Jonathan Campbell

I Built an Escape Room!

Content Warning: Fantasy Violence, Alcohol


Earlier this year, I participated in a two part escape room that promised “immersive” puzzles. I took this to mean that, unlike most other escape rooms, the puzzles would make sense within the narrative. I was quickly disabused of this notion when the first puzzle was a secret door within a sheriff’s office between the reception area and the holding cells.

After that, I began thinking of what it would take to make an entire escape room with narratively logical puzzles. The first, obvious puzzle would be a person’s computer with a password hint that could be decoded by things in that room. Such as a note indicating the user’s anniversary year.

With another puzzles in mind, I decided to set up my own escape room in my guest room for my friends and family. All in all, I had four teams run through the experience during December and learned a good bit about designing an escape room.

The Narrative

A table with Christmas decorations. The words 'Santa`s Post Office - An Escape Room Experience Coming December 2022' are superimposed in a bloody font and color.

You were invited to The North Pole for a tour after finding a silver ticket in a candy bar! The day has been pleasant and full of wonders. However, as you were touring Santa’s Post Office, alarm sirens began to sound. A moment later, a terrorist burst through the door and started shooting up the place. One bullet hit the heat press machine, which slammed shut on the elf working in the post office. Bits of metal and circuit boards flew in every direction, one severing the hand of the terrorist! Clutching his new stump, he ran out shouting that reinforcements were only an hour away. Once you got your wits about you, you realized that Santa and Mrs. Claus had dashed to the side of the room and fled into a convenient panic room. You pounded on the door, but they refused to let you in! Now you have one hour to find a way inside the panic room to protect yourself before terrorist reinforcements arrive.

The Puzzles

I found 13 Rules for Escape Room Puzzle Design early on in the process and kept those rules in mind as I designed the puzzles. I focused on creating about twelve puzzles of a various difficulties.

My favorite among them was the players needing to create a scratch-and-sniff sticker to fool an odor-based biometric scanner. It went like this:

  1. Find the Product Use and Care Manual for the panic room.
  2. Learn that opening the panic room door required three things: a combination of keycard, odor, and retina from any authorized user and that the authorized users were three members of the Clause family and nine reindeers.
  3. Find a discarded “Complaint Form” that detailed Santa constantly reeks of his favorite “cocktail” (if you can even call a Bombo a cocktail).
  4. Look up the Bombo recipe in a handy copy of Smuggler's Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki by Martin Cate, Rebecca Cate
  5. Place the ingredients for the Bombo cocktail in the Silly Scents Sticker Maker
A fake machine labelled as 'Silly Scents Sticker Maker' with a scale in the middle.

The Results

Team Players Time Hints
Cocoa 1 58:39 2
2 Fingers 5 56:50 3
Bullet Bourbon 4 DNF 3
In-Laws 4 DNF 5

Lessons Learned

The biggest lesson I learned was right there in Rule 12: Your Puzzles will be too hard – Beta Test and Iterate. I was worried that I didn’t have enough content and that the room would end within 30 minutes. But as you can see from the results, half of the teams didn’t finish in an hour and the others finished with only a few minutes left.

As an example, I had put a few random books along side the copy of Smuggler’s Cove to keep the bookshelf looking realistic. What I didn’t realize, however, is that one of them had a recipe for buttermilk in it. Players who discovered that and had solved the puzzle above assumed that buttermilk recipe was also important because the elf who had filed the complaint was Kuri Buttermilk. If I were doing it again, I’d only include cocktail recipe books and ensure there’s one version of the Bombo recipe.

All-in-all, I had a blast designing the room, building the props, and running the games for my friends and family. I’d definitely consider doing something like this again as it was a unique event and gave me an excuse to have folks over.