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Untold Play

Escape Rooms as Learning Experiences Part 3 – Creating Puzzles for Learning Escape Rooms

Escape Rooms as Learning Experiences Part 3 – Creating Puzzles for Learning Escape Rooms

by Terry Pearce

2 months ago


This is Part 3 in an article series. You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Puzzles are the core of Escape Rooms. If your puzzles aren’t fun and engaging, it doesn’t matter how good your theme and narrative are. And if solving your puzzles doesn’t advance the learning objectives, learners won’t learn effectively. 

But if puzzle design is the most important part of Escape Room design, it may also be the toughest part. And that goes double for Escape Rooms for learning. Your puzzles need to be fun, and just the right level of difficulty, but also weave in key content and meet learning objectives. 

A full guide to how to design a range of puzzles for a range of learning settings is the work of a book (or several), but let’s look at some of the key types of puzzles, and some tips and core principles.

A lot depends on the stage of learning 

We mentioned in Part 1 in this series that there are three key moments when Escape Rooms can be used in learning:

  • To introduce the ideas in a topic without expecting deeper learning
  • To explore topics in more depth, allowing substantive learning about the topic
  • To review a topic once it’s been covered some other way 

To introduce ideas, puzzles can loosely include or be themed around some of the core concepts. Some of this can be done with theme, as we explored in Part 2 in this series. The rest can be done by weaving your core concepts into the puzzles at a relatively surface level.

If you’re exploring a topic in more depth, the task is much harder. Your material needs to be central to the puzzle. By the act of solving the puzzle, the players must be learning what they need to know. This means considering the topic material at all stages of puzzle design and building it in.

To review learning, the task is relatively straightforward: you can base puzzles on knowledge they should already have, where using the right piece of info at the right time unlocks the puzzle. The main danger is making sure the puzzles are still puzzles and not just simple quizzes. 

Be clear on what makes up a satisfying puzzle

A puzzle is a challenge, with rules that must be navigated, to come up with a specific solution. Puzzles must be a challenge. Too easy, or too hard, does not make a good puzzle. They need clear and definite rules, whether told at the start or discovered as the players progress. 

And there must be a specific solution. When players discover the very best solutions, they see clearly that the answer could never have been anything else. There’s an elegance to them, like a flash of scientific insight – the world coming together. 

Some of the worst puzzles have one intended solution, but players are able to come up with others that fit the rules. This can be especially frustrating if you’re using locks or form validation that reject the new ‘solution’ out of hand.

Escape Rooms for learning can, however, have a final, open-ended challenge which doesn’t exactly fit this definition, where players are asked to use their creativity, with no set specific answer. As we discussed in Part 2, this can be a great way to unpack the learning from the rest of the Escape Room. 

Great puzzle goals are aligned with the learning and narrative

The goal for each puzzle should be aligned with the learning objectives and overall narrative. In my ‘Escape the Grey’ learning Escape Room around the topic of Games-Based Learning, the solution to each puzzle was a keyword from one of my ‘six levers of learning’ – the key concepts I wanted learners to take away. 

The goal itself can be an explicit, known end-state for the puzzle: ‘create this image from these pieces’. Or it can be unknown, but arise from a clear resolution of the rules: ‘how is it possible to satisfy all these conditions by arranging these pieces?’. Or, it can completely unknown: ‘how do you unlock this box (and you don’t even know which pieces from around the room are relevant)?’.

The first of these three is by far the easiest to design for, but the others can be very satisfying. Puzzles that require ‘a-ha!’ moments can be hugely satisfying, but run the risk that players will be stumped. An example of this might be a puzzle where players must realise that the separate clues they’ve been given also spell out a key word when placed together.

Study specific types of puzzle to learn about creating each

There are far too many types of puzzle to easily mention them all here, let alone include useful information about each. But some are particularly useful for Escape Rooms for learning, and resources exist on how to develop them. 

Word puzzles such as anagrams or puzzles using codes and ciphers can be easy to create. But take care that they gel with learning objectives and are not too simple or dull. Word searches are more chores than puzzles to many people.

Logic puzzles like logic grids can be easier to weave into a narrative, but take care that they meet learning objectives, rather than just testing logic skills. Sudoku is an example of a logic puzzle, but number-based puzzles like this are often quite difficult to dovetail with learning objectives.

Closely related are deduction puzzles, where, much like detective mystery, properly interpreting a set of clues leads to the solution. Riddles also fit into this category, and there are so many riddles out there, you can often find or adapt one that fits.

One of the best types for learning Escape Rooms is often observational or pattern-based puzzles, where learners must look at a set of source material, or around a location, and find a pattern or clues (e.g. letters). For learning, you can use source material that is relevant to your learning topic.

There are plenty of other kinds out there, including roleplay, maths, physical/agility, research and shape-based puzzles. One of the best ways to start designing a specific type is to study it and see what makes it tick. You can find inspiration in many places, including great collections of puzzle ideas such as Lock, Paper Scissors, Riddle Me This (intended for Dungeons & Dragons but great for Escape Rooms) or TeamLogIQ’s list of Escape Room tools and resources.

Players need feedback to give confidence and a sense of progress

A key element for many puzzles, to make solving them fun and practical, is feedback. If the puzzle never says any equivalent of ‘warm’ or ‘cold’ to guide players along the way, some puzzles can feel like fumbling in the dark. The puzzle game Wordle is a classic example of this: if players had to guess the word again and again, without the feedback of green and yellow letters guessed right so far, the game would fall flat.

The exact nature of a puzzle will determine what feedback can be given. If a facilitator or ‘gamesmaster’ is involved, or even better, a character, they can give more or less subtle direct feedback. But many puzzles will need to have feedback designed into them, as in Wordle. 

There are many ways to do this, such as: 

  • Making ‘pieces’ fit together, so that even if the whole is not solved, it seems likely that the pieces put together so far are correct
  • Using logical deduction, so that players can categorically rule things in or out based on what they know
  • Breaking a puzzle into stages, so that they know they got each stage right before progressing to the next

Add depth to a puzzle simply, by using layers

One way to add depth without making things too tough is to add layers to a puzzle. The classic example is where layer one is figuring out the digits to a lock or letters to a keyword, and layer two is figuring out their order.

A puzzle layer around order can be based on anything that gives order. Maybe the letters or digits are different colours, and need to be arranged in order of the colours of the rainbow. Or maybe each is associated with an event, and they need to be placed in order of the date each event happened.

You should make sure there’s a clue to help them latch onto the basis for the ordering. Something that will make them think about the colours of the rainbow, or the idea of date order (or alphabetical, or whatever you’re using).

Weave in learning content, or base your design on it

For an Escape Room for learning, always keep in mind the learning. One of the toughest tricks is balancing a satisfying puzzle design with one that achieves the learning objective.

For my ‘Escape the Grey’ escape room, I based each puzzle on an example of a Learning Game that embodied the principles from the learning objectives. So, one puzzle was based on the Minecraft learning game, ‘We Are the Rangers’. I created a ‘cheat sheet’ that summarised the game, and then created a puzzle around that.

The learning point was that games-based learning works well because it ‘lets players explore’. Learning around this was happening on three levels:

  • Learners had to find answers to clues on the ‘We Are the Rangers’ cheat sheet, so had to learn about ‘We Are the Rangers’ and how it uses the power of exploration
  • Learners had to explore the puzzle and the cheat sheet, so they were actually doing the thing they were supposed to learn about – exploring
  • The solution word was ‘explore’, to fit the phrase ‘let learners explore, reinforcing the key learning message

This is just one example, but it shows how you can use learning content as the ‘materials’ players need to explore to solve a puzzle. And how you can make learning objectives part of the experience, so players actually experience or do the things you want them to learn.

Next up: making the whole thing a smooth experience

I hope this article has built on Parts 1 and 2, and developed your appetite for Escape Rooms for learning. There’s plenty more in the rest of the series. 

Part 1 – An introduction to Escape Rooms for learning

Part 2 – Theme, narrative and structure for learning escape rooms

Part 4 – Making learning escape rooms smooth experiences

The series is intended to help you if you want to design your own learning escape room, or just learn more about how they work. If you’d like to talk about having a bespoke Escape Room created for your learning experience, please get in touch