Designing Escape Room Puzzles: A Step-by-Step Guide

Written by: Robert-Stefan Butnarasu

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Time to read 11 min

Introduction

Designing the puzzles is the most important step in crafting your DIY escape room. Especially making them both fun and challenging. We're here to guide you through crafting the perfect escape room puzzles.  By the end of this post, you'll become a puzzle designer yourself!

By the end of this post, you'll be able to craft your first escape room puzzles. 

Why you can trust us:

We've been over 5 years in business - the pioneers of affordable printable escape rooms

We've sold over 28,000 games worldwide

Principles of Escape Room Puzzles

1. Make it intuitive

Despite what you're thinking, playing a real-life Escape Room is not a must for crafting a DIY escape room! We face hundreds of challenges and problem-solving situations every day. From deciphering someone's handwriting to fitting your groceries in the fridge. It's all a challenge for our brains.

To craft the perfect escape room puzzles, take these challenges and give them a twist! A fun one preferably. This way, your players will intuit the logic behind it and successfully solve it.

Think about a four-piece puzzle. Anyone would be able to solve it in a matter of seconds! Is it because they ever learned about it? Probably not! It's their brain that does the job and tries to recreate the image.

2. Adapt it to your audience

Let's take our puzzle and give it to a four-year-old. And add an image of a plane gear system to it. Chances are, the child will reassemble the pieces by simple guesswork. Replace the image with a cow, and cut the solve time in half.

It's important to adapt the difficulty level to your audience. Anything too easy makes it boring. Make it too hard and the players end up frustrated. Take into account the age, skill, experience level, and general knowledge someone possesses.

3. Make it fun

When you design your DIY escape room, think about your audience. It may sound like the previous advice, but we're looking from a different point of view. Use your guests as inspiration and make your game feel like their own.


Remember that memorable game night back in 2012? Or the funky sweater they wore on Christmas Eve last year that everyone joked about? Use that as inspiration. If you remember, they'll remember it too.

Another great inspiration is their jobs, hobbies, and passions. Are they musicians? Create escape room puzzles using music notes. Do they love Twilight? Design a puzzle using moon phases. It's that simple!

4. Make it easy to understand

Good escape room puzzles are easy to understand, but challenging to solve. Ensure the players understand or know what they should be looking for. Not knowing where to start can be frustrating and discouraging.

Always provide your players with instructions. Integrate them into the story or use illustrations to guide them through the challenge.

5. Know when to stop

Solving escape room puzzles is fun, but it can get boring quickly. There are many games on the market based on basic puzzles. They either repeat within the game or are unnecessarily long.


The best examples are decoding puzzles. You can decode a simple word or a thousand-word letter. Guess which one is more satisfying.

Avoid leaps of logic - start simple and add layers

Don't make it frustrating - never go too far 

Make sure it's not predictable - easy-to-guess solutions are not satisfying

MUST TRY GAMES FOR PUZZLE LOVERS

Escape Room Puzzle Types

Something is sure- you can turn anything into escape room puzzles. Look around your available play space and come up with puzzle ideas that use the objects around. This makes a DIY escape room fun and engaging.


See that old bookcase in the corner? Use the books to hide a secret message. Use the spine colors, authors, or even the decorations of the shelves to make out a pattern.


Here are a few basic types of puzzles:

Cipher Puzzles

People have used ciphers for hundreds of years to encode and decode secret messages. Only the sender and the recipient could read the messages.

The most common cipher is Morse code. It's so common that it's no secret how to decode it anymore. But it's the easiest to hide in plain sight!

Another easy-to-understand cipher is the Cesar cipher which is based on letter-shifting. You can shift the cipher by one letter (A becomes B) or by ten- you choose! For small letter shifts you can decode the message mentally. For larger shifts, it can get harder to keep up, and that's when a cipher wheel comes in handy.

A decoding wheel is made up of two disks (one smaller than the other) with the alphabet written around. Set a letter as reference (A is the most common) on the outer ring and pick a letter shift for the inner ring. For example, for a letter shift of two, align the letter C on the inner ring with A (the reference letter) on the outer ring. Now, A becomes C, B becomes D, and so on.

To encode a secret message, take each letter and count UP to the corresponding shifted letter. For a letter shift of two, the word SECRET becomes UGETGV.

If you're using a cipher wheel, pick a letter on the OUTER ring and write down the letter on the INNER ring.

To decode a secret message, take each letter and count DOWN to the corresponding shifted letter. For a letter shift of two, the word UGETGV becomes SECRET. If you make the mistake of counting up, it becomes WIGVIX, which is not the initial word.

If you're using a cipher wheel, pick a letter on the INNER ring and write down the letter on the OUTER ring.

Decoding puzzles are fun, but keep them short. They can get boring fast.

Need an extra layer of complexity? Our Mayan Cipher Wheel uses ancient symbols to encode messages. Too easy, take it a step further and apply the Cesar cipher to it!

Logic Puzzles

Escape room puzzles based on logic set the base for most puzzle types. A logic puzzle might include decoding, math, or some kind of object manipulation. They encourage deductive reasoning and critical thinking to find solutions to fictional problems.

To design a logic puzzle, you need to start with the answer. Is your desired answer a word? Do a word search and omit adding your desired word to the gird. Is your desired answer a shape? Hide some shapes in plain sight and may the answer be the most used.

Mathematical Puzzles

More fun for some than for others, mathematical puzzles are the easiest to conceive. Make sure they are not too difficult for your audience, as math can get difficult quickly.


While you might get stuck with having the answer a digit, you can always add extra layers to change that. Is the answer to your mathematical puzzle 8? It can be the eighth letter in the alphabet. Or the tentacles of an octopus. As always, you get to choose.

Visual Puzzles

Crafting visual escape room puzzles is your chance to make your DIY escape room stand out. From optical illusions to hiding objects in plain sight, the possibilities are endless. Take inspiration from the objects around you. Look at the wallpaper, the tiles, and the cabinet doors. Turn your play space into the ultimate DIY escape room.

A fun twist you can give to your visual puzzle is to add an optical illusion to it.

Ensure your escape room puzzles are accessible to all players (e.g. eyeglass wearers or visually impaired) - provide a safe environment and good light conditions.

Physical Puzzles

Physical escape room puzzles might be the most satisfying to solve (and craft). The players see the result of their actions. And, there's nothing more satisfying! 


To craft physical escape room puzzles, think of everything as a puzzle. Start by moving objects around, and writing letters or words on them. Make certain placements reveal words or hidden messages.

Are you tech-savvy?
Design a circuit that lights up colored LEDs based on the buttons the players press. Assign a digit to each color and turn it into the combination on a numeric lock!

Add layers to your escape room puzzles

Everyone can design escape room puzzles! But what makes the puzzle design stand out is the extra layers and details you add. Crafting escape room puzzles that captivate players and immerse them in the game is an art form.

Let's explore below what you can add to your puzzle design to make it unforgettable:

Storytelling

The story is the uttermost important detail of an experience. With a good story, you can transport players into a different world. And make up for the execution of your game!


Are you a talented artist and you turned your game into a visual masterpiece? Make the story about an artist who put your skills to escape from their workshop!


Do you have limited sources and your skills are not the best? Write the story about a bright three-year-old that locked you inside their room!

No story is a bad story, so put your writing skills to the test! Don't forget to let the players know what their goal is and how to start their adventure.

"Most of our best-sellers at MysteryLocks are story-driven games.


A good example we designed is The Pyramid, an immersive printable escape room with ten story cards that guide the players through every step of the adventure.


Story is a great tool you can use to transport your players to other worlds!"


- Gabriel, co-founder of MysteryLocks Home Escape Rooms

Theme integration

Your fresh-crafted escape room looks good on paper, but making it a reality can be a bit different. Telling your story can be much easier if you use the right materials and props for your escape room puzzles.


Every part of the puzzle should fit the theme and tell the (same) story. Try to use wood chests and rope for your DIY pirate escape room. Only have a metal box around? Make the story about space pirates and everything fits better.

Pinterest is a great source of inspiration for creating themed environments. Follow MysteryLocks on Pinterest for boards inspired by our games.

Multisensory experience

What's more unpredictable than not only using your eyes and hands to solve a puzzle? Sensory escape room puzzles are so fun to solve, as add an extra layer of surprise to your game.


Replace elements in your puzzles with smells, sounds, or textures. Hide mysterious objects in sealed boxes and ask the players to count them only by touching them. Add essential oils to objects and assign them codes or letters they can use to decode a secret message.


Each new element you add elevates your experience, so spread them accordingly.

Rewards

Even if players know how to solve a puzzle, they are still looking for validation a the end of it. Checking the result yourself is the easiest way to validate a puzzle. If the answer is correct, prompt your players to the next stage. If they are wrong, reset the puzzle or ask them to try again.

Surprises

Adding surprises to your DIY escape room keeps the players engaged and interested. From visual impacts to surprising puzzle results, they are very easy to integrate.


Add a smoke machine (Amazon Affiliate link) to a room that the players will enter. Or activate a laser maze (Amazon Affiliate link) once they solve a puzzle. Visual impacts work best, so make sure to surprise your players every step of the game.

Incorporate technology into your escape room puzzle

Technology adds a whole new world of possibilities to your escape room puzzle. Integrating digital elements into your escape room puzzles can boost everything.


From storytelling to answer validation, it's worth exploring new environments. A few elements you can add to improve your escape room puzzle are:

  1. Interactive props - Players love interactive elements. Use buttons, lights, and sensors to draw their attention.

  2. Augmented reality - Mixing real life with digital elements adds new layers to your play space. Already popular with real-life escape rooms, it's easy to recreate at home.

  3. Electronic locks (Amazon Affiliate link) - Replace traditional locks with electronic ones. Players can unlock them not only by entering codes but using RFID cards or objects.

  4. Digital clues and hints - Provide digital clues or hints using smartphones or tablets. It adds an extra layer of interactivity to the game. This comes from a video mission briefing and online tools used to crack codes.

  5. Timers - Players work well under pressure. Add a digital timer with special effects and music. It will instantly change the atmosphere.

Test and refine your escape room puzzles

No escape room puzzle should reach your players without prior testing. What makes sense for you may not make sense for others.


Gather a group of testers like your target group. They should be the same age and skill level. Take notes on the following elements:

  • Puzzle interaction - Observe how the¬†players interact with your puzzle. It's important to identify areas of frustration or confusion.

  • Iterative design - Make the necessary¬†adjustments¬†based on the collected feedback.

  • Timing¬†- Consider the time¬†it takes for players to solve each puzzle. Make adjustments to ensure steady progress through the game.

Common mistakes to avoid when designing an escape room puzzles

We've gone through the does of making escape room puzzles. Now, let's look at the common pitfalls that can ruin the player's fun. Here are some mistakes to avoid:

  1. Avoid ambiguity - Don't use elements that are too vague or rely on specific knowledge your players lack.

  2. Limit red herrings - Don't make players waste their time on false leads. Adding unnecessary elements and distractions may create confusion and frustration.

  3. Discard unsolvable puzzles - Ensure all puzzles have a clear solution. It shouldn't be impossible to solve a puzzle without help.

  4. Fix technical issues - Test all props, locks, and interactive elements to prevent malfunctions during gameplay.

Avoid leaps of logic - start simple and add layers

Don't make it frustrating - never go too far 

Make sure it's not predictable - easy-to-guess solutions are not satisfying

Conclusions

Crafting a mind-bending escape room puzzles is an art. It requires creativity and an understanding of player behavior and psychology.


By following the principles outlined in this guide, you can be an escape room puzzle designer yourself! You can now create captivating and captivating puzzles your players will love.

So, are you an escape room designer who wants to push the boundaries? Or, are you someone who wants to host a DIY escape room for its guests? Let this guide be your roadmap to adventure.


Unleash your creativity and embark on the journey of escape room puzzle design. A journey that will keep players guessing until the very end. It's your time to create your own unforgettable experience!

Written by: Robert-»ėtefan Butnara»ôu (co-founder)


MysteryLocks was founded in 2018 by two medical students who share a passion for puzzle games, escape rooms, and murder mysteries. With over 100 original game designs, MysteryLocks has become the place for immersive home escape rooms.


After over 26.000 games sold worldwide, their goal remains unchanged - spark mystery and laughter and continue innovating in the realm of home escape rooms.

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