When To Slow Down & Savor an Escape Room [Player Tip]

I moderated a panel of international escape room owners at ERIC 2019.

The panel consisted of 6 creators from many of Europe’s most renowned escape room companies (and some of my personal favorites):

  • Chris Lattner (The Room/ Berlin, Germany)
  • Dmitri Varelas (Paradox Project/ Athens, Greece)
  • Lukas Rauscher (Crime Runners/ Vienna, Austria)
  • Sheena Patel (Time Run & Sherlock: The Game is Now/ London, UK)
  • Tomáš Kučva (The Chamber/ Prague, Czech Republic)
  • Victor van Doorn (Sherlocked/ Amsterdam, Netherlands)
The International Owner's panel moderated by David at ERIC 2019.
Image via Stefan of Two Bears Life.

In the middle of the mostly unplanned conversation, a question popped into my mind:

“Raise your hand if you think record-setting teams have more fun in your games?”

None of them raised their hands.

Savoring The Moment

There is a type of escape game that I really believe is best savored.

We mentioned this recently in our review of Rabbit Hole’s Mystic Temple. After realizing what we were playing, we slowed down quite a bit for Rabbit Hole’s second game, Paradox. Sometimes a game has so much detail that the optimal experience is to slow down and take it all in.

This can be a tough transition because we’re encouraged to move quickly by timers and escape room tradition.

I’m not going to tell you how to play your games. If you want to blaze through things, by all means, do it.

That said, I’ve been on many record-setting teams and I find that there’s a hollowness to it when the game was truly special. I can’t help but look back and wish that I had made more of the time rather than put up a good time.

I think that we’re going to start noting this in our “reaction” section.

For An Overview of ERIC

Our friend Stefan from the escape room blog Two Bears Life wrote up a lovely overview of ERIC 2019. I recommend checking it out.

“Real ID” and Escape Room Tourism

Many of us travel all over in search of amazing escape rooms.

Starting on October 1, 2020, American citizens will need a “REAL ID” compliant form of identification for domestic airplane travel.

That is only 1 year away.

Background

The law dates back to the post 9/11 security freakout of 2005. Rollout/ enforcement has been delayed repeatedly, but October of 2020 is the drop-dead enforcement date.

Some states adopted this law a few years ago. Others, like my adopted home, the great State of New Jersey, just started rolling it out.

I am out today, literally renewing my license as a REAL ID as this publishes.

We’re going to set aside whether this is a good or bad idea and look at the facts as they pertain to escape room tourists.

Is My License a REAL ID?

It’s pretty easy to tell if your license is a REAL ID. It will have a star in the upper right quarter that looks like one of these:

5 different gold and black stars indicating REAL ID.

What Happens on October 1, 2020?

If you don’t have a REAL ID as of October 1, 2020, the TSA will require you to fly domestically with a valid passport. Otherwise they won’t let you through security.

Take a look at your license and make sure that your future travels won’t be disrupted by this Bush-era law that took over a decade to roll out.

Visit the TSA for more information on REAL ID.

Note that you will still need a passport for international travel, now and after October 1, 2020. For Americans attending our escape room tour, Escape Immerse Explore: Montreal 2020, make sure you have a passport. And if you have a passport, but not a ticket to this event, there are just a few left!

The Mark of an Advanced Escape Room Player

A while back, I was asked to describe the defining characteristics of an advanced escape room player.

I’ve thought about this often. I’ve watched players that I respect and tried to figure out what makes them strong players. There are a lot of characteristics that I like to see in fellow players.

A hand with sparking magic

Characteristics of A Great Escape Room Player

These are in no particular order.

Player Traits

  • Observant
  • Strong puzzle skills
  • Willing to search
  • Able to accurately input solutions
  • Communicative

Personality Traits

  • No ego about the game
  • Willing to take hints when needed
  • Aware of their own strengths and weaknesses
  • Kindness
  • Able to step back and let others have their moments

Deeper Skills

  • An eye for what is and isn’t a puzzle
  • Knowledge of the various mechanisms that show up in games
  • Advanced puzzling skills of all kinds

These are all things that I love to see in a fellow player. These traits describe the type of players that Lisa and I strive to be.

The more I think about them, however, none of these are a bright-line indicator of advanced play.

The Defining Characteristic of An Advanced Escape Room Player

For me, the defining trait is simple:

Can the player continue to play an escape room effectively if the game’s sequencing has broken?

Sequence breaking can come from a bad reset, a technology failure, accidental opening of a lock, or solving a puzzle too early. This stuff happens, even in well-designed games.

A truly advanced player will do 1 of 3 things when met with this kind of challenge:

  • Call the gamemaster in to resolve the issue
  • Fix the problem themselves and continue to play
  • Acknowledge what’s going on with the team and work around it

All of these options are viable solutions. (The optimal one shifts based on precise circumstances.) The catch here is that any of these solutions requires a player to identify the problem. That is often difficult to do.

Identifying the problem in the first place indicates awareness and understanding of the mechanics of an escape room. Additionally, a novice might notice a bypassed puzzle and simply think, “one less challenge on our path to victory.” An advanced player will realize that broken sequence is a potential hazard for the team and not necessarily an advantage.

To me, this awareness and understanding sets the advanced escape room players apart.

What do you think?

Am I right? Am I wrong? Are there other traits that I missed?

We’d love to hear additional thoughts on what makes an advanced escape room player.

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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Patreon

Finally, a big thank you to Rex and all of our other Patreon supporters.

This website has been a passion project for almost 5 years now and running it takes a ton of time, energy, and brainpower. The money that we receive from our supporters at all levels helps to fuel our engine.

Please consider joining the ranks of our Patreon supporters.

Selling Hints in Escape Rooms & Puzzle Games is Bullshit

It’s time to discuss something that’s dumb, but necessary. 

It has come to our attention that there’s a tiny minority of games that are making their players buy hints. 

I’m not really sure who’s doing it, but someone asked a question about this behavior to the panel that I moderated at the Escape Summit in Canada in May. 

So, let’s get this out of the way once and for all. 

Selling Hints is Bullshit

There is an assumption of fairness in escape room design. While some companies pull this off better than others, at the core of escape room play is the idea that these games will be fair even if they are difficult. 

Selling hints undermines that fairness by introducing a financial feedback loop that encourages bullshit puzzle design. I’ll explain:

If a company sells hints, then they make more money from bullshit puzzle design because bullshit puzzles necessitate more hints. 

This in turn encourages the company to include more bullshit puzzles, which drives more bullshit revenue. 

Bullshit leads to hints, hints lead to cash, cash leads to more bullshit. The cycle loops until collapse.

This loop repeats recursively until the company strangles the life out of their business and closes because they suck. Along the way they will hurt the other local escape rooms by convincing the local player base that escape rooms are filled with bullshit puzzles, and thus depleting the potential customer base.

Digital Games

We’ve seen some this kind of nonsense from digital escape games like the point-and-click mobile escape room Spotlight: Room Escape (that’s not worthy of a link.) We’ve refused to review them.

We just assume that if the game is selling hints, the puzzles are probably bullshit.

We have better things to do with our time and so do you.

What Do We Do About This?

If an escape room company is selling hints, beat the hell out of them on Yelp for it.

Be fair. Don’t hit them with a 1 star review, drop something rational, but explain why this is a problem. Shame them into changing.

Also, alert the local player community. If you have a regional Facebook group, leave a note in there about the company.

The Exception

The one time that I can see “selling hints” to be a viable option is if, and only if, the money is going to a good cause, in the name of the players (not the business).

Same goes for something like a blood drive.

Then even if the puzzles are bullshit, at least there’s a good cause to support.

But then again… maybe check out the cause on Charity Navigator first?