Blueprint For Crafting Your First Escape Room.
How to turn your escape room idea into a stylish puzzle adventure.
Whether your escape game is for family and friends at Christmas or a weekend house party, school classroom, kids' bonanza or corporate team building day, these are the hidden blueprints that will make it epic!
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 its follow-up guide, and you'll engineer a shining beacon of design hope in the midst of 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. But they're fun to make, and this guide will help a lot.
How to Win like a boss
It's super ambitious to make a pro-style room if you've never done it before. It takes a lot of hard work and a robust budget ... and the risk of failure comes with a pretty high price tag.
Instead, make your 1st escape room a 30-minute house party for friends.
By taking this approach, you'll experience the whole process without it dragging on too long and without breaking the bank doing it!
Also, if your friends are disappointed with your first attempt, they're unlikely to write mean reviews on Yelp.
And bonus! Keeping it to 30-minutes of raw quality means you'll actually finish before the excitement dies down.
Let's do this!
P.S. If you're short on time, just download and print one of these ready-to-play escape kits.
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. My theme?
The Lost Mummy.
It will be a children's escape room kit, where 4 adventurers stumble across an ancient Egyptian tomb and must find a way out before it becomes their tomb as well (here's the finished game if you're interested).
"Escape From Your Mom's Place" isn't a cool theme.
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 that 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 might fit in well ...
The Lost Mummy will have epic sand and:
- Hieroglyphics for an obvious code.
- The Rosetta stone to decode stuff.
- Canopic jars full of guts.
- Pyramids and other stone buildings.
- Gloomy underground caverns.
Then, Sketch out a storyline
You'll need something to be happening in your escape game.
This may seem obvious, but is so often missing.
Feel free to move away from the traditional Escape from Cell Block Z style storyline and consider something like:
- Breaking into a bank vault or hacking the FBI database.
- Navigating a psychological journey through depression (deep).
- Saving someone's life by curing the zombie virus.
Write out your overall idea. If you're making a printable escape room kit without a Game Master, keep the storyline to just 1 location and goal. This keeps the game flowing without the need for checking mechanisms.
At this stage, none of the story elements are puzzles, so feel free to be creative and make it as interesting as you can.
My Example: Story Elements
A group of kids is walking along the River Nile. The ground trembles and they fall into a cavern. It looks ancient and old, and it has a sarcophagus in the middle. It's too deep to climb out, and a large stone door appears to be the only exit.
To get out, they'll need to:
- Unlock the chamber door
- Find a path through the maze on the other side of the door by reconstructing the original engineers' plans
- Check if the mummy's heart balances with the feather of truth to find a secret door.
Short on Time?
Convert your story into a flowchart
Here's where the story comes together.
Write your story points on separate Post-It notes. Then, arrange them into a flowchart of what happens when. Since most escape rooms have a lot going on at once, this will crystallize your narrative.
Each of these Post-It notes is going to become a challenge or a 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!
It's also the best time to consider how you'll keep everyone entertained through your escape room.
The best approach is usually to give players all the clues and puzzles up front, like in this example, so they can jump right in.
Converting your story flow chart into a series of puzzles is surprisingly difficult. The best way I've found to do this is to add as much detail as you can now.
Start by adding more Post-It notes to represent objects in your world. I like to use different colored paper for objects to help visually recognize ideas.
Don't worry if the example pics don't make sense to you. Rather, work out a form of story-shorthand that you can understand for your DIY escape game.
Keep going until you have a clear map in your head 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.
Story Planning done? Time to hack some puzzles!
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 ideas you love from other escape rooms you've done.
While there are no right or wrong escape puzzles, they have to be logically connected. Otherwise, players will constantly be banging their heads against a wall in trial-and-error-frustration.
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's also the perfect time to run through our checklist of design concepts to ensure it's going to be fun.
Making a MPG 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.
Let's build it.
Huge congrats! You've made it this far.
Now it's time to convert your Minimum Playable Game into a super stylish Escape Room.
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
Massive music Mojo
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.
Here's the Final Game I Made:
The example storyline, puzzles, and photos in this guide are from a kids escape room kit I co-designed.
Although it was a lot of or, it was also a lot of fun.
You can download the final game here if you'd enjoy running it for your next kids birthday, classroom activity, or youth group night.