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How to Design an Escape Room Part 2 - The Don'ts

This is our multi-part series on designing an Escape Room. If you missed Part 1, check it out here

Before moving forward I wanted to look at some of the don'ts of the Escape Room world. As Tyrell says in Blade Runner, "I want to see a negative before I provide you with a positive." Oh you thought I couldn't bring my gratuitous Blade Runner banner image into my essay? Ha! Do not sell me short reader. I'll get Blade Runner in here by hook or by crook. In fact, since a strong theme is a part of any good escape room, let's keep the Blade Runner theme cooking.

Don't #1: Don't Make it Ugly

Roy Batty: "Chew, if only you could see what I've seen with your eyes!"

Roy Batty: "Chew, if only you could see what I've seen with your eyes!"

Escape Rooms have come a long way in the last 2 years alone. Rooms with little to no production values are being swept away in favor of rooms with more atmosphere. Escape Rooms needn't have Hollywood sets to be cool, but they do need to not be ugly. A few suggestions: As always, play to your strengths. If you are good with set design, by all means build a set. Maybe you are a good shopper. If so, then buy some really neat looking props. If you are good with tech or video, make that the centerpiece of your room. 

Don't #2: Don't Make it Stupid

Rachael: "That Voight-Kampf test of yours. Have you ever tried to take that test yourself?" 

Rachael: "That Voight-Kampf test of yours. Have you ever tried to take that test yourself?" 

There is a fine line between simple/easy puzzles and stupid puzzles. Easy and simple is fine. There is definitely a place for easy puzzles in Escape Rooms because racking up a few W's helps build momentum and gives beginners a way in. The flip side is when the puzzles are so simple that your players won't need to engage with them in any way. This takes the form of either "busy work" where the puzzle is simple but requires a lot of time - things like crossword puzzles can work this way but so can some scavenger hunts whose only purpose is to slow the player down. The worst is puzzles so simple that you don't feel good doing them. It's like junk food. You are getting the calories, but your waistline and psyche don't feel good afterward. 

Don't be junk food.

Don't #3. Don't rely on unstable things.

Deckard: "Replicants are like any other machine - they're either a benefit or a hazard. If they're a benefit, it's not my problem."

Deckard: "Replicants are like any other machine - they're either a benefit or a hazard. If they're a benefit, it's not my problem."

Do your props break when they are roughly handled? Ditch the props. Does your tech only sometimes work? Rise up against our robot overlords and send that tech to the junkyard! Have an employee who can't stick to the script? Show em' the door. Stability is king in Escape Games. If your props, tech, customer service, hygiene or any part of your Room becomes unreliable it can ruin an otherwise strong room. Don't get stuck on keeping that chair you bought because "It only needs a little duck tape." Nope, it only needs a little dumpster. The whole point of Escape Rooms is to combine puzzles with immersion so having yards of duct tape or a million guidelines for the players so they don't bust up your grandma's secret sofa or an employee who you hired last year but seems like you hired yesterday is a strong recipe for a piping hot bowl of suckage. 

What's with the food analogies, Brian? Piping hot bowls? Junk food? Guess I shouldn't write when I'm hungry.

Don't #4. Don't forget your theme

"A new life awaits you in the Off-world colonies! A chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure!"

"A new life awaits you in the Off-world colonies! A chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure!"

I could add a lot more to this list, and we'll have a lot more to say on this issue later, but for now, let's keep this list short (my stomach is growling big time.) 

There are different levels of puzzle-to-theme matching, and while we are Enigma HQ are pretty hardcore puzzle-to-story Nazis, most Escape Rooms would do well to just match up their theme with their puzzles and general arc of the game. Too often, props, puzzles, storylines, and hints break down and don't stay within theme. You can get a way with a small inconsistency here or there, but players definitely notice thematic breakdown.

If you have a cold war bunker room there should be probably be a codebreaking puzzle, not a Sudoku puzzle. It shouldn't have a hint screen that looks like you could have bought it from Best Buy.  The props should have an association with the bunker theme. If you can incorporate this into the hints all the better. Think, "Foxtrot-23, we have intelligence suggesting that the cannister in the corner may have something inside." is a whole lot better than "Dude, look in the thing in the corner."

If you move to different rooms, one should probably be stocked with canned goods in case of nuclear winter. You know, the expensive, healthier, better tasting ones you can get now at specialty markets like Whole Foods. Actually, that's a terrible idea, but I can't help myself. I'm about to design the worst room ever - my stomach has taken over!

In our next posts, we'll get more into best practices, but we hope this primer leads you away from the worst practices. Do you avoid the "Don'ts"? Played a room that could have been awesome but just fell short? Appreciate the genius of Blade Runner? Can't get away from duck tape? Have a recipe for a hungry escape room designer? Let us know!


Brian Hacker, a replicant from the off-world colonies, has been in the games industry for over 20 years, first as a professional Magic player. He went on to become a professional poker player and game designer. In an effort to understand obscure technologies and lose what remaining free time he had, he opened Enigma HQ!