4 Easy Ways to Make Bad Counting Puzzles in an Escape Room [Design Tips]

Let’s revisit counting puzzles. It’s been a few years and we have better thoughts on the subject.

There’s nothing wrong with a counting puzzle from time to time. There are, however, a couple of ways to do them very poorly.

The Count from Sesame Street kneeling and holding up 4 fingers.

Before we explore these terrible approaches to puzzle design, let’s define the concept.

What is a Counting Puzzle?

A counting puzzle is one where you have to count different objects in a room or in an image. The numbers you count translate into a code.

For example, you have:

  • a 3-digit lock
  • a clue that reads, “🎸💡🚪”
  • and the following image
A room with 4 electric guitars, a single light bulb, and a door.

You can surmise that the solution is, 4 – 1 – 1.

So, what are some ways to take this kind of puzzle and really screw it up? Let’s explore.

1. Large Numbers

Making people count large numbers of items is boring.

The larger the count becomes, the more error-prone a team will become.

Also, this is lame. Don’t be lame.

2. SUBSTANTIAL AMBIGUITY

A personal pet peeve is when I am unsure of how to count the items in your counting puzzle. I love details and I’m pretty analytical. If a counting puzzle becomes fuzzy, I become agitated.

For example, you have:

  • a 3-digit lock
  • a clue that reads, “🚲💡window” (I’m 💔 that there isn’t a “window” emoji, but 🐻 with me)
  • and the following image
A side of a building with a bicycle leaning against it.

With this image, things are no longer clean cut.

  • There is 1 bicycle. Easy. Cool.
  • Lights are a little more fuzzy.
    • “There are clearly 2 on either side of the door… but it looks like there might be a third centered above the door.”
    • “Does the clue mean that the light must be on or am I supposed to count everything that is a light?”
  • The windows… of the windows… ugh…
    • “Well, there are 3 glass windows, but there are 6 panes of glass inside of them.”
    • “Then there’s the reflection in those windows that looks like more windows. Am I supposed to count them? Probably not… but I can’t be sure.”
    • “And then there are those blacked out windows down below. Do they count? Is a window only a window when you can see through it?”

So now we have a solution that is, 1 – 2/3? – I’m going to spin the final disk because this puzzle sucks.

This may seem like an extreme example, but I’ve absolutely seen counting puzzles exactly like this. This is obnoxious.

3. Zeros

Including a zero, or the count of an item that isn’t present at all, is mean and unnecessary.

You can’t prove the absence of a thing. Creating a puzzle that encourages a team to run around looking for things that aren’t actually in the room is the antithesis of fun.

A 4 digit combination lock with a red, green, yellow, and blue disk.

This is even more obnoxious if you’re using a lock like this that doesn’t actually have a “0” on any of the disks. For some reason the designers in China saw fit to simply place a dot where the zero ought to be.

Closing Thoughts

While a counting puzzle isn’t an innovative or incredible thing, every now and then it can serve as a competent way to provide gating.

It ain’t amazing, but it’s the kind of task that can involve multiple people and pull a puzzle together into something that can easily translate into a lock combination.

If you design it well, and don’t overuse the concept, it’s just fine.

4 thoughts on “4 Easy Ways to Make Bad Counting Puzzles in an Escape Room [Design Tips]

  1. True, counting is not sexy. I agree some counting can be interesting if not done poorly as you have demonstrated. I’m reminded of one room that relied on knowledge of Roman numerals. The only problem was that the room creator thought it would be “cute” to have the number 8 represented as IIX instead of the correct symbol of VIII. I was the only person on the team that knew Roman Numerals and since the room was painted with them upside down, backwards and with non-Roman numeral characters, I continuously dismissed that “creative” symbol along with the rest of the nonsensical versions. Aaaarrggh!

  2. I think you missed my #1 pet peeve in counting puzzles, which is when the things you are supposed to be counting are actually things that are literally hidden around the room, so you have no idea that you’re done finding the things you need to count until the lock finally works.

    1. Yeah… this is absolutely a fair one to add to the list.

      This is the kind of puzzle where my team usually ends up in the right ballpark, and then we add a number or two here and there to the lock and bypass the rest of the searching.

  3. Yeah, I don’t mind counting puzzles all that much (I don’t particularly care for them either), unless the designer is trying to be particularly tricky just to throw you off. Like in the guitar, lightbulb, door example, if there was also a poster across the room of Dante’s Inferno and there were 5 tiny demons with guitars pictured in the poster and three guys with lightbulbs over their heads walking through 2 doors to Hell and the designer wanted you to use 9-4-3, because “Hey… they are guitars, lightbulbs and doors… I never said they had to be ACTUAL guitars, lightbulbs and doors. HAHAHA, fooled you!” I have run across things similar to this. I think the idea of a counting puzzle should be that you need to recognize that you need to replace the number of “things” represented by the pictures with the number of these “things” that are in the room in an obvious area to get a number for a code. Not “anywhere in the room” where you have to search and could possibly miss one or two or 5. It shouldn’t be a search puzzle where you have no way of knowing IF you have found all the “things” you need to search for anywhere in the room (or perhaps you haven’t opened the locked box that contains a handful of each of these “things”). I could give an example where I thought this was done well (It had to do with zombies and eyes… loved that puzzle, and my most joyous solve to date, mostly due to a song that was playing in the background that inadvertently triggered my solution), but I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone. You know who you are… 🙂

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