“The Wrong MacGyver Solution” [Room Design]

Allowing for player improvisation in an escape room (or MacGyver-ing) creates some of the most incredible moments that this form of entertainment has to offer.

The Benefits of MacGyver Puzzles

Speaking as a player, many of my most memorable escape room experiences stem from being presented with a challenge and the opportunity to craft our own solution using our wits and the items that we could scavenge from the gamespace.

While these types of interactions make me feel like I have freedom, there are usually a select few solution options available, sometimes even just one… and that’s fine. The fun comes in discovering and executing the “hack.”

A pencil, paperclip, & rubber band.

Unfortunately, there are a few ways that this can go wrong.

I’m going to use two approximations of real life examples without naming the games or companies or providing the specific solution. If you’re hyper-sensitive to anything resembling a spoiler, turn away now. 

Strange Rules

Before entering a room escape, we were explicitly told that we weren’t allowed to bend anything. It was a pretty strange and unusual rule… but sure… we wouldn’t bend anything.

Early in the escape room we found a bottle mounted to a fixed surface. It had a key in it. We began searching for a means to get it out.

We eventually found a box of paperclips, and one of our teammates began assembling a paperclip chain. When his chain was long enough, he was about to bend a final paperclip into a hook. I stopped him and reminded him of our unusual “no bending” rule.

A little annoyed, he stopped and we searched the room for something else we could use as a hook. We eventually found the item that had been hidden in the gamespace for us to attach to a paperclip chain and retrieve our prize.

Where This Went Wrong

  1. The rule was strange, easy to forget, and came into play late enough in the game that most of the team had forgotten it.
  2. We had to debate whether bending a paperclip really constituted a rule violation. Sure, it would be destroying an item in the room, but it was a damn paperclip. You can buy a thousand paperclips for less than $7.
  3. Had I not stopped my teammate, we certainly would have been chastised by the gamemaster, who was heavy-handed about rules and control.
  4. This killed the momentum of a puzzler on the path to a good solve. Ironically, the “real solution” was the same thing. We just needed to search like crazy to find something that was already in the shape of a hook.
  5. This eliminated the opportunity for creativity. What started off enjoyably was bogged down by a cruddy rule.

One True Solution

We were making quick work of an interesting game. Our team was solving along until we hit a snag: a gate blocking us from reaching a critical item.

Upon closer inspection, I realized that the gate was firmly fixed in place. I was confident that there weren’t trap doors and the gate had no locking mechanism (mechanical or magnetic). There were, however, small gaps in the gate.

I looked around the gamespace for something long and narrow that could reach through the gate and found a curtain rod. It was mounted low enough that I could reach it effortlessly and it was fixed to its bracket with a brass thumbscrew. I unmounted it, reached in through the gate, and easily pulled back my prize.

It was close enough that I could reach it with my fingers when the gamemaster chastised me for “using the wrong item.” My solution was dead on; my tool was incorrect.

Even though I had completed the challenge already, I went searching for the “right tool.” It took me less than a minute to find it. Ironically, I had to disassemble a different item in the room. I only knew that I had the “right tool” by observing the wear on it.

I feigned like I was using it to retrieve the item. (The gamemaster’s camera angle didn’t let him see that I had already finished the puzzle before he slapped my wrist.) Then I moved on.

Where This Went Wrong

  1. The company wanted this puzzle solved in a specific manner, but didn’t use clues to indicate what the right solution was. It was left to the players’ imaginations.
  2. My solution worked and was non-destructive.
  3. The gamemaster didn’t have enough camera coverage to realize that I was already done with the puzzle. (The only reasons that I persisted in finding the right solution were to make sure that I knew what it was in the event that we found other relevant cluing… and because I was curious as a reviewer.)
  4. Like in the last example, my momentum, feeling of success, imagination, and enthusiasm were needlessly shut down.

The Lesson

Rules are important to protect the players, game, and gamemaster.

Rules are a terrible way to “fix” a puzzle with multiple solutions.

If a player is respecting the gamespace and having fun, let them explore and solve how they see fit.

If they destroy a single paperclip that costs $0.00648, maybe that’s not a problem.

Fun is more important than technically correct or intended solutions.

WordLock – All Possible 4 & 5 Letter Words

I recently published an analysis on the Master Lock 4 letter combination locks. They have an unusual letter distribution and I was curious how many English words could be generated with those locks. It turned out that those Master Locks could create a lot more words than I had anticipated.

In light of the popularity of that post I once again worked with Rich Bragg of ClueKeeper to run the same analysis on the popular WordLock PL-004 5-Dial.

This lock seems to have fewer clichéd words, but there are a few that pop up a little too often including:

  • BOOK(S)

A 5 letter WordLock closed, the word "Books" appearing.

Letter Distribution

This analysis is focused on the most current 5 disk WordLock model, the PL-004. There are 3 older models with somewhat different letter distributions and WordLock has other 4 disk products. 

The fixed-disk WordLock uses the following letter configuration:

Disk 1: L S W B P F M D T A

Disk 2: A P O R I L C E T N

Disk 3: S E R I L A N U T O

Disk 4: E L D A O S K N R T

Disk 5: R L S N T H Y D _ E

There are two particularly interesting things about this letter distribution.

First, the blank spot on the fifth disk (represented above with an underscore) cleverly allows the WordLock to represent 4 or 5 letter words.

Second, the lock has asymmetrical disks that, when all aligned, defaults 7 of the 10 lines of the lock into words:

  • BRIAN … if you consider a name to be a word
  • ANOTE … while it does have a definition, this more looks like a word than is a word

While the remaining three lines are gibberish, it’s still a nifty and thoughtful feature as the lock looks cool with all of those words on its face.

A 5 letter WordLock closed, the word "Spell" appearing.

What Words Can This Distribution Generate?

Here’s the spreadsheet. The left-most column contains 1,652 core English words. These are the best words that the analysis found. The further right you move, the less useful the words generally are (and the farthest right is mostly nonsense).

Analysis Methodology & Column Explanation

Absolutely everything about this analysis and its outputs conforms to the same information presented in the last letter lock analysis, so I won’t rehash it. It’s on the Master Lock post if you’re interested.

Odd Letter Distribution Hypothesis

After publishing the last analysis some members of the room escape community proposed a hypothesis about the odd letter distribution on those Master Locks:

It seemed like Master Lock may have been trying to make it impossible to spell curse words.

This seems like a valid answer for both Master Lock and WordLock’s letter selection. I cannot prove this one way or another, but you cannot generate the most popular American English swear words with these locks… so that’s probably not a coincidence.

Nevertheless, sifting through the wordlist revealed a few “vulgar” or degrading words… and I’m including them because my inner 10 year-old thinks this list is hilarious:

Vulgar Words: Proceed With Caution

ANAL, ANUS, BALLS, BONER, DORK, PANSY, SISSY, and PENAL (That last one isn’t at all vulgar, but it sure feels like it should be.) You can also generate the word MOIST… which apparently is a word that a lot of people hate.


There are also TONS of innuendo-y words that I didn’t include… because I’m an adult.

WordLock Word List

Fighting Back Against Patents [Featured Comment]

We’re trying something new: highlighting an absolutely fantastic comment.

This comment is from J Cameron Cooper on our post ULTIMATE MOBILE ESCAPE ROOMS: Patent Troll?

In the post we look into one company’s claim that they have filed a patent for mobile escape games and examine the legitimacy of such a move.

Intense black & white image of a armored knight ready to strike with a sword.

J Cameron Cooper added:

“Prior to patent issuance, a third party (“3rd party”) can anonymously (1) submit prior art in the form of a preissuance submission, (2) file a protest of an application, or (3) request a public use proceeding.” http://www.bskb.com/news/articles/documents/MAA_ETP_JPAAArticle-AttackingaUSPatentorApplicatio.pdf

While whatever claims one is likely to make in such an application are likely laughable, the Patent Office is in a pretty laughable state and has approved stupider things. Anyone with an interest in this should look carefully at a Preissuance Third Party Submission (37 C.F.R. § 1.290) to inform the examiner of prior art. Even that should be done carefully, however.

I have searched published US pending applications and there is no such thing among them. You can go directly to the USPTO (http://appft.uspto.gov/netahtml/PTO/search-bool.html), but https://patents.google.com/ is pretty handy. Since it isn’t yet published, anyone interested should set up an alert at https://www.uspatentappalerts.com/index.php

It’s not particularly my business, but I’ve set up an alert for this one just because I hate patent trolls.

Oh, and if anyone else is interested, “Die Hard” is a 20th Century Fox property, “Twilight Zone” appears to be CBS, and “Da Vinci Code” is Dan Brown. Large properties don’t seem to care much for enforcing their rights against escape rooms (I think they’re too small) but perhaps one of them would like to hear of this company.

This was a fantastic addition to what we wrote. Thank you, J Cameron Cooper.

In the future, we’ll continue to feature comments on our posts that spread knowledge and drive discussion.

Master Lock: All Possible 4 Letter Words

Master Lock has many different word combination locks and cable bike locks on the market that have fixed disks. (You cannot swap the order of the disks.)

In the escape room community, the three best known fixed-disk locks are:

Master Lock Model No. 1535DWD

Master Lock letter lock 1235DWD with the word "BOOK" appearing as the combination.

Master Lock Model No. 643DWD

Master Lock letter lock 643DWD with the word "MOCK" appearing as the combination.

Master Lock Model No. 175DWD

Master Lock letter lock 175DWD with the word "TEAR" appearing as the combination.

All of these fixed-disk letter locks have the exact same letter distribution, which made me wonder:

How many 4-letter words can these Master Locks create?

I hope to see more variation in solutions used on these locks in escape rooms. The same half-dozen words show up a whole lot. (I’m looking at you BURY, STAR, & SAND).

Three Master Lock letter locks with the combinations entered as sand, star, and bury.

Letter Distribution

Each fixed-disk letter Master Lock uses the following configuration:

Disk 1: L N B D M J P R S T

Disk 2: O U Y R T L H A E I

Disk 3: C D E O R S T L N A

Disk 4: K Y R S T L N E D H

What Words Can This Distribution Generate?

I asked Rich Bragg of ClueKeeper how he’d determine all the words these locks could generate. A few minutes later he sent me back a spreadsheet filled with words.

Column Explanation

There is no way to generate a single answer to the question “how many English words can this lock create?” English is a constantly evolving language. Words are created, usage shifts, and words fall into disuse.

Column A is the common English word list. This is by far the most useful column. It has 695 words.

Column B is the “ENABLE” word list. These are still words, but they are obscure or old English.

The next three columns are decreasing useful, with the fifth column being words from Wikipedia (which includes acronyms, initialisms and the like).

Each list omits the words found in the previous lists.

I’ve included all of the columns in the spreadsheet because even the less useful columns have some interesting entries… They are just few and far between.

Analysis Methodology

Bragg used TEA Crossword Helper, which is anagramming software on steroids. This is the kind of software that you use if you’re really serious about winning a major puzzle hunt.

From the TEA website:

“TEA comes with a database of over 6 million words and phrases including the title index for the English version of Wikipedia. These answers are classified by their familiarity, so you always see the most likely ones first. You can look up the meanings in the integrated dictionary/thesaurus or on the Internet. TEA is faster and more convenient than word lists in book form such as crossword completers, crossword dictionaries and crossword keys.”

Is There A Better Distribution?

The letters on each disk are pretty curious, especially when you notice oddities like the “J” in the first disk or the “Y” in the second disk.

From a letter frequency standpoint, these are not great letters to drop in those positions.

I reached out to Master Lock to ask how they chose this letter distribution, but they could not be reached for comment.

I suspect that there are more effective letter distributions possible that would generate even more words, but after a quick attempt at doing better, I fell a bit short. If you find one, I’d be curious to see it.

However, whether or not there is a better distribution, this is the one we have on these locks. It’s a lot of options. Feel free to use this list as a tool.

Master Lock Letter Lock Word List


Last week a number of escape room owners let us know that a guy named Howard Cutler of ULTIMATE MOBILE ESCAPE ROOMS dropped into the Mobile Escape Room Owners Facebook group brazenly announcing that he had filed a patent on the concept of “mobile escape room” and demanding that everyone get off of his lawn.

Screen shot of Howard Cutler's Facebook post: Full text printed below picture

“Ladies and Gentlemen. I have a patent pending for a Mobile Escape Room. It seems like the word ‘mobile’, gets used loosely. My Mobile Escape Room is indeed 100 percent mobile. We are not brick and mortar and we are not a trailer. We literally build the specific themes for each client, inside or outside, 100 percent turnkey system. If you are thinking or currently have a tent, pip and draping, inflatable frame, igloo or anything to make the actual room and place puzzles, locks codes or anything under the sun inside the room, you will be in violation of my patent. This is not a joke and I want each and everyone of you to be advised of this before you are thinking of pursuing this idea or may already be doing this. If you have any questions or concerns, feel free to call me at 3014247114 during business hours.”

The Community Reaction

The Mobile Escape Room Owners Facebook group responded with a mix of assertive clarification of facts and mockery… both of which seem well-deserved given the circumstances.

Patent Filings Are Serious

It’s easy to look at Cutler’s poorly written declaration of war and laughable claim to ownership of the idea of mobile escape rooms as a joke. If you know anything about the history of escape rooms, this should seem utterly hilarious.

A hairy in a viking helmet holding a shield.

If you know anything about patent trolls, the damage they can do, and the cost involved with killing even stupid patents, you’ll know that we as a community need to take this seriously.

Based on Cutler’s statement, his refusal to answer basic questions, and a whole lot of evidence that I will lay out before you, it’s clear that to me that he is either a forum troll or a patent troll. All signs point to the latter.

My Conversation with Cutler

I called Cutler as per his posting to hear about his innovation, his intentions, and his timing.

When I finally got him on the phone a day after calling, he answered all but one of my questions by telling me that I’d have to ask his attorney.

When asked how long he had been in business, he answered, “25 years,” which was a cute response. When asked how long he had been in the escape room business… you guessed it: I had to ask his attorney.

His attorney could not be reached for comment.


I did a bit of digging around ULTIMATE MOBILE ESCAPE ROOMS to try and learn where this company came from, and more importantly, when it came about.

All signs point to late November and early December of 2017.

Domain Records

According to the WhoIs record on the website’s domain, it was created on November 12, 2017.

Whois domain record showing that the entry was created on November 12, 2017.

Facebook Posts

A search of “ultimate mobile escape room” on Facebook brought me to Cutler’s company page ULTIMATE AMUSEMENTS. The oldest post mentioning escape rooms appears to be from December 3, 2017. There isn’t a lack of promotional content for other products on their Facebook page.

Ultimate Amusements Facebook promoting their games on December 3, 2017.


(We are purposely not linking.)

All 5 of the games listed on the ULTIMATE MOBILE ESCAPE ROOMS website are listed as “NEW.”

This further suggests that this company emerged in late Q4 2017.

IP Infringement?

When I perused ULTIMATE MOBILE ESCAPE ROOMS’ website I learned that they have a few games based on pre-existing intellectual property:

  • Da Vinci Code
  • Twilight Zone
  • Die Hard

Cutler didn’t stay on the phone long enough for me to ask about licensing, but I do know that these licenses take a lot of time and money. I would be surprised to learn that ULTIMATE MOBILE ESCAPE ROOMS negotiated deals with the appropriate rights holders.

I’m not the IP police and I don’t get particularly worked up over the subject, but given Cutler’s IP tantrum, in this case it’s worth noting.

Pricing & Quality

It looks like ULTIMATE MOBILE ESCAPE ROOMS’ business model is fundamentally different from most escape room companies in that they seem entirely focused on setting up temporary games for large events. It would cost an incredible amount of money to play these games.

Ultimate Amusements pricing for their mobile escape rooms ranging from $900 for 30 minutes to $4000 for 4 hours.
These prices drop a bit with volume… but wow.

I normally never judge an escape game by photos, but a quick glance at the Facebook post from December 3rd shows what looks like a bland retread of a lot of old cliches: blacklights, book safes, and uninteresting settings.

All of this suggests that ULTIMATE MOBILE ESCAPE ROOMS and its owner are neophytes to escape rooms.

Some Mobile Escape Room Facts

We’ve been tracking the growth of the escape room industry in the United States since mid 2014, before the overwhelming majority of escape rooms even opened in this country. There are a ton of different mobile escape games in the market and plenty of different definitions of mobile.

Trailer Escape Rooms

The first branded mobile escape room that we became aware of was Mobile Room Escape in Chicago. We added this company to our map in February of 2016. It opened in 2015.

There are plenty of trailer-based games all over the United States. We first played one at the Chicago Room Escape Conference in August of 2016.

Trailer games, however, aren’t the only portable or temporary escape games on the market.

Portable Escape Rooms

Back in March of 2016 while on our honeymoon, Lisa and I played 60 Out’s Quest in a Box, a game that existed in the lobby of a brick and mortar escape room, but could be broken down and moved about.

Tent Escape Rooms

We met the guys from Mindgames Productions at the Niagara Falls Room Escape Conference in May of 2017. These guys had a tent-based product that looked similar to what Cutler claims he has recently patented.

When I reached out to the guys from Mindgames I learned that they’ve been producing these experiences since April of 2015.

Tabletop Escape Rooms

There are also tabletop games, the first of which was Escape Room in a Box, which we played back in February of 2016 as well. These games made an appearance on the floor of the very same Chicago Room Escape Conference. They could certainly classify as portable or mobile escape rooms.

Train-Based Escape Rooms

In 2017 our Canadian friends from the Room Escape Divas ran a 3 hour escape room event on a moving train.

That’s pretty mobile.

Mass Escape Events

Then there is Real Escape Games, also known as SCRAP… the first company to sell a formal room escape product. They have been running portable, traveling mass escape games for longer than escape rooms have been in the United States.

Our first visit to a traveling SCRAP event was in June of 2014. This was also my first escape room review before this website even existed.

SCRAP has produced tons of games that have temporary and portable structures that hold puzzling content.

Prior Art

A patent can be denied or invalidated if there is proof of prior art. Prior art is essentially any evidence that the patented thing existed beforehand.

Unless ULTIMATE MOBILE ESCAPE ROOMS has been a sleeper silently making these escape rooms for years without anyone knowing about it, any number of posts on this website could invalidate their claim.

Mobile escape rooms isn’t a new concept. No one holds a patent on it… and that’s fantastic. It means that the idea is out there for all of us to enjoy and iterate on.

If ULTIMATE MOBILE ESCAPE ROOMS wants to become a patent troll and declare control over the idea, they are going to have to fight a host of escape room owners who have been in the business for some time.

If the US Patent and Trade Office happens to approve this patent and start suing, give us a call. We’ll happily take the stand and testify to the variety of mobile escape rooms that exist, and have already existed, in the United States and all around the world.

How To Gain Admission to the Escape Room Owners Facebook Group

Some escape room owners are a little peeved that the administrators of the Escape Room Owners Facebook group haven’t approved their membership requests.

After we published 13 Tips for Opening an Escape Room, which included a recommendation that owners join that community, we received a few messages from frustrated owners who haven’t been approved to join the group.

Comic book-ified Members Only jacket
Members Only

I reached out to Brian Warner (Evilusion), one of the administrators of the group. Here’s what I learned:

Why Aren’t Applications Being Approved?

The Escape Room Owners Facebook group is only for people who own escape rooms. We aren’t in the group and have never asked to join. 

The administrators need evidence that each applicant is actually an escape room owner. They currently have a backlog of over 3,000 applicants, most of whom are spammers, bots, and non-owners.

Brian, Nate Shane (Escape Room Master), and Erick Gyrion (Escape Room Wisconsin) are the only three people who administer applicants. It’s a lot of work for three guys who also work a lot and, ya know, have lives. (We can relate.)

How Can I Expedite My Approval?

Brian recommend the following:

  • Send him a Facebook message with proof of escape room ownership.
  • Reply to his Facebook messages.

If you communicate, you’ll get approved a whole lot faster.

What constitutes evidence of escape room ownership?

Brian says, “Send a picture of yourself with a business card in your control room.” He’s open to other proof if you want to get creative; just make it easy on him.

He added that, “The hard part is screening everyone. I’ve had people not respond to my messages for over a year.” These people sit in limbo forever.

Why Isn’t This Stated Clearly?

Well… it kind of is. However, most people aren’t accustomed to having to read a Facebook group’s description in order to learn the proper means of entry.

The description of the group opens with the following paragraph:

“Escape Room Owners is for current owners ONLY (not employees) of Escape Room Adventures. You will not be approved to join unless you have a location and are open/operating. Message Nate Shane, Brian Warner or Erick Gyrion for admission screening. All owners must prove that they are affiliated with operating and owning an escape room before an admin will approve. If you feel someone should be removed from the group, please contact one of the admins. You must have a profile picture, real name (no company as personal accounts) and be an owner. This group is not for anyone who is not an owner.”

If you belong in the group and want to be a part of it, make it easy for the group administrators to confirm that you own an escape room.

If all else fails, join the other escape room communities. There’s plenty of conversation there too.

13 Tips for Opening an Escape Room

I’m wanting to open an escape room and am looking to learn everything I can!

This is an actual email we received in December of 2017. That was the full text of the email. I’d like to say that this was an anomaly, but we receive a lot of emails just like one.

Emailer, this blog post is just for you. Good luck!

Filter-painted closeup shot of key mosaic.

1: Play Escape Rooms Everywhere

If you want to open an escape room business, you first need to play a LOT of escape rooms.

Visit some of the top markets in North America. These include New York City, Los Angeles, and southern Louisiana.

Figure out where to travel.

Visit the most highly recommended escape rooms in these markets. Visit the ones with terrible reviews too. Consider the differences and learn from both.

Travel might seem like a huge expense, but it’s a much lower investment than blindly starting a business.

2: Play Escape Rooms Locally

Know what games already exist in your market. Use that knowledge to find your niche.

By playing local escape rooms, you’ll learn the regional trends. These include website design, hint systems, intro speeches, and even escape room themes. If you know the trends, you can decide which to latch onto and which to avoid.

When an owner tell us, “all my designs are completely unique because I’ve never played an escape room”… it’s always a bad sign.

Your neighbors might have come up with the same idea. They might even have executed it better. You can’t assume your ideas are unique just because you came up with them in a vacuum.

There are plenty of ideas that owners came up with on their own that are also escape room cliches.

Play the local games to understand the norms before you step outside the box.

3: Join the Community Online

If you’re opening an escape room today, there are tons of resources on the internet: blogs, reviews, directories, chat rooms, social media conversations, and more.

The escape room community spends a lot of time on Facebook:

  • Escape Room Enthusiasts – Geared toward players, the conversations here will show you which games and concepts players are excited about.
  • Escape Room Start-Ups – If you’re new to this, you’ll find information about all sorts of things, such as lighting and insurance, that you maybe hadn’t yet considered.
  • Escape Room Owners – Once your business is running, this community will connect you with other established owners to help you stay up to date on trends. (Update: Here’s how to join.)

Remember that Facebook has a search function. Make sure your question hasn’t already been asked and answered 20 times. Don’t waste everyone’s time.

4: Join the Community in Real Life


At escape room conferences, you can meet owners, enthusiasts, and bloggers. We all learn from these conversations.

In the United States, TransWorld hosts an annual escape room conference. We spoke at the past two conferences in Chicago (2016) and Niagara Falls (2017). We are looking forward to returning for TransWorld’s next conference, July 28-29, 2018 in Nashville.

Europe also hosts a few escape room conferences.

Last year we spoke at Up The Game in Breda, The Netherlands. Tickets are already on sale for May 8-9, 2018.

David gave the keynote address at WroEscape in Wrocław, Poland, in October 2017. We anticipate another edition of WroEscape in 2018.


In November 2017, we hosted our first event: Escape, Immerse, Explore in New York City. Over the course of a weekend, attendees enjoyed a tailored tour of 5 escape rooms and one immersive show as well as networking and a talk about the industry.

We look forward to producing more of these events in New York City and other cities.

5: Do Math

Escape rooms are not a get-rich-quick scheme.

Set reasonable expectations when you calculate how much money each escape room will pull in.

Make sure that you’re financially able to weather a harsh start-up.

6: Hire an Attorney & an Architect*

Regulations around locking people in a room to make money differ widely from place to place. Make sure you’re following all the rules.

Attorneys can help you with incorporation and liability.

Know how to approach building codes, parking restrictions, and any other local ordinances. There is no one-size-fits-all recommendation for these types of things.

It doesn’t matter how great your games are if the city shuts you down for some unforeseen violation.

Ask the following questions:

  • Is my building located in a retail zone, and will my business qualify as retail?
  • Are we allowed to actually lock people in rooms in this county?
  • What are the fire marshal’s inspection requirements?
  • What is the legal occupancy limit of my space?
  • What are the parking restrictions near my building?
  • (If renting) Will my landlord be interested in housing this sort of business?

*For more information about asking these types of questions, read the comments below. Nathan (@Moriash) offers fantastic and detailed insights.

7: Determine Your Audience

One person’s favorite game is another person’s nightmare experience.

In the case of horror escape rooms, consider this literally. Fear can be an amazing tool in game design. If you build horror experiences, however, you limit your customer base. If there isn’t already a strong horror culture in your area, marketing will be harder.

If you plan to attract corporate bookings, you’ll need HR-friendly games that fit larger groups. Beyond the games, you’ll want to focus energy on your facility, including a comfortable lobby and meeting room space.

If you’re in a walking city with a late night drinking culture (New York, New Orleans, Las Vegas, etc.), you’ll need to build extra sturdy games. You’ll attract boisterous and rambunctious (sometimes under the influence) groups who will be rough with your creation. Delicate designs won’t hold up. Delicate gamemasters won’t hold up either. Consider bouncing these players if they will be a danger to you, your staff, or your game.

Consider audience from many different angles. Determine themes, facilities, ticketing models, operational hours, marketing plans, staffing, and more with your audience in mind.

8: Collaborate

From financial firm executives seeking a different lifestyle to puzzle lovers sharing their hobby with the world, escape room owners open these businesses for all different reasons.

You won’t have all the skills to open an escape room by yourself.

Your background might be in game design, software engineering, carpentry, acting, marketing… or any number of other skills.

Collaborate with folks who have complementary skills. Don’t allow your skill gaps to turn into gaping holes in your business.

9: Marketing is Necessary

Once you’ve opened, attracting customers will become your most important task.

You can have the best game in the world, but nobody will play it if they don’t know it exists.

Make it easy for your customers to help you market. Share their photos on social media. Publish content that they will want to share with their friends.

Avoid Groupon and other deal sites. They’ll bleed you to death.

Always include a call to action.

Make booking easy… and please answer your phone. You never know who’s calling.

10: Test and Iterate

Before you launch your escape room, put players through it. Observe.

  • Which parts continually trip people up?
  • Which parts don’t function as intended?
  • Which parts are subject to frequent breakage?
  • When are people having more or less fun?

Don’t just test with friends and family. They will love your escape room because they love you.

If people aren’t telling you which parts of it suck, then you need more honest people.

11: Plan for Breakage

Everything in your escape room will break.

When the premise is “figure out how to get out of this room” people will figure it out. They will try things you never conceived of. Stuff will break.

Sometimes stuff breaks for no reason. We once played an escape room where the in-game computer wouldn’t boot up. They were ready. They slid laminated paper copies of everything on the computer under the door. It wasn’t as interactive as intended, but we could still solve the puzzles, and there was nearly no delay.

Be ready to hot swap all your physical props. Have backup plans for every conceivable failure.

If something runs on batteries, replace these regularly.

12: Be Honest

Be honest with your customers.

Your customers don’t know when the game starts. They don’t know if you are trying to trick them.

If a player thinks you’re trying to deceive them and that’s confirmed in the game, everything you say becomes suspect. If they catch you in a lie, safety rules become suspect.

Help your customers feel comfortable.

13: Learn everything you can

Emailer, you know, you might very well be ahead of the pack. After all, you already know you want to learn everything you can. I hope this helps.

Facebook’s Newsfeed Changes & Escape Rooms

I’m not the guy who complains about every little change that every tech platform makes. I’ve been designing complex software for years and I get the complexity.

When I say that the latest Facebook Newsfeed updates are terrible, I mean it.

They are a disaster for small businesses like escape rooms.

Painting of a man holding an iPhone to his head like a gun, and social media icons shooting out the other side like blood, bone and brains.
I saw this hanging in Berlin, Germany’s Final Escape.

What’s Going On?

Mark Zuckerberg did his 50 states tour and decided that Facebook needed to focus on creating “meaningful interaction.”

He said, “We want to make sure that our products are not just fun, but are good for people.”

As a result, the newsfeed now supposedly emphasizes “friends and family” (NYTimes).

In practicality, this means:

  • Content posted by your family should appear more readily in your feed.
  • Content from Facebook Pages of companies that you’ve liked will appear less frequently.
  • News content will appear more often… so long as it’s been posted by a friend.
  • Content from Facebook groups you’ve joined will show up all over your feed.

For me personally, this means that my Facebook feed consists of humorless political postings from the people that I know, discussions from the various escape room-related Facebook groups that I’m a member of… and lots and lots and lots and lots of escape room post-game photos.

This means that I’m looking at Facebook a whole lot less. So maybe this is a good thing?

Back to the point.

What Does This Mean For Escape Rooms & Players?

Organic Reach

The organic reach of Facebook pages has been slashed.

This means that the Facebook content posted by businesses will surface naturally at a much lower rate.

Facebook wants businesses to pay to have their content surfaced. This isn’t new. While they’ve been operating this way for years, they’ve kept the organic numbers at least reasonable while regularly pummeling the page-owner with notifications about the treasures that will come if and only if they give Facebook some money to promote their content.

To me, these notifications always read like Nigerian Prince emails without the charm.

Update 11:45AM – This is a high performing post! Facebook wants money to make more people see it.

An email from the Facebook ads team suggesting that this post is high performing and that we should pay to boost its presence in Facebook.
This is not a joke.

The Effect

The Facebook user clicks “like” on pages of interest. The user is literally asking for the content. Facebook, however, algorithmically withholds it because it’s an easy chokepoint to generate revenue.

For players this means that when your favorite local escape room business announces that it has a new room, you won’t see this unless the escape room pays enough money that Facebook chooses to grace your eyeballs with the announcement.

It means that if you follow Room Escape Artist or other blogs through Facebook, you will see our content less frequently.

More importantly, it means that your local escape room businesses will likely have to spend a lot more money with Facebook to get the results that they need to operate. This will dramatically favor larger businesses who can more easily absorb the added cost.

What Can I Do About It?

You – as a player, a fan of escape rooms, and a reader of this site – have a few options to limit the damage that this shift will create:

  • Use your web browser as a browser and favorite your local escape room companies and Room Escape Artist.  Click over to them from time to time. Visit on your own terms, not because an algorithm selected the content for you.
  • Subscribe to emails. A good portion of our readership subscribes to receive emails when we publish content. Just about every escape room company out there sends out promotions and information via email.
  • If you can’t kick the Facebook habit, and believe me, I get that too… click “like,” leave a comment, or share content that you support. Boosting the signal helps.
  • Another option for those committed to Facebook is to use their oddly buried subscription feature to make sure that content is served up:

When you like a page’s content, go to the page and next to the “Like” button you’ll find the “Following” button. Click that and update your setting to “See First.”

Facebook's following dropdown, set to "Default" with "See First" highlighted.

Advice For Owners

So far, we haven’t seen a significant dip in traffic as a result of this because we’ve never put a heavy emphasis on Facebook as a distribution platform. Our feeling is that we distribute to all sensible channels and let our readers decide how they will interact with us. Facebook happens to be one channel.

Our site is built on open source technology. We distribute easily to RSS and our email subscription is simple. Our preference is that people use the website as a website because that’s the only thing we can control.

We’ve taken this approach because we don’t trust Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Medium, and others to put our interests first. We’ll use them, but we won’t count on them.

Advertising and marketing is a lot of work. Make a conscious strategy. Don’t rely on one platform. Measure your results and refocus on the things that work. Don’t let yourself get lulled into a false sense of security with a single platform.

If one thing is certain about tech companies, it’s the promise of endless change… which may or may not be in your favor.

Growing Your Escape Room Through Selective Refunds

No one likes to give a refund.

Why should anyone get to partake in the experience and keep their money?

When a refund is really credit

Every room escape company regularly encounters the “guy whose grandma just died” and cannot make it to his booking. The odds are really good that this guy is just a flake and his grandma has passed away a few dozen times since grade school.

However, all of his friends just showed up and they would really appreciate it if you could refund their friend.

This is a great opportunity for a room escape company. You have a nearly full room (minus one flake) and the chance to create goodwill. Grant this guy credit for his ticket. His friends will feel great about your company before they even start their game and he will feel relieved that he isn’t out his money

An escape room is team game. He will likely have to round up a bunch more friends to use the credit. You’ll earn new customers out of this gesture.

If Mr. Flakey doesn’t use his credit, his cash never left your pocket anyway.

Nothing lost and quite a bit gained.

Stylized black and white image of a lock with a wad of $20 bills in its shackle. The lock's key protrudes from the other end.

When things go horribly wrong

In live action entertainment, sometimes things fall apart, literally or figuratively.

If you have a major prop, set-piece, or puzzle fail on a team, be ready with some offer of compensation.

Refund half or all of their money or offer them their next game on the house. Don’t make your players ask.

While it’s no fun to lose some of your ticket revenue, consider your customers’ perspective: They only get to experience your game once. They didn’t get what they paid for and there isn’t any do-over.

Actively protect your players from bad experiences

Some of the worst player experiences are completely foreseeable and avoidable. Train your staff to recognize them and stop them before they happen.

Bad experiences are more likely in public ticketed escape rooms. Consider the following two examples:

Drunks in ticketed games

Drunk or high players will likely cause problems, especially in public ticket games.

Sometimes (frequently in later bookings on weekends) players show up under the influence. These players are more likely to damage your property. They are also more likely to wreck the experience for other players who had the bad luck to buy tickets for the same escape room.

Be mindful that your players only get to experience your game once. Eject the offending players. Your ticket purchasing page should clearly state that, “players are to show up sober.” Enforce the rule. Protect your good customers and protect your property.

As for the ejected players, I’d recommend handling credit on a case-by-case basis.

Children in ticketed games

Mixing families with children in with strangers may cause problems.

Kids can be a ton of fun to escape a room with, but it should be by choice.

A group of adults who may have hired babysitters to look after their own kids so that they can enjoy an escape room should not be randomly forced into a room with someone else’s kids. This can lead to a subpar experience for all involved.

Sell adult and kids tickets. If someone wants to buy kids tickets, then that room should be made into a private game. Don’t risk it.

Sore losing

Occasionally you’re going to encounter some crybabies. These tend to be entitled players who overestimated their abilities and are angry that they lost.

These people get nothing except a smile and an invitation to come back and try again. There’s no crying in room escaping.

Escape rooms are challenging; that’s half the fun. How many experiences are out there where it’s even possible to fail? Don’t intellectually rubberize your room. Don’t reward the whiners. Make it clear up front during the booking process that failure is possible or even probable. This won’t stop the sore losers from doing their thing, but it will make it easier to politely shut them down.

Create enthusiasts

Every room escape company needs to create passionate repeat players. The room escape industry needs lots of repeat players if it’s going to be a viable, longterm form of entertainment.

Screw ups happen. If you make your customers pay for problems outside of their own control, they will be less likely to ever return to any escape room, let alone yours.

Refunds and other forms of compensation are a matter of customer service. You want your customers to have a good time so that they become repeat customers. You want them to have such a good time that they seek out more experiences like those you offer, until you design more for them to come back and enjoy.

Cultivate a love of these games and you will profit.

Sometimes returning money today leads to a more profitable tomorrow.

Potential Escape Room Owners: Your Napkin Math is Flawed

Repeat after me: Escape rooms are not a get-rich-quick-scheme.

There’s a cohort of individuals who have taken the plunge into escape room entrepreneurship without doing the research necessary to succeed in this business.

We’ve beaten quite a few of these points over the head many times in talks and posts, but there’s one thing that we didn’t delve into, that I think bears some thought: money.

Stylized image of US currency strewn about.

Escape room napkin math

There are an awful lot of potential escape room owners, players, and even journalists who run through this basic mathematical exercise and draw some painfully faulty conclusions about the escape room world:

How much money will an escape room make per year?

$30 per ticket * 8 players * 8 hours per day * 5 days per week * 52 weeks = $499,200 per room per year.

You can tinker with these ballparks, but the inherent assumption is that an individual escape room will pull in roughly half a million dollars per year.

If you open multiple rooms, that number multiplies.

Where can these calculations go wrong?

Weekends & perception

Most escape room players visit companies on weekends. As a general rule, if an escape company isn’t busy on the weekends, there’s a good chance that it’s suffering.

If you’ve only played a few games, the odds are pretty good that you’ve visited escape rooms on weekends and seen a bustling business that’s likely dead on a Wednesday afternoon.

Most escape room owners tell us that they make the overwhelming majority of their money from Friday through Sunday and on holidays.

Player count

In the early days of escape rooms, all of these games were crammed to capacity. Setting aside the fact that an escape room at capacity is usually a subpar experience… it’s also not so realistic. And the higher the capacity is, the lower the odds that the room will be full.

You can expect 3, 4, 5, or maybe 6 players per session.

Long opening cycles

If you’re a new company, it’s going to take you so much more time to open your doors than you’re expecting.

Designing and building games is a lot harder than it looks.

If you’re testing properly, that takes time… and so do the subsequent iterations.

Then there’s local code, zoning, and inspectors. Zoning boards and inspectors can make a complete mess of your life and add months (plural) to your timeline.

All of this time will pile up while you have an active lease and you’re bleeding money with no opportunity for revenue.

Slow seasons

Depending upon where you are operating, some regions have a lot of seasonal business. You might have nearly dead months. You never know.


Like it or not, chaos is a factor.

Players will break things. Replacements will cost money. The worst case scenario is room closure.

There are also issues like flooding, fires, and all sorts of natural and unnatural disasters that could damage, halt, or flat out destroy your business. Fires have happened at least 3 times in North America alone.

That napkin math isn’t totally wrong

It’s important to know that some companies really do pull in a ton of money per room per year. Even still, it’s probably not half a million dollars. That number is incredibly optimistic.

Many of the escape room businesses that pull in lots of cash were early entrants who built up strong SEO, captured media attention, and picked up a lot of word-of-mouth awareness… all of which were easy to do when they were the only show in town.

There are new entrants into the business who succeed, but they have to work a lot harder, produce better products, and be a lot more cunning than the early companies were.

The early pioneers had their own problems to solve, but more recent businesses have a steep hill to climb to make inroads against the established companies.

Reset your expectations

Escape rooms don’t work like Field of Dreams. People might not come. They likely won’t come in the droves that your napkin math projected.

If you aren’t prepared to lose money in your first year of business, then you should consider another line of work. Maybe you’ll be cash flow positive, but if you aren’t prepared to be in the red, then you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Figure out how you’re going to get up and running and then how you’re going to fill your company from Friday night through Sunday.

In the mean time, ask yourself this…

What happens if you only sell enough tickets to fill up on weekends?

$30 per ticket * 4 players * 8 hours per day * 2.5 days per week * 52 weeks = $124,800 per room per year.

This might still be an optimistic number, but it’s going to be much closer to an accurate and achievable ballpark.

I’m not kidding that this might be optimistic. I am certain that there are escape room owners reading that calculation and wishing that they were actually sold out on weekends.

Do your math carefully and make sure that you’re financially able to weather a harsh start-up. There’s plenty of money in escape rooms and immersive entertainment, but don’t buy into the illusion that it’s easy money.

Why open an escape room?

Don’t get into escape rooms because you think that it will make you rich. It probably won’t, especially if your heart isn’t in the right place and you don’t have the skills or money to make it work.

Get into escape rooms because you love them. Because you want to design games. Because you want to bring fun and joy into people’s lives.