How I Made My First DIY Escape Room
Can you imagine creating your own escape room? I am not talking about necessarily creating an escape room for business purposes, more like turning your home into an amazing experience that your loved ones will remember forever.
If so, you are in the right place, because I can share with you some tips on how to make a DIY escape room in your home.
First of all, let’s make it clear, it’s not going to be as easy as it seems, just scatter a puzzle here and a puzzle there and you are done. No, no, my friends, it takes much more than that, it’s more like taking your creativity to the next level, while doing it with a whole lot of love. I’m not gonna lie, it requires a lot of time and energy, but trust me, it’s worth every second of it.
My first DIY escape room was a real blast. It took me almost a month of thinking, searching, creating, buying some stuff and setting all of it up in my living room, but when it came down to the actual playing, I felt like the Superman of the Game masters. Actually it was a surprise party for my escape room crew, and btw, I’ve played many escape games with them.
Interested in hearing all the details about this room? Buckle up; let’s take a ride through the world of Game Mastery!
First, let me set the backdrop. That year I was my girlfriend’s Secret Santa (she is a part of the escape room crew) and I already had two tickets to Milan as a present for her, but wanted to find a special way to give her the present. That’s when I came up with the idea of a DIY escape room, where the ultimate goal won’t be necessarily escaping the room, but finding the hidden mysterious treasure (the tickets to Milan).
So I knew that my storyline had to be connected to Italy, Milan. That’s the first thing you need to do when creating an escape room.
1. CREATE A GOOD STORYLINE
In my case the storyline was finding the hidden treasure in the mysterious castle of Milan, but you can come up with a bunch of different themes. For example, if your gift is a Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle Game board game, your theme can be the storyline of the game. If you bought a new pair of Jordans for your kid, the theme can be the Space Jam movie and so on… Just think of something that your kids, family or friends are going to love, and make a great short story out of it.
For example this is the storyline of Houdini’s secret room (which, by the way, is a ready to play escape room kit that you can download here and play right away):
The 150-year-old house that belonged to the most famous illusionist Houdini is now a museum. You decide to go there and learn some of his greatest tricks and illusions. Walking around, your curiosity leads you to a secret room, one in which no one has set foot for over a century. As you enter the room, the door slams shut, leaving you locked inside while the walls start closing in slowly.
On the table is Houdini’s testimony, which says:
“You are the chosen one who managed to enter this secret room. Whoever finds a way to break out of it will have the privilege of becoming my heir.”
The key, which unlocks the door, is hidden somewhere in the room. However, in order to find it, you must solve some challenges first. Houdini left you a pencil, glue and scissors, along with six different cards, which will help you solve the challenges ahead.
If you want to get out of this room, you need to get inside the mind of the greatest illusionist and start thinking like him.
Can you escape and become the next Houdini?
You have 60 minutes before the walls crush you, so you better hurry up—the clock is ticking!
Here’s one example on how to write a good storyline. I guess you’re thinking “well I am not a novelist, how could I make this kind of story?” Don’t worry my friend, I am sure you can do it, just unleash your hidden creativity and follow these few steps:
- It has to be a short story. Nobody wants long and boring stories. Anything that takes more than 2 minutes to read is a long story. Just keep it around 200 words and you’re good to go. Short stories mean more pressure, though, because each paragraph, sentence, and word is more important than they would be in a longer one.
- Add some mystery. Kids and adults tend to love mystery and fantasy and have an innate sense of wonder over the world. Mystery adds more flavor to the story, it allows us to escape reality. E.g. Walking around, your curiosity leads you to a secret room, one in which no one has set foot in over a century.
- Put some pressure. Escape rooms are all about testing problem-solving abilities against the clock. Giving them a deadline for solving the puzzles makes the game a lot more intense and fun. E.g. As you enter the room, the door slams shut, leaving you locked inside, while the walls start closing in slowly. You have 60 minutes before the walls crush you, so you better hurry up—the clock is ticking!
Like I mentioned before, use your creativity and you’ll come up with a wonderful storyline, no doubt about it.
2. CREATE THE PUZZLES
Ok, you already have the story, but how can you create puzzles when you have zero experience? Well, it is challenging and time consuming, but for me it was the most fun part of the process. Believe me, there is a ton, a million of ways to invent puzzles, some of them you can conjure up just by using things you already have in your drawers.
When I was preparing the escape room, I set myself one challenge, to use as much items I already have at home, with minimum purchases. Of course I had to buy some cheap locks, chains and other small stuff, but 90 % of the puzzles were made with stuff that I could find lying around the house.
Let me show you the process of creating the puzzles:
Find puzzles that match your storyline.
For e.g. If your storyline is about “Escape from the Dracula castle”, you should use some old-school puzzles (like paper, locks, chains, scissors, keys, text mirroring, invisible inks, wooden boxes, etc.). It won’t be suitable to use smart phones, internet, digital watches and other modern technology. That’s like mixing two different styles. Old-school puzzles can be even more interesting than using apps and other tech.
Are you wondering what kind of puzzles I made? Let me show you all of them, in no particulate order (putting them together and making them functional is explained in the next chapter).
First I categorized the puzzles from easy to hard. The last thing you want to do is create extremely easy puzzles, or very hard ones. Either way is not going to be fun for the players. You need to find something that is challenging, but at the same time something that anyone can solve.
My first puzzle was paper on paper
This puzzle is a classic, anyone can figure it out.
What I did is I took two sheets of paper, one with Italian text written on it and the second one was blank.
On the blank sheet I made small cut outs that were exactly positioned so that when you place it above the Italian text, every hole shows only 1 letter. When you connect all the letters, you get a hint. My hint was “check the hydrant” where I put another piece of paper.
This is one of those “wow effect” puzzles. Actually, you have to prepare this one at least one hour before the game starts. The trick is that there is an invisible text on the paper, which appears only when it is put under water. Coooool, right? ☺
You don’t have to use chemicals or invisible inks; there is an easy way to do this.
You’ll need: 2 sheets of paper, 1 pencil, water in a tray and a smooth surface (a mirror will do the job).
- Soak one of the papers in water to make it wet and place it over the mirror.
- Take the dry paper and place it on the wet sheet of paper.
- Write your message on the dry sheet using a pencil.
Throw away the paper in which you have written the message.
You can see that the message written on the dry sheet of paper also makes a slight imprint on the wet sheet of paper.
Allow it to dry completely. When it becomes completely dry, the imprint becomes invisible.
When the players put the paper under water, the message appears again, and that is the moment when they realize that you are an awesome Game master.
This puzzle is one of my favorites, because it triggers thinking outside the box. In my case it was a hidden piece of paper with a big number written on it. At least 1 out of 5 people for sure will recognize that the number is actually GPS coordinates. Because they were allowed to use everything in the room, it was time for them to put their smart phones into action. Using any GPS app, they can easily get to the destination.
Ok, so how is it possible to get out of the room in the middle of an escape room game?? That is a logical question, but as I said before, thinking outside the box brings lots more fun and unexpected puzzles. As soon as I changed the goal from escaping the room to finding the hidden treasure, a new world of possibilities opened. That means that the players are not necessarily locked in the room and that’s why the GPS puzzle is a very good option.
The location was across from my apartment, next to the high school entrance. When they got there, they found an envelope with another clue in it. Because the GPS satellites have a +-5 m error, you should find some object in that radius that cannot be missed and you should put the envelope next to it. In my game it was an electrical junction box and I put an electricity symbol next to the coordinate number as a hint. I even burned the sides of the paper so it looks kind of struck by lightning.
Trust me; the players will love this addition of treasure hunt to your escape room.
Map of the apartment
In the envelope there was a simple map of the apartment with a mark on an exact location. On that location you should hide another clue.
Tip: Make this clue hard to find, so the players can’t reach it before they get the map. In my case, I put a cell phone in the couch. They needed to use this cell phone in order to solve the next challenge.
UV lights are among the most used puzzles in escape rooms. You don’t need a special kind of light or expensive markers to create this puzzle. You can do it with an everyday fluorescent yellow marker and a regular battery lamp.
First, make the invisible ink.
Some people are making a real mess trying to achieve this trick. They are opening the markers with pliers, washing them in hot water, boiling in a microwave, washing them again… oooooh is such a nightmare and a real fluorescent mess all around your kitchen. Many times these preparations end with failure and frustration. That’s why I like to make things simpler in order to make them better. Using the following method you can achieve the same effect without doing all of the things I mention before.
Take an illustration/picture with dark color background and write your message/clue on it, using the yellow fluorescent marker. Then hang it on any wall where the luminance is a bit lower. This way everything is visible except the hidden message, which appears under the black light only.
Trust me, this way the message appears better and it take less time to prepare the puzzle.
Tip: Don’t use just plain dark illustration/picture, rather use picture of something connected to your theme (like I did with the leaning tower of Pisa). This way even with brighter light in the room, the picture is a distraction to the message, and acts like a camouflage to it.
Don’t get confused that my background of Pisa is not so dark. I had no problem writing the code even on brighter background, because the picture was placed in part of the apartment where the light was very low.
Now let’s make the black light:
You can use a regular battery lamp, or even a smart phone flashlight.
Just grab a piece of clear tape and stick it right on top of the flashlight/battery lamp. Then take a blue color highlighter and color it. Take another piece of tape, place it on top of the first tape and color it with the blue highlighter. Repeat this 5 times and you have a homemade black light.
Using the invisible ink and the black light you can make all kinds of secret messages. Hidden patterns for unlocking phones, hints, clues, numbers, letters and anything else you want to hide.
Face recognition app
If you want to use some high tech puzzles, this is an interesting one.
I printed all kind of pictures connected with Italy and put them around my apartment. One of the pictures was Leonardo Da Vinci’s face. During the game they should use the cell phone they find in the couch. Actually when they unlock the smart phone, they find a face recognition app (this app is for unlocking other mobile apps). When they scan Da Vinci’s face using the app, a 4 digit code appears. You can use the Applock face/voice recognition app to make this puzzle. Btw, thank you, Da Vinci for your assistance.
Cracking Morse code makes you feel like Alan Turing decoding the Enigma machine during WW2. By using Morse code, you can turn light, voice and sound signals into text information.
For example: Install a Morse code app on your smart phone. In the app, write the combination that opens your lock. Remove the bulb from your ceiling light and place the phone there.
Make sure your phone has enough battery to transmit flashlight Morse code for at least an hour. At one point in the game, players find a Morse alphabet. Ahaaaaa, the light isn’t broken after all, it is a coded message.
So when they crack the code, they open the lock that leads them to the next challenge. This puzzle isn’t an easy one, but when they finally solve it, it gives the players a lot of self-esteem and a feeling of accomplishment.
Tiny Tiny Tiny tiny text
Going to make them squint like this
until they find the magnifying glass you should put in some of the locked boxes. Write your clue in Times new roman font (font size 2) on a regular sheet of paper, but make sure it is printed on a good quality laser printer. Let’s see who needs a new pair of glasses.
This is a good way to wrap up your escape room game. Because you’re going to set up this game for your loved ones, friends or family, I suppose that you already know each of them very well. You are familiar with what they love, their favorite song, food, artist and so on. You probably have some inside jokes only the two of you are in on.
For example: One of my friends loves astronomy and knows a lot of things about the Universe, our solar system and so on. So I wrote down a question that he certainly knows the answer to (e.g.How many planets are in our solar system?)
Another friend of mine is a big NBA fan, so my question for him was: How many NBA titles has Michael Jordan won?
All of these questions must require a numeric answer and they should look something like this:
- How many planets are in our solar system? 8
- How many NBA titles has Michael Jordan won? 6
- How many pairs of socks does Tina wear in winter? 2
- How many problems has J.Z. got? 99
- What year was Albert Einstein born? 1879
When they do the math, they get the combination (in this case 1990) for the last lock that opens the “treasure” box.
This puzzle makes them work together more than any other puzzle.
Not all of the challenges have to be logical puzzles. Of course, when you think of an escape room, the first thing that comes to mind are brainy challenges and “aha!” puzzles. But in order to keep the flow of the game, you have to include some challenges that don’t require actual thinking; rather they merely imply executing some tasks.
For example: Finding a hidden key in the room isn’t something you have to solve, you just have to inspect every corner in that room and there it is.
Having to connect dots to make hints appear is also a good example. Anyone can do it just by following the given directions for connecting the dots.
These tasks set the pace of the game, and it’s a great way to give the players a feeling of accomplishment. Their self-esteem rises as they solve this challenge, so they become more enthusiastic to finish the whole game.
Sometimes players can struggle when solving logical puzzles, and if you set up only logical challenges it may even become tedious.
Maybe at first they will love to show how smart they really are, but eventually they may get tired of logical analysis. That’s why you should mix things up with this kind of tasks, which will keep the excitement throughout the whole game.
You can even throw in an interactive game in order to solve some of the challenges.
Put one of the clues out of reach, but still visible. One option is to put a clue (padlock code) in a different room and lock the door with a padlock and chain. This way the door can be ajar just enough for the clue to be visible, but not enough for players to enter the room.
Now, in front of the clue, place a piece of paper with an illustration of a target, covering the padlock code. They need to shoot the target with a bunch of rubber bands.
When you hear a ”Yaaaaaay!”, you know that someone hit the target and under it the padlock code was revealed.
3. PUTTING THE PUZZLES TOGETHER
Ok, so one thing is to decide what kind of puzzles to use, another thing is to make them functional, and a totally different thing is to put them together in one continuous game. This is the hardest part, it requires attention to details and it consumes a lot of time. It’s like you have all the bricks and now it’s time to build the house.
Actual escape rooms go through a lot of testing and modifications before they are ready for the public. But for this one, you only have one chance to make it work. Probably you are not going to test the game before your loved ones get to play it. That being said, have in mind that you must minimize the possibilities of making an error. The best way to do this is to create an organizational chart or simply grab this ready to play escape room kit.
If you decide to brave the odds and make it yourself, let me give you some tips on how to do it.
The next picture is of the organizational chart for the game I made. Making this kind of chart gives you a perspective on how to create the game flow and properly connect the puzzles that you have created. At this point in time, you may have to make some modifications of the puzzles, but don’t worry, that’s totally normal. You won’t change the core and functionality of the puzzles, but you’ll work out some minor details that help you to put them together as one game.
As you can see in my organizational chart, it is a nonlinear game, which means that I connected multiple puzzles that lead to solving the next one.
Unlike linear games, in this case everybody take actions at the same time and there is no alpha dog that takes all the credit for solving a puzzle. The players are working simultaneously on different challenges, and they can switch places at any time, if someone gets stuck. This way is more fun for everybody, because every single person has the opportunity to make a contribution to reach that ultimate goal.
Make sure that, during the game, the players have no chance of skipping some of the puzzles. For example, if they open the box with the Morse alphabet before they manage to unlock the cell phone, all previous challenges are worthless and don’t need to be solved. Just make sure that everything goes according to your scheme.
And don’t think your troubles are over once you’ve created the scheme. You may have the perfect plan on paper, but you also have to make it functional for the room. This part is challenging and it requires attention to the smallest detail.
First of all, clear out the room/apartment where the game will take place
All objects that are not part of the game shouldn’t be in the room. If you leave a lot of false clues, the players will get lost in space and time. Imagine leaving 20 books on the shelf and none of them is part of the game. Players will start checking every one of the books until it becomes so boring for them.
Eventually, they will lose interest in the game, and instead of being super fun, your game will become supper exhausting and monotonous. That is why we created Houdini’s secret room as a board/escape room hybrid game which can be played just on one table, as well as in the whole room/apartment.
Make a check list
Trust me, you are going to need a long check list, because there are so many details you will need to pay attention to. My advice is to divide the tasks into two different categories: regular tasks and last minute tasks.
The regular tasks can be prepared hours or even days before the guests come to your escape party (like locking the boxes with clues and hiding the key in the book). But some of the puzzles have to be done right before the guest arrive. For example setting the Morse light code has to be 5 min before the game starts, because otherwise the cell phone battery won’t last a whole hour.
Make sure all the details of the game are included in your check list, if you want to minimize the possibilities of forgetting something.
Don’t forget to prepare hints for some of the challenges that might prove problematic. When they ask for a hint, do not elaborate on the topic, but prepare short hints like riddles (you can even come up with some rhymes like we did in our ready to play Houdini secret room game).
Making your first home escape room is time and energy consuming, but at the end the reward is unparalleled. If you really love this kind of games and want to make a special night for the people you love, just go for it! If you don’t have too much free time on your hands, you can grab Houdini’s secret room – escape kit that can be set in less than 30 min.
4. MAKE IT MORE SPECIAL
Don’t forget that these games are all about the experience, not just the puzzles! When you are all done with setting the clues and the puzzles, sprinkle in more fun! You already feel like the greatest game master ever, because you’ve already figured out all these challenges and you connected them into an amazing escape room!
Now it is time for the icing on the cake, woohoo!
With a little more effort, you can make your game even more amazing.
- Play background mysterious music;
- Turn the lights down low and put some candles around;
- Get toys/items that suit the storyline (ex: for the space jam storyline, get some Monster toys, bugs bunny, Tazz, an MJ jersey, a basketball ball, etc.);
- Put up posters around the room;
- Serve some drinks and snacks. The game tastes better this way!
- Make digital invitations and send them to the players via social media platforms. You can even go old-school and send the invitations via local post office;
- Make a theme costume party. In the invitations, point out the dress code for the party. Trust me, if you pull this off it’s going to be the best party ever!
Use your imagination, take your creativity to the next level, try adding unusual ideas, wake up your inner child and you’ll be amazed by the outcome. People are often unaware of how capable they are until they put their hearts and souls into something they love.
My escape room crew instantly felt how much love I put in the game. It wasn’t decorated with expensive items; it didn’t include fancy gadgets, nor was it 100% perfect. But all of us (including me) were having the best time ever, compared to every room we have been to before. Positive energy, smiles, laughter, funny pictures of my crew hanging around the room, inside jokes between the lines in the puzzles… you can’t get this experience in any other room in the world, except in your own DIY escape room!