Even though escape rooms are often literally about escaping a room, much of the fun of escape rooms comes from escaping reality as well and disappearing for a moment into a different place, time, or even world. This feeling of being in the game world is called immersion, and theming of your escape room plays an important part in that.
If you’re planning on making an escape room and you want to take your players somewhere exciting that they will certainly remember, sit tight. We will run down the 18 ultimate themes for DIY escape rooms that you can steal today.
Let’s get started.
1. Escape from the alchemy lab
You and your friends are entering the alchemy lab after school, but suddenly the door slams behind them, and in a letter on the table a mysterious person is offering to help you make a potion to escape before professor Wumblemore returns and catches you in the act. Now if only you could figure out the recipe he provided.
This could very well be the narrative in your alchemy-themed room. Decorate your room with a large periodic table, a poster of medicinal herbs, and a range of bottles with different colored liquids. Use these items as clues in your puzzles (take a look here for puzzle ideas).
Alchemy is an especially great theme for teens because they will associate the theme with already popular universes that they know and love from the Harry Potter book series by J. K. Rowling.
2. Escape from the ancient tomb
Deep into the tomb of Tutankhamun you suddenly hear a swish sound and you feel the ground disappear under you. Now you’re looking up where you came from, but there is no way to climb the horizontal wall. Is this the final test of the ancient King?
Granted, turning your living room into a realistic ancient tomb on a budget is not an option for most, but think about reducing the play space to the table and just ignore the walls and surroundings. You can even explain this in the narrative by stating that the players find a stone table containing various strange objects. And even though you cannot use the rest of the room for hiding clues, you can still hide clues taped to the surface facing the floor. Players will not look there until you give them a clue.
The theme lends itself to the manipulation of physical objects made of stone with various symbols on them. This is a good opportunity to ask players to assemble the objects from paper cutouts as part of the game. How about cutting a stone carving image into 6 pieces that the player must assemble? Or maybe provide a cutout that the player must fold and glue into a cube to solve a puzzle?
3. Houdini’s Secret Room
The 150-year-old house that belonged to the most famous illusionist Houdini is now a museum. You decide to go there and learn some of his greatest tricks and illusions. Walking around, your curiosity leads you to a secret room, one in which no one has set foot for over a century. As you enter the room, the door slams shut, leaving you locked inside while the walls start closing in slowly.
Turn the lights low and put some candles around. Get toys/items that suit the storyline (like “crystal” balls, hats, sticks, black tablecloth etc.) Set posters around the room. You can find them in the game kit. Serve some drinks and snacks. The game tastes better this way! Check out the whole storyline and the amazing puzzles by downloading this ready-to-play kit.
4. HUNT FOR THE LOST TREASURE
As soon as you saw that the letter was from your old friend, Edward, you got a lump in your throat. You used to explore together, but fell apart when he became obsessed with a treasure outside the coast of Turkey, and you haven’t heard from him since. At least not until yesterday.
This is the introduction from one of our upcoming games, The Gilded Carcanet. But the theme is a classic popularized in the movies by the Indiana Jones series and video games by the Uncharted series.
Players could have brought the notebook of their great grandfather who was a treasure hunter that studied the treasure but never found the entrance to the tomb. Or maybe the players found a notebook in the tomb left by another treasure hunter. In any case, a notebook is very convenient as a place to convey clues. And, naturally, the clues would be a bit cryptic because they were not meant for you to read.
Our Escape Room Kits
Professor Swen’s Lab
Houdini’s Secret Room
Wooka Booka Island
The Gilded Carcanet
5. TRACK DOWN THE SECRET COLD WAR TAPE
An intelligence agent managed to eavesdrop on a secret meeting in a restaurant wearing a tape recorder under his jacket. Unfortunately, the agent disappeared a few hours later and in his hotel room, only a strange note was found. Who left the note and where is the tape now?
The most important thing to remember about historical themes is that your clues should not use technology that wasn’t around at the time. Technology that most players associate with the cold war era is tape recorders, pagers, radios, and negative film. Did you know that many technologies we use today like the internet, GPS, and computer chips were invented during the cold war? However, as they are still used today your players won’t associate them with the cold war era so you better stay clear of those as well.
6. Find the key for the candy kings treasure trove
Maybe you didn’t get the memo, but your players did and they signed up to the candy kings yearly candy competition, where only the kids clever enough will figure out the combination code for the candy kings treasure trove.
Themes that work particularly well for kids are simple and easy to understand. Candy is a great example because it lends itself nicely to the use of vivid colors and shapes. Colors and shapes are great for kids and luckily great for puzzles as well.
You can make a simple substitution cipher by making a reference showing each candy image next to a letter. All images of candy must be unique, i.e., you can use the same shape in different colors (like jellybeans) or the same color in different shapes (like chocolates) or a mixture. Simply spell your solution using the images rather than the letters and leave it to the players to do the translation.
Counting puzzles are also great with kids and they are easy to make as well, but this one requires that the solution is a number. You assign one image to each digit you need and write the number with the images rather than the digits, i.e., 474 becomes red jellybean, yellow jellybean, red jellybean. Now you prepare an image containing 4 red jellybeans and 7 yellow jellybeans. For some players recognizing the red and yellow jellybeans will be enough to realize that they need to be counted, but be ready to provide a clue if not. To crank up the difficulty scatters the 4 and 7 jellybeans in a larger space, i.e., print each as a cutout and tape them to the walls. This will require the players to search for them in addition to counting them.
In these two puzzles, the candy images are used as symbols. Make sure you don’t unintentionally include the same symbols in two different puzzles. For example, if the yellow jellybean is part of the reference in the first puzzle and also part of the counting puzzle the players will be confused as to which of the associations belong to each puzzle.
7. Pass Longbeards pirate test
While you players were sailing the seven seas to deliver chocolate all over the world for the Great Chocolate Company Inc., they were unfortunately caught by the infamous captain Longbeard who had heard rumors about the sweet-brown substance. After having a taste of your cargo, he agrees to help repair your ship if you can pass his pirate test.
Pirates is an escape room theme that works for all ages and makes for some excellent puzzles involving maps.
First, the most obvious use of maps is to make a map that has a location marked on it that the players must find in a physical space to reveal the next clue. To make this work at home, you need a map to show a location within your room. Here, we have the challenge that a normal living room is not very similar to a remote island. One way to solve this is that the map is not a map of an island, but a map of the captain’s quarters inside the ship which is the room you’re in.
Second, you can consider the name of the location as the solution to the puzzle and make sure not to put the name of the location on the map itself. The player now needs both the map and a second clue and they need to combine those two. For example, the map can show a mark on a mountain with a specific shape and the second clue is a list of all mountains with their shape and their name. The player must find the shape of the marked mountain in the reference to look up its name.
Third, the map could contain a network of paths and a starting position, but no mark as to where the final location is. Instead, players need to combine the map with the captain’s diary which explains the path in words, such as “then you pass a short bridge and turn right after the coconut palm”.
Other cool props to consider in a pirate-themed escape room could be different types of gold coins stolen from around the world and pirate flags with different symbols on them.
8. Escape from the mad scientist’s lab
Your players have accidentally found their way into the mad scientist’s lab while they were looking for the toilet, but suddenly the door won’t open anymore. Luckily there is a keypad on it, but what would the crazy guy pick as his pin code?
The modern science theme is similar to the Alchemy theme we discussed at the beginning of this article, but this one allows for use of technology. Escape rooms often use padlocked drawers and boxes to lock away information behind puzzles, but for games designed for home, it is sometimes even easier to hide information on the internet.
You can use YouTube to reveal information in video form. Sticking to the science theme you could record a message from the mad scientist and upload it to YouTube. To access the video, the players will need both access to a computer and the URL of the YouTube video. Both of these things can be turned into puzzles. For example, leave an internet-connected phone in the room with a pin code lock that the players will have to find. Also, you can make a decoding puzzle that has the video URL as the solution. Note that you can convey information not only in the video content but also in the video title and the description
9. Escape the haunted house
Your friends challenge each other to enter the deserted house on the top of the hill. Rumor has it that it is haunted, but none of you were ever superstitious so luckily that wouldn’t be an issue for you. But as you enter the room the door shut behind you and you start to get the feeling that you are not alone after all
Escape rooms are often quite cryptic and sometimes struggle with having a good explanation for it. However, interacting with the paranormal almost solves this problem. The ghosts are providing both the puzzles and the clues, but they cannot communicate directly to you in speech or writing. They have to communicate in other ways and understanding what they are saying is part of the puzzle.
For example, they might turn the light on and off in specific patterns. Or they might put out a strange sound to direct players to a place where a clue is hidden. Or they might knock on doors in specific patterns that the players will have to decode. The possibilities are endless if you, as the game host, are willing to play the role of the ghosts.
10. Professor Swen’s Lab
An evil scientist, who hates winter and snow, invents a device that is destroying all the snow in your city. You find his lost, top-secret diary, which might lead to his lab. Now you have a chance to turn off this machine and bring back the magic of winter. Are you brave enough to break into his lab and figure out how to stop this madness? You have 1 hour before the evil scientist returns to the lab. Better hurry up — he can be very hostile!
This kind of themes are very popular among kids and that’s why we created a printable escape room on this topic. In the downloadable kit you can find all the posters and extras besides the ready-to-play game.
Save time by downloading this escape kit. You will thank us later 🙂
11. Escape the prison
Even before you got the job, you heard the stories about the mysterious escapes happening from Blackstorm Asylum. Now and then a prisoner from a specific cell would escape without any trace at all, almost as if they were walking right out of the front door. As the Houdini of your time, you agreed to lock yourself into the mysterious cell to prove how the escapes are possible, only getting out when the job is done.
In the simplest implementation of a prison escape room, the players simply have to figure out the secret code that is known to all the guards and that will open the doors. Maybe the players are given help from a previous inmate who figured it out but left all the clues for future inmates – those clever enough to see it that is.
One idea is that the final combination consists of several digits, but each digit is the solution to one puzzle. This is called a metapuzzle. The advantage of metapuzzles is that players in the group can work on different puzzles in parallel, but the game cannot be won before all individual puzzles are solved.
For the prison theme, consider writing symbols and clues on the walls (or on paper that you put on the wall) and communicating through scratches, cigarette burns, and maybe even bloodstains.
12. Find the missing person
Your days in the police force were long over when your cousin Chrissie called you to tell you that she received a strange package from Berlin. Berlin, the city where your sister was last seen. The case was as cold as ice, but maybe it just got a little bit warmer?
A detective-themed escape room revolves around obtaining information rather than escaping, and for this reason, it is less tied to a single room (we will just call them detective games from here on). Detective games support, like no other themes, that an exciting story unravels as the game is played. Whereas many escape rooms follow a narrative where “someone is testing your wits”, detective games instead use a narrative where the “facts are somewhere buried in the evidence”. The puzzles in a detective game are piecing together the information and deducing conclusions based on it.
As an overall structure, you can pose a question to the players that they must answer to win the game. For example, the question could be the name of the location of a certain planned meeting between two persons in Berlin you believe is involved with your sister’s disappearance. The player would have to find and potentially decode the correspondence where the two persons agree to a meeting place and even then, they might not state the meeting place by its true name but use code names instead. In this way, you can include a classic decoding puzzle, but within the narrative that the information was coded to keep it secret, not to test the players’ wits.
13. Murder on the orient express
The train suddenly stopped while you were in the middle of your croissant in the dining wagon mulling over an old case. A screaming, frightened woman runs past you, you recall exchanging glances with her the night before. You head in the direction she was running from and quickly identify the victim lying on the ground as her boyfriend. While you swallow the last bit of pastry you will have in a while you pull out your notebook to collect a few statements.
The murder mystery game is a classic and it is similar to the previous theme, Find the missing person, because it is focused more on research, logic, and deduction rather than a cryptic test of wits.
The overall structure of a murder mystery game is often that the player is presented with an array of suspects and by eliminating all but one they will have deduced the perpetrator. Often the elimination is also based on deduction from the statements taken from the suspects, but it is also possible to work more classic escape room puzzles into the mix for more variety.
Consider that some of the evidence has been destroyed, then you can ask the players to put it back together like a jigsaw puzzle, for example, a timestamped photo showing a suspect in a different wagon at the time of the murder, providing an alibi.
Or maybe some of the suspects might have been communicating in secret, but maybe not so secret that your players would not be able to decode it. Maybe this correspondence shows that more suspects knew about the murder or reveals some useful information about the perpetrator like the language he uses.
In this way, you can hide the clues needed for the final deduction behind a puzzle that fits within the theme without explaining them as puzzles in the game world.
14. Escape from the evil mega-corporatio
You started as an accounting intern a few years back, but it wasn’t before you stumbled on some weird numbers last week that you started to ask questions. Didn’t appear like any shipments of products were being made for those million-dollar payments that were received. Your boss set up a meeting in a meeting room you had never seen before. Just as your clock showed 12:00 the door shut behind you. Looks like you were on to something after all.
The mega-corporation theme takes place in a room that you can more easily establish in your own home office. Think about leaving computers with files on the desktop. Or a printer with a pending printout that will print once the printer is turned on. Think about hiding information in the window blinds. You can leave a telephone that will reach your mobile phone answering machine that you prepared especially for the game.
15. Discover the zombie cure
You were only a week into the zombie apocalypse, but your friends were already turning one by one. You knew that your science professor from the school was one of the scientists working on the cure but when you went to see him, he was nowhere to be found. Weirdly, all his notes were left behind and the apparatus to synthesize the serum was blinking awaiting the sequence to start production. Will you be able to complete it in time?
Think about how to include zombies in this theme and not only the science aspect. Maybe the professor has collected blood samples from zombies to discover which anti-bodies should be part of the vaccine? Or maybe zombies have ripped his research apart and the player must put it back together?
Or for something a bit more lighthearted, maybe just use zombie eyeballs or other body parts as symbols like you would do for a candy theme. Just six different body parts can decode the word ZOMBIE.
16. Wooka Booka Island
A mysterious door appeared in your room out of nowhere! As you walk through it, suddenly you find yourself on the wondrous island of Wooka Booka. There are four animal kingdoms and only one treasure chest. You have a chance to find this long-lost treasure, but first you need to pass the challenges of every kingdom.
The escape room game is more than just solving puzzles or challenges. Actually, the experience very much depends on the smallest details. So, in order to increase the player’s immersion into the story, try spicing your lines with a dramatic voice or, even better, use some of your acting skills. Now is your chance to show off in front of the kids and establish your status as the coolest parent/teacher 🙂 Well, it’s all about the fun, isn’t it?
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17. Speak the magic word to lift the curse
When you arrived in the city the few inhabitants were slowly getting more and more sick, some coughing up blood that did not dry out. According to the citizens, it all started the same night the sheep fled the hills. Whatever drove them away did something else as well and the city was starting to rot. Old Henry could barely speak anymore, but he showed me the books with ancient folklore. Before he exhaled for the last time, he told me he was sorry he didn’t manage to find the incantation that would lift the spell.
Having a magic word as the final solution is a great climax to your game. Your players will say the word out loud and you as the host will be able to verify it. This is a great opportunity to get into a little bit of roleplaying yourself. Let’s say that you are playing the role of Old Henry sitting in a chair in the corner of the room with closed eyes. Once the players utter the final solution you will role-play waking up and feeling like something is lifted on your shoulders. You will congratulate your players for lifting the spell and saving the town.
Live acting is something many commercial escape rooms cannot afford, but for a homemade room, it gives you as the host a good explanation to be in the room.
18. Help Santa escape and save Christmas
Santa and his elves were proceeding on schedule with the production of presents for kids all around the world. Santa’s sleigh was packed to its maximum capacity, but right before departure Santa himself was kidnapped by a group of elves that was laid off last Christmas due to budget cuts. With only Santa having the magical powers to ride the sleigh your only option to save Christmas is to find the combination to the underground complex where he is held.
Seasonal events are a great excuse to get together with friends and family and to let them experience your seasonal escape room. Each season has its characters and they can be used as protagonists and antagonists alike. Christmas has Santa and his elves. Easter has the easer bunny. Halloween has witches. Valentine’s day has Cupid.
I think seasonal themes are good candidates for a more lighthearted experience without too much focus on narrative and whether the puzzles fit the story. Rather focus on picking puzzles that work well visually for conveying the theme. For example, you can find a set of Christmas icons online and use them as symbols for a decoding puzzle. Or you can find images of presents in different shapes and colors. Or images of Christmas ornaments for decorating a Christmas tree.