On “Spinning The Last Disk” in an Escape Room [Player Tip]

Rex, one of our top Patreon supporters, asks:

“What do you guys think about opening locks when you have all but one digit discovered (which is easy to do and helps with time) – does it matter? Is it a bit of a party foul? It’s a question that comes up in a lot of rooms.”

This is a recurring question. Our opinions on the subject have evolved quite a bit over our escape room careers.

This is a simple question, but the answer is nuanced.

The Simple Answer

Guessing the last digit (or spinning the last disk) when you think that you’ve solved the rest of a combination is fair play. 

At that point you’re down to a 1 in 10 chance of having the right solution. It’s really more like a 1 in 9 shot because whether you want to or not, you have one digit inputted. Hell… there’s a 10% chance that the lock just falls open because you’re accidentally on the right solution.

Cool. We can call it a post and go home?

Nah… there’s more to this.

Closeup of a stylized combination lock.

The Complex Answer

I’m going to stand by, “spinning the last disk” is generally fine, but I’ll explain why it’s fine.

Then I’ll explore the finer points of how to handle “spinning the last disk.”

Brute Force

Brute force, or the act of guessing solutions until one works, is a tried and true cryptographic technique. Blindly guessing works. It’s just a function of time and probability.

To be clear, brute force is a concept far older than escape rooms. It should not be confused with breaking things.

Probability

On a typical lock, which will have 10 possible digits on each individual disk, the probability of blindly guessing the right solution looks like this:

2 digit lock = 100 number sets

3 digit lock = 1,000 number sets

4 digit lock = 10,000 number sets

5 digits = 100,000 number sets

6 digits = 1,000,000 number sets

Sensibility

In an escape room, you’ve paid for the game. You can choose what to do with your time in the game, within reason.

If you think that spinning the disks on a $10 lock to randomly guess the 1 in 1,000 solution is a smart way to spend $30 for an hour in an escape room, then can I take a moment to rock your world with this 4 pack of combination locks?

I don’t think this makes any sense at all. Guessing against even moderately bad odds is a waste of time.

Spinning a 1 in 10 disk after you’ve already solved the overwhelming majority of the puzzles, therefore having played that aspect of the game… that feels better than fine. That feels logical.

Human existence is complicated, however, so there’s also etiquette to keep in mind.

Etiquette

If I’m inputting the solution into a lock for my team while the solution is being derived, I’m absolutely going to spin the last disk. 100% guaranteed.

How I handle it might vary based on the puzzle, the team, and the circumstances.

Just Open It

If time is running low, or the puzzle is taking too long and I can tell that no one is having fun with it, I’ll just open the thing, announce the last digit to the room, and distribute the new clues.

The same goes for counting/ search puzzles. If we’ve found most of the items and know that the code is close, I’ll fiddle with the disks, adding a number or two on each wheel until the thing opens.

No one I know will be upset about missing out on the opportunity to do a little more searching.

Let The Team Earn Their Solve

If my teammates are working hard on the puzzle and seem to be enjoying themselves, I’ll spin the last disk, quietly open the lock, and then wait until they shout out the right answer before saying, “Great! It’s open,” and distributing the clues to the team.

It’s better to lose a few seconds over a puzzle that you know will be solved than to damage team morale over something unnecessary.

The Finer Points

The bottom line here is that there is a balance between gamesmanship and etiquette.

You should:

  • feel free to spin the last disk.
  • read the room and hold back on announcing the solve if the team is enjoying the puzzle, especially if you’re not feeling time pressure
  • announce the solve to your team and distribute the puzzle pieces among the players

You should not:

  • spend your time randomly guessing blindly on locks that you have no clues to, not because it’s bad form but because it’s silly
  • silently spin the last disk and then quietly leave your team behind

For more on this subject

This is an updated thought process on one of our earliest player/ design tips. I still think that a lot of that post holds up. Feel free to give it a read if this is a subject that you enjoy.

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10 thoughts on “On “Spinning The Last Disk” in an Escape Room [Player Tip]

  1. I’ll say the obvious here: Designers shouldn’t dole out multi-digit combinations one at a time, for precisely this reason. There are plenty of ways to cleverly deliver a four-digit number. One-at-a-time makes it difficult to control and direct the gameplay.

    1. Yeah… that’s a different post. I almost dove into this here, but it was already too long.

      I generally agree with you, with one minor adjustment.

      I think that it is ok to create a puzzle that allows the players to skip the last number… it just has to be done knowingly. I only think that this kind of design is a problem when the GM is constantly telling players not to spin the last disk or accusing them of cheating when it’s a logical tactic.

      1. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, I agree with Nathan… and you. We have a puzzle where the last answer is brute-force-able, and deliberately so. If you’re clever enough to figure out that you can do that, we’ll cheer you on.

  2. I’d also add that waiting for the final number is also implicitly making an assumption about the quality of the puzzle design – sometimes they expect you to brute force the last number and there is no more information forthcoming. I’ve seen a variation on this where two similar teams taking different approaches on a room (waiting vs bruting) had vastly different enjoyment levels in the room. Sometimes they just assume people will fiddle with it once you are close enough, and hewing to “respect the craft” (as our group will often say) can damage the potential to get maximal enjoyment.

  3. Whether or not to spin the last wheel should have nothing to do with what the Game Master or designer thinks, in my opinion. This is a player choice. I agree that announcing you’ve opened the lock just before the team is reaching their “Ah-ha” moment in deriving the solution to the last number is definitely a party foul.

    This brings me to the semi-related subject of “How to be a courteous teammate”. David writes, “announce the solve to your team and distribute the puzzle pieces among the players” which is a courteous move. How many times have we seen the person who opens the lock, grabs the contents and moves on without sharing the items or telling anyone what was found? Involving other teammates who are lurking shyly in the background makes a courteous player. There are many examples of “Goofus” vs. “Gallant” for escape room behavior. I think the topic is too large for one post. Perhaps REA will provide a recurring segment/example on this topic.

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