When most people hear the term "escape room," they probably think of a business that provides a one-hour experience for groups of people. Within the one hour window, you and your group are trapped inside a themed room and need to figure out how to escape. In order to escape, you'll look for clues, solve puzzles, and answer riddles as a team.
For example, when playing an escape room, you might see an interesting locked puzzle box. It probably opens with the right combination, but you’re not given the answer immediately. Now, the next step is to figure out what in the room will help you determine how to unlock and open the puzzle box. Perhaps there is another clue that, once decoded, reveals the correct combination to open the locked box. Once it's open, a new message is revealed that helps you continue along the path to eventually escape.
Many escape rooms have incredibly immersive decorations and props, ranging from furniture to small figurines to paintings on the wall that players will have to inspect. Given all this, is it even possible to play an escape room game at home? The short answer is yes!
Of course, the traditional escape room must be slightly adapted to be played at home. Yet at its core, escape room games are an entertaining hobby that requires you to find clues, problem solve, and use logical deduction. This is often encapsulated in a storyline that you are part of (trapped, typically). When adapted to an at-home version, the core parts of what makes an escape room addicting for many avid fans do not go away.
Four Ways to Play an Escape Room Game from the Comfort of Your Home
There are four main categories of escape rooms that you can play at home. They each have their own flavors and strengths. Many escape room fans dabble in multiple categories depending on what they're feeling like playing, how many people they want to play with, and any constraints they might have (such as wanting to play with a distributed group of friends).
1. Play an Avatar-led Escape Room
There are estimated to be over 50,000 traditional escape rooms in the world. The vast majority of them are restricted to players who can physically access them, but there are a growing number of traditional escape room businesses that have pivoted to a new “avatar-led” model. These new escape rooms can be played by anyone over a video conferencing platform such as Zoom or Google Hanfouts. In them, the players speak with an employee of the escape room to manipulate the room on behalf of the players. In other words, the employee is an “avatar” for the players to communicate with. The players can also see the room through the point of view of the avatar.
It may sound more clunky to have multiple players directing a single avatar who interacts with the escape room for them. However, for the best of these avatar-led escape rooms, they are just as fun and more importantly can be accessible by a much larger audience, unencumbered by geography or logistics.
Three players are playing an avatar-led escape room game from Escape Experience
For an in-depth playthrough of one of these rooms, there is a full YouTube video of four friends who play through an avatar-led escape room: Solving The ULTIMATE Heist Escape Room. Hosted by The Escape Game, this avatar-led escape room game requires players to help the agent on the ground (the “avatar”) break into the home of a prolific thief and take back a priceless work of art before the thief returns.
The game also had a unique online component that allows the players to inspect the physical items that are found throughout the game by providing a digital copy once found. The players must figure out all of the puzzles, including ones that require physical manipulation, but then it is up to the avatar to execute on it. Once issuing a command, the players can also see from the avatar’s live stream what the result of the action is.
Solving The ULTIMATE Heist Escape Room has an online inventory system
These avatar-led games are very close to traditional escape rooms because they generally include the same sets, high-quality props, and high-touch interactions from escape room employees. Because these playthroughs require one or more escape room staff to walk players through the games, they tend to be more expensive compared to other at-home escape room alternatives. Further, they tend to be capped to a 1 hour experience.
2. Play a Tabletop Escape Room Game
There are multiple names for this second category. Some people call it a "boxed escape room game" or a "tabletop escape room game." Regardless, this category of at-home escape room games comes with all the components you need to go through a fun, challenging escape room-esque experience. These games tend to contain high-quality materials and props that help replicate the same immersive experience that traditional escape rooms have. Further, players will still need to solve puzzles and crack codes in order to escape or solve a mystery. They can have a rich storyline that does not always involve “escaping a room” even though the other elements (solving puzzles, looking for clues) are taken from traditional escape rooms.
For example, imagine that the year is 1929. You receive a letter from the FBI that informs you about a Chicago gang led by someone that may be even more dangerous than Al Capone. This new gang seems to communicate in code through seemingly innocuous materials from businesses they control. The FBI needs your codebreaking expertise to help them crack the case, and they’ve included a package filled with the relevant materials from Chicago businesses. This is the premise behind Puzzling Pursuit's La Famiglia tabletop escape room game. With two parts in one game and over a dozen puzzles, many players can split up the game play over multiple days for many hours of entertainment.
Just some of the components from La Famiglia
If you haven't tried a boxed escape room game yet, here are eight main reasons to try out a tabletop escape room game compared to an avatar-led or traditional escape room:
- Your play-time will be longer
- The games are likely less expensive, and they can sometimes be re-sold (which means more money in your pocket!)
- Group size is less of an issue: you can play by yourself or in small groups
- You can experience really novel online experiences (many blend physical and digital components)
- There are also different types of puzzles in them to try out, for more variety and challenge to players
- The games are often delivered right to your door, so you can play wherever and whenever
- You can turn the experience into a game night
- The storylines tend to be richer and are not limited to escaping from a room (which admittedly can a bit confusing given the name “tabletop escape room game”)
3. Play a Fully Virtual Escape Room
There are other companies that provide another alternative to boxed escape room games for those that don't mind not having any physical components. These companies will sell a purely digital experience without any live human intervention (i.e. no avatar). Some are more reminiscent of point-and-click puzzle adventure games that have been in existence for decades. Others contain a newer twist.
An example of the latter comes from SCRAP, a Japanese company known for creating the first modern escape room in 2007. They have a fully virtual game called Escape from the Lockdown: The Strange Village that launched in 2020. The premise is that you are in a village where there is a werewolf that is a human in the daytime but a monster that attacks at night. Because of this, the village has undergone lockdown, but not everyone is following the rules. The ultimate question is: who is the werewolf, and how do you stop them?
The game is different from others because its storyline contains many videos with actors that you watch and “interact” with. All of your interactions are online as you solve puzzles and listen to everyone's words very closely. The story also progresses with new videos each “day” of the lockdown. With the new adaptation, the game stretches for longer than an hour with no time limit and can be played solo or in a group.
4. Make Your Own DIY Escape Room
Making escape room games can be just as fun or even more fun than doing one. Watching the players, whether it's family members or friends, go through the puzzles you set up can be a very rewarding experience. The goal is for them to succeed and have a good time, not to stump and frustrate them. As a result, it can be a very fun experience.
For families with younger children, creating a do-it-yourself escape room can be a great option in order to make the puzzles easier. There's something fun in exploring your own home in a different way too!
While it can be a lot of fun to create your own puzzles, you certainly don't need to go about it all alone. There are plenty of online resources to look at to get started or even to copy as an initial DIY. For a moderate difficulty travel themed room for teens and up, check out this walkthrough on YouTube: Moderate Difficulty Travel Theme Room for Adults & Teens.
One of the DIY escape room puzzles only requires a marker and a few sheets of paper
Another great resource is Lock Paper Scissors's 63 DIY escape room puzzle ideas. Their examples fall into three different categories: puzzles which require a breakthrough "aha" moment to solve, tasks which players know how to do and gives them a sense of progress, and games which can lighten the mood. A fun escape room challenge often has a mix of all three in them. Of course, none of these ideas need to be followed exactly. Instead, they can be a point of inspiration for your own unique twist on any of the puzzles as well.
Want even more guidance? You can also pay to download an entire template of everything you need to create an escape room at home. Lock Paper Scissors is a company that allows you to print and then play your own escape room from anywhere. They are themed games that are limited to one hour. However, at $29, their price tends to be on par with boxed escape room games, so at that point, you may want to consider other options as well (i.e. expanding your search to boxed escape room games) if looking for the best bang for your buck.
What is the best at-home escape room game?
Ultimately, all of these categories have amazing options within them. If you’re not sure what game to buy within a particular category, it is always good to check out reviews before purchasing a particular game. But say you just want to try out an at-home escape room game and are not sure where to even begin looking. Here is a guide to help you figure out what category of at-home escape room games would be best for you.
Do you want a premium at-home escape room experience that is most similar to a traditional escape room?
If so, then the avatar-led escape room category would be a great place to start. There are many review sites to help you choose a particular game to try. One such review site you can check out is ESCAPETHEROOMers's guide to remote escape room games.
One of their reviews is for a thrilling escape room game, Mystery Mansion's Divile's Curio Shoppe. Players must help Estelle Jacobs, a paranormal YouTuber, whose boyfriend went missing and is now missing herself. With two live avatars and an online inventory system for players to keep track of items found, this spooky game takes place over 75 minutes.
Do you want an escape room experience crafted for playing at home?
With longer play-times, components that can be mailed to your door, and an experience that has been exclusively designed for at-home play, a boxed escape room game would be a great choice. Prices can vary but tend to be a better bang for your buck when you compare the hours of entertainment to the amount paid.
In addition to La Famiglia mentioned above, another example of a boxed game is BlueFish Games's The Curious Elevator of Mr. Hincks. An eclectic mix of items guide you through the eccentric Mr. Hincks's magical elevator. This at-home game is packed with puzzles and has less of a storyline. As a result, it is a great option for players who love the problem solving aspect most in escape room games, as opposed to a deep storyline for example.
Do you want to play a well-priced escape room with players in different locations?
Perhaps you want to play with friends from out of state and don't want to be limited to just one hour of play time in exchange for $20-30 per person. If that's the case, a fully virtual escape room game would be best for you and your group.
You’re in luck, because many of these games are even free! For instance, here's a list of over 40 free digital escape rooms. Of course, the quality of most of these free escape rooms tends to be lower than paid ones, but they can be a great option particularly if you’re just dipping your toes into the escape room world.
There are many great virtual escape room games at reasonable costs. In addition to SCRAP's Escape from the Lockdown game previously mentioned, another good option is Deadlocked Room's The Cyphstress. For $14 regardless of group size, it's sure to make for a fun game night that won’t break the bank.
Do you want to create your own escape room for your family or friends?
Sometimes being the creator of a game can be a nice change of pace for those that have had their recent fill of being an escape room player. If you want to try your hand at that, then create and have others play your DIY escape room game at home! In addition to the resources mentioned above, other sites to look at include 40 DIY escape room ideas from Teaching Ideas.
Don't Forget to Have Fun!
Ultimately, escape room games are a loosely defined type of game that is meant to create a challenging but exciting experience. They are an extremely collaborative type of game and are NOT meant to stump or frustrate players. Of course, moments of frustration are generally part of the escape room experience, but that makes the victory sweeter. As always, have fun and remember to keep puzzling!