Designing Puzzles: Creating “Aha!” Moments Instead of “Oh no…” Moments

Table of Contents

Story and Scale 

We all love a good story. When we are creating a new game or program, especially one from scratch, the theme gives the project an aesthetic that lets us spin off a narrative. We can come up with anything we want in the brainstorming process. And while it’s good to creatively explore ideas and see where they will take you, not all ideas, especially story ones, work out in the end. 

Establishing the right time span for the game and each puzzle becomes key to the development of the design elements as well. When the ideas start spinning out, the logistics keep the project moving at a realistic scale, and allow the shape of the story to come into view.

In other storytelling genres, the plot moves forward because of dialogue, action, or some outside force. For escape games and scavenger hunts, the puzzles act as the plot points. They are the source of the excitement and curiosity that keep players moving forward. All the inspired design work and careful storytelling in the world will not be appreciated if the puzzles themselves are not satisfying. 

While there really are no limits to the kinds of elements that can be turned into puzzles, I find that there are some aspects that will directly affect the success or failure of the individual challenges. 

Time and Timing 

 The escape game format, by definition, implies that there is a space in which the players are “trapped”. How long can someone be confined for entertainment purposes? Perhaps you have an ambitious opus of a challenge that will require hours on end to accomplish, but then you had better schedule meals and bathroom breaks for your players.

Start with the basic units of a challenge. Players orient themselves by exploring a space or an object. Something prevents them from exploring further. They assess the challenge and begin looking for the pieces required to solve the challenge. A few hypotheses are developed and tested. Once the correct answer is discovered, a moment of celebration and excitement gives way when a new space or object presents itself, and so the cycle repeats. 

If the challenge is completed too quickly, it is a sign that it is too easy and not building any suspense for a satisfying “Aha!” moment. Make the challenge too tough though, and players will become frustrated and bored, leading to more of an “Ooohh…that’s what we were supposed to do…” moment that is deflating. Ideally, a rewarding puzzle cycle is completed in more than 5 minutes but in less than 10. Put several of these together, and you are looking at a game that is somewhere between 30 minutes to an hour. 

Stability 

 WIth any game, participants should be allowed to get lost in their own adventure and not have to consider the logistics of resetting the game for another round of players.

This is a tricky area to negotiate because we have to strike the right balance between allowing players to explore freely and prohibiting them from destroying a well maintained set of props and design features. 

Smartphone versions of escape games often employ very destructive actions (Use the knife to rip open the sofa! Break the clock to get the batteries! Set the jacket on fire and throw it!) in order to complete the games. Unfortunately, we’ve also had our fair share of over-excited players who were convinced that certain props had something hidden inside if they could just tear it in half.

Other times, the destruction was of our own making due to short sightedness. We once developed a special event puzzle based on the placement of hors d’oeuvres on a platter. It seemed like a great idea, until the players showed up at the event not having eaten all day. Our delicious food puzzle was gone very quickly. 

Some wear and tear should be accepted in exchange for a great puzzle that allows players to engage with something with which they would not normally be able to connect. The central challenge in our Samurai Espionage game requires players to assemble an antique suit of samurai armor. 

While this object was designed to withstand actual war, escape game players are arguably more damaging. But within reason, we let players have a good time handling something that would normally be off limits in a museum.

Focus and distractions 

Numbers, colors, shapes, riddles. These are the fundamental elements from which many puzzles are created. Put these pieces together in the right combination, and the answer comes into view. Put them together in the wrong one, and your players could end up confused and far away from the answer.

While game designers will often add a red herring or a piece of information which is intended to be misleading, outright distractions should be avoided. Remember, if players have only 10 minutes to solve a puzzle, sending players on a wild goose chase probably will not lead to satisfied customers. 


Because our games ask players to think differently, they are already open to a wide range of possible approaches for any given puzzle. This is when team dynamics can play havoc with a puzzle designer’s best intentions. We can never predict what any one player will attach themselves to, convincing themselves that it is connected to solving the puzzle. Likewise, many designers who think elements can only be viewed in a certain way are often amazed (and a little dejected) to see a completely different–and completely valid–perspective.

“Common” Knowledge? 

Speaking of perspective, this last aspect is one that you really don’t want to take for granted when it comes to knowledge and information. Puzzles based on trivia or riddles can lead to confused players who might feel like they were tripped up by something that “nobody knows”. The fact is that every day, someone is born who has no idea who Beethovan is, much less how to spell it. When we ask players to put their phones away to enjoy a game, we are promising that they don’t have to bring anything with them in order to succeed. That includes any previous knowledge. 

From a broader point of view, this is an issue of accessibility and inclusion. The goal should be for as many people as possible to enjoy our creations. Language and culture can certainly contribute to the overall impact of a game, but shouldn’t get in the way. During a team building game, players will inevitably learn about each other’s hidden talents and skills. 

The reason we give people the opportunity to use their brains on math and logic problems is that solving the puzzle is engaging. Actively working through a set of given details to reach a conclusion is gratifying, and feels good. And really, giving players that “Aha!” sense of gratification is our main task

Our newest outdoor scavenger hunt game, Nazotabi Yokohama: The Magical Journey of the Wizard’s Apprentice, will be released October 1st! For more information about our other scavenger hunt games check our product site. To learn more about our team building activities please visit our team services site.  

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