How Difficult Should Escape Room Puzzles Be?

This blog post is inspired by an online discussion on escape room design on November 16th, 2023, that I was a part of.

Have you ever thought about what makes escape rooms so much fun?

It’s actually a blend of several aspects – engaging storylines, immersive room decor, clever puzzles, and eye-catching props and special effects.

In this blog post, however, we’re focusing on escape room puzzles. 

We’ll explore their critical role in the excitement and challenge of escape rooms and delve into the art of balancing puzzle difficulty to craft an unforgettable and fun experience for all players. 

And we’ll sign off with a glance at the vital role game masters play in fine-tuning these puzzles, ensuring they perfectly complement the overall adventure.

What role do puzzles play in an escape room adventure?

wooden puzzle

They can prove to be the essence of an escape room experience.

Imagine one of our escape games, but take away all the puzzles. 

What’s left? Essentially, just a walkthrough of the room.

Sure, it’s still an adventure in real life. 

You’d get to experience the storyline, interact with the cool props, and enjoy the special effects, maybe even getting slightly startled now and then.

But let’s be real – without the puzzles, most of the excitement fades away. 

It’s like a scene from an action movie where the hero has to defuse a time bomb. Imagine if there was just one wire to cut. Not much of a suspense, right?

Puzzles aren’t just a part of an escape game; they’re the heart of the challenge. 

They transform a simple walkthrough into a thrilling and engaging experience, crucial for that adrenaline-pumping excitement we all love.

Great. Puzzles are the backbone of an escape room. What does that mean for puzzle design?

puzzle design

You need the perfect balance of challenge and fun. Who doesn’t love a good brain teaser?

Here’s where it gets a little bit tricky. 

As puzzles make an escape room challenging – and the challenge is a key attraction of the experience – you’d think they need to be complex and convoluted.

The more difficult to crack, the better, right?

As it turns out, a good escape room puzzle should be…

Challenging, but not exasperating

It’s all about striking that perfect balance. Players do love the thrill of the escape room puzzles, but only as long as the challenge stays enjoyable and not overwhelming. 

They’re looking for a memorable, fun experience to share with friends and family. The puzzles are a brilliant way for teams to bond and work together, far beyond the usual small talk. 

But beware – a puzzle that’s too hard can hit this engagement, leading to frustration. 

And you also need to remember that what seems manageable with unlimited time becomes a whole different beast under the 60-minute time limit of an escape room.

Puzzles should enhance the story

review

Praising the puzzles – that’s one of our actual reviews!

Our years in the escape room business have taught us something vital – players are most captivated when they’re part of a compelling story. 

Whether it’s a birthday bash or a casual day out with pals, the joy of diving into a gripping tale is universal. 

That’s why designing our escape room puzzles to be not just brain teasers but essential pieces of the narrative, making the story come alive, is a major part of our lives as escape room owners.

And focusing on storytelling has paid off, earning us rave reviews like the one above.

Niche escape rooms for experienced players

Flashback to the early days of escape rooms, and you’d find they were the haunt mainly of puzzle connoisseurs, perhaps those on their way to joining MENSA. 

And yes, there are still some escape rooms out there today that feature mind-bendingly tough challenges, perfect for hardcore enthusiasts. 

But the majority of our audience? They’re looking for an experience that’s engaging, not just a test of intellect.

Clear so far. So, what would a game designer look for in creating the puzzles?

puzzle designing

Designers constantly evolve their games, keeping them fresh and thrilling.

As you may have guessed, there’s no set rule, and game designers tap into their experience and understand player behavior to figure it out.

And this can be an ongoing process – escape room designers can observe how players respond to the games and use the insight to improve existing rooms and build new ones.

This feedback is crucial for refining existing games and inspiring new ones (more on this later on).

This ongoing cycle of observation, learning, and creativity is something that we take very seriously here in our Chester escape room, and that has kept our experiences fresh and engaging.

Difficult puzzles vs. Bad puzzles

balancing puzzles

Tackling the tricky balance, where puzzle difficulty enhances fun without proving frustrating.

Till now, we’ve focused exclusively on how challenging escape room puzzles should be, and how that influences the player experience.

So, you might think that difficulty is the only thing that separates “good puzzles” from “bad puzzles”.

Here’s the thing, though.

A puzzle being hard to solve, and a puzzle being bad can be very different things.

Difficult puzzles

Think about it this way – a hard puzzle is one that the average team can solve, given enough time.

Or one where, after getting a hint, players have that “Aha!” moment and exclaim “OMG, why didn’t we see that?”

(This is another role of game masters – we’ll revisit this towards the end of the post.)

Bad puzzles

A bad puzzle is a different beast altogether. 

It’s the kind that asks for external information (like requiring knowledge of local facts), relies on illogical leaps (such as connecting unrelated historical dates to solve a numeric lock), or simply feels out of place (like a high-tech digital codebreaker in a medieval-themed room).

This point was explored by Professor Scott Nicholson in his paper on cultural bias in remote escape rooms.

Bad puzzles can detract from the game’s flow, frustrating players and detracting from the immersive experience we strive to create.

Avoiding bad puzzles in escape room design

avoiding bad puzzles

How can you lead players in escape rooms without giving it all away?

Keeping puzzles and props theme-appropriate helps. 

Also essential is guiding players naturally toward each puzzle, embedding just enough clues for them to piece together the solution. 

Mastering how to lead players without making things too obvious is what makes an escape room experience great.

A “90%” rule

Can there be a rule or a limit regarding how many players can’t handle a particular challenge, beyond which it should be considered a “bad puzzle”?

Some designers and game masters suggest that if 90% of players ask for a hint, creators should take another look at the puzzle to see if it needs to be tweaked. 

We don’t entirely disagree, but one should be careful not to use it as a hard rule. 

If 90% ask for a hint, but immediately follow the hint with “OMG that’s so obvious!”, the puzzle is fine. 

Actually, it’s more than fine – You just created a moment. You created a memory. 

That 5 seconds will be talked about after the game, sometimes hours later while they are having dinner and reminiscing about the game. 

That’s what you want.

Our rule of thumb – focus on the player experience

player experience

We always focus on the player experience. Does it show?

Again, we can’t state this enough: this business is about creating memories. The escape is secondary. 

Our rule of thumb is 99% of groups being tantalizingly close – within minutes (preferably seconds) – to escaping. 

We’re always brainstorming ways to get players laughing, gasping, and screaming. It’s these emotional highs and the shared experience that create lasting memories.

And now…prepared to be surprised.

Decoding player reactions: Frustration vs anger

Here’s the deal – Players getting frustrated is fine!

Let’s qualify that – 

Frustration is OK, in SMALL doses. 

Because a little temporary frustration being swiftly overcome can make for an awesome dopamine high.

In other words, you need to design the experience so there’s a point where some frustration builds up but is quickly dissolved with relief, laughter, and, of course, eventual success.

In practical terms, if players say stuff like “Remember when we spent 10 minutes struggling with “X”, and then “Y” happened? That was so cool!”…you’ve hit a home run.

The ONLY emotion you want to really avoid is anger.

How our game masters help refine puzzle design

refining puzzle design

Game masters play a dual role in fine-tuning the challenges.

They observe players in action during the game and also review their comments during the post-game discussion. 

In-play, game masters focus on how participants interact with the puzzles, observing what works and what doesn’t. 

What players say during the game is especially crucial – this can be particularly revealing as folks are often more forthcoming when they’re not face-to-face with us. 

Comments like “How were we supposed to know that?” or “What was the reason for that?” are red flags – They highlight where a puzzle may not match the players’ expectations or logic.

Post-game interactions with players also yield valuable feedback. 

Believe it or not, we take note of all of this for insight on improving our offerings (note  – we have a new adventure in the works 🙂).

Final thoughts

In the intricate world of escape room design, balancing challenge and enjoyment is key to crafting unforgettable experiences. 

Our puzzles are designed to be engaging and just the right amount of tricky, and our game masters play a critical role in refining the challenges to fit player expectations. 

We take pride in creating stories that are not just played, but lived and remembered. 

Curious to see how this all comes together? Come book a game with us. 

Test your wits, experience our captivating narratives, and discover for yourself the delicate art of perfect puzzle design in action.

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