Pick a theme
It’s possible to create generic sequences of puzzles without a story or setting, but in order to capture the fun of escape rooms, we recommend picking a theme! You can take inspiration from classic escape room themes, from exploring tombs to defusing bombs — or you can think about the people who’re going to be playing your escape room and come up with something more specific or personalised. Have a look around your house and see what sorts of items you can repurpose as decorations or puzzle components, or use the opportunity to do some crafting. You don’t have to go over the top on theming and decorating, but even something as simple as printing out some pictures will help set the scene and get your players interested. Plus, having a cool theme will help you by providing inspiration for the puzzles and story!
Plan the game
Once you’ve got your theme, decide what the overall ‘narrative’ of your escape room will be. What’s the final goal? It doesn’t have to just be escaping the room — your players could be aiming to break into somewhere instead, like a vault full of treasure, or trying to find and use something in time, such as a life-saving antidote or a code that’ll save the world. Once you know what the final aim is, it’s time to break it down into even more steps. What sorts of tasks might they need to complete in order to get there? What information or tools could they need to find along the way?
Plan out the general outline you want your game to follow using a flowchart. This doesn’t have to be complicated — it can be as simple as a few sticky notes. The point of this step is to give you a sense of how the game will fit together, and where you’ll need to put puzzles. For instance, if the overall goal is to discover a chest of lost pirate gold, some of the steps might include finding a message in a bottle, or using a treasure map to discover where to look.
Come up with puzzles
This can be the hardest part of making your own DIY escape room, but it can also be the most fun! There are lots of different types of puzzles out there — try and come up with a range of different options, like hiding items, encoding clues with ciphers, or having physical puzzles that require players to move things around. Stuck for inspiration? You can find lots of puzzle ideas online, as well as printable puzzle kits that do the hard work for you.
It’s usually easier to come up with puzzles by working backwards from the solution. If you know the next task for your players is going to be unlocking a three-digit padlock, then you can think about ways to hide a three-digit code; if you’ve got a door locked with a key, think about where to hide it, then what kind of clues to its location you can give. If you’re stuck on where to start, try collecting all the lockable things you have, and then come up with puzzles to suit them.
When you’re creating puzzles, think about what sorts of things fit your theme, as well as what you’ve got lying around that you can use. Books are great at hiding in plain sight, and can be written in, have words or page numbers underlined, or have their middle pages cut out in order to create a secret hiding space. Other common household items that are useful for puzzle-making include picture frames (hide things in the back of the frame, or create clue-filled pictures) or decks of cards (conveniently numbered for hiding codes).
If you don’t happen to have a bunch of spare padlocks lying around — firstly, what kind of life are you living? Who doesn’t surround themselves with miscellaneous unused padlocks? What do you mean, our experiences aren’t universal? But, secondly, no worries; you can do perfectly well without them. Try a bike lock, or get really meta and use your house key as the final thing needed to ‘escape’. Tie cupboards or bags shut with cord, and make your players solve a puzzle to find the scissors that can cut the string. Lock a phone or a computer with a passcode, and get players to log in to look for information they need. Or just write ‘four-digit padlock’ on a piece of paper, fasten it to whatever you’re ‘locking’, and trust your players to suspend their disbelief. Don’t worry if your DIY puzzles aren’t the most professional — it won’t ruin the fun!
Get set up
Once you’ve got all your puzzles sorted, it’s time to actually create your escape room! Hide everything that needs hiding (here are some ideas for where), lock everything that needs locking, and set up all your decorations. Think about how you’re going to time your players, and how you’re going to give them hints (if they want them!). It’s also worth planning ahead for if there’s anything you might need to let your players know ahead of time, either about how the game works, or about what’s NOT a part of the game — for instance, if there’s nothing hidden inside breakable objects, make sure you tell people not to touch it, or else your players might get carried away with puzzle-solving zeal, and the next thing you know your great-great-grandmother’s favourite ornamental vase has been sacrificed to the search for clues.
Finally, give it your own twist!
Your DIY escape room is probably not going to be exactly the same as a trip to a real life escape room, and that’s okay! While you might not be able to pull off some of the things that professional escape rooms can, your at-home escape room can do a bunch of cool stuff that you wouldn’t find anywhere else. For one thing, since you’re designing it, you can make it as personalised as you’d like! Professional escape rooms tend not to use puzzles that rely on any outside knowledge, but if you’re making an escape room for your friends to play, you can always throw in some puzzles based around things they’re interested in or inside jokes. If your DIY escape room is a one-time event, you can include clues that are only usable one time, puzzles you need to destroy or take apart in order to solve, or incorporate food and drink into your puzzling. (Hide something in a bottle and have your team drink the contents in order to find it, or decorate some cookies with hints in the icing and turn them from cookies to clue-kies.) The personal touch is sure to make your DIY escape room experience unforgettable.
If you don’t have the time to create your own escape room, there are other ways you can experience some escape game fun from home, from VR games to books — find out more here! Or check out our board game recommendations for more game options from home.
We hope everyone’s staying safe, and looking after yourselves and others during these stressful times. While LockHouse is currently closed, we’ll be keeping up a series of blog posts on all things escape rooms, board games, tabletop RPGs, media recs, and more. Read all our LockHouse Lockdown content here. Plus keep an eye on our Facebook for everything from updates to brainteasers!