Cryptogram Puzzle Post [Review]

That art!

Location: at home

Date Played: Spring-Summer 2018

Team size: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ; we recommend 1-4

Duration: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ minutes

Price: £7.50 per single issue, £20.00 per seasonal (three issues) subscription, £70.00 per annual (twelve issues) subscription. International shipping is available.

REA Reaction

Cryptogram Puzzle Post was an art-and-puzzle hybrid that delivered a story in monthly installments. While it was made of only paper and ink, it never lacked for narrative, aesthetic, or puzzle depth.

Due to its linear nature and lack of self-service hint system, when it stalled, there was no graceful way to make any forward progress. The puzzle content was uneven, but when it was on, it was magical.

We give away or throw away all of the play-at-home games that come our way. I am absolutely keeping everything we’ve received from Cryptogram Puzzle Post. It’s so beautiful that I may frame it all.

The back of one of the Cryptogram Puzzle Post envelopes. Sealed and with the illustration of a letter emerging from an envelope.

Who is this for?

  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Art connoisseurs
  • Occultists
  • Players with at least some puzzle experience

Why play?

  • The illustrations are bonkers
  • Some of the puzzles are fantastic
  • The presentation

Story

This monthly subscription followed the cryptic and epic journey of the mysterious protagonist Anna on her journey thorough witchcraft, alchemy, and the arcane.

Three incredibly intricate and beautifully illustrated Cryptogram Puzzle Post envelopes.

Setup

Each monthly installment told Anna’s tale through:

  • magnificent illustrations
  • a poem to set the tone
  • a musical playlist to establish the mood
  • a bit of prose to present the story
  • puzzles to take us on the journey

Each mailing came in a beautifully illustrated envelope (which was not part of the puzzle) and 8 sheets of paper. The first sheet contained the poem, playlist, and a bit of explanation, none of which played into the puzzle.

From there, we tackled each of the 7 puzzle pages sequentially. The answer from one page fed into the puzzle on the following page until we reached the conclusion of the installment.

The first page of a Cryptogram Puzzle Post laying on an open envelope with a beautiful illustration.

Gameplay

Cryptogram Puzzle Post was an at-home puzzle game with a variable level of difficulty from mailing to mailing and puzzle to puzzle. The challenges ranged from straightforward to complicated.

Core gameplay revolved around observing, making connections, and puzzling.

The first puzzle page for one month of the Cryptogram Puzzle Post.

Analysis

+ I’m going to keep raving about the illustrations on the envelopes because they are so damn beautiful.

+ When the puzzles flowed, they flowed really well.

– When the puzzles didn’t flow, Cryptogram Puzzle Post ground to a halt.

– There seemed to be no rhyme, reason, or indicator for the difficulty. We would have appreciated a more deliberate difficulty curve.

– While we could request a hint PDF and an answers PDF, Cryptogram Puzzle Post really needed a structured, self-service hint system. When we got really stuck, I had to stop puzzling, look at the PDFs and then essentially gamemaster the experience for Lisa and our friends.

– One month was printed in yellow ink… and it basically made the content invisible. We found ourselves shining a blacklight on the pages to better reveal the content.

Cryptogram Puzzle Post was really creative with the puzzles, especially considering that everything was purely paper and fairly limited in size.

+ I am not much of a poetry person (humorous haiku notwithstanding), but I enjoyed the tone set by the poems at the start of each package. Similarly, the playlists were an unnecessary and welcome addition.

+ While the components were all paper, we felt good about the price and value of these mailings because they were so beautifully created.

Tips for Playing

  • The paper is thin. Be careful erasing.

Subscribe to Cryptogram Puzzle Post, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Cryptogram Puzzle Post sent us a complimentary season of this game.

Runbooks Are Weak Escape Room Clues

Welcome adventurers! It’s time to test your ability to share a single book between 8 people, follow explicit directions to the letter, and maybe even interpret vague imagery. Have fun!

An ornate leather wrapped notebook resting on a map.

Some Scenarios

Let’s set some scenes…

Star Chores

You’re on a space ship attempting to resolve some terrible crisis before the countdown timer runs out. The “good news” is that there’s a process to follow to stop the impending crisis… if you are cunning enough to follow all of the directions on a screen.

Missouri Smith and the Plunderers of the Forgotten Book Club

You’re in an ancient temple, seeking some fantastic artifact, and you’re being “guided” by the journal of some archeologist who basically figured out everything you’re going to need to know to attain the Holy McGuffin.

Runbooks

Both of these scenarios are driven by runbooks.

In escape rooms, a runbook is a procedure or routine, presented as a document, which will tell you step by step how to solve all or most of the game. 

This is a word that we’ve been using for a few years now. We co-opted it from the runbooks in the information technology world. The original definition is:

“In a computer system or network, a runbook is a compilation of routine procedures and operations that the system administrator or operator carries out… Runbooks can be in either electronic or in physical book form. Typically, a runbook contains procedures to begin, stop, supervise, and debug the system. It may also describe procedures for handling special requests and contingencies” (Wikipedia).

Indiana Jones walking up old temple stairs and opening his father's journal.

Origins of Runbooks in Escape Games

I have no idea which escape room first used a runbook, but I am certain that Henry Jones’ deus ex machina journal from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade had inspired a lot of escape room creators to include runbooks in their ancient ruins games.

I suspect that this normalized the concept within escape rooms.

View of a journal depicting a Knight taking a leap of faith to get to the holy grail.

Nowadays, we see variations on runbooks all over the place… and it would be great if we could see fewer of them.

Why Are Runbooks Weak Clues?

Access

If there is one book and multiple players, then the runbook is a bottleneck. The more critical the runbook is to the success of the team, the more that bottleneck binds up the gameplay.

“Well, I have multiple copies in my game,” you say. Read on…

Distraction

Hypothetically, I am going to assume that we are talking about a really great escape room with a runbook. The set is beautiful and the interactions are memorable.

Why on earth would I want to have my head in a small book for half of the game?

If the gamespace looks great, I don’t want to constantly be forced to leave that world and bury my face in a little book. This defeats the purpose of having built that amazing environment in the first place.

Reduced Scale

The size and tangibility of escape room puzzles is one of the critical factors that differentiates them from other forms of puzzle-based entertainment.

I can buy a great puzzle book for far less than the cost of one escape room ticket and get far more than one hour’s worth of enjoyment out of it.

Book-based interactions, especially book-based interactions that span most of a game, are missing the point of escape rooms.

To Do List

All too often, these runbooks become to-do lists. Teams are rewarded for following the list and not really thinking about it.

Where’s the fun in that?

Cryptic Nonsense

On the other extreme, the runbook has only a few useful bits and a ton of sketches and phrases that are meaningless red herrings.

This is at least as frustrating as following a to-do list… and maybe even worse because you never know when you can stop staring at the pages and start enjoying the physical environment that you paid to visit.

Glossing Over Weakness

When I see a runbook in an escape room, more often than not, I think that the runbook has been added to fill in gaps in the game design and clue structure.

It usually seems like someone designed a beautiful set and cool interactions, but struggled to fill in that pesky gameplay part of the design. Instead of reworking the set and the interactions, they found a justification for stuffing a journal in to fill all of the gaps in clue structure. Runbooks are a cheap and easy way to duct tape a broken game together.

Loving Games with Runbooks

I don’t love runbooks… but I will openly admit to having loved a few escape rooms that contained runbooks. Some, like 13th Gate’s Tomb of Anubis, have even won Golden Lock-In Awards.

Is a runbook game-shattering? No.

Would a great game with a runbook be better without it? Yes.

How Do I Runbook-ectomy?

A general rule for escape room design: scale everything up.

Make every interaction big enough that everyone can experience it.

With that in mind, our advice on runbook elimination is to work the clues into the set itself:

  • Embed iconography into the set to convey the clue.
  • Plaques, engravings, painting on the set… just get it out of the book.
  • Strategically light the game to draw attention to critical information.
  • Use sound to convey the clues.
  • If it must be on paper, make it one sheet of paper for one puzzle. A page from a journal is better than a whole journal.

Be creative. Make sure that your players aren’t stuck with their noses in a book for your entire escape game. I guarantee that it will make for a better, more fulfilling experience.

Mister and Mischief – Escape from Godot [Review]

A real-life actor’s nightmare.

Location: Los Angeles, CA

Date played: June 17, 2018

Team size: 8 tickets per time slot

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $25 per ticket (limited run during the Hollywood Fringe Festival)

Ticketing: public

REA Reaction

At its best, Escape from Godot felt a little like that dream where you’re on stage and you can’t remember your lines… only exciting and fun. A refreshing blend of escape room and immersive theater, Escape from Godot used puzzles and gameplay to drive the stage production forward. The experience was appropriately absurdist… being based on Waiting for Godot (synopsis).

The actors blew us away with their commitment to delivering their lines while managing game flow.

Escape from Godot broke away from escape room conventions. What emerged was fun, engaging, and impressive. We left feeling entertained and energized. If Escape from Godot is revived in another form, it would definitely be worth checking out.

In-game: Three actors performing a scene. One actor looks very surprised.
Photo credit: Anne Rene Brashier

Who is this for?

  • Theater fans
  • Players who enjoy interacting with actors
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Quirky puzzles integrated with a live theater production
  • Talented and enthusiastic actors
  • Unique, playful experience
  • Bowler hats

Story

Upon arriving at a theater to attend a friend’s play, we learned that everyone involved in the production was being threatened with a lawsuit if they continued the play without permission – including the audience. We had one hour to fill in for the stage manager and help the actors complete the play before the lawyers arrived to shut it down.

Setting

Escape from Godot was an escape room intertwined with a theater production. Rather than relying on scenery and effects, the immersiveness of Escape from Godot unfolded mostly temporally, via actors and props on the stage. The set, a relatively ordinary theater, was secondary to the puzzles and interactions.

Gameplay

Mister and Mischief’s Escape from Godot was an escape game and theater blend that revolved around theatrical cues, dialogue, and actor interactions. We participated both as audience members watching the actors and as crew members puzzling out how to guide the play (and the escape room) to its final curtain.

Escape from Godot included medium-difficulty escape room puzzles involving logic, observation, and wordplay.

Two actors standing on stage while another actor whispers to a player
Photo credit: Anne Rene Brashier

Analysis

+ Escape from Godot was fun for theater buffs and theater newbies alike. Those of us who were more familiar with Waiting for Godot got extra enjoyment from certain details and interactions, but we didn’t need to have seen the play.

+ The absurdist theme meant we weren’t always sure what we were supposed to do, but orienting ourselves was part of the challenge. It felt like being in an actor’s nightmare, with all the chaos and confusion of being thrust on stage without our lines – but in a good way.

+ The puzzles were whimsical and integrated with the theme.

+ Escape from Godot involved actor interaction, but some players were in the spotlight more than others. Shy players didn’t have to worry because interaction was limited and only as involved as each person wanted it to be. Accommodating different audience member personalities made the show approachable to extroverted players as well as people who were less comfortable with interaction.

+ The actors went all out. On top of their solid acting, they delivered hints subtly and seamlessly, right when we needed them. By calibrating our timing with thoughtful cluing, they had the ability to control the flow of the experience and make sure each group felt victorious at the end. This kind of improvisation must have been tricky to pull off. We were impressed with how effortless it felt and how much it added to our enjoyment.

– The venue wasn’t perfect. The space near the stage was a bit cramped, which made it hard for all eight of us to participate equally at times when we were in the audience area.

+ Playing Escape from Godot felt true to the experience of watching a play; it also felt like putting on a play. Even without elaborate sets, the action and the puzzles kept us engaged and immersed for the whole hour.

? Due to the linear gameplay, there were a couple of bottleneck moments. Fortunately, the show was designed so that the least busy of us could always entertain ourselves by watching the actors perform their scenes.

+ The beginning and ending of Escape from Godot were largely unguided, which gave us a feeling of mystery when we entered the theater and triumph when we led the show to our curtain call.

+ Escape from Godot showed that the theater is a natural setting for an escape room hybrid. Solving puzzles to influence the show is a unique and fun game mechanic. We’d love to see more people experimenting with integrating gameplay into stage productions.

Tips for Visiting

  • Escape from Godot had a limited run and is no longer playing. If Mister and Mischief decide to revive it, the venue and other details may change.
  • This experience had live actors. Review our tips for playing with actors. Interaction is minimal if you want it to be; having one or two outgoing teammates should be enough.
  • Since Escape from Godot was an escape room within a play, it was more about enjoying the experience than beating the clock. You might have to wait for the actors to finish their lines before you can progress anyway, so take your time and enjoy the performance.

Escape from Godot took place in June 2018 and is not currently running.

Escapology – Under Pressure [Review]

“Pressure pushing down on me. Pressing down on you.”

Location: Garwood, NJ

Date Played: July 10, 2018

Team size: up to 8; we recommend 3-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $29.99 per ticket

Ticketing: Private

REA Reaction

Under Pressure was a good-looking step up from our experience with early games from Escapology in Orlando. It had an appealing set with some charming details and a variety of puzzles. Under Pressure applied pressure, but not for quite the right reasons. A few sloppy puzzles in early and late segments made this escape room much harder and more frustrating than it should have been.

Given how widely Escapology is proliferating, we’re happy to see them on an upward trajectory and hope they continue to iterate in game design.

If you’re in the neighborhood and looking for more of a challenge, dive in.

In-game: a shiny filtered image of the interior of the bunk. Metal walls and pipes.
Image via Escapology

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Mathy folks
  • Scenery snobs
  • Players with at least some experience

Why play?

  • Puzzley gameplay.
  • A strong set.
  • A lovely lobby.

Story

It was 1944 and we were aboard the Steel Shark, the pride of the US Navy. Our mission to surveil the German battle cruiser Scheer came to an abrupt halt when our engines suddenly failed. With pressure increasing, we had an hour to restore the systems before reaching crush depth.

In-game: a shiny filtered image of of the bunk and nautical flags.
Image via Escapology

Setting

Under Pressure represented a significant aesthetic step up from the early games that we had played at Escapology. We began in a well-detailed bunk and puzzled through to the engine room.

While Escapology built finer sets for Under Pressure and these were fairly consistent, quality still dropped off with each subsequent room that we found. Space became more cramped and props looked a little more homemade. This was less pronounced than in the earlier games we had played with Escapology in Orlando, but it was still noticeable.

In-game: a shiny filtered image of a birthday card with a pinup girl attached to a locked locker.

Gameplay

Escapology’s Under Pressure was a standard escape room with a higher level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching, puzzling, and making some spurious connections.

Analysis

+ We enjoyed a few extra aesthetic touches in the opening set. This included a themed count-down timer as an oxygen gauge.

+ Escapology added effects that enhanced the drama of the experience.

– Under Pressure included a deliberate red herring, meant as a laugh, but no cluing as to how to ascertain the intended approach to the puzzle. It was immensely frustrating.

– Because we encountered this entirely unclued puzzle so early in the experience, everything became suspect. We no longer trusted Under Pressure to supply us with breadcrumbs, leading us to try any and all possible solutions, even if they made no sense, which was a frustrating play style.

+ There was a few larger props that looked and felt great and made sense contextually. We enjoyed how these fit into the puzzling.

Under Pressure offered a few interesting, layered puzzles. These were challenging, satisfying solves.

– One elaborate solve gave us more information than we needed. We were expected to simply use half of it with no explanation of why. We had the right solution, but had no idea it was correct until our gamemaster intervened.

– The final puzzle was infuriatingly incomplete and we burned two hints to bridge the logic leaps necessary to complete the game.

Under Pressure had some brutally frustrating flaws, but they could be easily fixed. We hope the folks from Escapology continue to iterate on this escape room, because from the set details to many of the puzzles, it was a lot of fun.

The Escapology steampunk lobby filled with leather couches and ample seating.
Image via Escapology

+ Escapology has a beautiful and spacious lounge. It’s a comfortable space to hang out for groups of any size. For larger events, the facility is equipped with a party room.

Tips for Visiting

Book your hour with Escapology’s Under Pressure, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Escapology comped our tickets for this game.

Complexity – The Mall [Review]

The Complex City Mall

Location: Farmington, CT

Date Played: June 29, 2018

Team size: 4-8; we recommend 4-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $25 per ticket on weekdays, $30 per ticket on evenings and weekends

Ticketing: Private

REA Reaction

The Mall represented a big step forward for Complexity in a number of categories: puzzle complexity, set design, technology, and humor.

While a few of the puzzles could have benefited from a touch more clarity, and there’s room for additional growth in set design, The Mall was challenging, entertaining, and worthy of a visit if you’re in the area.

In-game: The Pizzeria Pie mall Italian restaurant.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Players with at least some experience

Why play?

  • Punny mall store names
  • A humorous and light-hearted justification
  • Some really good puzzles
  • Interesting opportunities for teamwork

Story

Wow… I’m unreliable. After a day of shopping at the mall, we were getting ready to leave when I realized that I had lost my wallet and car keys! According to Google Maps, we had one hour before we had to hit the road to make our dinner reservations at our favorite restaurant.

The stakes had never been higher.

In-game: Sign for "Yellow House Orange Market."

Setting

Complexity created a scaled-down approximation of a mall. Each nook, corner, and room in the space represented another store. Each store was given a punny or joke name referencing common mall-based businesses.

In-game: Sign for "Things Forgotten Art Gallery."

Gameplay

Complexity’s The Mall was a standard escape room with a higher level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching, observing, and puzzling.

Analysis

+ The set was almost like a cartoon. We never felt like we were in a mall, but we always knew exactly what they were striving for. It was charming and engaging.

In-game: The "Daily Specials" white board.

+ Complexity justified our presence in The Mall and our goal to escape with a delightfully humorous backstory.

– While the premise justified the experience, it didn’t justify the puzzles. The justification devolved into a puzzle room pretty quickly.

+ The puzzles were challenging and engaging.

– The Mall had a rough difficulty curve. Some of the earlier puzzles seemed particularly challenging and the balance of effort-to-reward felt a bit off.

– We missed a few tech-driven opens. Added springs and directional audio or light cues would help turn reveals into events, reducing confusion and adding drama.

+ Complexity’s Apple Store was as white as it was enjoyable.

+ Multiple puzzles required teamwork and communication.

The Mall was entertaining. Every time we opened a new space, we delighted in the witty reveal.

Tips for Visiting

  • There is a parking lot out front.
  • We recommend Cugino’s for Italian cuisine nearby.

Book your hour with Complexity’s The Mall, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Complexity comped our tickets for this game.

7-Eleven Mystery Monkeys [Review]

See no evil, hear no evil, taste no evil.

Location: at home

Date Played: June 24, 2018

Price: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

REA Reaction

We had a bag of 7-Eleven’s mystery-flavored monkey gummies at the Escape, Immerse, Explore: New Orleans tour… so a few of us tasted them, for science.

The three flavors ranged from joylessly benign to gross.

Close up of the "see no evil hear no evil speak no evil monkeys" gummi monkeys.

Who is this for?

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Why play?

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Story

7-Eleven issued a package of red, green, and blue gummies in the shape of  “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil monkeys.”

The packaging teed it up as a flavor mystery… so we attempted to solve it.

The package of 7-11 Mystery Monkeys gummi candies featuring "see no evil hear no evil speak no evil monkeys."

Setup

The packaging was bland and the monkeys’ colors slightly washed out. Many of them had a distorted shape.

Gameplay

This was a straight flavor mystery without a contest or an obvious means of learning the “correct flavor.”

Analysis

+ When the monkeys weren’t mangled, they were kind of cute. The “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil monkeys” aesthetic was charming.

– There’s no reason to put these in your mouth. The flavors ranged from neutral to gross.

Spoiler - Flavors

Our group’s consensus on the flavors:

Green – Purgatory (had essentially no flavor at all)

Blue – Blue Gatorade? (some kind of enjoyed, most hated)

Red – Child’s Robitussin (universally reviled)

[collapse]

Thank you to Drew Nelson for carrying these gummies to New Orleans just so we could have another mystery.

Clue Carré – Vampire Hunter Room [Review]

Bloodlines.

Location: New Orleans, LA

Date Played: June 22, 2018

Team size: 2-10; we recommend 3-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per ticket

Ticketing: Public

REA Reaction

Vampire Hunter Room was a puzzle-driven escape room. With a fairly standard study-like set, and dim lighting, the intrigue was in the puzzles. These offered a number of fun solves.

If you’re in the area and looking for puzzles over environment, we recommend stopping by.

In-game: An old parlor with a red clothed table, couch, and a painted portrait of a vampire.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Any experience level
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • Some cool puzzles

Story

Antoine Devillier, an ancient, wealthy, and powerful vampire, had but one weakness: the stake of Van Helsing. Devillier had acquired and hid his one weakness away. Our plucky band of vampire hunters set out to find the legendary weapon and give it a new home in Devillier’s chest.

In-game: The aged and worn fireplace in the parlor.

Setting

Vampire Hunter Room was slightly dim and study-like. The initial set was functional, but lacked excitement and polish. The escape room gave way to a more interesting set later in the adventure.

Gameplay

Clue Carré’s Vampire Hunter Room was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching, puzzling, and making connections.

Analysis

Vampire Hunter Room was a puzzle-driven escape room. It had a lot of content. We enjoyed many of the puzzles.

– The decor was standard study fair with a vampiric twist. It was not particularly inspiring.

– Vampire Hunter Room was unnecessarily dim. While the dim lighting provided some ambiance, it made solving puzzles more frustrating than they should have been. The trade-off didn’t seem worth it.

+ We enjoyed how Clue Carré wove the bloodlines into the escape room.

Vampire Hunter Room was a solid, themed escape room, but nothing more. We hope that Clue Carré can build on this in the future to develop a cohesive world of puzzles, set, and story.

Vampire Hunter Room came to a pointed conclusion. It was predictable, yet enjoyable.

Tips for Visiting

  • We recommend Victory for post-game cocktails.

Book your hour with Clue Carre’s Vampire Hunter Room, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Clue Carre comped our tickets for this game.

Los Angeles: Meet us at an Escape Room & Immersive Entertainment Shindig

We’re hosting a get-together in Los Angeles later this month.

This is a casual gathering for folks to meet each other and chat about escape rooms and other immersive entertainment.

Details

  • Thursday, August 23
  • Hatch Escapes (1919 3rd Ave, Los Angeles, CA)
  • Starting at 7pm; talk at 8:00pm
  • Please bring food or drink to share
  • Hatch Escapes recommends ride shares as parking in the area can be challenging
Photo of Lisa and David of Room Escape Artist in their wedding clothes dramatically escaping a bank vault.
Photo by Michael Zawadzki

Who should attend?

Escape room players, bloggers, podcasters, designers, owners, operators… and anyone who is even just a little bit escape-room curious.

We also welcome other immersive entertainment goers and creators. You don’t need to be escape-room focused to join this conversation.

If you’re in Los Angeles, come on out, we’d love to meet you!

Speaking

We’ll be giving a short talk during the get-together.

We’re going to:

  • tell stories about some of our favorite escape rooms from our travels
  • discuss trends in escape rooms
  • share perspective on where we think the medium is going
  • unpack what the changes mean for the players

RSVP

Please RSVP on Facebook.