Escape Room Game - A Constitutional Kidnapping (Part 2)
A good puzzle [is] a fair thing. Nobody is lying. It's very clear.
When I’d get an idea for this game, I’d start to run with it before realizing that I was just creating a trivial puzzle for my students to solve. As I explained in my previous post, I wanted this game to feature meaningful learning. So I had to train myself to scrutinize new ideas before chasing them.
For example, my class already read and discussed Federalist 10 & 51. We talked about how they are the two most famous essays in the Federalist Papers. So I thought of making one of my clues be about tidbit, with “1051” being the solution to a 4-digit lock. That primed my brain to start thinking of other puzzles along those lines before I had to stop myself. What’s the point of a solution like that? At best, it’s a review of something we already talked about. But even then, who cares if they remember a factoid like that? Knowing what is discussed in those documents is far more important than knowing that they’re well known.
So I rejected that idea. But, as you’ll see later, even the rejects can come in handy.
It turns out that there’s a lot of division in the escape room community on the use of red herrings. Most designers don’t like them for the simple reason that most players don’t like them. Players have a limited amount of time to escape, so it’s maddening to discover that you wasted 10 minutes on a mere distraction. It breaks their trust in the system you built for them. However, some designers use them without guilt. So, would I use one in this game?
And it’s one of the features that I’m proudest of.
The key for escape room puzzles is that they must be fair. Players handle failure better if they feel like they had a fair shot. Accordingly, I made it clear that a clue might be a red herring. Students would discover two unlabeled documents. One document was from an Antifederalist’s speech and the other was from a Federalist’s speech. Both documents had a secret clue, but only the Federalist document advanced students to winning. To make it fair, I attached a note from Madison saying to ignore the Antifederalist and follow the Federalist. Maybe this makes it so it’s not technically a red herring, but it was still a puzzle to solve that would lead to a dead end.
If the students can’t tell the which speech came from an Antifederalist and which came from a Federalist, they might accidentally follow the wrong trail. But the part I was proud of was where this wrong trail led them. The red herring would open a lock, and inside was a message about it being a dead end with a brief explanation of the differences between the Federalists and Antifederalists. It also included a couple of extra hint cards.
I was pleased with how this red herring built a little bit of differentiation into my game. If the students followed the wrong path, they might need a little extra guidance on the differences between the Federalists and Antifederalists and some extra hint cards to get them back on their feet. If students can spot the differences between Antifederalists and Federalists enough to ignore the red herring, they probably don’t need the quick review or the extra hints!
The Main Puzzle
Remember when I said my rejected puzzle about using Federalist 10 & 51 would come in handy? It served as the inspiration for the main puzzle of the game!
I posted various documents around the room, most of them excerpts from selected Federalist Papers. At some point in the game, the students would obtain a stack of Antifederalist writings with a clue from Madison on what to do. Basically, they’d need to read the Antifederalist document, then search the room for the correct Federalist Paper that refutes the Antifederalist’s arguments. Once they knew which Federalist Papers refuted all of the Antifederalist writings, they’d add the Federalist numbers up to get the number that opens the lock.
I decided this satisfied my constraint that the game should teach them something. They’d be getting documents they’d never seen before (both the Antifederalist documents and the Federalist papers around the room). They’d need to be able to read and understand both sets of documents well enough to find the arguments that contradict each other. This would help them learn to read primary documents (an overarching goal of my class) and would require them to discover new arguments surrounding the ratification of the Constitution.
With some finishing touches, the game was ready for its first playtest with my students. Find out how that goes in my next post! Spoiler alert: it turns out I still have a lot to learn about escape rooms—not a single class won the game. Oops!
(Update: this game is available to playtest! Fill out the form here to gain access to it)