Common themes aren’t the problem. There are good and bad executions of all of these themes. A great zombie escape room is still a great escape room even if I’m disappointed with how prevalent and persistent mindless hordes are in popular culture at large.
Eliminate the mundane
The themes that I’ve found inherently disappointing are the easily executed, humdrum, everyday life themes:
These are often themes of convenience and laziness. These themes give a creator license to buy crappy used furniture, tape posters on the wall, dump in a few puzzles, and start charging money.
Do the mundane creatively
If you want to create a dorm, do something creative with it. Build a world.
Set it in the 1890s. Make it look authentic. Put the players in a secret society initiation where your group must puzzle out how to make an offering.
A shortcut to creating something interesting: combine two different ideas so that you aren’t executing one in a cliched manner. To illustrate the point, think of Star Wars as warrior monks in space.
Dead Air was a rock & roll radio station in the zombie apocalypse. The mixture of two different concepts paired with good execution gave birth to a creative, unique, and fantastic escape game.
Craft an experience
Your players are paying for an experience. Give them one.
Don’t throw them in a space that looks like a regular home. They live in one of those already.
Don’t ask them to pay to play in a space that looks like an office. They just left work.
Don’t sell the mundane priced as extraordinary.
Choose to provide your players with an amazing adventure in a cohesive and exciting world. Mind the details. Your puzzles, set, hint system, and story should all be part of this fantastic world and make sense within it.
Damn near any theme can be made interesting as long as you’re willing to put in the creative effort.
If a puzzle breaks or you disable it, kindly remove every trace of it from your escape room.
Remove The Props
If it looked like a puzzle prop when it was a puzzle, it will still look like a puzzle prop after it has been disabled.
It doesn’t matter that it looks cool. Turn it back into a puzzle or remove it. Otherwise it turns into a Ghost Puzzle*, an aggressive red herring that reminds us players that we never had an opportunity to play with that cool thing in the room.
It’s always lame when the most interesting prop in the escape room is a red herring.
Paint Over Clues
If there are markings on the walls from removed puzzles or previous iterations of your game, please paint over them.
Don’t make me turn into an escape room archeologist, determining which pieces are part of the current game and which components are remnants from some long-forgotten or destroyed interaction.
We’ve played a ton of tabletop escape games over the past few years. Some were play-at-home escape games. Others were framed up as subscription mysteries. We’ve also played self-service puzzles games with narratives.
However the creator frames and markets these games, there are a few basics to abide by.
We see the same few mistakes entirely too often. Here are some of the biggest categories of problems. We’d love to see these permanently banished from our table.
1 – Inventory
Each package should contain an itemized list of what’s included so that I can verify that everything arrived.
This list should be functional, not cute. Without any knowledge of the game, I should be able to compare the list of items to what I see in the box and quickly ascertain that everything has arrived.
This list should be exhaustive. If there are 9 items on the list, I should count 9 items in the box. No more, no less.
A missing item in a tabletop puzzle game is like a bad reset in an escape room with a derelict gamemaster.
2 – Case Sensitivity
CaSe mAttERs in self-administered puzzle games, especially when digitally inputting solutions.
If a puzzle resolves to a URL, depending upon how the site is built, the case may matter in the URL. We’ve played games where a puzzle resolved to an answer like “NASA” and we had to drop it at the end of a web address, but it only worked if we input it lower case even though the puzzle itself spit out uppercase letters. “/NASA” & “/nasa” aren’t the same thing.
The same thing goes for password inputs.
Ideally create software such that case sensitivity doesn’t matter at all. Either force all letters into a particular case or write the application to disregard case.
If I derive the word “Sherlock” as a password, the following should all work for this password: “Sherlock,” “sherlock,” and “SHERLOCK.” If they don’t, I might accidentally discard a correct answer… which sucks.
3 – Hint Systems
In my experience, the fun of a tabletop puzzle game can die in the hint system.
Web forums or slack chats where players are supposed to help one another are a lazy and terrible idea. They lead to chaotic situations where I’m constantly receiving too much or too little information, if I can even find what I am looking for.
As a player, when I use forums I run a high risk of seeing hints and discussions about things that I don’t want to see.
Also, I bought your product; I’m not your %^&*ing customer service rep. Hint your own puzzles.
I totally respect that you or one of your employees has to sit at a computer writing back stock hints. This can be fantastic if you’re sitting at your computer responding in realtime. If you aren’t there, however, needing a hint means my night of puzzling with your game has come to an unexpected and unwanted end.
Email is critical for problems that extend beyond a structured, self-service hint system (broken/ missing components or other critical failures). Email is subpar and a lot of work for run-of-the-mill hinting.
My favorite hint systems are structured and self-service. I can access the hints for a particular puzzle and get a series of progressively more detailed hints that set me straight. The more layers, the better:
Early hints should ask me basic questions that gently push me in the right direction or make sure that I have solved the prerequisite components.
Moderate hints should ask me questions about critical components and direct my attention at the nuance that I am missing.
Late hints should provide me with a foundation to finish the puzzle and provide as many granular hints as needed to provide coverage of every step of the puzzle.
Solutions should be the last resort. Solutions should explain how the puzzle was supposed to work.
The hint system’s goal is to nudge me just enough to make me self sufficient and get me puzzling again.
Similarly, the hint system should have as many steps as needed to provide nudges, regardless of where I am stuck. I hate it when I have solved 95% of a puzzle, but need to take a solution (especially one that isn’t explained) to finish out the puzzle. This is kind of heartbreaking.
The hint system can be printed and included in the game or it can be made available via a website. Either can work well.
I’ve already paid for your product. Let me experience it on my own terms.
PostCurious did this magnificently. If you’re making tabletop puzzle games, I’d suggest checking it out.
4 – Tchotchkes & Other Junk
Why do so many play-at-home puzzle games add meaningless, cheap, junky props into their games?
If it doesn’t add to a puzzle or substantially embellish the narrative, cut it.
I’m always amazed when we receive a paper-based game in a cardboard box just so that the packaging can accommodate a piece of 1/2 cent plastic that added no value to the game. It boggles the mind that a garbage toy traveled halfway across the world on a journey that cost more than its own creation just so that I can be confused about whether it’s a clue or not.
The same goes for your branded pencils and other stuff.
We played a game where everything seemed relevant. When we received a pencil, we spent a stupid amount of time slowly sharpening the thing into a nub to make sure that no messages were somehow hidden in the wood. Boring.
5 – Auto-Responder Response Time
It’s pretty nifty when we email a “character” and receive an immediate automated in-character email response.
You know what’s not cool? Getting that response 20 minutes later after we’ve sat around staring at an email client and chomping on pretzels.
It’s ok to abandon some realism for expedited storytelling and gameflow. It’s lame when I send a character information for them to “act on” and then get a message saying, “I’m going to do that… It will take me about 20 minutes to get there” and then literally have to wait for that 20-minute timer to get more information.
6 – Assumed Gear
There are plenty of things that you can assume your players have access to:
Writing implements (pens, pencils, markers)
Computer or mobile phone
You are absolutely free to go more outlandish, but do so knowing that it might be a major strain on your players. The farther out of my way I need to go to acquire additional gear, the higher my expectations will be for the interaction.
For example, if you want me to get a cassette or record player, I am going to feel pretty peeved if there was no practical reason why I couldn’t just get a digital recording other than the “purity of your vision.”
My preference is to be able to open the box and puzzle without having to stop because I need to go to the store or borrow something from a friend. If I truly need special gear, I’d sure be appreciative if y’all just said so up front.
7 – Responsive Web Design
If you’re incorporating a website into the game, please, for the love of puzzle, make sure that there is 100% parity between the desktop and mobile versions.
As of February 2018, 20% of Americans only access the internet via mobile phone from home (Pew). Maybe none of them are puzzlers, but that number is significant.
Pro Tip: This means that you cannot rely on mouse hovers for anything. They are garbage on mobile.
8 – Expectation Setting
A lot of these boxed puzzle games are shockingly opaque.
How long should I allocate to play?
Should I play in one or multiple sessions?
How much table space do I need to play?
Do I need an internet-connected device? If I do, how much do I need it? (Just for hints or for most everything?)
How many people should I play with? And I don’t mean, “how many people can I play with?” I want to know how many people the game was designed for.
Will I need any puzzle or craft supplies that I am unlikely to have on hand?
9 – Legacy (answer tracking, backtracking)
If your game spans more than one session… please, please, please tell me up front if I need to track all of my work and previous answers.
While we’re at it, make it clear if I need to retain certain items from earlier episodes for backtracking.
Also… please don’t make backtracking a hellish slog. Flag items that I’ll need multiple times or clue me directly to the thing that I need.
The longer a game runs, the more there is to backtrack through. It can become a nightmare to manage it.
10 – Blacklight
While we’re on the subject of backtracking… let’s talk about how cruel a blacklight can be in a sprawling, multi-month game.
I’ve played games where after a few months, we received a blacklight in the mail. Upon receiving it, I had to search every inch of every component that I had received prior to that mailing just to be sure that something hadn’t been hidden in past components.
Similarly, once you’ve sent me a blacklight, I have to assume that every item moving forward must be illuminated to verify that nothing is hidden. (Because the one time I don’t do this, something will be hidden in blacklight.)
If you’re using blacklight, please provide direct cluing as to its purpose and use. If you don’t need it, consider dropping it. It’s cliché and overused.
11 – Make Something Special
Entirely too many tabletop puzzle games look or play like garbage… and cost too much money to justify the purchase.
If I want to play a collection of puzzles, I can crack open one of the many past Puzzled Pints for free. If I don’t want that, I can buy a ton of puzzle books for less money.
If your game is basically a puzzle book in loose-leaf form, that’s fine as long as it doesn’t cost that much and sets clear expectations.
Save your pricey subscription for a puzzle game that offers something special.
Bypass / Circumvent – (verb) to skip over a game element. This can be intentional or unintentional. It can result from hints, guesswork, lock exploitation, game design flaws, or faulty game resets.
Caesar Cipher / Caesarian Shift – (noun, singular) an encryption technique made famous by Julius Caesar, using a substitution cipher in which each letter in the plaintext is replaced by a letter some fixed number of positions down the alphabet.
Cipher / Cryptogram – (noun, singular) a text written in code.
Clue – (noun, singular) a detail or component within the game that the players should interpret, combine, and solve in order to escape. This term can be confusing as it is sometimes also used to refer to a hint (see below).
Combination Lock – (noun, singular) a lock that opens when the correct numeric, alphabetic, or symbolic password is input.
Communication Puzzle – (noun, singular) a type of escape room challenge that requires at least two parties to exchange information.
Difficulty by Darkness – (noun, singular) a type of escape room made intentionally more challenging (and frustrating) by dim lighting. This is not to be confused with a dark room (see above.)
Drag – (verb) to feed a team so many hints as a gamemaster that the team no longer feels they were responsible for the win. This tends to be the result of an incompetent team and/or an incompetent game.
Easter Egg – (noun, singular) an unexpected or undocumented feature in an escape room included as a joke or a bonus.
Escake – (noun, singular) a celebratory delicacy used to mark the completion of a milestone escape room, traditionally cake. The concept of escake originates with the prolific UK-based “S2” escape room duo of Sera Dodd and Sharan Gill.
Escape Rate – (noun, singular)
For players: the win/loss percentage of an individual escape room player or team out of their total games played.
For rooms: the percentage of teams that escape the room in the time allotted. This is often ballparked or blatantly misreported.
Escape Room Logic – (noun, singular) a puzzle solution that makes sense in the context of solving puzzles within the game, but not within a game’s narrative. E.g. You’re a fugitive on the run from the police hunting for the information that will clear your name. Why are you counting the cups in a cabinet to get a lock combination?
Filler/ Junk / Noise / Fluff – (noun, plural) subpar escape room content (puzzles, interactions, props, or story content) that is included for the purpose of lengthening the experience.
Frontsolve / Forward Solve– (verb) to solve a puzzle as the designer intended.
Game Clock – (noun, singular) the official countdown timer. This is frequently displayed within the game.
Game Flow – (noun, singular) the connective tissue between puzzles or game elements. Game flow describes the whole experience, how one puzzle branches out into others or funnels into a meta-puzzle. Game flow be mapped as a visual representation of the escape room.
Gamemaster / Host / Guide / Game Guide / Cluemaster – (noun, singular) the person responsible for overseeing the in-game experience, providing hints, and delivering and enforcing rules.
Gamespace/ Set – (noun, singular) the gaming environment.
Glyph – (noun, singular) a symbol that (should) mean something.
Head to Head / Competitive Games – (adjective) describes two identical escape rooms that can be played simultaneously as a race. Teams competing in head to head escape rooms to can sometimes interact during the game.
Hint – (noun, singular) an additional piece of information from outside of regular gameplay delivered by the gamemaster to assist a team in forward progress. This concept can sometimes be referred to as a clue (see above).
Hint Penalty / Clue Penalty – (noun, singular) The punishment for needing an additional piece of information from outside of regular gameplay. It is commonly extra “time” added to the escape time whereby if a team escapes in 55 minutes but used a hint, it’s counted as if they escaped in 58 minutes. It can also be an in-game action, such as dancing, that the team must do to receive the necessary outside information.
Human Circuit – (adjective) describes a puzzle that requires players to form a human chain between metal props to complete a circuit to trigger an event.
Immersive – (adjectives) describes an escape room that creates such a compelling fiction that as a player, you feel that you are a part of it and forget the world outside the escape room.
Individual Role / Individual Goal – (noun, singular) a type of escape room where players are each assigned characters and/or objectives outside of the team objective. This can put the players in competition with one another, but it doesn’t have to.
Informed Choice – (noun, singular) an interaction where players have to make a decision (frequently an ethical decision) based on enough information that they can understand the context of their choice
Interaction – (noun, singular) a designed action within the game.
Key – (noun, singular) a small piece of shaped metal with incisions cut to fit the wards of a particular lock that can be inserted into the lock and turned to open or close the lock.
Key for Key – (noun, singular) a key locked up behind a key lock.
Kimmy Schmidt Crank – (noun, singular) a crank that must be regularly turned to keep the power on.
Linear – (adjective) describes a game that follows a rigid puzzle structure wherein each puzzle leads to the next. All escape rooms have some degree of linearity.
Live – (adjective) describes an element that you know will move or open in the future.
Lock Guy / Lock Girl / Locksmith – (noun, singular) the one teammate who always wants to input the combination or open the lock. This is sometimes a player who doesn’t feel they can contribute to actually solving the puzzles and opening things makes them feel like the hero.
Lockout Safe – (noun, singular) a box or cabinet with a combination locking mechanism that will shut down for a period of time if multiple incorrect combinations are input. Lockout safes are generally frowned upon by escape room players.
Logic Leap – (noun, singular) a tenuous connection between a clue and a puzzle solution.
Mag Lock/ Magnetic Lock / Sensor-driven Lock – (noun, singular) an electromagnet used to secure a door or compartment. These locks are opened when they receive a signal from a button, sensor, or other controlling electronics.
Magnet Maze – (noun, singular) a common escape room prop where a small object (frequently a key) is behind a barrier and must be navigated out with a magnet.
Meta Puzzle – (noun, singular) a puzzle that unites several puzzles that feed into it. A meta puzzle is usually set late in the game and players must complete a series of other puzzles before they can tackle the meta puzzle.
Morse Code – (noun, singular) a code in which letters are represented by combinations of long and short signals of light or sound. Morse Code was originally designed for long-distance communication rather than obscuring messages.
Non-Binary Win Condition – (noun, singular) a type of escape room that doesn’t result in simply win or lose; it has different degrees or types of winning.
Non-Linear – (adjective) describes a game that does not follow a rigid puzzle structure wherein each puzzle leads to the next. Multiple puzzles can be completed at one time. Different teams can tackle puzzles in different orders.
Number Soup – (noun, singular) an escape room with so many numbers and combination locks and lack of correlation between the numbers and the locks… that your brain feels like a soup.
One-time Use – (adjective) describes props that will only contribute to one puzzle solution.
On-ramp – (noun, singular) the first puzzle in the escape room. It should stand out and be easily approachable.
Over-locked / Lock Orgy – (adjective / noun) describes a single item that is shut with many (too many!) locks.
Padlock – (noun, singular) a portable key- or combination-activated lock.
Paper Puzzle / Homework Puzzle – (noun, singular) a puzzle that does not require the gamespace and could be solved anywhere.
Parallel Puzzle – (verb) to complete multiple puzzles at once with different teammates working on each concurrently. Some escape room design allows this. This can refer to teammates working in parallel in the same gamespace or in different gamespaces as part of the same escape room.
Physical Force – (noun, singular) physical strength used to open things. This is usually in violation of game rules and may result in breakage. Note that some escape rooms require physical force.
Pigpen / Masonic Cypher – (noun, singular) an 18th-century substitution cipher created by the freemasons that exchanges letters for geometric symbols that are fragments of a grid.
Pipeline / High Throughput Model – (noun, singular) a type of escape room where multiple teams are in the experience at the same time, but in separate rooms, always moving forward through the experience, never backtracking, and never running into other teams. This is the 5 Wits style.
Plaintext – (noun, singular) any text that is not encoded.
Play the Blame Game – (verb) to blame a failed escape on puzzles that make sense to 99% of players just because one is salty about not escaping.
Private (Ticketing) – (adjective) refers to a ticketing model where an entire group experience is purchased at once. This eliminates the possibility of strangers sharing the same experience. It is the most common ticketing model outside of the United States.
Prop – (noun, singular) an in-game item. It can be part of a puzzle or a red herring.
“Psychic” – (noun, singular) a player who stands or crouches in front of one lock for the entire game trying to guess the combination instead of playing the game. The psychic never actually guesses the combination.
Public (Ticketing) – (adjective) refers to a ticketing model where admission is purchased by each individual player, thus allowing for the possibility of strangers sharing the same experience. This is a common ticketing model in the United States.
Puzzle – (noun, singular) anything that the team solves to advance through the escape room.
Puzzle Snatching / Puzzle Yanking – (verb) To take or steal a puzzle or component of a puzzle from another player, generally considered poor form.
Randoms – (noun, plural) strangers with whom you are teamed up in an escape room due to a public ticketing booking system (see above).
Recap/ Thought Journey – (noun, singular) a mid-game or late-game explanation to teammates of how a puzzle or series of puzzles has resolved in order to get the entire team in sync again.
Red Herring – (noun, singular) an in-game item or piece of information that does not contribute to a puzzle solution, but could potentially lead players to waste time thinking it would be involved in the puzzle solving process. It may be intentional or unintentional. It may also be the result of wear, breakage, or vandalism. See Ghost Puzzle and Decor for additional information.
(verb) to revert an escape room to its starting position whereby a new team can begin. e.g. “I need to reset the room for the next team.”
(noun, singular) – the act of reverting the escape room to its starting position. e.g. “We experienced a faulty reset.”
Reset Fail – (noun, singular) an improper reset where not every aspect of the escape room is reverted back to the correct starting position thereby adversely affecting the room play.
Resting Puzzle Face – (noun, singular) a look of concentration while solving puzzles that is easily mistaken for discontent.
RFID – (noun, singular) an automatic identification technology that uses radio-frequency electromagnetic fields to identify objects carrying tags when they come close to a reader. RFID is frequently used in escape rooms to release mag locks or trigger other events, often feeling magical.
Safe – (noun, singular) a box or cabinet with a keyed or combination locking mechanism.
Sandbag – (verb) to hold back in an escape room as an experienced player to maximize the enjoyment of muggles or randoms.
Search / Hunt / Scavenge – (verb) to look for hidden clues within the gamespace.
Search Fail – (noun, singular) failure to find a hidden clue within the gamespace.
Seizure mode – (noun, singular) a handheld flashlight state where the light flashes incessantly. Some flashlight have this mode. This should not be confused with a weak and flickering flashlight.
Self-resetting / Automatically-resetting – (adjective) describes an escape room that is ready to play again immediately. Players do not have to wait for a gamemaster to reset the experience. This is usually associated with pipelines.
Semaphore – (noun, singular) – a system of sending messages by holding two arms or two flags in certain positions that correspond to an alphabetic code. Semaphore is used as a cipher in escape rooms.
Set Piece – (noun, singular) a self-contained segment of the gamespace.
Signpost – (verb) to direct players to what they’re meant to be working on through subtle in-game cluing
Spin – (verb) to stall in an escape rooms and take the clues in all sorts of ridiculous directions instead of taking a hint.
Split Team – (adjective) a style of escape room where the team is separated into different gamespaces for some or all of the experience. Split team design is most commonly used as the starting situation, with the team coming together later in the experience.
Strategic Hint – (noun, singular) a hint used because of gamesmanship in order to speed up the team’s performance.
Sudden Death – (adjective) describes an escape room where you can take an action that results in losing before the game clock runs out. e.g. cutting the wrong wire on the bomb.
Surprise Satanism – (noun, singular) a genre of escape room where the initial gamespace is comfortable and welcoming, but a later gamespace reveals blood, guts, and pentagrams… or anything unexpectedly sinister.
Trap doors are one of the great joys of escape rooms.
The more unique, unusual, and unexpected a trap door is, the better the unveiling is.
Sadly, too many otherwise brilliant trap doors are betrayed by obvious seams or light bleed.
This should go without saying: the point of a trap door is that it’s hidden and surprising. If it’s neither hidden nor surprising… then it’s just a door.
This Ghostbusters scene with Dana opening her refrigerator and finding another world within wouldn’t have worked anywhere near as well if the fridge had been glowing before she approached.
Unfortunately, it is pretty normal to see a glowing perimeters around trap doors in escape rooms.
Light Bleed & Seam Consequences
Aside from betraying a great reveal, trap doors with obvious seams and light bleed also take an extra beating from well-meaning players.
I’ve absolutely noticed unopened trap doors and given them a push or a tug. I am certain from seeing some of the wear and tear on these doors that other less knowledgeable or less considerate players have been much rougher on them.
If as players we don’t see the door, we won’t be as hard on it.
Using Light Bleed For Effect
While I’ve seen a lot of unintentional light bleed, I haven’t seen anyone deliberately use light bleed as an in-game event or effect.
When done deliberately, I am certain that light bleed around a previously hidden passageway, or even a recently unlocked door, could be badass.
As with all design decisions, being deliberate matters.
Some Potential Fixes
Because every trap door is unique, the engineering needs will vary. With that in mind there are a few methods that consistently work well:
Build the facade of the door large than the frame.
Build an oversized frame that covers the edge of the door.
Every once in a while someone shares a story with us about a sex-themed game that was gross and mediocre… and we certainly cannot judge a genre by poorly executed ideas.
However, none of this answers why there are so few examples: If I have to speculate, I think it’s because there is an assumption that players either can’t handle or won’t comfortably pay for sex-themed escape games.
Violence > Sex?
In the United States we get weird about sex. We treat sex as worse than violence.
I find it absolutely baffling that we’re collectively outraged by acts of love that feel good, have measurable psychological and physiological benefits… and are the only reason that any of us exist.
The issue of appropriateness comes up increasingly often in escape rooms. What themes are “ok” is as deeply cultural as it is individual.
Personally, few themes and stories make me uncomfortable. When executed intelligently, themes like violence, horror, death, destruction, drugs, and sex don’t bother me. The only reason I’d hesitate to book a game would be the feeling that the escape room is deliberately bigoted.
For example, I wouldn’t be bothered by a game where I’m fighting Nazis and there’s a swastika as decor. If someone were to create a game sympathetic to the Nazi cause, however, I’d be disturbed by that.
As another example, a game about a made-up serial killer or a serial killer from a century ago doesn’t give me pause. A game based on the murder of a local family from a couple of years back would piss me off. If the friends and loved ones of the victims are still around, then strangers shouldn’t be gamifying the death of the people that they cared about.
While I’ve never once held it against a game, I don’t love escape rooms that center their story around violence against children.
The same goes for sex-themed games. I’ve heard tale of a now-closed game where players were basically told that losing teams are sexually assaulted by the mysterious serial killer character who had abducted them. I’m just going to assume that the stupidity of this is obvious and not bother to parse out why this is classless, dumb, and cruel.
What We Flag
We do our best to help people understand what kind of narrative and experience they are getting into.
We don’t normally do this in the form of a content warning (unless something gets extreme or unusual). We typically handle this in the story description and let the reader decide if the murder dungeon, hijacked airplane, or a demonically possessed church is the kind of adventure that they want to undertake.
Escape Rooms Can Handle Sex
I think that sex is dramatically under explored in escape rooms. I am certain that there are some cities that could comfortably produce sex-themed games.
“Sex sells” is literally a marketing cliché.
I’d strongly urge creators to:
make sex-themed games private ticketed
avoid sexual violence
be creative, thoughtful, and playful with your narrative
be upfront about the nature of the content and/or setting
never mislead players in marketing or pre-game materials
build these games in markets that will have an accepting audience
If everyone wants to be there, why not have a good time?
Welcome adventurers! It’s time to test your ability to share a single book between 8 people, follow explicit directions to the letter, and maybe even interpret vague imagery. Have fun!
Let’s set some scenes…
You’re on a space ship attempting to resolve some terrible crisis before the countdown timer runs out. The “good news” is that there’s a process to follow to stop the impending crisis… if you are cunning enough to follow all of the directions on a screen.
Missouri Smith and the Plunderers of the Forgotten Book Club
You’re in an ancient temple, seeking some fantastic artifact, and you’re being “guided” by the journal of some archeologist who basically figured out everything you’re going to need to know to attain the Holy McGuffin.
Both of these scenarios are driven by runbooks.
In escape rooms, a runbook is a procedure or routine, presented as a document, which will tell you step by step how to solve all or most of the game.
This is a word that we’ve been using for a few years now. We co-opted it from the runbooks in the information technology world. The original definition is:
“In a computer system or network, a runbook is a compilation of routine procedures and operations that the system administrator or operator carries out… Runbooks can be in either electronic or in physical book form. Typically, a runbook contains procedures to begin, stop, supervise, and debug the system. It may also describe procedures for handling special requests and contingencies” (Wikipedia).
Origins of Runbooks in Escape Games
I have no idea which escape room first used a runbook, but I am certain that Henry Jones’ deus ex machina journal from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade had inspired a lot of escape room creators to include runbooks in their ancient ruins games.
I suspect that this normalized the concept within escape rooms.
Nowadays, we see variations on runbooks all over the place… and it would be great if we could see fewer of them.
Why Are Runbooks Weak Clues?
If there is one book and multiple players, then the runbook is a bottleneck. The more critical the runbook is to the success of the team, the more that bottleneck binds up the gameplay.
“Well, I have multiple copies in my game,” you say. Read on…
Hypothetically, I am going to assume that we are talking about a really great escape room with a runbook. The set is beautiful and the interactions are memorable.
Why on earth would I want to have my head in a small book for half of the game?
If the gamespace looks great, I don’t want to constantly be forced to leave that world and bury my face in a little book. This defeats the purpose of having built that amazing environment in the first place.
The size and tangibility of escape room puzzles is one of the critical factors that differentiates them from other forms of puzzle-based entertainment.
I can buy a great puzzle book for far less than the cost of one escape room ticket and get far more than one hour’s worth of enjoyment out of it.
Book-based interactions, especially book-based interactions that span most of a game, are missing the point of escape rooms.
To Do List
All too often, these runbooks become to-do lists. Teams are rewarded for following the list and not really thinking about it.
Where’s the fun in that?
On the other extreme, the runbook has only a few useful bits and a ton of sketches and phrases that are meaningless red herrings.
This is at least as frustrating as following a to-do list… and maybe even worse because you never know when you can stop staring at the pages and start enjoying the physical environment that you paid to visit.
Glossing Over Weakness
When I see a runbook in an escape room, more often than not, I think that the runbook has been added to fill in gaps in the game design and clue structure.
It usually seems like someone designed a beautiful set and cool interactions, but struggled to fill in that pesky gameplay part of the design. Instead of reworking the set and the interactions, they found a justification for stuffing a journal in to fill all of the gaps in clue structure. Runbooks are a cheap and easy way to duct tape a broken game together.
Loving Games with Runbooks
I don’t love runbooks… but I will openly admit to having loved a few escape rooms that contained runbooks. Some, like 13th Gate’s Tomb of Anubis, have even won Golden Lock-In Awards.
Is a runbook game-shattering? No.
Would a great game with a runbook be better without it? Yes.
How Do I Runbook-ectomy?
A general rule for escape room design: scale everything up.
Make every interaction big enough that everyone can experience it.
With that in mind, our advice on runbook elimination is to work the clues into the set itself:
Embed iconography into the set to convey the clue.
Plaques, engravings, painting on the set… just get it out of the book.
Strategically light the game to draw attention to critical information.
Use sound to convey the clues.
If it must be on paper, make it one sheet of paper for one puzzle. A page from a journal is better than a whole journal.
Be creative. Make sure that your players aren’t stuck with their noses in a book for your entire escape game. I guarantee that it will make for a better, more fulfilling experience.
We are looking at a maturing escape room industry.
There are more than 2,300 escape room facilities in the the United States.
We’ve been tracking the growth of the escape room industry since 2014.
After four years, growth continues, but not quite as rapidly. As the market matures, a few trends have started to emerge.
Growth Over Time
At the end of 2014, there were approximately 2 dozen escape room facilities in the United States.
The growth rate peaked in Q3 of 2016. Since then the facility growth has been steady but less vigorous.
Counting Escape Rooms
The numbers above count individual escape room facilities. If a company operates half a dozen locations, we are counting it as 6 escape room facilities. If a company operates two locations down the street from each other, we count each separately as a different facility.
These numbers includes some companies that aren’t officially open for business, but appear to be opening in the near future.
In order to list a facility, we must see its physical address publicized on its own website.
These numbers do not include companies that might open some day. A social media page does not count as “open soon.” A city name with no address does not count as “open soon.”
These numbers include permanent entertainment establishments. We do not include limited-time escape room events, even if they are open for a month or two. To the best of our ability, our directory (and this study) includes permanent, established businesses.
Most escape room facilities on our map are dedicated to escape rooms only. Others are part of larger entertainment facilities or housed in restaurants or other business establishments.
Mobile Escape Rooms
These numbers include mobile escape room facilities.
Mobile escape rooms take many forms. Some are built into trailers or buses. Others are delivered in boxes and crates and set up in the player’s home, office, or another room of their choosing. These companies generally serve a specific geographic area.
The mobile escape room market is growing. Our directory includes 24 mobile operations located across 13 states.
Chains and Franchises
A few companies are proliferating, opening multiple facilities around the country. There are now five companies with more the 20 facilities.
Last year only Key Quest and Breakout Games offered more than 20 facilities. Breakout Games has continued to grow, from 37 locations last year to 45 locations this year.
In mid 2018, All In Adventures, Escapology, and Escape the Room also operate more than 20 facilities.
Additionally, more companies have expanded beyond 5 locations. Last year there were 14 companies operating more than five locations. This year there are 21 companies, tallied below:
All In Adventures
Escape the Room
The Great Escape Room
Epic Escape Game
Great Room Escape
The Escape Game
Amazing Escape Room
60 Out Escape Rooms
Texas Panic Room
The Puzzle Effect
Mastermind Escape Games
Exodus Escape Room
Escape This Live
Escape Zone 60
Count of locations is not necessarily an indicator of quality. Some of our favorite games are run by companies on this list. Most are not.
The vast majority of US escape rooms – more than 1,700 – are single-location operations.
After 4 years, we’ve tracked over 220 escape room facility closures. One year ago, we’d tracked only 45 closures. This is a substantial increase in facility closures.
The closures include both single-facility operators and facilities affiliated with larger companies that still operate other locations.
Closures are not endemic to one market. We’ve tracked closures in 41 states and DC. The most closures are in the states with the most escape rooms and the largest populations.
The five states with the largest populations have the most escape rooms: California, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, and New York.
The five states with the fewest escape rooms also have the smallest populations (although this doesn’t map quite 1-to-1): Vermont, South Dakota, Delaware, Wyoming, and Alaska.
The states with the most escape rooms per capita are Colorado, North Dakota, Idaho, Montana, New Hampshire, and Utah. Colorado has significantly more escape rooms per capita than any other state.
The states with the least escape rooms per capita are Vermont, Louisiana, Iowa, Maryland, and Alabama. Vermont has significantly fewer escape rooms per capita than any other state.
Analysis & Conclusions
As the industry continues to grow, we must work together to grow it in a healthy, sustainable way.
Each company can contribute by attracting new players and delivering such phenomenal experiences that these players want to play another escape room. And another. We need to grow the market together.
As the growth tapers off, it will do so unevenly. Areas with strong player bases will support more escape room companies. The United States isn’t one market. Different regional trends have emerged in game design, business practices, and player expectations. We will continue to see market diversification.
The closures don’t mean the industry is imploding. It means that some companies are not running successful businesses. These companies typically lack quality products or business operational skills. It’s not a bad thing for these companies to close. They were frequently turning first-time players away from future escape rooms.
Many companies are flourishing. We look forward to the incredible experiences they will create for us and for every other player who walks through their doors.
Methodology & Data Caveats
Directory vs Study
This study only encompasses escape rooms in the United States.
The REA directory primarily covers the United States. It also includes escape rooms in Central America, the Caribbean, and some Canadian escape rooms that are just across the US border. Data for those locations, however, is not included in the study.
Following the publication of our first piece on the US industry growth in 2016 we published more detailed information on our methodology for tracking the growth of the industry. That piece includes a bit of history about our directory and additional perspectives on the data.
As noted in the methodology piece, we track the date that we added a company to the map. We try to update the directory at least once a week, but the data is skewed slightly because our travel schedule dictates when we have more or less time to focus on directory updates.
Thank you to everyone who has contributed knowledge this year!
Please continue to let us know when you open, close, or move a facility. Please continue to let us know when there are changes to the escape room facilities in your area. You are our eyes and ears for the areas we haven’t yet visited.
We owe an enormous “thank you!” to Melissa from Connecticut who works tirelessly to help us keep this escape room data up to date. Her meticulous tracking enables us to continually provide this level of detail and accuracy. She is an invaluable member of the directory upkeep team. Escape room owners in New England will know her as half of the “Marvelous Miller” duo.
When we started this directory in 2014, it seemed reasonable to compile this information in a Google Sheet and Google Map. The data outgrew that format long ago. We know the functionality isn’t ideal for the current user base. We are working on a new engine and interface that we hope to release later this year.
Thank you to Melissa from Connecticut for her unwavering dedication to the REA directory.
Thank you to our good friend Jason for building us tools to better track the escape room industry.
Thank you to our good friend Chris, once again, for his enormous help bending Microsoft Excel to our will.
The “unclued number” is a subtle game-damaging puzzle that’s still a bit too common in escape rooms.
Unclued Number Puzzle
Players are supposed to find a number lying around somewhere in an escape room. It is the solution to a puzzle.
Unclued number puzzles have little or no clue structure and the players don’t have to do anything to earn the number other than realize that they need it. It’s assumed that the players will try the number simply because it’s there.
What’s The Problem?
A new player’s instinct is to haphazardly try any and every random collection of numbers in the locks because “you never know what will work.” This includes solutions that have no clue structure like unclued number puzzles.
There are a few problems with puzzles like this:
New players will see unclued numbers working, which reinforces the belief that guessing random, thoughtless solutions in escape games is a viable tactic and a good use of time.
Experienced players will see unclued numbers working and stop trusting that the puzzles will have reasoned solutions, concluding instead that the designer is unskilled, thoughtless, or cruel.
Regardless of who’s playing, this is mediocre escape room design. It’s not game breaking, but it certainly damages the experience.