The longer a player or a group of players works within a space in isolation, the harder it becomes for teams to fully reintegrate… and it’s often better for players to stick to the space that they intimately know.
The problem becomes more pronounced over time. It’s barely noticeable if the teams are only split up for a few minutes. When teams spend half of the game split, it becomes an annoyance. When teams spend more than 3 quarters of the game split, it can be downright irritating, even if no one has the language to vocalize it.
When a player enters a space that has already been thoroughly searched and solved, that player has three options:
Start playing normally and “find” a ton of stuff that’s already been found or solved. This usually leads to exchanges along the lines of, “hey… did y’all see this little trap door?” A teammate who has been in space from the beginning will have to stop and explain that it’s been found and used.
Stop the entire game while teammates catch one another up on what’s been found, solved, and what still requires the team’s attention.
Stay put. Nobody crosses the boundaries and everyone sticks with the content that they already know intimately.
We had been feeling this problem for years, and only started to put our finger on what was going on last year after playing The Orderat I Survived The Room. Prior to identifying it, under circumstances like this, we would just say something like, “Hey… I think it’s easier for me to just solve this.” Which is a polite way of saying, “You don’t know what’s going on and you’re in the way.”
Our Dominant Strategy
When faced with a challenge like this, if we’re choosing to play efficiently, we usually stick to the spaces that we have mastery over, even when free to roam.
The pro is that we maintain efficiency. The con is that everyone kind of misses out. Another potential con is that we could really use person A’s skill set in space B and we’re avoiding that situation.
Regardless of what we choose to do, it usually feels like a bit of a wash because getting up to speed on someone else’s mostly solved section of a game is tedious.
It can be challenging to follow this strategy when the spaces are really different from one another. If the other space looks really inviting, as players, we have to go against our instincts to follow this efficiency strategy.
If we instead take the time to fully explore another teammate’s space, some players invariably feel like they drew the short straw, and they would have preferred to spend the majority of their time in the other space, the one the group deems more fun or more exciting.
Mitigating the Regrouping Problem
There are a few ways that we’ve thought of to prevent this problem from emerging:
Limit the amount of time that teams spend split up. This is a problem that becomes increasingly pronounced with time.
Once the teams regroup, push them forward into a new space. If the previous spaces aren’t really relevant, then it’s a nonissue.
Make all of the puzzles within the split-team portion joint solves, so that seeing the other space feels more like seeing what you’ve already participated in, rather than something new that demands exploration.
Don’t bring the team together. If you want split-team gameplay, keep it split the entire time.
The regrouping problem isn’t a gamebreaker, but it can be a late-game momentum killer… which is less than ideal for both players and game designers. Teams should be excited to regroup. That momentum plays a crucial part in building the right vibe for any given moment of a game.
Red herrings are one of the oldest and strangest debates in escape rooms.
This is an unusual hot-button issue because unlike the public vs. private ticketing debate, there isn’t even consensus as to what constitutes a red herring in an escape room.
Competing Red Herring Definitions
In my experience, it seems like there are 3 different red herring camps:
Anything not directly related to a puzzle is a red herring.
Red herrings require intentionality.
Anything that is misleading is a red herring.
I don’t think the first definition holds up to any level of scrutiny. This basically suggests that the set is only there as a container for the puzzles. I don’t think that is true or advantageous.
I also don’t think that intentionality can be the measure because nearly every escape room has some non-deliberate interaction in it. If a red herring must be intentional, then an aloof designer – whose game has little intentionality behind it – could never have red herrings.
That leaves us with the definition that anything misleading is a red herring… so let’s play with that idea for a bit.
Types of Red Herrings
Let’s look at a few types interactions that are misleading, intentionally or otherwise.
A fake puzzle is an actual puzzle that resolves to dead end.
One example is a decipherment that translates to an answer along the lines of:
“You just wasted your time.”
“You should work on something different.”
We’ve seen this type of thing a few times .
Fake puzzles are demoralizing. They beg the question: why didn’t you just integrate this into the game?
Ghost puzzles are any props, writing, or other markings that are left over from a broken or removed puzzle.
Sometimes something looks like a puzzle, acts like a puzzle, and quacks like a puzzle… but it isn’t a puzzle.
Maybe this puzzle lookalike was placed there to intentionally mislead or maybe it was a complete accident. Regardless of the intent, if something irrelevant is regularly suckering players into thinking its a puzzle, it’s a red herring.
Escape rooms should not punish people for exploring interesting things in the gamespace. That’s a good way to make a player leave feeling like they wasted their time.
Irrelevant Cool Objects
The red herring that I have really grown to resent most is the really cool but irrelevant object.
When I walk into a game, I’m there for an adventure. I’m there to play. When I look around any given gamespace, my assumption is that the most eye-catching and fun objects in the room will be integrated into the gameplay.
If there’s a periscope in a submarine, I expect that I will use it for something. If that isn’t the case, first I will be distracted by it as I try to use it for a puzzle… and then I will be disappointed by the lack of an interaction. (An inconsiderate player might break the thing.)
Our Definition of Red Herring
The more I think about red herrings as they pertain to escape room design, the more I think that “anything that’s misleading is a red herring” is the correct definition… but that is only half of the issue.
Once something is misleading, the follow-up question should be: is it detrimental?
Fake puzzles, ghost puzzles, puzzle lookalikes, and irrelevant cool objects are almost always detrimental to gameplay.
Additionally, when the majority of teams require the same hint to solve a single puzzle, that puzzle is harming the experience, regardless of whether it is a red herring that causes the teams to falter. This kind of content is junky.
In the end, my feelings aren’t that a red herring = 😡.
My anger is directed toward spending my time with junk content instead of quality content. Unfortunately, red herrings frequently mean junk content.
Eliminate the junk and have your players grapple with quality gameplay.
“It’s Supposed To Be Hard Bro”
The most common red herring defense is, “we put it in there for the challenge; it’s supposed to be hard.”
I like a difficult game as much (or more) than the next puzzle nerd. If a game is going to be hard, however, I want it to come from challenging, interesting, and clean puzzles.
Anyone can make a game incredibly hard by hiding multiple tiny components in obscure places. Difficulty has no inherent value, especially in absence of quality content.
Two years ago, we had dinner with puzzle designer Eric Harshbarger the night before competing in his puzzle hunt Eric’s Puzzle Party 17. At one point in the meal, he told me something that I think all puzzle designers should apply to their designs:
“I never design with red herrings. The players will create their own.”
Update 12:15 pm: Based on reader feedback, we’ve updated some of these standards since this post originally published this morning.
For years we have been pushing for escape room creators to make safer games. We have been speaking out on the issue of safety at conferences as well as addressing safety issues in editorials and reviews.
Immediately after the fire in Poland, we started noting in reviews whether each game had an emergency exit… but that was a quick change.
Moving forward, we are going to apply a more useful standard when evaluating basic escape room safety.
We wholeheartedly believe that the excitement and fun of an escape room comes from the game, puzzles, story, and set design… not from being locked into a room.
Just as a thrill ride will make you feel the threat of falling without injury, a great escape game will create excitement without endangering the lives of the players.
The most important aspect of escape room safety is that players have the ability to free themselves in the event of an emergency. There are more and less optimal ways to provide this, but regardless of method, self-freeing is a mandatory safety requirement.
We have observed 4 categories of escape room emergency exits. All reviews moving forward will note the style of emergency exit. We have ranked them in order from most preferred to least preferred.
A+: No Lock
The game is entirely mission-based, or it asks you to escape from a locked door, but there is a different door in the room that is never locked. Regardless of configuration, there is always an unlocked door present to the team.
This is an accepted industry standard.
A: Push To Exit
The team is locked within the room by a maglock (magnetic lock). This door will automatically pop open when the game is over or if the players push an emergency “Push to Exit” button. If power to the maglock is cut at any time, the magnet will automatically open.
This is an accepted industry standard.
B: Emergency Key
The team is locked into the room using a physical lock. There is an emergency key available for the team to open the locked door at any time.
This is an acceptable approach, but less optimal. In a crisis, it requires locating the key – even if it is clearly labeled next to the door – and performing a precise motor function. It could be exceptionally challenging in the dark. It takes more time.
F: No Emergency Exit
The team is locked within the room and there are no emergency exits available to the players. The only ways for a team to exit the game are by (1) completing the game and finding the exit key or (2) being released by someone outside of the game.
This is an unsafe approach to escape room design.
While considerably less common, we have noted a similar pattern of approach to physical restraints in escape rooms and grouped them into 4 categories. Similarly, we have ranked them in order from most preferred to least preferred and will note this on all reviews moving forward.
A+: No Physical Restraints
This escape game involves no physical restraints.
This is an accepted industry standard.
A: Push To Release
One or more players are physically restrained at some point within the game. The restraints are maglocked and the players may release the restraints with the push of a button. Should the power fail within the game, electricity to the electromagnet would be cut and the maglock would release on its own.
This is an accepted industry standard.
B: Mechanical Release
One or more players are physically restrained at some point within the game. The restraints have a backup mechanical release such as a carabiner or handcuff safety switch. The players may free themselves at any point.
This is an acceptable approach, but less optimal. In a crisis, it requires some dexterity or physical effort. It could be exceptionally challenging in the dark. It takes more time.
F: No Emergency Release
One or more players are physically restrained at some point within the game. These players have no means of freeing themselves during a crisis.
This is an unsafe approach to escape room design.
We are not fire inspectors. There are a great many codes that a fire inspector is supposed to enforce. We don’t have the background, access, or authority to enforce these laws.
We have to assume that the owner of an escape room company is adhering to their local laws and that individual municipalities are enforcing their own laws.
During 2019, we will maintain a dataset of basic escape room safety in the games that we play. We will issue a report at the end of the year.
These standards and how we approach them will most certainly evolve over time. We welcome input.
Open Reviewer Standard
In the interest of encouraging safe game design and making it easier for all players to find games that they are comfortable entering, we welcome any reviewer to apply these standards within their reviews.
We also welcome any reader who visits a game we had previously reviewed to leave a comment on any Room Escape Artist review with the date visited and the safety standard.
Note that there are a few reviews scheduled to publish throughout January 2019 that predate this blog post. They will only have basic yes/no on the question of emergency exits.
Updated 12:51pm Eastern: Additional information has been added. Updated 12:05pm Eastern: All suspicions previously published, confirmed.
Heartbroken and infuriated best sums up my mindset as I write this piece.
I can confirm the following information:
There was a fire and an explosion in an escape room in Koszalin, Poland on January 4, 2019.
Two reliable sources have confirmed that this tragedy occurred at the To Nie Pokój escape room.
Five 15-year-old girls were killed from smoke inhalation while celebrating a birthday.
A 26-year-old gamemaster was seriously injured. It has been reported that he tried to help the girls in the room.
The fire broke out in the lobby as a result of an unsealed gas cylinder. The girls were locked in a room with no emergency exit.
Polish authorities have instructed the chief commander of the State Fire Brigade to conduct inspections of all escape room facilities. Many companies have received inspections today.
In absence of clear escape room safety standards, fire inspectors are applying arbitrary safety standards to the escape rooms that they are inspecting. From region to region, inspectors are focusing on different problems, some more significant than others.
A result of the uneven inspections is that in some instances, good escape room companies are being denied the right to operate, while some bad companies are being given clearance.
Many companies in Poland are experiencing cancellations or calls asking questions about safety from their customers who had booked games prior to the fire.
This story has made international news.
The thought of 5 girls entering an escape room to celebrate a birthday and never leaving breaks my heart and enrages me.
For years we have been writing about safety in escape rooms. Lisa and I have appeared on stage at conferences in four different countries (one of them being Poland) and spoken of the need for all escape room companies to make fire safety a top priority. While a great many escape room businesses abide by fire codes and think through their safety protocol, not all of them do, especially the bottom tier of the industry.
One additional thought: any escape room operator who isn’t interested in fire safety should close their doors for good.
Based on what I am hearing, I suspect that the owners of the escape room company in question will be charged with criminal negligence.
Effects on Poland
This may be a meteor strike to the Polish escape room market. We won’t know the effects for some time.
I suspect that many companies in Poland will not survive the coming months because they will not be able to meet safety standards.
I think that the Polish player base has shrunk dramatically and permanently as a consequence of this tragedy.
In addition to questions about what kind of standards will emerge in Poland, these questions remain: how much damage has been done to the player base? Will this strangle additional Polish escape room companies that do meet safety standards?
This is in the press (CNN,Polish news website in translation). We don’t know how far it will go or which countries will internalize this news. I suspect that the answer is “many” and rightfully so.
I assume that fire inspectors everywhere will be aware of this incident, and will tighten the reins on escape room companies within their jurisdictions. Fire safety should be paramount.
I suspect that some countries will pass legislation regulating escape rooms or, more likely, loop escape rooms into already existing amusement legislation. This will force all companies to take safety issues more seriously, and probably force many out of business.
I hope that this tragedy does not stain the entire industry. There are many people who already had an inherent fear of the concept of an escape room. For those who seek validation, this tragedy will serve to confirm those fears.
In our experience, the overwhelming majority of escape rooms do not lock players in. This fact has not been adequately conveyed by the news pieces that I have read covering this story, all of which included passages akin to the BBC’s, “Escape rooms, in which participants are locked in a room and must solve a series of puzzles in order to get out, are popular around the world.” This will undoubtedly instill additional fear in readers.
A Change for Room Escape Artist
Starting this year, our reviews will call out whether or not the company locks players in without an easily accessed emergency exit. We’ve frequently discussed it, but this will become a permanent fixture in our reviews moving forward.
We are not in a position to judge compliance with fire safety laws or guidelines, but we can do more to shine a light on companies that are obviously failing in their duties to their players.
A Change For Escape Room Owners
We love escape rooms. We love this industry. It’s time for every escape room operator to decide that they want to contribute to a safe escape room market. Or get the hell out.
There is an escape room creator who just spent their first night trying to sleep with the lives of 5 girls weighing on their conscience.
There are 5 girls whose parents just spent their first night looking at empty beds.
This shouldn’t have happened and it should never happen again.
The Master Lock 1590D isn’t an overwhelmingly common escape room lock. (That’s probably a good thing for reasons that I discuss below). That said, it is a strange and interesting device that does show up from time to time.
Since it is commercially available and does show up, I decided to run an analysis against it. In doing so, I learned some nifty things.
Unlike the previous letter locks that we’ve analyzed, the Master Lock 1590D does not have multiple disks with individual letter distributions. Instead, the 1590D functions like a traditional locker lock. All of its letters are available at once.
The distribution is:
A D E H J L N R S T and the numbers 0 through 10.
There is one interesting thing to note about this lock before reviewing the word permutations.
Letters may be repeated:
There was nothing in the lock’s documentation, nor did I find anything online… but when I attempted to input repeat letters into the lock, it accepted them. “AAA” was a valid combination.
This was a relief because I was pretty certain that I was going to break the lock when I tried it.
There was one significant differences from the first analysis:
I asked Rich to run the analysis twice, once using only the actual letters, and a second time substituting letters that look like numbers. These tabs are running across the bottom of the spreadsheet.
1. The fact that the 1590D accepts repeated letters really surprised me. This greatly opened up opportunities for making words.
2. Word options at 3 letters are minimal. This isn’t really a surprise.
3. The addition of a few extra numbers as letter substitutions expanded the word pool dramatically.
4. If you look in the right two columns, you’ll find a ton of 3-letter abbreviations. Government agencies (DOJ), stock symbols (JNJ), nicknames (J Lo), and fictional organizations (JLA) seemed interesting and potentially useful. The right most column is far more useful for this lock than for some of the larger locks that we’ve previously analyzed.
5. Master Lock’s commitment to including the letter “J” in their word locks continues to bewilder me as it is not useful for making words. The only reason that I can think of is for making people’s initials, as “J” is a common first letter in names.
I have found that players are generally confused about how to operate this lock.
In my opinion, locker-style locks are a less-than-stellar option for escape rooms. I think they should be avoided most of the time. The same goes for the 1590D.
My opinions notwithstanding, I know that this lock will get used in escape rooms and in classroom games, so I offer this analysis.
Much of the work is in the public domain, so you’re completely free to print, edit, or do anything you like, even for commercial purposes. That said, not all of it has crossed the public domain threshold, so check the copyright notice on each work of art.
I stumbled up on a video that explored the creation of the radiation and biohazard symbols.
In addition to some compelling history, this video posed an interesting question:
Can we create a universal warning symbol that will last forever?
Personally I think that the answer is no… but that’s besides the point.
All of this got me thinking about danger symbols in escape rooms and the common “do not touch” sticker.
Common Danger Symbols
Context is everything… and universality isn’t a thing with symbols.
In an escape room, symbols for radiation, biohazard, high voltage, or the classic Jolly Roger communicate nothing but setting.
If someone were to put actually hazardous materials in an escape room and label them appropriately… everyone who played the game would die. There is an assumed safety. It’s normal to assume that anything threatening is there for immersion’s sake…
Unless that symbol is a “do not touch” symbol.
Do Not Touch!
Do not touch stickers are a fairly common escape room mechanic where a sticker applied to a prop signifies that the item is in one way or another out of play.
These stickers come in different varieties including colored dot stickers, the company’s logo, the classic hand in a circle icon, and tape that has the words “Do Not Touch” on it.
Since these stickers first started appearing in early escape rooms, these symbols have been fraught with problems.
Does “do not touch” mean, this item is completely out of play? Or does it contain visual information, but I do not need to touch it to find that information?
After playing some 700 escape rooms, I still ask to clarify the meaning of a “do not touch symbol” in an escape room. The meaning changes from company to company and sometimes even from game to game within one location.
For those of us who actively try to follow the rules, sometimes this is difficult to do.
Sometimes these symbols are easy to miss. Maybe they are a tiny blip on a large object. Maybe I’m thoroughly in the zone and I don’t see it.
On multiple occasions, I’ve been guilty of not seeing a “do not touch” symbol until after I’ve already touched. (I always feel bad.)
Similarly, I’ve been in rooms where most of the wall hangings have “do not touch” stickers on them, but one or two don’t (because they are in play)… but I looked at the ones that I could interact with first and then assumed that all of the wall hangings were in play.
One thing to remember when gamemastering for “do not touch” violations is tone and word choice. It sucks when a gamemaster assumes that the player touching something with a “do not touch” sticker is dumb or deliberately breaking the rules. There’s a difference between a player deliberately prying something open and player confusion.
On the flip side, if the “do not touch” symbols are too big, too numerous, or too ugly, they can damage the aesthetic appeal of the game.
Sure, there’s no excuse for missing the symbol… but at what cost?
I’ve been in games where a red dot sticker signified do not touch, but once I started playing, I saw an entire rainbow of dot stickers. Did they all mean “do not touch” or was it just the red ones? Is this a puzzle? A test? Or shoddy craftsmanship?
The answer is almost always the latter… but nevertheless it’s confusing and it undermines the intent behind the symbol.
I have a few suggestions to mitigate these problems:
It’s easy to say, but hard to do. Build it better… especially if it is a core piece of game functionality.
It’s baffling when the most interesting and important interactions are also the ones that we’re not supposed to handle. Escape rooms are a tactile adventure… or at least they are supposed to be.
Hide the wires and anything else that we might be able to unplug, disconnect, or break.
If your local code will allow you to cover outlets, do it.
Draw Attention Deliberately
A lot of the “do not touch” stickers that we find are on props that are only in the game for ambiance.
One sure sign of a weak game is useless decor that looks more interesting than the actual game mechanisms. It’s games like these that are usually overflowing with “do not touch” symbols because the things that we players want to touch and fiddle with are useless… and it’s easier to accidentally break a curious object that has no purpose than one that clearly has intent.
If you need to use a “do not touch” symbol, use it sparingly and clearly. Define specifically what it means.
I personally prefer these symbols to mean that the flagged item is completely out of play because it means that players aren’t forced to parse meaning at all.
If you’re going to use a lock for reset or gamemaster access purposes, consider a lock that looks nothing like anything else in play. I am a fan of these Master Lock 410s.
I don’t think that there is anything inherently wrong with flagging something, but do it smartly, do it cleanly, and make sure that it’s effective.