If you’re an escape room designer in the market for a cryptex, this is the cryptex that you want to put into your game:
We met the creator of these contraptions, Justin Nevins, at the Chicago Room Escape Conference back in August. His product was the darling of the tradeshow floor and he sold out before we could get our hands on one.
So we arranged to meet with Nevins in Seattle while we were visiting for PAX West.
There were three questions that we needed to answer about his device:
- Could it stand the punishment of regular use in a room escape?
- Could I pick it open?
- Could his cryptex justify its $300 price point?
The problem with every cryptex tube that we had seen in a room escape was that it was easy to break and even easier to pick. Could Nevins’ cryptex be that much better?
Spoiler alert: Yes
Before we get into the intricacies of the cryptex tubes that are available, let’s cover a little history.
What’s a cryptex?
A cryptex is a tube with a combination letter lock built in as a self-locking mechanism.
Each of disks has all 26 letters of the alphabet etched into them. Any permutation of letters is possible. With 5 disks, this is 11,881,376 possibilities.
Where did the idea come from?
The concept came from Dan Brown in the novel turned movie, The Da Vinci Code.
Brown created a compelling fiction where it felt like the cryptex had been around for centuries, but it didn’t actually exist… yet.
Who created the cryptex?
Although Brown came up with the concept, the aforementioned craftsman Justin Nevins created the first cryptex. While driving across the country listening to The Da Vinci Code on audiobook, the concept of the cryptex captured his imagination and he began conceiving ways to build one.
After a series of prototypes, in 2004 Nevins eventually created a durable cryptex that was fit for sale.
I wish I could have Hans Zimmer scoring my pensive puzzling.
The common cryptexes
This large, clear cryptex is made entirely out of plastic and stickers… and it’s a piggy bank.
I’ve never seen a room where this thing felt like it belonged. It’s a toy.
It is kind of hard to pick when it is new. As it wears, however, the plastic deforms and it becomes openable with fewer correct digits. The plastic sleeve design cannot withstand heavy use.
The disks slide too freely for inputting answers to be fun. You have to hold your inputted letters in place while shifting subsequent disks. Even doing that will usually result in slippage.
The most common cryptex found in room escapes, this thing works pretty well out of the box, but eventually the innards buckle and it becomes flimsy and pickable.
At ~4 inches in length, this little guy has almost no capacity. Designers are usually stuck hiding small keys, bits of paper, or maybe a battery inside. It is limiting.
It also suffers from the same input problems as the piggy bank. Shifting one letter generally changes its neighbors. This really diminishes the psychological satisfaction of inputting a digit that you think is correct.
Available in bronze and flat black, this larger cryptex looks and handles a little better than the small one. The digits don’t shift each other out of place. It has a little more capacity.
However, its innards break just the same as its little brother’s do and it becomes easy to pick.
This model also has a few design elements that are a bit troublesome for room escapes.
One side has the final 4 digits of the pigpen cipher and a pigpen message embossed on it (The message is inscribed in an easily crackable #x#x variation.):
The other end has this embossed silliness:
We’ve seen companies use this cryptex and work both sides into the game, but if they don’t, these inscriptions become red herrings.
This is the official licensed Da Vinci Code cryptex (licensed by both the movie rights holder and Nevins).
It looks like the cryptex from the movie and generally feels better to operate than the previously mentioned tubes. It also comes in an attractive wooden box that is nowhere near rugged enough to survive life in a room escape.
But once again, this thing is subject to breakage after repeated use and it is pickable. Here’s a demonstration:
Variations on this picking method work on most of the other cryptexes.
The other big catch with this model is that it’s expensive. At nearly $200, you’re 2/3 of the way to Nevin’s $300 price point.
“Replica Line” is unfortunate branding for Nevins’ low-end Cryptex. It is a replica of his more elaborate products, but it’s an incredible, well-constructed, and aesthetically pleasing device.
Nevins gave us a Cryptex to review with a puzzle and a wager. If we could solve the puzzle and thus open it before we left Seattle, it was ours to keep. We had to solve it before flying home because this thing looks like a pipebomb when viewed through an x-ray machine.
His puzzle was devious and didn’t generate a word. Instead we ultimately derived five random letters and had to solve a different puzzle to sort their order.
This was a great test because it took us a few hours to solve the puzzle. When we hit a puzzling wall, we switched to brute-force and picking.
I tried every trick I knew to feel my way to an open, but the Cryptex gave away nothing. All picking attempts failed. Fortunately we eventually puzzled our way in. So consider this your disclosure that we received a free Cryptex from Nevins.
Since returning home, I spent hours trying to break into the Cryptex through picking and I absolutely cannot do it. I am reasonably certain that it’s possible to write some software to crack it, but that would be a massive undertaking and it would probably still take a lot of time to open it with a software assist.
How it works
From a room escape player standpoint, it works just like the others, only smoother. Input the correct combination, give the inner tube a little pull, and take your prize.
From a designer standpoint it’s easy to setup. The inner tube is static; the outer tube is where the magic happens.
The outer tube is made of 4 different types of components:
- The frame (1) is the aluminum and brass structure that holds everything.
- The disks (5) have brass outer rings with the alphabet on them and polycarbonate slotted inner rings with false slots (to torment pickers).
- The spacers (5) are marble-patterned polycarbonate pieces that space the rings.(These spacers come in 6 different colors.)
- The endcap (1) is an aluminum and polycarbonate piece that looks like a spacer, but has a locking mechanism to hold the outer tube together.
- It is possible to special order a larger Cryptex with more disks.
If you want to change the combination, you take it all apart, pop the inner rings from the outer rings, and set it as needed.
To make sure that players can’t reset the box in game, Nevins has developed a technique to freeze the rings and make them virtually inseparable. Ironically, the technique actually involves putting the rings into a freezer.
It’s hefty, weighing 2 lb 12.7oz / 1.266 kg.
The outer tube measures:
- length 8.3 in / 21.082 cm
- diameter 2.375 in / 6.0325 cm
The inner tube measures:
- length 7.95 in / 20.193 cm
- diameter 1.62 in / 4.1148
It’s a much bigger cryptex than the others (except for the piggy bank).
It also comes in 6 different colors:
Why this is a superior cryptex
There are a number of factors that make Nevins’ cryptex a vastly superior device to the other tubes we’ve discussed.
It’s far more durable. It is made of solid materials that don’t have the opportunity to compact. As a result of this construction, it’s far less pickable. It’s possible that someone more skilled than I am could pick their way in, so I won’t say that it is unpickable.
The cryptex’s capacity increases options for what is hidden within it. This opens up additional design opportunities that the smaller tubes do not.
The color options are more varied and increase the odds that the cryptex will look like it belongs in the room. The Da Vinci Code-looking cryptexes almost never look like they belong in a space.
Lastly, Nevins stands behind his products and welcomes customers to contact him with any issues. He hasn’t needed to create a formal warranty program, but he will work with his customers to make things right should they go wrong.
$325 is a steal when you consider the constant replacement needed to keep the other cryptexes in working condition.
“But I want something even cooler”
If you want something fancier and money is no object, then Nevins offers more elaborate models.
The Nevins Line costs $1,000 – $2,500. It offers the same functionality as the replica, but with beautiful wood or stone materials.
For high rollers, the DaVinci Line runs upwards of $3,000 for some intense custom work and fancy materials. At this price point Nevins will create nested cryptexes… which I imagine are really cool.
Purchase your Replica Line Cryptex® Security Box today, and tell Nevins that the Room Escape Artist sent you.
(If you purchase via our Amazon links, you will help support Room Escape Artist as we will receive a very small percentage of the sale).