Escape room puzzles undergo several phases of testing. Prototype tests are examinations of individual puzzles for difficulty and enjoyability. Beta-tests take place after the room is built and used to check the full set of puzzles for operational integrity and interrelationship. Some elements of a particular puzzle can be revised at the beta-test phase but at that point the fundamental structure is usually baked in. I designed a puzzle for a Puzzah! room that requires solvers to discover an outside-the-box pattern in a collection of data. The puzzle performed well as a prototype but received some mixed reviews from beta-testers. Specifically, they felt the unusual solution damaged the illusion and took them out of the experience.

In The Experience Economy Pine and Gilmore use a quadrant plane to illustrate different realms of experience. One axis represents aesthetic distance with the directions of decreased and increased distance labeled, respectively, Immersion and Absorption. Absorbing experiences command attention and can successfully entertain or educate the consumer but are constructed with a clear boundary between real and artificial. Prototype testing generally takes place in a neutral space with little environmental context, and testers may approach a puzzle with lower expectations about narrative integration. The beta-testers invested in the immersive surroundings by assuming their assigned roles in the adventure and wanted puzzles that conformed to the drama rather than challenged their perspectives.

Most of my puzzle background has been firmly plotted in the absorption end of the spectrum. I learned puzzles as a form of entertainment that plays to the solver but doesn’t invite any specialized dramatic participation. Eventually I became acquainted with extravaganzas, murder mystery games, and other puzzle forms that include elaborate narratives and physical interactions, but these activities are rarely what I would consider immersive. As an escape room designer I have the opportunity to present puzzles in an immersive environment, but I still have instincts to indulge in my puzzle entertainment roots and construct challenges that sacrifice realism for cleverness.

The feedback from the immersion-deprived beta-testers makes me think about escape rooms that contain mostly scavenging and procedural tasks and very few cognitive puzzles. I’ve enjoyed a few rooms of this ilk, such as The Basement and The Steal, but the challenge of designing traditional puzzles that conform to a narrative remains an attractive personal goal.


Requiem for an Escape Room: The Steal


The Steal is the second escape room created by Denver-based Puzzah! The heist adventure opened to the public in the spring of 2015, and I played it as an off-the-street customer teaming up with three college friends. Later, as a Puzzah! employee, I briefed, debriefed, and reset hundreds of Steal sessions. I cleaned the room, fixed the props, revised the puzzles, edited the media effects, and, this week, I helped tear the room down. Puzzah! retired The Steal to make space for a new adventure at our downtown location, and we have no plans to rebuild the room because it doesn’t conform to our current reset-free philosophy. I want to share my memories of The Steal and why it’s a contender for the best escape room I’ve ever played.

Heists make very popular escape room missions, and The Steal was presented with a traditional premise of the genre. Players portray a team of thieves attempting to recover artifacts illegally obtained by the criminal organization INTERCEPT. The heist is organized by a hacker named Nox who provides the team information on the artifacts and the private gallery in which they are displayed. She later hacks into the gallery’s public address system to help the players when needed. The team must circumnavigate security systems to collect six artifacts, finishing with a rare Qin Dynasty coin. A team that trips an alarm must restore the artifact being stolen and wait for the security system to reset. If an alarm is not properly silenced, INTERCEPT is notified and the team fails the mission…until a staff member gives the team another chance by restarting the game at the point it was interrupted.

The Steal had the trappings of a classic crime caper but set itself apart from other heist rooms in key ways, starting with the scoring. The mission was designed to reward accuracy over speed. Teams had a 60-minute time limit to complete the mission but were ultimately evaluated by how many alarms they tripped. A team might complete the mission quickly using brute force, but wouldn’t earn as high a score as a time that spent more time analyzing the security systems to avoid errors. The average team tripped 20 alarms during the mission. One determined but impulsive team snagged the coin only after setting off a record 127 alarms. Over the game’s lifespan 30 or so teams made the leaderboard by completing the mission with 0 alarms. My college friends and I set off 2.

The room was richly decorated but was more notably attractive for its realism. No escape room paraphernalia broke the illusion of being in an actual art gallery. The puzzles were the authentic, functioning security systems, all plainly visible and waiting to be solved with the right insight. All the furnishings were natural to the setting, but purposeful in subtle ways. In fact, the fundamental puzzle of the mission required a holistic understanding of the surroundings. In the briefing teams learn that the artifacts must be stolen in a specific order. A team might expect to find the order revealed explicitly or as the solution to an abstract, arbitrary logic puzzle, but find nothing along those lines upon entering the room. After a bit of exploring the team will realize that every artifact is a tool to steal the next artifact and thus the order is based on practical task management. Most escape rooms use combination locks, RFID technology, and similar artifices to create a solving path. The Steal was supported by advanced technology but preserved an organic structure relying on the essential attributes of the objects. I’ve never played an escape room that combined immersive detail and puzzle savvy so well.

Not all escape room enthusiasts shared my affinity for The Steal. Some felt the organic structure was too abstract and wanted the objectives presented in more explicit terms. Some found the puzzles too task-oriented and preferred more traditional puzzles based on ciphers or mathematical calculations. The emphasis on accuracy benefited more tentative players, and Puzzah! recommended The Steal to novices and groups with children. Experienced players, used to speed-solving, dispatched the room in under thirty minutes and deemed it too easy. These criticisms are not unfounded, but The Steal also produced legions of fans who, like me, appreciate elegance over difficulty and can turn off a traditional puzzle-solving mindset to savor the experience.

A few hours before the scheduled demolition I played The Steal one last time.

3 alarms.

* * *

Some photos from my final heist.

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Players originally entered a dimly-lit gallery armed with a flashlight, and thwarted a light sensor so they could turn on the overhead lights. The ancient cup is protected by a tilt sensor. Steady hands and good teamwork are required to steal the cup without triggering an alarm.

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Some examples of using artifacts as tools: The metal carousel is just the right size to connect the circuit leads on a display case. The antique eyeglasses can pick the lock on the wall safe.

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A set of mirrors diverts the laser and allows the coin to be removed from its case. Puzzah! allowed successful teams keep the coin as a souvenir.


I took one more photo to remind me that reset-free rooms have some advantages.


Default 2018


I recently decided to take another look at my stalled Crossword Compiler word list project. I thought it would be worthwhile to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the Autofill Project and modify my word list management to serve the specifications of my current primary puzzle construction outlet: Crosswords With Friends. Also, tinkering with word lists is always a good way to feel productive while procrastinating on other projects.

Autofill opponents generally cite lousy grid entries as the fundamental and inevitable problem of delegating construction duties to a computer. I was reluctant to jump on this bandwagon and believed that autofill could perform satisfactorily with a well designed word list. I groomed my list for years using a complex word-scoring protocol and eventually developed a data set that could reliably autofill small to medium grid sections. But among the lively fill I noticed subtle word duplications (ATECROW and EATERY), proper names with blind crossings, and grids with disproportionate sets of entries related to entertainment, science, or some other category. I couldn’t think of a way to fine-tune CCWIN to address all of these personal and industry-sanctioned aesthetic standards, so I finally accepted that grid fill requires human oversight.

In the new default word list I am confining entries to five scoring categories. A sophisticated scoring system with a 2-point differentiation between singular and plural nouns is not very important when I am manually reviewing all entries before they go in the grid. The simplified scoring system is making the conversion process easier, and I am already halfway through the scoring adjustments for six-letter entries. The other major change in the new default is reformatting entries to mixed case with spaces. Of the 366,000 entries in my all-caps default list, about 155,000 have been converted to mixed case. The unformatted entries are mostly long phrases and garbage that I don’t need for Crosswords With Friends, but I do want to convert the salvageable material from this list eventually.

While I am making these changes to my default list, I am not making efforts to add a lot of new entries. My current word list suits me fine. I add about a dozen entries a month from my notepad and I will gradually go through the lists that other constructors have sent me, but I don’t plan to search Google for theme lists or start mining AcrossLite files of published crosswords.



Equinox 66


The San Francisco puzzle community has been organizing biannual puzzle miniconventions for 33 years. I learned about these Equinox parties about the same time I attended my first LA minicon and contacted local organizer Henri Picciotto to get on the mailing list. I never found an opportunity to attend until this year when my friend Myles Nye, who recently moved from LA to Bay Area, invited me to stay at his place in Berkeley. I made my plans for a quick weekend getaway that would include an evening puzzle program at the Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists.

When I contacted Henri and told him I was planning to attend, he invited me to contribute an activity for the party. Equinox puzzle content favors wordplay challenges over trivia or logic, but the activities include wall puzzles, mixers, handouts, group games, and extravaganzas. The parties traditionally have themes that inspire the puzzle content. Since this was the 66th party, the chosen theme was “Road Trip,” as a reference to Route 66. I agreed to present a group game and devised a “Travel Bingo” activity in which players would come up with answer words that share a wordplay connection (anagram, letter change, etc.) and then place those answers on a bingo card. Each space on the card had a category and players would try to place answers to match the categories. Play-testers enjoyed generating answers but were confused by some of the rules governing valid answers. I did my best to simplify the rules without making them trivial.

About 70 people attended the Equinox party, and about a quarter of them were also members of the National Puzzlers’ League. I was happy to visit with friends that I see at the NPL conventions as well as people I don’t often get to see like Andrea Carla Michaels, Rosa Quiñones, and NeilFred Picciotto. The program started with a large-group word ladder puzzle created by Roger Wolff. The attendees solved clues on sheets of paper and then arranged themselves based on the letters of the answers to create a long chain that spelled an answer message. NeilFred presented a creative challenge based on a classic wordplay game of finding words that contain license plate trigrams. At each table, the players needed to find words and then use those words in a story that was created by passing a folded sheet of paper around exquisite-corpse style. Andrew Chaikin’s Interstate Roadtrip contained clues leading to answers that could be made of U.S. State postal abbreviations plus one extra letter. The extra letters spelled a clue to the final answer. I cosolved with a new acquaintance Ruth and we worked well filling one another’s knowledge gaps to complete the puzzle in short order. Myles led a game show called Spoonbenders in which a player tried to deduce a phrase from a teammates verbal clues of a spoonerized version of the phrase. I offered up Travel Bingo and made some adjustments on the fly since many of the players were not familiar with NPL terminology. Finally, Rick Rubenstein and Joshua Kosman gave us a very fun extravaganza in which the solvers were hitchhikers working out puzzles to get across the country. It was a puzzle-packed evening that sated my solving muscles.

Queer Qrosswords


Crossword constructor Nate Cardin has organized a charity crossword project called Queer Qrosswords. By donating $10 or more to an organization that supports rights for members of the LGBTQ community, you can receive a collection of puzzles from a murderers’ row of puzzle creators who are members of the community you are supporting. The puzzles will contain clues and themes intended to balance the heteronormative cant in mainstream crosswords. In short: three great reasons to support this project. Check it out!



The first step for a team organizing an MIT Mystery Hunt is selection of a theme; a basic  idea that informs the story presented during the Hunt and helps inspire structure, puzzles, interactions, and characters. Theme selection is also the first step for a puzzle room designer. This month I participated in theme selection processes for both of these project types.

Members of Setec Astronomy, my Hunt team, met to brainstorm theme ideas. One topic that came up early in the discussion was whether the Hunt theme should be based on a specific pop culture property, like The Wizard of Oz Hunt in the 2000, or be in a general narrative category, like the 2006 S.P.I.E.S. Hunt. Our 2017 Hunt had references to Dungeons & Dragons but I would argue that it was a broad celebration of high fantasy role-playing games. Hunt organizers who prefer general themes tend to cite personal taste. When I select puzzle room themes I keep in mind that Puzzah!, unlike the Mystery Hunt, is a for-profit enterprise and much more susceptible to trademark infringement issues. I know a few escape room owners who have built rooms with egregious references to Star Wars and Indiana Jones. One such owner proudly displays framed copies of cease-and-desist letters on his office wall. Trademark use aside, I prefer selecting a general theme and coming up with an original story and characters.

My Setec teammates also expressed concerns about the target audience. Several theme ideas prompted the question, “Would that mean anything to a traditional MIT student?” I don have the experience of living in Massachusetts, attending an engineering school, or growing up in the 2000s, so I defer to my Setec teammates on these points of relevance. I don’t have teammates to fall back on at Puzzah! and I often struggle to design a theme that resonates with our customer base. My struggles are partly based on age but also in my affinity for traditional puzzling and my quirky pop culture tastes. An escape room owner recently told me that his two-room location will always have one tomb adventure and one sci-fi adventure because those are well-established entertainment genres that spark customer interest. If I adopted a similar approach to themes I would probably serve my employer better, but I’m a Gen-X maverick and the themes that excite me are also the ones that prompt the owners of Puzzah! to ask, “Would that mean anything to … anyone besides you, Todd?!”

The amount of story in a Mystery Hunt is topic that generated some disagreement in our Mystery Hunt theme discussion. Some feel that a rich, detailed narrative is a highlight of a Hunt solver’s experience. Others feel that heavy storytelling tends to get lost in web-page text and character interactions that only a small percentage of a solving team gets to see. I have attended several Hunt wrap-up meetings and learned surprising plot elements that never registered during the actual solving phase. In the puzzle room context, storytelling is a delicate art that I am still trying to master. I’ve written expository voice-overs that end up overlong to the point of disengaging customers. I’ve written narrative punch lines that hit the ground with a thud. My friend Cody Borst who owns Escape Realm is thoughtful storyteller and adept at weaving a compelling narrative into the structures of rooms he designs. I’m becoming a better storyteller through experience and the advice from people like Cody. I have seen many escape room business that use sophisticated fabrication and electronics to compensate for a thin plot, but feel that stronger storytelling will be a pack separator in the future of my industry.

Setec Astronomy started with about a dozen preliminary theme proposals. We voted to narrow those down to four semifinalists and then one eventual winner. At each voting stage, designated teammates drafted proposals that outlined story, structure, puzzle requirements. I wrote three theme proposals for “Room 9”, i.e. the yet-to-be titled ninth Puzzah! adventure. One is a fairly common escape room theme that Puzzah! has not used previously, one is variation on a less common escape room theme, and one is a theme that I haven’t seen done before but would have some high demands on sound and visuals. The owners and I ultimately decided on the second proposal, which could be included with reproductions of our sci-fi adventure Specimen and crime-fighting room M.A.S.K. to provide variety in a future location. Time to start developing some themes!