Puzzles and Tasks
One distinction I occasionally hear Escape Room owners use is defining the different between puzzles and tasks. Here, a puzzle is something where the player must figure out something. This something could be very easy or very hard, but there is something that the player must work out.
A task on the other hand, is a goal given to the player where the player needn’t figure anything out other than accomplishing the task.
Crossword, Sudoku are puzzles. Though they generally make for awful Escape Room puzzles.
Find all the tiles is a task. So is most physical “puzzles” like fish the key out of the fish tank or simple versions of avoid the laser type of tasks. Tasks can be "busy work" where the objective and it's solution are known immediately to the player, but actually doing the work to finish it takes awhile.
Put differently, the more time it takes to finish a puzzle once you know the objective and components, the more likely it is to a puzzle. The less amount of time, a task.
Puzzles and tasks are both components of good escape rooms, but they are different in crucial ways.
Tasks give players clear handholds and objectives. If you don’t want to work on a puzzle (using your brain is hard work!) you can always fall back to a task. The flip side is that tasks are generally not interesting for very long and sometimes can only be done by one person at a time – see the fishing the key or moving past lasers examples.
Puzzles can frequently be worked on jointly and take much longer to complete. This helps fill the hour with content for players. The joy of completing a puzzle is usually much greater than doing a task.
The distinction is important for designers as believing you are making a puzzle when you are actually making a task is something I see a lot of weaker Escape Rooms have problems with. If your players don’t have to work anything out in the entire room, it’s basically a bunch of busy work set inside a themed room.
Don’t be that room!
Brian Hacker, a codependent puzzle, 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!