Mechanics Monday – Red Herrings


The moral of the story is, never trust anyone who wears a hat (or can smoke underwater).

A slight twist on the original definition of a Mechanics Monday, instead of an element that’s constant in every game, I’d like to discuss an element you some of the time – red herrings – and maybe start some discussion on whether they’re a good thing for escape games or not.

There’s probably a lot of things in a game you could class as red herrings, but I’m going to group them into two:

Innocent decorations – In some cases everything that’s in a room is necessary for your escape. However in a lot more cases there are some items in a room that are purely there to make the room look and feel like whatever theme it’s supposed to be. But that doesn’t stop you thinking that it might be involved somehow.

Deliberate deceptions – In one game I played recently there was decoration that was deliberately designed to look like a puzzle, and you only discovered that they were indeed red herrings after the game.

And there’s obviously a lot of grey area too, where the line between what you might possibly find in a room comes very close to what looks like a puzzle, but I’ll stick with the two groupings for now.

By using the term ”innocent decorations” you’ve probably guessed my take on this. Escape rooms would be a boring (or at the very least, sparse) place if every item in the room had to be used as part of the plot, so I’d make no suggestion that ‘rule’ should be implemented.

Perhaps the bigger question here is how much decoration can be in a room for it still to be thought of as innocent. On one hand, dependant on the theme of course, the more stuff there is in a room the more it will feel like a real place, and you could say the more effort/money has been invested in the set design. But most players will tell you the first thing they do in a room is check everywhere for hints, clues and information. If most of the contents is decorative then it could become hunting a needle in a haystack, which possibly isn’t a lot of fun. Someone much cleverer than I could probably model when hunting for something crosses the line between engaging and tedious.

However there’s probably a third dynamic here; expectations of the room. The more I play and read about escape games, the more I learn about different styles of room, possibly linked to locality (or locality of origin). I’m certainly very familiar with two distinct styles of room at the moment (and a possible topic for another post); one which feels very linear, almost as if your team is supposed to move as one from one puzzle to the next. And another where the layout is very open-ended, where your team should spread out to find what they can. If those styles are reflective of location and/or culture then the amount of decoration/items in the room is pre-determined by where you are, or at least the style of room you’re expecting.

On to the second group, deliberate deceptions. And again my use of the term ‘deception’ possibly gives away the fact I’m not a fan. Back on my Theme Thursday post about multiple possible routes and endings through an escape room, Errol from Escape Room Addict suggested that you’d have to be cautious of having puzzles in a room that weren’t part of the storyline so that people don’t waste time on them. I think it could be very easily done by controlling what people have access to, as well as guiding the story around the room, but that’s not what I’m talking about right now. Deliberately inserting things into a room to distract people (ergo waste their time) is the very opposite of this. Apart from the obvious frustration in trying to work out a puzzle that has no answer, I think the bigger threat is not knowing if any of the puzzles you find in a room have an answer. I’m reasonably sure there’s no fun at all in part-progressing a number of different locks just to find which one actually goes somewhere.

So, after a lot of waffle, my suggestion is this:

  1. Red herrings are fine so long as they make sense within and benefit the room, so long as they don’t deliberately waste people’s time.
  2. Having too much stuff in a room could become a waster of time, so needs to be managed in line with the theme and style of the room.
  3. Fake puzzles suck.

I’ve said my piece (hopefully reasonably coherently, but it is getting late here). What do you guys think?


  1. Totally agree. The ability to have decor without being obtrusive in gameplay is part of good design.

  2. Smoke me a herr… kipper, I’ll be back within sixty minutes!

    I’ve seen a set of logic puzzles where the gimmick was that they deliberately couldn’t be uniquely solved. They looked like red herrings, but weren’t; if you worked out the areas where they could and couldn’t be uniquely solved, then… can’t remember exactly what, but it was something like the areas were the shapes of letters that spelt out the true answer.

    Ingenious, but probably too pencil-and-paper-heavy and insufficiently kinetic for most exit games, as well as most likely ba*d hard.

  3. Heh, I concur. Fake puzzles totally suck. ^_^

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