Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and the Art of Room Escaping

By Philip Lyons

Most every semi-serious historian has likely heard of the book The Art of War by Sun Tzu, a Chinese military strategist. The book was put to paper sometime around 500 BCE, and is often cited as a way to succeed not just in warfare but also politics, business, and even personal improvement. Now, this book’s wisdom can be used to help you escape!

Yes, Sun Tzu has been dead for well over two millennia. Yes, escape rooms are a relatively new phenomenon. But even so, the ideas he wrote about overcoming the enemy are just as applicable to overcoming the puzzles and obstacles of an escape room as they are to succeeding in a battle, a campaign, or even an entire war.

Let’s examine his ideas and how they can help you and your friends and allies who like to pit yourselves against the cunning of an escape room.

First, you should assemble a team to play with. Sun Tzu had an important idea on what sort of folks should be on your team: “He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks…”. Bring people who want to play. Don’t drag along a reluctant friend; they will probably end up bored and that hurts everyone’s fun. When everyone is engaged and enjoying themselves, your chances of winning actually increase; and even if you don’t make it, you will still win via the fun factor. 

So let us say you and this group of enthusiastic friends have found yourself in a fresh escape room. The first issue you’ll find yourself facing is the time limit, so you’ll need to proceed strategically and prioritize. Sun Tzu points out that: “All warfare is based on deception,”. A room may be set up to obscure the solution to the puzzles within. To find the answers, you will have to pull away this veil of deception, first by finding what answers you need (code words, keys, or other solutions), and then seeking out clues that will help you deduce these. Look around and tell your comrades about what odd things you are finding, and look for patterns of how those objects could interact.

Once you have determined what puzzle elements are in the room, another of Sun Tzu’s principles comes to mind: “By discovering the enemy’s dispositions and remaining invisible ourselves, we can keep our forces concentrated, while the enemy’s must be divided,”. The escape room puzzles are naturally spread across the whole room, so you must learn what is there so you can assemble all the elements together to be able to solve them. This is most easily done if the group doing the room separates into sub-teams of two or three players each. Ultimately, once you have found all the elements, the team as a whole can focus on solving them. If you missed any puzzles, don’t hesitate to ask your Gamemaster for a walk-through at the end!

    You should make sure everyone in your team is engaged and focused on the goal. “In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns,”. This seems really obvious, but folks sometimes get sidetracked by events from outside the escape room. Yes, it’s nice Sally is going to have a baby and that Jake is marrying his sweetheart Helena, but if you want to win the game, I suggest you talk about that in the pub post-match while also toasting your victory… or the odds are good all you’ll have to talk about in the pub is is how you *just missed* winning the game. 

The greatest victory is one that requires no battle. “Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” Tough puzzles can be frustrating. Sometimes forcing them – and breaking them – seems the only solution. But that’s not the best way. Not only are you cheating yourself of the satisfaction of a true victory, but you may miss fun or exciting elements of game play.

I hope you find these ideas useful the next time you approach a new escape room. Until then, though, I bid you good luck!

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