Make Logical Puzzles (Opinion)
Updated: Jul 22, 2021
Logical puzzles are all about frustration elimination.
Rules of Logic
The element of surprise is an essential part of every good escape room, but when it comes to puzzle solving, there should be some predictability. A player should be able to expect that the rules of logic will apply, that they will be given all the necessary clues to solve a puzzle, that there will be enough visibility to solve the puzzles, and that they will know it when they succeed. Always Clue
Trial and error is not a fun form of puzzle solving. I much prefer rooms that give clues for every task. Even if the task is to search for something, the players should know they should search for something. This is usually done best with lighting, arrows, colors, or word clues. If there are two word locks, when a team discovers a word key, there should be a clue with the key that points them to the correct lock. With that said, there should only be one clue for each lock/key connection. Don’t point a team to a lock twice unless you expect them to open it twice, and that almost never happens.
There is also a link to immersion here. The puzzles and the locks should fit with the theme. If the puzzle requires you to use a phone in the early 1800s, read a newspaper article in the dark, or to use a sundial in a submarine, the game designer forgot to connect the puzzle and the scenario. I once played a room where we used a time machine to go back in time, but the changes we made in the room (in the future) affected the room after the time travel (in the past).
I get really frustrated when game designers use puzzles that require an obscure skill or pre-learned skillset. One example of this is the use of an autostereogram.
Those are the abstract pictures that you stare at until a 3D image is revealed within the picture, but I have never been able to see the 3D image. Some people say you should put the picture close to your face then slowly move it away. That doesn’t work for me either. A team should not have to use a hint on a puzzle they had no chance of solving. Anything more than simple math or universally known history trivia takes away from the enjoyment of the room for most people I know. Within reason, a player also shouldn’t have to be strong enough, small enough, or agile enough to solve a puzzle. Object Locations
It’s also frustrating when designers use the original location of an item as a puzzle solution. If the first step of a room is to search the room, and it almost always is, then people will move things in that search. Requiring people to remember the original location of an item is unfair.
The best puzzles have “aha” moments. When you solve a puzzle, you should know you solved the puzzle. Puzzle completion should be obvious. One of the few (but common) weaknesses of generation two (electronic) locks is unknown completions. In some rooms, when you complete a puzzle, a lock, somewhere in the room, is unlocked. When that happens, you might hear a quiet click that tells you something in the room opened, but more often then not, there is no feedback at all, and you don’t know if you successfully completed the puzzle or not. Consequently, you’ll have to regularly check locked doors, drawers, etc. to see if you unknowingly completed a puzzle. If this happens multiple times in a room, I almost always have a feeling of disappointment at the end of the room. I recently realized that‘s because the room didn’t have enough climactic celebration moments caused by puzzle completion feedback. When I pull a trigger on the Xbox remote to shoot a gun, it vibrates, and when a bullet hits someone, I hear a splat sound. Good escape rooms have multiple break through moments when a puzzle is solved, a door is opened, etc. Those small celebrations combine to make the final celebration more exciting. When you solve puzzles without knowing you solved them or recognize a door unlocked without knowing how you unlocked it, celebration moments are replaced by unnecessary confusion. I have seen designers solve this problem by adding lighting/soundtrack changes when a puzzle is solved or by adding springs that make the door open more forcefully. These feedback mechanisms also reveal to teams when they are entering an incorrect solution. If they are used to hearing a success tone, when no tone sounds, they know they need to keep trying.
It’s important that game designers design puzzles that have only one answer unless they explicitly instruct a team to look for multiple solutions to the puzzle. When a team finds a local and seemingly obvious solution to a puzzle, they will assume they have solved it and move on to enter the key/code into the lock. When the key or code doesn't work, they are forced to go back to the puzzle, which they have now dispelled from their minds, and try to resolve it. That is unnecessarily frustrating. The best puzzles have only one solutions, and when that solution is found, there is an aha moment that makes the solution obvious.
I think something also has to be said here about rules. The rules that game master set a the beginning of a game should make it clear what is allowed in a player's attempts to solve a puzzle. If there is a hammer in the room, I should know what that hammer can and cannot be used for. If there is a stool in the room, I should know if I can use that stool to reach something up high. If there is any item that is used in real life to break something, I'm going to assume I should use it to break something in the room unless I am expressly told I can't. I once played a room where there was a strong magnet in the room. We obviously used the magnet to solve the puzzle that it was intended to solve, but the game master was amazed (and frustrated) that we were actually able to use that magnet to open two other locks in the room. We were never told not to do it; so we did it.