The Puzzler by A.J. Jacobs [Book Review]

If you enjoy The Puzzler, we hope you’ll check out our interview with author A.J. Jacobs on The Reality Escape Pod.

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Author:  A.J. Jacobs

Year:  2022

Page count:  240 pages of written material; about 80 pages of puzzles and solutions

Price:  $28.00

Publisher:  Crown

REA Reaction

It’s easy to understand why author A.J. Jacobs has been on the New York Times bestseller list 4 times. His writing throughout The Puzzler is engaging and very easy to binge. I needed to make myself put the book down multiple times in order to reflect on what he had written rather than just turning to the next chapter.

Packed full of humor, anecdotes, and insight, The Puzzler was a delight to read. Jacobs does a wonderful job of making this book feel personal. He shares his triumphs and secret (well, not so secret anymore) puzzle shames, we meet his family, and we follow him around the world. We also meet some of his political leanings through some offhand commentary, which I didn’t feel was necessary in a book about puzzling.

He immersed himself in puzzles for years to write this book and provides meaningful conversation on a broad spectrum of puzzles. With nearly 20 puzzle types covered, readers will read about one they really love but likely also one that they don’t care for. My litmus test was chess puzzles; I’ve just never been interested in them. And while I still don’t feel compelled to delve into them the way Jacobs did (sitting down with Garry Kasparov himself), I still enjoyed the chapter and left with a greater appreciation of the style.

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PAX Unplugged 2021: Bringing Games & Community Together

At this point, everyone has a long list of things that they missed out on in 2020. As a board game enthusiast, one item on my list was PAX Unplugged. PAX, formerly Penny Arcade Expo (named for the webcomic created by the founders of the event), is a series of conventions focusing on gaming of all types. PAX Unplugged is the version of the event that focuses on analog gaming: board games, tabletop role playing games, and miniature games to name just a few. As an attendee in both 2018 and 2019, I was understandably disappointed when the 2020 version of the con was canceled. Thankfully, PAX was able to bring back Unplugged for 2021 and I made the trip to Philadelphia for it.

Brendan, Andrew, Theresa P, & Theresa W posing for a photo in RECON gear at PAX Unplugged 2021.

What Was There

As might be expected, I spent my three days at PAX with a keen eye towards anything that looked like a tabletop escape game.

Tabletop Escape Games

  1. Rita Orlov of PostCurious was at the Knight Moves Cafe booth displaying her two successfully Kickstarted games The Emerald Flame and The Light in the Mist.
  2. Thames & Kosmos, maker of the Exit the Game series of card-based tabletop escape games, had a booth displaying Exit games as well as many of their other products.
  3. There was a lone and seemingly random stack of printed company information sheets for Hunt A Killer. They had no physical presence that I saw, and the stack of papers wasn’t even in the expo hall.

While there was not a major presence from the typical escape-style games that we have been playing and reviewing, there were plenty of other tabletop games to be excited about. With a growing tendency for enthusiasts to look towards playing rooms that tell a good story, I also kept an eye out for board games that did the same thing. Two mechanics stand out as exemplifying a growing desire for story in games: legacy and storytelling. 

Legacy Games

Legacy games are long format and designed to be played over multiple sessions. Decisions that are made in one round change what will happen in future rounds. Currently 3 of the top 10 spots on the overall rankings on BoardGameGeek.com are tagged as having the legacy mechanic.

The legacy game that hyped me up the most at PAX this year was Isla Nublar. Fans of amazing dinosaur movies will recognize that name as the island on which some of the Jurassic Park films take place. Isla Nublar will let players collaboratively build a park from the ground up, breed dinosaurs, and probably have to find a way to stop the rampaging dinosaurs that you have bred. Plus, you’ll be taking on the roles of actual characters like John Hammond, Dr. Ellie Sattler, and Ian Malcolm.

Famous shirtless Ian Malcolm scene from Jurassic Park with his face blurred out, and replaced with the words, "Your face here."
This joke… uhh… found a way.

The Storytelling Mechanic

The storytelling mechanic also places story at the center of the game by making it an essential element that players interact with. The game currently holding the #1 overall spot on BoardGameGeek.com is a massive game that has storytelling as a tagged mechanic. There can be significant overlap between the legacy and storytelling mechanics, but storytelling games always have a heavy focus on the narrative. Some legacy games – like Risk Legacy – are more concerned with shaping the rules of the game as you play.

At PAX, I found myself drawn to Plaid Hat GamesFamiliar Tales. In this game, players take on the role of magical creatures guiding a young princess through her life, helping her develop her skills and personality. Decisions made by the players influence the type of person the princess turns out to be, and change the way the story develops over time.

Unrelated to those mechanics, my big takeaways were Night Cage and Omega Virus. Night Cage is an atmospheric, monochromatic, cooperative game about escaping a labyrinth full of darkness and some monsters. Omega Virus originally released in 1992 and is slated to see a rebirth thanks to the efforts at Restoration Games. I had the original version way back when, and I’m excited to see what the eventual update and re-release has to offer.

What Wasn’t There

I was hopeful that I would see some escape-adjacent games that were new to me. But many of the games we’ve reviewed come from 3 major areas:

1) Escape companies making either relatively small print runs or print-and-play games (e.g. Lost Temple from CU Adventures);

2) Small publishers (Stolen at Sea);

3) Major publishers for whom escape content is a small fraction of their business (ThinkFun and Mattel and the above-mentioned Thames & Kosmos).

With the costs of travel, lodging, and a booth, is it reasonable to expect that small producers will be able to exhibit their wares at an event like PAX Unplugged? I’ve heard enough escape room owners discuss a distinct lack of free time due to running their businesses to understand that it is likely out of the question for them to attend a convention like this. But both the creators of boxed escape games and the more standard board game community at large would benefit from increased crossover. I know as a board gamer I am always interested in playing new styles of games and learning new mechanics. I see no reason why there wouldn’t be a subset of tabletop gamers that would appreciate being exposed to an escape-room style boxed game.

Perhaps there is a space for small publishers to group up and share a booth for the common good? The core concept worked in the indie video game world; the Indie Mega Booth was almost exactly this for small digital producers. They had a booth at 25+ conventions over the last decade, helping to get small developers space on the all-important expo floor. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, Indie Mega Booth is currently in a ‘hibernation’ phase pending an end to the pandemic. Even so, could some effort like this be possible for tabletop escape games?

Purple PAX Unplugged logo

Just Being There

Games and such aside, I can’t overstate just how nice it was to be somewhere that I hadn’t been since before, you know, all this stuff happened. It didn’t feel “normal” with the masks and the reduced footprint and the vaccine-verifying wristband, but it sure felt close to normal. The convention felt populated but not packed, with enough breathing room and elbow space to make me feel comfortable in this new era of being much more conscious of nearby people and all their inhaling and exhaling. I was able to talk with strangers about shared interests. I heard dozens  of pitches for games and accessories. I went to seminars and panel discussions. I interacted with strangers!

Maybe most importantly, I met up with friends! PAX Unplugged 2021 was a miniature Room Escape Artist meetup almost entirely accidentally. Of course, we were easily identified in the crowd thanks to us all wearing RECON swag throughout the weekend. I hadn’t seen my friends in the real world in years. Maybe it’s a bit cliché, but seeing these people was a major highlight of the weekend.

I’d like to give a big thanks to PAX for the media credentials, and allowing me to feel like I was a part of the community again. I look forward to the next convention, and then the next convention after that. I hope you do, too. See you in Boston this August?

Disclosure: PAX Unplugged provided a media pass.

Pine Studio – Escape Simulator [Review]

Escape Simulator is included in our recommendation guide for Play On-Demand Online Escape Games. For more of the best online escape games in this style, check out the recommendation guide.

🎶 This is the game that never ends… 🎶

Location: at home

Developer & Publisher: Pine Studio

Date Played: October & November 2021 (version 1.0.18718r)

Team size: varies; solo and co-op modes available

Duration: official levels: 4+ hours; user-created rooms and creating your own rooms: basically forever

Platform: PC, Mac & SteamOS + Linux on Steam

Price: $14.99 on Steam

REA Reaction

Pine Studio’s Escape Simulator is not just a single escape room but an entire platform based around playing and creating custom escape games. My initial take on Escape Simulator was that it felt eerily similar in some ways to playing an in-person game. After putting many hours into playing this title, that still holds true.

Escape Simulator key art: 3D rendering of two people in an escape room, one with a magnifying glass, the other with a book. They are approaching an open box with a maze on top.

There are three main ways that a player can engage with Escape Simulator. There are official escape rooms, a workshop for building custom rooms, and published user-generated rooms. Because each of these game modes is unique, I will address them separately. Whether you want to explore this game purely as a player, you just want to build perplexing puzzles, or you think you can try your hand at both this game has a lot to offer.

12/23/21 Update – This review was originally written in November 2021 and some notes have been added to reflect game updates since then.

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Captured LV Bethlehem – The Haunted Theater [Review]

The Haunted Theater is one of the best escape rooms in Eastern Pennsylvania. Here are our recommendations for great escape rooms in the Eastern Pennsylvania area.

Someone left the ghost light on…

Location:  Bethlehem, PA

Date Played: July 25, 2021

Team Size: 4-7; we recommend 2-6 (though the current minimum booking is 4 players)

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28.50 per player; minimum of 4 players

Ticketing: Private

Accessibility Consideration: One step, not necessary for all players

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

Captured LV’s latest game at their Bethlehem, PA location might be new, but the game itself is a spooky time capsule taking you back to the 1920s. The designers of The Haunted Theater clearly wanted to evoke the creepiness inherent in an abandoned and possibly haunted location. I believe they achieved that through a mix of sound, lighting, and possibly some supernatural help.

A well-lit makeup mirror over a desk backstage at a theatre.

The Haunted Theater was an entertaining room to be in, and I would have liked to have played longer. Admittedly, our team of three set the top time for escaping, but we did this without trying for it. This isn’t an attempt at a humblebrag; it’s just to point out that there was some more time and underutilized space to incorporate another puzzle or two.

Not only were most of the puzzles very on-theme for a spooky theater back room, but every puzzle in The Haunted Theater was fun to work through. Each team member went back to a device that had been used already just to play with it. The experience as a whole was very enjoyable. There were almost always multiple puzzles open to solve at any time, allowing each player to stay busy and engaged in the game. If you’re in the area, this is a game worth checking out.

Who is this for?

  • Story seekers
  • Scenery snobs
  • Musical theater fans
  • Any experience level
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle
Continue reading “Captured LV Bethlehem – The Haunted Theater [Review]”

Escape.exe – Site 117 [Review]

Site: 117 is one of the best escape rooms in Eastern Pennsylvania. Here are our recommendations for great escape rooms in the Eastern Pennsylvania area.

Escaping: 101

Location:  Bethlehem, PA

Date Played: July 25, 2021

Team Size: 3+; we recommend 3-6

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $29.99 per player

Ticketing: Private

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

The team at escape.exe has set their sights on a very ambitious format: a series of escape rooms all woven into a detailed story. This story starts on their website and carries over into their first in-person escape room. Site: 117 was puzzle-dense and tech-heavy.

We were helped along by escape.exe’s A.I. companion GAVIN. (To note, the company escape.exe also exists as a company in its own lore.) GAVIN was our friend, offering us vital information and occasional nudges. At times GAVIN was a little too present, and sorting out the difference between banter and important game cluing was a touch difficult with everything else going on.

A locker room in leading into a clean room.

Site: 117 gave our team the chance to spread out among multiple parallel puzzle paths. This allowed each teammate to not only find something personally interesting to solve, but also something that played to their individual strengths. Of particular note were the puzzles that were enhanced by coordinating and communicating with other team members. We all know that communication is important, and Site: 117 gave us plenty of opportunities to practice it. The narrative comes to a meaningful conclusion at the end of the experience, setting players up for the next game. If you’re in the area, you should stop by and check out escape.exe’s first chapter.

Who is this for?

  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Sci-fi fans
  • Best for players with at least some experience
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle
Continue reading “Escape.exe – Site 117 [Review]”