These are the most common and flexible escape room puzzle ideas that we’ve seen in our experience doing 60+ escape rooms across the United States and Europe. These ideas are not specific to any particular theme or company, and can be adapted to work well in most rooms.
On one end of the spectrum, these puzzle ideas can be perfect for an escape room on a tight budget. On the other end of the spectrum, some of the best escape rooms in North America use these ideas with stellar execution.
This list is broken up into two sections:
- Section 1: Common puzzle themes
- Section 2: Alternate locking mechanisms
Section 1: Common Puzzle Themes
This section contains very common puzzle themes that are repeated in many escape rooms. Many of these themes can be easy to implement and are not high-tech, but can lead to fantastic results in high-quality rooms.
Idea #1. Extract Numbers from Pictures
This one is incredibly flexible since it serves both as decor and a way to hide numbers that are used in some sort of combination lock. This one is also easier to implement since you just need some sort of design or image, and then to secure it to the wall firmly so that overzealous room escapers won’t be able to pry it off.Tips: An extremely common method is just counting, like the example in the image caption above. You can have an image of 9 pineapples – and somewhere else in the room you have a hint that a pineapple is supposed to correspond to a number. The number of pineapples, in addition to the numbers of 3 other fruits, can give you the code for a 4-digit combination lock.
Idea #2. Decrypt Messages
These red symbols sure look enticing. If only we could decipher this… (This is the Codex Runicus)Custom codes and ciphers are the most common in escape rooms since they’re a great way to incorporate the theme. Other than custom symbols, Morse code seems to be the second most popular because of its flexibility (works in audio and flashing light forms too) and general recognizability. Other popular codes and ciphers include ASCII / Binary, Pigpen Cipher, Caesar Cipher, or a Book Cipher(commonly the Arnold Cipher).
Tips: This code sheet (from Puzzled Pint) lists the most common codes / ciphers used in puzzle hunts, which is also some of the most common codes / ciphers used in escape rooms. Make sure you provide some sort of reference sheet for your players if you plan on using a cipher / code – this is not necessarily common knowledge.
Idea #3. Find Information in Plain Text
You can hide information in passages of text that otherwise help fit the story or theme of the game. This one is incredibly flexible. There are a huge number of ways you can do this, including:
- Highlighting or coloring certain words or letters in a text passage
- Giving your players access to some sort of sheet with holes. These holes lined up with the text in the right way will show specific words that players should read.
- Particular words in the text will refer to particular objects around the room, which will give players a particular selection or ordering.
- Hide a message thats revealed if players read the words in a particular way, for example every 5th word, or reading down a particular line.
- Certain words in the passage could glow if held up to a light, when the lights are turned off, or over a blacklight.
- Have players look up information in a particular file
Idea #4. Reveal Invisible Messages by Blacklight
This is one of the more common mechanisms that we see in early escape rooms. A blacklight is hidden somewhere in a locked box or cabinet somewhere in the escape room, which lets players comb the walls and objects around the room for hidden puzzles written in blacklight marker.Tips: Make sure that the things you want to show in the blacklight are visible when the blacklight is shone on it. If it isn’t visible, either you’ll need a stronger blacklight, a new coat of blacklight paint, or you need to move the clue to somewhere with much worse lighting. Please also keep the batteries fresh!
Advanced Tips: You can also have a whole wall full of blacklight paint, and then have some sort of player action trigger a whole room to light up in blacklight with a blacklight fixture.
Idea #5. Search for Items in Odd Places
This is almost certainly the most common escape room puzzle – it’s so common that every one of the escape rooms we’ve had have had searching as a component in some way or another. This simply involves hiding important things in not-so-obvious places.Tips: Common places include within coat pockets, inside a book safe, inside drawers, inside containers, on top of a ledge, on top of surfaces that are just beyond eyes reach, or stuck to a support pillar of the room. More evil places include behind parts of the wall, underneath the floorboards, or wedged behind things.
Word of caution: Escape rooms that have more searching will also have more players trying to take apart the room. We’d warn against hiding things in the ceilings, above arms reach, or inside electrical outlets as that can cause issues.
Idea #6. Retrieve Items Out of Reach
This is especially common in prison-themed escape rooms. The keys to a cell are usually just out of reach beyond the bars, and the players must use a long stick, a magnet on a string, or grabby tool.Tips: Keys are not magnetic, but steel rings are. A magnet attached to a string can grab keys on a steel ring. This concept also applies in general to any object that’s out of reach via normal means, and the player must find some sort of method to extract the object out. Usually the object is a key.
More Tips: You can also do this with lines of sight. Potentially something written somewhere is not visible unless the player holds up a mirror.
Idea #7. Solve Puzzles in Everyday Objects
This idea is a catch-all for all of the different kinds of objects that you can turn into a puzzle. Playing cards are extremely common and probably somewhat overused here. Here are some more ideas:
- For objects that clearly belong together, you can write on them so that it spells out some sort of code or message (when reassembled into the right order).
- For objects that are very numerous, you can write various symbols on them and have some sort of mechanism to get your players to choose the right ones (in order). You can also have your players count them to get the combination for a lock.
- For objects that already have numbers on them, you can have some sort of mechanism to have your players choose the right ones in order in order to get the combo to a lock.
- An object has to be placed in exactly the right place in order to trigger a magnetic lock (see the “Magnetic Reed Switch” idea)
Tips: Another way to expand on this is to have your players put these items in order to form some sort of code. The ordering can be by size, length, in the order that they were mentioned in a passage of text, or so on.
Idea #8. Take Out an Object from a Maze
The key (or other important object) is hidden in plain sight, but the player has to solve some sort of maze in order to access the object. The player has to maneuver the key or other object outside of the maze using a set of restricted movements.Tips: There’s tremendous variety here. The maze can be horizontal and rely on tilting motions, vertical and mounted on a wall, or even 3-dimensional and requiring the coordinated actions of two players.
Idea #9. Piece Together Parts
This common puzzle involves players slowly finding various pieces of a large clue they need to solve the game. This is incredibly common as it allows players to achieve satisfactory progress, let them try to solve the incomplete puzzle, and then realize that they need more pieces in order to proceed. This comes in a variety of flavors:
- You get the pieces of a multi-piece puzzle sequentially, not all at once.
- A critical piece of paper you need comes in parts, and you need to find all or most of them in order to understand its contents
- A jigsaw puzzle or tangram puzzle or something similar
Tips: Make sure that your pieces are durable and can withstand rough use from hundreds of escape room players. A dirty sheet of paper is not fun to play with.
Section 2: Common Locking Mechanisms
While the key lock is ubiquitous, it can easily be overused. Here are some of our suggestions to go beyond the normal key lock and look into other mechanisms. Some of these mechanisms can only be executed with some basic electronics knowledge.
Idea #10. Open a Combination Lock
Combination that are common in escape rooms include 4-digit combination locks, 5-letter word locks, and directional locks. These locks are fairly common in escape rooms and do well to establish more variety in the locks in an escape room (and help prevent the scenario where players aren’t sure which lock their code should go in).Tips: For 5-letter word locks, some players will attempt to guess the right word according to the theme of the room (like MAGIC for an magic-themed rooms). To avoid that, it’s better to go with a world that’s much less obvious. Similarly, for 4-digit combination locks, players will likely try to guess the last digit after they have 3 out of the 4 digits.
Idea #11. Trigger a Magnetic Lock
An object placed in the correct location can trigger the opening of a door. This is more advanced than the other ideas on this list but also can be a simple electronics project.
Tips: The object will usually have a magnet or an RFID tag buried on the bottom. The surface that the object is placed on will have a Reed Switch or some sort of RFID reader. There’s enormous flexibility here to hide the technology inside props that are appropriate for your theme.
Getting Started: For beginners to electronics, we recommend getting an Official Arduino Starter Kit. After getting familiar with the platform, you can get a pack of reed switches to test out some basic ideas. Arduinos are small computers / micro-controllers that can route switches to the correct action (e.g. if 3 items are placed in the right place then a maglock will open a hidden door).
Non-Recommended Puzzle Ideas
While these are still valid puzzle ideas for escape rooms, we personally don’t recommend them (although they can be fun for certain players).
Not recommended due trivialness
- Trivia – Escape rooms are best when they don’t depend on pre-existing knowledge, else your customers can easily get stuck. This includes answers to crossword puzzles that rely on trivia rather than guessing of a proper word.
- Riddles – These mostly rely on people having heard the riddle before, and are usually difficult to fit into the theme of the game.
- Arithmetic – A math problem shouldn’t be used as a puzzle by itself.
Not recommended due to frustration
- Puzzles without one definite solution – Following the puzzle solving process properly should lead players to one definite solution, not two, three, or multiple.
- Technology that is likely to be finicky – If a player does exactly the right sequence of steps, they should be able to solve the puzzle.
Not recommended due to safety
- Hiding things in fake electrical outlets – This is a safety issue.
- Hiding things in ceilings – This is also a safety issue
Our general (and very common) advice for entrepreneurs interested in starting an escape room business are to travel and try out as many great escape rooms as possible before you begin, to get a sense of what makes a good experience for your customers.
These ideas that we listed can be incredibly easy and inexpensive to implement, but please don’t make them seem like they were easy or inexpensive to implement. These ideas are very common, which means that the most basic versions of these puzzles are somewhat overdone. However, with good execution and application of your theme, you can still delight your customers with variants of these puzzles.
If you’re looking for additional resources to help you start your escape room business, we would highly recommend Scott Nicholson’s (Professor of Game Design at Wilfrid Laurier University) escape room white paper, which also includes a list of 31 types of puzzles in escape rooms. Best wishes with your escape room!