E-Learning Module

Unit 4 Grain 12
Introduction to the theory of Escape Room Puzzles
60 minutes

The objective of this lesson is to introduce participants to the world of puzzle creation in the context of educational Escape Rooms on STEAM. During the lesson, learners will become familiarized with the structure and characteristics of an Escape Room puzzle, as well as with the various types of puzzles encountered during an escape game.

By the end of this grain, participants should be able to:  

  • understand the basic structure of a puzzle
  • comprehend why it’s important for a puzzle to entail all its characteristics  
  • verify that a puzzle entails all its characteristics
  • distinguish between the different types of puzzles

Definition of puzzles and gained skills 

An Escape Room is essentially one big puzzle consisting of smaller, gradational and logically connected puzzles that players need to crack, in order to solve the room.  

Oxford dictionary defines puzzles as “a game that you have to think about carefully in order to answer or do it”. The thought process you need to go through to successfully solve a puzzle is also reflected in the skills and competences that people of all ages can gain, such as problem-solving, critical thinking, memorization, judgement and visual-spatial reasoning (i.e. how to place different parts in the bigger picture) (USA Today, 2020). Additionally, puzzles cultivate basic skills, like goal setting and a sense of achievement, physical skills, such as fine motor skills and also teamwork (Miles Kelly, 2018). The latter is especially encountered in collaborative settings, as is an Escape Room, where players have to combine their knowledge and competences by choosing puzzles that have some connection with the story.  

Basic structure of Escape Room puzzles 

According to Wiemker et al (2015, p. 3), every puzzle is composed of a simple three-step loop: a challenge, its solution and the reward. The challenge is what players need to overcome, so as to find the solution to the puzzle and get the reward. In turn, this either leads to the next puzzle or to the resolution of the room. Picture, for instance, a locked safe that requires a key to open. In this case, the challenge is to find the key that unlocks the safe; the solution is the key found hidden somewhere in the room; and the reward will be the contents of the locked safe. For the progression of the game, it’s important to define both the challenge and the reward in a clear way, in order to motivate the students and give them an obvious indication of whether they tackled the obstacle and how they can proceed. 

Characteristics of Escape Room puzzles 

Another thing to pay attention to when designing your puzzle is the difficulty of the challenge itself: if it’s too easy, the students will become bored and stop playing, while if it’s too difficult, they will get frustrated and quit their efforts. Instead, the goal is to enable the players to become fully immersed and spatially present in the game, in an effort to help them focus on the task at hand and experience the room to the fullest. Wiemker et al. also refer to this state as “flow”, which is achieved when the participants are “challenged and entertained” (2015, p.11). As such, a well-designed puzzle should keep them on the borderline between frustration and boredom.  

Moreover, Madigan (2010), argues that games facilitating immersion, either establish a vibrant mental model of the game environment, for example through multi-sensory information or a griping theme and narrative, or develop a consistency between the elements of the game by keeping the game environment coherent to the narrative and having the puzzles propel it. As such, many scholars using Escape Rooms for educational purposes, like Pinard (2018, p.1), Nicholson (2016, p. 12) and Clarke et al. (2017, p.80), support that puzzles have to make sense in terms of the theme, the narrative, the equipment and the learning objectives. Even though each puzzle can be subjected to its own internal logic, it can become integral with the rest of the game, only if its logic is well-balanced with that of the entire game environment. 

One more characteristic of a puzzle is that it can be solved through the assistance of clues. As Clare states, “clues help players solve puzzles by providing them with a reference point which supports the logic of the puzzle and is based off of the theme.” (2015, p.624). Even though a clue could be any object in the room, from a coloured pencil to a random picture on the wall, it still needs to make sense in relevance to the challenge.  

In addition to this, a puzzle can create an element of surprise to astonish or startle the students. For this to be successful, Nicholson (2016, p.11) advises the surprise to be something unexpected or even improbable, as well as something coherent with the theme, which will be comprehensible to the students later on.  

Last but not least, a puzzle remains latent, until the point when the participants interact with it. Even though it is already setup in the room, a puzzle requires the players’ engagement to make it relevant (Clare, 2015, p.613). 

Types of puzzles and materials 

When designing an Escape Room, it is up to you, as an educator-designer, to determine what types of puzzles to include in the game, based on the educational objectives set at the beginning, the target group and the overarching theme and narrative. Equally important is to keep in mind the available resources you have, as well as the overall Escape Room time-limitation, in order not to go overboard and create non-feasible puzzles.  

Typically, a well-structured game experience includes various forms of puzzles with the objective of engaging people with different skills and ways of thinking. For example, a series of puzzles could be composed by a mathematical puzzle, a puzzle based on a music sequence, some hidden items and a riddle, thus appealing to mathematical learners, musical ones, kinaesthetic ones and verbal ones. Drawing on Nicholson’s research, who surveyed 175 professional Escape Room facilities from around the globe, the professor has identified and listed 31 types of Escape Room puzzles (2015, pp.19-20). Below, you can find the most widespread ones: 

Lock type puzzles: 

This is one of the most frequently encountered type of puzzles, where the reward is hidden away in an item, locked with some of the following examples of locks (image 1). The clues in the room help the players find the right key/code. 


Code type puzzles: 

Another type of common puzzles are custom codes and ciphers in the form of encrypted messages, such as Morse code, Braille, Pigpen cipher, or a Caesar cipher (where instead of beginning the alphabet with A, you start, for example with C, and shift the alphabet accordingly; see image 2). Below you can find a list of code examples (image 3): 



Written puzzles: 

A third form of puzzles are written texts, such as:  

– Crossword puzzles (image 4); 


– Riddles (image 5); 


Answer: Empty 

– Hidden text visible with an Ultraviolet blacklight (image 6); 


– Reversed text, discernible through a mirror (image 7). 


Additionally, written texts can include hidden clues like: 

– Certain words missing a letter, which can result to a password; 

– Particular words or letter being capitalized; 

– Specific words or letters marked in bold, color or highlighted. 

Puzzles based on patterns: 

A fourth type of puzzles are the ones based on detecting patterns in the room. These include, for instance: 

– extracting numbers from images or counting the number of sides of geometrical shapes to retrieve a code (image 8); 


“Gummy bear count: 6 red, 2 orange, 4 yellow, 5 green, and 4 white. Combine that with a hint elsewhere of “Red Orange Yellow Green” gummy bears leads to a code of 6245” (Escape Room Tips, 2020). 

– paying attention to repeated themes, such as finding the same book in a Room library 4 times, while the rest of the books are unique; 

– noticing the same mysterious symbol over 2 objects (ex. a key and a door), which insinuates that the two are linked in some way.

Mathematical puzzles: 

An additional type of puzzles is the one based on mathematics and related concepts, such as equations, algebra and abstract logic (ex. Sudoku). These puzzles don’t necessarily have to delve into complicated mathematical notions; they normally require the players to solve a straightforward equation (image 9) or perform some sort of manipulation.  


Physical puzzles: 

The final type of puzzles analysed in this lesson are physical puzzles, in the sense of activities that require players to search around the room or use their fine motor skills (such as hand-eye coordination). Some examples of these kinds of puzzles could be the following: 

– looking for items in odd places or hidden within the room; 

– retrieving items that are out of reach by climbing up a ladder; 

– assembling a physical object (ex. a jigsaw puzzle); 

– using fine motor skills (ex. undoing a knot, shooting a target).

Materials and Resources

Clare Adam (2015), Escape the Game: How to make puzzles and escape rooms. Wero Creative Press. Kindle Edition.

Clarke Samantha, Peel J. Daryl, Arnab Sylvester, Morini Luca, Keegan Helen, Wood Oliver (2017), “escapED: A Framework for Creating Educational Escape Rooms and Interactive Games For Higher/Further Education”. International Journal of Serious Games, 4 (3): 73-86.

Escape Room Tips (2020). Top 11 puzzle ideas for Escape Rooms. [Image]. Retrieved from: https://escaperoomtips.com/design/escape-room-puzzle-ideas

Holt Vincent (2019), Game Title. Game Title Story This is where you would post the story for your game. Your story should explain why there is a locked box in the room. Presentation, SlidePlayer, slide 9. [Image]. Retrieved from: https://slideplayer.com/slide/13967467/

Ikatbag (2014). Mystery Party: Clues & Evidence [Image]. Retrieved from: http://www.ikatbag.com/2014/10/mystery-party-clues-evidence.html?m=1

Lock Paper Scissors (2020). 13 Escape Room Cipher Ideas That Encode Mystery & Mayhem [image]. Retrieved from: https://lockpaperscissors.co/ciphers-playbook

Madigan Jamie (2010): “The Psychology of Immersion in Video Games”. The psychology of video games. Available at: http://www.psychologyofgames.com/2010/07/the-psychology-of-immersion-in-video-games/

Miles Kelly (2018), How do puzzles help a child’s development?, Miles Kelly website, https://www.mileskelly.net/blogs/blog/how-do-puzzles-help-a-childs-development

Nicholson Scott (2015), “Peeking behind a locked door: A survey of Escape Room Facilities”. White Paper available at http://scottnicholson.com/pubs/erfacwhite.pdf

Nicholson Scott (2016). “Ask Why: Creating a Better Player Experience Through Environmental Storytelling and Consistency in Escape Room Design”. Paper presented at Meaningful Play 2016, Lansing, Michigan.

Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries (2020), “Puzzle”, Retrieved from: https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/puzzle_1

Pinard Mylène (2018), “Using Escape Rooms to Teach Information on Literacy”. McGill Library.

Planet Source Code (2015). Crossword puzzle generator [image]. Retrieved from: http://www.planetsourcecode.com/vb/scripts/ShowCode.asp?txtCodeId=66595&lngWId=1

Puzzle 3041: Escape Room Limassol (2020). The solution to the mathematical equation. [Image]. Retrieved from: https://www.facebook.com/Puzzle3041EscapeLimassol/photos/a.1533139166992745/2259071101066211/?type=3&theater

Puzzled Pint (2016), Code Sheet [image]. Retrieved from: http://www.puzzledpint.com/files/3614/6881/3541/CodeSheet_07_2016.pdf

Rober Mark (2018), “Beat any Escape Room: 10 proven tricks and tips”. YouTube, 29 Aug. 2018. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zwgaTYOx0RI

Sprightly Escapes (2016). Best Denver Team-Building: Escape Rooms! [Image]. Retrieved from : https://www.sprightlyescapes.com/sprightlyshenanigans/2016/12/18/denver-team-building-escape-rooms
USA Today (2020), “The surprising benefits of puzzle solving for adults”, USA Today Network Classifieds Blog. Available at: https://classifieds.usatoday.com/uncategorized/the-surprising-benefits-of-puzzle-solving-for-adults/

Wiemker Markus, Elumir Errol, Clare Adam (2015), „Escape Room Games: Can you transform an unpleasant situation into a pleasant one?”. White Paper: https://thecodex.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/00511Wiemker-et-al-Paper-Escape-Room-Games.pdf

Rober Mark (2018), “Beat any Escape Room: 10 proven tricks and tips”. YouTube, 29 Aug. 2018. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zwgaTYOx0RI

Q1. What is a puzzle? 

a. A logical problem that cannot be easily solved 
b. A mystery 
c. A game that you have to think about carefully to solve 

Q2. Which are the components of the basic puzzle structure? 

a. Challenge, hint, solution 
b. Challenge, solution, reward 
c. Trial, solution, reward 

Q3. Can you recall three types of puzzles mentioned above? 

a. Lock type, mechanical and mental puzzles 
b. Mathematical, physical and pattern-based puzzles 
c. Code type, rhythmic and written puzzles 

Q4. Which are the 5 elements of a puzzle? 

a. challenge, latent, surprise, logic, hints 
b. challenge, flow, logic, surprise, latent 
c. latent, surprise, logic, challenge, clues 

Q5. What type of puzzle code would contain the following symbols 

a. Braille 
b. Morse code  
c. Pigpen cipher 


Q1: c
Q2: b
Q3: b
Q4: c
Q5: c