Solved: Mystery of the Meow Wolf Postcard

It is with great pleasure and relief that I report to you the closing of a most vexing mystery. 

And last night, we saw the Meow Wolf documentary… more on that below.

A Meow Wolf House of Eternal Return postcard.

The Mystery of the Meow Wolf Postcard

Back in early June we received an unsigned postcard summoning us to Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I explained the particulars of the case when we put out a call for clues. 

A postcard addressed to "The Spiras" reads, "Meow Wolf is calling to you and you must go." No signature.

We had our suspects, but we couldn’t solve it… until Lisa caught a break. 

Case Closed

For the past 7 years (with one exception), Lisa and her longtime friend Roslyn have chosen a single day to walk the ~35 mile perimeter of Manhattan. The event is called The Great Saunter (although they never do it with the group or even on the same day). This year, they did their Great Saunter in November.

When you walk 3 dozen miles with a person in a single day, the conversation tends to cover a lot of ground. Roslyn, who had been a character in our wedding puzzle, mentioned that she had visited Meow Wolf. 

With that little bit of information, Lisa unravelled the puzzle that had been vexing us for 5 months. 

We had suspected so many people from the escape room and immersive theater worlds that we completely neglected to scrutinize suspects from other facets of our lives.

Meow Wolf Documentary

In other, related news, while we still haven’t had a chance to visit Meow Wolf (and we truly want to), we did go see their documentary in the theater last night. It was equal parts entertaining and interesting. 

If this kind of thing interests you, it’s now available for rent or purchase via the interweb.

A few hot-take thoughts:

  • The documentarians who pulled this together from old and new footage did a fantastic job. The film was energetic.
  • Meow Wolf’s origin story was legitimately riveting. Watching a collection of talented anarchistic artists struggle with success, organization, process, and commercialization was compelling. 
  • The friends who’ve been to Meow Wolf and described it to us did an amazing job. 
  • The film ended exactly where I was expecting, which was a declaration of aspirational commercial goals. This was an elaborate and artful commercial. I can’t blame them
  • Hearing someone say something like, “we don’t want to become like Disney” with contempt in their voice made me smile. 

The Escape Book: Can you escape this book? [Review]

“Like a toboggan-ride of pain” (page 126)

Location:  at home

Date Played: October 2018

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

Duration: It depends (see below)

Price: $10

Publisher: Ivan Tapia

REA Reaction

On its surface, The Escape Book: Can you escape this book? was a good product. It had well-tested puzzles, quality printing, a strong hint system, and a well-defined aesthetic. Unfortunately, these were overshadowed by the problems.

The Escape Book's black, white, and yellow cover of a door opening. It asks, "Can you escape this book?"

The Escape Book contained 18 puzzles in its 176 pages. Most of the book’s content was long, rambling, repetitive, droning, and repetitive drivel. The story constantly shifted between uncomfortable, laughable, and boring. 

Play through The Escape Book to breeze through its puzzles. They weren’t special, but they worked well. While this may appeal to some newbies, we suggest taking a pass on this one. If you choose to play, skip most, if not all of the story. 

Who is this for?

¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

Why play?

  • The puzzles solve cleanly.
  • A well-designed and generous structured hint system

Story

Candela Fuertes, a brilliant 28-year-old investigative journalist/ hacker, had been writing a story on the currency-manipulating Castian Warnes and his Wanstein Club.

Warnes, the evil multibillionaire, had publicly claimed to have created The Daedalus, a death trap labyrinth that housed his secrets. Anyone could enter it freely, but they would perish if they failed to complete his puzzles within 60 minutes.

In-book, page reads, "The Beginning, Candela has 56 minutes left to live."

Candela decided to enter this escape room/ death trap in an attempt to uncover Warnes’ misdeeds. For reasons that never made sense, she did this without telling her editor or loved ones. 

We played as Candela, navigating her through the puzzles.

Setup

The Escape Book followed a simple structure. In each chapter we read a few pages of prose, which told a bit of the story, and concluded with a puzzle.

In-book, page shows the first puzzle: a grid of circles that look like flat-head screwheads, some oriented vertically, others, horizontally.

The puzzle solved to a number. We then turned to that page number to continue the story. 

In-book, page, shows the answer input.

If we struggled with a puzzle, the book provided a page that we could turn to for hints. Each puzzle (except for the final one) had 5 hints that increasingly simplified the puzzle.

In-book, page,shows portions of the first puzzle's hints.

Finally, we could turn the page in the hint section to reveal the solution.

In-book, page shows that the puzzle's solution is on the next page.

Gameplay

The Escape Book was a simple puzzle book with a low level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around observing and basic puzzle solving.

Story overshadowed gameplay.

Analysis

➕ We liked the appearance of the book. The black, white, and yellow aesthetic looked sharp. The Escape Book was printed well.

➕ Most of the puzzles were clued well and solved cleanly. 

➖ One late-game puzzle felt poorly clued. It seemed instead to clue a future puzzle, which deviated from the patterns set by the book.

❓ The puzzles were easy. Most of them took us less than 30 seconds to solve. Those that took a little longer required some process work. This wasn’t inherently good or bad; it comes down to how much you want to have to work at solving a puzzle. 

In-book, page reads, "Clue Zone" with an unlocked padlock.

➕ It was easy to use the thorough hint system. We appreciate any play-at-home game that allows puzzlers of any experience level to play on their own terms. 

➕ We liked the concept of an interactive novel with puzzles. We’ve seen this before with the Winston Breen series, which we really enjoyed.

➖ Far too much of The Escape Book was rooted in its narrative. We spent most of the time reading prose… which might have been great, if it had been an entertaining story. 

➖ The writing was uncomfortably bad. The story amounted to a dull, repetitive tale of currency manipulation with a couple of rants about George Soros thrown in for flavor.

➖ When we weren’t reading droning passages about shorting currency futures, we were treated to descriptions of a nonsensical villain who was supposed to seem scary, but came across as silly.

“The Daedalus, the security system created by a man incapable of remembering names or passwords, is about to finish Candela off” (page 80).

➖ Our heroine’s actions were laughably shortsighted, which uncomfortably juxtaposed against how badass she was supposed to appear. All of this was further undermined by excessive descriptions of her body. How many times did we need to read about the rising and falling of her chest? It went “up… down… up…” 

In-book, first story page shows the description of the main character.
This is the first page. ⬆️⬇️⬆️

My favorite utterly unnecessary passage: 

“In her final year at university, Candela had shared a flat with Mark, a computer addict. They were friends with benefits. Over the course of living with him, Candela had learnt a bit about sex and a lot about the stock exchange” (page 39). 🔥Hot 🔥

The Escape Book was originally written in Spanish. It’s possible that something about the writing was lost in translation… but there came a point where that didn’t matter.

❓ We could have solved most of the puzzles without reading the story, or by only reading the last couple of paragraphs of a section. I think that this would have been the optimal way to play. 

Tips For Visiting

  • Space Requirements: None. We solved most of the book while sitting in a diner. 
  • Required Gear: Pen (we recommend Frixion pens) or pencil. An internet-connected device is required to complete the book. 
  • Optional gear: A knife or scissors.

Buy your copy of The Escape Book: Can You Escape This Book?, and tell them 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.)

Lockout – The Room [Review]

 Old asylum, fresh blood (available in English, well, kinda)

Location:  Antibes, France

Date Played: September 30, 2018

Team size: 2-5; we recommend 3-4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: 20-35 € per person depending on team size

Ticketing: Private

REA Reaction

The Room was an old-school puzzle room. The weathered and detailed set gave it a creepy feel that never turned into horror.

Lockout could fix a few missteps in assembly that currently hamper the flow of this otherwise interesting and challenging puzzle-focused game. While there was plenty to like in this escape room, especially for puzzlers, we walked away wishing that some of the details of gameplay had received as much attention as the set design.

If you play escape rooms for the puzzles and you find yourself in Antibes, France, this was an interesting game, but I’d recommend playing Lockout’s Europa instead.

In-game: A dingy, bloodied white-walled asylum.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Some interesting layered puzzles
  • Dramatic opening set

Story

We conducted an investigation of an old, abandoned asylum in search of evidence regarding the disappearance of a patient.  

In-game: A bloodied and worn medicine cabinet in a dingy white-walled asylum.

Setting

The asylum set of the room was grim and weathered. It was clear that something bad had happened within these walls. 

The level of set detail put The Room on the upper end of what we saw from escape room sets in southern France.

Gameplay

Lockout’s The Room was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching, observing, and puzzling.

Analysis

➕ The Room’s initial set was well-detailed and established a grim tone. It staged the experience well.

➕ We enjoyed a few substantial, layered puzzles with satisfying solves. Lockout built some excellent puzzles into The Room.

➖ One puzzle required order preservation. Our gamemaster interrupted us to tell us not to move these particular props, which were not just easy to move, but seemed like they should have been moved. We recommend Lockout glue these down.

The Room included multiple locks with identical digit structure and no indication of which puzzle resolved to which lock. Varying the types of lock inputs or connecting locks with puzzles would facilitate smoother gameplay.

The Room was mostly in English. There were a few critical clues that weren’t translatable. Having translations on paper would have been helpful for those of us who were less-fluent in French. (Lisa was fine.)

➖ We uncovered quite a lot of reading material as we solved The Room. In the end, those who spoke French had their noses buried in papers. While it wasn’t necessary to read everything in order to escape, the reading contributed to additional win conditions focused on the plot. We would have liked to see this part of the game more integrated into the physical gameplay.

➖ The ending was anti-climactic. We had finished all of the puzzles, but we stayed in the room to try to solve additional plot questions. This conclusion had no energy and seemed meaningless.

➕ The Room was a solid, puzzle-focused, older-style escape room. We had some lengthy criticism, but most of these things were fixable and none of them destroyed the game.

Tips For Visiting

  • Note that while this game is playable in English, you’ll miss one major component of the game with you can’t play it in French.

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

Blog Devoted to Images of Control Panels

Inspiration can come from all sorts of places. I’m usually partial to finding my muse in real life, because reality is strange. 

A strange geometric concrete pedestal with 8 buttons below a circular screen.
Volcanic Museum, César Manrique, Lanzarote Island, 1966-1968
Photos by Julian Weyer

Control Panel

Following up on the Flickr gallery devoted to images of control panels, here’s a companion blog to go with it:

Control Panel: In praise of dials, toggles, buttons, and bulbs. 

So many of these could make for beautiful escape room interactions. Enjoy. 

Found via BoingBoing.

I Lock You – La Chambre de Nicolai [Review]

Nicholai’s Room (available in English)

Location:  Nice, France

Date Played: October 1, 2018

Team size: 2-6; we recommend 3-4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: 90-144 € per team depending on team size

Ticketing: Private

REA Reaction

La Chambre de Nicolai was a traditional, old-school escape room. It was entirely focused on puzzles, with a lovingly made but simple set. That isn’t to say that I Lock You lacked creativity.

Some of the puzzle design within La Chambre de Nicolai was unique and inspired. We were particularly impressed with the opening puzzle sequence, which took an escape room trope that we have long despised, and made it smart and fresh.

If you enjoy puzzle-focused escape rooms and can either speak French or are comfortable taking a little gamemaster assistance to work through an untranslated puzzle, then pay I Lock You a visit. They are centrally located in Nice. 

In-game: Nicolai's pirate themed bedroom. There's a treasure chest locked in the middle of it.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Interesting puzzles
  • Great transition
  • Fun aesthetics

Story

We were the house staff for Boris and Natalia Povanovitch and they had tasked us with babysitting their little angel Nicolai. This gifted, spoiled, and possibly sociopathic child loved making our lives difficult. This night would be no different. He had locked us in his bedroom. We had to find our way out before his parents came home and fired us.

Additionally, if we found the report card that Nicolai had hidden from his parents, we might be able to… convince him to leave us alone in the future.

In-game: The outside of Nicolai's bedroom warning not to enter in a childish manner.

Setting

La Chambre de Nicolai was bright and vibrant with a decidedly childish aesthetic. It looked like a spoiled kid’s bedroom, complete with toys.

As the game pressed on, the set became darker with muted colors and less detail. 

In-game: A Playmobile pirate ship on a table under a painting of a pirate ship.

Gameplay

I Lock You’s La Chambre de Nicolai was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching and puzzling.

In-game: Nicolai's bunk bed and air conditioner. His ceiling is painted blue with large styrofoam clouds.

Analysis

➕ We appreciated the humorous setup. Nicolai was a fun nemesis.

➕ The hint system – finding candy within the room to bribe our child captor – was thematic and effective.

➕ We enjoyed the aesthetic of Nicolai’s bedroom and how I Lock You turned children’s toys into puzzles.

➕/➖ La Chambre de Nicolai looked homemade. This mostly worked well, given the set up, but at times it felt amateur and messy. 

➖As the game progressed, the aesthetic quality plummeted. Near the end, the attention to design detail went from bad to worse.

In-game: Nicolai's closet door is painted with a tropical island, a parrot, and pirate treasure.

➕ La Chambre de Nicolai challenged us with some interesting, layered sequences.

➕ While we usually dislike overlocking one item, I Lock You made it work using a series of transformations. In this implementation, the act of solving gave us new information. This created an excellent puzzle sequence.

➖ One late game sequence was not well clued. It was a nifty concept that needed a bit more iteration.

➕ One critical transition worked beautifully.

➖ The ending was anticlimactic. It was easy to brute force and we escaped without having even attempted one of the puzzles.

➕ The idea that we had to find Nicolai’s report card so that we could blackmail the brat into letting us do our jobs was pretty damn funny. 

Tips For Visiting

  • The English translation worked pretty well. There was one late-game puzzle that didn’t translate. It wasn’t a problem. 

Book your hour with I Lock You’s La Chambre de Nicolai, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: I Lock You provided media discounted tickets for this game.

Boogie Boards in Escape Rooms [Review]

Boogie Boards

Boogie Boards are popular writing surfaces for escape rooms across the United States. We’ve discussed writing in escape rooms generally; now we’ll look at what Boogie Boards offer.

As LCD writing tablets, they provide a simple, reusable, rapidly erasable surface for note-taking and and puzzle-solving.

Boogie Board offers different models. After exploring their offerings, I believe that there is a correct model for use in escape rooms… and it’s not the one we usually see.

A small boogie board that reads, "Erase me!" and points at the erase button.
Jot Series

Boogie Board Jot Series

The Jot Series is the traditional Boogie Board. I’ve seen this model almost every time I come across a Boogie Board in escape room. They come in a number of different sizes and forms, but they all work the same way:

Write on the surface with the stylus. Press the round button to erase the slate.

They are easy to explain to players and simple to use.

A small translucent boogie board with card under it that reads "Thank You," with tarot art. Atop, the boogie board reads, "I'm translucent."
Also available in a translucent model.

There are two main drawbacks: 

If you want to erase something, you have to erase everything. 

It’s almost too easy to erase them. I’ve seen players accidentally erase something that someone else was working on. This is the most common gripe that I hear from other players about Boogie Boards.

A large boogie board blackboard, pointing out the eraser button, the erase button, and the lock switch.
Blackboard

Boogie Board Blackboard

On the other extreme, there is the top-of-the-line Boogie Board, the new Blackboard model.

This thing is pretty damn awesome. It’s large and translucent (so it can draw over other things). With one button, it switches to an eraser mode where the stylus works as a focused eraser, like the end of a pencil would. You don’t have to blank out the entire slate to erase, but that is an option too. There’s a mobile app to store your work. 

Closeup of the boogie board blackboard's pointing out the eraser button, the erase button, and the lock switch.

I love using one of these at home. I highly recommend the Blackboard for at-home puzzle-solving and other creative work. It’s awesome.

I do not recommend it for use in escape rooms. It has too many options and requires too much explanation. It’s a little too big. Also, considering that it’s liable to get dropped, I think it’s a little pricey for this use case.

The Boogie Board Dashboard.
Dashboard

Boogie Board Dashboard

If the Jot is too simple and the Blackboard is too complex… the Boogie Board Dashboard is just right.

Dashboard is essentially a Jot with a safety switch that disables the erase button. This adds almost no additional explanation, but provides a significant benefit to the players.

The Boogie Board Dashboard locked.
Erase Lock: On
The Boogie Board Dashboard unlocked.
Erase Lock: Off

I’ve only ever seen these at Locked Murfreesboro in Franklin, Tennessee. The folks from Locked also made a small but significant modification to their Boogie Board Dashboards. They drilled a small hole and wired the stylus to the board ensuring that they travel together.

The Boogie Board Dashboard with the stylus attached to the body.

In my opinion Locked Murfreesboro’s approach is currently the best way to use Boogie Boards in escape rooms.

The two components that they use to wire the stylus board are: 

Boogie Boards certainly aren’t without drawbacks. They can be especially challenging in low lighting and they are pretty small. That said, they are a writing surface, not a tool to fix gameplay. If the lighting is too dim for a Boogie Board or the puzzle requires a ton of writing to solve, that’s a problem with the game’s design, not the writing surface.

We haven’t yet seen Boogie Boards integrated into the set and narrative of an escape room. That’s the next step.

Disclosure: Boogie Board provided Jot and Blackboard models for review. 

(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.)

Room Escape Lover’s 2018 Holiday Buyer’s Guide

Commence the commerce!

Room Escape Artist Holiday Buyer's Guide 2018 masthead, features the REA logo with a Santa hat.

It’s that time of year where we express to one another how much we care by buying creative gifts. 

If you have a puzzler in your life (or you’re looking to treat yourself), we’ve done the creativity for you. 

In each category we’ve included gifts spanning a range of prices. We even included a couple of aspirationally priced items. This year’s holiday buyer’s guide is unique from the previous guides we published in 2017 & 2016. 

Tabletop Escape Games

In-game: a beautiful, intricate laser engraved/ laser cut wooden puzzle box.

Tale of Ord

$165 (ships internationally)

If you’re looking for a big puzzle game that requires commitment, Tale of Ord is one of our favorite tabletop puzzle games. The puzzles are challenging and numerous. The writing is about as good as we’ve seen from the play-at-home puzzle game genre. (Full Review)

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

Cryptogram Puzzle Post

£7.50 per single issue, £20.00 per seasonal (three issues) subscription, £70.00 per annual (twelve issues) subscription (ships internationally)

These monthly puzzle mailings are loaded with gorgeous art and unusual puzzles. Buy them for the challenges. Keep them because they are freaking beautiful. (Full Review)

Unlock! The Adventures of Oz box art features Dorothy, the Lion, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow waling the Yellow Brick Road.

Unlock! – The Adventures of Oz

$14 (22 CAD) (£25)

Over the course of many installments, Unlock! has shifted from a card-based re-creation of escape rooms to a narrative-driven puzzle adventure series. In our opinion, The Adventures of Oz is the pinnacle of this series. This shouldn’t be your first Unlock! game (that honor should go to Squeek & Sausage), but if you’re comfortable with the series and its mechanics, you should head off to see the wizard. (Full Review)

Sunken Treasure's box art features a sunken tall ship.

Exit: The Game – The Sunken Treasure

$10 (19.50 CAD) (£13)

We’ve played a whole bunch of new installments in the Exit: The Game series of destructible tabletop escape games. Of the batch, The Sunken Treasure has been one of our favorites. It’s by far the best installment for players new to the series. (Full Review)

Deckscape The Test Time Laboratory card, and an introduction from the Doctor.

Deckscape – Test Time

$14 (26 CAD) (£11)

We’re fans of Deckscape’s card-based play-at-home escape games. Test Time was our favorite. (Full Review)

Home

Umbra Magnetic Key Holder with keys and mail in it.

Umbra – Magnetic Key/ Mail Organizer

$15 (19 CAD) (£15)

This magnetic key and mail organizer has been a fantastic addition to our home. It looks great and it’s highly functional. 

Indiana Jones Holy Grail

$25

If you give this re-creation of the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Holy Grail to someone and they respond with anything other than “You chose wisely,” then you should just end that relationship. 

A beautiful glass hourglass with copper ballbearings inside as sand.

The Marc Newson Hourglass For HODINKEE

$12,000

This handblown hourglass is filled with 1,249,996 tiny ball bearings and measures 10 minutes. It’s beautiful and expensive. We can’t afford it, but if you buy it, we’d love to see it in person. 

Tabletop Games

Forbidden Island's box with an assortment of cards, location tiles, and pieces.

Forbidden Island

$18 (20 CAD) (£17)

This is a collaborative treasure hunt where 2 to 4 players with unique abilities attempt to obtain 4 sacred items from a sinking item. Each game takes about 30 minutes to play and it feels like a constantly shifting group puzzle. It’s easy to learn and easy to teach. I’ve been playing it fairly regularly for over 5 years.

The futuristic box for Gizmos.

Gizmos

$30 (46 CAD)

This is a recent find for us and we’re pretty obsessed with it. 

Gizmos is a competitive game for 2 to 4 players, where everyone is trying to build more effective chain reaction machines that earn points and resources. It’s competitive, but not in-your-face competitive. Plus, it has a super fun marble dispenser.

Haunted House box for Betrayal.

Betrayal at House on the Hill

$33 (60 CAD) (£32)

This hour-long game for 3 to 6 players starts out collaborative until someone triggers the haunting… and then a defector is revealed and the game changes profoundly.

With more than 50 different defector scenarios and a procedurally generated game map, there is a ton of replay crammed into this box. 

While it pulls from horror tropes, it’s not a scary game. If you’d prefer a different theme, however, you can play the equally great Dungeons & Dragons-themed Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate. Finally… if you already know and love this game, Betrayal Legacy looks amazing. 

The D&D-esque box of Gloomhaven, depicting a scene with fantasy knights and rogues.

Gloomhaven

$140 (275 CAD) (£158)

Gloomhaven is a collaborative tactical combat adventuring game in a persistent world with more than 100 missions for 1 to 4 players. Each mission takes 60 to 120 minutes to complete. The game is loaded with hidden content. It’s like Dungeons & Dragons, but more boardgamey. This is a big game for people who like tabletop gaming.

If you’re springing for Gloomhaven, you may also want to consider the Broken Token organizers. I’m not really into custom box organization, but this is one of the few games that warrants it.

A beautiful wooden chess set with the 2019 CES Innovation Award badge.

Square Off Automated Chess Board

$369

This elegant-looking chess board moves your opponent’s pieces using magic (or a computer-controlled electromagnet). It’s crazy how smooth it is. You can play against the game’s AI or against any other Square Off owner in the world. 

Use the code ARTIST20 to receive 20% off.

Tools

A stubby small screw driver.

Klein – 6 in 1 Mini Screwdriver

$11

I keep this little tool in easy reach. This has been another great upgrade to our home. More often than not, if I need a screwdriver for a casual repair, this thing can handle the job. It can also fit into tight spaces. 

A dremel 3000, its box, and a few attachments.

Dremel 3000 Rotary Tool

$59 (111 CAD) (£70)

My Dremel is one of my go-to tools. I use it for everything. If you like to make things, you can almost certainly find an attachment that will improve your process. 

A glowforge 3d laser printer.

Glowforge

$3,995

There is no tool that I would love to own more than a good laser cutter. The Glowforge is the one that I’d buy if we had the space, ventilation, and money.

DIY Crafty Puzzles

A geometric papercraft tyrannosaurus rex bust.

PAPERRAZ Dinosaur Trophy Head Papercraft Puzzle

$38 (71 CAD)

These things are just nifty looking. There’s something about the geometry of them that has stuck with me from the first time I encountered one over a year ago. Plus… dinosaur!

Front of the completed Treasure Box bears the UGears logo.

U Gears – Treasure Box

$45 (75 CAD) (£42)

U Gears models combine puzzle, art, and engineering in one project. We built the Treasure Box, but they have a ton of amazing products. Read our review first to make sure that you have the right tools on-hand. (You don’t need many, but you really need them.)  (Full Review)

Puzzles

The Dog Pile & Cat Stax boxes.

Brainwright – Cat Stax & Dog Pile

$10-13 (18 CAD Cats & 19 CAD Dogs) (£15 Cats & £15 Dogs)

These cat and dog packing puzzles are adorable. They start you off easy, slowly ramping up the difficulty. Whether you’re looking to learn packing puzzles, already enjoy them… or just want the cute dog and cat figures, these are a good buy. (Full Review)

4 different nut and bolt puzzles.

Trick Bolts

$20

Purchased as a pair, each well-crafted bolt hides a different trick. The goal is to remove the nut, but you’ll find it isn’t trivial. Small, sturdy, and easy to carry around, you’ll always have a puzzle handy.

2 Rubik's cubs with funny looking headset power chargers on them.

Smart Rubik’s Cube

$42 (£39)

This looks like a normal Rubik’s Cube with cute headphones, right? The “headphones” are actually a removable charging connector. Why do you need to charge a Rubik’s Cube? This one can transmit the entire state of the cube via Bluetooth to your phone, allowing it to show you how to solve it, or play several different cube-based games. It also has a pleasant clicky-but-smooth feel.

Two hands holding a heart shaped wooden box.

Heart CaseSold out 💔

$104

Pluredo makes some terrific hand-crafted wooden puzzles. This one, a “sequential discovery” puzzle, reveals tools as you progress. You’ll need to use the tools to open the final compartment. It’s not too difficult, but it’s satisfying nonetheless.

3 bolts protruding from an elegant block of wood labeled, "Mr Puzzle Australia"

3 Wise Bolts

$138

This is another sequential discovery puzzle, where each bolt reveals new tools that you can use to get further into the puzzle. It’s a little more expensive and a lot harder. Don’t expect to solve this in a single sitting.

Jigsaw Puzzles

A 1000 piece Harry Potter flying keys puzzle, depicts the book's hero's riding broomsticks and trying to catch flying keys.

New York Puzzle Company Harry Potter Puzzles

~$20 (~30 CAD) (~£20)

The New York Puzzle Company makes beautiful traditional cardboard jigsaw puzzles. Their pieces have unusual shapes and their print quality is great. Their Harry Potter puzzle line is a perfect choice for the puzzling Potterhead in your life. Our favorite is the 1,000 piece Flying Keys puzzle… naturally. 

Geode puzzle mostly assembled.

Nervous System – Geode Puzzle

$60

Small but mighty. This intricate little laser-cut wooden puzzle was far more complex and interesting than its piece count suggested. (Full Review)

Video Games

In-game: a beautiful multicolored series of circular repeating patterns surrounding an eye.

Gorogoa

$5 on iOS, $15 on Windows & Nintendo Switch

Gorogoa is a novel, gorgeous, and innovative puzzle game that doesn’t overstay its welcome. It may be a short game, but it’s mighty. (Full Review)

In-game, and array of basic puzzles that build in complexity.
A series of starter puzzles.

The Witness 

$9.99 on iOS, $13.60 on Android, $39.99 on Xbox & Steam

The Witness is one of the great puzzle games of our time. It’s a deep exploration of one puzzle type that sublimely guides you from novice to master with a difficulty curve that teaches you, while still making you be smart. (Full Review)

Books

Multi-colored cover of the atlas obscura explorer's guide for the world's most adventurous kid.

The Atlas Obscura Explorer’s Guide for the World’s Most Adventurous Kid

$13 (24 CAD) (£12)

We’re big fans of Atlas Obscura. Whenever we travel, we try to sneak in some strange sites. This book is made to help kids feel more connected to the world and more comfortable traveling. It’s fun and quirky. 

Cover for Y the last man volume 1, features Yorick and Ampersand.

Y The Last Man Volume 1

$19 (34 CAD) (£16)

This 5-volume graphic novel series from 2002 by Brian K. Vaughan is still one of my favorite stories. It explores a world where only two animals with a Y chromosome survive a sudden calamity. It’s the kind of setup that could have turned gross or terrible quickly, but is heartfelt and intriguing. It’s also one of those rare series that stuck the landing. That last issue was haunting. 

The Art of Game Design book.

The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, Second Edition

$59 (72 CAD) (£47)

Whether you’re an escape room designer already or you’re aspiring to be one, if you are designing games, this is a must-read.

Stocking Stuffers

An assortment of 10 different color FriXion pens in the package.

Pilot – FriXion Ball Erasable Gel Ink Pens

$11 (25 CAD) (£8)

These heat-activated erasable pens are amazing! We use them whenever we’re puzzling. They erase well and don’t leave any eraser dust behind. (Full Review)

A metal and plastic toy that looks like a lollipop, it fans out into different shapes controlled by magnets.

Lollipopter

$25 (40 CAD) (£25)

All hail the king of the fidget toys. This thing is just cool. It has no practical purpose or challenge to it. It’s just immensely satisfying to fiddle with. 

A candle made to look like the bust of Toht, the vile Nazi from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Raiders of the Lost Ark Melting Toht Candle

$35 (52 CAD) (£25)

Set fire to a Nazi to relive one of the more satisfying villain deaths in cinematic history from the comfort of your own home.

Escape Rooms

Post game green screen photo the team on the bridge of the boat being rescued.

Here’s your annual reminder to purchase a gift certificate from a local escape room company. It’s the perfect gift. 

Apparel 

Legends of the Hidden Temple T-shirts

$13 (17 CAD) (£19)

You either grew up with this and think these shirts are awesome… or you have no idea what I’m talking about. (More Details)

A black shirt with the white outline of a black cube.

Rusty Lake Apparel

$17.50

I love this creepy mobile escape room-style video game series. It has long deserved a post… stay tuned. If you or your loved ones are Rusties… may I suggest the Cube shirt? You know what to do. 

For Kids

A scratch programming demo featuring an animated cat.

Scratch

Free!

Coding is fun and a critical literacy now and in the future. 

Scratch is a free programming language for children to create stories, animations, and games. It’s a straightforward, unintimidating way to learn how to create with code. To kickstart your kid, check out the book, Coding Games in Scratch: A Step-by-Step Visual Guide to Building Your Own Computer Games.

Puzzle your kids logo

Puzzle Your Kids

Free/$3 per month

This is an email subscription from Eric Berlin, the creator of the wonderful Winston Breen book series. He delivers a weekly paper puzzle (in PDF format) designed for younger puzzlers (but often still interesting for adults). It has both free and paid tiers. 

A clear sphere filled with colorful ramps and mazes.

Perplexus 

$17 (25 CAD) (£23)

Perplexus is a dexterity puzzle where a player attempts to navigate a silver ball through 100+ obstacles. It’s fun and challenging. 

I’ve seen these things in quite a few escape room lobbies, but it turns out that they are huge with kids. 

Perplexus comes in a number of different flavors including the Epic and Star Wars: Death Star editions. 

Playmobile Haunted House includes dracula in a coffin, dr frankenstein, and frankenstein's monster.

Playmobil

Starting at ~$20 (~29 CAD) (~£43)

Lisa grew up with Playmobil. She had an entire town of people. They provided her with an endless outlet for creativity in play (and inadvertently, a career). Today, Playmobil offers Explorers of the Hidden Temple and Haunted House play sets, among many others. They are so escape room-y, it’s not even funny. Get your kids hooked on adventure while they’re young. 

Two kids reaching under the Klask table to play it.

Klask: The Magnetic Game of Skill

$38 (68 CAD) (£40)

It’s like air hockey, but with magnets and a few added obstacles. Plus, it doesn’t take up an entire room. 

The orange Curiosity Box featuring an adorable octopus logo.

The Curiosity Box

From $49.90 per quarter for a quarterly plan to $45.90 per quarter for an annual plan

This box is delivered quarterly with 9 science toys, puzzles, books, and games designed to entertain and educate a knowledge-hungry kid. 

Charity

Direct Relief's orange logo.

Direct Relief

“Direct Relief is a humanitarian aid organization, active in all 50 states and more than 80 countries, with a mission to improve the health and lives of people affected by poverty or emergencies – without regard to politics, religion, or ability to pay.”

Direct Relief on Charity Navigator

Charity Navigator: Your Guide To Intelligent Giving's compass logo.

Give & Give Smart

Regardless of the organization you plan to donate to, please take a few minutes to research the way that the non-profit operates. Charity Navigator evaluates non-profits based on their financial responsibility and transparency. 

I’m not going to name names, but I can guarantee that Charity Navigator will change the way you look at some of the best known non-profits.

Past Buyers Guides

Our past guides still have great stuff in them…

2017

2016

Thank You

Thank you to our friends Brett, Max, Paula, and John for their wonderful suggestions for this holiday buyer’s guide.

If you purchase via our Amazon links or use our discount codes, you will help support Room Escape Artist as we will receive a very small percentage of the sale. We truly appreciate your support.

Exit The Game – The Sunken Treasure [Review]

SCUBA puzzle adventure!

Location:  at home

Date Played: November 11, 2018

Team size: 1-4; we recommend 2-3

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $10

Publisher: KOSMOS

REA Reaction

One small change can greatly impact how a game feels. The Sunken Treasure had entirely linear gameplay. This departure from Exit The Game’s semi-linear approach to tabletop escape game design created a smooth and calm puzzling experience. I found it pleasurable. 

We never wondered whether we were working on the right puzzle, or one where we had all of the components. We knocked out the challenges as The Sunken Treasure served them up. This enabled us to focus on the story and play with confidence.

While linearity worked well here, this isn’t an endorsement of linear play-at-home gameplay across the board. As with most design decisions, it’s situational.

The Sunken Treasure is one of the easiest Exit The Game installments that we’ve encountered. This didn’t bother us at all; we rather enjoyed the calmer seas. 

If you’re a fan of Exit The Game, this is one of the must-play chapters. If you’ve never played before, this should be your first. 

Sunken Treasure's box art features a sunken tall ship.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Smooth linear gameplay
  • Tangible puzzles
  • An approachable difficulty curve

Story

We set off in search of the legendary treasure of the Santa Maria. You’ll be shocked to learn that we did, in fact, find it .

The sunken treasure journal, decoder wheel, and an assortment of small components.

Setup

The Sunken Treasure followed the same destructible paper-puzzle structure that I explained in our first batch of Exit The Game reviews, but with one significant difference. For the sake of brevity, you can read about the structure in our original review: 

Unlike in the others, however, the gameplay in The Sunken Treasure was entirely linear. It presented the puzzles one at a time. Solving each one advanced the story and provided us another complete puzzle. This small change significantly – and in my opinion, positively – impacted the play. 

An old gold coin and 6 gems of different colors.

Gameplay

Exit The Game’s The Sunken Treasure was a linear play-at-home escape game with an approachable level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around observing and puzzling.

Stacks of riddle, answer, and help cards.

Analysis

➕ The linear gameplay removed ambiguity. This was the first Exit The Game that we’ve played where we never found ourselves attempting to solve a puzzle before we had all its components. We never once missed that added challenge. 

➕ As the story progressed, the puzzles ramped up along a comfortable difficulty curve. 

➕ With one exception the puzzles felt fair and solved cleanly. 

➖ One puzzle had us in the weeds trying to figure out what we were supposed to see. In the end we got the correct answer for the wrong reason. We never would have even noticed if I didn’t make a habit of checking the hint cards at the end of each puzzle to verify that we had approached it properly. 

An assortment of help cards.

➖ While we didn’t really need it, the hinting wasn’t granular enough. Should you need a hint on one of the more complex puzzles, you’re likely going to get more of a push than you’ll want or need. Exit the Game could smooth this over by adding a few extra hint cards to the more complex puzzles. 

➕ We adored the tangible interactions in The Sunken Treasure. They exceeded my expectations, based on my experience with previous Exit The Game tangible puzzles. 👍

❓ This felt like the easiest Exit The Game that we’ve played to date. I didn’t mind at all. In fact, I liked it. Your feelings may differ on this subject. 

Tips For Playing

  • Space Requirements: minimal, a small table or floorspace will suffice
  • Required Gear: paper, pencil, and scissors.

Buy your copy of Exit The Game’s Sunken Treasure, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: KOSMOS provided a sample for review. 

(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. We appreciate the support.)

Heyou Escape – La Terrible Affaire Bambell [Review]

The Terrible Bambell Affair (available in English)

Location:  Le Cannet, France

Date Played: September 30, 2018

Team size: 2-6; we recommend 3-4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: 24-30 € per person depending on team size

Ticketing: Private

REA Reaction

I keep telling people about La Terrible Affaire Bambell.

Heyou Escape’s horror thriller was one of the most interesting escape rooms we’ve encountered in our travels. 

All about story and fear, La Terrible Affaire Bambell relied on traditional escape room gameplay to facilitate the narrative and the feelings it created in players.

This escape room worked because of creativity, hard work, and commitment. 

La Terrible Affaire Bambell wasn’t a good or a bad escape room. It was theatrical. It was terrifying. It was a weak puzzle game… hell, it was barely a puzzle game. It was an intense and interesting experience. 

If you’re looking for traditional, puzzle-driven, non-threatening escape room gameplay, do not play La Terrible Affaire Bambell. If you’re in the south of France and you seek something unique that might shift your perspective on what an escape room can be, then Heyou Escape’s first outing is a must-play.

In-game: The hallway of the apartment complex that housed the game.

Who is this for?

  • Horror fiends 
  • Adventure seekers
  • Story seekers
  • Players with at least some experience

Why play?

  • Frights
  • Worldbuilding
  • Thought-provoking conclusion

Story

We were new police recruits on a risky first assignment. Our sergeant had tasked us with investigating the apartment of a suspected serial killer. 

This man had been monitored by police for some time; they were confident that this was the guy. We need to inspect his residence to determine if he was the killer and how many people he had murdered.

There were two catches: 

  • He had a photographic memory. We had to put everything back exactly as we had found it. Because… 
  • He could return to his home while we were investigating. If he returned, we had to hide. 

Given the dangers, our sergeant would be on the radio supporting us the entire time. 

In-game: A "special police" badge.

Setting

Heyou Escape led us to an apartment in a real apartment building. En route, he improvisationally melded the real life environment with the game world. 

Once our sergeant had “picked the lock” to the apartment, he left us in a dark, creepy living room lit only by a few flashlights (that were chained to the wall). 

In-game: a globe in a dark room.

Gameplay

Heyou Escape’s La Terrible Affaire Bambell was an unusual theatrical horror escape room with a higher level of difficulty (more on that in the analysis).

Core gameplay revolved around searching, making connections, and enduring the tension. 

In-game: A skinned stuffed animal in a dark room.

Analysis

➕ La Terrible Affaire Bambell was unique. Its story, rules, and approach to gameplay were unlike anything we’d encountered in more than 650 escape rooms. 

➕ Heyou Escape established their story and world by integrating the real world into the experience. This was brilliant and immersive. 

❓ La Terrible Affaire Bambell was scary. This was the first game that we had ever played where one of our teammates quit in the middle of the game (and no, that wasn’t Lisa!). Heyou Escape told us that 30% of teams have at least one player abandon due to fear. Whether this is amazing or terrible is up to you.

➕ Heyou Escape introduced a game mechanic that I spent more than half of the game thinking was stupid… until it turned into my favorite aspect of the game. I cannot say more without ruining it.

➕/➖ The mediocre puzzles only worked because of the heavy gamemaster involvement (which was well integrated into the game). That being said, the puzzles were never the reason to play La Terrible Affaire Bambell.

➕/➖ The set was creepy. It established the right tone, but it didn’t look incredible. It also lacked believable hiding places (which really were critical to this narrative).

➕/➖ The hiding from the serial killer was intense even if I couldn’t believe that we were effectively hiding ourselves from the killer.

➕ The actor/ gamemastering was fantastic. It made this world feel real, even when we could see the seams. We further commend Heyou Escape for delivering all the dialogue in English. (We later received a behind the scenes glimpse that demonstrated just how hard the staff had to work to make this crazy experience work.)

➖ The ending came too late… or the climax came a little too early. By the time that La Terrible Affaire Bambell had come to a conclusion, the story had begun to unravel. 

➕ Heyou Escape left us with an interesting question about the game… and the more I thought about it that evening over dinner and wine… the more I appreciated the uniqueness of La Terrible Affaire Bambell.

Tips For Visiting

  • This is truly a horror game. Be prepared to be scared.
  • Players need to be fairly mobile.

Book your hour with Heyou Escape’s La Terrible Affaire Bambell, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.