5 Escape Room Tips from a Guy Who Designs Them
Watching people laugh as they're chained to a murderer's radiator, or facepalm as an unrelenting lava flow burns them alive—it's all pretty standard for Bryce Anderson, co-owner of Breakout Games. As part of his job, he and a team of game designers—including architects, carpenters, electrical and mechanical engineers, and software developers—watch thousands of hours of real-time video of people attempting (and failing) the rooms, all in an effort to build even better escape rooms next time. In fact, it can take up to four months for those full-time teams to design and build a new room. And because Bryce is at the center of it all, he seemed like the perfect guy to ask for a few escape room tips.
Work Together (But Don't "Bunch")
This is pretty standard-issue advice; you've been hearing it since pee-wee soccer. But there's a catch when looking at it in the context of escape room tips. Well-designed escape games usually try to pull a fast one on you by spreading parts of the same puzzle throughout the room—so working together cannot mean standing around the same clue. "What we see in teams that do not do a good job is that someone finds something and everyone rushes to look at it." It happens so often that Bryce even has a name for it: bunching. And according to him, "When teams bunch, they fail."
Verbalize What You See
This one might actually be one of the most valuable escape room tips. When we asked Bryce what advice he'd give a total beginner if he had money on the game, he said: "Verbalize what you see."
Early on, it's not even about solving the puzzle. The more you just call out what you're seeing, the more you're feeding data to the hive mind so that everyone's working from the same pool of knowledge. "[When you shout out things like] 'Alright! We've got three balls with hieroglyphics over here,' you're using the eyes and investigative skills of all six people. If you did that, I think you would for sure break out."
Otherwise, you're likely to find yourself in a situation where, in essence, you're looking at a lock and your partner's staring at a key.
Work Fast (and Ask for Clues) at the Beginning
An hour in an escape room seems like plenty of time, and that false sense of security encourages people to dawdle early on. Bryce says that's probably the biggest threat to the team. By the time people realize what kind of trouble they're in, it's usually way too late and the unsolved clues have piled up. Bryce has seen enough teams to know that "it's easy to work fast when you have five minutes left." That's why he suggests starting out with a real sense of urgency.
The same thing applies to hints. Often, people will refuse to ask for their hint because they think it feels like cheating. Asking for a hint with five minutes left is like asking for a raise while you're getting fired: it's not going to do you any good and you're probably going to feel a little silly. Don't let pride get the best of you. It's natural to want to solve the room like a true Sherlock, but teams that win act more like Columbo: they ask questions.
You'll Need to Think Like a Bunch of Engineers . . .
For Bryce, the best escape room puzzles lean on every team member's skill set—especially mechanical, electrical, and software engineers. When you're up against the wall, try thinking about the medium. For example: if you've exhausted what you can do mechanically with an object, maybe it's time to start looking for something a tech guy might have dreamed up.
Take, for instance, Bryce's favorite puzzle. Without giving too much away, it relies on a hidden laser (electrical) that triggers a sensor tucked into the eye of a portrait (software) that can only be activated by precisely positioning a series of mirrors (mechanical). Since pretty much everything you see in an escape room is custom-built, you can bet that most things in the room are going to come into play at some point. Make mental notes, and see if working backward helps, especially if you see a portrait of Admiral Nelson with kind of a wonky eye.
. . . and Like a Writer
What is an escape room without a plot? "We start with the story first. We have lists of interesting stories and the general flow a game could go through," Bryce says. If you're really stuck, and none of the other clues have worked, maybe it's time to start thinking like a storyteller. Just think of what makes sense from a narrative perspective. At the very least, it's a great opportunity for English Lit majors to prove the value of their degree to skeptical parents.