It turns out that I’ve been counting wrong my whole life… and the odds are good that you have been too.
On a few occasions I’ve encountered escape rooms that include high counting “puzzles.” I am referring to challenges that required our team to count a large volume of items and input those numbers into a combination lock.
While I’ve encountered poorly-clued, high-volume counting puzzles in some of my worst escape room experiences, counting as a challenge isn’t all that uncommon. Here’s how to better handle counting challenges as both a player and a designer.
Counting puzzles done well
Counting as a reasonable escape room puzzle usually looks something like this:
You’re in a music studio room and there are instruments all over the place. Most are obvious; a few are well hidden. There are 5 guitars, a keyboard, 2 basses, and 9 drums. Somewhere else in the room you find production notes that say, “when putting together the mix, I started with the bass, then added in the drums, the guitars, and finished with the keyboard.” Your combination is 2-9-5-1.
Counting isn’t fun
Every experienced escape room player eventually finds puzzle types that they simply cannot stand. For example, black lights catch a lot of flack. (I don’t think they deserve all of it.) Counting disappoints me every time I encounter it, even when it’s done well.
It’s a lazy puzzle. It’s patronizing to ask anyone older than 10 to mindlessly count, especially when they are paying for the privilege.
How to count better
While I may not like counting, I will do it when the game demands it. So I was pretty happy to learn that TED-Ed put out a video showing a number of better ways to count large numbers… with your fingers.
I wish I had known this when I was a kid because whenever I had to count anything my brother would love to shout a string of random numbers to throw me off.
This is a tip for the more serious escape room players.
For those of us who like to play larger rooms with smaller teams (or even solo), it’s frustrating when companies won’t let a small team book because there is a hard minimum.
Many games have puzzles that require a certain number of bodies to complete. For example, three people need to push buttons in different rooms at the same exact time. That’s a hard minimum. The game physically requires the presence of three people to complete an interaction.
Puppeting is when teams that are too small to complete a task are permitted to summon a gamemaster into the room. That gamemaster only does what they are told by the players to complete a multiplayer challenge.
In the example above, the gamemaster pushes a specific button when directed to by the players.
This allows a team to dip below the hard minimum and still enjoy the game.
Not every game needs puppeting.
Not every company will allow puppeting.
However, it’s a good thing to keep in mind if you’re short a player and really want to play a game. It’s always worth asking.
If you play a few room escapes, you’ll get a sense of what’s normal.
What opens, what doesn’t, what you should touch, and what you shouldn’t…. understanding this in an escape room context becomes fairly standard and eventually second nature.
Games that push boundaries
Then you’ll encounter a game that breaks the unspoken rules and requires something that seems edgy or dangerous, but in the confines of that particular game is not only safe but necessary:
Opening electrical outlets
Sticking items in electrical outlets
Pulling a fire alarm
Triggering a fire extinguisher
Using hand tools (wrenches, screwdrivers, bolt cutters)
Opening items that generally shouldn’t be disassembled (televisions or other items that seem breakable)
The trouble as a player
As a player, you generally have no way to be 100% certain that you aren’t going to cause serious problems when the game demands something like pulling a fire alarm.
The best case scenario is that the interaction is exceptionally well-clued, and you can feel the game granting permission to do something stupid.
However, if there isn’t a little voice in your head reminding you that “stuck fork in electrical outlet” could show up on your death certificate, then there’s something wrong.
When faced with an interaction that I think I need to take, but I am not 100% certain if it’s safe for me or the escape room company’s property, I’ll toss the ball into the hands of the gamemaster (or in-game actor) and state:
“Hey gamemaster, I’m about [insert generally bad idea]. I’m going to wait 5 seconds. Tell me to stop or I’m doing it.”
I’ve been using this approach for over two years and it’s never let me down. I’m not asking for a hint; I’m making a statement of intent and allowing the gamemaster an opportunity to put a stop to my actions.
Most of the time my intuition is right and the gamemaster either says nothing or encourages me to do the thing.
But every once in a while I’ll get a slightly panicked gamemaster saying, “STOP! That’s a real fire extinguisher!”
Don’t assume patterns
As a player, I find these types of interactions exciting, but when I encounter them, I immediately begin to question other standard practices of escape room decorum.
After being led to bolt-cutting a lock off of a hasp (I’ve seen this a couple of times now), when I then encounter a fire extinguisher, I immediately question whether it’s in-play or not.
Never assume that one rule break means that all of the rules have fallen away.
Puzzle hard, but be safe and be smart.
These games are fun, but winning is never worth risking your health and safety. When in doubt, ask.
“Since you’ve played so many, do you ever get bored of room escapes?”
-Someone whose name I cannot remember at the Chicago Room Escape Conference
This question, and different forms of it, have been cropping up. The short answer is “no.” The long answer is a bit more nuanced.
There are more than a few things that we over-experienced players are tired of seeing.
When we walk into a room, Lisa and I can see a lot of game elements coming. We’re rarely surprised by trap doors. We can spot RFID chips that are poorly mounted in the bottoms of objects. We can frequently determine how to approach a puzzle simply by reading the wear and tear on a room.
There is also a host of cliches which we’re all too used to encountering.
What’s been interesting is that for all of the repetition we’ve seen, we’ve also seen so many concepts used in different and unusual ways, which keep things fresh.
There is a ton of creativity in the mid-to-high end escape room market.
One thing that sets experienced players apart from a new players is the ability to recognize brilliance.
An inexperienced player will play a great room and have a good time.
An experienced player will be able to see incredible design for what it is. When we see something amazing, it’s far more special because we know that it’s wonderful.
We have way more fun in an excellent room because of our experience.
On the other end of the spectrum, the low end of the market is far more frustrating than it used to be. The more we play, the more painful it is when we realize that we’re trapped in a poorly crafted game.
The frustration and tedium hit a lot harder than they used to.
It isn’t fun to look at a poorly crafted puzzle and realize that we’re never going to pull together the pieces. Also, in a shitty room, the hints that come after we finally give up on a puzzle are generally as frustrating and tedious as the puzzle was.
Lisa and I are both pretty level individuals, but the more we play, the more the bad games get us down.
So… do you get bored?
It’s rare that rooms are truly boring. We think of enjoyment plotting out more on a graph with axes ranging from frustrated to fun and predicable to fantastic.
When you enter an escape room, suddenly every object in the environment carries more weight. There are layers of meaning that the “real world” doesn’t generally have.
Is that a clue? Or is that background noise?
Every game is different, but these 7 things are never ever clues:
1 – Book ISBN numbers
“We need, like, a combination, right? Well there are like 50 books here and they all have these weird numbers on them.”
“No… that’s not a clue.”
“Well I’m going to try each one in every lock, just, like, in case, ya know?”
ISBN are not the numbers you’re looking for. Move along.
2 – Highlighter & margin scribble in books
When an escape room includes a ton of books, these are usually purchased in bulk from used bookstores or yard sales. Secondhand books frequently have all sorts of highlighter marks and scribbles in the margins.
It’s not always fun to pick up each book to confirm that it is, in fact, a book and skim the pages to see if anything is hidden within, but it’s not a bad idea. However, I wouldn’t bother doing this if there are more than a dozen books.
It’s also not fun to stop on every page and analyze what some random dude scribbled in the margin of his psych 101 book. This is a bad idea.
It’s possible that the game includes a book with something written in it. Fine. Wait until you’ve found the clues that lead to the particular book and page.
3 – Price tags on books
“Again… used bookstore stuff. Ignore it.”
“Yeah, but it’s like 3 digits and we need to open a 3-digit lock! Can we try it?”
“Knock yourself out.”
“Ok, it didn’t work, but now we know!”
The price tags are never the answer.
4 – Warehouse notes on furniture
Before playing an insane volume of escape rooms, I had no idea that warehouses frequently pencil numbers on the bottoms of drawers and other furniture components.
When you’re new to this stuff it looks super suspicious. Just ignore it.
5 – Anything to do with drop ceilings
Even the dumbest, worst-designed game isn’t operated by a masochist who wants their players to destroy the drop ceiling in their rented space.
Don’t waste your time pushing the tiles up or attempting to reenact Mission Impossible by climbing through the ceiling. At best, this will earn you nothing. At worst, your game will end in tears.
Also, if there is a tiny bit of paper dangling from between the ceiling tiles, just ignore it. I’m not sure how that stuff gets there, but it’s pretty common and never a clue.
6 – Wearing clothes found in the room
You found a stash of clothing in your escape room. Absolutely check the pockets.
You don’t have to put the stuff on. Trust me. Gross.
7 – Electrical outlets
Electrical outlets are out of bounds.
There are a small minority of escape rooms that use electrical outlet safes or have modified outlets to turn them into puzzles where you have to stick stuff in them. These companies shouldn’t be in business. If these companies keep doing this, someone will get severely hurt in an escape room and it will harm the entire industry.
As a player, just avoid the outlets. If you play a game that violates this design, rip them for it on every review site you can find. They don’t deserve their customers.
“But I’ve seen these as puzzles a couple times!”
Yes, there are occasionally companies who think it’s a “great puzzle” to require players to randomly input book prices into locks without any hints pointing towards a particular book’s price. They are wrong.
In the event that one of these non-puzzle elements ends up being a legitimate puzzle, it should be very well-clued in the game. If not, the puzzle is lame.
If the puzzle requires something dangerous, it needs to be exceptionally well-clued. Even then, I would ask your gamemaster to confirm that you aren’t about to put yourself in the hospital by sticking a fork in an electrical socket or some other dangerous nonsense.
Remember that escape rooms are generally designed to provide stimulating challenge and fun. Skip these 7 not-very-fun “solutions” because they aren’t going to be the right answer.
A small but interesting subset of room escape games includes live actors who interact with the players.
Some companies have their gamemasters give an in-character introduction, but not enter the room with you. This is cool, but it’s not what I’m talking about.
An escape room becomes a fundamentally different experience when there is an actor physically in the gamespace with you, interacting with you, triggering events, and encouraging or obstructing your team.
These are the rules that you absolutely must follow when playing an escape room with an actor:
1 – Be respectful of the actor
The game setting does not suspend the laws of society or general human decency.
This should go without saying: If you assault, harass, grope, belittle, or otherwise harm or endanger an actor in an escape room, the company is well within its rights to eject you from the game without a refund. Depending upon your actions, they may also call the police.
On the less extreme side, you should be kind to your actor. This person has to play the same game over and over with new teams, improvising to deal with each group’s idiosyncrasies. Acting in an escape room is not an easy job and I guarantee that being overpaid for their work isn’t on the list of problems in your actor’s life.
2 – Listen to the actor
If an escape room company has gone to extraordinary lengths to work a live actor into your game, then you can be damn certain that the actor will be relevant to the overall game.
Listen to every word they speak. They are either advancing the narrative or providing clues. Either way, you should be mentally present.
If you don’t listen to your actor, then you will likely miss something critical. If your actor notices that you’re disregarding them, they may disengage, which will diminish your experience and lower your odds of victory.
3 – Watch the actor
Your actor is intimately familiar with the game you’re playing. Be mindful of where they are standing, what they are facing, and what they are looking at. These things could easily be hints.
Don’t announce that you’re doing this or make it obvious. If your actor becomes aware of you reading their body language, they will change it to throw you off. (I’m speaking from experience here.)
4 – Have fun with the actor
The more fun your actor is having, the more they will give you. Be fun characters for them to play off of. When you make the game interesting for them, they’ll make it more fun for you.
When your actor asks you to do something, do it with enthusiasm. Play along. It will elevate the experience.
5 – The actor may have to trigger specific events
The actor’s presence enables the designer to build interactions that are triggered by the actor.
You may have to say something to your actor, give them an object, or follow a specific instruction to make something happen. Remember that when there is an actor in the room, you are not just playing against puzzles, locks, and sensors. There is a human dynamic and you may have to say some magic words.
6 – Your good time is resting in your actor’s hands
When you’re playing a game with an actor, your experience is ultimately going to play out on their terms.
If your actor wants to make your game into an unwinnable nightmare, that is almost certainly within their power.
So be good to your actor, pay attention to them, and interact with them… and don’t be a jerk.
One of the biggest pains when playing escape rooms is booking the damn things and coordinating teammates.
I schedule a lot of room escapes. Here are a few pro tips and email templates to help you out:
Book the whole room
Choose a game that works for you and book all the tickets so that you can invite your own friends.
Schedule around only 1-2 other people’s availability or you’ll drive yourself insane. Also, funnel all communication through one person. Daisy chains lead to tears.
Don’t rely on flakes
When you invite your friends, make sure at least 75% of the people you invite are people you trust not to bail.
“Flaking is weakness of character.” – David Spira
Calendar invite FTW
When you add the game to your calendar, copy / paste all the details from your booking confirmation including the number of tickets and price you paid. This gives you a consolidated reference for answering people’s questions at a later date.
Accept cash, PayPal, and Venmo. Keep track of who paid you back. If someone stiffs you, don’t invite them back; have some self-respect.
As people RSVP “yes,” send them a calendar invitation. As people RSVP “no,” invite more people in their place. Pretend they made the first cut; no one should ever know they weren’t on the initial invite list. (Sorry real life friends, but it’s true.)
Badger the people who don’t RSVP. Eventually you’ll stop inviting them.
About 3 days before the game, send a follow up reminder email.
Make it an experience
Choose a meeting location, generally a nearby coffee shop. This allows your teammates a cushion for being late. It also helps your teammates get to know each other or catch up before they get locked in a room together.
Be civilized. Don’t get drunk before your escape. Do it after.
Postgame food and booze
Choose a location for dinner / drinks after the game and fun. It’s not worth asking your friends about their food preferences; just choose something relatively innocuous and people will be good with it.
Join us to play [Name of Room] at [Name of Company]!
[Name of Room]
[Name of Company] — This should link to the company website.
[Time] — Note that this is the time the game starts. Use bold.
We’ll meet for coffee beforehand and grab dinner nearby after the game.
This is a [number of people] person room. Tickets will be $[price] each.
Please let us know whether you can make it!
Final Details for Room Escape on [date of game]
[45 minutes before game time] Meet us at [name of nearby coffee shop] and [address of coffee shop] — This should be a link.
[15 minutes before game time] Meet us at [Name of Company] at [address of company] — This should be a link.
Our game starts promptly at [game time]. Don’t be late.
[1.5 hours after game time] Dinner at [name of nearby restaurant] and [address of restaurant]. — This should be a link.
Note that this room is going to cost $[price] per person.
If you are new to Room Escapes, read this and this. Trust me.
We’ve developed our own style of play. It’s usually effective.*It can also be intimidating to new players.
When we walk into a room, we tear it apart (relax – we don’t break shit). We look, touch, move, and open everything we can find.
We retrace each others’ steps and inspect the items our teammates have already searched.
We move quickly and efficiently. We start shouting things out to each other: anything that is certainly a clue, might be a clue, or even just seems unusual. Everyone should know as much as possible about the room. The puzzles will draw on knowledge of the room.
If we uncover another room later in the game, it all starts again.
All of our regular teammates know this process and a few have special roles within this structure. It’s all completely automatic.
New Room Escape Artists
When we bring new players, this beginning can be overwhelming. It calms down once the room is thoroughly turned over. Then we each focus on individual puzzles.
Know that if we invited you to play, you won’t be out of your element. Dive in! Or watch for the first few minutes and then dive in when you’re ready. Either one works.
*Every so often we encounter a room that doesn’t include enough tangible “stuff” for this method to be effective. Then we change our tactics.
Private escape rooms are a generally better experiences than games with random teammates.
The trouble is that you often have to buy out the whole room to attain a private game, and that can get expensive.
Don’t try weekends
Escape rooms make most of their money Friday through Sunday (and holidays).
Most companies are reluctant to block off rooms for private games on the weekends because by doing so, they lose money.
If you want to play a private game on a weekend, buy up all of the tickets to that game and bring your own people.
Early in the week
If you want a private game on the cheap, book early in the week. This tip is courtesy of the owners of Mission Escape Games.
Escape rooms rarely sell out on Mondays and Tuesdays. Thus, owners will be much more willing to block off a private game on these nights. Even if they aren’t willing to block off the time for you, it’s far less likely that random other players will book in your time slot.
Keep in mind that there are some escape rooms that aren’t open early in the week because it’s a dead time, so this trick won’t work everywhere. However, it is generally effective in major metropolitan areas.
It’s worth noting that if you’re from outside of the United States, this post may be bewildering to you. It’s my understanding that in most countries, all escape rooms are private and you’re never paired with strangers.
Playing escape rooms abroad can be challenging. Here are a few tips to help you enjoy your international puzzling adventures:
The most important thing to keep in mind is language. If you can’t understand the game, you can’t play the game. This should be obvious.
It might be less obvious whether you can play a game in a non-native language. Lisa speaks French, but does she speak French well enough to grasp the nuance of wordplay or riddle? Probably not.
You should email the company before hand to ask if their game is friendly to your language. When we played in Germany, the owner and creator of the game graciously translated everything into English for us.
Translated games can be a bit of a bumpy experience, especially if you’re the first team through in translation. Our host in Germany spoke near perfect English, but mixed up a word or two, which caused a fair amount of confusion for us. (The nuance between “drawer” and “shelf” is a big deal.)
This kind of stuff is only a problem if you get upset about it. Relax.
By my observation, in most countries it is customary that all games are private games.
This is not generally the case in the United States, especially in larger cities. I know this vexes many folks who travel to the States and end up locked in a room with a group of strangers.
If you’re concerned about playing with strangers, ask the company if the game is private. If it isn’t, you can either buy all of the tickets for your time slot or ask the company if you can make a deal to reserve the whole room.
Assumed local knowledge
Be it pop culture or car brands icons, occasionally room escape designers assume that “everyone knows who ____ is” or “everyone knows what ____ is.” And while they may be correct about the local crowd, these references are regularly lost on foreigners.
If you’re staring at something and have no idea what it is, ask.