I’ve talked in the previous article about how I made my first DIY escape room. It was a thrilling experience. I couldn’t stop talking about it for days and weeks. And my friends loved it. And today, I will tell you what the secret was behind the success of my DIY escape room.
It is all about the puzzles. Do not underestimate the puzzles in an escape room. We judge escape rooms by the difficulty of the puzzles. Make them too easy and nobody will get satisfaction. The real sense of satisfaction comes from the achievement. Make them too hard, and people will have a hard time solving the puzzle. Nobody wants to fail, and too-hard puzzles will result in that.
So, what is the trick? Well, I will not reveal a huge secret if I tell you that the secret is in the balance. But how to achieve that perfect balance, that sweet spot between a feeling of achievement, but one that you can actually achieve?
Well, today, we will talk all about puzzles and how to make them at home. Puzzles can include words, numbers, symbols, and everything else you can think of. For example, riddles, crosswords, mathematics, puzzles with physical objects, jigsaw puzzles, and even physical activity.
And with my help, and some tips and tricks, you can create an escape room from scratch with puzzles that will actually provide entertainment for the players.
1. Paper on Paper
This puzzle is a classic, anyone can figure it out.
What I did is I took two sheets of paper, one with Italian text written on it and the second one was blank.
On the blank sheet I made small cut outs that were exactly positioned so that when you place it above the Italian text, every hole shows only 1 letter. When you connect all the letters, you get a hint. My hint was “check the hydrant” where I put another piece of paper.
2. Invisible Text
This is one of those “wow effect” puzzles. Actually, you have to prepare this one at least one hour before the game starts. The trick is that there is an invisible text on the paper, which appears only when it is put under water. Coooool, right?
You don’t have to use chemicals or invisible inks, there is an easy way to do this.
You’ll need: 2 sheets of paper, 1 pencil, water in a tray and a smooth surface (a mirror will do the job).
- Soak one of the papers in water to make it wet and place it over the mirror.
- Take the dry paper and place it on the wet sheet of paper.
- Write your message on the dry sheet using a pencil.
- Throw away the paper in which you have written the message.
You can see that the message written on the dry sheet of paper also makes a slight imprint on the wet sheet of paper.
Allow it to dry completely. When it becomes completely dry, the imprint becomes invisible.
When the players put the paper under water, the message appears again, and that is the moment when they realize that you are an awesome game master.
3. GPS Coordinates
This puzzle is one of my favorites, because it triggers thinking outside the box. In my case it was a hidden piece of paper with a big number written on it. At least 1 out of 5 people for sure will recognize that the number is actually GPS coordinates. Because they were allowed to use everything in the room, it was time for them to put their smart phones into action. Using any GPS app, they can easily get to the destination.
Ok, so how is it possible to get out of the room in the middle of an escape room game?? That is a logical question, but as I said before, thinking outside the box brings lots more fun and unexpected puzzles. As soon as I changed the goal from escaping the room to finding the hidden treasure, a new world of possibilities opened. That means that the players are not necessarily locked in the room and that’s why the GPS puzzle is a very good option.
The location was across from my apartment, next to the high school entrance. When they got there, they found an envelope with another clue in it. Because the GPS satellites have a +-5 m error, you should find some object in that radius that cannot be missed and you should put the envelope next to it. In my game it was an electrical junction box and I put an electricity symbol next to the coordinate number as a hint. I even burned the sides of the paper so it looks kind of struck by lightning.
Trust me, the players will love this addition of treasure hunt to your escape room.
4. Map of the apartment
In the envelope there was a simple map of the apartment with a mark on an exact location. On that location you should hide another clue.
Tip: Make this clue hard to find, so the players can’t reach it before they get the map.
In my case, I put a cell phone in the couch. They needed to use this cell phone in order to solve the next challenge.
5. UV Lights
UV lights are among the most used puzzles in escape rooms. You don’t need a special kind of light or expensive markers to create this puzzle. You can do it with an everyday fluorescent yellow marker and a regular battery lamp.
First, Make the invisible ink
Some people are making a real mess trying to achieve this trick. They are opening the markers with pliers, washing them in hot water, boiling in a microwave, washing them again… oooooh is such a nightmare and a real fluorescent mess all around your kitchen. Many times these preparations end with failure and frustration. That’s why I like to make things simpler in order to make them better. Using the following method you can achieve the same effect without doing all of the things I mention before.
Take an illustration/picture with dark color background and write your message/clue on it, using the yellow fluorescent marker. Then hang it on any wall where the luminance is a bit lower. This way everything is visible except the hidden message, which appears under the black light only.
Trust me, this way the message appears better and it take less time to prepare the puzzle.
Tip: Don’t use just plain dark illustration/picture, rather use picture of something connected to your theme (like I did with the leaning tower of Pisa). This way even with brighter light in the room, the picture is a distraction to the message, and acts like a camouflage to it.
Don’t get confused that my background of Pisa is not so dark. I had no problem writing the code even on brighter background, because the picture was placed in part of the apartment where the light was very low.
Now Let’s make the black light:
You can use a regular battery lamp, or even a smart phone flashlight.
Just grab a piece of clear tape and stick it right on top of the flashlight/battery lamp. Then take a blue color highlighter and color it. Take another piece of tape, place it on top of the first tape and color it with the blue highlighter. Repeat this 5 times and you have a homemade black light.
6. Face recognition app
If you want to use some high tech puzzles, this is an interesting one.
I printed all kind of pictures connected with Italy and put them around my apartment. One of the pictures was Leonardo Da Vinci’s face. During the game they should use the cell phone they find in the couch. Actually when they unlock the smart phone, they find a face recognition app (this app is for unlocking other mobile apps). When they scan Da Vinci’s face using the app, a 4 digit code appears. You can use the Applock face/voice recognition app to make this puzzle. Btw, thank you, Da Vinci for your assistance.
7. Morse code
Cracking Morse code makes you feel like Alan Turing decoding the Enigma machine during WW2. By using Morse code, you can turn light, voice and sound signals into text information.
For example: Install a Morse code app on your smart phone. In the app, write the combination that opens your lock. Remove the bulb from your ceiling light and place the phone there.
Make sure your phone has enough battery to transmit flashlight Morse code for at least an hour. At one point in the game, players find a Morse alphabet. Ahaaaaa, the light isn’t broken after all, it is a coded message.
So when they crack the code, they open the lock that leads them to the next challenge. This puzzle isn’t an easy one, but when they finally solve it, it gives the players a lot of self-esteem and a feeling of accomplishment.
8. Tiny Tiny Tiny tiny text
This will make them squint like Clint, until they find the magnifying glass you should put in some of the locked boxes. Write your clue in Times new roman (font size 2) on a regular sheet of paper, but make sure it is printed on a good quality laser printer. Let’s see who needs a new pair of glasses.
9. Custom questions
This is a good way to wrap up your escape room game. Because you’re going to set up this game for your loved ones, friends or family, I suppose that you already know each of them very well. You are familiar with what they love, their favorite song, food, artist and so on. You probably have some inside jokes only the two of you are in on.
For example: One of my friends loves astronomy and knows a lot of things about the Universe, our solar system and so on. So I wrote down a question that he certainly knows the answer to (e.g.How many planets are in our solar system?)
Another friend of mine is a big NBA fan, so my question for him was: How many NBA titles has Michael Jordan won?
When they do the math, they get the combination (in this case 1990) for the last lock that opens the “treasure” box.
This puzzle makes them work together more than any other puzzle.
All of these questions must require a numeric answer.
10. Interactive games and tasks
Not all of the challenges have to be logical puzzles. Of course, when you think of an escape room, the first thing that comes to mind are brainy challenges and “aha!” puzzles. But in order to keep the flow of the game, you have to include some challenges that don’t require actual thinking, rather they merely imply executing some tasks.
For example: Finding a hidden key in the room isn’t something you have to solve, you just have to inspect every corner in that room and there it is.
Having to connect dots to make hints appear is also a good example. Anyone can do it just by following the given directions for connecting the dots.
These tasks set the pace of the game, and it’s a great way to give the players a feeling of accomplishment. Their self-esteem rises as they solve this challenge, so they become more enthusiastic to finish the whole game.
Sometimes players can struggle when solving logical puzzles, and if you set up only logical challenges it may even become tedious. Maybe at first they will love to show how smart they really are, but eventually they may get tired of logical analysis. That’s why you should mix things up with this kind of tasks, which will keep the excitement throughout the whole game.
You can even throw in an interactive game in order to solve some of the challenges.
For example: Put one of the clues out of reach, but still visible. One option is to put a clue (padlock code) in a different room and lock the door with a padlock and chain. This way the door can be ajar just enough for the clue to be visible, but not enough for players to enter the room.
Now, in front of the clue, place a piece of paper with an illustration of a target, covering the padlock code. They need to shoot the target with a bunch of rubber bands. When you hear a ”Yaaaaaay!”, you know that someone hit the target and under it the padlock code was revealed.
Last but not least
Use your imagination, take your creativity to the next level, try adding unusual ideas, wake up your inner child and you’ll be amazed by the outcome. People are often unaware of how capable they are until they put their hearts and souls into something they love.
My escape room crew instantly felt how much love I put in the game. It wasn’t decorated with expensive items, it didn’t include fancy gadgets, nor was it 100% perfect. But all of us (including me) were having the best time ever, compared to every room we have been to before. Positive energy, smiles, laughter, funny pictures of my crew hanging around the room, inside jokes between the lines in the puzzles… you can’t get this experience in any other room in the world, except in your own DIY escape room!