New US Tariffs Will Harm Escape Room Creators

The White House’s $250 billion in tariffs on Chinese imports will increase the cost of electronic components by 25%. 

Before we dive into the issue in question, I need to make a something clear. I will moderate away any broad-brush political comments. Read the post, think about the issue, and feel free to thoughtfully discuss it. Anything short of thoughtful discussion isn’t helpful to anyone. (For what it’s worth, that extends beyond this site.)

Artistically rendered image of complex breadboarding.

What’s Going On

Electronics and manufacturing expert Andrew “bunnie” Huang published a lengthy analysis this weekend about how the $250 billion in tariffs on Chinese imports will harm educators, DIY creators, and American businesses that do assembly within the United States by slapping a 25% tax on a broad spectrum of electronics components.

“The new 25% tariffs announced by the USTR, set to go into effect on July 6th, are decidedly anti-Maker and ironically pro-offshoring. I’ve examined the tariff lists (List 1 and List 2), and it taxes the import of basic components, tools and sub-assemblies, while giving fully assembled goods a free pass. The USTR’s press release is careful to mention that the tariffs “do not include goods commonly purchased by American consumers such as cellular telephones or televisions.”

Think about it – big companies with the resources to organize thousands of overseas workers making TVs and cell phones will have their outsourced supply chains protected, but small companies that still assemble valuable goods from basic parts inside the US are about to see significant cost increases. Worse yet educators, already forced to work with a shoe-string budget, are going to return from their summer recess to find that basic parts, tools and components for use in the classroom are now significantly more expensive.”

Bunnie thoughtfully breaks down why these tariffs are ill-conceived because they fly in the face of their stated goal. Assembled electronics such as smartphones, televisions, and computers are all exempt from the tariff. The unassembled components that make up those devices are subject to the 25% price hike.

The incentive to pay Chinese manufacturing to build the entire product before shipping will get magnified, not reduced.

I strongly encourage you to read his entire analysis.

Tariffs & Escape Room Creators

Escape room creators who design and build their own games or hire American labor to create custom games will take a massive financial blow from these tariffs.

The tariffs hit the absolute necessities for custom technology creation. The list is lengthy, covering essentially all of the basics short of wood, paint, and construction hardware (update: screws & nails will be impacted by the steel tariff). If it’s related to the creation of electronics, it’s probably on the tariff list.

These items from List 1 are set to increase in price by 25% as of July 6th, 2018:

A broad range of items within the following categories are affected.I have simplified the lengthy list for easier reading. Read the List 1 on the USTR website for more thorough descriptions.

  • batteries
  • soldering irons
  • oscilloscopes
  • resistance measuring instruments
  • circuit assemblies (like Arduino)
  • LEDs
  • LCDs
  • capacitors
  • resistors
  • transistors
  • photosensitive semiconductors
  • mounted piezoelectric crystals
  • switches
  • connectors
  • insulated electric conductors
  • touch screens without display capabilities
  • power supply parts
  • and many other items

These items from List 2 are under review for a 25% tariff:

  • multimeters
  • additional types of diodes
  • additional electronic integrated circuits: processors and controllers, memories, amplifiers, other
  • parts of electronic integrated circuits and microassemblies
  • electric motors
  • DC motors
  • additional insulated electric conductors
  • acrylic polymers
  • monofilament plastics (for 3D printing)
  • and many other items

The Net Effect

A 25% hike in electronic component prices will measurably increase build budgets. It will also raise the price associated with learning and experimentation.

If the finished goods you buy are made in the US, they too will have been subjected to these tariffs and will increase in price.

Build prices will go up.

Either budgets will inflate too or quality will drop accordingly. In general, Americans will be paying a lot more for a broad range of goods, so raising prices won’t necessarily be a great strategy to mitigate the losses on the business side.

What Now?

Stock Up

If you can stock up on the parts that you need, you should try to do so before July 6th.

That being said, bigger companies than yours have been gobbling up everything that they can to improve their margins, so prices have gone up, especially in markets that have already been struggling to meet demand, such as capacitors.

It’s also possible that the things you need have already sold out.

Adjust Your Budgets

If you’re planning new games, you’ll need to revisit your budget. There’s no way around it.

Speak Up

List 2, which includes all manner of 3D printing and acrylic laser cutting materials, has not yet been ratified. The USTR reports that they will open this list up for public comment. When that opens up, I ask everyone to speak up.

Final Thoughts

The bigger the company, the more insulated they are from these tariffs. Massive manufacturing operations that already handle all assembly in China will be untouched by this policy. It’s the medium and small scale businesses, as well as individuals, who will bear the brunt of these new taxes.

Setting aside for a moment my personal belief that no one wins a trade war… when I stop and contrast the stated goal of these new tariffs — to harm Chinese businesses and boost American companies — with the harsh reality that it will make more sense to buy finished goods from China, I am at a loss for words.

Increasing the price of base-level components increases the cost of education, making it more expensive to learn the skills necessary to thrive in a technology-driven world.

Increasing the price of base-level components drives up the price of goods built in the United States.

Increasing the price of base-level components decreases the likelihood that a product will be built in the United States.

If we’re going to fire a gun, it shouldn’t be at our own foot.

If you comment on this post, please include the hashtag #ReadTheWholePost so that commenters can see who has informed themselves appropriately. 

Escape Rooms & Intellectual Property Enforcement

“Is it licensed?”

This is the inevitable question we receive after reviewing any escape room that is based on an existing video game, movie, book, or television series. It’s a good question and it’s a murky one.

Lego Wonder Woman, Batman, Sonic, and Gandalf figures standing on a road outdoors.

I’m going to explore the gray area that is intellectual property and discuss our approach to handling it. Before I do so, I want to make something incredibly clear:

I am not a lawyer.

Lisa is not a lawyer.

Intellectual property law in the United States is made up of a number of different specializations. This is to say, it’s really damn complicated.

Our Intellectual Property Policy

We have a longstanding policy on intellectual property that goes back to the early days of our reviews:

If we have been told by the company that we’re playing a licensed game, we include that information in the review. Otherwise we do not comment on intellectual property rights.

  • We cannot be the intellectual property police.
  • The laws are too complicated.
  • We do not have access to any contracts that may or may not be in place.
  • We don’t know how to parse what is fair use and what isn’t.
  • Even if we could sort out copyright, we cannot even begin to delve into the trademark and patent landscape in a review.

Finally, if the rights holders care to enforce their intellectual property rights, that’s why they have lawyers. If they want to go full Metallica, that’s their prerogative.

Why So Gray?

To give you a sense of how murky this is, here are a few ideas to chew on:

Even when a company flat out tells us that they have a license to use someone else’s intellectual property, we don’t know if they:

  • are abiding by the terms of the agreement
  • acquired the rights from the correct party
  • told us the truth

We know of one company that had the rights to run a Harry Potter escape room. Less than a week after it opened, they were contacted by the rights holder and told that the department within their own organization that had issued the rights didn’t have the authority to do so.

We have spoken with one company that has an escape room based heavily on Harry Potter, but they claim that they designed the game with their lawyer and are walking along the razor’s edge of fair use. The game has been running for some time without being shut down, so maybe they achieved their goal?

We cannot tell the difference between an escape room that is inspired by Indiana Jones and an escape room that is violating the intellectual property of the rights holders. We can note if the game seems particularly Indiana Jones-y.

We cannot tell the difference between an Egyptian tomb raid called The Mummy and one that is violating the IP rights of The Mummy film. We can note if the game references the film.

Passionate Opinions on IP

I know that in the community, there are a lot of people with strong opinions on intellectual property.

Jigsaw from Saw sitting on a tricycle.

There are plenty of people shouting “come up with your own ideas.” There’s also no shortage of folks who are eager to tell us that, “In my country, no one cares about intellectual property rights.”

We’re chilling somewhere in between the two.

In principle, I agree that people should create their own intellectual property. In practice as a player, I love exploring these worlds in escape rooms. I’d be lying if I said that it matters to my gameplay experience whether or not there is a contract correctly assigning rights now collecting dust in someone’s office .

If we were reviewing phones, no one would expect us to base our review on whether or not Samsung was violating some random patent held by Apple.

Finally, I am not losing any sleep for the major media companies. They can take care of themselves. I think that it’s pretty damn stupid for a mom & pop escape room business to take on the risk associated with violating the intellectual property rights of a multi-billion dollar media conglomerate. If the rights holders want to come down hard, it’s certainly within their capabilities.

So, all of that is to say:

If we have reason to believe that the experience we’re reviewing is licensed, we’ll say so. Otherwise consider our silence as a big old ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

We Talk Spoilers on No Proscenium’s 150th Episode

Congratulations to our good friends over at No Proscenium for releasing episode 150.

We’ve been on No Pro a few times and had so many wonderful conversations with Noah. This is by far my favorite discussion that we’ve ever recorded. (I wish that we had recorded our in-person conversation about consent in experiences that we had over dinner and drinks a few months ago.)

The purple and blue No Proscenium logo

In This Episode

Michael Andersen of joined us to discuss spoilers, when they matter, and the nuance of how they affect the experience. It’s a fun philosophical conversation that Noah did a fantastic job of grounding.

This was the first time that we got to speak with Michael, which was incredibly exciting because we’ve been fans of his for a long time.

Also, there was a little bit of lag and overlap between our recordings so transition points sound like we’re stepping on each other just a bit. There are also some long pregnant pauses that are a byproduct of the same problem. 

No Proscenium Episode 150 – NoPro Gets Meta

The conversation starts up at the 11 minute mark.

Around the 40 minute mark I start up on a rant about companies with beautiful games, but who refuse to publish photographs.

Referenced Materials

Here are the posts, articles, and videos that we referenced in this episode:

  • Felicia Day plays The Basement (YouTube):

Iconography in Puzzle Design [Design Tip]

The power of iconography in puzzle and game design is mind-blowing. It doesn’t take much to signal the meaning of an icon to players. That makes icons valuable.

An assortment of icons displaying on a screen.

Icons Usage

When it’s done right, iconography can:

  • represent a numeric, letter, or word value like a cipher
  • signal actions or warnings
  • stop a player in their tracks

… That’s when it’s done right.


I feel like this should go without saying, but we’ve seen it before, so here we go…

Not all stars are the same. These are not the same star:


If I see that a five-pointed star equals “8,” I am not going to assume that a six-pointed star also equals “8.”

Similarly, if a five-pointed star equals “8,” don’t use the same star symbol to mean “start” on something like a maze somewhere else in the escape room. There are a limitless amount of possible icons. There is no reason to reuse the same icon to convey different meanings in the same game.

Once you define the meaning of an icon, keep both the icon and its meaning consistent.


Variance in a symbol is fine. It can even be cool.

Different materials could result in the icon rendering a little askew. Scale and perspective could have a similar effect.

Maybe there are even narrative reasons for a bit of variance.

This isn’t the kind of thing that needs to be codified into law, but a little bit of mindfulness in design can go a long way.

Iconography in Puzzle Design is one component of room design. For more tips, check out our Room Design section.

An Open Letter On Exposed Nails & Screws in Escape Rooms

Dear Escape Room Owners,

Your players should not need a @!#$%^&* tetanus shot to play your escape room.

A screw protruding from a piece of wood.

1 in 5

In twenty percent of the escape rooms I’ve played, I have found an exposed nail or screw in your construction or a loose nail or screw on the ground.

For the past year, I’ve been keeping a tally.

I’m not hunting these things down; I’m simply happening upon them while I’m searching. I find exposed nails inside of all sorts of props and set pieces.

It still shocks me how often I find loose nails and screws laying around.

Exposed Nails & Screws

I understand the exposed nails & screws. You’ve finished building something. It looks great on the outside. Since you already know how your own game works, you don’t have to search like a player, and you don’t notice these protrusions. When you’re constructing something big, you can overlook something small. I get it.

You should search like a player anyway. Run your hands over every surface, inside and out. If you think players might be able to reach into it, check it for hazards.

While you’re at it, hit any splintering wood with some sandpaper, would you please? I’m tired of splinters.

When you find a nail or screw, clip it and sand it. Get rid of any sharp points or edges.

Loose Nails

Are these leftover from construction or are your players actively removing them from things?

Either way, you should check the floor for loose nails. You don’t need anyone stepping on them. You also don’t need players thinking that a loose nail is part of a puzzle.

What I Do

Whenever I find a loose nail, I leave it where the gamemaster will find it (and I usually point it out to them). If I find an exposed nail or screw, I’ll grab the gamemaster or owner and point it out. I encourage all players to do this.

This kind of thing never makes it into a review unless we’re talking a very large volume of exposed nails and screws.

What You Can Do

Spend a few minutes going through each of your games with a good pair of cutting pliers and some sandpaper. or simply get a Dremel with a cutting wheel or an angle grinder (suggested by J Cooper in the comments).

This is a small detail to everyone except the person who cuts himself open in your game. I’ve seen it happen and it’s unnecessary.

Injury Preparedness

Even if you think you’ve eliminated all screws, nails, and hazards, you should still be prepared for injuries. Have a stocked first aid kit available. Make sure that your whole staff knows where it is and how to use it. Ensure that someone is responsible for periodically refilling it.

If someone starts bleeding in your game, you should be able to get them some disinfectant and a bandaid without having to terminate their playthrough.

Shit happens. Make sure you have a plan.

01001000 01110101 01100111 01110011 00100000 00100110 00100000 01001011 01101001 01110011 01110011 01100101 01110011,


(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.)

An Open Letter On Exposed Nails & Screws in Escape Rooms is one component of room design. For more tips, check out our Room Design section.

Lasers in Escape Room Design

Lasers are a pretty common trope in escape room design. They tend to appear in lab-themed escape rooms because lasers are sciencey. They are also a fairly common trope in Egyptian tombs.

“Lasers in Egypt”

There’s a portion of the escape room-loving population that gets really annoyed about lasers in Egyptian tomb-themed escape rooms.

While I get that they are out of place, I have never been bothered by this trope. I fully recognize this as an homage to Legend of Zelda Mirror Shield puzzles:

Legend of Zelda Mirror Shield Gif
Lasers are easier to manipulate than beams of light.

Or, more likely, they are an homage to the iconic Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Arc map room illumination:

Indiana Jones holding the staff in the Egyptian map room and illuminating the location of the Arc of the Covenant.
That really looks like a laser.

Regardless of the inspiration, lasers can be an effective way to create a memorable interaction and there are iconic cultural references that justify this.

Just Don’t:

  • give me a handheld laser pointer, especially in Egypt
  • use a green laser when you’re trying to emulate the Sun
  • make your laser puzzle boring or unmemorable
  • feel like every single Egyptian tomb requires a laser interaction; it’s fine, but it’s still a cliche

Laser Safety Concerns

While lasers may seem like narrow flashlights, they aren’t. They come with the potential for hazard. I will highlight a few key lessons about laser safety, but do know that there’s a ton of research and material out on this subject. When in doubt, do more research.

Laser Color

There are substantial differences between lasers of different colors.

Lonestar & Dark Helmet squaring off in a Schwartz lightsaber fight.

For example, blue lasers must be high power in order to make them visible… and at higher power levels, they are also remarkably good at burning things. For the love of puzzles, do not put a blue laser into an escape room or any other type of amusement.

Red and green lasers are more realistic options to choose from. Green lasers will usually be brighter. They also tend to have higher power output.

Laser Power & the Law.

In the United States, lasers pointers are required to have power output labeling and cannot exceed 5 milliwatts (<5 mW). If you’re buying a laser that isn’t housed in a pointer, then they could be considerably more potent.

These regulations change from country to country. For example, in the United Kingdom, laser pointers exceeding 1 mW are illegal. Check the national or local laws governing lasers before using them in an escape room.

One problem that plagues the laser market is the mislabeling of lasers. In 2014, “National Institute of Standards and Technology researchers tested 122 laser pointers and found that nearly 90 percent of green pointers and about 44 percent of red pointers tested were out of compliance with federal safety regulations” (NIST). This means that the labels understated the power output of the lasers, increasing the health risks associated with them.

This video can walk you through how to test your laser’s output (and it’s pretty cool):

Magnifying Glasses & Lenses

The above video also demonstrates how well lasers and magnifying lenses can team up to start fires.

If you’re going to include a laser in an escape room, please don’t also include a magnifying glass or prescription lens as it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that a inquisitive or destructive player might use these together.

Keep Lasers Away From Eyeballs

If you’re designing laser-based interactions where the laser passes through the gamespace, try to avoid having the laser pass through eye level (knowing that height is always a variable).

A few best practices:

  • Don’t have lasers turn on in the direction of the players.
  • Design reflection puzzles to avoid eye level.
  • Use low power lasers when there is a chance that they may be at eye level.
  • Know the power output of your laser; don’t put unsafe or questionable lasers near eyeballs.

Health Risks Associated with Lasers

If a laser is <5 mW, the risk of permanent damage from brief exposure for an adult is incredibly low (JAMA 2004, JAMA 2005).

Brief exposure has been known to cause temporary afterimages, flash blindness, and glare (Princeton University).

The risk of permanently harming a person with a <5 mW laser is low, but it is worth paying a little extra attention to power output as well as laser placement to ensure that no harm comes to players.

I have caught a laser to the eye in an escape room. While I wasn’t hurt, it wasn’t a pleasant sensation… and I would have had more fun without it.

Escape Room Owners Facebook Group Admission Process Update

Back in January we did a piece on the Escape Room Owners group, looking into complaints about people not being approved for admission, and explaining how to gain entry to the group.

You can find that original piece here.

Since then, the process has changed just a bit. It’s better now.

Current Application Statuses

The admins listened to the complaints and cleared the queue. All applications have either been confirmed and approved, or investigated and rejected.

Comic book-ified Members Only jacket
Members Only

After clearing the queue, Brian Warner & Nate Shane stepped down as admins. Erick Gyrion remained and brought on Megan Mouton of Clue Carré.

(Side note: Megan owns of one of the four companies featured on our Escape Room Tour of New Orleans, which has just grown in size. Tickets are now available through April 22. Contact us for details.)

We know Megan and we can attest that she’s on top of things. She reached out to inform us of the updated application process.

Updated Owners Group Admission Process

Quickest way to get approved:

  1. Have your Facebook profile read “Owner at _____________ Escape Game.”
  2. Apply to join the Escape Room Owners Group
  3. Follow the instructions when you apply which read: “Are you an escape room owner? Is your business open and accepting bookings? If so, please message Erick James Gyrion or Megan Lucy Mouton with proof. Thank you!”

If everything checks out, then you’ll be approved promptly. It seems that 75% of applicants ignore step 3 and it slows down their application.

When I emailed with Megan yesterday, they had only 4 requests in the hopper. She says they get between 10 and 20 applicants per day… so they’re on top of this. If you don’t follow the instructions listed above, Megan will reach out to you through Facebook Messenger (which is an unnecessary kindness).

If Megan reaches out:

  • She will send you a private Facebook message asking:
    • What escape room company do you own?
    • Are you open and selling tickets?
    • Can you provide proof that you are currently operating?
  • If you fail to reply within a few days, she will decline your request.

Willy Wonka yelling, "You get NOTHING! You LOSE! GOOD DAY, SIR!"

Who is allowed and who isn’t?

This is one of few exclusive Facebook groups. It is specifically a resource for owners. Managers, employees, and yours truly are not going to be approved.

Recommended Alternative Facebook Groups

Escape Room Start Up for more business-focused discussion.

Escape Room Enthusiast for more player-focused discussion (that sometimes turns business-y). Please be kind to the enthusiast community. These are your customers.

Everything Immersive for a broad mixture of business, news, and player/ participant discussion about all sorts of immersive entertainment.

Mobile Escape Room Trailers: 16 Questions with Jason Garvett

At the start of 2018, there are over a dozen mobile escape rooms in the United States.

One of the earliest entrants was Jason Garvett of Mobile Room Escape, based in Chicago, IL. We met Jason at the 2017 Niagara Falls Escape Room Show where Mobile Room Escape was a vendor.

Mobile Room Escape Chicago trailer exterior, a yellow bricked wall with a steel door and their compass rose logo.

There are a lot of different types of “mobile” escape rooms and it wasn’t until February of 2018 that we had the opportunity to play a full length trailer-based escape room at Escape Plan Nashville. It was surprisingly… not trailer-ish! In fact, it was one of the most comfortable escape room experiences we’ve ever had.

We recently connected with Jason Garvett, owner of Mobile Room Escape, about the challenges of mobile-specific escape room operations.

Jason helped Escape Plan Nashville, as well as many other mobile companies, get up and running. He’s been around the block a few times.

Here are 16 questions we never thought we’d ask an escape room:

1: Room Escape Artist: We recently played Mayday Adventure at Escape Plan Nashville. The space felt so big! How do you make trailers feel spacious?

Jason: We definitely have to give the credit to Escape Plan Nashville and their design team for this one. At the end of the day a street-legal vehicle in the US can not be wider than 102 inches (8.5 feet). The floor plan will dictate the customers’ comfort level, how big or small the trailer looks, and the overall feng shui of the room.

I personally try to leave the center of the trailer as open as possible for people to move freely. I generally put major set pieces near the walls so that I can anchor these pieces to both the floor and ceiling.

In-game: The cabin of a private jet with overhead compartments, open windows, and large comfortable leather seats.
Escape Plan Nashville’s Mayday Adventure


2: The airplane theme worked great for the long and narrow trailer. How does trailer shape impact theme choice and game design?

The shape of the trailer can definitely help specific game designs such as Escape Plan Nashville’s Mayday Adventure or even our own Submarine game Down Periscope, but I would never let the shape of the trailer limit any theme choice. The job of the set designer and game designer should be to work together to justify and address why the room is the shape it is rather than rule out any one theme.

Mobile Room Escape Chicago interior - a submarine lined with puzzle stations.
Mobile Room Escape Chicago’s Down Periscope

3: Does the control room always take up a section of the trailer? How do you design for control room space?

We have units with and without control rooms. In Chicago we work with a lot of youth groups and have our gamemaster active in many of our games. However, we have a few games with control rooms. Some are in the front of the trailer; some are in the back of the trailer. Some are from an auxiliary location. One of our customers has their unit about 300 feet from their control room, but they can still operate, speak to, and watch their customers play the game.

4: How does climate impact your game design? Do you have to avoid any specific types of puzzles, components, or materials that might be temperature sensitive?

As you know, Chicago has the joys of both Mother Summer and nasty, old, grumpy, crotchety, angry-at-the-world, could-never-beat-an-escape-room-ever-in-her-life Grandma Winter. If you were to go out and buy a trailer and put an escape room in it you would severely suffer from extreme heat, dangerous freezing temperatures, condensation, and other elements that would severely impact your game.

It is not just a matter of sticking a few AC units in the roof or a heater in the corner of the room; proper insulation is essential. Trailers are made of metal beams to support their structure. Not only must the space between the beams be insulated but also the beams themselves. We take extra measures to make sure that our trailers are insulated well. We have built for climates in Florida, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Missouri, Georgia, Illinois, and Washington, to name a few. Each is built specifically for its climate. As a rule of thumb, I leave any water puzzles out of the room.

5: The win condition for Mayday Adventure wasn’t “escape.” It seems like the classic “escape” win condition might be challenging to facilitate for mobile games where people would rush out the trailer and down a few steps and possibly into traffic. What are the win conditions for your games?

Our first game was an “escape” win condition. All of our following games have been different outcome scenarios. This has not been because of trailer height from the ground, but mostly because we try to come up with objectives that are more interesting than simply “escaping.”

We highly recommend to any Mobile Escape Room owner that you never let your customers run out of the room. When you park a Mobile Escape Room at a location you may have no traffic or other vehicles around you. An hour later rush hour might be in full swing and daylight might have turned to darkness. Keep your customers in your vehicle until your gamemaster is physically available to check the surrounding area.

6: Are there any particular safety considerations that you need to take into account when designing and building mobile games?

Your generator (if located on your vehicle) should be installed by a professional to avoid noxious fumes leaking into the trailer. Be aware of where your wires are during the construction process. Also keep in mind that your mobile unit is your business. Spending the time to train your gamemaster in driving the trailer, laws, regulations, and maintenance is extremely important.

7: When you park it at a location for business, how do you generate power? What do you do if power fails?

We power our units with ultra-quiet and fuel-efficient Honda or Cummins Onan Generators. Just like any good escape room that doubles up on props and locks we also carry a backup generator in case of failure. This is located in our pickup truck. We also carry shore power cables where we could hook up to a 15 amp wall outlet in a real emergency.

8: Do you need a special license to drive a large trailer?

A commercial drivers license or CDL is necessary when your tractor (truck) and tow (trailer unit) is 26,001 lbs. or greater. Under that weight your regular driver’s license will suffice (always check your local rules of the road as your combined vehicle weight may require you to have a license endorsement). Be careful though, because there are certain fees, documents, and regulations that will accompany you on different weight levels. These regulations vary on a state and municipal level. When we consult with our clients we always advise on the best practices for their location.

9: What type of insurance do you need for the trailer?

You need a good commercial auto insurance along with your normal liability insurance. Most insurance companies will lump you in as a commercial truck driver, which is anywhere in excess of $10,000 per year just on auto policies. With 9 years in the mobile entertainment industry, we have been able to work with some excellent insurance brokers that have gotten us extremely good rates. We help all of our customers to achieve excellent coverage at a fraction of the rack rate price. If you decide to do everything on your own I recommend staying away from your local Geico and Allstate agent and finding a good insurance broker who truly understands your business and knows how to explain it to insurance companies.

10: I’m guessing that the answer is no… but I want to ask the question anyway. Has your escape room ever been in a traffic accident?

Traffic accident (knock on wood), no. Ticket, yes. A driver of mine was driving our 32-foot escape room in the left lane of a highway for about 5 miles. A big no-no. (Larger vehicles stay in the right lane unless passing.) This was on our way to an all-day event 75 miles from us. Luckily all of our necessary DOT paperwork was in order and our inspections up to date. We walked away with a slap on the wrist.

It is extremely important to hire a driver with the maturity to handle situations like this. That does mean more than minimum wage. All of our gamemasters/ drivers go through a minimum of 30 days training on driving, regulations, game play, and customer service.

11: Regulations for brick and mortar escape rooms vary by municipality. For example, some towns/ cities/ countries won’t let escape rooms lock players in. What different regulations impact mobile escape rooms? Are you subject to similar regulations as truckers? Are you subject to different regulations if you park the trailer in certain places?

There are so many avenues to stroll down with this question, which is why when we advise all our clients we take a significant amount of time to learn their location, ways they want to operate, and company goals. There are Federal DOT rules, State DOT rules, Regional DOT rules, Building Codes, ADA Codes, fire codes, etc . Absolutely there are different codes a mobile operation abides by, but the list is too long to put them all here. If you decide to take the plunge solo, do your research. Do not build a room in a trailer, bus, or box truck before you talk to officials. Keep in mind too that you are a mobile business. We have operated in 14 states, each one with different regulations. This is not meant to scare a mobile owner. Just be knowledgeable and prepared to educate an inspector about the business.

12: Tradeshows probably aren’t your bread and butter. Who are your typical clients?

This interview gave me an excuse to check our statistics for our Chicago clientele for everyday private escape room rentals: 40% youth birthday parties, 40% corporate events, 10% religious, camp and school, 5% university/college, and 5% social. (These numbers are rounded.)

In terms of our mobile escape room sales and inquiries, about 75% are existing escape room owners realizing the value of bringing a team-building activity to their clients, 15% are other attractions and family entertainment centers, and 10% are event planners.

13: How far will you drive it for an event? And how does pricing work for long distance delivery?

We have been fortunate enough to operate in 14 different states. We have been as far east as South Carolina and as far west as western Iowa. We have had offers to travel to Washington, California, Texas, Abu Dhabi and Australia. Sometimes it makes more sense to turn over business to partners in closer areas (both for us and our clients). When we do extended travel we must calculate miles, employee hours, hotels, parking, meals, tolls, and miscellaneous items to make sure we are not shortchanging ourselves. We had a travel program especially created for us that takes into account all of these factors.

Mobile Room Escape Chicago interior - a submarine lined with puzzle stations. WWII propaganda posters hang on the wall.
Mobile Room Escape Chicago’s Down Periscope

14: Can the general public book with you? If there are escape room enthusiasts living in Chicago, how do they find you?

In Chicago we only do private events. It is a flat rate for us to come out to your location. However, we get daily requests for 2, 3, or 4 person bookings. We care about these customers as much as we do our 60-person corporate events. We gather information from these clients and work to set up times where multiple groups can be paired.

15: You’ve been in the mobile escape room business longer than most. In fact, you were the first mobile escape room we added to our Escape Room Directory. Recently, we’ve been investigating a claim to a patent on the concept of “mobile escape room.” Your business is proof of “prior art.” Considering your longevity as a mobile escape room and vendor of mobile escape rooms, what are your thoughts on patents and trademarks in mobile escape rooms?

I focus my time and effort not on patenting my product, but on unique customer service, customer experience, and my employees’ experience. To me, that is what equals a successful product that few can copy.

I do think a trademark is important to have for your business for both the business owner and safety of the customer. A person eats at Burger King because they know the product and customer experience they can expect. They would probably be upset if they went to a “Burger King” and found it was not the burger chain, but a new mom-and-pop restaurant. From Burger King’s standpoint, it stops other companies from trying to pose as them, build off of their success, and possibly tarnish their name with an inferior product. If you want to start a burger company call it something other than “Burger King” and give a better overall experience.

My own personal take on patents is they are a big waste of time when it comes to any creative venture. Whether I go to a play, an escape room, a musical concert, or stroll through an art gallery, or just walk through a state park, I am constantly inspired by what is around me. It jogs my creative juices and gives me a courage to be bold and test my limits. As an actor, I never wanted to copy the way Kenneth Branagh played Henry V, but I would watch and learn from great actors, and then find a way to make this my own. I am sure, David and Lisa, you have seen hundreds of bombs in a briefcase, circuit breaker boxes, and patch cord puzzles in your escape room journeys. What makes any one of these truly unique is how the escape room utilizes that puzzle in their game. That is not copyable.

16: Do you have any additional advice for someone who might be considering whether or not to build a mobile escape room?

I get about 3 to 5 emails/ calls weekly from potential mobile escape room owners. My biggest piece of advice is this: “do it right the first time.”

If you wanted to, you could go out and buy a 5 year old 26-foot used steel trailer and put a game in it for $20,000 dollars. I can guarantee you within your first year in business you will put $10,000 into proper insulation, heating, and cooling, and $5,000 into structural repair. Add another $5,000 for the electric, lights, and structural elements to make it an entertainment trailer. Then there will be about $10,000 to $20,000 in lost revenue from the time you will have to take it off the road for upgrades. For that same price you could have bought a brand new aluminum (will never rust) trailer with all the proper equipment to run a successful Mobile Escape Room business for many years. You would not put a brick and mortar escape room in a building with termites, shoddy electrical, and bad heating and cooling… don’t do that for a mobile unit either.

I’ve talked a lot about trailers, but it is important to note that this mobile community exists for trailers, busses, box trucks, tents and pop-up games. There are many good reasons why we recommend trailers over other vehicular forms of entertainment. However, we do not discriminate against other forms. We have many successful friends running bus operations. For any of these forms, we advise doing the research and seeing what the long term costs are for operation.

And our final piece of advise… stay out of the left lane when on the freeway.

Thank you, Lisa and David, for all you do for the escape room industry.

“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