A couple of weeks ago, 11 members of three Portland puzzle teams (Team Snout, Puzzle Underground and my own team Goat Masonry) caravanned up to Seattle to try our hand at Puzzle Break’s escape the room adventure.
“Escape the room” is a puzzle game genre that started in 2004 with Takagi’s Crimson Room, a Japanese Flash-based game. Players must click around to discover hidden objects in the room which open a series of nested puzzles, eventually leading to a key to the room’s locked door.1
Not long after, real-life puzzle rooms began popping up in the United States, Japan and China, and there’s been a recent resurgence in their popularity. Some involve sitting at a table solving paper puzzles supplemented by clues gathered in the room, and some are fully immersive.2
The Seattle Puzzle Break, one of the latter type, started at the beginning of this December, running games on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. When we visited two weeks ago, they told us they’d had nearly 20 teams come through so far, with only a quarter successfully completing the escape.
After we arrived at the address, we were led down a ramp into a waiting area where we were briefed before being led into the room.
I’d avoided reading about it beforehand to avoid spoilers, but as I discovered later, I needn’t have worried—as part of the briefing, they request that you don’t take photographs or post descriptions of the puzzles, so as not to spoil it for anyone else.
We made it out with about 20 minutes to spare, which at the time was their fastest escape yet.
Since we’re not allowed to actually talk about the puzzles, please enjoy these photos of Matt pretending (or was he?!) to find clues in the lobby area. Our Team Snout friends have also made a spoiler-free podcast about the experience.
But even though we can’t discuss the room itself or the puzzles within, I would like to share some insights into how our puzzle solving teams operate, in the hopes that it that might benefit would-be escapees.
I should also state up front that, even though we participate in puzzle events all the time, we’re relative novices–we can get stuff solved, sure, but we’re pretty far away from glancing at a puzzle and having it unfold before us like a flower, the way it seems to work for expert teams.
To compensate for the extra time it takes us to do our solving, I try to make sure that our team is as well-prepared and super-organized as possible. For a game like the Seattle Puzzle Break, here’s what that involves:
1. Know Your Team
For a major event (like Wartron, a weekend-long puzzle hunt), we’ll meet up for several months in advance to practice solving puzzles together. Not only does that help warm up your brain, it also lets you get to know everyone’s areas of strength, and style of solving.
For Seattle Puzzle Break specifically, it’s best to go in as large a group as possible; the room holds up to 12 members, and it really is necessary to have a large group, all working together.
2. Have a Game Plan
We discussed in advance how we’d tackle the room, based on our best guesses at what might be inside: our plan was to split up into small groups, gather as much data as possible, bring that data together to figure out next steps, and repeat ad nauseum. One of the key parts of this is always checking in with each other so that you know what’s going on, which leads into…
3. Watch the Clock
Generally when we’re working on a group puzzle, we keep a timer going. If we haven’t made progress within the last 15 minutes, we’ll ask for a hint. For an escape the room game like Seattle Puzzle Break, it’s very important to keep an eye on the clock–we checked in with each other every 15-20 minutes to see who was working on what, which data sets had been used already and which might still be missing, and to swap puzzles if needed. It prevents people from working on something that’s already been solved, and connects pieces that might have seemed disparate. For a new team, I’d recommend even more frequent check-ins.
4. Know Your Enemy
AKA, do your research. If you’re going to play a real-life escape the room game, it’s probably a good idea to play around with some of the aforementioned online versions first. The creators of Seattle Puzzle Break mentioned that they were inspired by the iOS game The Room. (Go download it–it’s a great game on its own.)
A note for general puzzle solving events: we find it useful to solve old puzzles created by the person or people whose game you’ll play. It gives you a feel for how they set up the puzzle–are titles important, or are they usually throwaways? Do they love cryptic crosswords? Anything you can add to your arsenal will help you get through the puzzles quicker on the day.
For that matter, there are only so many types of puzzles out there in the world. Experienced groups can look at a puzzle and extrapolate its mechanics, without being distracted by the window dressing, as it were.
5. Sometimes, You Don’t Have to Solve the Whole Thing
To elaborate on #3, overcoming the need for completion was one of the main hallmarks of our puzzle solving team coming into its own. By this, I mean that sometimes you can complete just an essential piece of a puzzle, or make a mental leap over the components, to reach a solve–but where an experienced team would take that solve and move on to the next problem, a novice team usually wants to plug away at the puzzle ’til it’s literally completed. It’s a natural human instinct, but when you’re racing the clock it’s an urge you must fight against. (And, you can always print out a copy at home to complete later.)
- Fair warning: these can be addictive. Here’s a great list (personally I’m a big fan of Submarine). ↩
- A quote from this Huffington Post article: ‘When real-life escape rooms were first brought to China, some gamers were skeptical, even frightened. “A lot of people initially thought our club presented a life-death situation,” Peter Huang, founder of Beijing’s Takagism Club, told The Global Times right after the club launched in 2012. “Although some scenarios seem terrifying, we only make them appear like that to enhance the experience.”‘ ↩