If you're reading this, you're probably familiar with what an "escape room" is. If not, we suggest experiencing an escape room first! If that isn't an option, you can also watch this avatar-led escape room play-through: Solving The ULTIMATE Heist Escape Room.
Screenshot from Solving The ULTIMATE Heist Escape Room
Why Your Should Make Your Own Escape Room at Home
Though escape rooms first came onto the scene in 2007, today there are over 2,300 escape room companies in the United States. What if you don't want to go to an escape room business though? You could instead buy an at-home escape room game (see our recommendations here). If you instead want to try to create a DIY (do-it-yourself) escape room at home, continue reading.
There are many reasons why you may want to create a DIY escape room at home:
- Save Money: Escape rooms can be expensive! An hour-long experience often costs each person $25-30. Plus there is the cost of getting to the business. A DIY escape room can be created with common household items for FREE.
- Play For > 1 Hour: Of course, you may want to time how long your DIY escape room takes your friends or family. However, the great news is that if the players do take longer than 1 hour for a DIY escape room, that's totally OK! No business is going to ask them to stop in order for the next group to begin playing.
- Feed Your Creativity: There is no doubt that a lot of creativity and ingenuity is required to get through an escape room. But creating one can take a lot more, because you'll be designing the storyline and the puzzles. It can be a ton of fun to channel your creativity into making a DIY escape room!
- Get Fulfillment in Others Joy: One of the biggest reasons we at Puzzling Pursuits love what we do every day is the positive reviews we get from players. There is a lot of satisfaction in creating an experience that is then enjoyed by other people. Creating a DIY escape room and watching your friends or family go through it successfully can be the cherry on top of a great experience!
If you're convinced of the benefits of creating a DIY escape room at home, read on!
Roadmap for Creating a DIY Escape Room
As at-home escape room game designers, we've put together a high-level process that seems to work every time. While you don't have to follow these steps exactly, we find that it is helpful in order to create an escape room experience efficiently.
1. Start with the Theme and High-Level Storyline
An escape room experience is always better with a theme and some sort of story that guides the players through it. It makes the experience more immersive and can raise the stakes and level of excitement. There are probably a million different directions you can go with this, so don't be constrained!
For instance, perhaps you are creating an escape room to commemorate a family member's birthday. A premise could be that their birthday present was stolen by a free-spirited fairy who enjoyed playing pranks. The fairy left a bunch of cryptic clues behind to point the way to where the birthday present was hidden. While traditional escape rooms require that the players literally try to escape from a physical space, you don't need to necessarily adhere to that when designing your own escape room-esque experience.
A more traditional set-up could be trapping the players within a room. This room could be a mummy's tomb that the players were exploring and suddenly closed on them. Or it could be a space station whose main computer has gone rogue and trapped the astronauts inside. Again, the sky's the limit, but here are some other ideas:
- Players become trapped in a Victorian haunted mansion and must figure out how to escape
- A will is left by a deceased distant relative who provides a series of challenges to access her/his immense wealth
- You've all been abducted and trapped inside a creepy lab; escape before the mad scientist returns
- Your time machine went horribly wrong, and now you're stuck in the past (or future!); you'll need to repair your time machine to escape back to the present
If you want some other ideas, check out Paniq Room's Popular Escape Room Themes blog post.
2. Plan How the Players Will Win
Once you have a high-level theme and storyline set, you will need to flesh out the details. While you may want to just jump to the lowest level of details (creating the actual puzzles themselves), it's very important to create a high-level plan of the entire game. This means figuring out a plan or roadmap for how the players will go through your escape room and win. Will they need to solve a series of 10 different tasks/puzzles, all in serial order? Will more details to the story unfold over the course of the escape room?
Of course, this plan may change when you get to the lower-level details, and that's totally fine! However, if you don't have a plan in mind, it can be hard to create a coherent experience.
If you are just starting out, we suggest keeping it simple. Aim for about 5 different tasks or puzzles, where one needs to be completed in order to get access to the next one. Even if you have 5 main tasks or puzzles, you can have sub-parts to each of them. For instance, in order to solve one puzzle, you may first need to search the room for the 4 different pieces that comprise the puzzle.
Some people, especially when first starting out with creating a DIY escape room, would prefer following a template. If that's the case for you, you're in luck! There are tons of resources for how to structure a DIY escape room. Here are some we recommend below:
- Here's an escape room template that's aimed for kids
- Here's another DIY escape room that was enjoyed by kids & adults alike
- Here's a step-by-step video tutorial on creating a moderate difficulty escape room aimed for adults & teens (travel themed)
- Here's another video walkthrough of a DIY escape room (zombie virus themed)
3. Start Figuring Out the Details
Now, it's time to actually flesh out all of the details. This means creating the puzzles or tasks that players will need to do in order to move through the escape room. We keep saying "puzzles or tasks" because that's how we think about the two main categories that make up an escape room experience. A great escape room experience has a balanced mix of tasks and puzzles.
A task is something that takes time for the player but is largely immediately obvious for them to do. Examples of tasks include:
- Searching the room for components
- Going from start to finish in a maze, and the path goes through letters that spell out a word
- Putting a jigsaw puzzle together, and a message is revealed on the back when put together properly
- Decrypting an encoded message when they already have the decoding information
- Hitting a target with a Nerf gun, which "unlocks" a new room
Tasks can be a great way to boost confidence and enthusiasm by players because they are generally easier to accomplish. However, is the escape room only had tasks, it might be a bit too tedious or too easy for the players. The goal is to then balance out tasks with puzzles which require more ingenuity to solve.
An example of a task could be solving a Sudoku puzzle, since most people already know the rules required to solve one
If you want more ideas for tasks in your escape room, check out some of these links below:
- Here's a great list of places you can hide items around the house
- Here are some other ideas
A puzzle is a challenge that does not have immediately obvious solution. It generally requires an "a-ha" moment, and players who solve a puzzle can feel a great sense of accomplishment in completing it. However, if the puzzle is too hard or obscure (where players think, "I NEVER would have thought of THAT" after hearing the solution) then they can be discouraging. This is why the goal of creating puzzles is never to stump the players. Rather, it is to create puzzles that seem perplexing initially but ultimately can be solved and provide a great sense of accomplishment.
Puzzles can be very wide-ranging and unique. Here's one example: A hidden message written in white crayon. To read it, a player will need to paint the paper to reveal the message.
Source: Hands On Teaching Ideas
Here is an example list of linear puzzles for an escape room:
- The escape room begins with a task (pick one from the above list). When done, the task reveals a message: Balloons POP!
- There are balloons and scissors in the room. From the previous task, players have to figure out that they should pop the balloons to reveal messages on paper inside them. The message may be scrambled or incomplete, and they need to put the pieces of paper in the correct order to read the message, which is the code for how to unlock a combination lock.
- The combination lock opens a box that contains a piece of paper titled "The final lock combination:" with strange symbols underneath (perhaps it is in pigpen or Morse code; or you could make up your own symbols!). Players have to look around and find a sheet that decodes the symbols into English. They see it taped underneath a desk. Once decoded, the message revealed is: BLUE PLUS RED FLOWER.
- Players look around and see that there is a very colorful poster on the wall of flowers and their names. Players need to figure out that the message clues into PURPLE (what you get when you mix blue and red paint). There is only one purple flower, ALLIUM. Players use this to unlock the main lock and have successfully escaped the room!
Puzzle ideas are where you can really unleash your creativity. The above was just one example of an infinite variety of puzzles you can chain together to create an amazing escape room experience. For more ideas, check out this guide by Lock Paper Scissors: DIY Escape Room Puzzle Ideas.
Now that you've completed your escape room, how do you know if the experience is good or not? This is where step #4 comes in.
4. Test it out!
The fourth main step we encourage you to do is to test your escape room experience. At a minimum, you should careful walk through the entire escape room experience you've just set up, from start to finish. This will help catch any obvious mistakes in your set up.
Why should I bother testing my escape room?
While testing is optional, we highly encourage you to at least test the novel puzzles you created before rolling them out in a big reveal. Every great escape room experience started off a little rough around the edges. This is why testing the puzzles and tasks is important.
Of course, if you are just setting this up as a one-time fun experience for your family, you will be there to supervise their playthrough. You will be there to not only give hints but jump in with clarifications if you notice something is not as intuitive as it should be.
Who should I test my escape room on?
An escape room can generally only be played through once by a player. This is because the fun comes from not knowing what to do and going through the novel experience. This makes things a bit tricky, since you can only test the parts of your escape room on people who perhaps you don't plan to share the full experience with.
However, the world is big, so there are many ways to get testers! If you're creating an in-person escape room for friends or family, you can still share part of the experience with others who perhaps are located further away. These additional friends or family members can play the puzzles remotely and provide feedback. It's also a great way to stay in touch from a long distance.
If you're creating the escape room for your children, you can test it initially on your spouse. Or test the escape room with your immediate family initially, then invite other people over to play through it!
Putting it all together
While we highlighted the four major steps to go through to design an escape room experience, the reality is that the steps may not be linear. For example, perhaps after going through #1-4, your testing feedback causes you to go back to #2 or #1. This is totally normal and part of the process of iterating on your design.
It's ultimately up to you on how much you want to refine your escape room. It's all for fun, so take everything in stride and enjoy yourself as much as the players going through your escape room will!
Want to play an at-home escape room game without designing it?
We would be remiss not to mention our company, Puzzling Pursuits. If you are looking for an at-home escape room experience but want to be involved in solving it or don't want to go through all of the effort of putting it together, you're in luck! Each of our games contains two full parts and a huge variety of puzzles to solve. Many players break up each game into two play sessions. It's like two games in one!
Some of the components in BLACKBRIM: 1876
Further, each of our games is set in different historical time periods. For instance, BLACKBRIM: 1876 is set in Victorian England and will appeal to any Sherlock Holmes fans. Meanwhile, LA FAMIGLIA is set in the Roaring Twenties in Chicago when famous mobster Al Capone was alive.