I’ve always had a love for puzzles, brain teasers, and riddles. I played The Incredible Machine and Lemming on my computer everyday after school. I even created my own puzzles and riddles and tested them on my parents. When escape room games made the jump from online computer games to live-action adventure, I was that ecstatic to get locked up in a room full of puzzles. I still remember standing outside a tiny escape room facility set up in a creepy warehouse waiting to try the next step in the evolution of puzzles.
There is a learning curve that comes with taking something you’re used to do in your favorite chair and stretching it to the size of a room. I’m not saying that escape rooms are impossible and only geniuses stand a chance, just that it isn’t a pure IQ test and that people who have never played one before may find it a little different then they’d imagined. Since I started at Room Escape Fairfax as a host and puzzle writer, I’ve played somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty escape rooms (I know, I’m ridiculous) and have learned a lot about how they work. So if you’ve never played an escape room before or you’re still looking for a few pointers, here are a few things I wish I’d known at the start of my room-escaping career.
1. Communication is Key
In our room escape games, most puzzles involve a few different components from different parts of the rooms. Sometimes it’s physical objects, sometimes it’s pieces of information, but one of the biggest parts of an escape room is connecting these parts of the puzzle in order to get to the next step. Since very few of our puzzles involve just one component in one place, it is very important to make sure you’re communicating well with your group. If you find part of a clue on one side of the room and your mom finds an item that would make that item make sense but neither of you tell each other what you found, it won’t do either of you any good. Whenever you find something that seems important, you should always make sure everyone else in the group knows it’s there. They might have seen something else in the room that’ll give it context, or maybe their brain is just thinking a different way that day, but more insights solves a puzzle faster. Always make sure you communicate with your mom (in escape rooms and in general: go call your mom. She misses you.)
2. Don’t Overthink It
Playing an escape room for the first time can be overwhelming; you see a whole variety of puzzles and it can be intimidating to know how to approach it, but don’t forget: we want it to be possible for people to be able to solve it, as well as several other difficult things, within an hour. That doesn’t mean the puzzle isn’t hard, but we like to err on the side of doable. Our games are written to be fun for everyone, not just Mensa members. For example, the answer probably isn’t some weird math thing (at our location anyway). Most of our team wasn’t great at math in school, so we have made a decision for the good of humanity to keep our games math-free. If you see numbers in the room, you probably won’t have to add them together or otherwise math around with them. We want our games to be live-action puzzle boxes, not midterm exams. From time to time, we see math puzzles at other facilities, but more often than not, it in some way lets us know math will be involved (maybe with mathematical symbols or a word clue) before we try throwing every single number in the room into a calculator and seeing what happens. Another common example of overthinking is trying to apply outside knowledge to a puzzle. For example, in The Cure, we needed names for some former patients of the abandoned hospital and some of them may or may not be named after characters from Prison Break. This doesn’t mean those names are any more important, just that I abuse my power to name characters in our games to reference old TV shows that I liked. So whether it’s weird math or weird references to network TV, we try to avoid puzzles that require outside knowledge, skills, or giant leaps of logic.
3. Don’t Underthink It
Just like you can rule out calculus and references to Norwegian literature, not every single surface-level detail will be important. It’s instinct to try anything and everything you can think of when you’re trying out an escape room for the first time or two, but you can usually rule out:
Manufacturing numbers, serial numbers, or numbers that are incidentally on an object. We don’t hate you and wouldn’t force you to type in an entire ISBN number. If a number is part of the game, it’ll either be written conspicuously or marked in some way.
The very presence of an object; the code probably isn’t ‘Chair’, perhaps, just because there’s a chair in the room. I’ve seen this sort of thing at other locations, so don’t rule it out entirely, but we don’t have these.
In summary, we expect you to think outside the box, not notice that there is a box and be done with it.
4. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help
Legend has it that an oracle in ancient Greece once told the famous philosopher Socrates that he was the wisest of the Greeks, for he knew that he knew nothing. Not all groups share that wisdom. Obviously, that’s an exaggeration (you know plenty and so did Socrates), but it’s still important to know what you don’t know, ya know? At least weekly, we’ll tell a group of first-timers that a game will be hard and/or that they can ask for help if they need it only to hear:
“Well we’re pretty smart so I’m sure we can handle it”
“Can we just turn the walkie-talkie off?”
“Are you calling us stupid?”
And so on, but as I said earlier, an escape room is not an IQ test. There is no shame in asking for a hint, especially if you haven’t played an escape room before and don’t quite know where to start. With most first-time groups, players spend the first part of the game wandering around aimlessly of what to do, but most of those pick up noticeable momentum as the game goes. Taking a first hint earlyish to get the ball rolling is not a bad idea, as it can help familiarize you with the logic and basic format of our puzzles. While I’m not saying you should ask us for help every two minutes or anything, keep in mind that our games are designed to be challenging, and with our puzzles as varied as they are, you’ll probably do better on the next one!
5. Just Play It
I could sit here and write out escape room tips all day (and probably will in a later installment), but the simple fact is that the best way to learn how to play escape rooms is to go play an escape room. No matter how much preparation you do, it’ll still be a little different than you expect. It won’t be easy, but that’s the fun part. The difference in groups between their first and second game is noticeable. I can tell you not to overthink or underthink, but the best way to fully understand what that means and have your own definition of it is just to go give it your best try. Our hosts run games for new players every day, so we are professionals at making escape rooms fun for all groups.
Hopefully this advice can help you learn how to best experience one of my very favorite hobbies. Stay tuned for future escape rooms tips. We hope to see you soon for your first, second, or hundredth game at Fairfax or our upcoming location in Arlington.
Written by Andrew Nicholson