Sequential vs Path-based Design

Scott Nicholson’s white paper on escape rooms details three common methods of puzzle organization: Sequential, Open, and Path-based (Pg. 17). A sequential design was described as one offering players a single path of puzzles. An open gives players access to a large number of puzzles simultaneously, usually each contributing to an overall larger ‘metapuzzle’. The path-based approach is effectively a hybrid of the two. Most rooms I’ve played gravitate towards one of the the three listed options.

Is any approach more fun than another? What are the advantages and disadvantages each approach holds? Long post ahead.

I’m less strict with my definition of sequential and path-based. Most games are not purely one or the other, but are usually close enough that it’s clear which one it is. An open game, with its strict definition, is rare enough that i’m not going to talk too much about it. These are just my observations.

Group Size
An path-based game fits more players than a sequential game. It’s awkward to fit 8 people around a single puzzle, and doing it repeatedly would be exhausting. It’s simpler to have 8 people working on 8 different puzzles. At a cursory glance, more people per game per hour seems better for a business, but there are other factors to consider.

Space
Space is probably one of the foremost logistical concerns with escape rooms. A sequential game requires less space, and is more conducive to having smaller groups of players. An path-based game requires more floor space. This is a core difference. A sequential game can be stretched out across more rooms, but the opposite cannot be done with an path-based game. I’ve played path-based games that were crammed into small rooms and it does NOT work. It’s silly to expect large groups to work on seperate independent puzzles inside a smaller space.

Scalability
After talking about group size and space, scalability is the next logical topic. Escape rooms are generally designed with an intended range of group sizes. What happens if players have more or less than the ideal amount? A sequential game scales well if you go below the ideal range, while an path-based game scales better going above the ideal range. If the game consists of one singular puzzle after another puzzle, the difference between having 3 players and 6 players might not be that much depending on the skill level of the players. However, having 9 players crowd around a single puzzle might be suffocating. On the other hand, having 9 players in an path-based game designed with 6 puzzles to start isn’t really that bad. However, having only 3 players when you have 6 available puzzles to start seems very daunting.

There are different approaches to addressing these issues. REG (and others in Toronto, but REG being more prominent) has had mostly path-based games. They combine incomplete groups to hit their ideal group size of 11 (which is also the maximum). That approach has some of its own problems that I’ll write about another time. Some other facilites err on the side of caution, and have the approach of setting a high minimum player count.

Puzzle Depth
How many puzzles does a player actually get to interact with in a game? Presumably, in a sequential game, every player will get to see and contribute to every puzzle. Path-based games are more ‘shallow’ in terms of puzzles, and it wouldn’t be surprising if players miss whole puzzles altogether that a teammate might have solved. Oddly enough, the more competent the team, the less of the full game each individual player gets to see. Players end up having to debrief each other after the game as to what actually went on.
I strongly prefer sequential games because I get to ‘experience’ the whole game. I would assume that most players aren’t playing just to score well, so missing out on significant portions of the game seems counter to my enjoyment of the game.

Hint System Compatability
There are multiple ways hints are handled, but the most common I’ve seen in Toronto is ‘Hit the talk button on the walkie-talkie and ask for a hint’. In a general way, I think these kinds of hints are better suited for a sequential game. If you’re stuck, there’s really only one puzzle you can be stuck on at any given time. In an path-based game, hints are just messier. A team can be stuck on more than one thing simultaneously. Or maybe they need a hint on how the puzzles fit together for the meta puzzle. Players may not know what they need help on.

I’m a strong proponent that escape room puzzles challenge players, but that the design/structure of the game should not be confusing. For example, if you solve a puzzle, I think you should know exactly where the code you recovered need to go. Sequential games have the option of giving players a ‘roadmap’. For example, in one game I’ve played, puzzles were alphabetically labelled. The room wasn’t very big. This solution isn’t very eloquent, but I had fun. Path-based games don’t really have a corresponding option.

Unintended Puzzle Interactions
Speaking of the example with knowing where to input a 4-digit code, sequential have the advantage that they are a tighter and controlled setup. Generally, you have access to X and no access to Y because the game designer intended it. When path-based games are done without considering these factors, you get the problem where you won’t know where an answer goes. Maybe you have a 4-digit code and multiple 4-digit locks you need to try it on. That’s not fun. And that’s assuming the answer you have is completely unambiguous! Maybe you’re not sure if the room designer intended you to add these numbers or subtract them. Welp, more things to try. Not fun!

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4 comments

    1. Corrected!

      I privately combine Open and Path-based, and I just call them both Open games. I originally wrote this like that, but did a replace all when I wanted to fall in line with Scott’s terminology.

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  1. I think rather than dividing games into one bucket or another, it’s more sensible to talk about how much *parallelism* a game has (how many things are open at once). It’s a sliding scale, not a binary choice.

    High parallelism occupies a larger team to stay busy, and may allow some puzzles to be skipped (if a clever player can guess the “meta” after solving 3 of its 5 feeders, then you can “skip” two of the puzzles), which may or may not be desirable. It gives the designer more freedom to have puzzles that maybe everyone won’t enjoy; if some people on the team don’t like it, they can work on something else and leave it to those who do; if nobody on the team likes it, maybe they can skip the puzzle entirely.

    Low parallelism is better for smaller teams and means that everyone sees every puzzle, for better or worse. Being stuck is much more of a concern, so you have to make sure your hints are good.

    High parallelism has more of an “exploration” feel, low parallelism has more of an “adventure” feel. These may be a better or worse fit for a particular theme, storyline, or venue.

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    1. (As an aside), to my knowledge, REG/SCRAP are the only games in Toronto that are designed with the ability to skip puzzles. The convention here is generally that you have to solve everything.

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