Planning an Escape Room: Concept & Design

(Last Updated On: October 5, 2019)

Plan your work, work your plan

At Escape Rooms PHX / Mesa, we are converting a room that was popular with those who used it, but not enough used by enough people. We wanted to do a conversion as inexpensively as possible, and as quickly as possible. We began the process of concept to build-out in July of 2018, with the intention of opening November 14, 2018.

Ambitious? Maybe.

What I wish to share in these two articles are:

Part 1: Notions about design, criteria for implementation, cost considerations as well as philosophical approaches. (This latter point may seem too cerebral, but considering reputation, brand identity and fit among three other rooms, it is quite a necessary worry.)

Part 2: Challenges, successes, alterations and out-right failures in the build out.

A treasure hunter needs maps. Hanging them first gave me a feel for the room.

Initial Concerns

Planning an Escape Room
Since Day One, I have kept a toto list. This is page 34, and in no way the last one

First, something practical: dimension. The room we are filling is split into two parts: one measuring 14’ x 20’, with the entrance/exit door on the 20’ side. The smaller room is 5’ x 8’, has an exit door that is not locked, and a locking custom door interfacing with the larger room. The existing door is very heavy, but excellently mounted, and was not used to keep the room secret in the previous iteration. We intend to keep it.

Because customers have anecdotally shown interest in second and/or secret rooms, we included this as a secret room in our design criteria. The rooms are carpeted, with overhead industrial style fluorescent lighting and a drop ceiling.

Next, something philosophical: We have always wanted to stay as analog as possible, which means keeping players out of the digital realm as much as possible. However, our prior conversion had us making a Starship bridge, and as we never saw one without something digital, not even in Jules Verne, we had to include electronics. That dented our analog purity. Still, the new room could be kept as analog of possible, if we worked smart.

This desire would affect not just what worked in the room, but what design the challenges would have.

We’re not anti-gizmo, but we hear the horror stories from customers relating how they would have “won” had not one of the props stopped working. We’re all about customer satisfaction, and if they are not going to succeed it’s going to be their fault, not that of some gizmo (or bad planning.) However, this means that all puzzles and challenges may require custom fitting and development, or padlocks. Fortunately, customers have become so inured of manual locks that they not only don’t see them as annoying, they somewhat expect them. This allows us some challenge solutions.

However, in pursuit of a hidden door lock, we found ourselves limited to some kind of trapping bolt solution, something akin to a gate latch, sliding bolt, a cylinder-style doorknob, or, yep, a padlock. Mechanically, all could have provided a solution, but they all required a good deal of labor and physical space alteration. We weren’t opposed to that, but the secret lock in the Starship room required seven man-hours spread over two days, and a lot of chipping and hacking that left a rather ugly result.

The less custom fitting the better, so we went with a gizmo: the ZOTER Electric Bolt Door Lock, Deadbolt Low-Temperature Surface Mounted DC 12V Fail Safe NC Mode (affiliate link).

A little ahead here with these specifics, but this point must be made: compromise is necessary, especially with yourself. The best advice ever given by a business mentor has been “Get out of your own way.” Change your mind! However, this concession felt a little like letting the camel put his nose in the tent, so I redoubled my desire to stay analog. It’s what we’re known for and, more importantly, analog devices I can fix. So, change your mind unwillingly.


Planning an Escape Room
I make lists for everything. These are elements I want in the room. It keeps growing.

Stands to reason that any new design wants for an influencing concept, which is most influenced by the dramatic theme we want to present. The theme will decide ambiance, props, challenges, movement flow, et cetera. An influencing to settling on a theme came down to four criteria, the last of which we hadn’t considered well enough in developing our Starship (which took seven months to complete!)

  1. Will it turn on or off a majority of Escape Room goers? Zombies and vampires are cool, but not everybody likes that kind of weird. Space and SciFi are popular, but not with the majority. Copying a popular culture theme, such as Harry Potter or Lost in Space is fraught with copyright challenges (and we met a cease and desist order about the use of one image. We ceased.) Preferably, you want to turn on the majority, but a lot of Escape Room owners have specialty rooms because they always wanted one. (see bizness mentor’s advice.)
  2. Has it been done? We think there are in the Greater Phoenix area either too many zombie rooms or not enough different zombie rooms, so we opted out of that. If you are going to replicate a theme already housed by Escape Rooms Exx, can you bend the idea enough to bring freshness to it? (Zombie Martians that resemble philodendrons still seems cool.) Reaching really far for a fresh theme (Underwater baseball?) might put your room among the fringe of escape rooms, which is okay, so long as it is the only fringe room. Having an Escape Room facility that’s total fringe should make you reconsider, per rule one above.
  3. How many people can/will the room accommodate? This question may seem to relate to body count, but it also relates to the quantity of players. We have rooms doable by two to ten players. Will the theme make two players work too hard, and/or bore ten players? In our Starship room, we must have a minimum of four, not the usual two, because it includes a role-playing aspect that 2-3 people cannot fill, and more than seven would overfill. Did it hurt us? Possibly.
  4. Is it buildable? This cannot be stressed enough:
    • that a room must be buildable
    • must have adequate safety and adequate movement allowances
    • won’t cost an arm and leg
    • will be swiftly reset.
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An operating room theme may be neato, but you can’t have scalpels (too dangerous) and video-guided laser incisors, (too expensive) or for that matter, a body (too illegal.) Who is available to build it? Do you have a wood shop and welding equipment? A small truck to haul that steel desk or actual coffin?

Our Concept

Planning an Escape Room
Giving the room a living character helps with the feel. This is the process used for ‘Arizona Jones, treasure hunter.’ I go from sketch to final use in as few steps as possible. Keep in mind that TONE is everything.

We are close to the Superstition Mountains, which have their legends. One is that it is the site of El Dorado, the City of Gold. Another, and a more colorful legend involves The Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine. Won’t go into detail about it here (click name to read more) but it lent us an idea: treasure hunter room. Of course, the most recent great treasure hunter is Indiana Jones, but we shy away from utilizing well protected popular culture properties. As luck would have it, though, we had a customer do one of our rooms who was really named “Arizona Jones.” Couldn’t pass that one up, so we “licensed” his name, in case you-know-who comes calling.

Our concept is, you all are fellow treasure hunters who not only learned of the existence of the Dutchman’s second map (the first is indecipherable) but that Arizona Jones has most of it, and you want to get your hands on it.

This one decision dictated everything to follow:

  • What props to buy? (no laser guided missiles, though a drone was possible)
  • What challenges can be had? (No children’s toys or comic-book related material, let alone licensed Indiana Jones paraphernalia.)
  • What lighting?
  • What air freshener will we employ? (You don’t include scents in your room? Shame on you for a missed opportunity.)
  • What period of treasure hunter would we focus on? (Twenties and Forties hunters were analog, today’s are digital dependent on satellites, big boats and lots of gizmos.)
  • What is the end goal? (We settled on assembling the separated parts of the treasure map.)
  • How would the initial and “secret room” spaces be utilized?

Next Step

Planning an Escape Room
The best way is to accumulate the biggest furniture and get those in place. They dictate movement.

Once a theme had been decided upon (and if you have partners, fought over) the next step was not to start building, but to develop lists. Several.

The first list is a step-by-step plan of movement. To achieve this, you must know what the last step will be! Can’t stress this enough. If you don’t know where you are going you can’t get there. For us, it was the assembly of a twelve portion map. In our Starship room, it is to safely reach Space Dock. In the Vampyre Hunter’s Workshop, it’s to gather twenty objects. In The Mad Clockmaker’s room its to find and open the box of gold.

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Seems obvious, but it must be a clear and triumphant finale. You never want customers to think, “Did we do it?”

The second step is to make those concept decisions, if you haven’t already. By deciding analog/digital, mechanical or gizmo, single or multi-room, well lit or darkened, et cetera, you will confine your options, which is a very good thing? (Ever try to decide among items on a Greek menu at two a.m.? No, you always go for the burger.)

Once that decision is made, the third step is to make a map. Make it big. In fact, and if you can, play at moving around the room itself, then commit that map to paper. Section of the room parts. If you do not, and you plan a sequential set of challenges, by putting two elements near each other my short circuit your plan. If anything, a map may consolidate your notions about furniture. In ours, I wanted the biggest desk possible, a display case, the secret rook, filing cabinets, racks of found objects, and the clues and puzzles. Turns out I was wise to want two fewer filing cabinets and one more desk for the secret room. What I had forgotten was the desk in the secret room had to have a phone and a desk lamp. Okay, the phone didn’t work, but the lamp had to, because its bulb was part of a puzzle’s solution. Crap!

The only thing to do was move an outlet. That meant I had to call in an electrician, and that meant more time and money.


But better to know in the planning stage.

The Budget

Planning an Escape Room
When you need a place to work, consider a desk or workbench for the room. We got a huge steel case desk on barter.

Ever have enough money. Or said money is no object? Lucky you, and why are you building an escape room if you have? Enough said.

The best time to budget is after the map stage. That’s when you settle on the idea of main props (the biggest to the smallest, in that order) and begin your research into cost. Craigslist and Goodwill may become your happiest places on earth. The truly creative are the really frugal. Decide whether you have to have the latest and greatest gizmo (which seem to break more often) or whether the hatrack at a yard sale is the better buy.

Once you have assembled a want list, it’s time to think décor. Once we had the room laid out during the map stage, I sat at the tv tray table that served as a stand-in for that big desk and looked around. Suddenly I noticed I had really big beige blank walls facing me. They needed something for the ambiance. I’ve seen a few too many rooms where there were sufficient ambiance-producing elements but which cried out for more. Blank walls are never a good experience, and you are delivering an experience.

Here’s where that “Get out of your own way” advice comes in. I am great ar determining whether something will amplify ambiance, but I suck at how best to place it. Enter my wife, who can slide a Sherman tank into our living room and make it look appropriate. If you can, get a space designer, but don’t let that person co-opt your plans. He or she is to amplify, not modify your experience. The designer will want things to look nice; you’ll want them to work right.

Once the budget is set, start looking for what you want. I suggest getting and installing the big pieces first. In my case, it was a pair of desks and two filing cabinets, plus the door between the rooms. Keep always in mind safety. Did I move that outlet myself? No sir, I did not!

Part two, work the plan. Stay tuned.

About the Author

Charles Bechtel is at present the owner and operator of Escape Rooms PHX in Mesa, AZ. He is 65, married to Manuela Mary Bechtel, with two grown daughters and three granddaughters.

Professionally, Charles has been a published author of numerous books, both fiction and nonfiction, owned and operated his own publishing & consulting firms, and even had owned a charter fishing operation out of Cape May, New Jersey. Click here to check out some of the books authored by Charles.

During his consulting days, he specialized in developing new products for the newspaper industry and developing what had then been the industry-altering desktop publishing replacement for many composition firms.

He has years of marketing experience, wearing many hats on both the production and administrative sides of publishing.

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