What is an escape room and how does it work?

If you are reading this, chances are that you’ve heard of an escape room, but aren’t sure what it is. We at USA Today’s Escape City absolutely love them (see our review on Puzzle Break here ) and would like to take the time to explain everything about escape rooms in detail – what they are, their history, how they work, etc.

To begin with, let us start by defining the term “escape game”. The term was originally coined in 2007 by Takao Kato who opened SCRAP’s first escape game in Japan. However, since then there have been multiple definitions for it around the world including:

  • A live-action team game where players solve puzzles using clues, hints, and strategy to complete the objectives at hand.
  • An entertainment activity where participants are given a certain amount of time to solve a series of puzzles, find clues, and accomplish a goal.
  • A physical adventure game in which players are trapped in a scenario made up of rooms or chambers that they must escape by working through challenges and solving riddles. 

Based on this definition, escape games can be played either with friends at home, without any props required (computer/console-based), as well as live-action ones like the ones we provide here at Escape City (although our scenarios will always be designed and built for live play).

Technically speaking however all you need to play an escape game is

1) another person or persons

2) an accessible location containing

3) puzzles and clues and

4) an objective to fulfill within a specific time limit.

As the definition states, the real essence of an escape game is having a team solve puzzles in order to get out of a locked location or room/space through means of hints and strategy. This however comes from the computer gaming world, where players have been locked in virtual spaces since the early 1990s for exploration, discovery, and puzzle-solving – one of the most popular games being Myst by Cyan Worlds which was released in 1993.

In regards to live-action games though, they all stem from two major inspirations: 1) Live Action Role Play (LARP) which started began in Europe in the mid-1980s 2) Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), which were first used in the early to mid-1990s and were designed to blur the lines between reality and fiction.

LARP is something that anyone who has or is familiar with Dungeons & Dragons will be aware of where instead of playing a board game you physically play out your role as a character in a story, while ARGs have been around for much longer than most people know – the first being The Beast from 1998 which was designed by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, to promote Spielberg’s movie AI Artificial Intelligence.

So how did these two concepts meet? Well, it all started in 2006 when SCRAP began designing live-action games after Takao Kato witnessed an American LARP group called The Camarilla, but wanted to take things one step further by removing the need for costumes and makeup, and making it all about puzzles and escape.

And thus, the escape game was born. 

Now that we know a little more about what escape games are, let us move on to how they are played. 

Generally speaking, most escape rooms will have a team size of between 2-8 players, with 4-5 players being the ideal number. This is because beyond 6 players it becomes difficult to keep track of everyone’s progress and manage communication effectively (although this can be done with larger groups). 

In terms of the time limit, most games will last anywhere from 60-90 minutes, but again this can vary depending on the room/game. For example, a smaller, more compact room may last a shorter time than a larger one which will have multiple paths and rooms.

Apart from that, the only other requirement is that players must be literate in order to read the instructions provided throughout the game.

In regards to solving puzzles, this can vary depending on what escape room you go into (especially when it comes to physical ones). However generally speaking most games will offer hints over time if players need them, but these can oftentimes include riddles or brain teasers that require logic and reasoning skills instead of just randomly guessing.

As for techniques and tips, however, there are many different ways people play escape rooms: some like to talk out loud while others remain silent; some quickly jump around looking for clues while others take their time; some prefer to work together while others, try to go it alone. Ultimately though the best approach is always going to be what gets you through the door first, and that is where communication comes into play.

This leads us nicely to our next point: teamwork and communication.

As we’ve already briefly touched upon above, teamwork is everything when running an escape room for a number of reasons:

1) everyone needs to feel like they are making an important contribution

2) players won’t want to waste time searching for hints if someone else knows how to solve the puzzle

3) people will often learn from each other during gameplay (i.e training).


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