A typical sunny August day in Los Angeles, and a 3-bedroom home in Hollywood was about to be transformed in an explosion of creativity and puzzle goodness, as four teams set out to design, build, and playtest their own amazing escape rooms in a single day.
Today, I'm running the first Escape Jam, a DIY-make-and-test-your-own-mini-escape-room design workshop. Spoiler alert: it goes insanely well, and it turns out people are brilliant.
Before the participants arrived, I set up the projector, laid out the boxes of materials, and prepared the four rooms that would soon become a Museum Heist escape room, an Alien Spy escape room, a Jury Murder escape room, and a Trick Hook-Up escape room. I cleared out anything extraneous or breakable, and put red Xs on anything off-limits.
As people trickled in, they were excited to pull out and show off the “3 random items” they were each instructed to bring, and added them to the table of materials. By the time everyone was there, we had an amazing (and crazy) collection of stuff, ready to be turned into brilliant puzzles.
After introductions over donut holes, I ran through some slides giving an overview of how the day’s workshop was going to run.
Participants split into teams, got assigned a room, and then came up with a theme and storyline concept as a group. Once their concepts were greenlit, they could move on to experimenting with the materials to create puzzles to flesh out their overall storyline.
During this puzzle experimentation phase, teams could do quick 3-minute playtests to get early feedback on some of their puzzle ideas. Some puzzles succeeded, some got tossed, but most fell somewhere in between and got some quick improvements based on the playtesting.
Teams worked until lunch (pizza!), and then had a mandatory 45-minute socializing break. Since none of them wanted to give away any spoilers, they couldn’t talk about their room designs, so they were forced to talk about themselves and meet one another. For a group of mainly introverts, I’d say it went really well... now back to work!
Teams had just an hour or two to iterate and refine their designs before the “full playtest”, where another team would play through their entire 30-minute escape room experience. Nothing like some good ol’ fashioned time pressure to get people moving.
The full playtests went great… and by that I mean most of them exposed unbalanced difficulty, large holes in the player flow, and lots of places where “we should probably make that a little clearer”. This is exactly what a good first playtest should do. As a designer, the sooner you can get your designs in front of other people, the better. As many times as you look at it yourself, nothing beats watching other people struggle with something that seems completely obvious to you.
After getting such valuable feedback, teams had just a short time left to make corrections and refinements before the rooms had to be finished and ready for the final playthrough. Often, solving a player confusion issue was just a subtle tweak to a clue or icon, and it worked wonders.
Some teams even had extra time available to dress up their rooms with bonus bling and decoration. For example, a completely-unnecessary-but-amazing spaceship console, which transformed an ordinary bathroom shower into an alien escape pod, and led to a fantastic wow moment when players first pulled back the curtain and shrieked with delight.
The final playthroughs were fantastic! In just a few short hours of design time, teams had been able to bring their concepts to life in ways that were creative, challenging, and hilarious.
In the Museum Heist room, players had to sneak in and reunite with a teammate (who starts hidden in the closet in the dark, with a headlamp), then work their way to the main gallery and find the 3 items they’ve been hired to steal. Along the way, they had to reassemble a lemon tree exhibit, combine a few flag designs to unlock a chest, and use the light from a lamp to open up a glass case. Finally, using objects they’d found earlier, the team had to solve the museum’s security code and exit before the cops showed up!
In the Alien Spy room, players decoded a message that their secret identity as a human had been found out, and they had to use the escape pod in the bathroom to fly back home. But first, players had to practice their flight skills, set the correct levels of fluids on the ship, and finally decipher a phone number to get their final clue. The players then made their way into the shower (escape pod), and closed the curtain to take off back to the mothership.
In the Jury Murder room, it was 4:30 on a Friday, and players only had 30 minutes to come up with a verdict or they’d be stuck there all weekend! Players solved an initial puzzle to gain access to the crime scene (tucked away in their mind), where they discovered three key pieces of evidence and ultimately had to make their own decision whether they thought the defendant was guilty or innocent. Returning to the jury room and giving their verdict, players had one last wall-sized puzzle to figure out, which ultimately gave them the final code to exit the room and have a great weekend at home.
In the Trick Hook-Up room, players were divided into two groups. One group was the person getting their place ready for a hook-up to come over, including getting out of last night’s handcuffs, turning on the mood lighting, and unlocking the cleaning supplies cabinet. The other group was the person on their way, who had to remember the entry code on their car, and solve a set of puzzles to determine the correct parking space to use so as not to be escorted out by security. Both sides could “text” each other throughout, sharing clues and information that ultimately led them to be united at the end.
Overall, the event was an incredible success, paving the way for many more (bigger and better) Escape Jams in the future. I’ve been running game design workshops for over 7 years now, and I never cease to be amazed by just how creative people can be given the right circumstances, the right constraints, and (of course) a crazy time limit.
A huge thank you to all the amazing Escape Jammers who dove in headfirst and made the event such a success. I can’t wait to see each and every one of you at the next one!
For more information about the Escape Jam check out this page, or email JebHavensGames@gmail.com.
Jeb Havens is a game & interactive designer, with over 13 years of professional game design experience, working for companies such as Google, Electronic Arts, Slide, and YouTube. He has over 7 years of experience running game design workshops for conferences and private companies, and has published multiple award-winning board games and puzzles. He cannot wait to meet you.