I’ve talked in the previous article about how I made my first DIY escape room. It was a thrilling experience for me as a Game Master, and most importantly my friends were having a blast. So this time I’ll show you what the secret was behind the success of my DIY escape room and what kind of puzzles I’ve used for it.
Very often 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 them. 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, and one that you can actually achieve? Take a look at my list of puzzles and feel free to get inspired and use them for your own DIY escape party 🙂
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 cutouts 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 underwater. 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 underwater, 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 smartphones 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 a 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 mentioned 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 takes less time to prepare the puzzle.
Tip: Don’t use just plain dark illustration/picture, rather use a 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 as 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 smartphone 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 kinds 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 smartphone, 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 smartphone. 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.
11. Cipher Wheel
You can make a simple cipher wheel by attaching two round paper templates in the center with a metal braid. When the two disks are rotated correctly to each other, they can decode a secret message by translating letters from the outer disk to the corresponding ones on the inner disk.
Cipher wheels have been widely used in the real world for encoding secret messages and therefore they will fit perfectly into a theme involving secret societies, espionage, or the military. Players might not have the patience to decode a large volume of text, so we recommend sticking to a single word or a few words and just disregarding spaces between words, e.g., “lookoutthewindow”. Numbers can be encoded as well using letters by spelling them out, e.g., “onefivetwo”.
As usual, when designing puzzles, start with deciding on the solution. Now select a key that defines the correct rotation of the two disks, e.g. “A = s”. Now set the wheel in the correct position and encode your solution, letter by letter, from the inner disk to the outer disk.
For the most basic puzzle, just write down the coded message and the key on different pieces of paper and hide them as well as the cipher wheel itself. Leave it up to the players to find them and figure out that they are related.
Note that the letters on the outer disk are uppercase, whereas the letters in the inner disk are lower case. This is intentional and helps the player know which direction to do the translation in. If you use the same font on both the wheel and the clues this helps the player to know that they are related.
12. Arranging paper strips
This is perhaps the simplest example of a whole class of puzzles about arranging things in the right way. We included it because it is super easy to prepare and it works great for group solving.
If you have a secret clue like the encoded word or the key from the cipher wheel puzzle above, simply write this information using a big font on a piece of A4 paper and cut it into strips about one inch wide with a pair of scissors and hide them around the room. Make sure that the cuts cross the letters so the players can assemble them back in the right order. In this case, the players use the shape of the solution itself for completing the puzzle.
Unlike many puzzles, this one can be used to convey not only tidbits of information, but anything that can fit on the paper. Consider using it to conceal that secret internal company memo about the illegal chemical spill that the company is trying desperately to cover up. Such information would be maculated, but who would anticipate your players putting it back into place?
As an alternative, write the secret information or solution such that there is only one letter on each strip. This way the solution cannot be used to determine the order. So instead put an image on the paper that will be used for arranging them in the right order.
Whether this puzzle works depends on how the cuts are made, so make sure to test this one yourself before exposing your group to it!
13. Measuring Tape
Putting regular household items into creative use has always been a staple in DIY escape rooms. These items can often go unnoticed until the players realize they are part of the game.
To design a simple puzzle using a measuring tape, decide on a 3-digit code and measure out each digit as the length of a piece of yarn. Use a different color for each digit. Now, since the players will not know to connect the yarn with the measuring tape you need to provide some cluing, and we will take you through the design process step by step:
First, assuming that we would leave the lengths of yarn scattered around in the room, we would need to give a clue as to which order they should be used. This can be done by putting three dots of the right colors on a piece of paper and putting an arrow to show the direction.
Second, leaving just the clue and the length of yarn in the room will not necessarily be enough for players to know that the yarn should be measured. To ensure that the players will get this, put an image of a measuring tape in three different colors, instead of just dots.
14. Periodic Table
Decoding puzzles are very common in escape rooms, but the classic codes that are commonly known have a drawback. Some players might already know how they work and will instantly recognize them and create an unleveled playing field. This is why it can be a good idea, and a lot of fun, to come up with your own odes.
In this example, we will make the substitution cipher into our own. A substitution cipher is simply a code where a look-up table is used to decode a secret message. The periodic table can be used as such a look-up table to create a great puzzle.
First, you need to pick an answer word or solution that can be formed by the element symbols. Each element in the table has a one- or two-letter symbol and putting these together can form surprisingly many words, e.g., NoTiFICaTiON (see this comprehensive list).
Second, write out the element number for each symbol as a sequence, e.g. 102 81 9 53 2081 8 7 on a piece of paper. Don’t forget the spaces in this one, they are important.
Third, to make sure that the players connect the sequence of numbers to the periodic table, you need a clue. For a very gentle nudge, you could color code the numbers to the colors of the background of the elements on the table. For a stronger push, you could show each number in the upper right corner of a square like they are shown in the table.
Classic puzzles like sudokus and crosswords should be used with care in an escape room. Much of the fun of an escape room is about learning the rules of the puzzles. The rules for classic puzzles are already known so in this case solving them can become a chore. However, as long as you choose a puzzle that doesn’t take too long, there is still the interesting challenge of extracting a solution from it.
The easiest way to use a labyrinth in an escape room is to solve the labyrinth yourself first. Then, on a fresh copy of the labyrinth, write the letters of the answer along the correct path. Finally, fill in random letters in other places so the correct letters are not giving away the path. The players will now need to solve the labyrinth and write down the letters along the path they take.
16. Pattern Matching
Common to many escape room puzzles is that the player must make an intuitive connection between the clues to even begin the puzzle. Often this connection is formed because two clues share some property such as color, shape, size, or pattern. In this example, we will show how to make a puzzle that is only solvable by identifying the same pattern in two places.
For this puzzle, we will assume that the solution is a word. First, write the letters of the solution in a pattern and then extend the pattern to include some symbols that are not part of the solution. In our example, we used the solution ROSE and arranged them randomly in a grid pattern with a distinctive shape. This is the first clue.
The second clue contains the same grid pattern but with circles instead of letters. Each of the circles that correspond to a letter in the solution is marked with the number of that letter in the solution word, enabling the player to put the letters in the right order.
To integrate this puzzle into an escape room, how about leaving the first clue in plain sight, but locking the other one behind another puzzle, i.e., in a padlocked box?
17. Extract a secret message from a letter
Starting an escape room with a simple letter that explains the situation to the players is a great way to set the stage and deliver the narrative of your game. It also happens to be the perfect place to encode your first clue. Hiding information in plain sight is a practice known as “steganography”, but without further dwelling on fancy words, here is how to do it yourself:
It’s best to first have written the letter that you need in the game anyway. Then, you need to figure out the secret message that you want to hide in it, in this example let’s take the word “UNDERTHEHAT” which could be a clue to the location of an object. Now, edit your letter by going from the beginning and marking each of the letters in the secret message as you come across them, like this:
You will laUgh (and you are quite welcome) wheN I tell you that your olD acquaintancE is tuRned sporTsman, and Has takEn tHree noble boArs. “WhaT!” you exclaim, “Pliny!”—Even he.
Rather than capitalizing relevant letters, you could also omit the letters completely, write wrong letters instead, write them in a different color, or mark them in some other wáy.
18. Hide it in the matchbox
Searching for clues hidden around the room is a great group activity that players will love. However, sometimes you want to lock away certain clues to tie some of the puzzles together in a sequence or to avoid exposing the player to too many clues from the beginning.
Using padlocked boxes has been the common way of doing this, but there are easier and cheaper ways. If you hide something well enough it will not be found by a normal room search. Later in the game players will reveal a clue which will make them search again, this time finding the object. Trust me, your players will love the feeling of “oh my god, it was here the whole time”.
This is even easier to do at home since household items can make for great hiding places. A matchbox is particularly great because it can be used in different ways:
- You can encode information in the matches themselves
- You can write a clue on the bottom below the matches
- You can put an item inside it
- You can write a clue on the inside of the cover box
Drawing attention to the matchbox can be done with a direct clue that can easily be the solution of another puzzle, like “MATCHBOX”.
19. Crossword clues
Full crossword puzzles can be very time-consuming for the players but using just the way clues are constructed you can disguise your clues. For example, instead of giving the clue “MATCHBOX” directly, you could give a crossword clue to it, such as “SMALL FIERY CONTAINER”. You can use online crossword solvers by entering the solution, “MATCHBOX”, as the known letters.
If your players are particularly language savvy you could consider turning up the difficulty by using cryptic crossword clues instead. Cryptic crossword clues have many forms, but the simplest one is to hide a word inside the clue itself, like this:
FIERY LOGS HIDE IN HAZMAT CHEST
The words “hide in” hint that there is a (plural) word hidden in the following letters. Players will realize that disregarding the space the word “MATCHES” is hidden which fits the definition “FIERY LOGS”. To create this puzzle, I just decided to split the word into MAT and CHES and then googled for words ending with MAT and starting with CHES to find a suitable pair. Note that creating good cryptic crossword clues is not easy and a puzzle in itself.
Both of these clue types require some vocabulary knowledge, so gauge your audience carefully before using them.
20. Telephone spelling alphabets
Back in the days, long before today’s advanced communication systems, the military struggled with low-quality and long-distance telephones. In particular discriminating words that sound similar when pronounced was an issue. For this reason, telephone spelling alphabets were developed, of which the NATO Phonetic Alphabet might be the one most people know.
It consists of 26 code words: Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliett, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-ray, Yankee, Zulu.
How about recording a clue or secret code on an old tape recorder and letting the players find the tape and the player themselves? Or even easier, change your answering machine on your cell phone to contain this message and leave the players with your phone number as a clue?
I use the term research for puzzles that require players to piece together conclusions based on documents or evidence. This is the type of puzzle that you would typically find in a murder mystery game, but it can also be used in regular escape rooms. Research puzzles fit particularly well when the game has a narrative that supports it as we will see.
In this example, we will start with the solution. The narrative of the game is to identify the name of the person who launched a cyber-attack on your country. The players have been called to the hotel room where he is found together with his passport, but unwilling to speak. This is already a research task since the players will need to compare the face to the passport photo to establish their name.
Now, we will improve it to fit better to a game for home.
First, let’s get rid of the body. Imagine he managed to flee the scene, but luckily, we have security camera footage from the hallway that accurately shows the face of the person entering the room. The footage can be represented as a single photo.
Second, producing a full passport might be a bit too time-consuming, but the receptionist would have taken a photocopy of the page showing his identity. What she has given the players is such a photocopy for all residents, maybe six persons in total.
Players will certainly feel like a real detective when they find the security camera photo and compare the image to the stack of papers to look up the name.
22. Logic puzzle
We saved one of the best for last. Logic puzzles can fit in in most games and we used it ourselves in “The Gilded Carcanet” which you should. The example we will show in this article is not taken from the game, so no spoilers are incoming.
You probably already know the kind of logic puzzle where you are given three kids, Susan, John, and Lily, and three desserts, apple pie, brownie, and ice cream. You have to deduce which desert is the favorite of each kid. You also get two clues: John doesn’t like cake at all and Susan’s favorite has chocolate in it. John’s favorite would have to be ice cream, Susan’s favorite must be brownie and that leaves only apple pie as Lily’s favorite.
Let’s design an escape room puzzle based on this idea. Maybe you know from another clue that the four-digit secret code to the geography professor’s safe is the year he visited the Taj Mahal. In his office, your players would find a world map on the wall with pins in the locations of the seven wonders that he all visited. On the floor, in front of the map, seven cards are found with the years he visited a location, 1967, 1971, 1974, 1976, 1982, 1989, and 1992. The players must pair the years to the locations to solve the puzzle. The clues that you could include in the professor’s notebook could be along the following lines:
- I didn’t go to America before 1982
- I went to Asia only in even years
- I went to China right after Jordan
From just these clues it can be determined that the professor went to the Taj Mahal in India in 1976, even though it will not be possible to determine the years he visited the three American destinations.
If you’re concerned that the players will just brute force the 7 possible solutions, this can be fixed by deciding that the code is the last digit in the years he visited “Italy – Jordan – China – India”. This increases the possible combinations to 360.
This is also an example of a puzzle that reflects the reality of the game universe. Not only does it make sense that a geography professor would have traveled the world, but the existence of the puzzle itself makes sense because the cards with the years have simply fallen down from the map and players have to restore it.
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!