A few years ago, practically out of nowhere, escape rooms suddenly became wildly popular. Businesses boasting the team-building benefits of escape rooms began popping up all over cities in America. It beats hiking in the middle of the woods… am I right? They became the new work retreat and the new date night. Popular shows like The Big Bang Theory wrote them into episodes. And why not? They have even been turned into horror films. And sure, they’re often fantastically hard — but they’re wildly fun, too! Plus, practically every escape room out there offers both adults-only versions (that make you face some of your biggest fears) and less-terrifying versions for kids.
But why give someone else a ton of money to escape their room when you can create your own? Keep in mind, you have to do more than lock your door, and admittedly, it’s a lot of work. But it can also be a big brain teaser to create and a lot of fun to set the stage yourself. As tedious as it may be, though, putting it together is part of the excitement. Think of all the puzzles, twists, and turns you can build. Your dinner party will be the highlight of the year. Imagine the joy — and perhaps a delightful tinge of terror — your friends or kids will experience as they work through it. Not sure how to go about creating your own escape room? We’re here to walk you through the process. We’re not going to lie, it’s going to take a bit of brainpower, but it’s totally worth it.
Start with a Theme
Every escape room starts with a theme or a backstory. This could be as eerie or as kid-friendly as you’d like. A few examples might include:
- Locked In: A reclusive writer has accidentally trapped herself in the wine cellar.
- Frozen: Olaf and Anna are lost in the woods, looking for carrots for Sven.
- Ghost Lincoln: Abe Lincoln is haunting you, holding you personally responsible for the 2016 election.
- Chernobyl: There’s been a nuclear disaster, and you and your friends need to find a safe place to hide out.
- Jailbreak: There’s been a prison riot, and you have 60 minutes to find your freedom and break out.
- Alice in Wonderland: You’re trapped in a mystical land of slumber, and you and your buddies must fight through pills and potions to wake up.
- Murder on the Orient Express: Take your mystery theme back to a classic whodunnit plot. Board the train (your living room) and when someone figures out who the culprit is, the train will stop.
- Harry Potter Puzzles: When are Harry and his pals not trying to escape Hogwarts and its magical slew of monsters and evil villains? Create a mystical world of spells and conundrums that’ll make your guests feel like a trapped half-blood prince.
- Space Travel: Are you a Trekky? If so, take it back to your Star Trek or Star Wars days. Or rather, take it up and pretend everyone is locked in a spaceship with a dwindling air supply. Or maybe there’s a rocket hurtling toward your ship, and you must find the right controls to escape danger. Feel free to throw in some math or science questions to stump your players.
- Haunted House: Nothing is more classic (and fun) than getting the hell out of a spooky house. You can scare the bejeebers out of your players by including some monsters (your children in costumes) and a serial killer (your husband in a Michael Myers mask). The possibilities are endless, so don’t be afraid to enlist your family as props. It’s what they’re for.
- Indiana Jones: When you think of going on an adventure or experiencing epic escapes, Indiana Jones remains king. The first time many of us encountered booby traps or death-defying getaways was when we watched Jones dodge danger. So, if you want to turn your escape room into the jungle or an ancient tomb, make it an Indiana Jones-themed escape. The best games are filled with excitement and nostalgia. And if your guests are true fans, they might even win the game.
- Covert Mission: Turn your living room into a top-secret spy facility. Tell your guests to dress like James Bond or Charlie’s Angels. Leave scandalous clues and whacky gadgets around the room to help them crack codes and defeat evil henchmen.
- Apocalypse: The zombie apocalypse has finally arrived, and the only safe place to hide is in your home. However, your refuge won’t last forever! Your players must find the safe zone before the zombies break down the door. To bring the post-apocalyptic gore to life, splatter your escape room with blood and guts that’ll make your guests scream. Only the strong will survive the night against the brain-eating zombies.
You get the idea, right? Make it as terrifying or as wacky as you want. You could even reuse a storyline from a movie or favorite TV show.
Think of Objects/People Related to Your Theme
If needed, use Google or Bing to search out things related to the keywords in your theme. Then find 10 to 15 objects or people that might belong in the world you’ve created for your escape room. In the writer’s escape room, you might seek out things like a bottle of wine, a fountain pen, a typewriter, stacks of notebooks, or a trash can full of crumpled papers. If Abe Lincoln is haunting you, you should definitely include a top hat and pipe. And if you’re in Arendelle, Elsa would most likely make an appearance.
Outline Your Story
As you put together your riddles and clues, look for ways to keep the story moving, as well as ways to set things back. If Olaf and Anna find Hans along the way, he’ll be a big help. So, one clue might lead your kids to run to a picture of Hans on the wall. Behind the picture might be a bigger clue for getting out of the forest. If they find Sven’s carrots, but they’re blocked by a briar patch, they’ll have to find a way to move past it before they can move on. Stash some gauze somewhere with another clue or piece of the puzzle written on it.
Create a Puzzle for Each Clue/Challenge
When your kids turn over Hans’s picture or pluck the gauze, it shouldn’t be immediately obvious what they need to do next. Code the message (“Christmas tree,” for instance) using different tree leaves or snowflake shapes. Hide a key (or part of a key) somewhere else within the room. For example, say your last name is “Chase.” Make a decorative sign to sit on the fireplace or hang somewhere nearby. Under each letter of your last name, include a different snowflake shape. If they can connect those shapes with the ones in the note, they’ll have CH_ _ S_ _ A _ _ _ EE. That’s probably enough to let them know to look on the Christmas tree for another challenge. (Maybe a riddle is written on the roll of gauze?)
Create a Simplified Test Run
Is the Christmas tree too convoluted? You won’t know until you give a co-worker a note with those missing letters and see if they can guess what it means. Is that riddle as easy as you thought? Let grandma or grandpa take a swing at it first. By creating a test run, you can work out kinks and figure out what you need to do to make it easier or harder. You don’t want your escape room challenges to be so hard that your kids lose interest. On the other hand, you also don’t want to spend two weeks creating something that takes them five minutes to finish.
Finally, Create Your Space
You can utilize your whole home or just set up one room as the designated “escape room.” If you’re going with the Frozen theme, keep things wintery. For a haunting, pick the room that gets the darkest and set the scene so that it’s dim-lit and eerie (and a little bit dated, to make Honest Abe feel right at home). Once you’re ready, invite your kiddos, friends, or anyone else you’d like to play. Don’t be afraid to let them get a little frustrated before intervening, either. Challenges teach us lessons.
More Ways to Play Escape Room Games at Home
If the idea of creating your own escape room makes you want to take a big ol’ nap, hey, no worries. You may not be a super-crafty person. Or maybe you’re mentally wiped out from juggling work and kids during a pandemic. We get it. Fortunately, creating your own escape room isn’t the only way to get in on the fun. For starters, did you realize The Escape Game online offers several at-home options? You can play with friends via Zoom, on your own virtually, or take a digital escape room “field trip” with your kids.
And with a bit more online sleuthing, you can easily find myriad online escape room games, escape room board games you can buy, virtual escape rooms, and even an escape room game app.
So, have fun… and good luck!