Student Affairs Escape Room Toolkit: A Review of Supplies and Lessons Learned from my First Escape Room 
Brittany Martin, Allegheny College

Escape games are gaining popularity among college-aged students (and other age groups too!) and give us the perfect opportunity for programming and teambuilding. Having been an Escape Game Aficionado for almost 3 years, I was ecstatic to see multiple at NACA (National Association for Campus Activities) Nationals 2018 and the students I took were eager to sign us up to participate. Once we participated and I saw their enthusiasm, I knew this was something we needed to bring to our campus community.

If your first thought is the same as mine, you’re wondering where to start. Look no further! I’ve done plenty of research, spoken with other professionals who have done this, and have now run two different completely unique rooms. We learn as we go, but hopefully you can learn from my lessons and experiences as well.

Below, I’ve included 5 tips and 5 “must-haves” to get create your first escape game.

Tips

Include Disclaimers

We work with college students. If a backpack is locked shut BUT can still be unzipped wide enough for them to fit their arm in and get the clue, they’ll try it. This makes it important  to start the adventure with an explanation of the game. This could include how to use each lock that’s included (especially for combination locks), guidelines, and special instructions for the specifics of the game – Ex. Don’t leave with keys, nothing needs to be broke, if an item is locked, don’t open it until you unlock it, don’t eat candy if it’s part of a clue, etc.

Keep it Simple, Smarty

These end up being much shorter than you think they will be. My original draft was twice as long as the outcome. I thought the clues were much easier than they were, but not everyone thinks the same way as I do (probably a good thing, sometimes). I ended up being able to save some of my fun ideas for a future room which will save me time once students are back.

Think Through the Final Clue

My second escape room that I designed included multiple choice questions with the answers ultimately leading to the final lock. Ex. If 1=A 2=C 3=E & 4=D, the code would be ACED. This worked for 3 of the four groups who participated, but for our fourth group, instead of waiting for all 4 clues, they guessed the last two by trying A, B, C, & D until they got the correct combination. I think I’ll be sticking to hiding the code for the final lock in the next to last clue in the future. :]

Test, Test and Test Some More

I cannot stress this enough. I have had colleagues, friends, family members, students and most frequently: my boyfriend test an endless amount of potential puzzles. This is the only real way to know how long something will take. Utilize the people around you! Plus, who doesn’t love taking 10 minutes to solve a puzzle? It’s a nice break from day-to-day activities.

Participants Can’t Fail

The competitive soul in me absolutely hated typing this, but it’s true. Escape rooms are teambuilding exercises – that is the main goal. Failure to “escape” or complete all of the puzzles is not failure. If teamwork takes place, it’s a success. If critical thinking takes place, it’s a success. Finally, if fun and laughter with friends or colleagues take place, it’s a success.

“Must-Haves”

Lock Box

This lockbox has been my go-to every time. I purchased two of them, both the combination version, and they are phenomenal. They have plenty of room inside with pockets to put clues in, and are very user-friendly when changing the combination.

Tangrams or Puzzles

These are a simple way to get students working together and thinking. I usually tape a puzzle that I printed on paper (crossword, rebus, etc.) to the front and cut out the pieces, but you could also do any old jigsaw puzzle that matched your theme.

Black Light/Markers

This is a super easy way to make a clue. For my first one, I made the clue “Shed some light on a big idea” and across the room on a bulletin board was a newspaper advertisement for a “Big Idea Competition”. When the light was shone on the words, the clue was in black light ink. Super simple!

Backpack or Laptop Bag

One of the biggest issues I’ve found is not having enough lockable spaces to hide clues. However, I went thrift shopping one weekend and found a standard sized backpack and an old laptop case, for less than $10 total. These have so many pockets and zipper compartments and even if they don’t have double zippers you can lock, they’re a great place to put clue number 1 that can just be easily found.

The Obvious One: Locks

Word locks, number locks, shape locks, locks with 4-digits, locks with 5-digits, key locks – they can all be used here, but it’s all trial and error based on how you create clues and how your mind works. My go-to currently though is a four letter word lock. You can choose to spell something, or make it even more difficult and don’t spell anything at all. All locks have a place in escape rooms, but this one is my favorite.

Creating escape rooms has been a blast, but it can be extremely overwhelming at times. I recommend testing local ones to spark your own creativity and even to ask questions. My biggest resource has been the Escape Rooms that I attend in my personal life – the staff at each one I’ve attended have been more than willing to give me pointers and help with ideas. Don’t be afraid to ask where they got a prop, or how they created a certain lock. More often than not, they’ll be super helpful and it will benefit both you and your students/community. Happy Creating!

About the Author: Brittany Martin is currently the Assistant Director of Student Leadership & Involvement at Allegheny College. She can be reached at [email protected]