Introducing EnigMarch: A Month-Long Puzzle Design Challenge

Editor’s Note: REA writer Sarah Willson tells us about the new event she’s organizing for puzzle creators… and those curious about creating puzzles.

Next month, we’ll celebrate the inauguration of EnigMarch, a 31-day puzzle design challenge that will hopefully become an annual tradition in the puzzling community.

EnigMarch logo

Background

It all began on January 1, when I decided that one of my goals for 2022 would be to improve my puzzle design skills. And what better way to do that than a month-long gauntlet of daily challenges? After I started asking around about the existence of such an event, a group of enthusiastic puzzlers got together and decided to create one ourselves. EnigMarch was born.

How It Works

Every day in March (technically, the night before at 8pm ET), we’ll release a new prompt on social media and enigmarch.com, to be used as inspiration for any type of puzzle you like. Once you’ve created a puzzle, you can post it with the hashtag #enigmarch to share it with the world.

The purpose of the daily prompts is to provide the structure and motivation to create a puzzle every day and emerge stronger and wiser on March 31. Some people may prefer to choose only certain prompts or take more than one day to create their puzzles, and that’s fine too. Whether or not you want to participate as a designer, you can check out the #enigmarch hashtag and see all the different interpretations of each day’s prompt. Some of the fun of EnigMarch will undoubtedly be seeing people’s experimental ideas and the seeds of future puzzle masterpieces.

How to Get Involved

In preparation for the main event, we’ve assembled some resources, inspiration, and secret bonus content on enigmarch.com. Whether you’re already a seasoned constructor or you’ve never tried to write a puzzle in your life, we’re hoping EnigMarch will help you build your design skills and confidence in your creations.

My favorite thing about EnigMarch is that it’s really just intended to help people increase their puzzle-writing prowess and have fun doing it. There’s no agenda except to celebrate a love of puzzles and share them with the community.

If you decide to participate, we’d love to see what you come up with!

Escape Room Puzzles Should Feel Big

If you’re building puzzles for escape rooms, whenever possible, you should build them into the gamespace as opposed to adding them to the gamespace… and you should make them big!

Environment

I can experience paper puzzles or other common puzzles at home. I can buy books of Sudoku, crosswords, or tavern puzzles for a whole lot less money than a single ticket to an escape room.

In an escape room, the space should be part of the experience and not just a backdrop that’s more interesting than my living room.

Build the puzzles into the gamespace. Make the puzzles an integral part of that world. If the puzzles can only exist in conjunction with the set, that’s a draw to visit the escape room.

A large, illuminated, and broken Rain Corporation logo mounted to a wall, with an upside dow Honda Civic crashed through the wall.
Rain Corp at Escaparium in Montreal, Canada

Team

Escape rooms are a group activity. The puzzles should be designed for collaboration. One way to facilitate this collaboration is to build bigger so that multiple humans are needed to interact with a puzzle.

While many escape room puzzles could be solved by one person alone, they usually won’t get to work on them on their own. Other players will want to participate. Building bigger means more people can see what’s going on and interact with the puzzle.

Scale can also be used to turn a single-player puzzle into a multiplayer puzzle, by spreading out the inputs and mechanisms.

A wall of electronic equipment dramatically lit.
Carbon: 3708 at Mission Escape Games, New York City

Scale is the Point

In an escape room, bigness is the point. The game designer is pulling the players out of their lives, out of the real world, and putting them into a constructed reality. Making the game literally larger than life will make it feel like the adventure we crave… and that’s what you as a designer want.

You want every player to leave awed. Give them multiple opportunities to lay their hands on the props and puzzles, earning their victories as they play. To achieve this, scale is your friend.

Crawlspaces vs Low Doorways in Escape Rooms

A few years ago I wrote about crawlspaces… after bashing my head pretty badly in a poorly designed crawlspace.

I’m not going to revisit my thoughts on crawlspaces, because I already covered the subject well… but I would like to talk about low doorways.

A sign hung under a low doorway reads, "Tall people, watch your head. Short peopel, continue with reckless abandon."
Taken at The Uncommons Board Game Cafe, NYC

The Case Against Low Doorways

The thing about a crawlspace is that it demands your attention. Unless you’re a small child, a crawlspace demands that you stop, completely shift your body posture, and then enter. Any way you slice it, entering a crawlspace must be done knowingly and deliberately. This is not the case for low doorways. 

A standard doorway in the United States is 80 inches tall (6.67 feet).

At 6’1, I am a reasonably tall guy… not very tall… just taller than the average American male (5’9)

When a doorway is slightly shorter than usual, it doesn’t always register, especially when the person passing through it is – say – immersed in some sort of game.

Speaking from experience, a low doorway can result in a harsh head-thumping.

Suggestions for Low Doorways

Sometimes a lower than average doorway is needed. Escape rooms have all sorts of unusual design constraints. When you need to use a low doorway, there are a few things that can make it safer:

  • Pad it – A little foam goes a long way.
  • Light it – It’s easier to avoid things that you see clearly.
  • Limit passage – When you have a low doorway, avoid puzzles that require traversing that space.

Adding Seating to Your Escape Room

After playing an escape room, one of the most experienced players in the world said to me:

“It was a great game… and I’m really glad it had a chair. I needed it.”

Since the very beginning of escape rooms, we’ve seen some creators deliberately choose to include seating in their games.

Not everyone includes seating in their games. Not every game can handle seating, either because of space, or because of a game mechanic.

When your game can reasonably include a seat or two… it probably should.

A blue bench with white lettering, reads: "I'd rather be sitting. Sit if you agree."
Photo taken in The Invisible Dog, Brooklyn, NY

Why Chairs?

When it is feasible, a few seats in your escape game can make the experience considerably more friendly for just about everyone:

  • Older folks
  • Younger folks
  • People with mobility struggles or just about any health issue
  • Players who aren’t feeling great… or are just having a hard day
  • Pregnant folks
  • (People who don’t want to be in an escape room)
  • Me… and I have some serious escape room endurance

Look, you never know what’s going on in your players’ lives, and sometimes a chair in an escape room allows someone to take a breather, and that will allow them to press forward with renewed vigor.

Even if you’re going for something hyper-immersive, most environments can justify a seat or two… so give your players the option. Some of them will thank you for it.

Actors As Escape Room Gamemasters on The Hayden Farm

In mid-November 2021 Room Escape Artist hosted an Escape Immerse Explore tour to The Hayden Farm at 13th Hour Escape Rooms in Wharton, NJ. Based on my experiences on previous tours, I purchased a ticket without knowing very much about 13th Hour or what to expect from their escape games. 

On October evenings and weekends when the haunted house next door is operating (sometimes including Christmas & Valentine’s Day), the escape rooms have an added twist: actors. The actors roam the escape rooms providing character, hints, and the occasional jump scare. They are also the gamemasters. The actors take on the personas of the different members of the Hayden family, a clan of murderers who use the tricks and traps installed into the different rooms of their old farmhouse to capture their next victims.

Room Escape Artist was able to pull some strings and bring the actors back in for our post-Halloween visit. This was the best example of in-room actors-as-gamemasters that I have ever seen. Days afterward I was still marveling about how impressive they were.

The father of the Hayden family looking creepy in a torn up suit.

How It Works

On the day we visited The Hayden Farm, 4 or 5 escape rooms were running at all times. These games were serviced by 4 in-character actors (in complete haunt style costume and makeup) along with a 5th team member in the control room. The actors were free to roam the entire facility as needed. They would periodically visit each game individually or as a group. They would interact with the players and each other, adding story, comedy, scares and hints to the games.

The younger brother of the Hayden family with a large eye wound.

Playing Both Sides

The motivation for the fictional Hayden family members is to have you fail the game and therefore be trapped in their house where you will meet an end of their choosing. 

I was fascinated by how clearly this storyline came through, while they made sure each team escaped in just enough time. For slower teams, they gave just enough hints to keep them progressing. For teams moving quickly, they’d playfully sabotage, but always to just the right extent so that the players escaped on time and the actor could then play up their disappointment at having to eat spaghetti for dinner again instead of dining on the flesh of their victims.

Their knowledge of all the games allowed them to provide in-character hints that didn’t feel like hints. They used dialog and physical acting to clue players towards important information. 

The older sister of the Hayden family with blood spattered across her face and dress.

Connecting With Players

Since we were playing multiple games on the same day, the characters became familiar to us, and we to them. Ongoing jokes, nicknames and running gags added so much fun to our visit. 

One frustration I experienced as a player was that due to the building design there can be some sound bleed between rooms, but it works in the story world because the setting is a single farmhouse with multiple rooms. Our actors used this to their advantage to both understand what was happening in other games and to communicate with each other to help facilitate their visits to each team. Hearing the characters screaming and arguing with each other throughout the house was both spooky and believable.

The big brother of the Hayden family choking David.
(Not typical customer service)

Hear It From Tour Attendees

Here are some comments about the actors from other tour participants:

“It’s really an incredible skill that they have to be creepy, sweet, funny, kind, and cutting all at the same time – and also be great gamemasters.”

“They seemed to strike the perfect balance between leaving us alone and giving us help, and they were always there to help us cross the finish line which was really appreciated.”

“Live, in-person hinting can already be tricky, so to do it through multiples rooms running simultaneously, while staying in character is #chef’s kiss

“There seemed to be musical or sound clues they responded to. For example, the “daughter” was with us in the parlor and ran off quickly when she heard a song play in another room. Likewise, they all showed up when a music cue went off in the parlor.“

“The performers were terrific! They did a great job balancing messing with us and giving us hints, and kept us laughing the whole time.”

“I thought the actors were wonderful. They heightened the immersion and brought the games to life in a thrilling but campy way. They walked a fine line between scary and humorous and made the experience wickedly fun!”

Animation of the younger sister of the Hayden watching TV while holding her dolls. She occasionally lunges forward and sticks her tongue out.

Consider Escape Immerse Explore

My experience at The Hayden Farm was surprising and wonderful. An EIE tour once again went above and beyond what I was expecting. It introduced me to a style of gamemastering that will be hard to top. 

The service that Room Escape Artist is providing by running these tours is quite remarkable. Escape room players from all over are able to gather and experience some of the best games and the most interesting styles and techniques on the market today. The tours also provide a means of connection and community-building that is important for our industry. I encourage everyone to keep their eyes peeled for announcements about future Escape Immerse Explore tours from Room Escape Artist.

If you want to make sure you’re informed when the 2022 tours are announced, contact REA and note your interest in future tours.