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How to systematically escape from an escape room

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

How to systematically escape from an escape room

Scott Miker

Recently I went with some coworkers to an escape room.  The exercise was to help us bond as a team so we can be more effective working together. 

We didn’t know what to really expect but we learned a lot from our experience.  We learned tips and tricks to beating escape rooms, we learned how to solve problems collectively and we learned how to better communicate. 

The first thing we learned during our exercise was that we weren’t going to be able to have one person do everything and still make it through.  There were locks with different combinations, puzzles with many components and riddles where the answer was somewhere in the room.  There were hidden compartments, paintings that had hinges unveiling other items, and rooms inside rooms.  With all of this complexity we needed to have each of us working independently but also collectively in order to get out.  We needed to work systematically. 

Going into it I did a little research and found out that the number one tip was to communicate throughout the process.  Other websites suggested that we split up and look for clues but call out what we find.  You never know when someone will find a weird artifact that holds the answer to a puzzle somewhere else in the room. 

Another helpful tip was to use the hints that we were given throughout our time trying to escape.  We decided that if we were stuck on a clue or section for more than 10 minutes we would ask for a hint from the moderators.  This was very helpful so we could continue to make progress, rather than saving them until the end and risk running out of time. 

We were able to get out with less than two minutes to spare.  I still don’t know how every puzzle was solved because everyone was working independently but also collectively.  While I was helping to solve one puzzle others were solving other puzzles so none of us individually solved each puzzle. 

Here are some tips from a systematic perspective to escaping these challenging rooms.

Focus on making progress
This may seem obvious but it was very tempting to lock into a particular puzzle and spend too much time working through it.  You have to keep making progress and realize when to put something down and look for another solution. 

One specific example was when one of our teammates went through a file cabinet.  He scoured the drawers for clues and opened up every single file inside.  With none of them holding clues, it would have been better to do a quicker look to see any anomalies in the file cabinet to see if they might contain a clue. 

Many of the “clues” were just dead ends.  There were puzzles and other items that seemed they may hold valuable insight but were just there to throw us off. 

This is where the hints come in.  If you aren’t making progress, use the hints.  Give yourself a certain amount of time, like 10 minutes.  If you can’t make progress during that time, ask for a hint to keep you moving forward.  Nobody wants to fail but you especially don’t want to fail knowing you still had hints you could have used.  

Don’t lock in but be thorough.  It seems paradoxical but it is very important that you are thorough enough to figure things out and find the abnormal elements in the room but you can’t get so locked in that you miss other things that could help. 

Communicate often
The key to communication isn’t just that you are talking to each other.  Make sure you are communicating often.  Find something that seems out of place?  Call it out.  Maybe someone else has something similar and your piece helps him or her connect the right dots. 

Realize the person who designed it had to design it so that people can regularly escape
Someone designed the room.  They had to create the various puzzles and all of the hints.  They had to make it solvable in a specific timeframe but not so easy that anyone can do it with little effort.  Therefore realize the clues you need are there in the room.  It doesn’t take some external knowledge or trivia.  The key is to look for strange occurrences or things that seem slightly out of place.

Be flexible
At one point we were trying to figure out the lock combination.  We were sure we had it right but it wasn’t working.  So we tried other numbers.  Finally we realized we were looking at the lock incorrectly and it wasn’t lining up with the Masterlock logo.  We saw a notch and thought everything had to align to that so we wasted a lot of time when we had the right combination the whole time but misread where to line up the combination. 

We had to be willing to try something and then move on.  We didn’t ignore what we knew or found out but we had to assume we didn’t know the full answer yet and had to keep an open mind.  At one point we needed to remove a set of keys beyond the locked jail door.  So we had to find items that would connect to reach the keys.  It took some time to realize some of the items we assumed were used for one piece were actually used for another. 

Escaping the room was exciting and was a great way for us to pull together to solve an overall goal (escaping the room) and smaller goals (figure out the combination to the safe).  But working systematically we were able to solve the puzzles and work our way through until we finally made it out in time.