How Difficult are Escape Rooms?

The cover picture is the outside of “Paradox Project 2 – The Bookstore”, a 3.5 hour room in Athens, Greece.

A frequent topic on the main enthusiast page is room difficulty, how to gauge how easy/hard they really are. Some venues use a star rating to try and differentiate different rooms but really, how reliable is this? At a recent visit to Escape Lincoln I played both their easiest (***) and their hardest (*****) rooms and failed to escape, but, in both circumstances, failing at the very last puzzle. There’s a lot of things that can affect the perceived difficulty of an escape room, from the type of puzzles to the number of them. For example, I would classify Monuments at Cave Escape in Nottingham as a hard room (it already featured some fiendish puzzles) but mainly because of the number of puzzles, there’s a lot to get through in that 60 minutes and if we’d had either one minute more or one extra member of the team we would have escaped. Now, Cave Escape do say this is a three-person minimum and I can see why. A duo can do it but there’s little room for mistakes such as some of the elementary ones we made in the early stages of the game (thankfully the excellent GM nudged us back onto the right path).

Even the simplest puzzles can confuse people, one example that springs to mind are an unfamiliar type of padlock that you might not have seen before (it does happen). There’s a reason GM’s tend to always mention if there’s a directional lock in the room (I’d never seen or heard of one before playing a room) and I’ve noticed as well some have started to add in something about the rough number of directions it will need. But what about the RFID padlocks or even the fake padlocks (where you had to unscrew part of it to reveal the real keyhole) that seemed to be all the rage for a while?

Every lock can be a puzzle the first time you see it but the next time? I might argue that’s not a puzzle as such, that’s outside (or previous) knowledge and in an ideal world you shouldn’t need any of that, for example playing a Game of Thrones inspired room shouldn’t have a game point relying on you having seen the series or read the books, but that’s probably a bad example. Once you’ve played a certain amount of rooms, you start to recognise how some locks work so the methodology bashing getting a key or key code is what the game should be. Sometimes though, real-world knowledge can be a hindrance. In a room in Athens, there was a puzzle involving electronic symbols and I couldn’t solve it because it wasn’t logical, they’d used the right symbols but in the wrong way, my real-world knowledge interfered so using specific real-world symbology like that can be a potential hindrance.  

Other types of puzzles can also be a hindrance, one of my pet peeves with ER’s is that if you have a maths puzzle of some kind, at least give us something to write on (some will give you a calculator as well but this is more of a rarity). I’ve also seen ph paper in a couple of rooms where you have to sample different chemicals, compare them to a colour chart to get a code (I did a variation on this in a LARP around 10 years ago), something like this can be open to player interpretation, but of course, that could be part of the overall game. Some puzzles can also be misidentified, at a recent hospital ward themed ward, I looked at a blood trail and convinced myself I could see numbers and so would be a code for a combination padlock when in reality it was directions for a directional lock, some puzzles can’t allow for the players to overthink the puzzles, someone else might have looked at the same blood trail and immediately got the significance.

But I’m wandering off-topic when what I wanted to touch on is how to gauge the difficulty of escape rooms. When I was thinking of writing this I thought escape rate might be a good indicator, I mean if 80% of teams fail the room then it must be hard, right? Again, referring back to Monuments, flicking through the team photos that they publish for the last couple of weeks, there’s a lot of failed teams (usually comprised of 3 people at least).

So the number of puzzles seems like a factor, although even this can get complicated when you have a linear or a non-linear room. Ok, some definitions, a linear room is where you move from puzzle a to puzzle b to puzzle c linearly to get to the final puzzle where you then escape the room. These are great for small groups as you can all focus on one puzzle. Non-Linear is the reverse, these are great for larger groups. My goto example for this is The Enchanted Forest at Break Escape, you have a room with multiple puzzles that all need to be solved before you can progress. These puzzles are varied as well, you have riddles, searches, dexterity puzzles, etc. These can be solved in any order but you need to solve a certain percentage of them to solve the room (other puzzles are there as a bonus option if you want). Forest is still one of my favourite rooms both in terms of design and flow. Some rooms can combine the two, for example having two areas of non-linear puzzles, solve one area to move to the next and so on. I would also argue that the environment can play a part in a rooms ranking, a favourite comment I’ve heard is ‘Darkness is not a puzzle’ and yet most rooms like to subject you to little or low light which arguably increases the atmosphere but also the chances of a search fail, I’ve seen more and more rooms give you a torch or something thematically appropriate either at the beginning or as part of the game. I had a great time at the now closed Crypt-IC and that game was played nearly entirely in the thematically appropriate darkness. Something to also think about is that as we age our eyes (and hearing) degrade so what a fresh-faced teenager can see or adapt to, us ‘slightly less young’ people, might have an issue.

So what about a different system, instead of a * or % rating, what about ‘Beginner’, ‘Intermediate’ or ‘Advanced’? But then you fall into the same trap, what some people think is a ‘Beginner’ room others might simply view as ‘Advanced’ and vice versa. I would agree that some kind of labelling system is useful to a degree but it is still very open to interpretation. Going back to an earlier point, one of my puzzle weaknesses is Logic puzzles, my very first room was King Arthur themed and we had to arrange heraldic shields to a set of hints we had found (Lancelot sits next to Arthur but two seats away from Gawain, Guinevere sits next to Arthur and Lancelot, etc.). I’ve seen some people do this in their head without even writing it down but they take me a little more time than that, but then more mechanical puzzles I seem to be better at so swings and roundabouts and all that.

Some venues like to label some of their rooms as they believe it helps with marketing and I can’t argue that point as that’s well out of my sphere. Remember, I failed a venues easiest and their hardest rooms (but escaped the other three). I tend to pick my rooms based on the theme and don’t tend to pay attention to the ‘rating’ as I largely think it’s irrelevant as to why I play Escape Rooms.  

Some people want to play the hardest rooms and get the fastest times but that’s not who I am or why I play, it is all about the journey and if we get to the destination then so much the better but if we don’t then I hope I had a good time in my failure.

I’ve thought about how I would end this wall of text and it’s been harder than you might think, trying to classify escape rooms by difficulty is (IMHO) a bit of a fool’ errand as some will always think your overly complicated puzzle is quite simple, all of our brains are wired that little bit differently. If a room has a 3 player minimum (I tend to mostly play as a duo) then is that for a game mechanic that requires 3 players or is it because it is so much you need to achieve in that 60 minutes or less? To me, that is the clearest indicator of ER difficulty.

Anyway, I hope that’s been of interest and given you something to think about and thanks for reading if indeed you still are.

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