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What is the difficulty of an escape room?

This question recently became a frequently asked one. It is actually a complicated question to answer. Some people are asking this question because they want the highest challenge possible. Others are asking this because they want to be reassured that we will “let them out” if they are not successful. Spoiler alert – yes, we let you out at the end, and technically you are never locked in to begin with!

So what makes an escape room difficult? Let’s take a look!

The Escape Room Formula

The basic formula for escape rooms requires you to 1) find a puzzle, 2) solve the puzzle, and 3) use that solution (e.g. putting a code into a lock). There are a few places along this path where teams can get bogged down.

Dinosaur bones painting with sand pit.
Some things in this picture are part of a puzzle!

Find the puzzle

When you enter an escape room, your team will need to make decisions about which information is relevant and which is not. Creepy handwriting plastered on the wall – probably a puzzle. Electrical socket on the wall – probably not a puzzle (don’t mess with these!). After you find a possible puzzle, you may need more information.

A team needs to possess all the pieces or information necessary to solve each puzzle. Sometimes this information is hidden. Your team will need to search behind or inside something  in order to find what you need. This can take time, depending on how hidden the objects are. This part will be easy for those who are good searchers, and difficult for those who are not.

Solve the puzzle

Each puzzle relies on different sets of skills to solve. When we create a room, we try to make sure there are various types of puzzles: something for hands-on learners, like combining objects together or completing a jigsaw puzzle; something for math people, like puzzles with numbers or decoding; something for wordsmiths, like riddles, word scrambles, or hidden messages, etc. This allows different members of your team to have a chance to shine and showcase their style. But if your team is lacking a certain skill set, then the room could prove more difficult.

Of course, not all escape rooms are designed the same. You will find some heavy on the number-based puzzles. Others might be big into finding things hidden around the room. This all depends on who designed the room and what their style is.

Use the solution

This step seems easy, but there can be some challenges here. Sometimes there are a lot of locks – so which one does the code go into? Maybe someone enters the correct code into the correct lock but does not line everything up correctly. That’s why it is always good to have a second teammate attempt it, too.  

Or maybe, as in the case of our Dragon’s Descent room, there are no combination locks at all. Your team figures out a number code, but hey, there is nowhere to put it! There is something your team will need to do with the code, but no lock is involved. Some of these little hurdles can slow a team down, too, which can make a room seem difficult.

Final difficulty

It is possible that your team is really hitting its stride with all of these parts, but the room still turns out to be “difficult.” There are two other factors to consider: the amount of puzzles and the design of puzzles.

The amount of puzzles in each room will of course determine how difficult it is in the end. 

More puzzles = more time to complete (usually).

Puzzle design is not easy to get right. When we design puzzles, we do a lot of testing and go through a lot of trial and error. We track how teams do on certain puzzles and decide if a particular one needs more clues or information to go along with it. We try to find that balance of a smooth puzzle that is challenging and satisfying to figure out. 

Escape room dinosaur puzzle box with riddle.
This box is full of puzzles that we test out to see how different people enjoy solving them.

At Farmington Underground, we strive to have most teams complete the room and see all of the puzzles within the hour. If your team gets stuck, there is no shame in asking for a hint. We give unlimited hints in all of our rooms and let each team decide their own difficulty level. 

In the end though, the more escape rooms you do, the better you become at doing them. Your instincts will get better and so will your puzzle-solving skills. You will create chemistry with members of your team, which means communication will improve and trust will deepen. So get out there and play some more escape rooms!