What goes in a mystery/escape room/puzzle box?
June 1, 2021 11:55 AM   Subscribe

My dad has a big birthday coming up, and I want to make him a puzzle box like those subscription mystery/escape room things. But I've never actually subscribed to one. Have you? What puzzles were good? What should I know?

My dad is a mystery lover and puzzle liker and he's turning 70. My sister and I want to make him a mystery box on the model of those linked, but I only have the barest idea of what's in them. (I've done several full-size escape rooms though.) As a family we have a habit of aiming well beyond our talents for big birthdays, so there's no expectation of a professional level of quality—it's about the effort. That said, I'd like it to be fun and a little challenging.

He likes mystery shows and novels, crosswords and cryptic crosswords, and when I was a kid we used to play puzzle-based adventure games like Zork and Monkey Island. He has not shown special interest in physical puzzles like Rubik's cubes or jigsaws. We learned from making him a crossword puzzle a few years ago that our puzzle construction skills are not high-level, but I don't want it to be TOO hard anyway.

We have about a month and a half to pull this together, but I'm between jobs for the next month and can spend a lot of time on it. I'm competent at drawing, have access to a craft store, and can make small objects in an amateur way—but not to the degree of refinement where, say, one thing fitting perfectly into another thing can be a major aspect. (Like, I could make a small thing from clay or felt; I can just barely solder; I cannot make something with, say, a scroll saw.) I'd like to spend under $100 but will absolutely splash out further if necessary. If there's some kind of keepsake element that would be good.

If you have specific ideas please go nuts! But also I would love to hear about your favorite mystery box experiences and what made them good. Surely there should be some kind of code, right? Disappearing ink? Should the puzzles go in an order, like solving one gives you information you need to solve the next one, or am I overcomplicating things? Puzzle me up!
posted by babelfish to Grab Bag (7 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
There are unboxing videos and puzzle explanation videos for many of those escape room in a box and mystery hunt boxes on YouTube. If there are some you are particularly interested in, you can google the name of the puzzle company and 'unboxing' to find the video and see the sort of the things that go into them and even see some solving walkthroughs for some of them.

There are also archives of lots of past live puzzle hunt type events available online to get samples of puzzles that you might want to retheme to your personal theme.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:06 PM on June 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

I’ve never subscribed to one but in physical escape rooms there are often series of locks you have to open in sequence—opening the first reveals the clue to the next, etc.; both padlocks with physical keys and numeric or alphabetical padlocks where you have to decode something. I like the idea of altered books or playing card decks, a tape or CD with an audio clue, maybe an origami model where you write on the finished piece and then unfold it and he has to fold it again to see the clue?
posted by music for skeletons at 12:24 PM on June 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One trick for disappearing ink is Pilot Frixion eraseable pens - they say they erase from friction but they actually erase from heat. And, according to the patent and personal experience, they un-erase if you put the paper with erased writing on it in the freezer. So that could be a fun reveal to have a puzzle's solution say "put me in the freezer" or something. There's also ink that turns transparent under heat so you could have a blacked out area that you warm up to read something behind it.

Certainly you could include a blacklight, and maybe even hide a slip of paper inside the battery compartment too. Then you can put secret messages in UV pen.

If you want a low-tech built-in hint system, you can put hints behind scratch off stickers.

Should the puzzles go in an order, like solving one gives you information you need to solve the next one, or am I overcomplicating things?

This is a design question for you! It's pretty normal for puzzle boxes to have "here's a bunch of stuff and it's up to you to figure out what goes together to make a puzzle". However, I think it's more fun to have that stuff indicated somehow because "what even am I meant to be doing" is only fun for so long. An answer sheet, with some indication of where the answer come from (like if one of the puzzles is printed on / written on a deck of cards, have an icon indicating the deck of cards) will help players have some direction. That also gives a nice "I'm done!" feeling when they're done. It's fine to have some stuff be linear and others not - a symbol you don't recognize becomes clear later when you've revealed the invisible ink or whatever.

My main advice for a puzzle designer is to test as much as you can. Your timeline is short, so in general aim to make puzzles easier - they usually end up harder than the designer expects, and maybe that will save some test cycles. You can't test everything this way, but if you want to email me (and I bet there would be other volunteers here) some PDFs or whatever of puzzles I'd be happy to take a look.

There are also archives of lots of past live puzzle hunt type events available online to get samples of puzzles that you might want to retheme to your personal theme.

That's a good list, and I'm not just saying that because I helped put on eight of the games listed there. 😁
posted by aubilenon at 12:25 PM on June 1, 2021 [4 favorites]

You *could* scatter some parts of the puzzle around the house and have one segment lead to another.

Even more fun if it's based on his life or accomplishments. (Or the clues are)
posted by kschang at 12:30 PM on June 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

I got Mrs Glaucon an Escape the Crate subscription for Christmas. Very straightforward with plenty of instructions on a website they direct you to. Each box has everything you need except for pen and paper, which are helpful for taking notes and keeping track.

I recommend! Some of the stories are a little hokey, but they have heart and the puzzles are solid, making the experience well worth it.
posted by glaucon at 1:27 PM on June 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

i would construct something like puzzled pint, where there is a theme and a handful of base puzzles contribute to a meta puzzle. for inspiration, you could look at the dozens they have in their archive.
posted by bruceo at 1:54 PM on June 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

I’ve played Escape the Crate and Escape the Room boxes. The main difference is in how they validate that the response to a puzzle is correct.

Crate relies on the web: solving a puzzle from the box yields an alphanumerical code which you then enter on a web form. The correct response gives you instructions for moving to the next stage of the puzzle. The websites are very simple; it would be easily for anyone with even the scantest web design experience to do something similar. You might be able to manage it with google forms, even.

Room, on the other hand, uses this ingenious little puzzle wheel to validate solutions. You find a series of symbols, select them on the rings of the wheel, and the position of the rings indicates whether you’re correct or not.

Both use sealed envelopes to unravel new stages in the game.

The main takehome, I think, is you need a simple-to-implement but opaque-to-predict mechanism for validating puzzle solutions.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:41 PM on June 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

« Older Medically, I am an enigma, to self and countless...   |   Tracking down (my) medical history Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.