I'm not an expert on escape rooms. I'm supposedly smart (a PhD in neuroscience sounds fancy), but I'm terrible at trivia and probably about average with puzzles to be honest! I do love strategy though, and so my first two escape room experiences made me realize good teamwork is half the battle. Obviously the real objective should be more about having fun than actually getting out.... winning is great, but it's the sense of adventure that makes escape rooms great!
Strategy from the Experts
Unlike other articles, where I've dreamt up my own strategy, this one is done for me already, thanks to this fabulous video. Video: BEAT ANY ESCAPE ROOM: 10 proven tricks and tips - which I discovered by accident. The author of this video, Mark Rober, does some fantastic stuff.
I haven't put it into action yet, but here's his principles:
- Think simple: This should be solvable by average people in 60 minutes. If you can't find a simple answer, chances are, you having found all necessary info yet - move on then come back later.
- Searching: 1st thing in each new room - everyone split up and start searching. Typical places: always look under tables, under rugs, hollowed out books, cloth pockets, behind doors. Common mistakes: looking in light fixtures or not realizing something is not part of room design (a washing label on a rug doesn't fit with the theme).
- Organize your stuff: Put all clues and items in one location (typically a desk) and group them together.
- Tip: Most rooms are 1 item one use, so make a discard pile for "used" clues and leave any keys in their lock.
- Warning: Don't walk around with something in your hand - call out what you find and put it in the pile!
- Focus on what is stopping you - Work backward from what's stopping you (eg: this needs a key, the key is in this tube, which needs a 3 letter, 2 number combination, look for that and be less vulnerable to red herrings).
- Red herring: something in the room (like numbers on the wall), which don't actually help, they are diversions.
- Team roles - Poor communication is #1 reason teams fail.
- Project manager: Doesn't get deep into puzzles, everyone reports to him, and he keeps an idea of active tasks.... Even if you don't have other roles, you need a project manager. (most important)
- Searcher: Focused on looking on, under, above, around, behind, and inside everything.
- Quartermaster: Project manager handles people, quartermaster handles stuff. Works with searcher and has a place in the room to put different things and "used" things.
- Brains: Knows different types of logic and math puzzles (morse code, Braille, Pigpen, 1-29 for A-X, Roman numerals etc).
- Reader: Reading something aloud to everyone doesn't work, people don't listen... read it yourself then report back to project manager.
.... more roles at The Eight Roles for Escape Room Success - but the project manager is the only really critical one.
- Lock types:
- Standard key lock (needs a key), combination lock (4 numbers), combo lock (X letter & Y sometimes numbers), dial lock (spin CW to final number), directional lock (tricky, squeeze down 3 times to try again), look boxes (2-10 inputs, but order doesn't matter & each number once).
- If you think you have right code, have someone else try before moving on.
- Skip last digit if you know the rest.
- Code types: Half of all rooms have a code to decider... For instance: morse code, (dots and dashes written, flashing or noise), pigpen cipher (tic-tac toe grid), brail key (any groups of 6), alphabet (numbers ranging from 1 to 26)"
- Written clues: bolded words, all words missing a letter, only words with capital letters, first word each line.
- Look for patterns: Often colors indicate order (eg: RGB), count the sides, count colors. Always cycle people through puzzles.
- Your guide is your friend: Listen closely to guide... ask about subtle issues which trip people up and high level questions "1 lock, 1 use policy"... or ask them to prompt you if you fall way behind.
Extra Strategy From Me
Some of the things I've noticed trip people up.... with lots of people looking, it's easy to not know what's already been solved. A couple of times I brought pen and paper, which was *somewhat* helpful, but honestly it's too easy to lose track of the paper.... so next time I'll try post-it notes so that you can stick your notes where they are relevant.
- Tip #1: Bring these helpful items
- Some purists might argue pen and paper are not allowed, but nobody has said no to me.
- A foldable box: I used a black foldable cloth dresser container To put solved elements and used keys. Unsolved go onto a table.... as soon as it's been used throw it into this black bin so others don't get confused.
- Post-it notes: Often you'll need to decipher symbols into characters.... and obviously you're not allowed to write on any props directly (you'd ruin things for the next group), but you can put a post-it notes directly on a wall, painting, puzzle piece, book, etc. You might also want to just put a post-it note over a keypad that you've used that says "DONE" (maybe on a pink note), so your teammate doesn't try opening it. Keep the unused notes in the box.
- Pens: One per person, keep it in your jacket pocket.
- Flashlight / blacklight: This is getting really serious... often a flashlight is provided in a room, but it's usually pretty weak, so you might like a LED with a little more power. People who are strict might call this cheating, but if your room has one of these you can just say you brought a backup with better batteries.
- Tip #2: Arrive 40 mins early for a strategy talk
- My biggest failing is that I tried to get everyone there 20 minutes early, but we only arrived 15 minutes before and after signing up and joking around we only had 3 minutes... thus we didn't have any time to watch the "BEAT ANY ESCAPE ROOM" video (on this page) that I wanted us to watch. Next time I'll lock down just one friend as say.... "hey - we both need to decide/support the idea that we have one leader who makes us all talk strategy before we go into the room"!
- Tip #3: Swap when you are stuck - never be idle
- If one person is looking at something, it's easy to write down a wrong number and it will cost you 20 minutes. Don't let anyone be "idle".... ask someone to double check the code you copied.... if it's one digit off you are in trouble. I once was struggling with a combination lock (it was fiddly), so I asked someone else to enter the code and they got it right away. Sometimes even keys are fiddly, so get someone else to try turning it.
- Tip #4: Ask for help and "confirmation"
- Most rooms always have someone watching you on cameras to make sure you don't break anything, and give you the correct next clue if you decide to call them to ask for a clue. Some people are stubborn about asking for clues, but you need to say "if we can't solve this in 4 minutes, we have to call" - don't get stuck! There's so many little things that can go wrong, the people watching are pretty forgiving, but only if you ask for help... so if you look directly at the camera and ask "have we finished with the map part?" they will call you or flash up on a screen the conformation you need without necessarily counting it towards a clue. A clue is "have you tried looking at ...", a confirmation is "yes, you are on the right track ... use the magnet to open the door - but it's fiddly - so keep at it".
Extra Tips From Me
So I haven't done lots of rooms, but even with a little practice you noticed common elements and common "patterns". Here's some of the elements to look for:
- Opening Paintings: Anything on the wall, such a painting or sign, might swing open... lightly hold it and try to swing it from all sides.
- Books and Book Shelves: If you see a shelf of many books, there's two likely scenarios: (#1) If some of the books are fixed, you might need to pull/push them in some order to unlock something else. (#2) One of these books contains a clue.... don't waste your time looking through every book.... but remember the book titles - somewhere in the room there's probably a reference to a book + page number + maybe words, or a template to show show letters.
- Moving Magnets: If you find or unlock any item unusual in shape, there's a chance it is magnetic... you'll want a good instinct for where the magnet should go... is it on a chess board, does it move a ball on the other side of a glass - it's useful for something.
- Lasers: A couple of times I've seen rooms with lasers... and so immediately you have to ask yourself if you need to divert or block the beam from a laser target. Look around for mirrors and red symbols (maybe a gemstone in a wall) where you might need to shine the laser. You can use the back of your hand to trace a laser's path, then put the mirror in front of your hand. As always, speed is essential.
- Geographic Maps: Is there a map on the wall? You'll want to keep an eye out for references for lat, lng coordinates (Example: Sydney, Australia is approx: -33.8, 151.1) and/or an overlay grid and/or a blacklight.
- Pulleys and Strings: This is a spoiler for "Prison Break", but I did one room where you had a toothbrush on a string, that you had to drop into the toilet and pull out the other side. Usually it's not quite so complex... if something is tethered notice its natural range and you should be able to figure out where to stick it.
- Jigsaw puzzle pieces: Some rooms just have a bunch of puzzle pieces around... this is pretty easy to deal with, but make sure you designated just one person for the puzzle while the others hunt around for other stuff. Obviously start with corner pieces, then sides and notice how many pieces you have missing - they are either locked away or you might be cheeky and ask the camera "is there an accessible puzzle piece we haven't found", and it shouldn't count towards a clue - maybe it's in a jacket pocket you missed.
- Numbers: Number are often everywhere around the room. Look for matching sets that add up to 4 digits (because most locks are 4 digits)... For examples: Two yellow numbers "34" and "12" on two jackets, mean you should immediately try "3412" and "1234" in any 4 digit locks. Since digits for number locks need to be in order, look for something indicating position (1,2,3,4 ... or a code using colors or shapes etc).
- A different perspective: Not often, but sometimes maybe you have to lay on the ground and look underneath something... or maybe you peek through a hole and you'll see the number you need. Think about the angle of your eyesight.
Escape Rooms I've Tried
- Palace Games (San Francisco) - actually inside the (famous) The Palace Of Fine Arts (or kind of out the back), makes it extra legit. I did the Roosevelt Escape Room as a team offsite for Google. We had a group of 10 smart engineers and yet we failed to get out in 90 minutes. Still, it was a whole heap of fun. Wow! This place has lights, bells, whistles, electronic contraptions, and a tunnel. Seriously well done. :)
- Beat The Lock Escape Room (San Jose) - my first escape room was "The Spy Room" in San Jose. It was lots of fun, although I have to say this venue feels like it was one an old doctor's office, so it's on the lower budget side. Still the puzzles were fun and although there were only 5 of us, 3 were neuroscience postdocs with escape room experience, so we made it out with a minute to spare. Nice!
- The Escape Game San Francisco - been twice for "Prison Break" and "The Heist".... both really fun. Their website shows you a 3D view of the first room in each set, so you know it's high budget! (see video)