Handcuffed to my manager, I reached into the toilet to find a small key. We unlocked the jail cell and eventually broke out of prison with two minutes to spare.
The unwitting reader may suspect this was a sordid affair unbecoming of a Fortune 500 company. In reality, it was my first experience with an Escape Room. I’ve since been in many more for work and family functions alike.
Escape Rooms will make you a better board game designer. This is partly because Escape Rooms are everything that board games aspire to be – complex problem-solving games that appeal to a wide audience and provide a remarkable physical experience. You can’t capture the true experience of an Escape Room in a box (though some have tried), but you can learn from them, take elements from them that work, and apply them to your future designs.
With this in mind, here are six reasons I believe that Escape Rooms will make you a better board game designer.
1. Escape Rooms are master classes in theme.
Board games often run the risk of having themes that feel pasted-on. For as much as we talk about theme-mechanic unity here, it’s an ideal to be pursued and which is seldom truly met. To have a truly immersive theme is the dream of many board game designers.
Fair enough, board games can still be great even if the theme feels watery. But then you have Escape Rooms. In them, everything is a part of the game – the dimensions of the room, every prop, and every symbol. Escape Rooms are an entirely different medium in which wholly original theme ideas can be played out. You can’t use many of them in board games, but they are, at the very least, idea factories for those who prefer to create games with cardboard and plastic.
2. The appeal of Escape Rooms is in the physical experience.
Part of the reason Escape Rooms appeal to people who don’t normally play games or solve puzzles is the physical experience. You are locked in a room and you have to use your wits to escape. Every prop, every errant number or symbol scrawled on the wall or the floor, and every strange gadget could have a purpose.
Board games often run the risk of feeling overly cerebral. You have to use your imagination to see the battles play out or feel the stresses of the theme. This is not the case with Escape Rooms, which force theme upon you by means of physical experience.
Granted, Escape Rooms and board games are totally different kinds of experiences. What can a board game designer do to capture even one-tenth of the Escape Room magic? I have two answers to that: use the props to get good ideas for components, and pay attention to unique tactile experiences and see how you can use simple components to take a game to the next level. (Exit games are a good example of what I’m referring to.)
3. Escape Rooms must allow for different viable winning strategies.
By their very nature, Escape Rooms tend to attract a wider audience than simply gamers. The people who wind up playing do so for anything ranging from corporate retreats to family getaways to an unusual date. For this reason, the game has to accommodate a variable player count that can range anywhere from 2 players to 8 or more.
What this results in is a decentralized gaming experience that allows different viable strategies. Yes, certain riddles must be solved in order to escape the room. This cannot be avoided because it is the nature of the game. However, different people can focus on different puzzles. They can freely float from puzzle to puzzle with no real penalty.
In short, gamers have a lot of true agency. They’re not forced to do something they don’t want to do. If they get stuck, they can try something else.
4. Escape Rooms have multiple built-in mechanics that ensure a variable difficulty level.
The ability to work on different puzzles or switch between them is one mechanic that allows players to change the difficulty level of the game. Another mechanic, present in every Escape Room I’ve ever been in, is the ability to ask for hints. In most cases, you are allowed three free hints that you and your team can ask for whenever things get stale. After that, you may receive additional hints with a time penalty.
The hint system is fantastic. There is nothing quite as frustrating as a game that forces you to solve a problem that you’ve lost interest in. This is especially true with people who don’t play a lot of games or solve a lot of puzzles in the first place. It’s an engagement killer. The hint system completely bypasses this.
By allowing players to change strategies on the fly and to request hints when they’re stuck again gives players real agency. This is often what is missing in board game designs, and seeing meaningful choices implemented well will make you a better board game designer.
5. Escape Rooms have built-in time constraints that keep them from becoming stale.
Your typical Escape Room is sixty minutes at a maximum. I think the time limit is a part of what keeps these games fresh. Without the time limit, you would not have the sense of urgency and you would run the risk of people just wanting to go home.
Built-in time constraints are not always sensible in board game design. In fact, they’re usually not. But if your game runs long and your audience doesn’t explicitly want that, then cut the play-time. A short but great board game is like a beloved EP by your favorite band. A long but uneven game is like a double album that you never want to listen to again.
6. Escape Rooms are still a novelty.
It’s no secret that large sections of the board game market run on novelty or fear of missing out. While there are plenty of deep criticisms which one can aim at monetizing FOMO, the truth is that human beings are hard-wired to seek novelty.
Escape Rooms started in 2007. Part of why they are interesting is because they’re new. When you’re making board games, you don’t necessarily have to reinvent the wheel. In fact, the “second but better” approach is often more reliable.
However, you should generally stay on the “early adopter” side of the design curve. Your game is a lot more likely to please the most well-connected board gamers and stay fresh for a long time if you do something relatively novel. In other words, don’t just make another farming game with different colored cubes for resources!
Escape Rooms will broaden your board game design horizons. The medium in which Escape Rooms take place is so fresh and innovative, it’s hard to play one without walking away with at least one game design idea. Not to mention, they’re just plain fun!