Some thoughts on the Singapore Puzzle Hunt

It’s been rather more than a month since the first Singapore Puzzle Hunt took place, which means I should really get around to putting down some thoughts about it.

The intention of the Singapore Puzzle Hunt was to introduce people who might be interested — in practice, mainly fans of escape rooms and the REG series — to the world of puzzle hunts. My focus, in particular, was to get them familiar with puzzle hunt staples such as Morse and semaphore. I think we ended up with a representative spread of common extraction methods as a result, although the puzzles were otherwise conservative in format, rarely straying from the identify-solve-extract framework (the need to sort was removed from several puzzles during the editing stage, to make them simpler).

Was it actually a good hunt for beginners, in the end? Well, if the feedback forms are anything to go by, almost all participants were kind enough to say they’d be interested in similar outings in the future. One issue if a 2016 hunt happens (and I hope it does) will be balancing between providing a challenge to teams who’ve now got the basics, yet keeping it accessible to complete newcomers.

Which might be a good point at which to talk about puzzle difficulty and the spread thereof. Leaving aside the meta (which, even in vastly simpler form, was still probably unfairly difficult), both the mean and median number of puzzles solved was six out of 12, while the mode was 6.5 — for whatever that’s worth. Might it have been better to aim for the average team being able to solve three-quarters of the hunt, maybe? I’d personally be inclined in that direction, but philosophies might differ.

A bigger issue, which I think is easier to agree on as an actual problem, was the uneven variation in how solvable puzzles were. The solve rates, grouped roughly, fell like this:

100% 96% 88%
71% 71%
58%
38%
29% 25% 21%
4% 0%

I’d personally have preferred the toughest puzzles to bottom out at around a 20% solve rate, and for more puzzles at around 60% – 70%.

I think the 2015 hunt has certainly given us a better sense of what does and doesn’t work for first-time solvers; a massive flaw in the organising process was a lack of test-solvers without prior puzzle hunt experience (partly because we wanted such people to take part in the actual thing instead!).

Puzzles aside, other things that bear thinking about for 2016 are hint systems and how best to integrate interactive elements. I imagine a lot of internal discussion when the time comes. But at least one takeaway from the 2015 hunt should not be controversial: the constantly-updated leaderboard, which was originally meant for the hunt organisers’ own reference but swiftly became popular with the teams.

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Different kinds of challenges (and my biases)

There are many different ways in which an escape room or event could be considered challenging, which is also why I stick to just considering puzzle difficulty rather than overall room difficulty on my review blog.

What constitutes an enjoyable or meaningful challenge is probably something that each individual gamer will have to decide for themselves (if at all), but here’s my own entirely biased take on things. Roughly in increasing order of personal preference, here’s a list of different ways in which a room might be challenging. (I’ve left out “bad/ambiguous/illogical puzzles”, since I’m not sure anyone actually sets out to do this.)

– Simple mismatch between a reasonable expected solving time and the actual time allotted. Simply giving 45 minutes instead of an hour could make all the difference between a tough but fair room, and an unreasonably difficult one.

– Tedious puzzles. One escape room company in Singapore is (was?) notorious for having puzzles that required large amounts of counting or visual searching. There’s no thrill in such drudgery. This can also be a problem when puzzles aren’t innately tedious but “go on too long” — for instance, having to play a sequence of 20 musical notes instead of 10. It doesn’t take additional skill to do so, just more time.

– Hard logistical constraints. Darkness is a common one, especially when combined with a limited number of torchlights. I personally find this a cheap way to increase the difficulty. Dim lighting is fair if you want to obscure the existence of a clue or create an atmosphere, but it shouldn’t be used to make up for puzzles that are too few or too easy.

– Red herrings. I think rooms shouldn’t be so bare that clues and puzzles become obvious, but neither do I think rooms should have red herrings which are too numerous or simply unfair (those which match an existing puzzle, say).

– Memory work. I can see the argument for this being a valid skill to test, but it just doesn’t improve the experience for me.

– Computational work and complex logic puzzles. I can solve simultaneous equations, a sudoku, or a logic puzzle in my own time, were I so inclined; if I’m in an escape room, I’d appreciate more relevant, site-specific puzzles.

– A strong need for teamwork, including co-operation, communication, and human resource allocation. Split-start rooms are a good example, as well as events which might require a team to split up. Not only can this liven up the room experience, it also allows for clever or inventive puzzles. Most split-start rooms don’t stay that way for long, though, which I think is a good idea.

– Requiring physical precision or dexterity. This can be a particularly fun or refreshing element to have, especially after the first generation of escape rooms which were more lock-and-paper affairs. I do appreciate rooms which require a bit of this, but like everything else, it can be taken too far. Although they’re called escape rooms, I think the genre is generally thought of as highly reliant on puzzles and problem-solving, rather than mere skill in carrying out physical tasks.

– Need for searching and/or keen observation. Having clues that are just hidden enough can improve the experience of an escape room, compared to having the puzzles obviously laid out for you. Of course, there’s still a difference between a room that requires tedious searching (e.g. several shelves of books, all of which need to be checked; lots and lots of drawers) and one with clever hiding places (e.g. a key stuck to the underside of a drawer).

– Intuitive leaps. I personally feel that the core of a good puzzle is the central intuitive leap, or the aha, as it’s commonly known in the puzzle hunt tradition. Everything else after that is just some variation on execution, even if it’s non-trivial. A good aha might be particularly clever, apt, or creative; it also has to be fair.

A completely personal escape room wishlist

As above.

– For companies which currently combine teams to just stop doing so. In practice, if would-be players see that a slot is partially filled, do they really tack themselves on? How much extra profit do companies really get from such an unfriendly room policy?

– More old-school technology or mechanics, not just flashy electronics. Some of my favourite parts of the European escape rooms I’ve tried were their hands-on mechanical aspects, such as using a typewriter or filling a bottle with water in order to make something float to the top. Closer to home, the now-defunct Mysterious Lab room at Phantom Joker (I keep referring to defunct rooms because I don’t have to worry about giving spoilers) had one puzzle requiring teams to pipette water into a plastic container. That sort of hands-on work feels more real and thus more satisfying, to me, than punching buttons on some digital contraption.

– Fewer scary rooms, or at least not rooms which are so scary that they hamper puzzle-solving. The fact that practically all of Trapped SG’s rooms are marketed specifically as being scary means that I am very unlikely to try them.

– No more reliance on darkness as a cheap way of ramping up the difficulty. It can sometimes have a place (the use of darkness was one highlight of Phantom Joker’s Spooky Forest room), but if it’s not actually relevant to puzzle-solving, then dim lighting should just be atmospheric instead of an obstacle.

– No puzzles that rely simply on tedious execution.

– A greater variety of puzzles, and in particular, fewer of those straightforward matching ones. Yes, yes, I have an issue with matching puzzles. But honestly, in their simplest form they barely even count as puzzles: you’re literally just matching a given set of symbols with a given key. What’s the fun in that? At least hide the key somehow, or give some twists to the formula.

Technology in escape rooms

Singapore players seem keen on technology use in escape rooms, and some companies use it as an explicit selling point. (One obvious exception is Escape Hunt, which is pretty defensive about its lack of high-tech frills.) Speaking of ‘technology use’ in general, however, obscures the variation in how technology is used. Not just in terms of the specific mechanisms — those do vary greatly, but elaborating on them would mean lots of spoilers — but also the purpose to which they’re put.

Mere special effects. These are most common in scary rooms, and are completely unconnected to puzzle-solving. Great if you’re into an escape room for scares, but pretty meaningless otherwise, although they do contribute to atmosphere.

Triggered effects. These are what happen after you punch in the right number code or perform the right action. They can work as special effects in their own right (again, especially in scary rooms) but are more meaningful because they represent the room’s response to the players, and aren’t random. They can be as simple (and thus rather boring) as a door automatically unlocking, or as dramatic as parts of the room doing unexpected things…

Answer input or execution mechanisms. The alternative to code locks. These may or may not be part of puzzles themselves. At one end of the scale are things like digital number-pads, which are flashier than code locks and could be good for creating a sense of setting, but are not inherently more interesting.

At the other end are mechanisms that are fully integrated into the puzzle-solving process — in other words, the solution to the puzzle isn’t a string of numbers, but pressing buttons in a certain order, connecting wires, etc.

These may be combined with triggered effects. In the now-closed Fallen Star room at Phantom Joker, for instance, one of the puzzles required you to arrange books in the right order on a bookshelf (answer input), which caused a cabinet at the other end of the room to burst open dramatically (triggered effect).

Puzzle-solving process. This includes the use of gadgets to execute tasks, something that’s particularly common in Roomraider SG rooms. It can also go beyond simple execution and include puzzle aspects, as in the now-closed Chairman’s Office room by Think Your Way Out. There was a puzzle in which you had to play two cassette tapes simultaneously and then do a little more thinking for the solution.

Puzzle presentation. Very broadly speaking, the alternative to just having puzzles on scraps of paper. These are high-tech ways to convey puzzle components, which may or may not be involved in the actual puzzle-solving. This could be as simple as the use of video screens or recorded audio.

My personal preference is for everything in an escape room to be puzzle-relevant, so I’m most fond of technology use that’s integrated into the actual solving process. But I also enjoy exciting triggered effects because they create a sense of room responsiveness, which is (in my opinion) one of the best ways to make a room immersive.

State of the industry (or one take on it, anyway)

In my entirely subjective opinion, escape room companies in Singapore fall roughly into two categories: the ‘commercial’ and the ‘enthusiast’.

The most obvious ‘commercial’ outfits are franchise players such as Escape Hunt, Freeing SG and LOST SG. I’d also put Xcape Singapore in this group, even though it’s a homegrown brand, and possibly Roomraider SG as well.

To me, these companies come across as more strictly-business and potentially cynical. That’s not to say that the rooms themselves are bad – Freeing SG has some very fun aspects, LOST SG provides a polished and satisfying experience, and Xcape Singapore has some very ambitious rooms. But you definitely get a sense that these are pure commercial enterprises.

This extends to less friendly customer policies. Freeing SG, LOST SG, Xcape Singapore and Roomraider SG will combine strangers who book the same timeslot, and tend to be strict about player group sizes as a result. Escape Hunt doesn’t combine groups, but has much higher prices for small groups.

This commercial approach also applies to their marketing methods. LOST SG is possibly one of the slickest players here, having invited many lifestyle bloggers on sponsored visits and managing to get media coverage in various outlets. Escape Hunt is very successful on TripAdvisor, receiving glowing reviews from escape room newbies who don’t know any better, and waging a strong PR offensive against negative reviews – not rudely, but simply by implying that the reviewers are mistaken in their opinions.

In contrast, ‘enthusiast’ companies give a strong impression of being in this business due to a genuine love of escape rooms.

The purest example, for me, was the now-closed Phantom Joker Escape. They had creative rooms with a loving (some would say excessive) focus on narrative and plot. Almost all of their puzzles were fair and non-generic, and there were some truly epic moments in store. But there was arguably not enough focus on the bottomline, with their prime location in a Tanjong Pagar shophouse costing a reported $12,000 each month in rent.

I’d also consider The Escape Artist, BreakOut Games, Encounter, Unravel and Exit Plan as ‘enthusiast’ companies.

Enthusiasm doesn’t always mean quality, of course. Exit Plan in particular is a company I’m conflicted about, because I liked the staff very much when I visited, but their rooms are among the worst I’ve ever played.

In the early days of the escape room scene here, around 2013, ‘enthusiast’ companies also tended to have low-budget rooms — but this has largely changed. The Escape Artist, as a pioneer in the escape room scene, had very no-frills rooms in their first Bukit Timah outlet, but have since become more ambitious and high-tech. Today, Encounter and Unravel in particular have special effects and technology to rival even the big franchises.

‘Enthusiast’ companies also tend to have much more forgiving customer policies. All of the above companies do not combine groups during booking, and as a result, they’re flexible with group sizes as well.

There are some escape room companies which are harder to place. Lockdown.sg and Trapped.sg are independent businesses, as far as I can tell, but don’t quite have the same feel as their ‘enthusiast’ counterparts. I haven’t been to Trapped.sg, but their three-person room minimum and arguable over-selling of their rooms make me reluctant.

Lockdown.sg is an interesting one. I visited them back when they were fairly new, and the staff then were friendly and happy to discuss elements of their room design afterwards. I feel that their expansion to three outlets might have diluted that personal touch somewhat.

Is any of this relevant to the average escape room player? Well, particularly since Phantom Joker’s closure, I’ve come to believe that players who want the escape room scene to thrive should throw their support behind good ‘enthusiast’ rooms. Spread the word, encourage your friends to play, and leave good reviews on sites such as TripAdvisor (if the rooms deserve them).

Good ‘commercial’ companies such as LOST SG will thrive without any help: they have deep pockets and marketing savvy, and can take care of themselves perfectly well. ‘Enthusiast’ companies which are equally good or better, however, might not perform as well despite their quality.

On my escape room blog, I don’t discriminate in the reviews themselves. Quality rooms should be recognised regardless of whether they are run by a big firm or a small one. But if I have to recommend rooms to friends, say, then I’ll always recommend an independent room over a franchise-run one, if it fits the bill.

The less pleasant corollary is that I believe bad rooms should be called out — especially bad ‘commercial’ rooms, which could be kept afloat by a franchise’s marketing ability alone.

 

Hint systems

With the exception of the now-closed Think Your Way Out Chairman’s Office room, escape room companies in Singapore have hint systems that rely on teams asking directly for help. The main variations are in aspects such as the number of hints available (ranging from ‘just one’ to ‘as many as needed’) and the nature of the hints given.

Having spent some time in international escape room discussion spaces, it’s clear that opinions on what makes for a good hint system vary widely. Some players seem to prefer a more guided approach, rather than having to decide whether to ask for hints.

But I think it’s safe to say that most players in Singapore, at least, would prefer not to receive unsolicited hints. Most would also probably prefer to receive answers to specific questions (Team: “Are we supposed to be doing action x?” “Is there something wrong with our current answer xyz?”) or be gently nudged in the right direction (Room master: “Have you looked at x?” “What have you noticed about y?”) rather than just be told what to do.

Yet it’s arguably possible to preserve the control offered by the asking-for-hints approach, while nonetheless improving the room escape experience. After recent visits to three escape rooms in Europe, I think the main way in which Singapore escape rooms could improve their hint systems is to have closer monitoring of teams.

The ideal hint system, to me, is two-way: teams can request for help when they wish, but the room master can also offer the option of a hint when it looks like a team is stuck.

Crucially, teams retain control over whether to accept or reject the hint, instead of being given unwanted help. But this also ensures that the room master can step in when help is needed – especially if teams may not realise that this is the case!

For instance, if a team has unlocked only a small percentage of a room when half the time has run out, they might not realise how much further they have to go. Or perhaps a team might waste too much time barking up the wrong tree and doing all sorts of unnecessary work, while thinking that they’re on the right track. At such points, it could be helpful for the room master to step in with a hint offer.

With many escape rooms in Singapore relying on technology, closer monitoring would also allow the room master to notice when a team has found the right answer but just can’t get the technology to work. They can then intervene to sort it out. (I’ve personally come up against this situation a few times, and it is tiresome to have to call for “help” when it’s a purely logistical manner, or to think that your answer is wrong and abandon it when it’s actually correct. I also disagree with how places like LOST SG consider such logistical help to be equivalent to puzzle-solving hints, but that only matters if you want to be on their leaderboards…)

Manpower is probably the biggest constraint, of course. The European companies I visited had just one or two rooms per outlet, compared to the more usual three to five rooms in Singapore firms. Still, even if continuous monitoring isn’t feasible, it should be possible to at least glance at each team’s progress every few minutes or so.