a game runs, the more there is to backtrack through. It can become a nightmare to manage it.

A glowing handheld blacklight.

10 – Blacklight

While we’re on the subject of backtracking… let’s talk about how cruel a blacklight can be in a sprawling, multi-month game.

I’ve played games where after a few months, we received a blacklight in the mail. Upon receiving it, I had to search every inch of every component that I had received prior to that mailing just to be sure that something hadn’t been hidden in past components.

Similarly, once you’ve sent me a blacklight, I have to assume that every item moving forward must be illuminated to verify that nothing is hidden. (Because the one time I don’t do this, something will be hidden in blacklight.)

If you’re using blacklight, please provide direct cluing as to its purpose and use. If you don’t need it, consider dropping it. It’s cliché and overused.

11 – Make Something Special

Entirely too many tabletop puzzle games look or play like garbage… and cost too much money to justify the purchase.

If I want to play a collection of puzzles, I can crack open one of the many past Puzzled Pints for free. If I don’t want that, I can buy a ton of puzzle books for less money.

If your game is basically a puzzle book in loose-leaf form, that’s fine as long as it doesn’t cost that much and sets clear expectations.

Save your pricey subscription for a puzzle game that offers something special.

8 thoughts on “11 Principles of Tabletop Escape Game Design

  1. Interesting fact from my day-to-day life — in Python, writing software to ignore case actually forces the input to a particular case.

  2. I wondered why REA played so many home games as a high percentage of them seemed to be something I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. Now I understand, it was in service to the rest of us who would like to play a home game occaisionally but only if it is GOOD. REA threw themselves on the grenade that is “Home Game” to save us from the carnage of wasted evenings and $$. I guess it will have been worth it as long as “Home Game” creators learn from REA’s thoughtful guidance. Until then many of us ER enthusiasts will leave “Home Game” on the sidelines while waiting to hear it is “safe” to take a shot. Thanks REA for attempting to cure a segment of ER that could be great but too often is not.

    1. You’re quite welcome.

      We’ve been studying and analyzing and looking for the gems.

      Most of them, even when they aren’t amazing are fine. We enjoy having a couple friends come over, cooking dinner, and playing.

      The ones that are really rough are the mediocre subscription games that build on one another. They can turn downright demoralizing.

  3. You hit on everything so perfectly. I’ve been frustrated by most tabletop games and for the reasons you’ve covered AND the fact that most of their game design just plain sucks. Hopefully your article will help a few more emerge that are worth playing.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.