Puzzlephant is getting ready to announce our next immersive game experience. It’s something different that will have you questioning where the game ends and the “real” world begins.  Missions will happen out in the real world in busy places like Dolores Park, forcing you to question the line between game and reality.

Unlike most escape rooms and events, this game is competitive.  Your team of agents will be challenged by another team of spies, whose plots you must uncover and whose surveillance you must evade.

We're currently putting the finishing touches on the game design and alpha testing. If you’d like to be involved in early testing, send an email to puzzlephantevents@gmail.com with “espionage” in the title.
Most escape games and related experiences are designed for groups and marketed as quality time or teambuilding.  However, it’s easy for a designer to take for granted that their game rewards and inspires teamwork.  In the many games I’ve played and constructed, I’ve seen challenges that successfully foster teamwork and those that failed to.  In this article I’ll share a few principles that will hopefully stimulate your design imagination to bake more teamwork into your challenges.
2 traps to designing for teamwork
Many of us assume that including a variety of types of challenges will foster teamwork.  Surely a room with a math puzzle, a word puzzle, and a visual puzzle will require teamwork to succeed.  Of course variety is good but it doesn’t necessarily create teamwork for two reasons.  First, people usually play rooms with their friends or coworkers who are pretty similar to them, not with a hand-picked team of specialists.  Nurses play with nurses, engineers with other engineers.  Second, ‘cover all the bases’ variety can allow players in diverse teams to silo themselves, individually focusing on challenges they’re already most familiar with.

Another low-effort way we’ve all tried to compel teamwork is with sheer volume. This can vary from a large number of puzzles to big piles of data that it takes multiple people to sift through.  These rooms punish smaller teams, leisurely paces, and disorganization after the fact with failure, but don’t do anything to actually reward teamwork during the experience.  Often these experiences have the boiler room vibe of an SAT test, calling for a breakneck pace and significant team effort in project management and organization.   This strategy also harms the storytelling potential of your room: too high a volume pressures teams to skip challenges if they’re able to and limits you to one pace throughout the experience.

Compelling Coordinated Action
While those approaches are precarious and limiting, challenges that require simultaneous, separated interactions compel teamwork in a more reliable organic way.  By simultaneous I mean occurring at the same time and by separated I mean unable to be performed by the same person. For a simple example, a puzzle that requires two distant buttons to be pressed at the same time requires two coordinated players.
The surefire way to compel teamwork is through challenges that require coordinated group action.  Such challenges must require multiple players’ involvement simultaneously.  If the challenge cannot be solved by one super-intelligent player, then it’s going to foster teamwork.  These upcoming principles all help, and are organized least to most challenging.
I haven't seen a pure feat of strength in an escape game yet but I hope I do some day.  
4 Principles that build teamwork into challenges
  • Cumbersome objects that require multiple people to manipulate may seem like a hack way to inject teamwork but I’ve seen them be very fun.  In a simple example of this from the Bay Area, markings on a large sheet line up to markings on the wall of the room.  It takes two people to hold up the sheet and another to interpret the markings from far away.  These types of challenges create physical fun and involve those who aren’t “puzzle people.
  •  Separated controls that need to be actuated simultaneously additionally require planning and coordination at a distance.  For instance, 5 momentary buttons scattered throughout the room need to be pressed all at the same time and no one person can reach two buttons at once.
  • Separated stimuli that need to be received simultaneously require coordination from teams and get players calling out information at each other.  For instance, two separated telephone receivers hear alternating words of a long code phrase.  Two players repeating aloud can combine the phrase.
  • Separated controls and feedback are the most challenging and require the most effective communication. For best results, use controls whose feedback is fleeting or tasks that require immediate feedback.  The classic magnet maze is a great example of this one: one player sees a maze and the other can move an item through it using a magnet.  These are most exciting in situations where the moving player has never seen the maze layout.

Plenty of professional jobs have specialized roles built into them, like sniper and spotter (an instance of separated controls and feedback).  To bake teamwork with unexpected specialized roles into a game you need to telegraph your intentions to the players.  
A Caveat
Challenges that require teamwork require more obvious prompts than individual puzzles because players need evidence to persuade their team to follow a line of thought.  I played a game recently where a puzzle solution asked the entire team to stand in a tight space.  One player refused, unconvinced by the logical leap the rest of the team had made.  While one player could try several unclear possibilities out of curiosity, they need evidence to break the social hurdles to ask someone else to help them.


These principles for compelling teamwork offer clear ways to transform creative designs and reactive room elements into memorable group experiences.  These sorts of challenges create experiences with friends and family, not just beside them.  Since being together in a physical space is a key differentiator of our experiences from other games and puzzles, let’s really design experiences that make use of people working together.  
This article is intended for escape room designers.  If you’re an escape room player, I’d suggest you skip this one to avoid having a genre of puzzles spoiled for you.


Many of us have played or designed rooms that include a typewriter with mixed up labels on the keys.  Such a typewriter effectively automates a simple substitution cipher, quickly giving players the experience of decoding a secret message.  I’ve seen these “code typewriters” on several lists of clich├ęd escape room props, so I thought I’d discuss of some ways to use this principle more creatively.  I’ll start with direct hacks on code typewriters themselves and broaden out later, so skip this first bit if you’re looking more for inspiration than technique.

Neat ciphers to use
Use a cipher like ROT13 or Atbash where pairs of letters encode to each other.  That way, hunt-and-pecking a desired message into the typewriter will output the ciphertext for a team to solve by typing it in.  Why is this great?  If your typewriter is set up this way, it’s very easy to create clues that are customized for a birthday or proposal group- just type in the custom phrase and put the resulting ciphertext somewhere they will find it.
Typewriter with letters encoded in 3-letter loops.
Even fancier than that, you can arrange so letters encode in 3 letter loops- F encodes to M, M encodes to L, L encodes to F.  Typing in such a message with give you ciphertext that, when typed in, gives you another piece of ciphertext which must be entered in again to reveal the message.  This requires clear clueing to work.  I’ve embedded ciphertext that requires two passes inside a message requiring one pass, so their first decoding said “I found a coded message that said XCYTH FLWP ROD SJAM.”
To expand this loop of letters concept, let’s create a loop that contains our whole message.  We can hide any word or phrase with no repeating letters— these are called isograms.  For the clue “Follow the path beginning with W” to reveal EARTH, you’d need W to reveal E, E to reveal A, A to R, R to T, T to H, and H to period.  Typing each letter as its revealed reveals the next one to type.  Weird! 

Alphabet Apple scrambled by swapping the buttons.  For use in a room, you'd need to disable several of its many functions to eliminate red herrings.
Beyond typewriters
One way to take this quick decoding experience further is by applying it to objects besides typewriters.  Here is a children’s toy that speaks letters aloud when they are pressed.  As you can see, I’ve swapped the buttons to make it function as a code typewriter that speaks the answer letters as the code is typed in.  Toss a resistor in line with the speaker to detune the voice and you’ve got a creepy sounding prop for a child ghost room.
Another way to take this further is to use inputs and outputs other than text.  For instance, adding letters to the keys of a keyboard allows text to reveal a recognizable song or vice versa.  This typewriter with textures glued to the key decodes textural clues into answer phrases.
Textural typewriter where each key has a unique material.
Further Afield
The really neat thing about code typewriters is that they speed up and streamline an exciting or attractive process.  You feel like a spy without having to actually learn how to crack a code or sit there painstakingly using a code wheel.  What other experiences and processes could you create a streamlined version of using props and puzzle design?  Mixing flavors as a chef?  Learning martial arts?

I’ll probably write a longer post about this later, but the main tenet here is that engrossing challenges get their players to do something interesting, not just be somewhere exciting or see something exciting.  Make players the main characters of the story!
Get ready to rock!  “Battle of the Bands,” presented by Puzzlephant, transforms your teams into rock bands racing to win a coveted recording contract.  This large scale event transforms theaters, cafeterias and whole offices to bring an immersive challenge to groups of up to 80 people.
Get drawn into a world of music industry intrigue as you interact with quirky characters and custom contraptions.  Along the way you’ll complete puzzle challenges and scavenger hunt quests, inventing the sound and style of your brand new band.

Which band will be the first to:
·         Gain the respect of their roadie and impress their producer?
·         Go on world tour and invent a new dance craze?
·         Win a contract with the hottest new music label?
·         Uncover the mystery of the rebellious graffiti?
Get ready for your moment in the spotlight as you battle it out to become the coolest band in the world!

If you’d like to bring “Battle of the Bands” to your office, send us an email at puzzlephantevents@gmail.com .
After finishing a 4 month run in the Mission, our first game has transformed into a pop-up game.   Hundreds of players puzzled their way through the mysterious disappearance of Mister E the mad puzzle builder, working out his strange contraptions and trying to escape his workshop.  40% of them succeeded.

Now a new chapter in the Mister E Saga begins—this escape room experience has become a travelling game that transforms conference rooms into immersive escape environments.  All the props and surprises are still in there, ready to challenge and confound your office.  The game still hosts teams of 10 people at a time for a 60 minute escape experience.

If you’d like to bring “Escape Mister E’s Elaborate Enigma” to your office, send us an email at puzzlephantevents@gmail.com .

Puzzle escape rooms are a new participatory entertainment experience that are popping up all over the world. Groups of players race the clock to solve a series of clues and puzzles to escape a locked room.  To succeed these teams must collaborate, communicate, and think creatively.  Puzzlephant puts a unique twist on this trend, driven by SF's maker ethos.

These escape rooms often draw inspiration from the world of video games, transporting you to another world full of challenges and surprises.  Japanese entrants to the escape room world often feel like the online "Escape the room" games from the 90's– surreal and random.  Many escape rooms in Europe and America feel like survival horror games like Resident Evil creepy and frantic. At Puzzlephant we are inspired by games like Legend of Zelda or Castlevania inspired to create worlds of immersive exploration, changing perspective, and useful unusual items.

In contrast to passive entertainment options such as movies, concerts, and shows, our game is social and interactive. Puzzlephant's escape rooms are great for a unique night out with friends, for date nights, birthday parties, and corporate team-building events.

Eventbrite - Escape Mr. E's Elaborate Enigma!

Why would ten people allow themselves to be locked in a room together for one hour?  Of course there's the fun, excitement and bonding in a shared challenge.  What's behind that and why would we lock them in there?  By way of explanation, here's a very old story.

The Blind Men and the Elephant

Once three blind men walking along a trail came upon a mahout leading his elephant.  Since they'd never met an elephant before, the mahout invited them to get to know it.

"Oh, an elephant is like a tree trunk." said the first blind man, feeling the elephant's leg.
"No, the elephant is like a paint brush," said the second blind man, feeling the tail of the elephant.

"No, the elephant is like a great snake," said the third blind man, feeling the trunk.

The three blind men began to argue, each sure of what he knew and each totally blind to what he didn't know.  Finally the mahout stopped them, raising his voice.

"Each of you is partly right and all of you are wrong.  The elephant is like all of those things, so don't let the things you know keep you from learning from one another."

Wicked Elephants and Optimism

While  it may be easy to laugh at the foolishness of the three blind men, we are all limited in our perceptions.  We are blind to things across the globe, across the city, or even inside of a book that we've never read.  Today we work on problems so great in scale that no one person can even understand them alone.  We need to communicate and collaborate if we want to know these elephants.
Working together on big, nebulous problems is a learned skill and one you can practice.  Since our work and social interactions are increasingly solitary or mediated by technology, we are losing these skills to work together and see things from other points of view.  The timed, set-apart challenges we design remove groups from their established routines and focus their attention on working together.
That's Puzzlephant's mission:  to create experiences where exploring and working together can solve daunting challenges of perception and understanding.

Underneath any human endeavor there's some outlook on humankind's quest for meaning.  At the core to the idea of puzzles I see an optimism that if you work hard enough then you can find meaning and understanding of even the most difficult problems.  Puzzle rooms take this a step further, showing that by working together we can solve problems too big for us to understand alone.

Eventbrite - Escape Mr. E's Elaborate Enigma!