Before we get to answer, what steps do groups to through to solve puzzles in an Escape Room?
First, they discover all the relevant information in a room. This can be clues, or physical pieces of information that have to be used to solve a puzzle.
Next, they deduce what is needed to solve the puzzle at hand. The best groups figure out what information is necessary to solve the puzzle and then they go about solving it. The skill here is figuring out whether the information they have at hand is sufficient to solve or if they need additional clues.
Once they have the answer, they solve the puzzle. This may seem obvious but this is a real step and I’ll explain why in a moment.
Because Escape Rooms are typically timed, time is the central resource for the game. It is spent on each of these 3 steps. A team that doesn’t search well or doesn’t realize that they don’t have enough information to solve a puzzle will burn through their time.
A team that takes too long to solve a puzzle will also lose time. This may seem trivial, but frequently puzzles require some time to go from “I know how to do this puzzle” to “This puzzle is actually solved.” For instance, many puzzles involve decoding and the codes may involve multiple steps to unravel. There are some groups who can do this efficiently and others not so much. If you still think this stage is trivial, imagine a 3 minute difference between the good solvers and the mediocre ones. If you’ve done many escape rooms, think about how many you solved with 1 second to 3 minutes remaining.
This brings us back to the most important skill in Escape Rooms. The skill I’ve seen elite groups have that even very good groups don’t is the ability to know when they cannot solve something from where they are. This can take a couple of different forms.
They may not have enough information to solve the puzzle. Also, they may be on the wrong track and may need to think about the puzzle elements differently. The ability to realize this is crucial. Every minute that you spend working on a puzzle you literally cannot solve because you don’t have all the clues necessary to find its solution is basically a minute less you have to succeed. This is mostly true as well for when you are stuck because you are thinking about a puzzle incorrectly.
Put differently, most people assume solving puzzles is about being smart, about seeing the correct way to put different pieces of information together. This is true, but I would argue that it is possibly even more important to understand when your thought process is burning time. If you are twice as efficient, you can be half as smart. Take it from me, I should know.