The Trials of Houdini. Filigree in Shadow. The Werewolf Experiment. Queen Anne’s Revenge. The Confederate Spy Mistress. The Hunt for the Forgotten Tomb.
You may be wondering what the titles above have in common. Are they rejected PBS shows? Forgotten theme park rides? Doctor Who/Days of Our Lives crossover fan fiction?
While these are all good guesses (well, not that good, to be honest), none of them are correct; these are titles to at-home escape room games.
What’s an at-home escape room game, you may ask? Let’s start by explaining what a traditional escape room is. In warehouses in low-rent neighborhoods across the world, friends, colleagues, and couples on awkward second dates are paying $30 to $40 per person to get locked in a room with each other. Their goal is to get out of that room (and hopefully still like one another) in under an hour. And the only way they can do that is by solving a series of puzzles.
These brick-and-mortar escape rooms have become extremely popular, a special event on par with going to a concert or a play. But like a concert or a play, traditional escape rooms are expensive and not easily accessible to people who don’t live near a large city. As a result, game creators saw an opportunity to make a more accessible and affordable escape room experience that people can play in their homes.
At-home games vary in format—some are tabletop games put out by major manufacturers like Mattel; some are subscription-based services that mail you a new ‘escape room in a box’ every couple of months; some mail you clues and puzzles over a series of weeks. But regardless of the format, these games aim to create the same sense of surprise and excitement that escape room players feel once they solve that final puzzle and unlock that final door. The challenges these games must overcome to do that, however, is a story in itself.
The theme or story of the game is crucial for both at-home and brick-and-mortar escape room experiences. To this end, designers must keep the story top of mind when going through the puzzle-making process. “You have to get people involved in the story,” Chris Barnes, creator of Escape The Crate explains. “If that story element is not there, the puzzle is not quite as enjoyable. The story comes first, and the puzzles must build themselves off of that story.”
Tying the puzzles into the story isn’t the only challenge at-home escape room creators have; designers of these games also deal with several other challenges, most of which brick-and-mortar experiences don’t face.
Challenge 1: The Story (And the Puzzles) Must Work in A Million Different Rooms
At-home creators face an additional challenge when trying to create their story; their puzzles must not only tie in with the game’s theme or narrative, but also be flexible and adaptable to any environment. “It’s incredibly hard, but the designer of the experience can’t make any assumptions about a player’s venue or location,” explains Simon Coronel, a professional magician who has beta-tested at-home escape rooms. “If people aren’t playing the game correctly, it’s the designer’s fault.”
The designer doesn’t know, for example, if the people will be playing on the floor or at a table, if they’ll be wearing shoes (hey, it could matter) or if they’ll even have a smartphone on them. This challenge is exacerbated by the fact that at-home games don’t have a person on hand who can provide hints or assistance as needed—every explanation or clue at-home players receive must be in the box the game came in.
Challenge 2: The Puzzles Must Be Difficult (But Not Too Difficult)
The designer has more responsibility than simply creating an easy-to-understand game, of course; players buy these games expecting puzzles that are difficult, but not too difficult to solve. “You have to make sure it’s challenging but fair,” Juliana Patel, co-creator of the tabletop escape room game The Werewolf Experiment, explains. “It should be well clued and without a logical leap. We want our hardest puzzles to be the kind of puzzles that when you solve them, you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I see it. It was all there.”’ Again, it all comes back to the story–the puzzles should make sense, and also tie into the theme in a clear way.
Challenge 3: Not All Traditional Escape Room Puzzles Work In People’s Living Rooms
So, we know escape room puzzles must be simple to understand yet difficult to solve. But what type of puzzles work best in someone’s living room? Unsurprisingly, at-home games have more limitations than brick-and-mortar rooms on how to present puzzles and clues. In traditional escape rooms, for example, creators often hide clues taped under a chair or underneath a rug, ,something that can’t be created for an at-home game unless breaking and entering is involved. To add insult to injury, these clues or props are usually too heavy or too fragile for shipping.
Despite this limitation on props, most at-home creators agree that their games shouldn’t be entirely paper-based. “It can’t all be paper,” Barnes says. “You have to have some physical props in it…little props and goodies that are tactile.” Barnes uses items like coins and puzzles that require a blacklight (one small and durable enough to be shipped, of course) to create that tactile experience.
What Can Help With These Challenges and Enrich the At-Home Experience? Technology!
Several at-home games are also leveraging technology to enhance players’ experiences. The Werewolf Experiment, for example, has a tie-in with Amazon’s Alexa. While players play the game, Alexa establishes a spooky, werewolf-like mood with themed music and also helps players track their time and ask for hints. Barnes’s Escape the Crate games integrate technology even more by using a password-protected website where players must submit their answers to puzzles in order to receive the next clue. Just like the puzzles, however, designers agree that any technology should be themed—a part of the experience rather than an add-on.
So how do creators figure out what works and what doesn’t before they sell their games? Patel and her co-creator Ariel Rubin tackled this challenge through hundreds of hours of testing. “It all comes down to play testing,” Rubin says. “Our first game took three hours, and it was grueling.” As they continued to test the game, however, they realized what worked and what didn’t and tweaked the game accordingly. Without this process, the game would never have made it to manufacture. As Rubin explains, “Our puzzles were formed the way they are, even the colors we used, because of play testing and seeing how people responded to them.”
One thing Patel and Rubin learned from testing is that logic puzzles didn’t work well for an at-home escape room experience because most people weren’t familiar with how they worked. “People would just pick up [the logic puzzle] and put it back down,” Rubin says. “That’s always a sign your puzzle is not going to work.” Barnes had a similar experience with logic puzzles and also learned through testing what props were durable enough to be in the final product (tiny treasure boxes for his pirate-themed game, sadly, did not make the cut).
Pulling the Pieces Together
Figuring out what props and puzzles don’t work is only half of what creators get out of play testing. The process also helps them map how well the puzzles fit into the overall story of the game. For The Werewolf Experiment, for example, most puzzle answers are used to help solve one of the meta-puzzles of the game. Rubin and Patel mapped out the connections between the puzzles and tested to make sure there was minimal bottlenecking and they had a diverse array of puzzles to solve. “We wanted to do a real mix of puzzles not just in terms of easy versus hard, but also puzzles that different types of people would get,” Rubin explains.
And people are excited about the idea of an escape room you can do at home. As more and more of these games come onto the market, more and more people experience the surprise and excitement these games bring. Try one at your next family get together (after all, if you can’t escape from your boorish Uncle Ted, you can at least escape from a mad scientist or a serial killer or whatever story your game sets up) or even on a Friday night with people you like. Either way, the game’s creators have spent hundreds of hours ensuring you’ll have a memorable experience, even if you start the game not knowing what Filigree in Shadow means.