Game thinking from Adam Clare

Tag: politics

Extrapolating Current Designs Trends in Escape Rooms

Escape room I designed in Hunstville

Escape room I designed in Hunstville (a Zig Zag escape room).

Escape rooms keep changing and evolving. Since I first started looking at them five years ago  I’ve seen the market grow from a couple games here and there to seemingly every city now having an escape room. They also have evolved from random logic puzzles strewn across a room to complex interactive experiences. In some cases modern escape rooms have more in common with classic ARGs or LARPs.

We witnessed great change in the last five years, but what does the next five years hold for us? 

Here I will outline some key trends in the escape room industry and speculate on what the future may hold. The popularity of escape rooms is still on an upward trajectory and certain owners are pushing the envelope on what’s possible in an escape game. We’re witnessing an increase in influence from other mediums while more people become designers; these ‘outside’ influences will make for better games.

Escape the Game cast of characters.When I wrote my book, Escape the Game, two years ago I did so because I saw too many rookie mistakes in game design in escape rooms. Thankfully, in two short years many of those mistakes no longer get made. Indeed, the average quality of an escape room in 2017 is greater than in it was in 2015. This trend will continue.

At Wero Creative, we’ve seen the wants of clients grow inline with what I’ve outlined below.

The growth of the escape room market has been stellar. As I was writing this post Room Escape Artist posted about the expansion of the industry in the USA. In 2014 they recorded only 44 escape rooms in the country, midway through 2017 and the number is already standing at 1,800!

Theatre and Performance

Star Wars Disney

In July, Disney announced that their new Star Wars theme park will be like a real life Westworld. Each visitor will be their own Star Wars character complete with their own storyline; every Disney employee in the park will also be in character. The ultimate idea is to allow visitors to explore the entire area in a game like experience. It’s a long-form escape game.

Disney isn’t the first to think of making experiences this immersive (as in having elements of interactivity, gameplay, and actors). Indeed, this has been going on for years and predicted in too many Sci-Fi stories to list.

Interactive theatere has been around for years with theatre groups creating plays that directly involve the audience or take place in unique locations. In the last  couple of years we’ve seen the theatrical and escape room worlds meet. In the early days of escape rooms their  might be an ‘actor’ present in the room. The simplistic characters within the escape provided little to the story while they gave hints and enforced the game rules. Today some companies push the boundaries of actor engagement in gameplay further.

One such company is the Brooklyn-based Third Real Projects. You can see on their projects page an evolution of interactive events that follow the industry trend. Their current production, Then She Fell, captures this well, just read the description:

Then She Fell is a fully immersive, multi-sensory experience in which only 15 audience members per performance explore a dreamscape where every alcove, corner, and corridor has been transformed into a lushly designed world. Inspired by the life and writings of Lewis Carroll, it offers an Alice-like experience for audience members as they explore the rooms, often by themselves, in order to discover hidden scenes; encounter performers one-on-one; unearth clues that illuminate a shrouded history; use skeleton keys to gain access to guarded secrets; and imbibe elixirs custom designed by one of NYC’s foremost mixologists.


Other companies doing similar work include Strange Bird Immersive with an intense Houdini themed guided seance. This is notable because it represents the traditional escape room approach with theatre added instead of the other way around.

Secret City Adventures is another escape room company that has evolved into producing more theatre-like experiences. Due to design constraints at their first series of self-produced rooms (located in a tourist destination) they used people to monitor the players in case of damage. Fittingly they incorporated them into the game as actors. A logical route. This year they are running an escape game in another tourist destination which spans the entire site of an old village. It involves actors to deliver the story and game while the teams scurry from the post office to an old school house and beyond.

In Nashville, the CMA Music Festival created an “outdoor escape experience” for festival attendees. It encouraged participants to explore Nashville in interning ways. In previous years such a game would be called a LARP or ARG, but the awareness of escape rooms have changed the way we talk about these games.

Here we have proof of the viability of escape games that incorporate traditional theatrical techniques and novel locations to get attention (and players). Expect to see more escape games like this in the future.

The ESC Game Theater in New York provides a series of mini-games to entertain players.  While not a proper escape room the facility provides us a window of what can be for escape games. The games are short, challengning , and plentiful while their business model is similar to that of an arcade. Worth looking at, and the Verge did just that.

Technological Integration

It is common for people within the escape rooms industry to get hooked on the “generations” idea of technology in games. Don’t fall into this trap. Just use the right technology for the room, theme, and budget. The very breakdown of generations doesn’t make sense when you look at escape rooms outside of North America.

camera feed

Instead, look at what is happening around you. Game designers are incorporating all sorts of technology into their rooms, sometimes a rope and pulley system is perfect and other times you might want to use lasers. As always, refer back to your theme to decide what to use (knowledge of the person building the room matters too).

A great example of this is a room made by two Disney Imagineers called The Nest by Scout Expedition. Within the room players need to find audio cassettes and listen to them to reveal the story. Instead of using some high-tech  solution they chose to use something that works with their theme and is a proven, reliable, technology.

Indeed, in an interview with the Verge the designers talk about the importance of designing the entire set and using it to tell the story.

It’s a testament not just to the narrative contained on the tapes, but to the storytelling done by the physical space itself — something that the creators’ work as Imagineers made them particularly suited for. “We are most confident in being set designers, and creating the set,” Leinenveber explains. “We wanted the set to be able to inform the story just as much as the writing.”

Technology provides cool elements to a room but a designer ought not to rely on technology itself to make the room interesting. Technology is just a way to deliver game content – not the content itself.

AR in Escape Rooms

It looks like augmented reality (AR) will finally become useful thanks to Apple’s AR Kit. Just watching this video about gave me a ton of ideas of how to incorporate AR puzzles into a room.

Indeed, finding AR being used in escape rooms is easy. With AR Kit the amount of cool puzzles featuring AR will only increase.

In Hong Kong an AR escape game exists already, Lost HK. The game incorporates AR into the traditional escape room experience. Time Out Hong Kong wrote about it and it sounds like a must-play room.

The AR used in this game, which is based on a tragedy that some Hongkongers will remember, sees team members viewing on the tablet’s screen how the living room where the fire started looked before the flames were lit. This is despite the fact that the real room the team stands in is actually set during the inferno, hence the game’s name. It’s a way to use the AR technology to view different time periods at exactly the same moment and work clues out in exactly the same room.

Some companies building AR technology for games already are banking on AR rising in popularity. Cluetivity, based in Berlin, have quite good looking tech (I’ve seen it in action at some gaming conferences). They are more like a treasure hunt than an escape game, but it’s indubitable the two shall merge. In Amsterdam you can play one of their games to explore the city.

In Toronto I met with *no campfire required who are working on similar technology for conferences and events. They expect their AR tool to be used in tourism and large scale events to encourage exploration and learning. This technology can be used inside a small space like a building or even just a room.

Every year, making AR experiences gets easier and we’ll see more escape rooms incorporating the technology into their rooms.  In terms of nomenclature I expect that phrases like “mixed reality” or “hyper reality” to be used more. We shall see.


A quick note on virtual reality (VR) in escape rooms: I think that AR will win out over VR because more people can see what’s going on. VR single player escape games are something else entirely.

Political Escape Rooms

Technological change in games comes as no surprise nor should cultural change. Like other forms of storytelling, escape rooms can be used to invoke emotions and share issues that others ought to be aware of. Thus, we get political escape rooms.

There are overt politically-themed escape rooms like this one on the Cuban Missile Crisis or a series on escaping Cold War Berlin. These use politics merely as a theme, what I find more interesting are rooms that are political.

In the Canadian oil city of Calgary sits an escape game that you can play in one of their libraries. Called Unlocking Homelessness and made by Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth the game focuses on issues impacting indigenous homeless youth.  The CBC has more:

Each room has a different theme. The party room is filled with props related to drug and alcohol addictions; the alley room, accessed by climbing through a cabinet, deals with death and grief; the nice house symbolizes success and explains how to maintain a happy life.

Political escape rooms will grow as more people get into designing escape games, which we are already seeing. Keep an eye on Breakout EDU and their massive community around making educational games.

Growth of the DIY scene

pics and camera

The truth is that anybody can build an escape room experience. The hardest part is making it look good and making it an enjoyable experience to play. Challenges of these sorts can stop the hobbyist, enthusiasts, and aspiring professional designers from making rooms – if only due to the cost alone.

The growth of the DIY escape room scene is great to see! There are tons of puzzle ideas you can use scattered around the web (like this list of 101 puzzle ideas or the company Lock Paper Scissors). Like other DIY scenes many people get their ideas from experience followed by modification.

One individual is blogging their DIY escape room building experience here. I’m sure in the future we’ll see similar efforts and documentation to help even more people get into designing games.

Combine the growth of DIY escape rooms with the desire to add meaning (like politics) into games and we’ll see some cool new rooms.

Escape the Name

Escape the Game by Adam Clare

Escape the Game by Adam Clare

To be blunt: escape rooms is a horrible term. In my experience people don’t like the implication that the word ‘escape ‘ has. Escape from what? Is it like those Saw movies? I’ve talked to educational clients who about want an escape room, however, it can’t be called an “escape room” because parents wouldn’t approve of it.

Personally, I’ve never made a room that actually requires players to escape. I find it more fun to design experiences to motivate people to do something out of interest than out of fear.

Boda Borg is a great example of a game that is pushing some of the boundaries mentioned above and changing the name. They simply call it ‘questing’.

As escape rooms diversify in what they do and what kind of experience they provide (like theatre) then the term escape room becomes less appropriate. I’m at a loss to think of an appropriate alternative.

If the industry wants the next five years to see the same growth as the previous five then it will need to come up with a better term than escape rooms.

Any suggestions?

TL;DR of the Future of Escape Rooms (Conclusion)

  • Competition is getting more intense in the escape room industry.
  • Use of AR will increase.
  • In the next five years we’ll witness a growth of interesting, meaningful, and technologically advanced games.
  • Designs and ideas from outside the escape room world bring new life to escape games.
  • Immersive experiences beyond the game are an attraction unto themselves.
  • Technological gizmos are present in a lot of escape rooms. Use whatever is right for your theme.
  • The DIY scene is growing and we’ll see more artistic/political games.
  • Change the term ‘escape room’ to be something more palatable.

Looking for custom escape room designs? Feel free to contact me.

Village of Cards: A Canadian ‘House Of Cards’ Game

Card mockups

Early card mockups complete with spelling mistakes.

First off, the fact that House of Cards was released the same month I set out to make a card game on Canada’s electoral system is merely coincidence. If you haven’t seen the show yet – you should!

In House of Cards the characters are striving for personal power or wealth, but that does not reflect what I’m looking to cover. I’m looking to make a comment on Canada’s horrible state of elections that has only worsened over the last decade. Of many,many, many issues that have surfaced around bad election (and related) policies the most recent is the move by the Conservative party to make elections less democratic.

That’s federal. On the provincial level we have seen attempts at electoral reform fail while corruption seems to grow. What’s more, on the municipal level Montreal has gone through more mayors than I can keep track of and in Toronto we have the worst mayor the city has ever seen.

Beyond the above issues, voter apathy is increasing and traditional political participation decreasing. I have found this state of politics in Canada frustrating and what better way than using a game to express my frustration?

Thus: Village of Cards now exists.

The name Village of Cards is a nod to history and etymology of Canada. According to Wikipedia: “The name Canada originated around 1535 from the Saint-Lawrence Iroquoian word Kanata meaning “village”.” And, the name change hopefully lowers the likelihood that I’ll get sued.

The game:

Play testing the game

Play testing the game

The goal of Village of Cards is to win an election by getting more votes than your opponents!

The game runs for four “weeks” (AKA rounds), and each week has five “days” (AKA turns). Every week the front runner is determined (who has the most votes) and a news event is randomly drawn. Players then need to react to the event while playing their cards to beat their opponents.

Players play action cards once per day of the week that allows them to:

  • Earn votes from active voters
  • Steal votes form an opponent
  • Modify their (or an opponent’s hand)
  • Block an opponent’s card from having an effect

It’s meant to reflect what it’s like to run an electoral campaign in Canada.

Designing the game:

The game itself is meant to not be clearly in support of any particular party nor to pick on any party (despite how tempting that was). I also knew that this game had to have three or more players. If it only had two players it would be less fun and be interpreted to reflect the two party system in the USA.

Here are some the goals of the design process:

  • Not be indicative of any level of government
  • Show that voters will not vote because of ‘bad’ behaviour of candidates
  • Demonstrate that voter apathy impacts elections and campaign strategies
  • Be engaging to people who “don’t care about politics”
  • Have a short setup to play time (less than 5 minutes to explain the game)
  • The game has multiple strategies to win it

Only one of the goals was not fully met and that would be the last one. But, let’s go through each of the above.

Look at this guy testing!

Not be indicative of any level of government
Canada has three levels of government and they operate in a similar way when it comes to elections. Indeed, only municipal elections tend to diverge amongst the country. As a result all I had to do was not be explicit on the cards about which level the game is set at; indeed, I did the opposite and included scandals and issues from all levels.

Therefore it made sense to reference the Conservative robocall scandal; Kathleen Wynne’s feeble attempt at social media; and of course smoking crack.

Play testers often debated which level of government they were campaigning for. “I thought I was going to be the Prime Minister, and you thought we were fighting for Premier?”

Show that voters will not vote because of ‘bad’ behaviour of candidates
The game has two voter pools – one of active voters and one that contains apathetic voters. To capture the reality that voter participation is decreasing with each election the apathetic voter pool starts with 50% of all votes. That’s not enough though, I made the cards more inclined to discourage voters more powerful and plentiful to reflect the current state of Canadian politics.

This mechanic is in the game because as I often say to my students: the mechanics are the message.

Demonstrate that voter apathy impacts elections and campaign strategies
This is directly related to the above design issue. The mechanics of the game make it so one valid strategy is to drive people away from voting and to just steal votes from your opponents. However, this makes it really difficult for the other players ensuring that there is a constant cycle of votes between active and inactive voters.

Each candidate just needs to have more votes in their pool than other candidates to win. Like in Canadian elections, it’s possible that you can have less than 30% of total votes and win a majority.

More play testing

More play testing

Be engaging to people who “don’t care about politics”
The name choice was inspired by a joking comment by a friend and Village of Cards stuck. Playing off of the popularity of House of Cards will hopefully help people ease into the game. But I can’t just rely on a TV show.

This is where play testing with a diverse group of people revealed more than normal. Everyone has an opinion of politics – even people who are self admittedly ignorant and apathetic. With people who are into politics at more than a cursory level they instantly got into the game and wanted more political jabs. Others didn’t get the tongue in check political cards I made but they did get how the game works – indeed it even inspired players to ask about the first past the post system we have in Canada.

To appeal to people who don’t instantly buy into the political angle I had to ensure that the game needs to be easy and fast to learn.

Have a short setup to play time (less than 5 minutes to explain the game)
Because this was an ongoing concern of mine from the beginning of the project it was reflected in all the design decisions I made. When it came to actually explaining the rules I got it to be shorter than five minutes every time.

From setup to playing took basically no time; however learning the late game strategy was a challenge for every new player.

The game has multiple strategies to win it
Players can adopt three basic strategies for the game but most of it doesn’t matter until the final week of the game.

Ideally I wanted a player to be able to front load their campaign and get a ton of followers the first week to win the game. This was never play tested to be true as the first week was always haphazard and the last week players were playing their most powerful cads. In some ways this does reflect reality, but it means that the game is less fun (and remember I want to appeal to people who don’t love politics).

As mentioned, above, allowing for multiple strategies is the only design point that I didn’t achieve. The reason for this is a lack of cards that have entire game impact (I assume I’ll constantly be updating the cards). The framework of the solution is already there – I just need to amp it up.



If you’d like to play this game and happen to be in Toronto – let me know!

As always, thanks to all those people I subjected to testing this game with me!

My previous #1GAM games:

Gnome Oppressor

Find out more about #1GAM here.

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