After seeing Nicole’s amazing room escape program here on TSU, I had to try it myself. I didn’t have the budget for a Breakout Box from Breakout EDU, so I decided to design my own.
And it was utterly, completely worth it. I had the highest attendance I’ve ever had at a single teen program since I started three and a half years ago. Unlike the majority of my programs, which generally attract middle schoolers but have low high schooler attendance, this program was mostly high school teens. It beyond satisfying to reach an area of my teen population that usually doesn’t come to programming. Even now, whenever I talk about this program, I can’t stop grinning. As I write, I am smiling like a fiend.
I will caution that it’s not easy to put a room escape together without a prior script, but it’s certainly not impossible. You can do it!
One thing I learned right off the bat is that everyone is going to approach planning the escape differently. I tried using the colored index card approach, but it just didn’t make sense in my brain. I ended up diagramming a flowchart. I kept telling myself that I was *doing it wrong* by not using index cards, but then I got over myself and realized that as long as everything came together, then I wasn’t doing anything wrong. So, design the program in the way that makes the most sense to you.
I have previous background playing online room escape games, so I was familiar with a lot of the tropes and ideas. If you haven’t ever played one, I highly recommend it. One of my favorites is Submachine, which is a series. Crimson Room and Viridian Room are classics–and don’t let the low-tech graphics fool you. The puzzles are tricky! The subtitles are also mildly hilarious: “No strange thing was found” indeed! Playing a few of these is especially helpful if you don’t have a live Room Escape in your area, or you don’t want to spend the money to play through a live-action one.
When brainstorming my program, I started with the end goal and worked backwards. I knew I wanted to use a word lock, and the one I purchased has a four-letter word combination. That meant I needed four puzzle-solving tracks for them to follow, and at the end of each track would be a letter. They also needed to figure out in which order the letters should be entered.
The biggest obstacle for me was filling the space I was using with enough red herrings to throw the teens off and make them really think. We don’t have a space that is pre-furnished or that has any particularly interesting features. I had a meeting room to use, with meeting room furniture. So I sent out a call via email to all of my coworkers asking for strange items and odd tchotchkes that they wouldn’t mind donating to a good cause. I was very lucky and received lots of boxes, a calendar with a secret pocket, vases, and more. Plus, I raided the youth services supply closet and put out some of our rarely used props, like giant plastic crayons and creepy dolls.
I wasn’t sure how many people to expect, so I planned on running groups of 5 through the room during a two-hour after-closing block. To my surprise, almost forty people showed up! They were all really excited, and several of them mentioned to my coworker Karen, who always helps me and is amazing, that they had wanted to try a room escape but the ones in the area were too expensive. Score for the library in being accessible! In the end, I had to run larger groups through the room so we didn’t run over three hours.
One of my major fears, aside from no one showing up, was that the puzzles would be too easy. I needn’t have worried! I think if I had given them more time in the room, they would have figured out more on their own, but as it was, each group was timed at 15 minutes. I gave out so many hints, and a lot of encouragement to look under things. No really, under. Yes, ALL THE WAY UNDER. TURN THE CHAIR OVER! The teens were surprisingly timid about touching things in the room and I had to reassure them that it was okay.
The hardest puzzle? Getting a lock combination from an analog clock. None of them could tell time on a regular clock!
At the end of the night, the teens spontaneously gathered for a huddle and a cheer, and my heart exploded.