Evening the Playing Field When Developing a Puzzle

When developing a new puzzle, it’s common to run into questions like, “Are people going to get this? Is it too complex? Or not complex enough?” One of your players might have a PhD in Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics and another might be a high school student. You don’t want to frustrate one for the sake of the other, so developing a game or puzzle can be tricky.

Good game design puts all players on an even playing field.  Developing a puzzle for an escape room or other alternate reality game – really any team-building type of activity – requires players to be on equal footing.  Of course, each player comes in with different knowledge and experiences, but applying that knowledge to your game should allow all players a similar chance to contribute.

A good way to do this is to define your game around something.  It could be anything – a book, newspaper clipping, CD, video, items in a treasure chest… anything.  This goes back to the old adage about creativity:  it’s easier to be creative within limits.  If I tell you to draw a picture, you may spend some time spinning your wheels and not knowing how to get started.  What do I draw? How detailed should it be? How much time do I have?  But if I say “draw a picture of a giraffe drinking from a lake and only use the colors blue, purple and green.” Now it’s much easier for you to get off and running.  Maybe you’re not the greatest artist, but I’ve created constraints for you and have defined your “playing field”.

If you design your puzzle around some constraint, then players can have a common starting point.  If the answer to your riddle about Hercules can be found in your escape room, say within a book or on an audio CD, then it doesn’t matter how long a player studied Greek mythology. Of course you’ll probably want to throw in another wrinkle and have them deduce something from your source material rather than just giving them the answer on page 14, but that’s a discussion for a different post.

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