About a year ago, EscapeFront launched with our very first post where we asked over 400 escape room owners what they wished they’d known before starting their escape room business.
From that post, we learned that prop breakage was one of the most common challenges.
So, we thought it would be only fitting to dive deep into this issue to learn which strategies escape room owners recommend the most.
Know of a strategy not mentioned here? Leave a comment below.
Here’s a summary of our findings
Click here or on the chart for full-size view.
Table of Contents
- 1 Here’s a summary of our findings
- 2 Mark from Escape Room Palm Springs (Palm Springs, CA)
- 3 Kimberly from Escapism (Portland, OR)
- 4 Todd from Elite Escape (Exton, PA)
- 5 Daniel from Escape Room Kingsport (Kingsport, TN)
- 6 Hanna from Conundrum Escape Rooms (Durango, CO)
- 7 Lisa from Great Scott! Mystery Rooms (Simsbury, CT)
- 8 Steve from The Lost Escape Room (Huntington & Cross Lanes, WV)
- 9 Michael from ConFundrum Escape Rooms (Idaho Falls, ID)
- 10 Barrie & Christina from Escape Room 831 (Monterey, CA)
- 11 John from Ninja Escape (Seattle, WA)
- 12 Vincent from Fox in a Box – Chicago
- 13 Greg from Twisted Exit (Lancaster, CA)
- 14 Charles from Escape Rooms PHX (Mesa, AZ)
- 15 Michael from Space Escapes (Flemington, NJ)
- 16 Dan from Puzzle Room Live (Culpeper, VA)
- 17 Gerard from Lock Museum Adventure (Terryville, CT)
- 18 Mike from Mindgames Escape Rooms (Rockford, IL)
- 19 Bob & Betsy from Morgantown Escape Room (Westover, WV)
- 20 Andrew from Escape Helena (Helena, MT)
- 21 Jean from Tampa Bay Escape Room (Tampa Bay, FL)
- 22 Shelly from Mystified Escape Rooms (Mystic, CT)
- 23 Lori from The Escape Room Experience (Laconia, NH)
- 24 Robby from Escape Reality (Las Vegas, NV)
- 25 James from Zoya Escape Rooms (St. Joseph, MI)
- 26 Jo from America’s Escape Game (Tampa, FL)
- 27 Matt & Rahel from Psycho 60 Escape Rooms (Kernersville, NC)
- 28 Matthew from Topsail Escape Room (Surf City, NC)
- 29 Dmitry from Paranoia Quest (Atlanta, GA)
- 30 Anonymous Escape Room Owner
Mark from Escape Room Palm Springs (Palm Springs, CA)
We deal with breakage in 2 ways at Escape Room Palm Springs.
First, for props that are easily replaced or repaired, we repair or replace items as needed. These would be things like printed clues, loose hinges, prop adjustments, handheld flashlights and black lights, keys and locks in the rooms that use them.
Second, for props that aren’t easily replaced or repaired, we do things like…
- keeping wires and electronics secured and hidden
- building props to withstand some punishment
- maintaining props and puzzles by checking them for wear
- and when we buy furniture we make sure that it’s well built
We used “real” materials in the rooms (real stone, real brick, forged bronze, etc.) to increase immersion but simultaneously prevent damage to traditional theatrical materials like foam and polystyrene that are commonly used.
As a general rule of thumb, anything that we don’t want to be moved or handled is bolted, strapped, or glued down. Furniture is secured to keep any wiring from being disturbed. Since we started with a “blank slate” 6000sqft open space, we were able to build our rooms to accommodate keeping electronics outside of the room and easily accessible to staff. This has the added benefit of being able to secretly open locks if any tech malfunctions.
Kimberly from Escapism (Portland, OR)
Our approach to reducing breakage is threefold:
First, build using the strongest materials you can find, and if you can’t find something you are sure will be robust enough, make sure you have plenty of backups and that they will not break the bank. Otherwise, do something different.
Second, train employees to be watchful eyes who can redirect destruction before it happens. This includes watching for bottlenecks in puzzle flow and correcting them, as frustrated guests quickly become destructive.
Third, we choose to not stay open late. Our last appointment is at 9 pm, which really limits the number of inebriated players who are often the number one cause of destruction.
Todd from Elite Escape (Exton, PA)
To answer your question, Obviously having back-up props is a must in this business but our biggest worry has always been what happens when your back-up breaks and you have to order something and it takes 3 weeks.
The best answer we could come up with is to make everything very well hidden. Luckily I have a background in building which helps immensely in not only building our props to last but also in hiding any wiring, or devices so that people cannot get to anything that may be breakable.
It may take more time when designing a room but it saves an enormous headache down the line.
Daniel from Escape Room Kingsport (Kingsport, TN)
The rule of Escape Room props is the same as in theatre/film. If you have two, you have one. If you have 1 you have none!
Invest in quality props and ALWAYS have a backup.
The good news is (especially with expensive props) that your emergency backup plan is not necessarily the identical puzzle/item. All you MUST do in an emergency is the keep the game moving (with as little interference as possible).
Small items such as keys and magnets can often be lost which present 2 problems:
- The game might not work properly
- If you have a duplicate, there is the risk of the next group of players FINDING the crucial item and playing the game out of order.
For this reason, very small items are tethered to a larger, themed object in the room (e.g. handcuff key is attached to a couple of chain links). This makes locating the item much easier when resetting.
Our solution for larger mishaps has been to find a backup method of delivering the clue via an alternate device in the room. Build in ways for the hosts to interact with the room without the knowledge of the players.
Finally, we never make crucial props fragile, we always have a backup, and our hosts are ready to cleverly distract the players with a well-placed nudge.
Hanna from Conundrum Escape Rooms (Durango, CO)
Frequent prop and furniture breakage is a frustrating issue to be sure.
We make sure we have backups for all of our crucial components and props. This does cause additional costs of course but the costs of having backups seem to outweigh the cost of shutting down a room and refunding reservations.
Additionally, we train every staff member in effective ways to repair items as needed or if we simply can’t repair a puzzle in the time frame we have between teams we have a temporary back up puzzles that can quickly be added into the game. This gives us additional time to repair the correct puzzle and have it returned to the game quickly.
Lisa from Great Scott! Mystery Rooms (Simsbury, CT)
The single best resource I have for combatting prop breakage is my staff of quick-thinking game masters.
We, of course, have a closet full of backup clues to replace those smaller items that rip or come unglued, but when the broken item is a larger prop that requires tools and time to repair, our game masters are excellent at devising short-term solutions on the fly so our players aren’t pulled out of their game immersion.
For example, we keep a feather duster on hand so that a game master who has to enter our game that takes place in a child’s bedroom can call out “Housekeeping!” when they pop in, as if they were part of the game all along. (This sends the players into gales of laughter when it’s a male game master who has to come in!) They can then perform a number of quick fixes under the guise of “tidying up” and be out of there before the players have a chance to lose their enthusiasm.
Steve from The Lost Escape Room (Huntington & Cross Lanes, WV)
When we opened, we mostly purchased our props. Over the course of three years now, we’ve had to repair or replace many of them, no matter how sturdy we secured them.
Purchasing back up props were too expensive so we always had a backup plan with a puzzle and lockbox.
However, by having to repair the props, we have learned how to make them ourselves, which is what we do now for all our new games.
In our last game, we built 18 different props and none have broken. One thing we do is always secure the main part of the prop to a wall or desk with VERY STRONG screws and we built the props with few parts where the player had to actually hold something. This has eliminated breaking of props for us. It takes more time to build the rooms but we can build the room around the props to make them more secure than just sitting them out.
So in short, building the room around the props we make has secured our props.
Michael from ConFundrum Escape Rooms (Idaho Falls, ID)
I did a lot of homework before starting our escape room business. I attended the TransWorld Room Escape Show each year to ensure that I maintain relevance on the industry and changes. I learned that there was a significant risk of breakage.
As a result, we do research for potential props and select the most sturdy and durable available. We realize that a good quality product may cost more up front, but results in less cost in the long run if it does not have to be replaced frequently. We always have a backup for the essential and puzzle related props. Our goal is to provide a premium experience to stand out from our local competitor escape rooms and as such we address any repair issues promptly and/or take down the room until repairs are made.
We also brief the individuals that this is not a strength game and that there is nothing that needs great strength to complete the game. We are very fortunate in our selected location as we have a very high religions population and as a result, have very few groups attend that are intoxicated or rough. In 1.5 years of operation, we have not had any significant maintenance issues that required our attention.
The final measure we have in place is to redesign puzzles if they demonstrate repeated issues to prevent continued maintenance.
Barrie & Christina from Escape Room 831 (Monterey, CA)
We have found that spending the money upfront to have backups at the ready is a must. Without considering this as part of the initial room design you find yourself in a pinch when things are broken or don’t function. It becomes increasingly difficult to do this as tech solutions are replacing lock and key.
For the tech side, we make sure we have a manual alternative to insert into the game until we can figure out how to fix the primary game path. While building rooms can prove to be costly, it is this additional expense that we are really trying to keep our eyes on.
As a side note – it is getting us closer to a redundant video solution that loops in the lobby and plays before games explaining to players about the “brain vs. brawn” aspect of escape games. We want them to have fun, we want them to feel the exhilaration, we just don’t need the awesome feats of strength demonstrated for no reason.
Another aspect of this reality comes into our room design. We are “locking down” more and more of our room elements to prohibit any type of movement or perception that the item is a clue. Players seem to think that if it moves then it has to be something. This takes away from some of the organic flow from the room, but it also keeps them focused on the game, albeit they are getting adept at learning if it moves it must be in gameplay.
John from Ninja Escape (Seattle, WA)
At Ninja Escape we have a prop file for each game. The less valuable props will have three copies always on hand. One in-game, one backup, and one super backup.
If a prop is damaged, the game master will swap it and then note it in the report they file after each game. We then replenish it in the prop file.
For “hero pieces,” which are main parts of the game and have custom electronic projects in them, we have the following guidelines:
- The piece should not be movable, and the electronics should not be in the room. In our game “Enter The Machine” the players are trying to stop aliens from coming to earth by discovering their wormhole path, and blocking the wormholes by jamming big plugs into a strange device. When the microcontrollers were in this device it would break every month or so due to the jostling. When we moved them out of the room and ran more cable and wires this stopped. We do that for everything now.
- A redundant cue for the game master. All of our major cues have a button in the game masters room that can be hit in an emergency if the prop should not respond to the win condition. So if the player puts the sword in the stone and the wall is supposed to open but the sensor fails, the game master can hit a button and it opens. We then fix the sensor immediately. It’s always more fun if the player actually triggers the effect.
Vincent from Fox in a Box – Chicago
Have a tracking system (using Google Forms is great) where anyone on the team who spots an issue can quickly file it. Prioritize severity into showstoppers, major issues, minor issues, suggestions. Remind everyone on the team weekly: if you see something, file a report.
Dedicate substantial time & money to going through the tracking system to fix/maintain items.
Fix all showstoppers before 24h go by, Fix 1-2 major issues/week. Fix 1-2 minor issues/week. Fix 1-2 suggestions/week.
If you cannot afford both the time & money to keep your place well maintained, close now. It’s just a matter of time, so you might as well exit before you’ve exposed people to a sub-par product because it’s falling apart.
Greg from Twisted Exit (Lancaster, CA)
When we opened two and a half years ago, we had our props built for us or would buy them online. After experiencing what breakage can do to our schedules, our budget and our customer’s experience who may have to wait while we scramble to fix things, I decided to learn how to build the props we wanted myself. If I built it myself, I could fix it myself and I could teach my partners how to fix them.
I don’t believe that we are unique in building many of our own props but I learned how to work with Arduino and I’m currently playing with Raspberry Pi for more advanced props. This cuts costs dramatically and wait time because I can build backups. We are also always thinking of having access to the things that can break like hidden access panels in things and plugs to quickly switch things out and the like so I can easily get to repair items so we never have to shut a room down for breakage. And also, building the items myself allows me to add the extra step of making our props durable. Not just mass produced, thrown together wiring and plastic covers.
Charles from Escape Rooms PHX (Mesa, AZ)
Knowing full well that the most fragile elements of an escape room would be electronics, and also knowing that I am an electronics moron, I chose to go as “analog” in my rooms as possible.
I have two animatronic devices, both encased and protected, that got minimal damage in 18 months. As for all else, the things I most had to replace were the hinges, hasps, and latches on constantly used boxes and doors. These are easy to replace, and I kept a hefty supply of spares.
With only one computer-intensive room, I worried about damage, but people seem to treat the machines with respect. In five months of it being open, only one “expert” dove into the supporting software and made changes. As a former IT director, I found fixes simple. I banned that person from ever returning.
In truth, breakage and repair beyond normal wear and tear has been quite minimal.
Michael from Space Escapes (Flemington, NJ)
We have one of two ways of dealing with props that repeatedly break.
- Either we buy a whole lot of them and factor the cost of the props into the game as a sort of disposable prop.
- The other option is to modify or change the prop to prevent further damage.
Anything that’s one of a kind or handmade is stress tested by my 10-year-old. If he can’t break it we put it into the game.
Dan from Puzzle Room Live (Culpeper, VA)
The two things most important for dealing with prop breakage are:
- Have spares of everything, and be capable of fixing custom props yourself. If a custom prop that someone else made for you breaks you are now on their schedule to get up and running again.
- Having the skills in-house to fix things keeps the schedule and budget under your control.
Gerard from Lock Museum Adventure (Terryville, CT)
The Lock Museum Adventure is unique in that it takes place at the Lock Museum of America. The game covers several rooms on the second floor of the museum. The game master (or what we call the museum guide) sits in the corner of one of the rooms where the game takes place. His presence is unobtrusive but because he is available for instant feedback for questions, players know he is there. No problems with broken props.
Mike from Mindgames Escape Rooms (Rockford, IL)
With the nature of the business, there will always be some sort of breakage, whether intentionally or not. People playing the games are constantly touching, yanking, pushing items to their limits. When you have these items being pushed to the max multiple times per day, they tend to wear out over time. There are two specific ways to stay on top of it:
- Stay on top of the maintenance. We do daily walk-throughs of our games to make sure that all of our equipment is functioning as designed. If something is failing or not working as intended, we are able to either swap out or fix the issue. This is done prior to games coming in so that the issue hopefully doesn’t arise during gameplay. Cleaning, dusting, oiling and all other types of preventative maintenance will help extend the life of props.
- Buy superior products. There are numerous vendors out there, choose the most reputable sources! Check with other owners to see where they buy products from, referrals will typically lead you to the best vendors. The most expensive isn’t necessarily the best either. You definitely don’t want to be cheap though and purchase the least expensive product, you get what you pay for. Vendors such as Fright Props have pricing that is more expensive than many other vendors, but their product in my experience has been far superior. Buying a better product at a higher price may end up saving you money in the long run over repurchasing an inferior product. If building a prop, be sure to use the highest quality materials available, again it will probably save you in the long run.
In conclusion, keeping on top of maintenance and being sure to use the best quality of products may cost more upfront, but will save you money in the long run.
Bob & Betsy from Morgantown Escape Room (Westover, WV)
First, we incorporate the need to “play the game gently” into our house rules prior to play. We stress that escape games do not require force, and that no pulling, prying, twisting or tugging is necessary.
Second, we try as much as possible to have backups for every key prop in every game. We keep duplicates of virtually everything that could cause a game stoppage if it breaks.
Andrew from Escape Helena (Helena, MT)
We build most of our own props or purchase items that are of low cost but are constructed well. We haven’t had much prop breakage.
We go over extensively during our pregame that if it does not move or unlock with the strength of a 4-year-old they are trying too hard, no excessive force is needed, and no “Hulk smash!” moments. This usually gets a chuckle and not very many breakage moments.
Jean from Tampa Bay Escape Room (Tampa Bay, FL)
We have made many prop adjustments to make things “harder to break”
However, since guests do not always listen to the introduction to the game rules, it is imperative that GMs monitor their games closely. We do not allow GM’s to be on any mobile devices during gameplay.
If we see a guest being hard on a prop, we give an audible tone signal to them to stop what they are doing which they are told about during the introduction.
Backups, backups, and backups is the best way to go!
Shelly from Mystified Escape Rooms (Mystic, CT)
First, we monitor our games via camera feed and will immediately interrupt a game if we see a player using too much force or is disregarding the rules.
Second, we have included a clause in our waiver that states we will charge for breakages due to mishandling. (I have never actually done this, but…)
Third, when I am designing and building my games, I pretend the items will be handled roughly (like by a clan of gorillas). Don’t skimp on materials. Buy the more expensive locks, springs, slides, etc and have multiple backups. If a prop is an integral part of a challenge (not just decor), I make duplicates of everything. Every magnet or RFID loaded object has a twin in our storage closet. I shy away from pre-made items if I can because typically they do not hold up to life in an escape room.
Fourth, assume if it can go wrong, it probably will at some point. So have a backup plan. For example, we have a challenge issued via computer. As a backup, we have every screen display printed out so if we get in a pinch we could administer the challenge via a game “manual” and with the help of the GM. Your GMs should know the gameplay so well, that they can quickly figure out a way around a broken prop.
Lastly, hire a team you can trust. Things usually break because the GM gets distracted and didn’t see the events leading up to the breakage unfold. Make sure they are trained and comfortable with confrontation without being rude.
Lori from The Escape Room Experience (Laconia, NH)
In the two years we have been open we have learned to make the rooms as bulletproof as possible.
The vast majority of players and enthusiasts we have spoken with have told us that they much prefer good thought-provoking puzzles that work EVERY time over fancy sets designs with glitchy electronic props that may or may not work. If a GM needs to enter a room for any reason during the game we consider it an absolute fail. When we build a room we take a good hard look at the features and try to determine what is likely to break or wear out from excessive use. Once identified we ensure that we have at least 1 back up available at all times.
The same theory applies to our electronic props. We consider durability as a number one concern during the design phase. Any parts that are likely to break are either scrapped, redesigned or designed to be easily swapped out during the time it takes to reset the room resulting in no downtime. Part of the training for GMs when learning a new room is prop replacement. We keep a well-organized backup supply for each room in our storage area.
Robby from Escape Reality (Las Vegas, NV)
In the waiver that we have each player sign, there is a section that explains that if they the player maliciously breaks one of our props in the room they will be charged. Our Game Masters also include that no physical force is needed when playing the room.
We set a minimum of $100 they will be charged. That $100 goes towards us shutting the room down and investigate the damage. If the damage is less then $100 then there is no extra charge, but if the damage caused is more then the $100 then the player will be charged the full amount to fix the prop. This includes parts to fix the prop, labor, and lost revenue for having the room shut down.
We suggest training your entire staff on the basics of the props and how to fix them especially if the fix is an easy one. You do not want to have your room shut down for a couple of days just because your staff does not know how to fix the props.
We also keep an inventory of spare parts for our props especially some of the smaller parts that might break. Some fixes come very easy where we can actually fix the problem in between games just because we have a backup part in our tech room, we would rather have the game shut down for one booking instead of a couple of days until you get a new part.
Our main tech person also has a list of all the vendors that we receive parts from to make the reordering process easier.
James from Zoya Escape Rooms (St. Joseph, MI)
We make our own props designed for our escape rooms and we design them to be very sturdy. We design them assuming that guests will be rough with them.
At the time of construction we make a few backups and honestly, we haven’t needed to use most of them, but when we do it’s a quick switch. We’ve probably spent less than $100 in the two years of operation on replacement props and most of that has been relays wearing out. To address the relays we keep a supply of them at the escape room to be ready to swap in.
Jo from America’s Escape Game (Tampa, FL)
A little about me, I have a construction background for over 30 years of both, in the field and management in the electrical industry. With that being said, my knowledge of what components work best and have the desired longevity, in regards to electrical equipment, is vast. I have seen many types of boo boxes and the like, even had some garage builders come in and illustrate their equipment. What I have seen is all basically the same technology “Arduino”. This equipment and programming have many capabilities and advantages. However, I prefer a technology that has been used in the industrial industry for over 50 years. Straight up PLCs, these items are proven to run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with minimal downtime. Most of the issues this equipment has been due to the environment, more than natural failure itself. I won’t say I do not use “Arduino” at all, but it is limited for delivering sound, which PLCs are not manufactured with sound capabilities. I do have the PLC trigger the sound devices, however.
As for the normal everyday props, and set designs, fortunately, I am also a bit of a hobbyist when it comes to building things. I took extra care in the design of items, knowing the wear and tear they would be encountering. Whether it be thin steel strips behind piano hinges, to making things out of metal and welding it, in lieu of wood. (I was forced to learn how to weld with this business)
I can honestly say, being open just a year, props being broken has not been a major issue, although some adjustments were needed to meet the desired functionality of items. As for the electronics, the ONLY items I have had to replace to date, is fog machines, in fact, been through probably 4 or 5 in the last year.
So, if you’re looking for advice, PLC’s and solid state relays, that trigger sound delivering devices works best, and build things out of good sturdy wood, backed by steel.
It is also good to remember when purchasing items like hinges and slides, if you need something for a 10lb door, buy one that is good for a 300lb door. Typically that takes a little more hunting, the correct terminology though is, “INDUSTRIAL”. If it says that, it is made for abuse.
Matt & Rahel from Psycho 60 Escape Rooms (Kernersville, NC)
Make sure to buy extra locks (all types) They may look strong, but they will eventually break.
Anything with paper will not last long (unless laminated). Print many extra copies
Make sure your employees know how to handle when a prop breaks (what is your policy?
Of course, always have backup batteries
Walkie talkies don’t last long either (pay a little extra to get good quality ones)
I haven’t had any trouble with audio or video equipment. Has been going strong for 2 years now.
Make sure to tell customers that they are responsible for replacing anything they break. (I put it in the terms and conditions and have my employees repeat it)
And buy extras of everything, not just wood but plastics, metals..hinges/joints break, so have extra of absolutely everything that is involved in the puzzle-solving process.
Lock items down if possible, on a wall, on the floor, on the ceiling to prevent them from moving it, reduces breakage.
Don’t allow alternatives if you don’t desire them to be there…e.g. you have a tablet and they are to use 1 app to complete the puzzle, but the tablet is open so they can go all over the system…they tend to do so and erase what you had and put their own things, crazy things….just allow that tablet to only access the 1 thing and nothing else.
Matthew from Topsail Escape Room (Surf City, NC)
We don’t really have any magic formula for decreased prop breakage. It happens, but not very often. Many times it’s a group’s first time playing and they have no idea what to expect, so laying down clear directions is key. We do stress during the intro that no puzzles or stages need more strength than 2-3 fingers to manipulate. After that people in the group usually police themselves and if a team member is being rough they will say “remember 2-3 fingers”.
When ordering, if not cost prohibitive we will get backups and backups to the backups if it won’t take up a lot of space in storage. Another key is during reset. Take notice of items that are starting to degrade and replace it before it fails. If a prop is looking sketchy don’t risk it, replace it. If prop breakage is happening often in an owners shop, I would encourage them to take a look at their prop design and house rules then adjust accordingly.
Dmitry from Paranoia Quest (Atlanta, GA)
At the beginning, we were using contractors.
Then learned to fix ourselves then as we grew hired someone to do it full time. Then opened shop and start offering props. Now we build escape room props and do turnkey installations.
Anonymous Escape Room Owner
I would say always make sure you have backups and make things as sturdy as possible.
Well, there you have it! Hopefully, this round-up has given you some ideas, or at least reinforced some of your current practices.
Something you’d like to add?
Leave a comment below and let us know!