Actors also need to be mindful of how they interact with escape room players.
1: We don’t know you or your character
You look great. Your costume looks great. You’ve clearly committed to your character… but who the hell are you? And why are you suddenly in control of my life?
Even for an experienced room escaper, actors can be off-putting. At this point, they aren’t common in room escapes and each interaction with an actor is different.
You have to build trust.
To do that, you have to build your character for us and you have to do that quickly. We have to learn that you aren’t harmful.
2: Most of us aren’t actors
You’re good at what you do. You probably studied acting… we haven’t. Most of us have never acted in something scripted, let alone attempted improv. We don’t know about “yes and.”
You’re going to have to play to us because most of us can’t play to you.
3: Be mindful of all of us
Every team has loud individuals who stand out and grab your attention. That doesn’t mean that the rest of the team isn’t looking to interact with you. Others may simply be more shy about it.
On the flip side, some of us might not want anything to do with you. You have to read your audience. In order to do that, you have to pay attention to every single person.
4: Don’t devour our time
When we’re on the clock, your monologues become painful to listen to.
We can see that you’re acting your ass off, but we’re having a hard time paying attention to you because we can see a puzzle over your shoulder and all we want to do is solve it.
Tell your story. Do your thing. But please, for the love of puzzles, do it quickly.
5: You have the ability to make or break our game
You are completely in charge of our game. If you don’t want us to win, then you can almost certainly prevent us from winning. If you don’t want us to have a good time, then we are likely in for a pretty miserable hour.
This power is in your hands and there are times when it’s completely acceptable to exercise it.
A belligerent group of drunks? Mess with them.
A player harasses you? Kick him out.
Most people like us are just looking for a good time. If our team plays a little loose with the rules at first, that doesn’t mean we automatically deserve punishment.
Be especially mindful of individually ticketed mixed teams. If a couple of people are misbehaving that doesn’t mean that all of us should suffer your wrath.
Games with actors can be a wonderful thing, but they can become demeaning for the players when the actor goes out of their way to mock or hinder the team.
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.
We met the creator of these contraptions, Justin Nevins, at the Chicago Room Escape Conference back in August. His product was the darling of the tradeshow floor and he sold out before we could get our hands on one.
So we arranged to meet with Nevins in Seattle while we were visiting for PAX West.
There were three questions that we needed to answer about his device:
Could it stand the punishment of regular use in a room escape?
Could I pick it open?
Could his cryptex justify its $300 price point?
The problem with every cryptex tube that we had seen in a room escape was that it was easy to break and even easier to pick. Could Nevins’ cryptex be that much better?
Spoiler alert: Yes
Before we get into the intricacies of the cryptex tubes that are available, let’s cover a little history.
What’s a cryptex?
A cryptex is a tube with a combination letter lock built in as a self-locking mechanism.
Each of disks has all 26 letters of the alphabet etched into them. Any permutation of letters is possible. With 5 disks, this is 11,881,376 possibilities.
Where did the idea come from?
The concept came from Dan Brown in the novel turned movie, The Da Vinci Code.
Brown created a compelling fiction where it felt like the cryptex had been around for centuries, but it didn’t actually exist… yet.
Who created the cryptex?
Although Brown came up with the concept, the aforementioned craftsman Justin Nevins created the first cryptex. While driving across the country listening to TheDa Vinci Code on audiobook, the concept of the cryptex captured his imagination and he began conceiving ways to build one.
After a series of prototypes, in 2004 Nevins eventually created a durable cryptex that was fit for sale.
I wish I could have Hans Zimmer scoring my pensive puzzling.
The most common cryptex found in room escapes, this thing works pretty well out of the box, but eventually the innards buckle and it becomes flimsy and pickable.
At ~4 inches in length, this little guy has almost no capacity. Designers are usually stuck hiding small keys, bits of paper, or maybe a battery inside. It is limiting.
It also suffers from the same input problems as the piggy bank. Shifting one letter generally changes its neighbors. This really diminishes the psychological satisfaction of inputting a digit that you think is correct.
This is the official licensed Da Vinci Code cryptex (licensed by both the movie rights holder and Nevins).
It looks like the cryptex from the movie and generally feels better to operate than the previously mentioned tubes. It also comes in an attractive wooden box that is nowhere near rugged enough to survive life in a room escape.
But once again, this thing is subject to breakage after repeated use and it is pickable. Here’s a demonstration:
Variations on this picking method work on most of the other cryptexes.
The other big catch with this model is that it’s expensive. At nearly $200, you’re 2/3 of the way to Nevin’s $300 price point.
“Replica Line” is unfortunate branding for Nevins’ low-end Cryptex. It is a replica of his more elaborate products, but it’s an incredible, well-constructed, and aesthetically pleasing device.
Nevins gave us a Cryptex to review with a puzzle and a wager. If we could solve the puzzle and thus open it before we left Seattle, it was ours to keep. We had to solve it before flying home because this thing looks like a pipebomb when viewed through an x-ray machine.
His puzzle was devious and didn’t generate a word. Instead we ultimately derived five random letters and had to solve a different puzzle to sort their order.
This was a great test because it took us a few hours to solve the puzzle. When we hit a puzzling wall, we switched to brute-force and picking.
I tried every trick I knew to feel my way to an open, but the Cryptex gave away nothing. All picking attempts failed. Fortunately we eventually puzzled our way in. So consider this your disclosure that we received a free Cryptex from Nevins.
Since returning home, I spent hours trying to break into the Cryptex through picking and I absolutely cannot do it. I am reasonably certain that it’s possible to write some software to crack it, but that would be a massive undertaking and it would probably still take a lot of time to open it with a software assist.
How it works
From a room escape player standpoint, it works just like the others, only smoother. Input the correct combination, give the inner tube a little pull, and take your prize.
From a designer standpoint it’s easy to setup. The inner tube is static; the outer tube is where the magic happens.
The outer tube is made of 4 different types of components:
The frame (1) is the aluminum and brass structure that holds everything.
The disks (5) have brass outer rings with the alphabet on them and polycarbonate slotted inner rings with false slots (to torment pickers).
The spacers (5) are marble-patterned polycarbonate pieces that space the rings.(These spacers come in 6 different colors.)
The endcap (1) is an aluminum and polycarbonate piece that looks like a spacer, but has a locking mechanism to hold the outer tube together.
It is possible to special order a larger Cryptex with more disks.
If you want to change the combination, you take it all apart, pop the inner rings from the outer rings, and set it as needed.
To make sure that players can’t reset the box in game, Nevins has developed a technique to freeze the rings and make them virtually inseparable. Ironically, the technique actually involves putting the rings into a freezer.
It’s hefty, weighing 2 lb 12.7oz / 1.266 kg.
The outer tube measures:
length 8.3 in / 21.082 cm
diameter 2.375 in / 6.0325 cm
The inner tube measures:
length 7.95 in / 20.193 cm
diameter 1.62 in / 4.1148
It’s a much bigger cryptex than the others (except for the piggy bank).
It also comes in 6 different colors:
Why this is a superior cryptex
There are a number of factors that make Nevins’ cryptex a vastly superior device to the other tubes we’ve discussed.
It’s far more durable. It is made of solid materials that don’t have the opportunity to compact. As a result of this construction, it’s far less pickable. It’s possible that someone more skilled than I am could pick their way in, so I won’t say that it is unpickable.
The cryptex’s capacity increases options for what is hidden within it. This opens up additional design opportunities that the smaller tubes do not.
The color options are more varied and increase the odds that the cryptex will look like it belongs in the room. The Da Vinci Code-looking cryptexes almost never look like they belong in a space.
Lastly, Nevins stands behind his products and welcomes customers to contact him with any issues. He hasn’t needed to create a formal warranty program, but he will work with his customers to make things right should they go wrong.
$325 is a steal when you consider the constant replacement needed to keep the other cryptexes in working condition.
“But I want something even cooler”
If you want something fancier and money is no object, then Nevins offers more elaborate models.
The Nevins Line costs $1,000 – $2,500. It offers the same functionality as the replica, but with beautiful wood or stone materials.
For high rollers, the DaVinci Line runs upwards of $3,000 for some intense custom work and fancy materials. At this price point Nevins will create nested cryptexes… which I imagine are really cool.
With so many edgy, dark, and disturbing escape rooms, I can understand why some companies occasionally find themselves in a public relations disaster.
These are a few loose theming guidelines to avoid a PR catastrophe:
An escape room themed on a recent tragedy will cause a problem.
For example, Columbine happened in 1999. That is still recent. So are the other mass shootings that have happened since. Escape from the school shooter is a horrible idea. It hits too close to home.
Similarly, don’t theme an escape room on disasters such as 9/11, the London Tube bombings, or refugees trying to escape the TSA.
These might seem like extreme examples, but that’s the point.
A serial killer from a hundred years ago like H.H. Holmes or Jack the Ripper feels almost fictional. If you read what those guys actually did… they were living, breathing, nightmares. Had this form of entertainment been around in 1890-something, I am betting that a lot of folks would have been horrified at a Jack the Ripper escape room.
Some events happened long ago, but their relevance hasn’t faded. Genocides and enslavement are the kinds of things that aren’t quickly forgotten.
It’s not a good idea to build a game around the German concentration camps, Japanese internment, the Armenian genocide, the Japanese occupation of China, the current situation in the Sudan, or any of the countless crimes against humanity of past or present.
Striving for meaningful art
There are a few escape room designers striving to use the medium to tell a deeper story about humanity and to educate their players about the world that they live in. These designers desperately believe that with enough research, attention to detail, and respect for the subject matter, they can make a game that will shine a light on an atrocity and help people better understand it.
I haven’t seen anyone pull this off yet, but I believe that someone will accomplish it. As this medium of entertainment grows, evolves, and expands, someone will start making games that move people to tears, and to action.
However, I bet that these designers will find their early success in topics that have far less political relevance.
Someone, someday will make a masterpiece Schindler’s List of escape rooms. I am certain that there is a brilliant, educational, and compelling escape room in the Underground Railroad. These concepts are ripe for storytelling, but escape rooms aren’t there yet. Our ability to tell stories isn’t strong enough and the medium hasn’t grown enough in the public’s eye to be anything more than a game designed to amuse.
If enough designers continue to push themselves, we will get there. But we are not even close at this moment.
Ask yourself these questions
To steer clear of trouble, reflect on these questions before investing in a buildout for an especially dark game:
Is it based on something that really happened?
Did it happen recently?
Is it politically relevant?
Did a lot of people die?
Are the victims still alive?
Are the children of the victims still alive?
Are there people or governments actively denying that the event happened?
If you have answered “yes” to any of these, think long and hard about what you’re building before you commit your blood, sweat, tears, and cash to the concept.
When in doubt, feel free to drop us a message. We’ll happily talk it out with you. You wouldn’t be the first.
We call or email nearly every company we book with. Some are helpful; others make booking challenging.
We don’t generally mention customer service in our reviews unless it is extremely impressive or disastrous because we aren’t normal customers and we know it.
Surprisingly, we regularly encounter employees, and occasionally owners, who cannot answer some of the most basic questions about their games.
Everyone who works in a customer-facing capacity in an escape room facility should be able to answer the following questions:
1: What are the names of your games?
I know that some of you are thinking that this is a stupid thing to include on the list and it should go without saying… but it doesn’t. It needs saying.
It’s fairly common for employees to refer to the game by a slight variation of the game’s official title as posted on the website, which can be confusing to potential players.
2: Which of your games would you recommend?
“They’re all great!” & “That’s like asking me to pick a favorite child” aren’t sufficient answers from a customer service standpoint.
Ideally you should be able to say something like, “X is best if you’ve never played a room escape before; Y is a lot of fun, but it’s a little intense; Z is a more challenging game that’s great for players who have more experience.”
Vary your answer according to your games. Probe a little to determine who is asking and what they need in a game.
3: What is the minimum number of players that I need to play the game?
Many games have puzzles that cannot be completed without a certain number of bodies. That is the true minimum. Unless you allow sub-minimum teams to call in the gamemaster as a puppet.
4: What is the maximum number of players that I can bring?
Every company posts a ticket maximum, but some customers will want to bring more players anyway.
Maybe the ticket sales cap at 10 but the room can fit 2 more people comfortably, even if that means that some people won’t get to do much. Or maybe your posted capacity is your actual capacity.
Regardless, you should have the answer at your fingertips.
5: What is the ideal number of players to enjoy the experience?
We ask this question of nearly every company that we book with.
“Uhh… the room fits 10 people,” is a bad answer.
Again, this is a question where a little nuance can go a long way. “If you’ve never played a room before, I think that 7 or 8 people is probably a good team size. If you’re a group of enthusiasts, 4 to 6 should be more than enough for you to enjoy the game.”
6: What should I know about getting to your facility?
It’s a cliche that the first puzzle is finding the place. You should be able to tell your players how to get in, especially if your facility is located in an unusual place that isn’t visible from the street.
You should also be ready to offer up parking information if that isn’t obvious.
Bonus reader suggestion: Are you wheelchair accessible?
Can someone enter your facility in a wheelchair? For each game you should be able to communicate whether it is (a) not wheelchair accessible, (b) entirely wheelchair accessible, or (c) accessible as long as at least one or two players are fully mobile.
Remember that you should readily respond to phone, email, and social media inquiries.
A large part of customer service is simply responding.
The Unsatisfying Challenge created an animated short “about unsatisfying situations: the frustrating, annoying, disappointing little things of everyday life, that are so painful to live or even to watch.”
Keep these unsatisfying situations in mind when designing interactions.
Some of the examples in the video depict moments involving difficult things that are fair, but fail.
Many of the examples depict things that fail far more often than they succeed. This is what it’s like playing an escape room with broken interactions. It’s unsatisfying.
A brilliant and approachable walk through the history of code/cipher making and breaking. I am in the middle of reading this one and I learn new and exciting things each time I turn the page. (Paperback) (Kindle)
Do people still gift movies in the age of streaming? If you do…
If you know someone who loves the overlap of art and technology, Tim’s Vermeer is a strangely moving documentary about Tim Jenison’s mission to recreate Dutch master Johannes Vermeer’s photo-realistic painting “The Music Lesson.” Produced by Penn & Teller, the documentary follows Jenison, a Texas-based tech entrepreneur who had never lifted a paintbrush in his life, through his discoveries, triumphs, and failures as he seeks to uncover a 350-year-old secret.
A Cryptex is a common locking mechanism in room escapes, but most use the junkie Da Vinci Code replicas (and yes, both are junk, even the more expensive version).
Justin Nevins, the creator of the first Cryptex, handcrafts this insanely solid Cryptex. They start at $300 for the normal version and become increasingly expensive for exquisite versions inlayed with wood and marble.
They are the perfect escape room prop, conversation piece, or proposal puzzle device. (I considered using this when plotting out my wedding proposal.)
Letter encoding and decoding is a common thing in room escapes and puzzle hunts.
Set a radio to a specific channel and you’ll find a looping pattern of Morse Code dots and dashes.
Stick your hands into a dark space and feel the raised bumps of Braille.
Decode the line and dot patters scrawled on a wall in a pigpen cypher.
These are all acceptable, fairly common methods of hiding information in a puzzle game.
However, one problem with these can be the order of puzzle element delivery.
Standard letter codes
While they aren’t relevant to most people, and many are anachronistic, letter codes are standardized.
All rooms that I am aware of will rightly assume that their players have not memorized the translations for Morse Code, binary, Braille, pigpen, nautical flags, or semaphore (among others). If they are using one of these codes, they will provide a clear method of decoding.
Some companies will go so far as to translate Roman numerals.
This is great, but do not assume that no one can mentally decode these standards.
Translation key first, encoded message second
The room should deliver the decoding key before it provides a coded message that is encoded with a standardized letter code.
Players should discover the Braille translation key before they find raised bumps to decode.
Because if a player knows your code, they can and will solve the puzzle before they were supposed to.
Anyone with a ham radio license will know Morse, as will some people who were Boy Scouts.
Additionally, some of us escape room enthusiasts have started to memorize some of these codes (both intentionally and unintentionally).
I have picked up a little Braille completely by accident.
I also deliberately memorized Morse Code numbers simply because the pattern is simple to remember:
Every room escape company knows that great products equal great games. They design, build, test, iterate, and maintain their rooms, because that’s where the money comes from. Right?
It’s true: room escape companies live and die based on the quality of their games. However, far too many companies forget that in order to play that brilliant game, players first need to find the company, purchase a ticket, and then get to the facility.
To make sure you don’t cause friction in these pre-game and pre-purchase steps, focus on creating an easy, positive experience for the customer long before they step through your door.
Remember that the customer experience begins as soon as their interest is sparked. A poor booking experience or a weak website can either sour a player’s experience before the game begins or dissuade a player from even booking in the first place.
Sound all too familiar? Here’s a few easy tips to make sure your players are already loving your business before you say ‘Go.’
Refunds, oh dreaded refunds. They’re so universally loathed that it’s impossible to imagine them being helpful. But as painful as it can be to let customers keep their money after they experience your escape room, giving the occasional refund can actually help grow your business.