How to create a Puzzle Room in a Box

Learn how to create your own Locked Box Mystery Game

Sunday 6th March – 11am-1pm

£6/4 in advance, £7/5 on the door

Otley Courthouse on a sunny day

We’re excited to be leading a workshop at Otley’s “Courthouse Words” festival in March.  Attendees will get to try a locked box mystery in teams before having a go at creating their own.

Led by Liz & Catherine Cable, this 2 hour workshop will get you making your own locked box mystery game.  Learn how Escape Rooms create their puzzles, and then make a set of five puzzles to confuse and confound your friends and family.  Will they discover the secrets within your Locked Box Mystery?  Or will they run out of time…?

Catherine works at the Tick Tock Unlock Escape Room in Leeds, and has been a Rookie Coach at Kings Camp. Liz is Senior Lecturer in Digital Narratives and Social Media at Leeds Trinity University; they are part of the Time Games development team.

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#EscGamesUK – a roundup of our first Escape Room UnConference

Just a quick note to give a shout out to all the great guys who travelled to Leeds for the inaugural Great Escape Unconference. We had a buzzing room, and I was delighted with the levels of honesty and generosity from everyone attending. The sheer scale of peoples’ achievements, ambitions and hopes for their rooms was inspiring. In particular, I felt a deep connection with all those discussing the importance of narrative and immersion alongside customer service.

So in no particular order, here are the Escape Room folks I talked to on the day:

Nathan, the man with a plan from Agent November  – running London-based outdoor spy trails, indoor escape rooms, and planning the break the Guinness World Record for organising the world’s biggest treasure hunt this August. Two other mobile room runners argued the business case for no-fixed-address: Steve who runs Puzzle Rooms –  the first and only escape room experience in East Anglia, and my Time Games colleague Toby who got on his bike to launch his business in Utrecht.

We had four folks from Breakout in Manchester and Liverpool including Ed & Chelsea who volunteered to host us in future – so we may get the chance to do a full puzzle room as part of a Manchester event.

Thank you to Zoli of ClueQuest London, who we should all thank for being one of the first to bring the Escape Room concept here from Europe – as well as his impromptu and very welcome sponsorship of the event in the form of free pens!

Jas and Jordan were representing Escape Live Birmingham – one of their Birmingham-based games is a hostage rescue mission, which I’m tempted to travel and try.

Elaine and Mike from Escape Quest shared their experience as seasoned Escape Room owners, and as well as being very generous with their advice for newcomers, they aren’t afraid to shake it up a little closer to home: their infamous scary “Bad Clown” game has been redesigned and revamped as a 90-minute version with live actors for adults, and a toned-down 60-minute game for the younger audience, just relaunched in Macclesfield.

Loving the steampunk vibe from Escapologic, Matt and Simon spent time with Jackie of Escape Games Scotland talking geocaching whilst our german visitors from Exit Games, Mystery Rooms and Exit Ventures caught up over that North of England speciality – fish-finger butties.  Tia from Timehunter spent much of the time scribing  (Thank you Tia!) – we hope to get all your notes gathered soon.

Honourable mention to top blogger Claire of Girl Geek Up North with 30+ live action games under her belt, whose opinions on what makes a good experience were practical and useful – I’m looking forward to her blogpost about the day.

Similarly Chris, whose data-collecting and crunching sets the stage for serious industry conversations – find him and all the latest Escape Room News at the Exit Games blog.

It was good to meet John Sear and talk about immersive theatre, massive group games, and all the cross-overs between the arts and live gaming. My passion is creating immersive stories, so this is a conversation I hope to continue soon.

We’re aware that the Escape Room Industry is young, and the majority of customers are first-timers treating rooms as tourist attractions or fun fairs. We know that for the industry to grow we need to encourage repeat visits – and this is one of the reasons we have set up UK Escape Room Owners on Facebook – do come join us to continue the conversation.

Last but not least, good luck to Dan and his erstwhile builders Matt & Luke whose “Hour Escape” game is launching soon.

If I’ve missed you, let me know – so many people, so many ideas.

Thank you all, see you on the UK Escape Room owners group, and at the next one?


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The Great Escape – The UK’s first Escape Room Unconference

Come join us for the first UK Escape Game Unconference, and we hope the start of regular opportunities to get together and talk all things Escape Games. We will have three twenty minute slots at the start for more formal presentations, Scott Nicholson of the Toronto unconference hopes to Skype in, and then we will split up to discuss all the things that matter to escape game organisers.

With 24 owners and enthusiasts booked to attend from all over the UK and beyond, we have chosen the homely Cross Keys pub as our venue for the day. We’ll be upstairs in the James Watt room, but we can spread out as the mood takes us. We have the room from noon to 10pm, so feel free to arrive early and stay behind and chat (though I think I’ll head to the bar downstairs).

cross keys pub

Wonderful food will be available, and our suggested donation of £8 collected on the day will pay for the room hire and post-it notes. Any remainder will be put behind the bar at the end of the day.

I’ve had a few questions about the event, so just wanted to say the aim is just to have a structure so we all talk meaningfully about Escape Rooms and have something to take away with us that could improve our business or experience. No-one really “presents” unless they want to, but everyone should be prepared to bring an idea to the table.

I’ve got a couple of puzzley ice-breakers, including the Break-in-Box that got 300 students at the University of Central Lancaster bemused at their induction last year. Can you beat the time it took their tutors to solve it?

Suggestions for half hour sessions so far include:

  • Using Escape Rooms to encourage innovative thinking in project teams
  • What do we need that we don’t already have?
  • Beyond the Victory Selfie – using social media to extend engagement and return custom
  • Escape the Escape Room – Urban quests as alternative puzzle experiences
  • Upselling! Sourcing and creating products and souvenirs to maximise income

I’d love to talk about a methodology for mapping puzzle-flow too – but I am no expert so please someone volunteer! The secret is to get involved and see where the conversation takes you.

The day will be structured for you, but you’ll also have plenty of time between sessions to just network and chat.

See you there!

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Some escape game designers walk into a room . . .

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The Great Escape! Announcing the UK Room Escape Game Unconference

This is the first UK Escape Game Unconference, and we hope the start of regular opportunities to get together and talk all things Escape Games. We will have three twenty minute slots at the start for more formal presentations, Scott Nicholson of the Toronto unconference hopes to Skype in, and then we will split up to discuss all the things that matter to escape game organisers.

The rules of an unconference – or Open Space – are simple, the agenda is made up by the people attending choosing what they want to discuss:

Whoever comes are the right people

Whenever it starts is the right time

Whatever happens is the only thing that could have

When it’s over, it’s over

Wherever it happens is the right place

Plus, the Law of Two Feet: If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, go someplace else.

A voluntary donation of up to £8 on the night will cover room hire and refreshments, plus lots of post it notes and paper. If you can’t afford it, then have the event on us.

We’ll have a couple of scribes making notes, so we can catch up with anything that happened in a different bit of the room afterwards.

I’ll update this as plans evolve, and look forward to seeing you there.

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Which comes first, the puzzle or the plot?

Do you prefer a game where you are given a role to play, however briefly defined, so you can “suspend your disbelief” for a while and immerse yourself?

Or do you want a pure puzzle game where there is no distinction between yourself and your role in the game?

In our pop-up escape games open to the general public, which we create on demand for exhibitions, conferences, gaming events and conventions, we have created a story-world around time travel and Time Agents, and we aim for individual players to experience arcing plots for themselves should they go on to play a few of our games. Happily the nature of Time Travel means individual players can participate in each scenario in any chronological order.  (We also have a plot mechanic/believable in-character reason that explains why so many people do the same Time Mission, and yet the “canon” outcome may not be effected by your actions in game.  More on this later.)

As a player I appreciate that it’s impossible to create deep story worlds in a hour-long game that will be run hundreds of times over, however I sometimes feel quite discomfited by being suddenly in a place full of puzzles with no logical reason behind it.  Bath’s “Six Locked Doors” is a case in point. No reason to be there, a bizarre set of locations including a half out-of-bounds airing cupboard and a toilet, with a series of puzzles linking across the locations that are fun to solve individually whilst not quite linking together as plot. Other escape rooms work hard to at least “theme” a game, and design all the puzzles in keeping with it.

I suppose this could be seen as the ludology versus narratology debate in physical terms. What do you prefer?

And would you choose your escape game based on whether ludology or narratology was marketed more strongly?




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The End Matters

So what happens at the end of a game? I recently played a game where there were a number of rooms to get through (not always through a door), and we had just solved an enormous puzzle that took ages to decode even once you’d cracked it.  It took the whole team to do it together. Then we raced to the next door, tapped in the code, and found ourselves . . . in the corridor, out of the room, and out of the game. It was a real let-down.  And that was when we had succeeded!

In all previous escape games I’d participated in, it had been very clear what you have to do to win, and in particular what action marked the end of the game.  In Paris we had to diffuse a bomb, then escape via a clearly marked door.  In Rhodes we had to find the crystal, and leave through the entrance with it.  Both superb games, with high production values, and a very clear goal that helped build the tension as you raced to achieve it.

In my seven-year long live role-play campaign “Forgotten Sorrows”, we worked hard to make sure if the players lost, then they lost well.  Most famously when the players failed to stop an ancient evil being resurrected around year five, the whole tone of the games changed into one of occupation and resistance, and the reverberations of failure were perhaps more satisfying plot-wise than success would have been – resulting as it would in simply status-quo.

In Escape Games you need to consider the same issues. Especially as the Exit Puzzle is the final and some would say lasting memory of your game.

As Adam Clare writes on his blog “Reality is a Game”:

” Make the ending rewarding!  No matter how the players escape be sure to make the ending rewarding.  Even if the players lose make sure that the conclusion is also an interesting experience.  Answer the question: what happens if the players don’t escape?”

I think you also need to ask what happens if they do?  How will the players foresee the ending?  How will they know whether they have succeeded or failed?And how will each be marked and celebrated?

What’s the best ending you’ve experienced?

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Induction Game – Escape Room and Scavenger Hunt

Leeds Trinity University, Media Students, 24th Sept 2015

As part of an induction week challenge to help students (and new staff members) get to know each other, Liz Cable ran a short room escape game as one of several challenges in a wider Scavenger Hunt that included creating #MiniMovies like Psycho, Jurassic Park, High School Musical, Titanic and Rocky IV.  You can see the full story as it unfolded on Twitter and Vine.

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Give us a clue – when to give hints in a room escape game

So how do you feel about hints?

Do you want to be given them whether you’ve asked or not, or do you only want them when you ask for them?

How many is it “fair” to have – and does too many spoil your sense of achievement?

If you play competitively – do you want to be penalised for hints and somehow have the hints you use accounted for in the overall timing of the event?

Do you like cryptic clues, or do you want to ask specific questions and get straight answers?

We’ve been travelling the world playing Escape Games. One in Houston can take up to ten people on a team, and in order to get a hint everyone in the team has to put both hands in the air.  I like this idea for a pure puzzle game as it ensures a consensus, and also makes the players check with each other where they are up to and what they are doing to ensure they are truly stuck before they ask for a hint.  It also has a sort-of inbuilt time penalty because everyone has to stop what they are doing, lose their train of thought, and then get back to it.  I think I’d use this method if I had two teams competing, with a scripted list of clues to be given.

Elsewhere, clues are given either on a screen or via loudspeaker, which are strictly timed for how far the players are along in the game. In another variant players can ask for up to three clues when they need them, but ask for more than three and each one cost 5 minutes added onto the final escape time. That’s a costly penalty, especially when the additional clues are cryptic.

For our competitive convention games, we have been using a timing system where we give three scripted clues for each puzzle – starting with cryptic then getting more practical – based on whether they have completed the puzzle within a certain time frame. For our bespoke games we decide on the hint system dependent on the purpose of the game.

What’s the best method you’ve come across for determining when to give hints in an escape game?

As for how the hint system is physically managed, that’s an upcoming post.


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Pop-up Room Escape Game

Ducosim, Amersfoort, NL, 19th Sep 2015

Ducosim logo

We were happy to be invited to run a room at Ducosim, a quarterly boardgames fair in the centre of the Netherlands. We had a makeup room to convert to a lab, which was tricky with limited time, but it was the puzzles the gamers were after.

As you’ll discover from the video clip below (left image), it went down very well – the gamers aced the puzzles and we had some of the best times yet!

Ducosim 20150919 Team 1

Ducosim 20150919 Team 2

Ducosim 20150919 Team 3





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