In past years, I’ve given homemade vanilla extract and ten-packs of soup and certificates for babysitting services. More recently, I’ve made personalized cryptic crosswords. (You can get my 2017 Christmas Cryptic here.)
An “escape room” game (also called a “locked room” challenge), is a game in which you are literally locked into a room and have to figure out an elaborate set of clues and riddles in order to eventually find the key and escape within the time limit. Some of them are set in fabulous locations, like Toronto’s legendary Casa Loma. Others involve famous fictional characters like William Murdoch, the Toronto detective of the CBC’s Murdoch Mystery series. Mine would be more modest: a game for six adults, to be played at my parents’ country home on Christmas Eve after the kids were safely asleep.
I set to work brainstorming ideas for a 60-minute game for six. And that’s when I hit a series of obstacles.
My parents’ house has an open concept layout, which is lovely but doesn’t lend itself to confinement. The only rooms with doors, apart from the bathrooms, are the bedrooms, which were full of sleeping children, and my father’s dusty (but very orderly) tool room. This mean that I had to design something in which escape wasn’t the goal.
It’s Christmas, so I didn’t want anything too macabre. I didn’t want the group to be locked in jail or to have to solve a murder. I needed something compelling but also something fun and light to match the festive holiday mood. If escape rooms are typically “noir” mysteries, I needed a cozy mystery.
I’ve never planned one of these before and there are a lot of moving parts. How could I be sure to pull it off?
Solution #1: Finding vs. Escaping
Instead of having the goal be escape, I designed a mystery in which the group had to find something. What was the prize? Well…
Solution #2: A Christmas-Themed Goal
Because it’s Christmas, I picked the coziest, most quintessentially Christmasy thing I could think of--a figgy pudding—and made that the goal.
The clues were most Christmas-themed and all were cozy. For example, starting in the foyer, the group had to figure out that the animals on various Christmas cards posted around the mirror (addressed to Great Aunt Mathilda, of course) corresponded to stuffed animals scattered around, each of which was tagged with a different number. The right animals in the right order gave the numbers to a combination padlock, which permitted the group to head upstairs.
Solution #3: Lists, More Lists, And A Dry Run With Some Friends
How could I make sure I didn’t make any mistakes in setting up this complex game? In addition to making very detailed equipment and set-up checklists, I had five accommodating friends over for a dry run of the event ten days ago at my place in Montreal.
Not only was it a thrill to watch them figure out all the riddles I had set, it was invaluable to gauge the difficulty level, see which components of the game took longer than expected, and observe where there were inadvertent red herrings.
And in the end, my family did solve the great Figgy Pudding Escape Room challenge.
With 90 seconds to spare.