Basic Safety Evaluation in Escape Room Reviews

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.

A

Preface

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.

Emergency Exits

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

A large green button labeled:

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.

Physical Restraints

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.

Limitations

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.

Tracking

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.

Evolution

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.

5 Dead, 1 Injured in Polish Escape Room Fire

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.

A dying rose against a black backdrop.

What Happened?

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.

My Thoughts

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.

I wrote this post on fire safety while I was in Poland last year. I’m not going to reiterate my thoughts on the subject here.

One additional thought: any escape room operator who isn’t interested in fire safety should close their doors for good.

Speculation

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?

International Effects

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.

Master Lock 1590D – All Possible 3 Letter Words

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.

Blue alphanumeric locker-style padlock.

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.

The results of the analysis are here. I encourage you, however, to continue reading, as this analysis turned out a bit different from previous ones (this one and this one.)

Letter Distribution

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.

Blue alphanumeric locker-style padlock open with a reset key sitting beside it.
Once opened, the lock may be reset by inserting this plastic key into the shackle hole.

What Words Can This Distribution Generate?

We ran two separate analyses.

Analysis 1: Letters Only (Tab 1)

This analysis only used the actual letters on the lock: A D E H J L N R S T

The results generated 59 high-value words.

Analysis 2: Letters & Number Substitutions (Tab 2)

This analysis used the actual letters , plus O, I, Z, G, B (as represented by the letters 0, 1, 2, 6, 8).

The results generated 207 high value words.

Blue alphanumeric locker-style padlock open with a reset key inserted.
It can be reset to a 3-digit permutation.

Analysis Methodology

Once again, Rich Bragg (of Guinness Record, Enthusiast Choice Awards, & ClueKeeper fame) helped conduct this analysis. The mechanics of the analysis were explained in the original lock analysis post… so I’m not going to rehash them here. 

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.

5 Observations

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.

Caution

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.

Download Free, Famous, & High Resolution Art

The Art Institute of Chicago’s website now offers an online gallery of downloadable art… and a ton of it is easily recognizable.

Rustic blue walled bedroom painted in van Gogh's signature impressionistic style.

Use In Escape Rooms

Whether you’re looking to create an art heist, hide a message in a painting, or simply add art to the space, there are plenty of uses for this gallery in escape room design.

Notable Works

There are a lot of iconic works in this gallery including:

Copyright

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.

To make things easier, I applied the “Public Domain” search filter to this link.

Or you can view the full gallery; it is lovely.

Via Lifehacker

Do Not Touch: Why These Stickers Are Flawed

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. 

A mixing board that is messily labeled, "DO NOT TOUCH OR SOMETHING BAD WILL HAPPEN TO YOU."
I’ve been hanging onto this photo for years.

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.

An electrical outlet with a blue do not touch sticker.

Fuzzy Meaning

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. 

A sharp torture implement hanging from a wooden wall, with blood painted onto the edge.
In this game, “the blood means ‘do not touch.'”

Visual Identification 

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.

A prop with a with a blue do not touch sticker.
The sticker almost gets lost among the screws.

Immersive Damage

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? 

Inconsistency

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. 

Suggested Solutions

I have a few suggestions to mitigate these problems: 

Build Stronger

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. 

Be Clear

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. 

Red Master Lock 410 beside its brass key and a quarter for size reference.

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.

As a thank you to our Patreon backers, we shared this post with them early and asked for their input! Please consider supporting us on Patreon.

From Quake to Fortnite to Escape Room: Learning From Your Players

I pretty much grew up with video games. I mean that in both senses of the phrase: 

  • I grew up playing video games
  • Video games grew up as I did

Obvious Controls

When I first started playing first person shooters (and suffering through them while they made me motion sick because they were choppy as hell), the arrow keys on the keyboard were the movement standard.

The arrow keys made sense. They were the obvious input mechanism for controlling motion. That was, until “WASD” came along. 

Close up of glowing WASD keys on an keyboard.

“Thresh” Hold

From Half Life and Counterstrike, to Portal and Fortnite, the movement control standard for first person games has been the “WASD” keys on the left side of the keyboard. This button mapping wasn’t obvious… and it didn’t come from a video game designer. It came from a player. 

Dennis “Thresh” Fong was the top Quake player back in game’s heyday of the mid 1990s. WASD was his button mapping; he went undefeated with it. Thersh was basically a folk hero among gamers back then. This layout caught on, partially because of his notoriety, but mostly because it worked. 

I remember being super skeptical of WASD as a button mapping, but it made everything more fluid and easier. Those keys were laid-out perfectly and the hand position gave access to plenty of other buttons, enabling complex actions that simply weren’t possible when your fingers were isolated over by the arrow keys. 

This story is beautifully told in this video: 

Why is this relevant to escape rooms?

Good escape rooms are built on top of decades of knowledge from other industries. Video games are certainly one of the biggest influences. 

I’ve encountered plenty of companies that learn from watching their players. Some learn from aggregate player behavior, using their games as large experiments and iterating on them based on player trends. 

I’ve heard of other designers taking inspiration for new puzzles or puzzle iterations by listening to the wrong ideas that players cook up while attempting to solve a challenge. 

As a player, I’ve adopted plenty of tactics from other players… and I’ve invented a few of my own. 

Two Questions

Players: What tactics have you learned from other players? 

Owners: What have you seen your players do that you think would make for great standards? 

I think that there is a lot to learn from great players, both in terms of improving one’s abilities to play, and as in the case with WASD, improving the way that games are designed. 

Blog Devoted to Images of Control Panels

Inspiration can come from all sorts of places. I’m usually partial to finding my muse in real life, because reality is strange. 

A strange geometric concrete pedestal with 8 buttons below a circular screen.
Volcanic Museum, César Manrique, Lanzarote Island, 1966-1968
Photos by Julian Weyer

Control Panel

Following up on the Flickr gallery devoted to images of control panels, here’s a companion blog to go with it:

Control Panel: In praise of dials, toggles, buttons, and bulbs. 

So many of these could make for beautiful escape room interactions. Enjoy. 

Found via BoingBoing.

Boogie Boards in Escape Rooms [Review]

Boogie Boards

Boogie Boards are popular writing surfaces for escape rooms across the United States. We’ve discussed writing in escape rooms generally; now we’ll look at what Boogie Boards offer.

As LCD writing tablets, they provide a simple, reusable, rapidly erasable surface for note-taking and and puzzle-solving.

Boogie Board offers different models. After exploring their offerings, I believe that there is a correct model for use in escape rooms… and it’s not the one we usually see.

A small boogie board that reads, "Erase me!" and points at the erase button.
Jot Series

Boogie Board Jot Series

The Jot Series is the traditional Boogie Board. I’ve seen this model almost every time I come across a Boogie Board in escape room. They come in a number of different sizes and forms, but they all work the same way:

Write on the surface with the stylus. Press the round button to erase the slate.

They are easy to explain to players and simple to use.

A small translucent boogie board with card under it that reads "Thank You," with tarot art. Atop, the boogie board reads, "I'm translucent."
Also available in a translucent model.

There are two main drawbacks: 

If you want to erase something, you have to erase everything. 

It’s almost too easy to erase them. I’ve seen players accidentally erase something that someone else was working on. This is the most common gripe that I hear from other players about Boogie Boards.

A large boogie board blackboard, pointing out the eraser button, the erase button, and the lock switch.
Blackboard

Boogie Board Blackboard

On the other extreme, there is the top-of-the-line Boogie Board, the new Blackboard model.

This thing is pretty damn awesome. It’s large and translucent (so it can draw over other things). With one button, it switches to an eraser mode where the stylus works as a focused eraser, like the end of a pencil would. You don’t have to blank out the entire slate to erase, but that is an option too. There’s a mobile app to store your work. 

Closeup of the boogie board blackboard's pointing out the eraser button, the erase button, and the lock switch.

I love using one of these at home. I highly recommend the Blackboard for at-home puzzle-solving and other creative work. It’s awesome.

I do not recommend it for use in escape rooms. It has too many options and requires too much explanation. It’s a little too big. Also, considering that it’s liable to get dropped, I think it’s a little pricey for this use case.

The Boogie Board Dashboard.
Dashboard

Boogie Board Dashboard

If the Jot is too simple and the Blackboard is too complex… the Boogie Board Dashboard is just right.

Dashboard is essentially a Jot with a safety switch that disables the erase button. This adds almost no additional explanation, but provides a significant benefit to the players.

The Boogie Board Dashboard locked.
Erase Lock: On
The Boogie Board Dashboard unlocked.
Erase Lock: Off

I’ve only ever seen these at Locked Murfreesboro in Franklin, Tennessee. The folks from Locked also made a small but significant modification to their Boogie Board Dashboards. They drilled a small hole and wired the stylus to the board ensuring that they travel together.

The Boogie Board Dashboard with the stylus attached to the body.

In my opinion Locked Murfreesboro’s approach is currently the best way to use Boogie Boards in escape rooms.

The two components that they use to wire the stylus board are: 

Boogie Boards certainly aren’t without drawbacks. They can be especially challenging in low lighting and they are pretty small. That said, they are a writing surface, not a tool to fix gameplay. If the lighting is too dim for a Boogie Board or the puzzle requires a ton of writing to solve, that’s a problem with the game’s design, not the writing surface.

We haven’t yet seen Boogie Boards integrated into the set and narrative of an escape room. That’s the next step.

Disclosure: Boogie Board provided Jot and Blackboard models for review. 

(If you purchase via our Amazon links, you will help support Room Escape Artist as we will receive a very small percentage of the sale.)

Writing Within Escape Rooms

Should escape rooms provide writing surfaces?

Today, I’ll discuss the pros and cons of writing surfaces in general. Tomorrow, I’m going to review Boogie Board’s product line for use in escape rooms. 

Don’t Force Me To Write

Escape rooms play better when the puzzles do not require writing.

Successful escape room puzzles are tangible and rooted in the game environment. They engage multiple active participants and enable onlookers to see the action.

Writing is a small, isolated experience. When I’m forced to write in an escape room, it’s usually to work on a puzzle that is best suited to a single-person solve. We might pass that puzzle around the group until it lands in the right person’s hands, but that’s not really a team solving experience.

Writing usually takes me out of the gamespace; it focuses my attention on a piece of paper. If I wanted to solve paper puzzles, I’d buy a puzzle book for less than half the price of an escape room ticket.

There are exceptions where writing works well in an escape room, but I haven’t encountered this often.

"Writing in escape rooms" written across boogie boards and different paper.

Do Allow Me To Write

While I’m rarely excited about a puzzle that requires me to write in an escape room, I do appreciate escape rooms that provide a note-taking option. This is especially true of more challenging or complex games.

The most important reason to provide a writing surface is that our brains don’t all process and retain information uniformly. Providing a writing surface is a kindness to those who need it.

In addition, I sometimes want to jot something down in an escape room because:

  • There is complex math or logic that I need to write out to solve.
  • I want to keep track of portions of a solution.
  • I derived a code, but don’t have anywhere to input it yet.
  • I noticed something obscure and I want to remember it.
  • I’m struggling to solve something simple and sketching it will help.
  • I want to keep track of wrong answers so that we don’t continually try them.
  • I want to sketch out how I derived a solution to help a teammate understand it.
  • There’s nothing for me to work on; I want to doodle… this is a bad room problem.
  • I want to leave a funny note for the gamemaster to find when they reset the game.

Writing Surface Options

Here’s our preferred hierarchy of writing surfaces:

In-game: The "Daily Specials" white board.

1: Environment Integration

The writing surface is a part of the set and belongs in the gamespace.

For example, we used an integrated writing surface in The Mall at Complexity in Farmington, Connecticut. The shopping mall’s Italian restaurant had a “daily specials” whiteboard on the wall. This simple, elegant writing surface made sense within the context of the escape room.

This is the ideal setup, if and only if the gamemasters maintain it as a functioning writing surface, not just as static set decor. If the writing implement doesn’t write properly, the moment is spoiled.

A small boogie board.

2: Boogie Boards

LCD writing tablets work in escape rooms because they are lightweight, easy to use, and impressively reliable. They don’t come with extra rules or risk.

Traditional writing media always come with the additional stipulation: “Don’t write on anything other than the paper or dry erase board.” While this is a perfectly sensible rule, it’s broken all too often… and then we find the remnants of the sketches around the room. These are almost always wrong because the kind of person who draws on an escape room isn’t usually an all-star player.

Traditional writing media also require ink or sharpening. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve had to ask for a pen/ marker that actually works I could buy admission to an escape room or two.

Boogie Boards skirt these maintenance issues that plague traditional writing systems.

That said, it’s usually difficult to integrate Boogie Boards within the narrative. They require explanation and some models can erase easily.

Are you interested in which Boogie Board to buy? Come back tomorrow for a deeper discussion on Boogie Boards.

Dry erase markers on a whiteboard.

3: Dry Erase/ Chalk Board; No Integration

I’ve already discussed the cons. The pro is size.

Dry erase / chalk boards can be large enough that entire team can be involved in viewing them.

A notepad that reads, "Please ONLY write on this paper!"

4: Pen/ Pencil & Paper

It’s better than nothing.

Expectations

In escape rooms, writing is regional. Some players expect a writing surface. That’s what they’re used to. Others will be baffled why one would write on anything. Be aware of the local norms and make a conscious decision about how to integrate (or not integrate) writing in your escape room.

What Do You Think?

I’m curious what others prefer to write with. What are your thoughts on the best and worst writing surfaces in escape rooms?

Interesting & Boring Escape Room Themes [Design Tips]

Put too many escape room enthusiasts in one place for too long and inevitably someone asks:

What escape room themes are you tired of seeing?

Recurring themes

There’s no shortage of common escape room themes:

  • Zombie apocalypse
  • Stop the bomb
  • Stop the disease or virus
  • Sherlock Holmes / generic detective
  • Bunker
  • Prison break
  • Spycraft something-or-other
  • Prohibition speakeasy
  • Ancient tomb raid
  • Surprise Satanism

This list can go on, but it doesn’t need to.

In-game a photo of a mundane set with a pair of white dressers. A globe and a lockbox rest atop the dressers.
There was nothing special about this.

Common themes aren’t the problem. There are good and bad executions of all of these themes. A great zombie escape room is still a great escape room even if I’m disappointed with how prevalent and persistent mindless hordes are in popular culture at large.

Eliminate the mundane

The themes that I’ve found inherently disappointing are the easily executed, humdrum, everyday life themes:

  • Apartments
  • Offices
  • College dorms
  • Hotel rooms

These are often themes of convenience and laziness. These themes give a creator license to buy crappy used furniture, tape posters on the wall, dump in a few puzzles, and start charging money.

Do the mundane creatively

If you want to create a dorm, do something creative with it. Build a world. 

Set it in the 1890s. Make it look authentic. Put the players in a secret society initiation where your group must puzzle out how to make an offering.

A shortcut to creating something interesting: combine two different ideas so that you aren’t executing one in a cliched manner. To illustrate the point, think of Star Wars as warrior monks in space.

Drawing of a centaur, half man, half horse.

Dead Air was a rock & roll radio station in the zombie apocalypse. The mixture of two different concepts paired with good execution gave birth to a creative, unique, and fantastic escape game.

Craft an experience

Your players are paying for an experience. Give them one.

Don’t throw them in a space that looks like a regular home. They live in one of those already.

Don’t ask them to pay to play in a space that looks like an office. They just left work.

Don’t sell the mundane priced as extraordinary.

Choose to provide your players with an amazing adventure in a cohesive and exciting world. Mind the details. Your puzzles, set, hint system, and story should all be part of this fantastic world and make sense within it.

Damn near any theme can be made interesting as long as you’re willing to put in the creative effort.