Imagine this: You stand shoulder to shoulder with seven other people in a little group. You’re facing a closed office door. Your assignment is to get through that door, no matter what’s stopping you.
And at the moment, what’s stopping you is a very stubborn secretary.
The secretary stands firm against your pleas. This is the office of a vital person in the communications office, she tells you, and she can’t just let you in.
Unless, she adds with a knowing wink, you happen to have something you can trade for her to look the other way.
You confer with your friends. One of your teammates hands the woman a set of food-ration coupons, usable in the made-up country of Argovia.
The secretary is delighted with the bribe. She thanks you profusely, saying this will more than cover her midday meal and that she’ll be back in an hour—and please, don’t break anything. She holds the office door open as your group files in, closing it behind you with a firm click. Inside the room, the lights are dim. The space is filled with large, boxy shapes.
You pause to let your eyes adjust to the darkness. There’s a clunking sound, like a big machine whirring to life, and an electric buzz fills the room as the lights turn on, one by one. You and your friends look around excitedly to see what you’re dealing with.
You find yourself standing in the office of a bureaucrat, obviously a cog in some type of dystopian government machine. There are big propaganda posters on the walls; books on a shelf locked behind a grille; a typewriter with strange letters on its keys.
On the wall, a timer blinks on: 60 minutes. It begins counting down. The game is on.
6 Strategies for Escape Room Success
Escape rooms may seem like a new trend, but in truth, they’re an extension of a long legacy of in-person entertainment. Much of today’s entertainment takes place on screens. The video game industry, for example, is worth hundreds of billions of dollars. One thing that sets escape rooms apart is that they’re “embodied”—that is, they take place in a physical space, with other people present. In the cultural context of the video game age, anything that’s successfully getting people to come together in the real world is worth a closer look.
Escape rooms can take the form of an in-person room, a computer game, or something played over the internet with friends in remote places. If you’ve never played an escape room before, think about who you’ll ask to be on your team. Go for a theme you think you’ll enjoy. And if you’re a novice puzzler, aim for beginner-level rooms—you can always come back to the higher difficulty games, once you’ve become an expert.
I design escape rooms and puzzle games for a living, and I love mysteries. With a group of friends, I opened one of the first escape rooms in the United States. And since then, we’ve been lucky to make many more exciting adventures for the curious at heart.
In 2021, I wrote Planning Your Escape: Strategy Secrets to Make You an Escape Room Superstar. My goal with the book is to open up the world of escape rooms to as many new players as possible and give them the tools to succeed.
There are six key strategies for doing well in an escape room or puzzle game.
No. 1 - Communication
Escape rooms are all about finding information, sharing what you’ve found, and using it creatively. So if everyone’s finding information, but nobody’s sharing it, you’re going to be in trouble.
No. 2 - Have a game plan
How well does your team communicate? When will you hand off a puzzle, or offer to help out a teammate? How often will you ask for hints? Chat about group expectations beforehand—this is a team sport, after all.
No. 3 - Watch the clock
Ultimately, you’re playing for fun. But beating the clock is the way to win. Keeping an eye on the time, using hints, and asking for help when you get stuck will be key.
No. 4 - Do your research
Many escape rooms and puzzle games use common codes and many puzzles have similar structures. Do a little studying beforehand and you'll be well prepared to succeed in a game.
No. 5 - Eyes on the prize
The goal of escape rooms is, well, to escape. Or to save the day, find the magical object, defuse the bomb, and so on. Every step of the game is driving you toward this end goal, so don’t get distracted by misleading objects or puzzles that don’t actually need solving. If you need a hint to move toward this end goal, take it.
No. 6 - Have fun
Yes, it’s a challenge; it’s team building; it’s a detailed story world. But it’s also a game, and you’re there to enjoy it. Be nice to your teammates, the game monitor, and yourself.
Learn more about the history of immersive entertainment and how to succeed in any escape room or puzzle game in Planning Your Escape: Strategy Secrets to Make You an Escape Room Superstar by L.E. Hall (Simon & Schuster 2021), available now.
Laura E. Hall is an artist, writer, puzzle-maker, immersive environment and narrative designer living in Portland, Oregon. Her work focuses on the intersections between arts, culture, and technology, especially in gaming. She now creates exciting adventures for the curious at heart with Timberview Productions and Meridian Adventure Co.