How We Design an Escape Room in Three Steps


While me, Eric, and Noelle would all like to think that we're the most creative, innovative and all-around brilliant puzzle makers in the game, we're very well aware of our strengths and weaknesses and are also aware of the fact that nothing is 'truly original' and inspiration comes from all over.

While designing the Mad Hatter's Birthday and Speakeasy rooms, inspiration was the linchpin to progress and came from the strangest places. I mean, who would have thought that during a planned discussion session about our ideas, one of the most important moments would have come from a house outside the window where we were sitting? You can't plan for that, and it took us all being there for it to even be noticed. 

As the sole proprietor of Hidden Trail, I have no delusions about the importance of getting other creatives involved. Could I plan a room by myself? 100%. Would it be as good as having a team together for the ride with equal input? Not a chance.

Step One: The Story

Within the last week, I expressed to Eric (who helped design the first room) the idea that we could plan our future escape rooms with a planned process and that process should start with a believable story. Within that story, we follow a fairly standard process to figure out the who, what, why, when and where of the room.

Who are the players?

Detectives? Hospital patients? Chefs? There's no limit unless it stops making sense to the situation.

What are they doing?

This one's pretty easy... they're trying to get out. Heh.

Why are they doing it?

This is such an important question that I've seen some rooms answer and others not care about at all. If you watch a movie, you need to know why the characters are doing what they're doing. We will always focus on giving our players the reason why they're locked in a room. If the story could make sense without the players being locked in, we're scrapping it.

When is it taking place?

This mostly ties into the scenery of the room. Set pieces, paint, and so on. We also will try to avoid using puzzle ideas if it doesn't fit the time period.

Where is it happening?

You'd think this would be simple to answer, but really, detailed looks at everything in the room is important to us. It's a big reason why we tend to stay away from designing rooms with locales that don't make sense in our space. A lot of what is available in terms of spaces in the City of Windsor have pretty basic layouts with plain walls. As well, the fire code disallows a lot of things that we would love to do like put boards on the walls or hang things from the ceilings. To put it simply, our locations determine our themes.

Once we hash out the story line with little to no focus on actual puzzles, we can move on.

Step Two: The Room’s Look

Going back to the ‘Why’ in the last section, the room should be designed to make sense. If it's a medieval castle, should there really be electronics or even power outlets? Probably not. Get it outta here. Most escapists won't ask questions if it was there but we're pretty picky about making you believe that you're there for a reason. If it wasn't against fire code, we wouldn't even give emergency keys just to add to the room's believability. That said, the look of the room is important right off the bat. It should almost catch the players off guard with how close it is to the real thing.

Even with how simple Cherry Meadow Asylum's setup is, there was a massive underestimating of how hard it would be to find the set pieces. Eric and I decided that some of the things would have to be in the room no matter what because the puzzles we thought of would be so important to have in the rooms. Unfortunately, finding certain puzzle and set pieces became so overwhelming that we had to open later than expected simply because we couldn't find them.

So, now we look at what's available, what we can get or not get, and then design the room accordingly. Even with the Speakeasy and Mad Hatter rooms, we made the same mistake and regret not thinking that some things, no matter how simple you might think they would be to find, are out of reach. 

Step Three: The Puzzles

If you looked around the room you're in right now and pointed at the first item you saw, I'd be willing to bet that me, Eric, or Noelle could find a way to turn it in to a puzzle. Game mechanics and puzzles were at the heart of entertainment for me as a kid and it still rings true today. The real trick is making sure the puzzles can't be cheated in any way and that they are interesting to solve. And again, they should make sense to the theme. Is there going to be a math puzzle in the Mad Hatter room? Probably not.

At one of the first escape rooms I had been to, the owner told me that anyone can create an escape room that nobody can solve and it's true. Escape rooms all over the world have to deal with others trying to come in and make a quick dollar by opening rooms with no attention to detail that have a few quickly thought out puzzles or stolen ideas. Put ideas together that take a lot longer than an hour for the average person to solve and you've got an escape room, right? No no no no no. This all ties back to why the puzzle design comes last. I could even make an amazing puzzle from scratch but if it doesn't fit the bill for the story or the room design, it's gone.

And that’s it! Simple, right?

With all of that in mind, designing puzzles for a room should incorporate all kinds of thinking levels to accommodate people from different backgrounds. Maybe you're all about logic and would love to see a super dense mental puzzle, but your friend thinks way outside the box and excels at abstract puzzles. We're going to try to cover it all in each of our rooms and we will hopefully have puzzles that you've never seen before (which is why the HT team can go to other escape rooms and write it off ;) Don't want to copy anything!).

Now you see into our brains. We're still expecting to trip you all up when you come in!