An entry in Fortnightly Topic Challenge #50: Escape Rooms

Your head is throbbing like mad. You try to get your bearings as you look around the laboratory. Shattered beakers and spilled chemicals are everywhere. Another failed experiment. How long have you been unconscious?

The next thing you notice is a mug of water, the mug your kids gave you on your last birthday. You take a drink and the room stops spinning.

There is a small white pill next to the mug. Next to it is a note:
“Figured you’d need this. - Marc”

Marc is your lab assistant. But where is he? The handwriting is shaky. It does not look like Marc’s handwriting. If anything, it looks like the handwriting of Dangerous Dirk, your arch nemesis who has been trying to murder you. What if the pill is poison? Should you take it? In fact, should you have drunk whatever was in that mug? You sniff it. Yes, probably water. Or at least, you’re not dead yet. But the sketchy looking pill and note? You decide to ignore it.

Your phone is missing. You try the door but the handle won’t turn. You shakily wake up the computer hoping to send an email for help. Unfortunately, it is Windows 8 and missing a start menu. In your confused state you can’t get it to do anything except beep at you.

There is a post-it note on the wall with a todo list. Oh yeah, you were supposed to upgrade the computer. A bit late for that now.

Stumbling to the other side of the room, you find a strange, crudely drawn map sitting on the table. The myriads of pine trees make the pounding in your head worse.

Beside the map is a list of song ideas Marc had been working on. Doesn’t look like he finished it.

Song Ideas

  1. Tag/topic (9,6)
  2. Deity’s Doorway (4,4)
  3. Thorin’s thief (5,7)
  4. Coastal capital, country (8,8)
  5. Not sure. Something silly?

You think back to that tempting white pill. Should you take it? Will it help you escape? Or will it kill you? You consider the clues lying about the room… something seems to be missing…


There are 7 ?'s in the clues to solve for.

Hint 2

You try to focus on the 7 ?'s. Some seem easy, some you have a guess about, and others you are clueless. Fortunately, after you solve a couple, a pattern emerges, and you are able to solve the rest. But something seems to be missing... there are gaps in the pattern? You take a drink to clear your mind. The sight of the mug strikes inspiration. You rush to the computer to look something up, but the keys wobble blurrily and the computer only beeps back at you. Where is Marc? you wonder. How long will I be stuck in this room?

Hint 3

Hours have passed. You finally realize the city in the map has three identities, but each identity has at least one inaccuracy/error. You curse whoever left you this puzzle for making it so difficult, but eventually come to some conclusions. In one identity, an entire ward of the city and at least one pine tree is missing. This appears to be an obfuscation and not a clue. In the second identity, numerous buildings are missing. For example the hospital on Shared Way. You're also pretty sure one of the roads leading out of the city should not be there. These also appear to be obfuscations and not clues. In the third identity, one of the neighboring attractions is formatted differently than the others. Unlike the other obfuscations, however, this one is accompanied by a "?" symbol and is a clue to solve for.

Hint 4

Apart from "birthday, kids, wall, assistant, and Marc", pretty much every other noun in the story can be used as a hint, some quite major, to help solve various portions of the puzzle. Even if it doesn't seem like the noun is anything special. See new tag.

Hint 5

You stumble around the room searching for clues. What's this? There's a crumpled up note in the wastebasket.
Apparently, whoever left you this puzzle originally made it longer, but decided to shorten it.
The last thing you want is more puzzles to solve, but you wonder if they will give insight into the overall pattern.
So against your better judgement, you read the note:
More questions (not hints), in no particular order
- Speaking of songs... You can call me... What can you call me?
- In what continent does the city (on the map) lie?
- Shouldn't you remove the Uranium from the mug?

Well that was cryptic. But aha! Someone left some working notes on the puzzle design!
- Todo #1: Cryptic clue and length (but which line is the length? Recognizing the overall sequence/mechanism will help)
- Todo #2: Enigmatic clue and length
- Mug: Irrelevant until last step
- Map: Treat each color layer independently. Do not overlay or you will get lost. In fact, focusing on the south attraction alone might be a good place to begin.

Hint 6

I like grids and patterns. I'll reiterate that between the map layers and the song list, we have 5 common, well known objects which are associated with a clearly defined grid or pattern. For example, a 'U.S. Political Map' (2 solved, 3 to go). Each must be solved/identified on its own without letting information from another muddle your thinking. Hints to each object are in the story. The only commonality is that each 'identity' leads to one or more ?'s that form a well known sequence (with gaps). Which gets you to the last couple steps, which leverage one of those identities (the one not yet used).

Hint 7

You dig around some more in that wastebasket and uncover an earlier version of the map: enter image description here

Conclusion - The End of the Matter (spoiler now that it's solved)

You swallow the pill with a gulp of water from the mug. In a bit, your mind clears and the pounding in your head is gone. What's this? The KEY to the door has been lying ON the TABLE the whole time! You storm to the door, unlock it, and march down to the dining hall in a fury. Marc is sitting there munching on a hamburger.
"Marc! Why did you make that puzzle so hard? Why didn't you just write what it was?" you demand.
Marc looks up mid-bite. "Oh, you're finally up. If just wrote it out, how would you know the message wasn't from Dangerous Dirk? It might have been cyanide! Only I know how much you like puzzles. He could never have come up with that."
"But I don't like puzzles!"
"Then why is your homepage set to that puzzling site?"
"Because you set it there! You know I am no good with computers! Every time I try to change it, it just beeps at me! You're the only one who knows how it works. Why else do you think I keep you around?"
"Oh. I'm sorry. I'll get that upgrade done for you. Care for a hamburger? I made you one." Marc points to the counter where a delicious looking burger sits under warming lights.
You sigh. "Actually, yes. I'm starving. I feel like I've been trapped in that room for over a month!"
The hamburger is every bit as delicious as it looked. Escape is sweet success.

  • 16
    $\begingroup$ Wow, if this hits the HNQs there will be a lot of confused people coming here thinking this is FamilyPlanning.SE...! :) $\endgroup$
    – Stiv
    Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 13:19
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Another hint please? $\endgroup$
    – Ankit
    Commented Mar 15, 2021 at 4:34
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Thanka for the hints. I think hint 3 has a lot to offer. Some i already observed but a few were new. Thx for pointing them out. Btw, kudos for setting this up. Its a good one $\endgroup$
    – Joe Ferndz
    Commented Mar 15, 2021 at 17:45
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I could give help if anyone is stuck, just not sure where. Alternatively I am really tempted to just add more '?''s to the puzzle, making the sequence longer and easier to identify. You may need to look up a few facts on the internet here and there, but otherwise each mini-puzzle has a simple solution. No weird ciphers or math or anything like that. Don't get lost in the trees; they are only for the last step and otherwise almost completely irrelevant. $\endgroup$
    – Amoz
    Commented Mar 29, 2021 at 4:17
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Just to give you an idea of how far I got (may be others are the same) - I'm pretty sure I know at least three of the song ideas and the answers seem to connect to the words on the mug. The messages on the post-it note look like cryptic clues but I haven't been able to come up with anything solid for them and it's tough without enumeration. I have very little idea about the map - the directions look like wordplay (possibly anagrams?) but have struggled to make anything out of them. The street names and buildings make me think of board games but again may be totally wrong. $\endgroup$
    – hexomino
    Commented Mar 29, 2021 at 9:21

3 Answers 3


Previous insights by @hexonimo and @stiv have indicated that the contents of the pill are given by three of the four element symbols H, He, C, and O, with the one of the four that's not involved being the answer to the "? Blvd." clue.

For now, I'm going to assert without giving any reasoning that the answer to the "? Blvd." clue is "He", and therefore the element symbols H, C, and O give the contents of the pill.

On the mug, there are two pine trees under a word beginning with "H", and one pine tree under a word beginning with "O", and what's in the mug is H₂O₁. Hence, a number of pine trees represents the number of atoms of a particular element in a molecule.

The as-yet-unused identity of the map grid is a periodic table without the transition metal block (maybe the transition metal block is the entire ward of the city that's missing according to hint 3). We're only interested in the cells of the periodic table for H, C, and O, which are the cells that, in the QWERTY identity of the grid discovered by @stiv, are "W", "G", and "J" respectively.

Counting the number of pine trees in each of those cells, we find that what's in the pill is a compound with empirical formula C₉H₈O₄. One such compound is Aspirin.

  • $\begingroup$ Nice observation :) I had also sussed what the tree layer represented, but couldn't spot what we needed to do with it... This makes sense +1 Now to suss 'He'...! $\endgroup$
    – Stiv
    Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 12:33
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Congratulations, you (the community) have escaped! Feel free to check out the conclusion in the main post if you haven't already. To address the outstanding question of the streets (why He?)... Feel free to keep pondering, or not, but if you figure it out, it's also the answer to "What is a Fun Puzzle" (currently unanswered) so you can earn yourself a bonus checkmark. It's a race! $\endgroup$
    – Amoz
    Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 20:00
  • $\begingroup$ Just watch out for the two nasty red herrings in that one.... Perhaps it's not a Fun Puzzle after all... Yes it's intentionally misleading but I did label it enigmatic, to be fair.... $\endgroup$
    – Amoz
    Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 20:07

Very Partial Answer

I think I've got the gist of what's going on so maybe if I post what I have so far, it may inspire somebody else.


There is a strong underlying theme of chemical elements, particular chemical symbols for the elements, being used. Moreover, I think we are looking at the first n elements (for some n, possibly with important gaps).

Post-it Note

The first line of the first clue hints the clue length which is actually just 2 (binary 10), I think the "Install Windows" part is superfluous and perhaps used just to create a story.
Then the wordplay is given by the second line in brackets "start buttons exist" which clues Be, the chemical symbol for Beryllium.

I'm not sure about the second clue but "Neo" is the start of Neon and "car" is the beginning of Carbon so perhaps it's hinting at the finish (end) of these words which is the letter N (representing Nitrogen).

Map Directions

After much searching, I finally realised that "calamity hook" is an anagram of "Oklahoma City".
Then, looking at the map of the US, I found that if I centre myself at Wichita, Kansas, then Oklahoma city is to the south, St Louis, MO is to the East (the latter part of which anagrams to "soul, IMO"), Denver, CO is to the West (the latter part of which anagrams to "Vern Co.") and Lincoln, Ne is to the North.
Hence, the missing part of the Northerly direction is either Li (Lithium and first two letters of Lincoln), Ne (Neon and two letter code for Nebraska) or some combination of both, maybe line.

More than likely the clue is for Li because that fits with Lo! (Li Lo!).

Map Buildings

Given the hint that a lot of buildings seem to be missing including the hospital (which would be represented by an H), I think that the buildings also correspond to chemical elements and, with this in mind, the best I could come up with here is that each building corresponds to an element represented by its first two letters so,
Casino = Ca (Calcium).
Gas Station = Ga (Gallium).
Restaurant = Re (Rhenium).
One guess I had for the missing building was a School corresponding to Scandium because this is in the same row of the period table to Gallium and Calcium.
Another thought I had was that we might be looking at particular columns of the periodic table (in terms of columns, Rhenium is between Calcium and Gallium) and that really we need something in the same column as Gallium so possibly one of B, Al, In, Tl, Nh. The first three seem most likely and a building that could fit would be an Institute so the answer may be In. However, if we are looking at the first n chemical elements then it would, more likely, be B for Boron.

I have no idea about the street names on the map

Song Ideas (credit to MacGyver88 for figuring out the idea behind this)

I think all of the answers here are alliterative

1. Enigmatic Escape (figured out by MacGyver88)
2. God's Gate.
3. Bilbo Baggins
4. Djibouti, Djibouti

Notice that the initial letters here are the first four notes on a musical stave (staff) with treble clef E,G,B,D so the last song idea must clue a two-word phrase which begins with F (such as Finish Fuelling, as suggested in comments).

The main point is that this section clues F, the chemical symbol for Fluorine.

Hint 5

The song referred to is "You Can Call Me Al" (cluing Aluminium).
The continent is North America which would clue Na, Sodium (thanks to Stiv for pointing this out).
Mug with Uranium (U) is Mg - Magnesium.

Notice that these are the chemical elements with atomic numbers 11,12 and 13 so likely in the puzzle itself, we are looking for the first 10 chemical elements, possibly with gaps.

Solving the rest

There's obviously something going on with the trees on the mug. We see them on the map and there must be some significance behind the way they appear there and what three of them together mean. The words on the mug seem significant although there is no baseball connection directly here despite the appearance of Henry Owens.

Originally I thought that we'll want to put the chemical symbols we find together to form some string of words. Already from the post-it note we'd have BeN so maybe we're looking for the name of a person?

However, now since I think we are looking for the first n elements, (n=10, potentially, from Hint 5) we so far have Li, Be, B, N, F (and possibly H and Ne).
Notable absentees so far are He, C and O but there is still a great deal of the puzzle to solve.

  • $\begingroup$ Appreciate you taking initiative on this! I never intended this to be particularly hard (oops), just thought the 'escape room' topic sounded like a blast, so I'll jump in with feedback, hope that's okay. $\endgroup$
    – Amoz
    Commented Mar 30, 2021 at 18:54
  • $\begingroup$ The 7 (or 10 now) ?'s represent a well known sequence 1 to N (terminates early), with a few gaps. So that should eliminate some options. The gaps answer the question 'what is in that pill', rather than what's included in the sequence. But what to do with them? There must be a mechanism, but how on earth to determine it? $\endgroup$
    – Amoz
    Commented Mar 30, 2021 at 19:00
  • $\begingroup$ Boy it sure would be nice if there were a -second- puzzle that used a very similar mechanism to answer the question "what is in that mug". Because we already know the answer, and could reverse engineer the mechanism. $\endgroup$
    – Amoz
    Commented Mar 30, 2021 at 19:01
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @MacGyver88 Sorry I didn't mean you, I meant that I was not aware of the @; I didn't understand how it worked, but now I think I see what it does. Your response to answerer was fine and as I noted in the rot13, you've basically found the 5th element out of 7. $\endgroup$
    – Amoz
    Commented Apr 9, 2021 at 14:50
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Apologies both I've edited in MacGyver88's findings now $\endgroup$
    – hexomino
    Commented Apr 9, 2021 at 15:20

Two additional question marks solved

While @hexomino has made fantastic progress thus far, one thing currently not yet discovered in that answer is the significance of the named buildings. This can be seen by:

looking at a computer keyboard! Notice that the layout of the street blocks, slanting slightly northwesterly, mimics the staggered layout of the keys on a keyboard. Moreover, the initial letters of the named buildings appear in the same relative spaces on a keyboard as the buildings do on this map:

enter image description here

This also fits with Hint 3's 'hospital' on Shared Way (a perfect fit for the 'H' keyboard space), and the additional 'jail' occupying the 'J' keyboard space in the enhanced map found in Hint 7. Plus, the road leading out of the city which 'should not be there' in Hint 3 is the one running south to 'calamity hook', as instead of passing between keys like the others do, this one would cut straight through the middle of the keyboard spacebar!

All of this means that the building marked with a question mark in the middle of the bottom row is intended to represent the letter 'B' (so it could be a bar, a butchers, or even a brothel!), which then accounts for Boron in the list of chemical elements concealed within this puzzle.

EDIT (30-Jun-21): Having today solved this puzzle's companion puzzle, What is a Fun Puzzle? I believe the remaining outstanding question mark (the incomplete street name) can be resolved as follows...

We simply need to look for letters which the street names have in common. Given that the streets are named:

ALPHABET DR. (in Hint 7's alternative map)

...the only letters that appear in every one of the fully known names are 'H' and 'E'. Thus, regardless of the full name of the boulevard, it must contain the letters He, which is the chemical symbol for Helium and known to be the element missing from @DanielHatton's otherwise complete deductions.

Note that there were subtle hints towards this method of finding it: the road names 'MATCH', 'SHARED' and 'ALPHABET' - we just didn't pick up on it!

NB This answer previously contained an additional train of thought which enabled us to conclude that the pill left by the mysteriously absent Marc was actually...

...a cyanide pill - and you DEFINITELY SHOULDN'T TAKE IT!!

However, this was invalidated by further findings and the correct answer was then found by @DanielHatton, so I have removed it in the name of brevity. (Anybody interested in reading it can inspect this answer's edit history...)

  • $\begingroup$ Oh no! Panic! Wait... phew, hex already accounted for N, as validated by the gas station... $\endgroup$
    – Amoz
    Commented Apr 17, 2021 at 15:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Amoz Ah, okay, if the 'N' theory in hexomino's answer is confirmed correct, then obviously my conjecture at the end here can't be - although I was pretty sure this was where you were heading, so I'll have to have a rethink on that! $\endgroup$
    – Stiv
    Commented Apr 17, 2021 at 15:38

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