The only winning move…


[This is also covered in Really Fun’s podcast so, if you’ve listened to that, you might find not find much new here].

I’m often asked what I think a good escape rate is for a company. Should they be aiming to get most people out? 30%? 10%? At what point does it just become too hard? As the Room Escape Artist put it (in an article that I’d highly recommend reading) a room with a 2% escape rate is an inescapable room that failed at its job…

I’ve got a very controversial point of view to share. I think escape rates should be close to 100%. In fact, I’d like them to be 100%, but I suspect there will be some people in some rooms that you just can’t help. Close to 100% will do. My reasoning is this: the people in these games have paid their money to have a good time. While there’s no doubt that you can have a good time without escaping a room, failing is one heck of a downer (as is a negative review, which might be more important from the owner’s perspective!). “But”, I hear you shout, “What fun is it if everyone wins?”. Well…

I’ve long thought that binary endings (success/failure) miss a great opportunity. If you didn’t insist on success/failure then you could let virtually everyone escape, and let some other aspect of your game be the yardstick by which you measure your level of success.

Anyway, I wanted to explore what you can do to avoid the binary win scenario. Apologies in advance – what started with ways of creating tiers of escape to allow 100% escape rate and retain challenge, quickly became a bit of a ramble on ways of varying the end game. Oh, and there’s overlap between these ideas too. Sorry!

Time and Number of clues

OK – for the record, we already have two fairly standard ways of grading escapes. Time is a bit risky, because you can’t really vary much before players complain of poor value (good teams will likely be two or three times faster than novices). Number of clues is more interesting, but then you have to think carefully about whether you’ve made difficult puzzles or impossible ones, and also how the players are meant to know whether or not they’re struggling enough to take a clue. A couple of games I’ve played allow you to take multiple clues, but only count it as an official escape if you’re under a specific range, which seems a good compromise.


This is the classic evolution, as operated by Clue HQ‘s the Vault. Break into a location, steal a variable amount within, and then get out. In Clue HQ’s case, you’re stealing money from a bank, but it’s not hard to think of other scenarios: jewels from a temple, artefacts from a collector’s house or, changing the scenario slightly, passing a number of exams, as is done by Engima Quest’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Multiple Goals

Why should escaping be the only goal? Make it a multi-goal mission. Gauge the type of customer at the beginning – if they’re novices tell them the goal is to escape, but if they get the chance they should try to tick off some other goals along the way. If they’re more experienced you might present the goals as equal. You could do it in a variety of ways, but in a serial killer’s room you might have the goals of escaping the room, finding keys for the other captives and finally getting incriminating evidence on the killer.

Cutback scenarios

Flipping the previous one around – you can cut back the game near the end to short cut certain puzzles. If the players look like they’re going to fail, switch to plan B. Radio in a message telling them that their mission has been compromised and they just need to escape the room. Forget about their former goals. This one’s a bit dangerous, because you’re effectively cutting out part of the experience for them, and you might not be letting them make that choice. Given how unpopular forcing clues on people is, I suspect this one should be left alone, or at most presented as an option to the players. Having said that, I know of at least one very successful escape room that makes use of this option.

Change time limits

This isn’t really directly helping my original point, but there’s no reason the finish time can’t change. You wouldn’t want to make it move much (they’ve paid for the experience after all), but you could have options to extend or shrink the timer. Maybe every alarm that’s tripped gets the police there a minute earlier. Maybe getting a particular puzzle unlocked allows you to delay your pursuer in some way. Or maybe, and I’ve seen this done in one room to fantastic effect, when you reach a certain point in the game, a new short timer is started (for example by you triggering a bomb countdown) and you have to complete the game in that compressed time or fail. Careful about making something continually trigger a loss of time – one particular laser maze is notoriously unpopular with some people because of that!


OK, so this is yet another variant, but if you take one of the “multi-goal” options above you can convert them to gambles. Maybe you’ve got a one use tool that can open the exit door or open a separate cupboard. You can choose to escape directly, or choose to gamble and open the cupboard, but then you’ll have to solve the puzzles within to escape. In an ideal world, it would be an entire room, but realistically you can’t afford to make that work, and you wouldn’t want customers to miss out on that experience.

Different individual levels of success

I find this idea really interesting. I’ve come across it a couple of times, in zombie escape rooms, where you could escape the room as a team, but individuals might fail (or maybe it was always everyone for themselves…). A more interesting scenario to me is one where, say, you’re on a space ship and there are a number of life pods. After each life pod is launched, you have to wait at least one minute before the next one can go. So you have to evacuate your first team mate with more than four minutes remaining. At that point, you might not have solved the final puzzles, so you have to choose who escapes and who might not. (And if you’re going to go down that route, then, what the hell – throw another puzzle into the first escape pod to mess with the person who looked to be safe).

Multi choice endings

And then there’s the class of games that there is no “perfect” result. At some point you have to choose, and the two endings are just different. Do you sell out to the mafia? Do you save yourself from nuclear disaster and doom the city or vice versa? Moral dilemmas are quite fun, although I’m not sure if they really count given there aren’t any true consequences. Maybe you could tie it in with the different levels of success above. Do you choose to save yourself or two of your team mates?

What else?

I’m sure there are other non-binary endings. Do you have any? Jump in below.


  1. // Reply

    Ooh, I like that. I wonder if there could be a experience-heavy, competition-light room with a very simple escape and masses of side quests, with the staff very heavily briefed to emphasise “it’s the journey, not the destination” and invite people to dig as deeply into the side quests as they can within the hour?

    1. // Reply

      It’s a tough thing to do, but in principle I think it’s what I’d like. One thing I’ve been considering is whether you can make puzzles incrementally easier throughout the game – if you’re doing well then everything is just a little bit more difficult. Better players should still get out quicker, but not as much quicker as they truly deserve. In effect that’s what clues do, but I was imagining a system where that happens automagically in the room and within the theme. For example you’re part of an anti-terrorist operation that’s trying to defuse a series of bombs. You’re working on defusing a specific bomb and if you go slowly you get intel from the other teams, but if you’re quick then you’re helping them.

  2. // Reply

    I agree that there’s a lot of scope for rooms to do good things here to create a different experience (and I’d like to try some) but fundamentally (and this won’t surprise you at all) I like the binary outcome – did I beat the room? Did I win? What’s the point in playing if there’s no clear definition of “win”?

    On a related note, any idea what the escape rates are for London escape rooms? I’m guessing it’s way over 50%, which is too high IMO. With the notable exception of the 0% Namco room I can’t remember ever coming close to failing – which does take the shine off. What am I achieving, if these rooms are all easy?

    1. // Reply

      I’m a little surprised, but mainly because I’d have thought a straight “pass/fail” wasn’t good enough for you. I guess it’s like taking an exam – yes, pass/fail is satisfying (and essential when it’s a qualification), but surely grading is better and the a percentile even better. You could almost imagine having a user ID and then every escape room you play gets logged into a central account and they give you a percentile score for each. Having said that, in truth, as soon as you get clues, can you really compare?

      As for escape rates, they vary. I know that one well known game is 30% but looking at photos, I think somewhere around the 50-80% is typical. London is more generous than most locations and I think the UK is generally more generous than the states.

      I used to be a bit more “try to finish as fast as possible”, but now I’m much more about enjoying the experience – sometimes sitting back and watching other players work, sometimes explaining solutions (or, more likely, getting them explained!). We’ve paid for an hour – no need to try to cut it short :-).

      1. // Reply

        Feature request: notifications when people reply to my comments 🙂

        Grading is good but only satisfying if I hit the top tier. I like to know I’m beating someone (ideally you!), in the top x%, etc

        I suspect a psychologist would have a field day with this

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