One isn’t always the loneliest number in an escape room.
The concept of “single use” items is common in escape rooms, but it has a strangely fuzzy definition.
Pros & cons
Single use is a popular design choice, but it is not the only way to design an escape room. It has a few benefits for both players and companies:
For players, the benefit is clarity. If you use something, you won’t need it again. You can create a “used” pile that you never have to revisit.
For companies, that player clarity generally results in smoother game flow. It also reduces wear and tear on props, because players don’t continually investigate them for the entire game.
On the flipside, without single use, the same concept can return in different ways, enabling players to build mastery. This can add a level of player satisfaction and more interesting and innovative game design.
Every game design decision comes with tradeoffs.
The proper definitions of single use
If you use it once, you never use it again.
“It” refers to anything in your gamespace, be it a prop, puzzle, solution, key, clue, combination… or black light.
The black light alternative definition
If you use it once, you never use it again, unless it’s a handheld black light. This is lame, but can be ok if it’s made crystal clear.
The incorrect definition
If you use it once, you never use it again, unless we think you should. We’ve seen this strange definition require us to reuse journals, keys, solutions, information that leads to one solution and then leads to another… and, of course, handheld black lights.
The words “single use” should be pretty clear.
They should mean that players will rely on each item once. If that is not your definition, that’s perfectly fine. Not every game needs to be, or even should be, single use. But if you design a game that reuses anything, don’t announce it as “single use” in your pregame briefing.
If you play a lot of escape rooms, eventually you’ll find yourself in one where you’re a passive participant.
Perhaps you didn’t get enough sleep or work has been hell. Maybe mid-game you suddenly realize that you’re ill.
It’s also possible that you’re going with a group of friends to watch them play through an escape room you’ve already experienced; that has happened before.
Whatever the reason, you’re in the room and you’re putting yourself on the sidelines.
The good news is that there are only few things that you need to do before sitting back.
Step 1: Choose a campground
Find a place that’s out of the team’s way, but allows you to keep up with the goings on. This is easy if you’ve played the game before, but could be challenging if you haven’t.
Stay out of the way so that you aren’t an obstruction while you aren’t contributing.
Position yourself so you can follow the progress of your team in the event that you perk up. That way you can dive back in should you find the energy. Or if you don’t, maybe you’ll piece something together passively while your team keeps working.
Step 2: Search before you sit
I’m not kidding. I’ve seen some talented escapers take a break only to realize that they are sitting atop a critical clue.
It’s really funny when this happens… but it’s best avoided.
Before you sit anywhere, whether it’s in a chair, on the floor, or atop any other prop, search the hell out of it. Search it more thoroughly than you would if you were actively gaming. If you sit down on a clue, the odds are that your team will need to burn a hint in order to learn that you need to move.
You should also search before sitting even if you’ve previously played the game. Sometimes things change.
When we travel to a new city, we like to play a lot of escape rooms back-to-back-to-back and we aren’t the only ones.
In order to make the most of your escape room marathon, follow these tips:
To maximize escape room quantity, create a plan before you start booking. I recommend a spreadsheet.
If you are scheduling multiple games at one company, optimize their booking schedule (to the best of your ability) to book directly back-to-back. It can be helpful to call the company to ask about scheduling concerns such as whether a post-game walkthrough will take additional time. This is especially important if you are booking into escape rooms with public ticketing.
If you are moving between companies, consult a map as you plan the order of your journey. Keep in mind whether you’ll need to leave extra time in between bookings to account for things such as rush hour or finding parking.
Be certain that you know how you’re moving between games. Plan out your use of mass transit in advance, if that’s the best method.
If you’re planning to use Uber / Lyft, verify that they operate in the city you will be visiting (cough Austin, Texas & Buffalo, New York cough).
If you’re driving, research parking ahead of time and plan for refueling breaks if you’re covering a lot of ground.
Be organized. Before you start the trip, make sure you have the following information handy:
Start times for individual room escapes
Special instructions for finding the facility or parking (sometimes the first puzzle is finding the place)
Make sure other incidentals won’t hold you up. For example, put gas in the car and have coins on hand for parking meters, if applicable.
We put everything in Google Calendar after the plan is set. This makes it easy for everyone to access the information and pull up driving directions.
You will get tired. Make sure you take care of other bodily comforts, so that you don’t compound your tiredness.
Plan meal stops ahead of time. Or, if you aren’t planning the exact restaurant, at least make sure there are restaurants in the area before relying on Yelp the day of the escape room marathon.
Make sure you are traveling with snacks and beverages.
Wear layers. You will undoubtedly encounter variable temperatures in the different escape rooms. You want to be able to be comfortable in every game.
Wear comfortable clothes and shoes. You’ll be on your feet and moving around a lot.
As you play multiple escape rooms back-to-back, it can also become tough to keep the rules straight from game to game. (“Are we supposed to take the furniture apart here?”).
Communication becomes even more vital. Speak up as you play.
If you are even contemplating an escape room marathon, you should try one. The fact that you’re considering it suggests that you’ll likely enjoy it… but not every moment will be fun.
You will get tired. You will get hungry. You will get frustrated. These will be amplified when you’re experiencing bad game design or poor customer service.
There will be ups and downs and these moments may not be the same for everyone on the team(s). Don’t let your downs bring down the group. When you aren’t having fun, keep that to yourself so that you don’t ruin other people’s experiences. Be mindful about your bottoming out and don’t be a jerk to your teammates. Take a break, have a snack, drink some water or caffeine.
I repeat: Don’t be a jerk to your teammates (or your gamemaster).
Similarly, if you notice one of your teammates having a rough time, don’t push them. Give them some time to get it together.
Bad moments happen, but you’ll bounce back. Just be aware of your own mood so that you can maximize the fun for your yourself and your teammates.
A day’s worth of adventure puzzling is a lot of fun, but it takes some planning and self control.
If you’re marathoning escape rooms, you might also be the type of person who likes to take notes on the games. When it comes to notebooks, we have a bit of a Moleskin addiction, and we like these retractable-tip pens.
Finally, don’t forget to find a bag to carry everything. I have a strange weakness for hyper-organizable backpacks. This Peak Design backpack has become my go-to for work and all other things. It’s decadent, but I use it daily.
Enjoy your marathon!
(If you purchase via our Amazon links, you will help support Room Escape Artist as we will receive a very small percentage of the sale).
For more tips like Packing for an Escape Room Marathon, check out our Player Tips section.
Soloing is tackling an escape room all by your lonesome.
While escape rooms are normally a team event, there are opportunities to play alone:
single-player escape rooms
escape rooms with solo components, where one or more players are isolated from the team and accomplish a portion of the game without any support
bold players electing to take on a team game all by themselves, either for the challenge, because they are traveling alone, or because they play at a frequency that their friends and family won’t abide.
It’s this last group that we’re focusing on. In speaking with some of these bold escape room enthusiasts who choose to take on entire team games by themselves, we pulled together the following tips.
1: Speak your thought process
It’s tempting to work through the game silently because when you’re soloing there aren’t any teammates to speak to.
However, there is someone to speak to: your gamemaster.
Soloing a game isn’t just tough on players, it’s tough on the person moderating the game. When a single player is silently puzzling, the gamemaster isn’t getting the feedback they normally receive from chatty teams.
Speaking your thought process will give your gamemaster an understanding of what and how you’re doing. This provides the context that they need to deliver quick and accurate hints.
2: Be experienced
Soloing an escape room is not for newbies. The more knowledge and skill you have going in, the more likely you will be to succeed and have fun.
If you’re struggling to determine how locks, sensors, and standard puzzles work, you’re screwed.
3: Know your strengths & weaknesses, but be prepared to do it all
I have yet to meet the room escaper who loves to handle each and every type of puzzle and task necessary to complete most escape rooms.
Keep your weaknesses in mind throughout the game; you may need to burn a hint to get through those sections.
4: Use your hints
Check your ego at the door and be open to direction from your gamemaster.
Sometimes simply asking the gamemaster to point out what to begin with can save a ton of time. Don’t be coy about asking for assistance, especially when tasks require a lot of eyeballs. You’ll likely derive more satisfaction from solving the puzzles than searching the room, so don’t feel silly asking for help with the menial tasks.
5: You won’t lose due to communication failures
Solo players are operating with a lot of disadvantages, but the potential for communication failures isn’t one of them.
Congratulations, this is literally your only edge as a soloist.
6: Ask if it’s linear or non-linear
While I wouldn’t necessarily ask this going into a game with a team, this knowledge can help the solo player.
In a linear game, you can confidently tackle puzzles as they become solvable. Non-linear games are muddier. Knowing the difference can save you a ton of time.
7: Choose your battles
A strong player can solo their way out of a game made for 2-4 players or even 2-6.
Once you get into the 7-12 player range, the experiences are brutally challenging for a single player. This is amplified in search-heavy games, as one set of eyeballs simply won’t be enough to find everything and puzzle.
If you’re planning to solo, reach out to the company (or your friendly neighborhood reviewer) and ask which games are best suited for individual play.
8: Not every game can be soloed, but sometimes you can puppet
There are games that are impossible to solo; they simply require multiple bodies to take action simultaneously.
I encourage you to bring along friends and family and share your love of puzzling with them… or reach out through the escape room communities (Facebook & Slack) to meet up with fellow puzzle lovers.
A communal experience is at the heart of escape rooms. I deeply believe that they are best shared with others.
Bring newbies into the hobby, both for the new players and to grow the escape room industry. If you love these things enough to solo them, you probably care deeply about the health and future of the companies that produce these games.
Solo when the escape room demands it. Solo when you literally have no one to join you. Whenever you can, seek out the social experience.
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.