Blueprint For Crafting Your First Escape Room.
How to turn your escape idea into a stylish puzzle adventure. Fast!
Let's do this
You're about to create the most outlandish escape room you've ever built. Congratz!
Like any puzzle, it's going to be challenging and perhaps even undoable. But, follow this blueprint and you'll engineer a shining beacon of design hope among a sea of gray rooms.
Or at least it won't suck quite as much...
Ok, it's time to be honest.
Chances are your 1st escape room's going to be pretty bad. Like totally terrible. Mine sure was!
The brutal truth about designing your own escape room
It's super ambitious to make a pro style room if you've never done it before. It's likely to fail. Instead, make your 1st escape room a 30min house party for friends.
By taking this approach, you'll experience the whole process without it dragging on too long. Additionally, keeping it to 30mins of raw quality means you'll actually finish before the excitement dies down.
Let's do this!
P.S. Here's a printable escape room you can download if you'd like to skip the work.
Go big or go home? That's what Mr Grumpy Cat though too...
Start by drafting a wacky theme
This part's easy.
You know what styles you enjoy.
- "Creepy Evil Sherlock's plan to assassinate the Chief of Police." Awesome.
- "The Wolfpack working out what really happened in Vegas." Classy.
- "Trying to escape from your mom's place." Maybe pass on that one.
Long story short, just choose an escape room theme you love. And don't make it boring. Anything but boring.
Some great sources of inspiration are movies, games, and past escape rooms you've done. I've also made a long list of themes here.
I'm going to be going through this process from start to finish with you.
What's my escape room theme?
Escape the Meeting Room from Hell.
It'll be deadpan office humor where players need to get out of the worst meeting ever.
Yes. It's going to be painful... Very painful...
"Escape from you mom's place."
(Not cool dude).
Next, describe what's in your world
Once you've got your theme worked out use Google Images to find 10 things that belong in the world. This list will likely end up being the objects in your escape room.
For example, in Evil Sherlock's world, the object could be a Fob watch covered in scratches and blood. Or, in Escape from your mom's place, a pink knitted blanket would fit in well...
Escape the Meeting Room from Hell will be set in a board room with none of the mod cons:
- A locked stationery cupboard
- Dirty whiteboard with markers that don't work.
- A projector that has all the colors broken.
- Someone can't dial into the Polycom (phone).
- Dirty coffee cup.
Then, Sketch out a storyline
You'll need something to be happening in your escape game.
This may seem obvious but seriously it's often missing from commercial ones.
Feel free to move away from the traditional Escape from Cell block Z style storyline and consider something like:
- Breaking into something like a bank vault or hacking the FBI database.
- Defusing a bomb.
- Saving someone's life by curing the zombie virus.
You can make it cooler by having a story that develops as players complete challenges. Don't rewrite Shakespear, since you're only making a 30min game, but include a few lines on:
- What the setting is:
- Problems to overcome:
- How it will be resolved:
If you're stuck for a story just remix one from a favorite movie or game.
- Setting: You're pitching a new idea at the quarterly review meeting.
- Problems to overcome: Nothings working for the pitch and the accounting team is going to present the financial review straight after your pitch. Talk about boring.
- How it will be resolved: The smaller challenges will need to be overcome before the pitch can begin. Then players will need to find a way to escape the meeting before the accountants drown us in cost center codes.
Then, break your overview into dot points. Don't worry if it doesn't flow, because it's not linear, just get the details on paper for now.
My Example converted into a list
- You enter the meeting room but everything's not setup.
- Projector's not working.
- Senior management can't dial into the conference call.
- That annoying fluoro light is still flashing.
- The whiteboard is covered in writing, there's no duster to clean it, and the pens don't work.
- The stationary cupboards locked and the Office Manager won't open it without a cost center.
- The air conditioner is stuck on 90 degrees.
- The pitch could be delivered if everything was setup.
- A mobile phone that's out of battery.
- The accounting team is going to present the boring financial review.
- Pulling the fire alarm would end the meeting fast.
Once you've got this worked out we're going to use a Story Map to convert this into a series of puzzles and challenges.
Convert your story list into a map
Here's where the story really comes together begins.
Write each of your story list items onto a Post-It-Note. Then arrange them into a process flow where you can see what happens and where. Since most escape rooms have a lot going on at once this will crystallize what's actually happening.
Each of these Post-It-Notes is going to become a challenge or puzzle in your escape room.
Well... ok I'll be honest. In reality, you'll change half of this before your game's finished. But hey, it's a great start!
Ok, so you clicked the button.
That means you're wondering why you should bother writing story junk instead of jumping straight into the fun part - PUZZLES!
So here goes:
If you don't plan your story elements first, your puzzles will all be unrelated and very unfun to solve.
For example, imagine a problem where players need to find the unlock code to access an iPhone. You could make a cipher that reveals the answer, but where are you going to write it? Compare these 2 options:
- Placing the cipher on the side of an iPhone charger cable shows players that these objects are connected in some way. If they don't realize this at first, it also creates those magical 'aha' moments.
- Conversely, if the cipher's hidden on a note, under a chair, there's no logical connection to the phone without trial and error. Players will still be able to solve the puzzle, but it may take a lot of trial and error and just isn't fun.
In a nutshell, writing your story first ensures your clues and puzzles all appear in places that are logical for players to solve.
A.K.A it's easier for you and more fun for them.
Converting your story map into a series of puzzles is easier said than done. The best way I've found to do this is by making your story map more detailed then converting each element into a puzzle.
Do this by splitting out the Post-It-Notes in your story map into 3 categories:
- Starting objects, that exist when players start the game. E.g. a locked door, a strange device, or 5 road signs. These are Yellow in my detailed story map.
- Challenges that need to be solved like unlocking a door or activating the device. (Pink).
- Reward objects they will receive from solving challenges like a key stashed in the device. (Green).
I'll be honest. This gets pretty confusing.
Keep going with it, however, since it will save you heaps of time when it comes to your puzzle design. It will also save you hours of rework since the whole escape room will flow a lot better.
One issue you'll find pretty fast is some things fall into several categories. For example, a locked box is a Starting object that exists in your world but also a Challenge to overcome. For these cases, just use 2 Post-It-Notes and include it twice (once as Locked box and the other as Unlock the box). Doing this will give you a clear list of items to acquire for your escape game.
Choose a puzzle for each Challenge in your Story map.
Congrats! You've made it this far.
Now it's time for the really fun part - converting your story map into a sequence of puzzles.
Start by doing a quick draft version before spending a lot of time on any one puzzle. This allows you to quickly iterate over your design without getting bogged down in something you may end up scrapping anyway.
To do this, write a quick description of a puzzle on each of the Challenge Post-It-Notes.
Here's a big list of DIY escape room puzzles you can create at home. Find your favorites and also include any puzzles you love from other escape rooms you've done. Remember, do a quick version of this to start with.
Logic puzzles & brain busters
Anytime you're looking for a pattern among random objects, finding the logical connection between 2 secret documents, or mixing beakers of water together you're solving a logic puzzle. These thinking challenges don't require prior knowledge which makes them perfect for a group challenge.
Ciphers, Codes & and all that Crypto stuff
Converts readable Plaintext into unreadable Ciphertext by replacing characters or following patterns. For example those A = 2, B = 2, C = 3 codes from when you were a kid.
Locks, latches, and combinations
These are typically the win condition or milestone in an escape room game. You'll need to solve other puzzles in order to get the combination, key or password required.
Mazes and pathfinding
These are a great 'doable' challenge that just take a bit of time. Other fun alternatives include following a map with string and pins all over it or untangling cables.
Physical Challenges around the home
Whether you're shooting
teddy bears zombies with a nerf gun or balancing a cup of water beaker of acid on your head it's all about prowess and skill! These group physical games really liven up the escape party!
Talk, mime and team communication
Just working together with your team-mates can be a big challenge. Like when 1 player's in a separate room reading a manual on How to defuse a bomb while everyone else follows their instructions to actually do it.
These are an awesome addition to a home escape room as they're basically Fun Machines that generate laughter among the chaos.
Scavenging for Clues
Got clues the escapee's will need to use? Hide, stash, and store them anywhere hard to find.
Talk someone through your puzzle map. Just explain every step as it works in your head.
Trust me. You'll change half of it.
Make a minimum playable game (MPG)
Minimum playable whhaatt...?
It's the absolute simplest version of your escape game that can be played. Making it allows a complete playtest before investing hours on the details and $$ on props.
It will save you hours, or even days, of design time and is remarkably easy with this PowerPoint template:
Download this PowerPoint Design Template
Download this PowerPoint template or grab some pen and paper. I prefer using PowerPoint because:
- My handwriting's terrible.
- It allows copy-paste of pictures from Google.
- It's easy into convert into the final game. I use this format to make my Printable Escape Room Kits.
Having said that, as long as the puzzle's entirely solvable it doesn't matter how its made. So if inkwell and goose feather is your thing go nuts...
If one of your puzzles is a cipher written in Morse Code write out the actual message as it will appear. Since no-one knows Morse code these days, you'll also need a lookup chart somewhere so go ahead and do a super quick version of that too.
With these 2 puzzle pieces, the challenge is entirely solvable even though it's not in its final form and doesn't look stunning.
Turn your Post-It-Notes into PowerPoint Slides
Create a slide for each of your post it notes using the DIY PowerPoint template. Add any notes or comments, that are relevant, and even copy-paste images from Google onto slides to add a little more context.
After playtesting, your design will change a lot.
As in heaps.
So don't sweat the small stuff. Just aim to convert your Post-It-Notes into something playable.
Don't sweat the small stuff.
Just aim to convert your Post-It-Notes into something playable.
Let's build it.
Huge congrats! You've made it this far.
Now it's time to convert all that design prep into a super stylish Escape Room. If you'd like to check out the process map for a complete game check out this example from the Escape Room Z kit:
If you're keen to go all out, on your party, try some of the bonus tips below.
Bonus tips to add swagga
If your crew's up for it then breaking out the costumes with one sure fire way of adding mojo:
- Sherlock theme? Grab an overcoat and scarf.
- Escaping from Cell Block 52? Rock up in your pyjamas.
- Zombie theme? Um... tomato sauce?
Buy some cheap DIY props that get the atmosphere cranking. Like:
- Candles to make it feel old-school or romantic.
- Glow sticks for futuristic or post-apocalyptic mojo.
- A few branches from your garden to teleport you back in time to the incas
The only issue with doing an escape room at home is that your TV & couch combo aren't Sherlock themed 😉
Here's were background music totally crushes it!
There's a bunch of soundtracks on this background music site or you can search YouTube for [theme] background music and you'll find a soundtrack that's close enough (even if it's not 100% perfect just go with it)
If you're a foodie, or just want an excuse to use blue food coloring in something, try matching food:
- Breaking out of the slam? Grab some cheap white bread and water
- Stealing a senator's little black book at a dinner party? Make fancy canapes.
- Trying to fix a helicopter before Zombies break down through? Brew some green & red jello.
Do You Want To Build An Escape Room Business?
This entire guide (and in fact this whole website) is about making your 1st escape room game to enjoy with friends or family. I'm hoping it's done just that.
The jump from to running your own full-time business is massive and requires significant planning and research.
The best single source of information for launching your first Escape Room Business nowescape.com. Start with Fred's article on How to open your own escape room: Simple 22 step guide.
What's your best tip for making your 1st escape room?
Add it below in the comments: