🕵🏻‍♂️ You might be a fellow escape-room enthusiast, looking to up your game to the next level. You might be an HR rep, searching for your next team building activity. You might be an analyst trying to find an opportunity to sharpen your critical thinking skills. Or you might just be bored this weekend.

Whoever you are, escape rooms are for YOU.

But sometimes these experiences come with time, location and cost constraints. That is… until now! (insert happy dance here 💃🏼)

I’m here to share my insider knowledge with you on how to build your own DIY Escape Room experience, on a budget! This particular Escape room DIY was built for our office holiday party, but you can build yours for any sort of event! (Wedding escape room, baby shower escape ‘womb’, you name it, you can escape it.)

5 TIPS TO BUILD YOUR OWN BUDGET-FRIENDLY ESCAPE ROOM

Tip #1: Use a story.

The crux of a good escape room is the story. “Look for clues to escape” is way less epic than “You’ve been shipwrecked. Your team are the survivors who washed up on the shores of a remote island in Fiji. And what’s worse — your lifeboat is nowhere to be found….”

Main point – your players should feel immersed in their task! A story ups the ante and gives the players a tangible goal to work toward. A story also helps players to work their way through the room in a logical way. Clues should be integrated into the plot of the story. And the players themselves experience their own stories as they work toward a goal and overcome obstacles to achieve it. The binary question is already built in — will we escape? 

The experience is even better if you make the story relevant to your audience. Customize it with your friends or employees in mind! With our office escape room, I used Elliot (our brand journalist) as my inspiration. He’d recently traveled to Columbia and gathered footage of sea turtles for a video to promote conservationism. Boom. The makings of a backstory. We’d also rented out an AirB&B apartment for the holiday party, so I incorporated that location in the story as well.

Here’s the task I gave our team: 

We all know that Elliot captured video of sea turtles on his recent trip to Columbia. What we didn’t know was that he captured that footage ILLEGALLY. Now officials from the Columbian government are on their way to Elliot’s apartment to confiscate the memory cards and hard drives with this valuable footage — they’ve just landed at RDU airport and we only have 25 minutes before they arrive 😱. What’s worse — Elliot has trouble remembering his lock combinations and often misplaces his keys. (Note — Elliot’s short term memory is an inside joke within the office) Elliot must flee the country to protect this footage. He needs your help to gather his memory cards and passport so he can flee before the Columbian officials come knocking. 

I also incorporated clues into the room that fit within this theme. World maps, a handwritten letter from Elliot with clues to help him remember the lock combinations, and even Elliot’s genuine passport.

The fact that the room’s story was based on a member of our team made the escape room that much more fun. Get creative and customize your experience!

Tip #2: Use what you already have.

There is no need to spend a ton of money building your own escape room. Even though some professional escape rooms have hidden rooms and mechanical, magnetic or electrical elements, your room doesn’t have to be fancy to be really fun.

Gather maps, puzzles, locks, boxes, artwork or anything else that you already own to incorporate into your room (and story!). Get creative and think outside the box. For example, one escape room I built I needed a large box that could hold some items, and I also needed a lock for that box and way to make the lock attach to the box. I didn’t want to have to purchase three things that would only ever be used in an escape room setting.. so I opted to use my personal suitcase that has a built-in number lock on the side. I then worked backwards to design a clue that was specifically made for that lock combination. Boom! Zero dollars for that element of the escape room!

Save your money for wow items like a blacklight, cryptex, or something special related to your theme.

Here’s what I repurposed: 

Bicycle lock, combination lock, wall map, map puzzle, postcards, dry erase marker, pen, paper, fake book (decorative book that is really a box), Bananagrams, passport, camera bag, memory card holder, magnets and a photo album. In the past I’ve also used a baby monitor to spy on my players, and a walkie-talkie to communicate with them!

Here’s what I purchased:

Directional lock, blacklight, blacklight pens, cryptex, chain to secure a box. (Less than $100!).

Tip #3: Use a blacklight.

Speaking of wow – items. A blacklight is a surefire way to impress your guests. It will elevate the user experience and make the clue hunting exponentially more fun. I can’t tell you the number of times that team members freak out from excitement when they see the blacklight. You literally get to search for something that is invisible. HOW COOL IS THAT?! Hide your blacklight inside of a locked box so that your players get even more excited when they realize what they’ve opened. The possibilities here are endless. Write on anything! Puzzle pieces, postcards, books, coins, game pieces, the wall, you name it. (First you should be OK with the possibility of said thing getting ruined — but as invisible ink is invisible, I’ve never had an issue with retaining normal use of an item afterward.)

And don’t forget to buy blacklight markers!

Here’s the task I gave our team: 

I used blacklight markers for two purposes. The first was on postcards written by Elliot during his travels. Each postcard was dated in invisible ink, so the order of the postcards would not be known until the blacklight was used. The second was to mark certain letter tiles of my Bananagrams game. At first glance, the tiles look normal. But a blacklight highlights which letters are colored. I colored 5 tiles of each letter that would spell the word to my cryptex clue. The word was “mouse” — so I colored 5 M’s, 5 O’s, etc.

Note: I could have colored just 1 tile of each letter, but I was afraid it would take too much time to find the 5 letters in a bag of 144 tiles. You can adjust the difficulty of your room based on your time limit!

Tip #4: Don’t be linear.

Incorporate multiple clue trails so that participants can work on different puzzles at the same time. This helps with efficiency, and players tend to get more ‘action’! When I go to professional escape rooms, I’ve started to go with only my husband (no other players!). Working with a team is fun, and has its perks, but I like to be an active participant in each part of the room. And I think that players have more fun when they get the opportunity to be as active in the room as possible! By incorporating non-linear elements of the game, or separating the clue paths into multiple ‘lines,’ more players become more active. In a linear scenario, two or three players are working on a clue while the other players resort to looking around or twiddling their thumbs.

Here was my game-flow: 

I used 2(ish) separate clue trails! In the escape room narrative, the goal was twofold: Find Elliot’s passport and find the memory cards before the Columbian officials arrive at his apartment! I could have kept the room linear (Find memory cards only), or even added more goals (find his suitcase / camera batteries / wallet / you name it) to give the room more clue trails.

1A: Magnets on refrigerator (y-r-o-t-s) –> opens cryptex with Elliot’s letter (directional lock combination) –> opens bag with blacklight –> (NEED BANANAGRAMS TO CONTINUE)

1B: USA puzzle map (three missing states correspond to three numbers for combination lock), and postcards hidden in photo album –> opens Emmy box with Bananagrams inside –> use blacklight to find “m-o-u-s-e”–> opens cryptex with memory cards inside!

2: Postcards and dry erase marker in fake book –> coordinates that draw code on wall map (1-4-0-9) –> opens camera bag with Passport inside!

BONUS info for my game flow:

I hid the Emmy box under a bed in the studio apartment, but cut out a hand shape out of tape to put next to the bed, to signal to look under the bed. I also wrote on the bathroom mirror “shine light to see the letters right in front of you..” to give a clue that the blacklight needed to be used for Bananagrams. It turns out, nobody went into the bathroom so that clue went unused. But that’s ok! They were able to find the cryptex that I hid in the tub 🔑😂 🛀🏻. I also hid the photo album among the apartment decor really well, so my team needed a hint to find that clue.

Note: I didn’t use walkie-talkies this time, but that is a great way to communicate hints. Add in a baby monitor and you’ll be able to watch how your team is doing. For our office party, I just hung out in the room with them and gave hints in-person.

Tip #5: Have fun!

Your creation does not have to be the most-epic-escape-room-ever in order to be fun and effective. Escape rooms are meant to be enjoyed, by the participants AND the creators! Don’t overly stress perfection. Your team, your friends, or your guests will love it. It’s ok if a clue is an epic fail or if your team needs 47 hints or if you forgot to lock that one box. Perfection is not the goal. A great experience is the goal! It filled my heart with so much joy to watch my team get pumped about doing this escape room. Their excitement fueled my own excitement. I mean, I wan’t even a participant and I was beyond excited to be part of the experience. Seriously, it’s so fun!

I used an office inside joke for even more fun (that Elliot has a terrible memory — and couldn’t remember his important lock combinations.)

Here’s even more fun:

I documented this entire DIY experience on the StoryDriven Instagram page. Find us @strydrvn. Check out our saved stories to see behind-the-scenes, to get a peek at the room setup and to find out if my office escaped!

BONUS TIP: Write everything down!

From your lock combinations to your props, to a map of the room, to the sequence of clues, WRITE IT DOWN. You’ll need to know in order to give proper clues, or to reset the escape room for the next team. Making your own escape room can be complicated, but it doesn’t have to be if you have a system and stay organized.

Writing down options and ideas also helps me think through the storyline! Start by brainstorming the possibilities with the materials you have and the story you might want to incorporate. 

Now you’re ready to build your own escape room!

I deem you officially equipped for DIY Escape Room build-ery. I’m so excited for where your self made escape room journey may take you. Please comment below to share your own stories!!

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About Chelsey Griffith

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