The famed British codebreakers of Bletchley Park placed a challenging crossword puzzle in the Daily Telegraph newspaper on January 13, 1942. Anyone (man or woman) who could solve it in under 12 minutes was asked to write in.
Those who claimed they succeeded were brought in and given a second one to solve in person.
The few who accomplished the task were recruited to serve King and Country.
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 TheDa 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 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.
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.
Their next round of nerdy keys is available for backers of their Kickstarter, which is off to a good start.
Like last year, they are making keys available for:
They will ship internationally.
If they reach their 6th stretch goal at $36,000, they will add Yale lock compatibility to the mix. However, I don’t think that will matter much for escape room designers as the overwhelming majority of door keys found in these games use either Kwikset KW1 or Schlage SC1 keys.
Back them soon
Their Kickstarter ends on Thursday, February 16 2017 1:04 PM EST. Support The Key Armory while you can, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.
Price: $40, although it’s usually less expensive on Amazon
2016 brought a wealth of at-home escape games and Spin Masters introduced one with a twist: they created an at-home escape room framework and then 4 individual hour-long escape rooms that followed their at-home game mechanics. Given this design, they have opportunity to release inexpensive expansion packs.
Each game followed the same 3-act structure with envelopes (and in one case, a small box) containing all of the puzzling components.
We used the contents of the envelopes in conjunction with the “Electronic Chrono Decoder,” 16 keys, and a hint decoder.
The Chrono Decoder contained the game clock and 4 slots to input the various keys. The keys came in a few varieties with different markings to form answers.
Entering keys into the Chrono Decoder.
The Chrono Decoder had code keys including the pigpen cipher and Morse Code.
The left side of the Chrono Decoder had wheels for a basic substitution cipher.
There are 6 key layouts, each containing 7 different methods of encoding.
The hint decoder was a red filter that made hint cards readable. Each game came with its own set of hint cards, marked with different timings. When the game clock displayed that time, we were cleared to look at that hint. When it worked correctly, this maintained the game’s pace.
The four games in order from least to most difficult were: Prison Break, Virus, Nuclear Countdown, and Temple of the Aztec.
Puzzling was the reason to play Escape Room The Game. Now, I’m not saying that they were the greatest puzzles out there, or that their implementation was particularly exceptional; I can’t make those claims. However, the experience was puzzle-focused.
None of the games offered an excellent puzzling experience from start to finish. It felt like one game’s worth of good ideas was split between 3 different episodes, and then there were no good ideas left for the last one.
There were a few excellent puzzles contained within Prison Break, Virus, and Nuclear Countdown.
Escape Room The Game costs between $30 – $40 for 3 hours of adequate puzzling and 1 hour of skippable garbage. It’s a good deal.
I loved Spin Master’s structured approach to at-home escape games. The general concept of an at-home table top escape room framework that could be inexpensively expanded was brilliant.
Nothing was destroyed in the course of playing these games, so it was easily repackaged and shared. In fact, our copy was mailed to us by our friend EscapeRoomer in Portland, Oregon, who also has reviews of these games (Prison Break & Virus).
Temple of the Aztec was one of the worst puzzle games I’ve ever played. I think it failed because Spin Masters didn’t know how to make a harder game. Instead of including more difficult puzzles, they broke the clue structure. We won… but we were shocked when our final answer worked. Don’t play it unless you’re looking to observe a disaster in the wild.
Each game began with an obnoxiously long setup to read that was completely inconsequential. These could have communicated just as much information at 1/16 the length.
While playing Virus, the Chrono Decoder returned a false negative, telling us that we had a correct answer wrong. I corrected this problem by pushing the final two keys in at once. For some reason that worked.
None of the games told a cohesive story.
The speaker on the Chrono Decoder was way too loud.
The hinting structure only worked if a team kept on pace with the expected gameplay. We generally found ourselves pretty far ahead of the hints. Thus if we got stuck, we wouldn’t earn a helpful hint for a long time. By the time the hint arrived, we had usually managed to solve the puzzle, despite a lot of intermittent frustration.
Should I play Spin Masters’ Escape Room The Game?
The decision to purchase Escape Room The Game is a value judgment. All boxed escape rooms are single-use experiences, even if they can be repacked and shared with friends. There are other games available that are, without a doubt, higher quality experiences. However, to our knowledge, no other at-home game comes close to providing this much puzzling time per dollar.
Beginners will have plenty to puzzle over and will likely find these games a serious challenge.
Experienced players will find games that are easy to share with friends and family when bad weather keeps you inside.
We played Escape Room The Game in a two different sessions. Both groups had fun (except when we played Temple of the Aztec). This wasn’t the most brilliantly designed game out there, but we all enjoyed our time puzzling together, and that ain’t nothing.
This Etsy-purchased boxed escape room was a “bomb in a box.”
Upon opening it, we read the friendliest bomb-threat ever written and began to puzzle our way to survival. (In retrospect, we would have had more than enough time to just toss the explosive box in the Hudson River.)
Conundrum was an unusual game even compared to the diverse array of at-home escape room games on the market. It was essentially hacked together out of school supplies. I’m not sure whether its creator is an elementary school teacher or has elementary school-aged kids, but I’d bet my last penny it’s either one or both.
From a letter-locked pencil case to a beautifully modified ruler, it felt as though the creator was dared to build a game entirely out of school supplies.
Conundrum was a box of puzzles. Possibly because of the materials, it included some strange and intriguing puzzles.
These puzzles demanded some surprising activity, so much so that we were at times worried that we were seriously misinterpreting what we needed to do.
Conundrum’s puzzles brought back random childhood memories.
The box contained a lot of locks. They were inexpensive Chinese knockoffs of common room escape locks, but they were tangible and interactive nonetheless. That was neat.
The low maintenance hinting system was simple and well-executed.
There were some great puzzles and wonderfully strange interactions in Conundrum.
Conundrum jerry-rigged the box with creative tech. This was minimal, but it was also a completely unnecessary touch that put smiles on our faces.
The game required some destructive interactions and we weren’t quite clear on that at the onset. We spent a lot of time looking for the permission to wreck things that didn’t quite materialize. We had to take a hint to find that permission… and it was difficult for us to determine which hint was for the interaction that we needed to do at that moment.
Playing Conundrum destroys some significant components. This game is not replayable and cannot be easily reloaded. If you’re motivated, you absolutely can repack the thing and replace the destroyed components, but it would take some doing.
For a non-replayable at-home room escape, at $70 per box, it’s expensive.
Should I play Coventry Road Games’ Conundrum?
Conundrum was a strange game. It was made from a crazy assortment of kid-friendly crafting items. It had more technology than most at-home games. It was loaded with idiosyncratic interactions and puzzles. All of this made it a fun and interesting at-home puzzle experience.
It was also hacked together, unpolished, a little difficult to follow at times, and expensive.
Conundrum would be a great family entertainment experience; play this as a family of 3-5 and let the kids touch the pieces. For adults, this could be a fun time for 2-3 if you can’t get to a room escape, but know that it’s pricey compared to what you can get from a live room escape or other mass-market at-home games.
Conundrum was so very handmade it should be Etsy’s mascot. What it lacked in polish it made up for in love.
Did it feel like an immersive race to defuse a bomb? Absolutely not. But it never tried to be.
It was a quirky box of family-friendly puzzles and school-supplies-turned-oddities. If that sounds like its your jam, then you should buy a copy.
A brilliant and approachable walk through the history of code/cipher making and breaking. I am in the middle of reading this one and I learn new and exciting things each time I turn the page. (Paperback) (Kindle)
Do people still gift movies in the age of streaming? If you do…
If you know someone who loves the overlap of art and technology, Tim’s Vermeer is a strangely moving documentary about Tim Jenison’s mission to recreate Dutch master Johannes Vermeer’s photo-realistic painting “The Music Lesson.” Produced by Penn & Teller, the documentary follows Jenison, a Texas-based tech entrepreneur who had never lifted a paintbrush in his life, through his discoveries, triumphs, and failures as he seeks to uncover a 350-year-old secret.
A Cryptex is a common locking mechanism in room escapes, but most use the junkie Da Vinci Code replicas (and yes, both are junk, even the more expensive version).
Justin Nevins, the creator of the first Cryptex, handcrafts this insanely solid Cryptex. They start at $300 for the normal version and become increasingly expensive for exquisite versions inlayed with wood and marble.
They are the perfect escape room prop, conversation piece, or proposal puzzle device. (I considered using this when plotting out my wedding proposal.)
Warhead Antimatter Response (W.A.R). What is it good for?
Location: at home
Date played: August 21, 2016
Team size: 2-6; we recommend 2-4
Price: $14.99 for the printable PDF
Story & setting
Set in a William Gibson-esque techno-dystopia, our team of rebel thieves had to prevent the United World Government from completing its Warhead Antimatter Response (W.A.R) facility.
This was an at-home print and play game with simple, yet effectively stylized artwork.
The game spanned four chapters. Each player chose to “play as” one of the four characters. Each chapter cast one of the characters as “leader.” Each chapter had a handful of puzzles.
Grand Theft Antimatter leaned heavily on variety; no two puzzles were alike. They ranged from expected to unusually creative.
Not every puzzle was created equal. Some were great, some were weak, and one irked me.
Overall, we didn’t find any one puzzle too challenging.
I wasn’t expecting this: The character mechanic that empowered one player per chapter was remarkable. In each chapter all team members turned to the leading character and treated them as the team captain. The leading player only had minor power, but, on our team, the mechanic transcended all other team leadership dynamics. It was cool.
The art was consistent and solid.
The episodic structure helped to avoided bottlenecking.
The puzzles were a mixed bag.
The story was cute but barely relevant.
Six people, the advertised capacity, was two too many. There were only four characters and chapters; the structure could not sustain more than a few strong puzzlers. We quickly blew through the game.
Should I play Heist Escape Party’s Grand Theft Antimatter?
Heist Escape Party has the simplest approach to at-home escape game design that we’ve seen to date. It was inexpensive, easy to set up, and easy to play.
It was essentially a collection of puzzles with a tiny bit of story and a simple leadership mechanic.
The leadership mechanic was by far the most interesting part of the experience for our team. Your mileage may vary, but for Lisa and me, it’s very unusual for the power dynamics to ever shift on our teams. Whether we want to or not, one of us ends up leading.
Grand Theft Antimatter wasn’t a bad game, but wasn’t particularly exceptional either. It was puzzle-centric, but the puzzles didn’t support the weight of the entire game.
There’s a great concept and structure here. I am willing to bet that Heist Escape Party could make something exceptional if they focus their efforts to make more consistently great puzzles that also serve their story.
At $15, Grand Theft Antimatter is worth the money for puzzle lovers, but don’t expect it to exceed your expectations.
Price: $45 (only available for pickup at SCRAP’s San Francisco facility)
Story & setting
Welcome to the PuzzKingdom. We were intrepid puzzlers undergoing a test from the PuzzKing in an attempt to earn the prestigious rank of PuzzKnight. No PuzzJoke.
The PuzzBox was an at-home escape game in the same vein as The Werewolf Experiment or the ThinkFun Games. However, this was a SCRAP game and it stuck to the SCRAP script.
The game was paper-based and the materials, printing, and paper quality were solid.
The game, however, was limited to a run of 100 (although they may do another), and it was distributed exclusively through SCRAP’s San Francisco facility. Dan Egnor of the Escape Room Directory was kind enough to acquire one and ship it to us.
This was a SCRAP game. If you’ve played one, you’ll know exactly what that entails:
It was a challenging paper-based game in a rigid and predictable structure with a brutal final puzzle.
The PuzzBox, like every other SCRAP game I’ve played, was puzzles upon puzzles. They were detail-oriented and at times felt a little trite. However, SCRAP did manage to create some brilliant puzzles, which is also their modus operandi.
As far as paper-based puzzles go, this was a solid batch; they were generally satisfying to solve.
The story was incredibly cute and delivered with a light touch. This was an improvement over all of the other stories we’ve seen from SCRAP because it didn’t try to be epic while delivering a paper-based puzzling experience.
The PuzzBox felt like one of SCRAP’s better mass events. However, playing at home was vastly superior to playing in a giant room with a ton of other people and a 60-minute countdown clock. We could take our time and enjoy ourselves without having to scavenge a huge space for additional paper-based clues.
If you absolutely hate SCRAP mass events, then you’re not going to love the PuzzBox.
Playing the PuzzBox destroys the materials in the PuzzBox. It came with a single refill kit, but after two playthroughs, it’s dead. This thwarted my desire to share the game with a handful of East Coast puzzle lovers who couldn’t get their hands on a PuzzBox.
The lockbox was basically irrelevant. It didn’t have to be there at all, but I think it was included because that’s been their signature object in their mass events. Opening it revealed nothing special.
It was challenging to acquire the PuzzBox and it was expensive to have it shipped. This was frustrating in retrospect because if SCRAP had dropped the lockbox, the game would have been entirely paper-based and thereby far easier to produce and ship. The kicker is that the game would not have suffered from lack of that anti-climactic lockbox.
We solved the final puzzle through a clever (not my idea, but I wish I came up with it) reverse engineering of the components.
Should I play SCRAP’s PuzzBox?
We spent a little under an hour twenty solving the PuzzBox and we had a lot of fun throughout. There were interesting puzzles and boring puzzles. We felt let down when we opened the lockbox, but overall, we truly enjoyed ourselves.
If you love more challenging escape room puzzles and can get your hands on a PuzzBox, it’s worth playing. If you prefer the experiential side of escape rooms, run the other direction.
The PuzzBox has convinced me that SCRAP’s games are best played at a lower price-point and in the comfort of my own home.
Order your copy of SCRAP’s PuzzBox, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.