Lessons Learned Making a Kid-Friendly Escape Room

In my previous post I mentioned my first foray into puzzle design and trying to create an “escape room” experience for my two kids, one 8 and the other 11. I’ve always been a puzzle lover and my kids seemed to have inherited that passion. I didn’t tell them before I did it — I wanted it to be a fun surprise for a cold winter day. It was something to do other than the usual and, fortuntely, they were all in once I told them what was about to happen.

As I started to think about the theme and what puzzles I wanted to incorporate into the story line, I started to realize something. A large amount of the usual puzzles are more geared towards older players, usually adults. I found myself struggling to come up with something that wasn’t too challenging for the 11 year old but also wasn’t too hard for the 8 year old. They’re both pretty bright kids so I wasn’t worried about some things being a bit more difficult but it was still a tricky balance.

The Puzzles

In a typical escape room, there’s clues hidden all over the place and different challenges to solve. I don’t have the resources (or location) to make a full-on room for them to escape from, so I just opted for a set of logic puzzles where some required searching in the house for the next clue. Ultimately, here’s what I put together:

It was a “secret agent” theme (pretty easy for a first try) and they had to help him escape by solving the puzzles and finding the final hidden message with the location of the base where he was being held. Trying to keep the challenge simpler, I opted for a single-path approach so they could work together to solve the puzzles and advance to the next clue.

Here’s the list of the ones I put together and a bit about how difficult they were for the kiddos:

  1. Hail Caesar!

The first puzzle was a Caesar cipher of a message at the bottom of the initial letter from the agent delivered to them in a manilla envelope. This envelope also included a paper cutout cipher decoder (doing this on the cheap, remember) I found and printed out. They weren’t familiar with how to use it, so I did have to give them a quick lesson. Once they got it, though, they figured out the message pretty quickly. The letter itself also gave them several hints as to what the offset was, bolding the same word each time it was used. This number is also used in a later challenge. I think this connection was a little vague and it tripped them up later trying to figure out the lockbox code it was a part of.

When the message was decoded, it directed them to the next location.

This same letter also included another clue that, when used with information in a later step, gave them one of the numbers they’d need.

2. Picture Puzzle

The next challenge was a picture puzzle, cut up into medium sized pieces from an letter-sized printout of the location for the next clue. They had to piece it back together and figure out exactly what was shown in the picture to find it. On this one I think I made the pieces a bit too small for my younger kid. He got a little frustrated and wasn’t as engaged with this challenge. Thankfully my older son figured it out eventually and they made a mad dash off to find the next clue.

The envelope this puzzle came in also had a messsage on the outside, encouraging the players to keep going and providing another number (sort of hidden) they’d need later too.

3. The redirect riddle

The picture puzzle clue led them to the location of another manilla envelope and a lockbox with a keypad. The envelope contained only once piece of paper with one phrase on it. This phrase (in plain-text, no cipher) directed them back to the location where they found the picture puzzle — a book — but to look in a different part. They found this one right away as they’d already searched for the book earlier. This was a picture clue that lead them to the next manilla folder and the clue for the final number they’d need to open the lockbox.

4. The lockbox

Once they located the final manilla folder containing a clue, they opened it to reveal a picture of several differently colored objects but no additional instructions. This was one of the places where they were completely confused but I, a seasoned escaper, knew exactly what to look for. I guided them along the right path, showing them the method of counting the colored objects in the photo to give them numbers. This helped a little but then it required them to make another leap back to the original letter. Remember how I mentioned there was a color-related clue there too? I showed them how to apply this and they received the last number in the code to open the box. So, in this case, the numbers came from:

  • The number of offset for the Caesar cipher
  • The outside of the envelope with the message and “hidden” number
  • The color difference based on the clue in the original note

With these three items in hand, they could use them (in the order of discovery) to open the lockbox and find the final clue. This clue was just a line drawing of the location for the final letter and the information about the secret base.

This final letter congratulated them on solving the puzzles and finding the information before the “bad guys” found it. Mission completed, hooray!

The aftermath

So, after all this I looked back and saw some of where things went well and where they were a little rocky. Most of the issues centered around their inexperience with the different types of puzzles. I was familiar with them because I’d done several before but they were brand new to it. This meant that I was following them around and giving them hints all along the way. In a typical escape room situation you’re only given a handful of hints — for them it was pretty much constant hints to keep things moving along.

The kids loved it, though, which is definitely a plus for me. It’s always nice to see when people enjoy something you’ve created, doubly so when it’s your own kids. I think in the future they’ll be better at solving some of these same kinds of puzzles based on their experience.

Would I do it again?

Absolutely! In fact, I’m already in the planning stages of Part 2 of the series. I’m sticking with the secret agent theme just because it’s easier and working up a series of puzzles that feels more like they’re trying to escape rather than just tracking down clues.

I learned a lot about what kind of puzzles are fun for the different ages in this first attempt too. While my younger son was often just happy to be there, he did get frustrated with some problems and disengaged. I had to rope him back in and even helped at some points to keep things going.

My plan for Part 2 is going to take a little bit different approach and try to create a setup where both kids can take on different challeges at the same time, each a bit more tailored towards their skill levels. I’m not quite sure how I’m going to push one in one direction and the other in the other but we’ll see…

Oh, and I’m a software developer by experience and so I’m also toying around with the idea of using a virtual keypad on a tablet/phone as the final place where they have to punch in codes for the escape.

Anyway, stay tuned! It was a great first trip into puzzlemaking and I hope the start of something cool!