4 Lessons from Exit Games for Aspiring Board Game Designers

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I’ve written before about my fondness for Escape Rooms. Certainly, board game designers can learn a lot from well-designed escape rooms. The only trouble, of course, is that being in a small indoor area with a handful of other people in close contact isn’t exactly a great idea right now. Exit Games by Kosmos are the closest we can get to the authentic in-person experience right now.

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I’ve wanted to write about Exit Games for a while, but it’s tricky! You see, the whole concept of the game is that you are trapped in [insert place] and you have to solve riddles to get out. The game is full of mysteries, riddles, and puzzles. They can also only be played once due to their nature.

This, of course, means that any specific discussion of any particular Exit Game will ruin the game for you. However, I will talk about them generally and summarize key lessons that I’ve learned from the six or seven that I’ve played so far. If you’re a fan of these games, don’t worry, I will not spoil them!

1. Use components uniquely.

Exit Games come in small boxes. Each one comes with two decks of cards, one containing riddles to be solved and another containing hints in case you get stuck. They also all contain a booklet full of riddles and clues as well as a short leaflet containing basic instructions. You will also find unique components in many of the Exit Games, though the specifics will vary from game to game.

It’s not a lot to work with, and yet Exit Games make ingenious use of their limited physicality. I have seen Exit Games deploy the box, inserts, required legal labeling on the back, and bar codes into the game. In other cases, players are asked to use scissors, markers, and even candles to modify the game and give it new life.

After a few games, the novelty wears off and you begin to see patterns. I don’t blame the creators for lack of cleverness, though, since there are only so many ways you can use limited parts. The point is: they make a lot out of a little, and game designers, particularly ones working with a tight budget, could really learn from this.

2. Give the players a way to get unstuck.

Some of the puzzles in Exit Games, much like in real-life Escape Rooms, are devilishly hard. Other puzzles are more obvious, but for whatever reason, you hit a wall and you spend 15 minutes making zero progress. This is a motivation killer and it’s something you absolutely have to avoid as a game designer, even if that means reducing the purity of the game’s challenge.

Exit Games find a workaround. They give their players the opportunity to take hints, but only if they want them. If you want to play with no hints, you can. It will probably take you hours to complete the game, but it can be done. Similarly, if you’re just in it for fun and four minutes of puzzled grinding is too much, the hint cards are always there to help you.

3. Use technology to enhance the experience.

Board games are special largely because they are an analog, physical hobby. Being able to step away from the computer screen in our digital era, particularly under coronavirus-related lockdowns, is both an economic luxury and a psychological necessity. That doesn’t mean that board games are only for Luddites, though. We’ve seen the industry adapt to concepts as alien as digital play-testing.

Kosmos was smart and they released a companion app for your smartphone to be played alongside Exit Games. If you use their app, it will count down a timer, calculate your score at the end based on the hints you use, and play a soundtrack during the game.

You don’t need the app. It’s purely for show. Yet isn’t it remarkable that they took the time to come up with a way to digitally augment your experience?

4. Build a lasting brand so you can release multiple products.

Kosmos has one of the cleverest, least appreciated business models I’ve seen in the board game industry. Exit Games have a defined purpose and clear branding. If you like one, you’re likely to buy others. They completed nailed their vibe, brand recognition, and purpose.

That’s remarkable from a business perspective. They’re able to crank out genuinely new and unique experiences to please their audience without long development times. This is great for customer retention, community-building, and, yes, money-making. They come in small boxes, too, so shipping and manufacturing costs are not that high either.

Sure, I will grant you that there are purer, better board game experiences on the market. Yet Exit Games are consistently good and sometimes even great. That’s hard to do, period. It’s a miracle to do that with a great business model.

Final Thoughts

Exit Games can teach board game designers a lot. They are good at teaching us how to be resourceful with components. Their hint system provides a good way of keeping challenges present but not overwhelming. The companion app is a good example of using technology to enhance the board game experience. Finally, it’s just a plain good business model!

Have you played any Exit Games? How’d you like them? Let me know in the comments below!

One thought on “4 Lessons from Exit Games for Aspiring Board Game Designers

  1. I have played a couple of the Exit Games and really enjoyed them! The only down side to me is that you can really only play it one time and you can’t even easily resell any of the ones we have played due to you having to permanently alter some pieces in the game to figure out the puzzles. However, with that being said, the cost of playing one of these games is WAY less than going to an in-person escape room (which we have also done multiple times), and much more accessible to people who may be a bit nervous about the in-person escape room experiences.

    We actually hosted a game night with our group where we all split up into multiple tables to play these Exit Games (a different game with difficulty level at each table for people to choose from), and it was a blast! We definitely appreciated the unique way that they would incorporate EVERY element of the games to play with. You can’t take any element of the game for granted in this game, which is what makes it so fun for us.

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