Hourglass Escapes Blog: Escape room tips for beginners - Seattle, WAHourglass Escapes

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Jun12

An experts guide to playing Escape Room Games

The Experts' Guide to Playing Escape Room Games

We asked some of the most well-known escape room experts for their advice for beginners on playing escape rooms.

First, let’s tackle what is an Escape Room Game? We get asked this all the time and it’s a harder question than you’d think. We tell people it’s like being in a movie, but you are the heroes; you have usually an hour to find clues in a themed environment; and you solve puzzles to escape or win the game. But that’s not all there is to it. To expand on what that means, let’s start from the beginning.

To start, you have to ask How to Find an Escape Room Near You. But then what happens next? Once you’ve booked your time slot, you’ll get a conformation email giving you some payment information, as well as the address and directions. We recommend checking your spam folder in case it seems like it wasn’t received, because that email is important! Especially if you’ve booked with additional people, or aren’t sure what to do next.

The email will also tell you your start time. Some rooms ask you to arrive a few minutes early and some at your game time. Always be on time for your booking; if you are late some will not let you play and you won’t get a refund in most cases. If you are running late give them a call, then they can prepare. Think of it like a concert, rather than a dinner reservation. You can still eat at a restaurant you don’t have a reservation for, but concert doors close!

Once you arrive at your scheduled time, you will be asked in most cases to sign a waiver, use the restroom and be ready to play. At this point they will explain the rules or show you a rules video. Then you will head into the room- if not already inside- and the timer will begin. This is also crucial, as some rules are actually clues or tell you what not to bother with examining. Perhaps one room allows you to lift rugs to search, while others have their rugs taped down. After playing a mass amount of games, I find rules videos can be very helpful in different ways.


a swashbuckling rules video example!

Within the room, you will have a set amount of time to find objects, clues and props. Some props are the puzzles themselves so examine everything, and gather things like laminated paper, symbols or locked items all in one place so they don’t get lost.

My Personal Tips

  •  Communicate with your team!
    • Be vocal, don’t be shy since you may have the right idea. If you find a numerical puzzle yell it out proudly, your teammate may be looking at a number-based lock.
  • Put all new items into a central location and don’t pile things. Keep them spread them out so nothing useful gets covered up.
  • Put used objects and solved puzzles in a different area or upside down.
  • Leave opened items open to let the team know it’s been searched.

    • When stuck or looking for something to do, do a quick second search in case your team missed something.
  • Don’t overthink things! Think outside the box, not outside the building. Most puzzles are very logical.
  • Sometimes things are for later, including solved puzzles.
  • Work solo, or at most in pairs or threes; spread out when you can.
  • Look back at things you have already found and have not used.
  • If you can’t figure it out in 3 to 5 minutes, ask a friend for help or move on and come back to the puzzle later.
  • Be open to asking for clues from your game master. They’re there to help, and are glad to be of assistance!
  • Don’t be afraid to share your ideas, Remember, someone in a meeting one suggested they make a movie about a tornado full of sharks and it was a hit.

We asked the top escape room experts for their own tips and a few other questions:

What’s your blog/website?

What’s your team name if you have one?

  • BritOfAnEscapeHabit

How many rooms have you/your team played and your win/lose ratio if you have it ?

  • As of 20/05/2018 244, with 11 fails. (This will be 250 by the first week of June!)

Top 5 tips for beginners

  • Search everywhere but be respectful!
  • Communicate. If you find something, shout about it.
  • Observe.
  • Don’t be afraid to think outside the box.
  • Don’t get stuck in one mode of thinking. If something doesn’t work, try looking at it from a different angle.
  • Bonus: Don’t be too proud to take hints

The one mistake that beginners should avoid?

  • Not taking account of what locks they have to open. Sometimes this can help you grasp the flow of a room really, really well.

The one mistake that experienced players make?

  • Expecting puzzles to work in the exact same way every time!

What’s your plan of attack when approaching a new escape room?

  • Take a check of what locks we have to open and keeping an open mind as to what could be in the game, and what is decor!

If you could give one tip to the Escape room owners that would make games better for beginners what would it be?

  • Don’t limit hints. Not everyone is going to get your logic and everyone’s brains work in different ways. In an ideal world all teams would see 99% of the room! Don’t include logic that only some people understand.

What’s the worst idea for an escape room?

  • An entire room of maths puzzles! (Only because I suck at maths!)

ERA TEAM : Esc Room Addict

Our organization is Esc Room Addict (EscRoomAddict.com)

Most people we interact with in the industry refer to us as the ERA team.  (sometimes with the city name first, e.g. Chicago ERA, Denver ERA…etc)

The ERA team has 34 members in 7 cities and as a whole has played an estimated 750+ different escape rooms across the USA & Canada.

Top 5 tips for beginners (those who have played 5 or less escape games?)… I’d say

  • Always find a common space to bring information in case others need to check…
  • When you’ve used a clue, or searched an area, remove it from the pile of clues, or indicate the area has been searched…
  • Find the ”sweet spot” on when to ask for a clue from the game-master (don’t be too quick to give up, but don’t waste all your time because you refuse help)…
  • Learn how to give AND accept delegation within a room. It’s important for people to work in collaboration, but a good escape room also requires teams to diversify their efforts…
  • Most importantly….WORK AS A TEAM!  You might be a great puzzle enthusiast, or really intelligent, but unless you communicate frequently and openly with each other you’re going to be weaker than teams who know how to work together… it sounds easier than it is, and sadly it only takes 1 or 2 people acting as a lone wolf to make the whole team weaker.

Beginners have certain advantages, but one of the disadvantages they often have is assuming they can’t help because they’re no good at puzzles.  We’ve played escape rooms with hundreds of different people, and not yet have we had one person who didn’t contribute in some meaningful way!  The only way a new player can’t contribute is when they stop trying because they’re worried they’re not good enough.

One common mistake experienced players make is how often we make assumptions based on past experiences.  ”No, there’s no way a clue is hidden there…” or ”I don’t think that’s the combo (before trying)” … This is why we’re firm believers the ”best” teams include people who are new to escape rooms or people who refuse to make assumptions. :)

When the ERA teams get into a room we’re immediately scanning, learning, and splitting up into different sections of the room to gather information… then we collaborate on what we’ve found & learned.

The most common advice and consultation we give to any owner is… play a LOT of rooms!  Never assume that playing a ”few” rooms is enough information to understand what the escape room industry has to offer. Most of the people we come across are incredibly kind, gracious, and well-intentioned owners, but there are times when we meet those few who adamantly believe that because they’ve played 3 or 4 rooms they now understand what escape rooms are all about and how they should design them…  To put it in perspective, we still feel like we’re learning new things all the time in our travels to different companies! 🙂

Worst idea we’ve seen, or worst idea period?  Worst idea we’ve seen is a company that literally placed 4-5 small combination locked boxes, that were relatively simple to open, had no story attached, no set design (aside from the standard party room amenities you’d see at a child’s birthday party), and were completed in less than 20 minutes… Worst idea period would be an anxiety room where no matter what you try it’s designed to make you feel worse about yourself & your teammates, and there’s no solution unless you just walk away from it all.

Randy Hum: Escape Rumors

What’s your blog/website ?

What’s your team name if you have one?

  • Usually just Escape Rumors.

How many rooms have you/your team played and your win/lose ratio if you have it ?

  • 153 rooms played, 79% success.

Top five tips for beginners?

  • Don’t overthink it, it’s usually not some crazy complex answer.
  • Try to do a private booking, this will make the experience a lot more fun.
  • Tell all your teammates when you discover something, communication is obviously key.
  • Have a “discard” pile for things that were already checked but be sure to thoroughly check before putting anything here.
  • Have fun! Don’t be too competitive, take the time to smell the roses 🙂

The one mistake that beginners should avoid?

  • Over-complicating an answer is what I always see newbies do.

The one mistake that experienced players make?

  • Not thoroughly searching for clues. Our blocker is usually something we failed to physically find.

What’s your plan of attack when approaching a new escape room?

  • Divide and conquer but keep everyone in the loop the best you can.
  • Have a discard pile.

Try to physically search using your hands so that you cover everything. It’s too easy to glance over clues with your eyes.

If you could give one tip to the Escape room owners that would make games better for beginners what would it be?

  • Ensure that the time between the discovery of how a puzzle should be solved vs the execution is as short as possible. No one likes a long, process-driven puzzle as it feels like a chore! Also, no red herrings 🙂

What’s the worst idea for an escape room?

  • Right now, jail or serial killer theme. Not that it can’t be done well, but it’s often overdone and cliché.

Lisa and David Spira: The Room Escape Artists

What’s your blog/website?

What’s your team name if you have one?

  • RoomEscapeArtist.com

How many rooms have you/your team played and your win/lose ratio if you have it?

  • Just under 600 games with a 92% win rate. (Note that that win rate is calculated over 4 years. It differs dramatically from year to year.)

Top 5 tips for beginners?

  • Communicate.
  • If you don’t have a puzzle to work on, observe the room.
  • You don’t need to be the star of every moment. There is a lot of joy in being a support player.
  • Focus on enjoying the puzzles, the environment, and your experience with your team. Do not focus on winning.
  • Share the experience with teammates. Go out afterwards and share your collective triumphs and silliness.

The one mistake that beginners should avoid?

  • These are two fatal flaws:
    • Believing you deserve to win.
    • Believing you’re not smart enough to contribute.

The one mistake that experienced players make?

  • Diving into puzzles without fully observing the game environment. #searchfail (Most hints we take are because we didn’t search well enough.)

What’s your plan of attack when approaching a new escape room?

  • We always start by searching the space and communicating our finds. Our gameplay evolves organically from there. We each gravitate towards the puzzles that rely on our strengths, and different people step into leadership roles depending on the game and our moods. We rarely play for speed. We aim to enjoy the entire experience.

If you could give one tip to the escape room owners that would make games better for beginners what would it be?

  • Treat people attentively and kindly, even if you feel they don’t deserve it. So many game designs sins are forgiven when you receive exemplary customer service.

What’s the worst idea for an escape room?

  • An unsafe experience. Boring and offensive experiences will cause problems for individual companies, but risk to players could be catastrophic for the entire industry.

William Chen: Escape Room Tips

What’s your blog/website?

What’s your team name if you have one?

  • We usually go with “Escape Room Tips”

How many rooms have you/your team played and your win/lose ratio if you have it?

  • 235+ rooms, and our escape rate is 90%

Top five tips for beginners?

  • Communicate with your team members. Share and yell out things that you’ve found, and let people share their ideas. If you’re stuck on a puzzle, try to switch off with another team member, or put it off if you don’t think you have all the components yet.
  • Search thoroughly, and divide and conquer to search if you can. Especially near the beginning, searching will uncover important puzzle elements that you’ll need to move forward.
  • Collect unused puzzle items on a table in the room. A central location will help people easily make connections between items that go together. Avoid carrying around puzzle items if you’re not actively using them.
  • Make a “discard pile” of used puzzle items. These are usually not used again, although there can be exceptions. A neat pile under a table or next to the exit door usually works well. Keep used keys in their locks.
  • Bring a watch if you can. Some rooms don’t have an accessible timer, so this will let you track your pace. With multi-room escapes however, it can be difficult to know if you’re in the last room.

The one mistake that beginners should avoid?

  • Avoid focusing on random numbers written in black marker on old books or furniture. Almost all of these are left over from when the escape room owner purchased the item used.

The one mistake that experienced players make?

  • Be careful of pattern-matching too much from previous escape room experiences. Escape rooms will occasionally throw curveballs, especially when it comes to how thoroughly you need to search and what you’re allowed to do.

What’s your plan of attack when approaching a new escape room?

  • The first part of the game usually involves surveying the room and searching all the nooks and crannies. If there are clear parallel tracks to follow, we split up. Generally, we adapt live to the structure of the room, and players switch between roles depending on the needs of the room at the time.

If you could give one tip to the escape room owners that would make games better for beginners what would it be?

  • Change or remove items in the room that suggest that they’re important, but actually aren’t. These are known as red herrings and can be discovered through playtesting with groups of various skill levels.

What’s the worst idea for an escape room?

  • You’re a detective that has to deduce which of four suspects committed the crime. In order to solve the case, you have to file all four of their tax returns correctly. The correct culprit is the one whose tax liability is the combo to the exit door. You have 60 minutes.

Finally our most prolific entry
The Room Escape Divas!

Their Podcast can be found at roomescapedivas.com
Mike and Ruby have an escape room review site at escapegamesreview.com
Manda has a blog mandawhitney.com
Errol has a blog, thecodex.ca

What’s your team name if you have one?

  • Errol wants our team name to be Team Totoro. The rest of us don’t. Usually, we will stick to REDivas (Room Escape Divas).

How many rooms have you/your team played and your win/lose ratio if you have it

  • On average we’ve all done above 150 rooms, with some of us over 250. We don’t really keep track of our win/lose ratio, but generally we do well.

Top 5 tips for beginners

  • Hit the ground running by searching right away.
  • Examine the locks. Don’t assume a lock is a number or a letter lock.
  • When you find a lock, find something with a pattern which would correspond with that lock. You need four numbers? Look for something in the room grouped into a set of four. Find the pattern that matches?
  • If you enter an answer in a lock and it doesn’t work, try it again. If it still doesn’t work, get someone else to do it. NEVER say “I’ve tried that, don’t bother.” (Unless it’s a lockout safe)
  • You don’t have ownership of a puzzle. If you get stuck on something for more than 5 minutes, switch with a team member or do #4.
  • Don’t be afraid (or too stubborn) to ask for a hint. Sometimes it might not be you, but tech hiccup or a design problem.
  • Most importantly communicate with your team, even if you have to repeat yourself a few times.

The 1 mistake that beginners should avoid

  • Shutting out new ideas. You never know if someone else has the right answer.

The 1 mistake that experienced players make

  • Our knowledge of escape rooms constantly work against it. There have been a few times when we didn’t pay attention to a vital clue because we assumed it would relate to the end of the game. There were good clues to indicate otherwise, but we thought we knew better! Spoiler alert: we didn’t.

What’s your plan of attack when approaching a new escape room

  • We all tend to revert into our roles. Manda will listen to the opening narrative if there is one. Mike and Ruby will immediately start searching. Errol will wave at the cameras but will also begin getting an overview of the room as a whole.
  • Most important though, we communicate, but not as you would normally think. Usually, calling out things we find isn’t useful because we are absorbed with solving a puzzle. Thus, we try to help each other. If we find something a clue that helps with a puzzle someone else is working on, we give them that puzzle. If we are stuck, we tell others. We start asking questions.

If you could give one tip to the Escape room owners that would make games better for beginners what would it be?

  • The escape room designer is on the side of the player. They are not against them, they are rooting for the players to win.
  • Listen and share! Whenever we are stuck on a puzzle, we always let someone else try. We all think differently from one another, so it’s always a good idea to get someone else’s eyes on a puzzle.

What’s the worst idea for an escape room

  • Sewage Escape!

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About the Author: When he is not dressed like Charlie Brown hanging with E.T on Xmas and circa 1997 Seth Wolfson is the co-owner and creative director of Hourglass Escapes in Seattle. He has been in the film and theme park industry since 1989 and has worked for Universal Studios, Disney, Ripley’s Believe It or Not Wax Figure Shop, and more. His work can be seen at www.makeupfxartist.com and you can hear him speak on art, make-up effects and escape rooms on the podcast Original Lines episode #5 or on an episode of “So you’re in Seattle” with Gregr and 107.7 The End. Or as a featured interview in an upcoming book about the Universal Studios Orlando Jaws Ride “Great White Fury” by Dustin McNeill . See Seth’s other blogs here.

To hire Seth to help build or consult on your next project contact him via Info@hourglassescapes.com