Suitcase Mystery Origins Part II

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This is the second of a two-part series on the origins of Suitcase Mystery. In Part I, we had just completed developing a successful program for a famous fashion brand company….

Fashion brand redux 


The best compliment we can receive is the opportunity to work with our clients again and create even better programs for them.

A little more than a year after we created our team building program for a major fashion brand (see Part I), we were asked to put on another event for a slightly different group of employees. 

As part of their annual training centered around the achievements of the past year and goals for the coming year, our program would be a way to bring a playful and inspiring activity to the agenda. For the team members who participated, the message was a reminder of the importance of each individual and how their valuable contributions continually make the company stronger and more successful.

While last time the employees who participated were all used to the company, this time the target audience would be new hires. How do you communicate an important message to employees who are brand new to the company?

For new recruits of any age, there is a lot of anxiety surrounding the start of a new job. People want to do good work and adjust to the company culture as quickly as possible. But it can sometimes be hard to remember to enjoy the job and take pride in the joyful origins of the business that you work for. We knew that what we needed was a remix of our first program, for a new generation.

A new approach 


In the world of escape games, like in many business arenas, the only limitations are time and money. Designers can allow their imaginations to run wild with any number of concepts. Popular culture is full of Hollywood adventures, Saturday morning mystery cartoons, spy novels, and other fantastical voyages that can be a source of inspiration. With a little story magic, a bookcase can reveal a hidden stairway, a laser can catch a thief, or a mirror can reveal the past. 

Creating these moments in real life can be prohibitively expensive, overly complicated, or downright impossible. It can take many months of planning and testing to come up with just the right combination of challenges and thrills to make a quality experience. All the while, because players can only play the game once, it is crucial that designers not get carried away with components that are overly expensive or complicated. Some of the best puzzles are those that are solved while discovering something simple, clever, and unexpected.

We were lucky with the first program, in that we were able to work closely with the client to create puzzles and locked containers from the existing furniture, fashion samples, and display cases available at the time of the event. This was not going to be the case the second time around. Having stable game elements that function consistently with every play would be key.

In addition, we wanted to make it so that players wouldn’t have to damage or destroy something in order to complete the challenge. As fun as a room full of balloons was, it was a one-time solution that would not be practical to reset each time for the next players.

How about…a suitcase mystery?


If we could squeeze the whole program into a suitcase, we could provide engaging challenges along with the client’s target message in a package that was portable, compact and practical for any meeting room furnished with nothing more than a table. 

We kept a few of the fashion concepts from the first program, but to give the game a wider scope that fit thematically with the suitcase concept, we naturally turned to travel, though not of the modern variety. Rather, our suitcases would be a set of antique-like wooden suitcases all nestled inside of each other, with each one opening up to reveal another layer. The design of all the supporting documents would converge around this same Victorian-era aesthetic.

How to succeed in puzzle making 

The very first puzzle set the tone with an antique world map, a flotilla of ships, country flags, and a clock. With four separate puzzle elements and the overall design aesthetic, it turned out to be an overwhelming place for teams to begin with. Which is actually what made this game special. 

Each puzzle in this game required more than a single “Aha!” moment. It was never obvious which of several possible ways the puzzle could be put together. Trial and error was required, which made teamwork vital; no one person always had the full answer.

The version of the Suitcase Mystery that we presented to the client contained about seven puzzle stages for players to solve in 60 minutes. Each team of four or five players stood around a table with a suitcase in the middle. The decision not to provide chairs proved to be the right one, since it kept players standing up and engaged actively in the different elements. 

One of the best moments of the game was when players had to assemble a collection of 24 large postcards. However, there was never enough space to do so on the table, so players had to use the floor. This step continues to be delightful, and makes the game break out into a physical task that players have to negotiate together. This is clearly not a typical company meeting! 

What’s in a finale

The final step of the game became a feature that many future clients have customized in order to drive home their unique central message. Where in the previous version of the program, the final message was spoken to players by the facilitator, this version required players to decode and write the message themselves. This engaging step made the content of the final point more sticky in a way that spoken messaging cannot match. 

For this version, each team had the same message at the end of their game. Unfortunately, this type of ending reinforced a competitive angle that went against the notion of the entire group working together toward a common goal. However, we would further develop this step to break up the expectation of teams competing to “win” against each other. 

Instead of every team having the same final message, each would have only a part of a much longer message, mission statement, or credo. This would always lead to a moment when a team would look up from their game to realize that their message made no sense. They needed every team to “win” in order to complete the program. In the end, the teams would create a messy, yet personal banner that the whole team could gather around and celebrate at the end of the game.

Conclusion: A star is born 

The client was really pleased with the results. We took the program beyond the 60-minute game by adding a more traditional team building workshop to the activity. This included more team games and a presentation about the different roles that members of functioning teams adopt. Since this material came directly after playing the Suitcase Mystery, the connection to actual teamwork was clear. Our final event was a well-rounded 3-hour program that was informative, practical, memorable, and fun!

We would go on to run the Suitcase Mystery program for hundreds of teams over the following years. This game is still a popular option for a certain kind of event, with clients hosting an in-person event in their offices or in a large ballroom. For conventions, this program is useful as an ice breaker at the beginning of the conference, a refreshing change of pace in the middle of an afternoon town hall, or as the fun reward just before the members cut loose at the end of the day.

We have learned so much from building this program and our clients have asked us for more. So it seems like now is the time for a sequel…

Stay tuned for new posts on the exciting development of Suitcase Mystery 2! 

Suitcase Mystery 1 changed the way we do in-person events.

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