3 Cognitive Biases That Affect Your Problem Solving Strategies (What does being locked in a room tell us about our brains?)


The door behind you is locked shut by a rotary combination lock. On the wall in front of you hang three picture frames, each one containing a painting of random patterns and colours. You inspect all three and deduce that there has to be numbers hidden in each one, which you think are part of an equation that, when solved, will unlock the door to your escape. You scan these repeatedly and, unfortunately, throughout the time you spent scrutinizing strokes for more clues to support your theory, it didn’t occur to you to simply flip each frame over where you would’ve found a number clearly written on the back of each, which would have led to your freedom.

A cognitive bias is a mental block that hinders you from correctly solving a problem. It influences nearly every decision you make, including the strategy you choose for a puzzle.

Many types of cognitive biases affect different areas of problem solving, but we’ll examine the top three that escape game players frequently make. Understanding these mental barriers can save you precious time and increase your team’s success rate in escape rooms (and even in everyday life!).

1. Mental Set


Abraham Luchin’s famous water-jug puzzle. Given three measuring jugs of different sizes, apply an equation to obtain the exact amount of water asked for.

It probably took you a while to figure out the first one, but then you became quicker at solving the next couple, applying the correct formula B – A – 2C. What about the second last puzzle? Did you use the formula again? If you did, then you were correct!

But you probably didn’t discover the more direct solution: A + C. And you might’ve taken longer solving the very last problem, which is quickly solved using the formula A – C.

Mental set is a framework or strategy we consistently use to approach a problem because it has proved successful for solving a similar problem. Mental set can be useful for quickly working through a straightforward problem, but the wrong mental set hampers your ability to find the correct or optimal solution.

2. Functional Fixedness

Two pieces of string hang from the ceiling. They are too far apart from each other for you to tie them together. There is also a table with a screwdriver, a box of matches and pieces of cotton. How do you tie the strings together?

Have no idea how any of the given everyday objects can be useful to you? A form of mental set, functional fixedness, is the difficulty of finding new and novel uses for an object beyond its typical, familiar use. It might not have occurred to you to tie the screwdriver to one end of the string and swing it as a pendulum to reach the other string, but it’s a creative solution to the predicament!

3. Unnecessary Constraints


Take this grid of nine dots and, without lifting your pen, draw four straight lines that pass through each dot only once. 

Some of you may have attempted the well-known nine dots puzzle before and had probably assumed your lines had to stay within the borders of the grid. But the problem never states that you couldn’t extend your lines outside of it!

Unnecessary constraints are the unwarranted assumptions we often make about a problem, which limit creative thinking. The expression, “Thinking outside the box”, was popularized by this puzzle. This common bias is only overcome by a sudden realization, known as an Eureka effect.

Cognitive biases aren’t bad. In fact, some are heuristics, or rules of thumb, that are useful. We often don’t have time to consider all of our options before coming to a decision, so mental shortcuts that have (in general) been proven to work are useful. But these shortcuts can, ironically, be time-wasting, preventing us from thinking rationally or creatively about a problem.

Sharing your ideas with your teammates can help you and others identify any barriers in thinking. Therefore, communication is your key tool to overcoming your mental barriers and ultimately, the physical barrier standing between you and freedom when locked in a room – and when you finally find the key and escape, remember these when tackling life’s problems as well!

Tokyo: An Urban Puzzle (Or how a language barrier helped shape our next game)


I landed in Narita airport on a rainy Tuesday afternoon. The relative calm of the airplane cabin soon gave way to a flurry of people in every direction.

It was an eye-buffet, from colorful groups in “Kigurumis” (head-to-toe animal onesies) exchanging digital coup-de-graces with their handheld gaming devices, to flocks of families scurrying about with their duty-free shopping bags of souvenirs.

The blast of color and flare however was against a backdrop of minimalist, white-spaced interiors and straight edges, providing a zen balance. It looked more like an art gallery than an airport waiting area (even the very weird but cool Gallery Toto which showed off various models of high-tech toilets seemed refined).


All around me was the chatter of a language I didn’t quite understand but that my ears couldn’t turn away from, accompanied by aesthetically distinct symbols I couldn’t read but that my eyes wanted so much to take in. As I collected my baggage and made my way to the ‘Skyliner’ train terminal which would be my portal from the airport to Tokyo city, I passed a doorman who eagerly greeted me with words I didn’t comprehend, but with gestures and body movements that were universally welcoming.

The blue streak that is the Skyliner suddenly pulled up at lightning speed, looking more like a speeding bullet than locomotive.


The doors slid open as I approached them in a sleek automatic movement (in fact, most doors here did). The flashing video screens up above looped advertisements, puzzles and trivia questions. The passengers (those that weren’t passed out salarymen anyway) were affixed to those screens, talking busily among each other. I couldn’t understand them, but their body movements and excitement were telling in a way that the language wasn’t. They were most likely sharing answers to the questions flashing on the screens above.

Later I’d discover that in downtown Tokyo Akihabara, a red tower loomed above the skyline with an 8-Bit space invader perched at the top. This is the Taito Station ‘Game Center,’ a Tower of Babel-like arcade where hundreds upon hundreds of gamers trade pocket change for their newest digital challenges.


Games and puzzles seemed to be imbedded in the cultural fabric here. This is why it makes a lot of sense that Japan was the birthplace of live escape games when SCRAP Entertainment launched the first one in 2007.

I talked a lot during my stay with SCRAP about the cultural differences of Eastern and Western escape game players, of how different cultural influences create different play-styles, but also, much more of players’ commonalities: universals among puzzle solvers world-round. Above all else, whether in Japan or in Canada, we’re humans, curious and fun-seeking and challenge driven, whatever language we speak.

And maybe that’s what’s needed, a going back to the essence. Before the special effects, or weighty story, or cool tech, or even any words themselves: what’s the ‘core’ of the thing? Well, the simple act of puzzle-solving, the joy of the “aha!” moment, and the challenge of the game. And that is what ‘Escape form the Red Room,’ our newest Toronto project, is all about. 4 red walls. Locked doors. No objects or puzzles or clues in sight. Not even words. Designed to be independent of language or even cultural context – a universal puzzle for anyone to solve.


But would people in Toronto take that challenge and escape from a room with no words to guide them?

“Of course!” Yokoyama-San, one of the leads on the Japan team excitedly says.

“That’s when they have to rely on each other the most. To follow their gut instincts and logic when they have no words of instruction to rely on. Take out all the distractions, even words, and you’re left with only what makes most sense.”

It’s like an escape game Occam’s Razor. I smirk, unable to resist. “I think they’ll be speechless.”

Konichiwa from Japan! I’ll be back in Toronto soon.

Michaelangelo Yambao, Game Producer

Game Review: Elder Sign

Photo courtesy of

Designers: Richard Launius, Kevin Wilson
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Number of players: 1-8 (Co-op)
Play-time: 1-2 hours
Recommended age: 13+
Grade: 8/10

The year is 1926 and the barriers between our world and the world beyond bend to the will of creatures outside the realm of human understanding. A small group of investigators find themselves outside of the museum, the mysterious centralization of dark energy causing the weakening of these barriers. They must do everything humanly possible to stop the gates to the beyond from being let loose by the monsters and madmen that lay within. In the midst of this chaos, the investigators race against the doom clock to locate the eldritch symbols necessary to seal the waning portals and stop the evil Ancient Ones from devouring our world.

When describing Elder Sign to the unfamiliar I will often say, “It’s like Yahtzee if a successful roll could potentially kill a Lovecraftian Old God, while a failed roll could mean the end of the world. ”

Photo courtesy of

The base concept is to work together to stop an ancient evil from passing through into our reality by collecting the required number of elder signs before the doom clock (a literal clock that counts down to the arrival of an Old God) collects the required amount of doom tokens. Players send their investigators into a room they choose at the top of their turn. If successful in that room they may be rewarded with an elder sign. Rolling the dice in order to complete a series of tasks that are listed on the room card they have selected will dictate their success or failure. Failure will result in the ‘rooms demerit’ to activate, which could be anything from losing health or sanity, to monsters appearing, to a doom token being added to the doom clock. The player will now be trapped in that room until they, or one of their fellow investigators, are able to complete the tasks of that room.
Success will reap the listed benefits of that room, including the room itself becoming a trophy that can be spent on item cards or elder signs.

The item cards can be used to bolster the player’s rolls by adding additional dice, or allow them to lock dice faces raising the probability of completing tasks. Some cards will allow the player to switch dice, some provide allies that can aid them or be sacrificed to save them from death. It may seem harsh to sick your junkyard dog Duke on Cthulhu himself, but that dog has saved our realm more times than old Ashcan Pete can recall! 

Ashcan-PeteThere are other items that allow the player to re-roll, or lock items for their fellow investigators, making team strategy an important part of the game. If someone on your team decides to hoard items it can help in the end, or end up being the downfall of the group.

Each of the ancient creatures has a different effect that has a considerable impact on a game-to-game bases. I have not fought against all of them yet, but can say each game was very different depending on the Old God we were up against. Some have effects that activate as soon as the game starts, while others have no effect until they have been summoned from the beyond. In some cases, the game will be over as soon as the Old God is activated, but the outcome of the game can go in many directions as the death does not necessarily come once the doom clock reaches zero. Once the doom tokens have reached the required number to summon an Old God the game mechanic switches to fast-paced style combat where the players take turns attempting to complete the monster’s roll tasks. Depending on who you’re up against, this can be a literal nightmare.

Elder Sign works as something to fill an hour, or an entire evening. The game is listed at 1-2 hours, but rarely did our games run more than an hour. The listed size of an 8 player max does work, though I did find the game to be better paced and more engaging with a slightly smaller group; 5 would be the magic number in my opinion. The themes are quite dark, and the rules can be a bit taxing for newcomers, but I would say the recommend age of 13+ is pretty flexible. There is nothing overly complicated about the game mechanics, and the goals of each turn are relatively simple once you’ve played a few times. More examples in the rule book may have helped us figure things out.  Our understanding of the game was built up through experience, but the rule book could have given more visual examples of the game in play. It’s generally simple enough, but can be confusing the first few times.

On a pool of the people I played with, everyone enjoyed the game thoroughly with few complaints. We were able to play multiple sittings before fatigue set in. The main complaint was that it was too easy. I can’t say that this opinion is untrue, as it is a dice based game, and luck can outweigh strategy more often than not. A person with a few lucky rolls  may consider the game to be easy, while those who flop repeatedly might curse it as impossible. Though we did defeat the Old Gods more than once by sealing the portal to the beyond, we have also been devoured by the unspeakable on more than one occasion. But it’s been a whole lot of fun. 

Steve Waters, Game Master

World’s Most Expensive Rubik’s Cube: The Masterpiece Cube

The Rubik’s Cube, first conceived in 1974, is one of the world’s most iconic toys. Around one in seven people have fiddled with this familiar cube of colours, likely including you, dear reader. Perhaps you’ve even solved it on one occasion.

But have you ever laid eyes on the world’s most expensive Rubik’s Cube?


In celebration of the 15th anniversary of the Rubik’s Cube in 1995, Fred Cueller, CEO and founder of Diamond Cutters International, crafted the Masterpiece Cube. Functional as its plastic cousin, the Masterpiece took approximately 8,500 hours to produce and is assembled from 18-karat yellow gold and over 185-carats of various gemstones. Instead of bright plastic stickers, in its completed state, you would have admired 34 carats of rubies, 34 carats of emeralds and 22.5 carats of amethyst. Interestingly, amethyst, a violet semi-precious stone, replaced the orange side and is especially protected from public view to prevent the Masterpiece Cube’s design from being replicated.

At the 2:00 mark, Cueller finally unveils and presents the Masterpiece Cube to Erno Rubik, the founding father of the original Rubik’s Cube, in all its shimmering glory in front of an audience at the Liberty Science Centre’s ‘Genius Gala’ during the Beyond Rubik’s Cube exhibition event. According to BRC’s site, the Masterpiece Cube is currently valued at $2.5 million USD, making it the world’s most expensive puzzle.

The lightbulb

A windowless room contains three identical light fixtures, each containing an identical light bulb or light globe. Each light is connected to one of three switches outside of the room. Each bulb is switched off at present. You are outside the room, and the door is closed. You have one, and only one, opportunity to flip any of the external switches. After this, you can go into the room and look at the lights, but you may not touch the switches again. How can you tell which switch goes to which light?