The Escape Room Experience

Playing an escape room, especially for the very first time, can be a daunting experience. With every company being so different even a vast amount of preparation can still lead to no help when you are in the room, let alone dealing with the post-room effects. So today we’re discussing escape rooms from beginning to end and hopefully helping you get rid of the pre-game jitters. This list is far from comprehensive (there are just so many escape room companies out there, and all of them are unique!), but we do hope that this article will help you get ready for your first (or tenth) escape-room experience. 

So you want to book an escape room?  What should you expect?

So you’ve decided you want to try out an escape room for the very first time, but have questions about what it would be like or if you will like it. Generally speaking, people who love puzzles, murder mysteries, and similar games will often find they really enjoy escape rooms. This is doubly true if you enjoy a challenge as often escape rooms are built on a time that the average person should escape with a little bit of time left. Mind you, these times can vary from company to company and room to room. Most games will be built with sixty minutes in mind, however, there are rooms that exist that are long or short. Some “Couples night out” rooms may last for only thirty minutes, whereas some rooms may be larger multi-hour experiences. Another great example of variation in escape rooms comes to live actors. Some companies use them, and some do not. Given the theme of the rooms, actors can vary from helpful participants to ghoulish adversaries. It never hurts to call beforehand and verify these conditions if you find yourself squeamish at the thought of a zombie in a room with you. Personally, I always enjoyed the challenge of puzzle games and stumbled into an escape room that was a mobile game at a convention. The experience was a bit less involved than a brick-and-stone store experience, however, the puzzles were just as good as some store-based games I have played. Post playing my first game, I was hooked, and have played many more since then.

But what about logistics? What about the process of booking and building your group? 

This is where the pre-escape room experience can get a bit tricky, especially during COVID times. Generally, it is highly suggested to book in advance. Currently, many places are not taking on-site bookings due to the pandemic, so sometimes this may be the only option. However, even in non-pandemic times this idea still holds true. Depending on the popularity of both the company and the room you are wanting to book, you may find that peak times are booked days if not weeks in advance.  So sometimes booking early is key to getting that perfect time slot for you and your group. On the flip side, don’t let this stop you from making a same-day booking either, spontaneous trips can make for a fun experience regardless. As for finding exactly what times are available, the best way is to find the company’s website as often they have a full listing of their times that are available on that day.  However make sure you show up with time to spare (most companies suggest you show up 10-15 minutes in advance), as there are several things to take care of before entering your room. This time can quickly disappear between signing waivers, putting away belongings, restroom runs, and the general conversations that happen before entering the room. Remember, these bookings are on a time schedule, and missing your start time can sometimes mean having to reschedule your room. 

What about your friends you ask? 

Well, in escape rooms we often say the more the merrier, so feel free to bring them along. Sometimes this will take some coordination, and so make sure this is part of the planning process during the booking stage. Make sure the time you select is viable for everyone, and make sure that the time selected is one where everyone can arrive early. 

How many friends should I bring?

 I hear you ask. Well, this part can be balanced. Too many people often lead to confusion (or potentially cramped quarters), and too little can often handicap you on completing the game. The best place to start is to look at either the company’s website (often companies will suggest a player group size for the average player) or even feel free to call and ask the employees themselves. Company staff often have great insider information on the styles of the rooms, challenges, and ins and outs of the experience.  Once you have a good idea of the number of people you want to bring, it’s time to put out some feelers and reel in those friends. By all means, feel free to bring any friends, but if you find yourself with a lot of first-time players (or folks who don’t enjoy puzzles), it may be wise to up your team by a few more people. That said, if you can find a group of friends who have both played and who enjoy rooms, you will find you have a solid team for attempting most rooms. Once you have your team set, figuring out how to pay can also be another hurdle. During the period of COVID, many escape rooms close a booking of a room after any group books it. So if you are planning on splitting payments, it may be best to designate a leader in the group and funnel all payments to this person. Not doing so may mean smaller groups having to into the company to set up individual payments (both a pain for people trying to book the room, and for the escape room staff).

I’m in my escape game, now what?

So if you are a first-time player, stepping into your first escape room can be super daunting. What do you do? What can you touch? How does this all work? 

Well, the first bit of advice I can give you is to pay close attention to both your game guide and any introductory videos that you are shown. Often these interactions will set base rules for the room and interaction with it, and game guides love to hide clues about the room in their intros for new players in order to help them out (though note, not EVERY game guide does this, and even if they are giving you subtle hinting, there is really no penalty for missing these hints). 

Types of Puzzles

As for the exact puzzles in a room, these will vary from room to room and company to company. However classic ones you can usually expect are things like item counts (3-4 items listed that can then be counted in the room, thus giving you a unique three-four digit code), things in plain sight (think large numbers written across walls or keys hidden under tables or in easily accessible places), black-light puzzles (often you are given a black-light flashlight, or something turns on a black-light in space/room… it is highly suggested to familiarize yourself with what black-light looks like before entering your first room), finding numbers of different colors to put in locks with various color dials, or puzzles that often involve putting items in precise spots (if you start getting a lot of similar-looking items with no apparent use, look for places they fit into… though sometimes these may not reveal themselves until late game). You will find once you have a dozen or so games under your belt, you will begin to recognize certain puzzle processes. However, the ones that will really stick with you post games are the new twists on old puzzles you find or ones that use previous knowledge of games to misdirect you in your current one. 

Regardless, there is (for most escape rooms) a logical line that leads from puzzle to solution to lock. Sometimes this can be as obvious as things sitting next to each other at the beginning of the game, to things like color coordination or the puzzle flat out saying it goes to a lock (A great example of intuitive puzzle design would be having a locked door with large numbers written on either side of it, those numbers being the combination to the door’s lock). These puzzles can either be very linear (one puzzle that leads to the next in a line from beginning to end) or they can be non-linear (having several different puzzle lines that eventually bottleneck at certain points). With non-linear puzzle paths, always remember that you will still need to solve all the puzzles, but that multiple people can be working on multiple different things at once.  As for what is not part of a puzzle, things that are bolted or glued into place often don’t need moving or interaction with (most companies have a minimal force rule – ie most require very little strength to solve from beginning to end). Additionally, anything that looks to be a natural part of the scenery often are not used (Think serial codes on desk chairs/trash cans, measurements on wooden slats used to build something, etc), and when they are used there will be a clear connection to them being part of a puzzle. Often holding hands between several points can complete an electrical current and open something. Additionally, don’t be afraid to do things that seem silly in normal everyday life. Other times touching symbols in a specific order can magically cause a bookshelf to open. I’ve even experienced tracing a chess piece across a map in a specific order as a puzzle (it opened something nearby afterward). We don’t expect these things in day-to-day life, but in an escape room, they are a totally valid thing. So don’t let that voice in your head going… this is silly… stop you from escaping a room (Do however note that each of these has a grounded point in the puzzle progression that said they should be done, standing in the middle of the room and clucking like a chicken is likely to have little effect in the room unless a puzzle has specifically told you to do so).

So we’ve talked about the puzzles, but what about the experience? 

I often find that in an escape room there is definitely pressure (less so right at the beginning), and adrenaline can get high as the game progresses. How you handle that adrenaline can make or break the experience for you. Many people get a rush out of trying to beat record times and others just from escaping with time left on the clock. It’s important though to keep a decent track of time (something I often fail at quite a bit), and spread your clues out as needed during the experience (however don’t hoard your clues, if you are stuck USE THEM. It is better to complete the game with all three clues used, then get halfway through and not have used a single clue after all). One hour may not seem like a lot of time, but just remember that these rooms are designed to be beatable within an hour, so just keep your group moving. If you find the group as a whole has nothing to do and isn’t making progress, it’s generally a good time to use one of your clues. Another option that doesn’t hurt is to assign a member of your team to coordinate the various groups, keep people engaged, and keep notes. This person can make sure smaller groups are working on something and can often spot connections between puzzle parts that others may miss as they are too engrossed in the specific puzzle they are working on. 

One of the big things to remember though is that win or lose is a game. Sometimes under pressure tempers flare. I’ve seen it in adults interacting with each other, and with adults dismissing kid’s ideas (and often these kids are right on the money as to how a puzzle works… remember logical connections in escape rooms are meant to be simple connections, often adults overthink a puzzle whereas a child takes a more straightforward approach). If during a game you feel the pressure is getting to you, it doesn’t hurt to take a few minutes, take a deep breath, and then continue the game (just remember that your game guide cannot stop the timer during this moment). Additionally switching the puzzle you are working on helps sometimes, as different brains think differently, and sometimes you’ll immediately put together a puzzle someone else can’t put together, and sometimes someone else will be able to put together the puzzle that you’ve been struggling with with for a while. In the end, even if you fail the room, that room can be the building block for future escape rooms. Often if you ask your game guide, they will be happy to guide you through the remaining portion of your room (time permitting) so that way you understand the nature of the remaining puzzles and can use that puzzle knowledge in your next escape attempt.

It’s done now, what do I do next?

Well first off, if you completed your game and made it out on time, congratulations! However, even if you didn’t, don’t feel too bad. The truth is most escape rooms have escape rates well under 50%, and depending on the company and room you may find that escape rates barely hit the double digits. So if you didn’t win, don’t feel too bad as you are most likely in the majority. Depending on how far you got, or if you got the post-game walk-through, you may find you want to give the room a second chance down the road with different players or a bigger team. You’ll often find that putting a handful of rooms between you and the escape experience will often muddy the memory of many of the puzzles and make it a fairly new experience. 

That said, there are some things you can do to prepare for next time. If you escaped, look for the things you did right. Puzzles people solved quicker versus the ones they struggled on. Familiarizing yourself with these puzzle types can help speed that time up more next time. If you failed, the above advice still holds true, but also think about the things that tripped you up. Did you spend too long on a specific puzzle? Familiarizing yourself with that puzzle type may help in the future. Another option is to decide if perhaps this puzzle type is one that you should use a clue on if stuck on the puzzle for more than a few moments. Did you lose track of time? Were you able to keep track of what puzzles were solved/ codes or keys had been used? If you see a lot of problems like this occurring then working a bit on the organization may help. There are many different things you can do in order to help with organizing. Often groups will designate a spot to create a pile of solved puzzles. Other times groups can function well by simply leaving locks open on what they were attached to and announcing to the group the combination has been used and the puzzle has been solved. In the end, take time to look at what were issues for your group, and correct them as necessary in order to give your team that much of an edge for your next escape room experience.

Now if you did win, especially with a good time, feel free to ask the staff if they have a record board and how you placed on the board. Many companies keep track of these times and can tell you how you have placed for the week, month, year, or all-time placements. Nothing beats having bragging rights on a top time for a room, even if it’s just the top time for that month. Not only did you place during that time period, but you also beat out all the people that could not complete the room. Sometimes companies will even have success rates for their rooms, and so even if you did not set a record time, you can still feel proud in completing a room eighty percent of others were unable to finish. 

On a final note, I would like to discuss something I’ve seen happen just a few times in my time running escape rooms. Occasionally some people let the tension of the room really get to them, leading to outbursts of anger that can remain post the game experience. Touching back on a subject mentioned earlier, sometimes it is best to take a step back, breathe, and decompress. In the end, escape rooms are just a game, meant for entertainment and not frustration. If you have a player that is finding the games more frustrating than fun, then perhaps replace this team member in future games, or work with them to approach the game in a more healthy and reasonable manner. If you find the participant in this room is holding the anger/grudge well past the escape room experience, then perhaps sitting down and discussing the core of the issue. Surprisingly escape rooms can really bring to the surface long-standing interactive issues in a low-stakes environment.  

So we have reached the end of the escape room overview. Hopefully, this guide has alleviated some fears and made you excited about your future escape room events. The information here is provided as a primer, as no amount of words can truly express the uniqueness and magic of every escape room in existence. In the end, just approach each room with an open mind, an outlook of being prepared for a challenge, and most of all a fun and can-do attitude. Additionally, after your experience is over feel free to discuss with friends and family about the experience and what an escape room was like for you, but make sure not to spoil any puzzles or cool surprises. Keeping the AH-HA moment or wow factor alive for future players is part of the fun.