Anybody who has ever found themselves locked in an escape room can attest that there’s always one person in these situations who solves puzzles faster than everyone else. Their brain is like a skeleton key. Victor Blake, currently under Covid-19 lockdown in a Manhattan apartment with his 7-year-old daughter, is that guy. The founder of Escape the Room, a rapidly growing experiential business prior to the pandemic, Blake has pivoted from engineering puzzles that make it hard for adults to break out to engineering puzzles that make it easier for a child to stay in.
He’s good at that too. Of course he is.
A former banker with a background in advanced math and a finance dude’s eye for detail, Blake has his own approach to keeping kids busy, engaged, and happy during lockdown. Rather than focusing on the game, he focuses on the rules of the game. Like any former quantitative analyst, he’s always searching for an algorithm. He’s found a few and is happy to share.
Escape rooms don’t function like normal games. The mechanics need to be discovered and that’s a significant part of the point. How does that inform the way you play with your daughter?
Kids will spend something like 70 or 80 percent of the time on a playground making up the rules to whatever game they’re going to play. If they’re playing with a ball, it’s all about bouncing and points. This is worth that and this many bounces is worth this much more. So when you’re considering a game — specifically one that might go one for a while — you want to spend most of the time on directions and rules. Better put, you want to get the kid to spend most of their time thinking about directions and rules. It promotes logical thinking and enables creative solutions. It lets them understand how systems work.
What does that look like in action?
I give my daughter a few key principles and make her create her own game. That’s why I love mazes. She can keep track of tape and one rule. So I ask her to make a maze on the floor with tape and the rule is that the person trying to solve the maze can only turn right. She takes a long time making it and then I tell her to decorate it and that takes a long time as well. Then solving it together takes time.
I really like it when simple instructions lead to complex outcomes. From a math perspective, it can get really complicated really fast, but it’s literally just tape and maybe paper on the floor.
That sounds like a big ask for a little kid. That’s more of an intellectual lift than most children’s games or toys require. Do you believe in just asking for more?
Some of it may come down to particular kids, but she’s capable. Where you sometimes need to help kids is making the rules work together. But there’s an inherently human thing about logic. They can kind of tell when it’s not working.
As for it being complicated, sure. The opposite doesn’t work. Do you remember the slot car tracks? I got one. There’s nothing there. We played with it for a couple of afternoon and now it sits here. That was a dumb purchase and indicative of a broader issue with how we entertain kids.
Mazes are pretty big. Are there smaller puzzle-based projects that you’d recommend?
We make puzzle boxes. It’s a physical box with a secret mechanism to open it. My daughter made some out of popsicle sticks. We look it up and invent mechanisms. Honestly, you can make this stuff out of LEGO. We’re also big on scavenger hunts with maps. She draws them and I search then we switch. That’s a good one.
Rokr Puzzles are also big. They are all wood and fantastic. We can build a projector then hand crank the film. There are no batteries and no glue. It’s an absolutely incredible product.
Is there something that all successful puzzles or problem-solving games have in common?
Think of games as three-act stories. There’s a reason people have told stories the same way since the Torah. Puzzles need to move a story forward. You can get creative about how that works and add meta-puzzles that connect smaller puzzles and create a bigger structure, but fundamentally it’s all about having an arc.
Also, set a time limit. It can be totally arbitrary. Make it 27 minutes. Add a time limit to anything and it makes it more stressful and harder. It also gets rid of the ambiguity. Kids want to know if they won or not. Time limits allow for that.
You come from the business of business, finance. You’re now in the business of puzzles. Listening to you talk, it seems like maybe that’s a more logical progression than one might think. Did the one thing sort of evolve into the other?
I always tell people that I used to do quantitative stuff like modeling derivatives and they always say, ‘You must be happier now!’ They think that must be the case because I write the Escape the Room games, which is a cool gig. Here’s the thing: I’m actually just good at optimizing within constraints. I’m at my best in situations where rules facilitate creativity. I’m like, We have sixty minutes and four walls. What can we create?
This has to be an incredibly difficult time for your business, which obviously relied on people coming together and, in fact, was largely oriented toward “team building.”
I’m 38. I was a math major. I was in finance. I built a thing. Business goes up or down and there are variations and normal stuff, but I thought I had a castle and a little bit of a moat. Unfortunately, there’s no moat big enough for this thing.
It’s another puzzle — a nearly impossible one.
I guess I’m just wired for that.