An Exploration of Escape Room Hint Systems

I firmly believe that escape room experiences live and die largely based on customer service.

Amazing escape games can feel cheap and cruel when paired with poor customer care. At the same time, mediocre games can feel oddly charming when administered by a passionate and caring gamemaster.

With that in mind, I want to explore hint systems, the most persistent customer service touchpoint.

There are a great many ways to craft and administer hints. I’m going to do my best to look at the pros and cons of as many as I can. Before we dive in, I want to establish a few baselines.

An orange life ring floating in a pool.

Hinting Baseline

Definitions

I often hear the words “clue” and “hint” used interchangeably. I don’t think that this is a great idea. We’re particular in how we use these two words on Room Escape Artist.

A clue is a detail or component within the game that the players should interpret, combine, and solve in order to escape.

A hint is an additional piece of information from outside of regular gameplay delivered by the gamemaster or an automated system to assist a team in forward progress.

A detective finds clues. Hints are given by someone who knows more than the person solving the mystery.

Put more simply: hints are surrender; clues are the game.

The act of calling for a hint is a sign that the team is:

  • no longer having fun and wants the fun to come back
  • feeling time pressure and wants a speed boost
  • seeking to bypass something (either because they don’t want to do it or they can’t do it)
  • frustrated because something isn’t working properly

Whatever the reason, they’re calling for air support. It’s the gamemaster’s job to step in and ensure enjoyment.

Intent of Hint Systems

I’m also going to state my assumption that every escape room has built their hint system with the intent of helping pace the players through the experience.

I assume that a hint system is primarily there to ensure that players can enjoy their time in an escape room. It’s plausible, and encouraged, that the hint system could add to the theatrics of experience in some way. However, if your hint system is functioning as an obstacle unto itself, you’re probably doing something wrong.

Hint Frequency

It’s ultimately up to individual designers to determine how many hints they expect an average team to take in their games… but I suspect that companies with lower hint rates are usually doing a better job.

If a puzzle requires the same hint 50% or more of the time, that puzzle needs refinement. You’ve basically created an elaborate coin toss system… so that should be fixed.

If a puzzle almost always requires a hint, it’s not hard; it’s broken. Fix it.

Hint Delivery Mechanisms

With that in mind, let’s look at the pros and cons of some common hint delivery mechanisms.

I’ll state up front: My opinion on the “best hint delivery mechanism” is that it’s the one that fits the environment/ narrative most organically while allowing the gamemaster to properly support the team.

TV Screen

The wall-mounted television quickly became the industry standard hint delivery vehicle early on. When the players ask for a hint, the gamemaster triggers a hint to appear on the screen. It’s simple, intuitive, and easy to explain.

It caught on like wildfire because of systems like Escape Room Master and, more recently, Mythric Mystery Master (M3). These systems offer out-of-the-box game control functionality with minimal effort and expense.

It’s good, fast, and easy.

I only have one knock against this. Often the television and screen interface are wildly out of place in the set. Ideally, the television is mounted in a way that fits the environment and the interface is customized such that it makes sense in-world. Sometimes this is easier said than done.

Additionally, font selection, font size, and color contrast can make or break a screen-based hint system.

Written Notes

The first time that we started seeing written notes slid under a door was in Buffalo, NY… where we saw a lot of companies doing this.

Hands writing a note on a notepad.

Initially, I thought this was the laziest, cheapest thing that I had ever seen. As the games went by, however, I started to appreciate 3 things about written notes:

  • The hints were always good because the nature of the system requires an attentive gamemaster.
  • It could be (but often wasn’t) delivered in character.
  • The team didn’t need to take the hint as soon as it was delivered because they were either folded, face down, or delivered in some container. We could elect to wait a minute and see if we would solve the puzzle naturally. I came to really appreciate this level of control.
  • These hints can be prewritten and delivered elegantly.
A hand holding a handwritten note that reads, "phone a friend."

The downsides to written notes are that:

  • By my observation, most players think it’s cheap and won’t notice the virtues that I’ve mentioned above.
  • It usually comes with a time delay. If the players don’t understand the hint, it’s a pain for the gamemaster to help the team work through it in real time.

Walkie-Talkie

I’m not going to dive too deep into this one because I wrote an extensive piece specifically on hinting with walkie-talkies.

The short version is: walkie-talkies can be thematic and they are super cheap to setup. However, they have a terrible interface, require practice to handle them properly, and tend to have mediocre speakers.

The best way to use a walkie-talkie usually involves doing some surgery to them.

“God Mic”

This is a cute name for hint delivery through the room’s PA system. The gamemaster speaks into a microphone and it sounds to players like the “voice of god” coming from up high. The speaker can also be mounted in other objects, which is usually preferable.

A microphone with the words "Speak Up" scratched into it.

This is fantastic when the gamemaster is comfortable voice acting and the speaker is mounted in an object that the character should be speaking through.

One key downside of the God Mic (or any other spoken word system) is that it requires the gamemaster to always exercise control over their tone of voice. Any hint of sarcasm or disdain will make things uncomfortable.

Additionally, if someone doesn’t hear the clue, it needs to be repeated in its entirety. This can get especially difficult if the team’s native language is different from that of the gamemaster.

In-room Gamemaster or Actor

Just like the God Mic… but without the tech. A gamemaster or actor is there, physically present in the game (or summoned) delivering hints as needed.

Having a good actor in the space can be magical.

Having a regular out-of-character gamemaster in the space… well… that’s less than magical.

All of that being said, there are many nuances to actor performance that can improve or detract from the experience. It’s a world unto itself.

Escape Room Boss

Then there’s Escape Room Boss… which I already bludgeoned like a piñata at a frat kegger.

Hint Triggers

Now that we’ve established what a hint is and the methods of delivering them, we can talk about the thing that I actually set out to write about: hint triggers.

Player-Requested

The one, the only, the original hint trigger. A team is stuck… so the team asks for help.

Upon requesting a hint, the gamemaster delivers a scripted or custom hint.

A hand reaching up out of dark waters.

The big variable with this system is quantity. Are they:

  • limited to the traditional 3? (which is laughably arbitrary for how common it is)
  • capped at some other number?
  • unlimited?

This system is good because it ensures that the team never feels undercut by the delivery of a hint for a puzzle that they were “about to solve.”

The downsides here are that this system can fall apart if a team has the right mix of pride and incompetence… and the gamemaster can be stuck watching a team give themselves a miserable experience.

Similarly, incompetent teams can burn through rationed hints and find themselves twiddling their thumbs in the later portion of the game.

Gamemaster’s Discretion

The gamemaster watches the team play and when the gamemaster thinks that the team needs a nudge in the right direction, they deliver it.

The upsides here are pace control and engaged gamemastering (which I am told makes the job a bit less boring). Additionally, the hints aren’t tied to a team’s ego.

It is also possible to deliver the hints through an actor or interface such that they don’t feel like hints to most players; they are just part of the experience.

The downside of hints triggered at the gamemaster’s discretion is that the gamemaster can botch the delivery. If they give too many or too few hints, it ain’t good. If the gamemaster delivers hints just as someone is solving the puzzle, it can undercut the moment. Speaking from experience, this feels bad.

This surprises a lot of folks, but assuming a competent and attentive gamemaster, this is my favorite hint trigger by a wide margin.

Time Release

Time-released hints usually work by setting up goals. If a team hasn’t solved a particular puzzle by a certain time on the game clock, they receive a hint. Each hint has a release time and the hint is only released if the team hasn’t solved the corresponding puzzle.

The upshot is that this is fair and easy to administer, or even automate.

An hourglass with blue sand sitting atop pebbles.

The downsides are numerous.

For one, a hint mindlessly delivered can come with the same undercutting potential as the gamemaster’s discretion… but that’s just the start.

Fully automated hints are usually imprecise and can provide the team with information that they already have, which is frustrating. Similarly, the hints could avoid the nuance that the team is missing, which leads to all manner of rage.

A team that’s just slightly slow can find themselves being dragged through the experience with endless hints.

Or maybe the worst-case scenario: a good team finds themselves way ahead of the time curve until the last puzzle. When they finally need a hint, they find themselves waiting for 30 minutes, spinning in circles, until the time trigger hits.

Automagical

Automation is an interesting beast. The basic concept is that all puzzles are electronically tied to a computer that is aware of what the team has accomplished, what the team is working on, how much time is on the clock, and possibly how well the team is performing. Based on all of this information, it doles out hints either at the players’ request or at its own discretion.

Depending upon how this is executed, it can have the pros and cons of any of the other hint triggers.

A friendly looking robot looking up into the camera.

To execute this smoothly, puzzles need to have regular machine-readable checkpoints. If any puzzle goes too long without the computer knowing what’s happening in the room, the hints will be off-base.

It’s absolutely possible to build compelling games that are fully automated.

One added benefit of automation is that the game can also adjust difficulty by adding or removing content, which will allow all teams to finish the game regardless of skill.

I think that this is one of the futures for escape rooms. The companies that build the infrastructure to properly support this will have a significant leg up on their competition, if only because they’ll save on labor costs.

I suspect that I will explore automation in more detail in future posts.

Closing Thoughts

The best hint system is ultimately the one that fits a game’s narrative and a company’s ability to execute it predictably.

It’s also perfectly acceptable for a company to mix and match systems, adjusting for the individual needs of a given team.

A game’s success will frequently be built on its hint system.

My general advice: do not let any team sit and stew for too long on any one puzzle. Escape rooms are timed adventures and pace matters a lot.

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We shared this post with our Patreon backers a couple of days early and asked for their thoughts. We thank our community for their insightful comments, which were incorporated into this post. We hope you’ll consider joining these dialogues by backing us on Patreon.

Dirty vs Dirty-Looking Escape Rooms

We’ve played some games over the past quarter that were really %^&*ing dirty.

I’m talking about the kind of game that demonstrates to my teammates that “yes, I do, in fact, have allergies.”

A dirty, dusty, dark room with a pair of old and open liquor bottles casting long shadows.

“But it looks good”

I’m not talking about games that look deliberately dirty. Companies like THE BASEMENT go miles out of their way to simulate filth. Fake gross is cool.

Real dust isn’t a prop and it doesn’t constitute set design.

There are plenty of techniques for making a place look dusty, dirty, and disgusting without real dust. Hire a haunter… they’ll be happy to create that aesthetic for you (once their season is over).

Flu Season

Finally, we’re coming up on flu season, and I know that a lot of you have “outbreak” rooms. That doesn’t mean that you should be creating patient zero.

Disinfect once in a while. It’s the professional thing to do.

Loaner Reading Glasses in Escape Rooms

Here’s a quick read for you.

Last month we traveled to Colorado and played 31 games in 4 days. All of the reviews are written and will publish throughout the rest of 2019.

While we were there, we saw something that I thought was just lovely.

Loaner Reading Glasses

While visiting Locked In Escapes in Colorado Springs, we noticed a small bowl on their front desk filled with reading glasses.

The Locked In Escapes logo above a bucket of loaner reading glasses.

People who use over-the-counter reading glasses are notorious for forgetting to bring them when they go out. Some people can get by fine when the lighting is good. Many really struggle to read or see digits on a lock in dim lighting.

With a bucket of loaner readers, should a player forget to bring their own, they could borrow a pair for use in the game.

What Should You Buy?

Our team on our crazy Colorado escape room marathon included optometrist and fantastic escape room teammate Dr. Chris White.

I asked Chris what should be included in a loaner reading glasses box. He said that they should at least cover the correction range of +1.25 through +2.50.

An easy way of covering that range (and then some) is to buy an assortment pack. The pack that Chris suggested includes 25 pairs ranging from +1.25 through +3.25.

This is a simple, sweet thing to offer your players.

I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that other companies are already doing something similar, but Locked In Escapes was the first place we saw this, so I’ll give credit where it’s due.

A Dynamic Guide To Adhesives

So… this is the coolest utility website that I didn’t know existed:

This To That, a source for all things glue.

Glue dripping down the top.

Solving Adhesive Woes

Sticking things to other things is a struggle… especially if you need them to last… especially especially if you need the bond to withstand the weapons-grade destructive force of an escape room team.

Solving the puzzle of “which glue do I use for this problem” is a function of chemistry and This To That solves it with two dropdown menus.

Screenshot: This To That reads, "Because people have a need to glue things to other things." There are two dropdowns to choose what to merge.

Do you need to attach ceramic to leather or metal to rubber? Apparently E6000 is your non-flammable solution.

How about adhering glass to fabric? Weldbond is your solution.

So many of the possible combinations on This To That never occurred to me… but the answer is there waiting for that special day when I have a desperate need to stick leather to glass.

Silicone II… for what it’s worth.

Check out This To That to solve your sticky situations.

Adhesive Residue – The Silliest Immersion Breaker in Escape Rooms

The silliest immersion breaking-detail that is often overlooked is super easy to fix.

Yet it’s the kind of tiny detail that even good escape room creators sometimes overlook:

Labels & Label Residue

We’re frequently searching a room when we lift something like a steampunk statue and underneath it we find the residue of a label.

The residue of a tron sticker.

Now, this is not the kind of nitpick that typically finds itself in a review, unless the game is operating on such a high level that we feel justified in picking the nits.

Is it a catastrophe? Hell no.

Is it a cheap and easy detail to mind? Hell yeah.

Easy Adhesive Removal

If you’re looking to get rid of this stuff easily, here are two fantastic tools to get the job done:

  • Goo Gone – A liquid adhesive and sticker remover.
  • FOSHIO Plastic Razor Scrapers – A plastic razor blade that when used with Goo Gone makes quick work of stickers and the adhesive residue.

This $15 solution and a little elbow grease will help you maintain immersion and look more professional.

“Escape Room” Enters-Merriam Webster Dictionary

With new concepts come new words. “Escape Room” was among the 533 new words that Merriam-Webster added to their dictionary in their latest batch of updates.

Today we’re going to look at their definition and see if we can improve upon it.

Merriam-Webster’s definition of escape room

a game in which participants confined to a room or other enclosed setting (such as a prison cell) are given a set amount of time to find a way to escape (as by discovering hidden clues and solving a series of riddles or puzzles)

Stylized image of a dictionary open on a table.

Parsing This Definition

They nailed a lot of the key elements here with “game,” “participants,” “set amount of time,” “discovering,” “solving,” and “puzzles.”

We don’t love that “confined” is part of the definition. That gives some people the wrong impression that this activity is dangerous or claustrophobic. That said, as written, this captures that physical space is a key element.

It seems strange to argue with “to find a way to escape” as part of the definition, but in this aspect of the wording, I think Merriam-Webster is just a bit behind. This was true for quite some time, but the term now encompasses broader goals.

Why we love Merriam-Webster

We love Merriam-Webster because they are dedicated to describing the language we use. They watch as terms gain staying power or evolve. They make updates. And they are descriptivists; so are we.

The Room Escape Artist Definition

Escape Room – (noun, singular) a game where a group of participants collaboratively discovers and solves puzzles, tasks, and challenges that require no outside knowledge at a physical venue in order to accomplish a goal within a set amount of time.

In our ERban Dictionary, we also define two synonyms: Room Escape, Escape Game

Room For Discussion

In escape rooms, players both “discover” and “solve” the challenges. There aren’t any directions provided. Discovery is part of what separates an escape room from other types of puzzle games.

“No outside knowledge” separates escape rooms from puzzle hunts. While both are challenging, puzzle-solving activities, escape rooms should be self-contained and shouldn’t require any specialized knowledge.

“Physical venue” separates escape rooms from video games and VR. The idea of real-life or meetspace is a crucial differentiator.

We define escape room and escape game as synonyms. At present, these terms are mostly used interchangeably… except when we don’t want to argue the finer points of a “room” when discussing experiences that take place outdoors, around a table, or in a ballroom, stadium, or theater.

And these points are, of course, arguable. Our definition encompasses physical venues that are outdoors or that hold more than one team at once. These are atypical, but we still see them as escape rooms.

More Room for Discussion

The elephant in the physical venue is the word “escape.” Why is the activity called “escape room” when the goal is to find a relic, steal a McGuffin, or disarm a bomb? In these cases, there might not even be any escaping.

This takes us back to Merriam-Webster. Dictionaries don’t ask why. They describe how language is used.

This term has evolved since its early usage in English somewhere between 2010 and 2012 when “escape” described the sole goal of the activity. That’s what we recognize in our definition.

A Quick Thought on VacuForm Panels in Escape Rooms

VacuForm panels are plastic wall mountings that can be purchased, painted and hung in theatrical environments. They are a quick and easy way to handle some aspects of set design.

A white vacuform panel that looks like a mistrure of stones and skulls sealed with mortar to make a wall.
Unpainted VacuForm

They are reasonably common in escape rooms. Some of the common textures that escape room players encounter are Egyptian tomb hieroglyphics, steampunk gears, and brick walls.

While I don’t think that VacuForm is the peak of set construction, I also see few issues with it when compared to regular drywall. It’s fairly affordable and quick to set up. If a designer finds the right panels for their set… I’m in favor of anything that raises quality and keeps timelines and budgets under control. It’s way better than seeing drywall in an Egyptian tomb.

That said, I have one suggestion:

When using VacuForm, ask yourself this one question, “Can the players reach this?”

Can I Reach It?

VacuForm has a lot of flex to it because it’s hollow. If you touch it, it will usually give… a lot. The result is a sharp break in immersion because your brain is telling you that the wall is made of stone or metal, but then it’s plastic.

The easy fix is to fill in the back to provide it more rigidity. It might still feel like plastic, but it won’t give way to my touch.

Touching hollow VacuForm is like a kid seeing Santa Claus in the mall parking lot getting into a 2002 Pontiac Aztek and driving away. Where the hell is his sleigh?

Walkie-Talkies & Escape Rooms [Design]

Walkie-talkies are a funny method of hint delivery in escape rooms. A lot of companies use them. More than a few players hate them (and with good reason). There is potential to do some great things with walkie-talkies… if they are done deliberately and thoughtfully (and this is rare).

“He’s looking at me, Ray.”

Before we dive in, let’s establish an understanding of hint systems:

What Can/ Should A Hint System Do?

In any escape game, the hint system must:

  • Provide a means for players to get unstuck and continue their adventure
  • Allow players to communicate with the gamemaster in the event of a game failure or emergency

In a great escape game, the hint system can:

  • Be intuitive to use
  • Integrate the gamemaster or hint giver into the narrative and world
  • Make receiving hints a delightful part of the experience

With that in mind, let’s talk about walkie-talkies.

The Case For Walkie-talkies

In principle, a walkie-talkie is a great, immersive hint delivery mechanism for many escape game scenarios. Anything set in the last century or so can narratively justify the use of a walkie-talkie.

Additionally, it’s easy to make the gamemaster into an unseen character over a walkie-talkie.

This can make the walkie-talkie a useful tool for escape room design.

Let’s examine where walkie-talkies fail. Then we’ll look into how to incorporate them well.

Where Walkie-talkies Fail

There are two reasons that walkie-talkies tend to annoy me as a player: user interface & uncertain communication.

User Interface

The overwhelming majority walkie-talkies that I’ve encountered in escape rooms are too convoluted. They are a mess of buttons, dials, and dust covers that look like buttons.

Two commonly used escape room walkie-talkies
On a side note: if you give me a walkie talkie that has a flashlight built in and then get angry at me for using the flashlight… I do believe that you can go to hell.

This leads to gamemaster instructions like:

  • “Twist this… and you turn it off.”
  • “Press these and you’ll change the channel. If you do that we won’t know when you’re asking for a hint.”
  • “This, on the side… this is the button you need to press to talk. Don’t press the thing that looks like a button on the other side… or the button above this one.”
  • “And when you’re done speaking, you have to release the button or I can’t respond.”

All of these instructions are problematic. In any other game interaction they would be considered laughable, but for some reason they are fairly normal when it comes to hinting. I find this funny because hinting is critical. Hinting isn’t just part of the game, it’s a necessary aspect of customer service.

Moving on.

Uncertain Communication

That last bit of instruction, “…when you’re done speaking, you have to release the button or we can’t respond…” is a problem.

Although mechanically it’s not hard to do, that interaction creates uncertainty.

Most obviously, you have players who will death-grip the “push to talk” button. When a player does this, there’s nothing the gamemaster can do other than wait.

The less obvious problem is the question of, “when have I said enough?” Walkie-talkies have an etiquette and a jargon that professionals will employ. Amateur escape room players… not so much.

It gets awkward when you have to ask a question or start describing where you’re stuck. Players keep rambling to get enough information across in order to get the optimal hint (having to ask specific questions to get specific hints usually sucks, but that’s a topic for another day). This kind of thing also creeps up when something goes wrong in the game and the team needs support from the gamemaster to fix things.

The easy solution to this for an escape room is to have attentive gamemaster and only require the players to pick up the walkie-talkie and say, “we’d like a hint.” Honestly, this is usually fine, except in those edge cases where something has gone wrong.

How To Walkie-talkie Right

When a room only has a live microphone in it, and the gamemaster hears everything, this is a user interface for the players:

The players speak. They are heard. The gamemaster can respond.

We don’t usually think of this as an interface, but it is an interface. And it’s fantastic.

A walkie talkie in a cradle at the controls for a boat.

One-way Walkie-talkie

I’ve encountered escape games (and I cannot remember which) that had a hot microphone in the room, but the gamemaster responded through the walkie-talkie. This effectively removed all of the previously stated challenges from using walkie-talkies in-game.

This was a significant improvement from a player perspective because it gave the immersive walkie-talkie effect, while removing almost all of the user interface encumbrances.

The one downside was that the gamemaster still had to give the same, “don’t touch the dials” instructions; this wasn’t a big deal.

Modifying the Walkie-talkie

There is an opportunity to modify the walkie-talkie and disable the various buttons and dials so that only the “push to talk” button works… or better still, that it’s just a housing for a speaker and a wifi antenna.

Turning the walkie-talkie into a dumb output device seems like an opportunity for a prop builder.

The coolest part about doing it this way is that you can just leave the walkie-talkie in the room for the team to find. They can pick it up and push whatever button they want and it will just work. Anytime you can remove interface explanation from the experience, you’re improving upon it.

A closeup of a Star Trek Communicator.
If you start playing with the form factor… there are so many possibilities.

Closing Thoughts

Most uses of walkie-talkie in escape rooms are mediocre.

Sometimes they are included thematically. A lot of the time, they feel like corner cutting. Walkie-talkies were just a cheap easy way to avoid having to run wire and set up microphones (and often cameras).

A gamemaster should always have eyes and ears on their players for their safety as well as the safety of the game itself.

Setup the microphones and cameras; they are an essential part of safe escape room design.

If you want to use walkie-talkies artistically to build your world, then do so… but don’t do it at the expense of safety or the experience.

Safety Release Handcuffs & Escape Rooms

My angry handcuff meme begged a question… and a long-time reader almost immediately wrote in to ask it:

Stylized image of handcuffs.

The Handcuff Question

“First of all, I am 100% in agreement with not locking players up and people having a safe and easy way for freeing themselves from an escape room in case of a fire.

You mentioned that using “police handcuffs” is really bad, and I totally agree. But my question to you is, what is your opinion on real looking metal handcuffs that have a safety release?”

Black handcuffs with safety release latches.

What About Safety Release Handcuffs?

I’m not going to rehash the ideas that we discussed in our lengthy exploration of physical restraints in escape rooms around the world. That post is a couple years old, but I think it still holds up.

For us there are 2 answers to the question of safety release handcuffs:

The Technocratic Answer

Ask your fire inspector and your insurer.

If your local authorities and insurance company are cool with safety release handcuffs, then yeah, they’re fine.

They meet our basic standards of allowing players to free themselves in an emergency.

Stylized image of hands raised with handcuffs binding them together.

The Nuanced Answer

Even if you’re checking the proper legalistic boxes, we still don’t have any love for safety release handcuffs.

Releases Require Dexterity

Safety releases are way better than nothing, but they still require fine motor skills, which some will struggle with, especially in a crisis.

This can be made worse by the angle or positioning of the cuffs in some game designs.

Discomfort

One of the features that double locking police handcuffs have over the safety release handcuffs is that once locked, they can’t ratchet tighter around the wearer.

If you bump them the wrong way, those safety release handcuffs can become painfully tight.

Don’t misread this section. This is not an endorsement of using police handcuffs in escape rooms. Rather, it’s a reason to not use safety release handcuffs either.

Better Solutions

There are better solutions than safety release handcuffs.

Maze Rooms Austin had an elegant and comfortable restraint solution in their game, The Shed. They used a padded leather sex restraint and attached it to a chain with a carabiner.

Leather and metal cuffs.

This had 3 key advantages:

  • It was super easy to release because the carabiner was large and easy to get a full hand on.
  • The restraint used a leather buckle so it couldn’t ratchet tighter while we played.
  • It was comfortable, which was good because we wore the restraint for most of the game.

Closing Thoughts

Safety release handcuffs are adequate, but not great.

There are better, more comfortable solutions than safety release handcuffs.

Before you physically restrain your players in any way, always check this stuff out with your fire inspector and insurer.

4 Easy Ways to Make Bad Counting Puzzles in an Escape Room [Design Tips]

Let’s revisit counting puzzles. It’s been a few years and we have better thoughts on the subject.

There’s nothing wrong with a counting puzzle from time to time. There are, however, a couple of ways to do them very poorly.

The Count from Sesame Street kneeling and holding up 4 fingers.

Before we explore these terrible approaches to puzzle design, let’s define the concept.

What is a Counting Puzzle?

A counting puzzle is one where you have to count different objects in a room or in an image. The numbers you count translate into a code.

For example, you have:

  • a 3-digit lock
  • a clue that reads, “🎸💡🚪”
  • and the following image
A room with 4 electric guitars, a single light bulb, and a door.

You can surmise that the solution is, 4 – 1 – 1.

So, what are some ways to take this kind of puzzle and really screw it up? Let’s explore.

1. Large Numbers

Making people count large numbers of items is boring.

The larger the count becomes, the more error-prone a team will become.

Also, this is lame. Don’t be lame.

2. SUBSTANTIAL AMBIGUITY

A personal pet peeve is when I am unsure of how to count the items in your counting puzzle. I love details and I’m pretty analytical. If a counting puzzle becomes fuzzy, I become agitated.

For example, you have:

  • a 3-digit lock
  • a clue that reads, “🚲💡window” (I’m 💔 that there isn’t a “window” emoji, but 🐻 with me)
  • and the following image
A side of a building with a bicycle leaning against it.

With this image, things are no longer clean cut.

  • There is 1 bicycle. Easy. Cool.
  • Lights are a little more fuzzy.
    • “There are clearly 2 on either side of the door… but it looks like there might be a third centered above the door.”
    • “Does the clue mean that the light must be on or am I supposed to count everything that is a light?”
  • The windows… of the windows… ugh…
    • “Well, there are 3 glass windows, but there are 6 panes of glass inside of them.”
    • “Then there’s the reflection in those windows that looks like more windows. Am I supposed to count them? Probably not… but I can’t be sure.”
    • “And then there are those blacked out windows down below. Do they count? Is a window only a window when you can see through it?”

So now we have a solution that is, 1 – 2/3? – I’m going to spin the final disk because this puzzle sucks.

This may seem like an extreme example, but I’ve absolutely seen counting puzzles exactly like this. This is obnoxious.

3. Zeros

Including a zero, or the count of an item that isn’t present at all, is mean and unnecessary.

You can’t prove the absence of a thing. Creating a puzzle that encourages a team to run around looking for things that aren’t actually in the room is the antithesis of fun.

A 4 digit combination lock with a red, green, yellow, and blue disk.

This is even more obnoxious if you’re using a lock like this that doesn’t actually have a “0” on any of the disks. For some reason the designers in China saw fit to simply place a dot where the zero ought to be.

Closing Thoughts

While a counting puzzle isn’t an innovative or incredible thing, every now and then it can serve as a competent way to provide gating.

It ain’t amazing, but it’s the kind of task that can involve multiple people and pull a puzzle together into something that can easily translate into a lock combination.

If you design it well, and don’t overuse the concept, it’s just fine.