Unexpected Games – The Initiative [Review]

A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a board game.

Location:  at home

Date Played: October-November 2021

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

Duration: 15-60 minutes per mission

Price: $59.95

REA Reaction

The Initiative is a unique campaign-based cooperative strategy game with delightful escape-at-home overtones. Unlike most board games, there’s an overarching narrative that ties in with the gameplay mechanics, as well as plenty of secrets—some of which I only found while writing up this review.

Unexpected Games’ description of The Initiative as a “cooperative game of strategy, story, and codebreaking” explains it succinctly. We enjoyed all three of these elements on their own, and they were especially impressive in combination. From story to gameplay to graphic design, it’s clear how much care and creativity went into the design of this game.

The Initiative game box, mission console with an unrevealed code, resource deck, and game pieces set up on the board.

The Initiative is meant to be played over 14 missions with one to four adults or puzzle-minded youngsters, who can drop in and out of the campaign as they please. The strategy board game element is fortified with story in the form of a comic book describing a group of kids playing a very similar board game. There are also secrets hidden throughout the game materials, and even more missions are available to play separately after the main campaign. After spending a dozen or more hours with The Initiative, we still hadn’t exhausted all of its mysteries.

It’s not exactly an escape game, but between the cooperative gameplay, ciphers, secrets, and aha moments, The Initiative seems especially appropriate for escape room enthusiasts. If you like the idea of playing an intricately designed, puzzle-filled board game over multiple sittings, it’s well worth the retail price.

Who is this for?

  • Fans of legacy/ campaign board games
  • Story seekers
  • Cipher aficionados

Why play?

  • Cooperative strategizing
  • Story-gameplay integration
  • Secrets aplenty

Story

Four teens find a spy-themed board game called The Key at a yard sale and decide to play it together. When mysterious events start occurring in real life, they resolve to uncover the truth behind the game’s origins.

The story unfolds through comic pages which are meant to be read at certain points throughout the campaign.

A series of comic panels depicting some kids at a yard sale, where one boy purchases a board game called The Key.
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Vampire.Pizza Chapter 2: The Case of the Missing Vamp [Review]

Trick or treat?

Location:  At home (via delivery or pickup in Los Angeles or Philadelphia)

Date Played: October 15, 2021

Team size: 1-6; we recommend 2-3

Duration: Variable; about an hour

Price: $29 per player (not including tip or delivery fee, if applicable)

REA Reaction

Vampire.Pizza is a series of at-home games where dinner and puzzles are delivered directly to your door. Through paper game materials and online videos, Chapter 2, The Case of the Missing Vamp, continued the story of Belle’s vampire revolution.

A pizza box containing a slice of pizza, next to a red envelope labeled "Vampires Only. Mission: The Case of the Missing Vamp."

A year or so after Chapter 1, the concept of pizza and puzzle delivery still felt fresh. But after all the immersive gaming innovation during the pandemic, we were less excited to discover a packet of paper puzzles sorted into envelopes. The Case of the Missing Vamp probably won’t have much new to offer if you’ve already played some of the standout at-home escape games.

The Case of the Missing Vamp felt even easier than the first installment, so it may be best suited to beginning puzzlers or younger players. (This chapter is recommended for ages 10 and up, likely due to some allusions to the bloody realities of the vampire lifestyle.)

Now under the umbrella of Bite.Delivery, Vampire.Pizza is part of a system of collecting points which can be saved in a user account and redeemed for prizes. Additionally, for orders in October, extra prizes were delivered to the team leader’s home at the end of each game. These bonuses are a perk for players who value the element of surprise, but may disappoint those who were hoping to win an Oculus Quest. Still, the in-character prize delivery was the highlight of the evening (despite some puzzlement over the prize we received).

Between the pizza, puzzles, and prizes, the food was ultimately what we most enjoyed sinking our teeth into. However, The Case of the Missing Vamp offers an undemanding hour of eerie entertainment if you’re looking for an unusual add-on to your takeout delivery. This run of tickets spanned October 2021, but Bite may offer more opportunities to play in the future.

Who is this for?

  • Story seekers
  • Pizza lovers
  • Best for beginners

Why play?

  • Pizza and puzzles in one package
  • Vampire lore
  • Mystery prizes

Story

Head vamp Belle asked us, as members of the Fang Force, to help find an old friend who’d gone missing. By reading Belle’s old journals starting in the 1910s, we needed to identify and locate this powerful ally so she could help lead the vampire revolution.

A folded letter, adorned with a drawing of a vampire's fangs. The letter begins "Dear Fang Force, I need your help to find one of the most brilliant vampires I've ever known..."
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Escape Room LA – Jewels of the White Tiger [Review]

Escape the indoors.

Location:  Los Angeles, CA

Date Played: May 21, 2021

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

Duration: 90 minutes

Price: $30 per player

Ticketing: Private, with other teams playing concurrently

REA Reaction

Jewels of the White Tiger combined basic escape room puzzles with an outdoor treasure hunt for a novel game format that led us on foot through historic Chinatown, Los Angeles. It required a good amount of walking interspersed with puzzle solving, making it a fitting transition back to escape games after a year of lockdowns.

Because of Escape Room LA’s emphasis on racing to the finish line, Jewels of the White Tiger seemed designed for players with a competitive spirit. Even though we finished in time, my mellow team would’ve preferred a more leisurely pace so we could explore outside the boundaries of the game. (Fortunately, when the game ended, we were still in Chinatown and it was lunchtime.)

A Chinatown plaza with a sign in the foreground reading "Escape Room LA: Jewels of the White Tiger" above a small decorative box with a padlock.
Photo credit: Kirk Damato

We enjoyed the mix of paper puzzles, navigation, and sightseeing, but we left feeling like we hadn’t learned much about the locations we visited. It seemed like a missed opportunity to incorporate local history and acknowledge the community where the game was taking place.

Jewels of the White Tiger has ended, but Escape Room LA is currently running another outdoor game in Long Beach. The format provides an entertaining experience if you’re going to be in the area and want to experience the neighborhood through a new lens.

Who is this for?

  • Competitive people
  • Tourists and local visitors
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Environmental puzzles
  • Extra-large game space
  • To increase your step count

Story

Inspired by the Chinese legend of the four celestial guardians, we needed to find the jewels corresponding with the Jade Dragon, Vermilion Bird, and Black Tortoise. Only then could we release the White Tiger and return the constellations to the sky.

Jewels of the White Tiger used this narrative as a light frame, but focused much more on the puzzles.

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The Sherlock Holmes Escape Book: The Adventure of the British Museum [Review]

The game is a book.

Location:  at home

Release Date: March 2021

Date Played: April 2021

Team Size: we recommend 1

Duration: 2+ hours, depending on thoroughness

Price: $14.95

Publisher: Ammonite Press

REA Reaction

The Sherlock Holmes Escape Book: The Adventure of the British Museum is the second in a series of Holmesian branching-narrative puzzle books. With a loose, puzzle-filled story, it leads the reader through a second-person treasure hunt through the British Museum circa 1901.

The Sherlock Holmes Escape Book: The Adventure of the British Museum cover with code wheel.

I appreciated certain improvements over the first installment, most notably how the puzzles felt more connected to the story and setting. The museum location also added some fun historical details. However, The Adventure of the British Museum lacked the playful relationship with the reader that made The Adventure of the London Waterworks so delightful. Instead, it was a more straightforward puzzle-filled story without too many tricks or treats along the way.

Compared to the first book, the difficulty curve felt uneven, with no smooth on-ramp to introduce the gameplay. Also, The Adventure of the British Museum suffered from errors in several puzzles. Ultimately they weren’t game-breaking errors, but they signaled a need for more playtesting.

If you enjoyed The Adventure of the London Waterworks and want to check out another take on the same format, The Adventure of the British Museum offers an afternoon of puzzling entertainment. If you haven’t yet read The Adventure of the London Waterworks, that would be a better place to start.

Who is this for?

  • Sherlock Holmes fans
  • Gamebook aficionados
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • To take a virtual tour through the British Museum
  • Code wheels are fun

Story

I assumed the role of Sherlock Holmes as he investigated a mysterious letter that had led him and Watson to the British Museum. By following a series of puzzles through the museum’s exhibits, I attempted to thwart a villainous plot and escape unscathed.

The Adventure of the British Museum included abundant references to Sherlock Holmes lore, but reading without background knowledge wasn’t a problem.

An ilustration featuring Sherlock and Watson in front of the museum entrance.
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The Sherlock Holmes Escape Book: The Adventure of the London Waterworks [Review]

All great adventures begin by turning the first page…

Location:  at home

Release Date: June 2019

Date Played: April 2021

Team Size: we recommend 1

Duration: ~3 hours, depending on thoroughness

Price: $14.95

Publisher: Ammonite Press

REA Reaction

The Sherlock Holmes Escape Book: The Adventure of the London Waterworks is the first in a series of Holmesian branching-narrative puzzle books. Combining story and puzzles in roughly equal measure, it leads the reader through a second-person adventure of mystery, murder, and escape.

The Adventure of the London Waterworks read like a Choose Your Own Adventure book fortified with Professor Layton-style “everything’s a puzzle” gameplay. The story would be fairly simple without the puzzle layer, and vice versa. But in combination, the narrative structure served as a sturdy framework for puzzle delivery.

The Sherlock Holmes Escape Book: The Adventure of the London Waterworks cover with code wheel.

The solving covered many puzzle types, with frequent appearances of the Dancing Men cipher from the classic Sherlock Holmes story. The puzzle difficulty gradually increased from simple warmups to some genuinely challenging moments. Certain choices cleverly rewarded close scrutiny while deploying red herrings to discourage guessing or cheating.

From cover to cover, The Adventure of the London Waterworks provided several hours of entertainment, with details that rewarded multiple reads. You could enlist the help of your own Watson, but the book seems best suited for a solo puzzling experience, particularly because certain puzzles require close inspection.

Seasoned solvers may not find a hardcore challenge in The Adventure of the London Waterworks, but it’s a good amount of entertainment in a small package. If you’re a fan of interactive fiction books or Sherlock Holmes stories, this one is worth checking out.

Who is this for?

  • Sherlock Holmes fans
  • Gamebook aficionados
  • Puzzlers who enjoy a narrative foundation
  • Readers who enjoy a sprinkling of puzzles

Why play?

  • To get all the endings
  • To feel as smart as Sherlock Holmes
  • Red herrings done right

Story

Playing the role of consulting detective Sherlock Holmes, I followed a mysterious note to the London Waterworks with the trusty Dr. Watson. After infiltrating the pumping station, I made choices and solved puzzles in order to uncover and foil Moriarty’s mysterious plan.

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