Published on February 9th, 2018 | by Dean Love2
DesignER: Making a great two-person game
DesignER is a semi-regular column where we look at escape room design and figure out what works, what doesn’t, and what we would like to see in the future.
Over the past few years we’ve had the chance to try out a few two-person escape games. These aren’t just regular games we played with a small team, they’re games specifically designed for exactly two people: no more, no less. We’ve played The Lab, Million Dollar Date Night, and most recently Two Tickets To Ride (review coming soon). Each has left me a little disappointed. Not because they were bad games, indeed, Million Dollar Date Night remains one of my all-time favourites, but because they don’t really leverage the distinct advantages being a two player game provides. If we’re being particularly cynical, they’re just a result of wanting to build a game in a space that can’t comfortably hold more than two people.
What these games all fail to recognise, is that being a two-person game drastically changes the nature of your audience in a way that’s quite key when designing an escape game. See, in a team of three, you don’t know the relationship between the players. Maybe they are all good friends, or maybe one person is friends with both the others but those two don’t know each other that well. With four it’s even more difficult, maybe it’s two couples or so on. Once you hit five it could well be a works team-building outing or any such other thing. But when you have two people, you know they are people who know each other well. They’re either a couple, or good mates. You can assume they have the ability to work together and communicate in a way that you can’t when more than two people are involved. And that gives you license to do much more interesting things.
Of course, puzzles requiring two people to cooperate and communicate aren’t exactly rare in escape games. Most good games will throw one in there at least, and it’s fine for a larger team as all you need is two people who can work together well to handle that bit. But you can’t build the game around those sorts of puzzles as you’ll essentially place the emphasis of the game on the two people who know each other best, and nudge out those on the periphery of the group. Much rarer are puzzles that require more than two people to work together on a difficult task, likely because of the issues mentioned above.
So for me, the ideal two player game would be a game that consisted entirely of those sorts of puzzles. Every puzzle requires two people to finish, nothing can be done by someone on there own. If you did it correctly, the players wouldn’t even realise that this was the case, but they’d finish the game feeling like they had truly accomplished something together. It wouldn’t need to be monotonous, there’s a huge variety of puzzles within that sub-category: manipulating something with controls that require four hands, communicating things from one part of the game to another, one player needing to perform one task concurrently with the other player performing a different task, one player guiding the other player through something that they can’t see… there’s a huge number of options.
And here is the cool bit. Because you know those two players will be the only players in the game, you can make these tasks as elaborate as you dare. You don’t have to design a great two-person puzzle then hugely simplify it, because if it lasts longer than a few minutes you know the rest of the team are going to get bored. It means you can ratchet up the difficulty on some of the tasks quite significantly. That also means that you don’t necessarily need a huge space for the game, which is helpful as a two player game is likely going to bring in less revenue. Five strong, entertaining teamwork tasks each designed to take around ten minutes would give you a nicely challenging game. Of course, you’d need to ensure those tasks remain fun for ten minutes but again: you know two people are working on it, and things are always more fun when done with friends. You won’t get that situation where one player takes themselves out of the game for ten minutes to solve some puzzle on their own, and neither player will worry that they’re missing out on the rest of the room while focusing on a specific thing for a while.
Lastly, it gives you some license to push the players into slightly more uncomfortable situations as they have a degree of comfort with each other, and you don’t need to be as concerned about players being embarrassed at having to do something awkward or silly.
The eagle-eyed among you may well have spotted the one flaw in this, and that is that your two players might be people going on a first or second date… in which case, yeah, they would have a harder time with a game like this. But bloody hell would they have a good idea if they were right for each other by the end of it!