Journal29 [Review]

They were here before…

Location: at home

Date played: Summer 2017

Team size: 1 -¯\_(ツ)_/¯; we recommend 2-3

Price: $16 per copy

Story & setup

A top secret excavation yielded no interesting results until the team suddenly vanished on the 29th day leaving behind no evidence of their existence except for a mysterious and cryptic journal.

Created by Dimitris Chassapakis, Journal29 was a puzzle book with a narrative experienced entirely through puzzles and illustration.

The Journal29 book, a pencil, and a iPhone with the Journal29 website open.
All that you need to play.
Playing Journal29 required the book, a pencil (seriously, don’t try this with a pen), and a computer or smartphone.

Every 2 pages of Journal29 contained a URL / QR code and puzzle. When we thought we had a solution to a puzzle, we visited the URL, submitted our answer, and the page either told us we were wrong… or rewarded us with a “key” word. The keys from the puzzles would ultimately be plugged into subsequent puzzles.

Puzzles

Journal29 contained 63 individual puzzles. Each one was unique. If a particular method of solving worked once, it would not work again. In the book’s own words, Journal29 required us to “write, draw, search, fold, combine, and more.”

Standouts

While some of the puzzle types were familiar, many were remarkably inventive.

The mix of puzzles was fantastic. These included both simple ones and mindbogglers.

The first 8 puzzles built a elegant on-ramp for the rest of the book.

The website was simple and effective.

The key system was smart. If we solved a puzzle based on incomplete information (we didn’t have one of the necessary keys) and then backsolved that key, it did not spoil the puzzle that was meant to yield the backsolved key. We simply had the key to an unsolved puzzle… not the solution to the puzzle. (I’m looking at you puzzle #28. One day I’ll figure out what the hell you are.)

We loved how some puzzles daisy-chained via keys. This meant that certain portions of the book would bind up until we made progress on an earlier puzzle. In the meantime, however, we had other puzzle tracks and puzzles that required no keys. Because of this design decision, we could be woefully stuck in one segment and simply move on to different puzzles. We’d periodically revisit the puzzle we were stuck on until we had a breakthrough. As a result, every time we sat down with Journal29, we made some progress.

Journal29 was low commitment. It lasted us a few weeks of on again, off again puzzling.

I liked the geometric aesthetic of Journal29’s illustrations.

Shortcomings

The handwriting font used in Journal29 was occasionally difficult to read. This led to transcription errors when we jotted down keys, which later resulted in frustration in the form of unsolvable puzzles.

The QR codes were worthless. It was easier to type into the URL bar to jump between puzzles. This was important because after the first 8 puzzles, we stopped solving them linearly. Also… QR codes are a silly, ugly, and insecure feature for people trapped in 2013.

A few puzzles in Journal29 got a little weird. They all ultimately had reasonable and clear solutions, but it was a grind to get through some of them.

The story was present, but not so compelling.

I really, truly wish that the answer website had accepted minor variations on puzzle solutions. There were times where we derived an answer along the lines of 123-456-7890, but it had to be entered as 1234567890. We lost a lot of time and built up a lot of frustration over minor variance in solution formats.

Journal29 had no built-in hint system. The Journal29 forum, however, did have spoiler discussions for each puzzle. I used this twice and the experience was mediocre because the discussions were unstructured, often giving me more detail than I wanted or requiring me to dig deep because some of the comments were more confusing than the puzzles. Both times that I used the forums, I learned that I had a key transcription error. I wish that the Journal29 simply had a structured and predictable help website; it would have been a better experience.

Should I play Journal29?

If you’re a puzzler, Journal29 is a fantastic purchase. It was more intriguing than a normal puzzle book. It was deeper, more challenging, and more entertaining than a 60-minute at-home escape room.

We’ve been traveling more than normal these past few months and we carried Journal29 with us. We’d pull it out on a train and solve a puzzle or two or focus on it for hours during a flight delay. It was lightweight and low tech. Because most of the puzzles solved with “ah-ha!” moments rather than grinding process puzzling, we could experience it casually.

I recommend Journal29 for small groups of people who spend a lot of time together. As a couple, it was fantastic. We could easily share the book and it was always remarkable when Lisa easily saw a path forward that was completely invisible to me (and vice-versa). If I was going to attempt this book with 3 or 4 people, I’d consider purchasing a second copy just to make sure that everyone could participate.

It is possible to solve Journal29 without destroying it, but you’d have to work very hard and probably photocopy many of the pages to do so. Jorunal29 was designed for destruction and that was absolutely fine with us.

Grab your copy of Journal29, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Thank you to Amanda Harris for giving us a fresh copy of Journal29. You’ve brought us hours of entertainment.

(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.)

 

Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment – Revisited

Back in the old, innocent days of February 2016, Lisa and and I were a month away from our wedding when we received a message from Julianna and Ariel, the creators of Escape Room In A Box. They asked, and I’m paraphrasing:

“We’re about to launch a play-at-home escape room on Kickstarter. Will you promote it?”

Now we were not sold on this and thought it seemed like a pretty terrible idea. We’d seen our share of bad escape rooms and the last thing that we wanted to do was blindly promote a pile of garbage, so we responded:

“Nope, we won’t promote it… but we would review it if you could get one to us.”

We thought that would be the end of the discussion, but Julianna and Ariel said “sure” and overnighted the game to us.

We gathered our regular team, plus a newbie (as we generally try to include fresh eyes). While everyone was skeptical at the beginning, no one was at the conclusion. This was the review that I wrote then (in our old, non-standardized format):

Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment [Review]

Revisiting The Werewolf Experiment

Some 20 months later we gathered a new group of escape room lovers, cooked them risotto, baked them cookies, and watched them play the Kickstarter First Edition of Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment.

In-game: The stop warning, time will begin as soon as the panel is lifted.

While The Werewolf Experiment was our first attempt at a tabletop escape game, this new group of players had seen many of the at-home escape rooms on the market. We worried it wouldn’t hold up, but they had a great time.

Assorted illustrations and the box tied off with rope.

I’m happy to report that we’re able to let that old review stand with a few additions:

  • The packaging in the Kickstarter edition was dramatically improved from the prototype that we played.
  • The art, illustration, and general presentation of the Kickstarter edition were cohesive and massively improved. (I don’t really remember any in-game art in the prototype.)
  • I didn’t know enough about at-home escape room games to comment on the hint system at the time. Now I can add that the hint system is easy to use and a lot less annoying than most of the tabletop escape game hint systems.
  • We also called out that many of the puzzles were paper based and felt a little homework-y. While I think that style of puzzle is more acceptable in a tabletop game than a real life escape room, I also think that those puzzle types will stand out even more nearly 2 years later.
  • We found a minor typo in the hint & answer booklets.
  • This game still has some of the most brilliant escape room-y moments in all of tabletop escape games.

In-game: 2 locked tins, and one locked antidote bag.

 

Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment, Mattel Edition

This November, the retail version of The Werewolf Experiment will hit store shelves as the game was picked up by Mattel.

Box art for Mattel's Escape Room in a Box.

The new edition will cost $29.99 and we will run a test group through it as well.

Kickstarter lateness

Some closing thoughts on the nature of Kickstarter:

Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment shipped roughly 7 months late and some folks have expressed resentment to Lisa and me over this. Not directed at us, but in our direction.

I’d like to take a moment to praise Julianna and Ariel for shipping within a year of their expected ship date and handling their Kickstarter with professionalism and grace. They kept in regular contact with their backers and focused on delivering a quality product. They did just that.

Lateness and Kickstarter go together like steel toilets and hidden keys. I backed something in November of 2014 and it was supposed to ship in March of 2015… and in October 2017, the dude is still working on it.

Backing something on Kickstarter is like paying someone in advance to keep a pinky swear. When a Kickstarter ships within a year of its expected date and turns out to be what was promised in the initial description, that’s a win.

While we’re on the subject of Kickstarter, have a look at our analysis of escape room crowdfunding efforts:

Should you Crowdfund an Escape Room? A Data-Driven Look

Unlock! Escape Adventure – The Formula, The Island of Doctor Goorse, and Squeek & Sausage [Review]

“Of course, there’s a padlock”

Location: at home

Date played: Summer / Fall 2017

Team size: 2-6; we recommend 2-3

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $50 for all 3 games

Story & setting

Unlock! Escape Adventure was a card-based at-home escape game series created by Space Cowboys and published by Asmodee.

The initial three Unlock! games were all standalone games with different themes and feels to them.

Box art for Unlock! Escape Adventures

The Formula was your typical enter-the-mad-scientist’s-laboratory-and-retrieve-the-antidote type of game. This was the most room escape-y of the bunch. At times is seemed like it was knowingly parodying escape rooms in general.

Squeek & Sausage was, as the name suggests, the strangest of the set. It was a cartoonish thwart-the-super-villain game. It was incredibly odd and charming. It felt a little like Pinky & The Brain meets Batman.

The Island of Doctor Goorse was a bit like Lost meets Indiana Jones. We’d crashed to an island and our group was split up. We had to puzzle as two groups before eventually merging.

Each game progressed through a hybrid of card playing as well as inputting answers and getting hints from the app. The app’s interface was skinned differently for each game and played background noise that fit with each individual game’s theme.

Structure

All three Unlock! games were designed to simulate an escape room-style puzzle adventure. We had:

  • a 60-minute clock
  • a game theme, and
  • a collection of puzzling components and input mechanisms.

All three Unlock! games functioned with the same basic mechanics. We had a deck of cards and an iOS / Android app.

The app's screen depicts the timer, start/pause, hint system, penalty marker, and code/machine input.

The app served a number of functions including:

  • Game clock – It counted down from 60 minutes and let us pause the timer.
  • Hint system – We could take hints and it stored the hints that we received.
  • Code input system – While most of the gameplay happened with the cards, we’d occasionally derive a code that we had to type into the app to advance.
  • Penalty tabulator – If we made a mistake, the game provided penalty cards that we were supposed to inform the app about.
  • Ambient noise / background music – The app made themed noises based on the game that we were playing.
  • Score tabulator – At the end of the game, the app calculated a score based on our time and penalties.

An assortment of facedown numbered cards.

The card decks were where the bulk of the gameplay happened. All cards had a letter or number on the back and came randomized.

The initial room map for The Formula depicts a laboratory with assorted numbers.

There were location cards that gave us an overview of the gamespace, or set, if you will. These cards were covered with numbers indicating what we had found around the room. If we saw a number, we were supposed to retrieve the corresponding card from the deck. Most of the numbers were obvious.

A hidden number 16 with an arrow drawn in to highlight it.
Relax, this is from the tutorial. No real spoilers here.

Some numbers were hidden… occasionally very well (more on that later as well).

A red air vent card (63) + a blue screwdriver card (22) gave us access to card 85, a switch panel.
Also from a promotional tutorial game.

Blue and red cards were objects that could be combined. Blue always paired with red; no like colors could meet. We had to add the value of each card and flip the card with that corresponding value from the unrevealed deck.

Blue modifiers & green machines required us to solve some sort of puzzle to determine the value of the cards before we could properly combine them with their partners.

Yellow card depicting a combination padlock. The flavor text of the cards reads, "Of course, there's a padlock."

Yellow cards represented interactions where we had to input the solution into the mobile app. These were usually more complex. If this were a video game, I’d liken them to mini bosses or stage bosses.

Penalty card, reads: "Failed. Press the Penalty button once."

Finally, there were penalty cards that occasionally resulted from combining two things that ought not have gone together.

If we wanted a hint, we had to input the number of the card we wanted a hint on into the hint system.

All red, blue, and yellow cards were single use.

If you’re interested in seeing a walkthrough of the tutorial, this is a good video:

Puzzles

Unlock! clearly strove to recreate every aspect of the escape room experience in their card games. For better or for worse, they didn’t really leave anything out.

  • There was searching and there was nitpicky detailed searching.
  • There were tasks in the form of combining objects to advance the plot or gain new items.
  • There were pure puzzles of varying difficulty.

Standouts

Space Cowboys recreated all of the core aspects of an escape room almost entirely with cards.

The cards were nicely printed with consistent and elegant design.

I was particularly fond of the addition system to resolve puzzles. Tallying up the values of combined cards into a pseudo encryption key worked well.

The games were fully and easily repackageable. There was absolutely no prop destruction and reset was almost as simple as shuffling.

It was easy to pick up and get started after a quick perusal of the instructions and a runthrough of the tutorial.

While all of the games used the same structure, each of the three games had a unique character to it.

The price was incredibly low at roughly $16 per game.

The Formula’s parody of escape room tropes was humorous.

Red card depicting a periodic table of elements. The flavor text reads, "A periodic table of elements. What a surprise!"

Squeek & Sausage was generally strong and oddly charming.

The Island of Doctor Goorse had our favorite puzzle of the series.

Shortcomings

It was fairly easy to miss a hidden number and thus not reveal a necessary card. There was a hidden number hint system built in, but we misinterpreted it. From speaking with others, it seems we weren’t the only ones to do so. When we did this, our game badly spiraled out of control. I eventually had to pause the clock and literally rerun the game to essentially debug our attempt.

Hinting was clunky. At any given time we would have a lot of cards on the table and it was frequently unclear what direction we should go. If we got stuck and wanted a hint, we had to randomly select a card for a hint. More often than not, it wasn’t the right card to take a hint on. We’d end up taking a bunch of hints at once to find the thread of gameplay and get things going again. This became frustrating quickly.

The penalties were strangely aggressive. I think they were meant to indicate that we’d wasted time in the room; they were trying to recreate that feeling of diving down a rabbit hole and having it turn up nothing. Instead, these felt like punishments for doing something bad. This was made more confusing by the randomness with which penalties popped up. More often than not, if we got something wrong, the red and blue cards would not add up to a number that was in the deck. Most of the penalties seemed more like traps laid to lull us in.

Additionally, the tutorial game left out penalties entirely and we were thus unprepared for that eventuality. While the tutorial did allude to the hidden number system, it did not accurately train us for the level of pixel hunting ahead of us.

The Formula had an easy-to-earn penalty that simply did not make any sense in either the game or reality. It also sort of undermined the jokes that it had made about the escape room formula.

The Island of Doctor Goorse started with a split team, but it was a clunky experience. We had to stay close enough to the other team that we could follow the rules, but not so close that we could see/ hear what was going on.

These games will only remain playable as long as Space Cowboys maintains their app (and mobile apps are culturally relevant). Eventually in some far off future it is likely that this software will become unsupported and that will render Unlock! unplayable. I don’t really see this as a problem. The games are fun, but they are hardly heirlooms. I simply think that this is an interesting thing that people should be aware of when it comes to app integration in tabletop games.

Should I play The Formula, The Island of Doctor Goorse, and Squeek & Sausage?

The tabletop escape game market has grown into an interesting environment with low-cost paper-based games on one extreme and complex tangible games with physical locks and mechanisms on the other end. I am excited to watch both extremes evolve.

The opened box for Unlock! The Formula. The deck of cards rests in the box the instructions beside it.

The app notwithstanding, the Unlock! games are firmly planted on the paper side of the spectrum. At $16 per game, these are about as inexpensive as tabletop escape games get. It’s tough to argue with the value.

I wish that Unlock! didn’t have all of the hidden numbers and that the hint system were a little smarter and less reliant upon guesswork. Additionally, I feel like the penalty system could be adjusted to make it less confrontational, since it’s unnecessary.

If you’re only going to play one Unlock! game, I recommend Squeek & Sausage. It is entertaining, quirky, and had fewer bumps than its siblings. That being said, each one had its virtues.

If you’re planning to play all three, I recommend that you tackle them in this order:

  1. The Formula (recommended team size of 2, maximum 3)
  2. Squeek & Sausage (recommended team size of 2, maximum 3)
  3. The Island of Doctor Goorse (recommended team size of 2 or 4; you’ll want an even number)

As with all tabletop escape games, the decision to buy comes down to what you enjoy most about puzzle games:

If you’re looking for an intense real-life experience, then this won’t ever be it.

If you simply want to solve hard puzzles, then there are puzzle books and hunts that will meet your needs far better.

If you’re hoping to capture some escape room-esque glory with a companion over drinks in your home, Unlock! is a solid choice.

Visually interrogate every card for hidden numbers and do not causally disregard hints about hidden objects. You’ll more than get your money’s worth.

Order your copies of Unlock! Escape Adventure The Formula, The Island of Doctor Goorse, and Squeek & Sausage (currently unavailable for individual purchase)… or get all 3 for a price break today.

Spy Code – Safe Breaker [Review]

Ocean’s 6 & up.

Location: at home game for ages 6 and up

Price: $24.99 + 3 AA batteries

How it works

Safe Breaker was one of three Spy Code games on the market targeted at ages 6 and up. Inspired by a combination of escape room games and safecracking, this game allowed up to 4 players to compete in a number deduction game.

The safe with the stethoscope attached. Coin, jewel, and alarm tokens are laid in front of it beside numbers cards.

In Safe Breaker, we loaded an electronic safe with gold, diamond, and penalty tokens. We each took turns guessing a number between 1 and 18 while holding a stethoscope tube to our ears and listening for a clue. Hearing a low tone through the stethoscope meant the number was below the current guess; a high tone meant it was above. There were also null penalty tones thrown in that provided no feedback whatsoever.

The safe popped open, a few coins are laying at its base.

When I landed on the correct number, the safe popped open and distributed between 1 and 3 tokens of varying value. The first person to gain enough loot won.

Puzzles

Safe Breaker was a game of light competitive deduction. We took turns guessing and trying to zero in on the right answer before anyone else did. It was a puzzle, but a lot less involved than the other Spy Code games, Break FreeOperation: Escape Room.

Standouts

The sound and feel of the safe popping open was shockingly satisfying. I don’t know what neurotransmitter was released in my brain when it opened, but it felt great.

Safe Breaker would be easy to play for absolutely anyone who is old enough to count to 18, grasp the concept of numeric order, and not choke on the pieces. It was also durable.

There was a little assembly involved. It was easy to set up, but it took me about 2 minutes once I had AA batteries and a Phillips screwdriver in my hand.

Shortcomings

While other players input their guess, I could hear the tones that other players were supposed to hear in private. This defeated the purpose of the stethoscope.

The gameplay felt incredibly shallow. The strategy to Safe Breaker was straightforward and didn’t leave room for creative play. It was entirely built around smart guesswork, light deduction, and luck.

Even as an adult, the luck component to this game didn’t feel all that fair. Sometimes the device chose to give no feedback as a penalty without cause. Once per game, one poor player opened the safe to be rewarded with a penalty token that robbed them of everything without cause. You can always choose to leave this token out and I would. It killed the game for whomever drew it.

Should I buy Spy Code Safe Breaker?

Safe Breaker was a competitive deduction game… which is a fancy way of saying it’s an electronic version of “I’m thinking of a number between 1 and 18.” There was a puzzle here but it was a lot more shallow than what Spy Code demonstrated in Break FreeOperation: Escape Room.

The safe feels great to open, which is a testament to the commitment of Yuzu, the game’s creatior’s, to engineering great physical interactions in the Spy Code games… and that’s Safe Breaker’s one trick… so the good news is that this trick is a good one.

You have to judge what level of gameplay your children are ready for. Safe Breaker was a lot more involved than a game like Candy Land, but not as involved as Spy Code’s other offerings. If your child loves the other two installments, then I would absolutely consider Safe Breaker, but I probably wouldn’t pick this one up unless the other games were already a hit in your household.

Order your copy of Spy Code Safe Breaker today.

Full disclosure: Yuzu sent us a free sample of this game.

(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.)

Key Extractors: The Plunder of Lockpicking Tools

Keys are typically little pieces of brass. While this alloy of zinc and copper has many virtues, one of the drawbacks is that it will fatigue and tear with over- or misuse.

When a key breaks, it almost always breaks inside of a lock.

In this situation, you can call a locksmith and have them extract the broken key. This, however, is usually like calling a plumber to pump a plunger in your toilet for a few seconds. Key extractors are inexpensive and simple to operate.

A pair of Peterson harpoon key extractors beside a Schlage SC-1 key.

Broken keys will still work (probably)

If a key breaks in a lock, you can usually push the broken piece into the lock with whatever remains in your hand and turn the lock. Yes, broken keys will frequently work.

The problem then becomes getting the broken bit out. Pushing that broken piece deeper into the lock to open it only makes it harder to reach.

Even if the lock still works with a segment of broken key in it, you’re going to need to remove it. That broken piece might not continue to work and if it does work, it is compromising your security.

Key extraction

Key extractors come in all sorts of shapes, but there are two common forms: harpoons and hooks. Both are tiny and sharp.

Both forms of extractors have their virtues and can get the job done. Most locks found in residences and escape rooms within the United States have wide-open keyways, so the shape of your extractor doesn’t matter so much. It only matters that it’s tiny and sharp.

To operate a key extractor, stick it into the keyway and push all of the pins up as high as they’ll go with the extractor. Try to get one of the sharp prongs to hook a key bit. Then pull it out.

For a visual lesson, the incredibly knowledgeable and talented Bosnianbill explained and demonstrated this in a video:

Damn near every other thing that you’d call a locksmith for requires some level of skill (and frequently a lot of skill). Extracting keys is usually a simple process… unless it isn’t and things are all messed up… Then call a professional.

Good extractor options

Most people probably do not need a key extractor, but escape rooms should absolutely have them handy. Key extraction is better than bolt cutting a padlock or disassembling a door lock.

Key extractors are like screwdrivers. You can buy them in sets and then grab the one that best fits the lock at hand.

I keep a set of Peterson Saw-Tooth Extractors in my pick kit. The set cost $20, was manufactured in the United States, and works well. Incidentally these key extractors also work well for removing micro sim cards from micro SD ports.

If you’re dealing with narrow keyways particularly common to European locks, or you want additional options, a German-made Multipick Extractor-Set 4 pieces ELITE set would be a great option. This will run you €28.

Whatever you do, do not buy a key extractor or any other locksmithing tools on Amazon. For reasons that are not particularly clear to me, basically all of the lockpicks and related tools sold on Amazon are garbage.

ClueKeeper, that puzzle hunt app [Review]

ClueKeeper is an iOS & Android app for building and playing puzzle hunts.

ClueKeeper logo

ClueKeeper is best known as the interface for the annual international puzzle hunt, DASH (Different Area, Same Hunt) since its 6th event in 2014. It is also used by companies such as Shinteki, Palantir, and about 30-40 others to host public and private puzzle events.

Escape room puzzle hunts

Over the past few years a few escape room companies have begun using ClueKeeper as a way to create outdoor walking puzzle hunts.

2015 Golden Lock-in winner Locurio has a ClueKeeper-based puzzle hunt in Seattle. So do San Francisco’s incredibly popular Palace Games and Jersey City’s Puzzle Out, among a few other escape room companies all over the world.

A wide-area puzzle game is a fantastic idea, especially for escape room companies in walking cities in temperate climates. They are fun, engaging, and don’t require an elaborate set build; your beautiful city is the set.

Standouts

ClueKeeper can facilitate a wide variety of puzzles and it works well at scale. The largest annual puzzle hunt in the world has relied on it for years… so they are clearly doing something right.

ClueKeeper can be used to create wide-area location-specific puzzle games that require walking about or location-non-specific games that can be played within the confines of a player’s own home.

Games can be created within the app. It was designed for testing and rapid iteration by incredibly talented puzzlers.

A puzzle hunt creator can build a game within ClueKeeper and then sell/distribute that game through the ClueKeeper puzzle hunt store.

ClueKeeper’s augmented reality capabilities are pretty damn cool. Gnome Invasion is a free tech demo of ClueKeeper’s augmented reality functionality available for download in-app. (Note that if you do not have access to the items that it is looking for, the app will respond to photographs.)

ClueKeeper essentially administers itself. Once the team has started a well-designed puzzle hunt, there isn’t much – if any – gamemaster support required.

The ClueKeeper team has produced a lot of documentation to help you get started and is available to provide support.

Shortcomings

When you’re using ClueKeeper, you’re using ClueKeeper. The app cannot be re-skinned or themed in any way. If you’re striving for a deeply immersive experience, you’ll have to achieve this through the environments, game flow, and storytelling. The app will not visually change.

ClueKeeper’s GPS interpretation is subject to both physics and the limitations of an individual phone’s technology. If you’re in a bunker of a building or you’re experiencing some variance, it might have a hard time placing your exact position, which could cause problems with location-specific puzzles.

Should I use ClueKeeper?

If you love puzzles, you should absolutely download ClueKeeper. Try out some of the puzzle hunts that can be played in your own home. If there’s a location-based one near you, give it a shot. Your mileage will vary from hunt to hunt.

If you’re an escape room owner with a facility in a walkable area, you should try out a few puzzle hunts and see if this is the kind of thing that would appeal to you and your clientele. We love puzzle hunts and welcome the opportunity to play creative games on the platform.

If you’re going to create a puzzle hunt on ClueKeeper, I encourage you to be creative. Make sure that no two puzzles feel the same. Edit your writing down. Make use of as much of the functionality of the app as possible.

If you want to hire someone to professionally produce a puzzle hunt for you, the folks from ClueKeeper can make recommendations.

Download it on iOS & Android, or read a bit more on ClueKeeper.com.

Spy Code – Operation Escape Room [Review]

Mission Reasonably Challenging if you’re like 7.

Location: at home game for ages 6 and up

Price: $29.99 + 2 AAA batteries

How it works

Operation Escape Room was one of three Spy Code games on the market targeted at ages 6 and up. While the other two Spy Code games take inspiration from lockpicking and safe cracking, Operation: Escape Room was purely designed as a kids play-at-home escape game for up to 4 players.

Operation: Escape Room was also a more substantial game than the other Spy Code installments. It was broken up into 4 main components that could be spread around a room:

The bomb-like timer strap down device.

Timer Strap – This bomb-esque device functioned as the game clock ticking down until either we won or time expired.

A grated cage with a spinner arrow on top, a key inside, and a pair of sticks beside it.

Key Cage – This was a dexterity challenge. We flicked a spinner to determine a difficulty setting and then used a pair of sticks to extract the key through a hole in the cage.

Quiz Master: A red tube with input for a 3 digit number and a letter answer. A key is protruding from its side. An array of corresponding puzzle cards are fanned in front of it.

Quiz Master – We drew puzzle cards of varying difficulty and then input the answers into a nifty analogue answer checker. 3 consecutive correct answers earned another key. Get one wrong and the key dramatically retracted back into the device, requiring us to start over.

A wide, doored spinning device. 3 doors are flipped open two have arrows pointing left, the furthest left door has a key within it.

Lucky Spinner – We spun the device and then chose windows to flip open. Most windows provided clues to help deduce which window held the key.

Puzzles

Each puzzle offered a different challenge:

The Key Cage required some spatial reasoning and a whole lot of dexterity.

The Quiz Master’s puzzle deck had a mix of multiple choice challenges including:

  • Basic counting
  • Which of these does not belong
  • Path following mazes
  • Basic mathematical reasoning

The Lucky Spinner was essentially a game of luck and deduction (in that order).

Standouts

The Quiz Master device was amazing. This completely analogue tech was incredible to operate. As the key pushed out with each answer it made me want to get another one right. If I got one wrong, the key safely yet loudly snapped back into the device. The interaction was fantastic.

The Key Cage was an honestly difficult challenge, especially when I had to remove it from the two harder slots. This was by far the most challenging puzzle in all of the Spy Code games.

The Timer Strap worked well as a game clock, and its ultimate release felt satisfying.

Operation: Escape Room is effortlessly replayable.

There was about 5 minutes worth of assembly and rule reading. It was straightforward. Assembly required a Phillips screwdriver and 2 AAA batteries.

Shortcomings

The Lucky Spinner felt a little too rooted in chance for my taste. There was a bit of deduction, but it was basically puzzle roulette.

Spy Code Operation: Escape Room box features cartoon kids solving puzzles, and one kid in a chair sweating with the

It’s your call if this is a shortcoming, but I feel like I need to call it out: The countdown timer looked like a bomb… with a strap… that was meant to be worn by a player. The documentation for Operation: Escape Room never called it a bomb, but it also required no imagination to make the leap. This doesn’t bother me, but some of the parents that I showed the game to side-eyed this component.

Should I buy Spy Code Operation: Escape Room?

Operation: Escape Room was a lightweight, inexpensive (when compared with real life escape rooms) way to introduce kids to adventure puzzling. It established the spy theme, and ran with it in an entertaining 15-minute game.

It is also possible to take this game and augment it with your own puzzles. You can tweak the challenge, add more time to the clock, and toss in more content if you want to refresh it. Personally, I hope that Yuzu, the maker of Spy Code, finds success with this game and issues expansions or sequels. There’s a lot of opportunity in the game structure.

If your kids are too young for escape rooms, but they keep feeling left out when you go to play, Operation: Escape Room could be just what you need to bridge the gap and open them up to a puzzle world that is broader than the jigsaw variety.

Order your copy of Spy Code Operation: Escape Room today.

Full disclosure: Yuzu sent us a free sample of this game.

(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.)

Spy Code – Break Free [Review]

Chain up the kids for a few minutes.

Location: at home game for ages 6 and up

Price: $19.99

How it works

Break Free was one of three Spy Code games on the market targeted at ages 6 and up. Inspired by a combination of escape rooms and lockpicking, this game allowed up to 4 players to compete in navigating blind maze puzzles.

4 Break Free handcuffs chained together with their picks beside them.

Each player secured a cartoonish plastic puzzle handcuff around their wrist, loaded it with 1 of 12 different puzzle inserts, and then used the “pick” tool to blindly feel their way through the maze. The first player to reach the bottom of their maze, hit the actuator, and pop open their handcuff received maximum points.

Break Free handcuff beside a pick, all of the maze disk inserts, and the corresponding point tokens.

The maze inserts came in easy (green), intermediate (yellow), and advanced (red) difficulty levels.

Puzzles

Break Free was a competitive puzzle game through and through.

It felt like a competitive, kid-friendly version of other blind maze games like Inside Cubes or the expensive but fantastic Revomaze line of puzzles.

Standouts

Each of the 12 puzzles was entertaining to play on its own, especially the 4 advanced mazes. They weren’t too difficult, as they were designed for quick solving by children.

It was easy to swap the puzzles.

While Break Free taught absolutely no practical lockpicking skills, the concept of feeling around in a lock for feedback did translate.

When I opened a lock, it popped with a satisfying noise.

Shortcomings

If your kid becomes obsessed with Break Free, it would be pretty easy to memorize the limited number of patterns on the 12 different mazes.

Should I buy Spy Code Break Free?

Break Free was surprisingly fun to tinker with as an adult. It was not hard at all, but it still poked at that part of my brain that likes dexterity challenges and building mastery. I ran through all of the mazes in a couple of minutes.

I could easily imagine my younger self loving this game. I’m pretty certain that I would have played it as a tabletop game a few times, then tossed the instructions, merged it with my spy kit, and found new ways to incorporate it into whatever espionage silliness I was imagining at 8 years old. (It probably would have involved dinosaurs too.)

Break Free was easy to set up and simple to play. It built dexterity. If all of that seems appropriate for your child, order your copy of Spy Code Break Free today.

Full disclosure: Yuzu sent us a free sample of this game.

(If you purchase via our Amazon or Target links, you will help support Room Escape Artist as we will receive a very small percentage of the sale.)

Riddlefactory – Puzzles For Escape Rooms [Review]

Riddlefactory is a company out of Copenhagen that produces laser cut/ laser etched puzzles and props for escape rooms.

They asked if we’d be interested in writing about them, and we said “only if we can review the puzzles.” A day or two later a box filled with puzzles showed up. I’m still not clear on how they got it to us so quickly.

Spoiler warning

If you’re an escape room player, it is possible that you may see these props in an escape room at some point.

If you want to preserve the mystery, stop reading now.

General prop buying advice

When purchasing props, always think through why the item appears in your escape room. Don’t buy props and then shoehorn them into your designs.

The illuminating wood puzzle. It looks like a wooden frame around another piece of wood.

Illuminating Wood

$50

This item looks like a piece of wood held within a wooden frame. When held up to a reasonably strong light, however, it reveals a hidden message.

Animation of the Illuminating Wood puzzle with a light behind it. A hand moves it and the "CODE 5723" illuminates as the light passes by.

If you look at it on an angle, you can vaguely tell that something is weird about it, but it’s hard to see the message. This thing does its job.

Riddlefactory is able to customize this item at no additional cost; it simply adds a few days to delivery.

If I were using this in an escape room, I would produce a strong hint structure that directs players towards holding the thing up to the light. More likely, I’d mount it to a set piece where it looked inconspicuous and design an interaction to turn a light on behind it.

I think this item is a cool concept. Its effectiveness will depend on how it’s used. Think that through carefully and the Illuminating Wood puzzle could be an interesting addition to an escape room.

Transparent Digit Puzzle with all pieces stacked. It reads, "CODE 5724".

Transparent Digit Puzzle

$40

The Transparent Digit Puzzle is composed of 4 identically shaped pieces of clear acrylic. Each piece has a different portion of a code. Stack them one on top of the other to reveal the complete code.

When viewed individually, no one piece betrays the code. In the puzzle that I have, however, depending upon the pairings, it is possible to guess most of a code with 2 pieces. With any combination of 3 the code becomes pretty clear.

For escape rooms, I recommend placing the lock with that code on something that could be opened early without harming the game flow. Alternatively, I recommend giving the players the final three pieces at the same time.

This puzzle could be improved by adding a little visual noise that prevents the player from simply filling in the gaps.

Riddlefactory is able to customize this item at no additional cost.

The acrylic plastic is reasonably durable, I took these pieces to a local park and subjected each of the 4 to a different form of torture to simulate the beating they’ll take in an escape room (15 drops from 5 feet in the air onto concrete, 15 slams on the ground, 15 swift strikes against a concrete bench, and abrasive rubbing against 3 different surfaces). During the impact tests, they got roughed up a bit, but survived… I did get some funny looks from passersby. The abrasive test caused more damage; acrylic scratches badly.

A piece of the Transparent Digit Puzzle scratched badly.
Left: medium abrasive, 10 seconds. Middle: harsh abrasive 10 seconds. Right: light abrasive, 10 seconds.

If you’re designing a puzzle-centric room, and you aren’t concerned about abrasion, this could be an interesting prop. I’m having a hard time imagining these in a narrative-driven game, but if you can dream up a way to do it, the Transparent Digit Puzzle works well.

Riddlefactory - Freemason's Cipher Decoder - Closeup

Freemason’s Cipher Decoder

$35: Wood, $45: Acrylic

This one is not a puzzle; it’s a representation of the Freemason’s cipher key, also known as pigpen. It’s etched onto 4 pieces of either acrylic or wood.

All 4 pieces of the Riddle Factory Freemason's Cipher key.

With this prop, note the advice in Better Ways to Handle Letter Codes in Escape Rooms.

As with the previous items, Riddlefactory is able to customize this product at no additional cost, but allow a few extra few days for delivery.

Pigpen is used all too often in escape rooms where it doesn’t make a lot of sense. If I were designing an escape room set in the 1700s or built around the American Revolution or Freemasonry, I’d absolutely use pigpen and I’d consider buying these in wood; acrylic feels way too futuristic for a 200+ year-old cipher key. I would also either scramble the letter positions or make sure that the players receive the key before the cipher.

 

Sliding Lock

$45

The Sliding Lock is a mechanical puzzle. Although shaped like a lock, it is actually a semi-blind maze. You have to shift the sliding blocks around in order to slide the puzzle open and release the wooden shackle.

As a mechanical puzzle, I like the Sliding Lock. As an escape room puzzle… I can’t imagine it surviving for long under true play conditions.

The puzzle is reasonably complex. It took me a few minutes of focus to solve. It’s a one-player experience; it cannot engage a team of people.

The wooden shackle could easily be twisted and snapped. I didn’t break it (it’s too nice), but I know for certain that I can.

The body is held together by screws that I was able to open with my fingers. From there, taking the entire puzzle apart was trivial.

Sliding Lock puzzle with the screws and back removed. The intricate pieces are exposed and loose.

Of the puzzles we’ve received from Riddlefactory, this has been my favorite puzzle to hand to friends to solve (outside of a room). It’s fun, satisfying, and aesthetically pleasing. I would purchase it as gift. I cannot see the Sliding Lock lasting in an escape room.

Viking Box - Closed. This intricate metal, wood, and acrylic box looks pretty.

Viking Box

$85

The Viking Box is a complex puzzle box that measures 7 x 4.25 x 2 inches. Riddlefactory clearly states that this product is best as a lobby puzzle and I wholeheartedly agree that this should not be used in an escape room.

It took me 3 focused attempts to open this box and it would have been hell in an escape room. The Viking Box has a few deceptive attributes that require focus and attention to detail. Each time I sat down and worked at it, I realized something that I had missed the previous time. It’s clever.

It’s also breakable. The corners are beautifully laser cut to allow for rounding, but they are a physical vulnerability. Much like the Sliding Lock, the Viking Box is closed with screws that I could release with my fingers. Especially considering how challenging it is to open, I could easily see players destroying it in an escape room, which would be a tragedy.

I would use this box as a gift… or to stash a gift. I felt truly satisfied when I got it open. Please don’t put it in an escape room.

Riddlefactory

Riddlefactory has a number of additional products to explore and they offer customization. If any of this interests you, check them out.

Bottle Lock Roundup [Review]

When a friend needed to lock up liquor bottles as part of an escape room for a bachelor party, he asked us which of the 3 commonly available bottle locks would be best.

All three bottle locks laid out beside one another.

While bottle locks aren’t common in escape rooms, I could see a place for them in some games. So, here’s a roundup:

There was one clear winner both for escape room gameplay and liquor security: the Tantalus Wine and Liquor Bottle Lock.

Tantalus Wine and Liquor Bottle Lock secured perfectly over a bottle of port.

Tantalus Wine and Liquor Bottle Lock

~$15

This hard plastic spring-loaded sheath slips over the mouth and neck of a bottle. It seals shut using strong spring tension and locks shut with a key.

I was shocked at the breath of bottle necks that the Tantalus Wine and Liquor Bottle Lock fit over, both narrow and wide.

There are two downsides to this lock:

Aesthetically, it’s unattractive.

Given its plastic construction and the surprisingly strong spring tension, I suspect that it might give out with repeated use. That being said, I’ve opened and closed it a few hundred times and it’s still working like the day I removed it from the package. At $15, it’s also pretty disposable.

GOCHANGE Black Plastic Wine and Liquor Bottle Locks secured over a port bottle.

GOCHANGE Black Plastic Wine and Liquor Bottle Locks

~$9

This is another hard plastic spring-loaded sheath that slips over the mouth of a bottle… except this one is junk.

Due to its narrow diameter and exceedingly inflexible design, this lock cannot fit around most of the bottles that I attempted to secure.

When it does fit, it looks aesthetically pleasing.

It opens with a customizable 3-digit numeric combination. With the correct digits in place, it snaps opens with the push of the silver button on the top of the lock. Its operation is self-explanatory.

It feels so flimsy that I continually worried that I might have broken it while trying to put it onto a few bottles. I didn’t break it, but I wouldn’t bother with it for an escape room because it almost certainly won’t be durable enough, even at $9 per lock.

Wine or Spirit Bottle Lock - Combination Lock Bottle Stopper securing a beer bottle.
Looks aren’t everything.

Wine or Spirit Bottle Lock – Combination Lock Bottle Stopper

~$20

Now for something different… and really weird.

This metal 4 digit numeric combination lock looks good and feels great. On initial inspection, it seemed like a real winner. Then I saw how it worked:

This lock completely replaces a bottle’s existing top/ cork/ stopper.

With the correct code in place, it inserts into the mouth of a bottle like a cork or stopper. Then you start twisting the top of the lock. In doing so, it slowly expands the stopper until it fills the mouth of the bottle and cannot be removed without unwinding it.

It takes a lot of spinning to expand or contract it. This would be baffling in an escape room.

It also didn’t fit most of the bottle mouths that I attempted to close with it. The bottle mouthes were too wide and the stopper ended up distorting in shape.

This lock is clunky, weird, and decidedly user-unfriendly. Absolutely skip this thing.

A word on security

Escape rooms aside…

While locks like these could function as a deterrent to thieves lacking motivation, none of them would adequately secure liquor from a motivated thief. All of them are breakable with enough force or some basic tools.

The 3 digit lock only has 1,000 possible combinations; that wouldn’t take all that long to test.

The 4 digit lock has 10,000 possibilities, but it has some pickable weaknesses.

Tantalus Wine and Liquor Bottle Lock is pickable, but due to its heavy spring tension, it was pretty difficult to pick. It is my choice for both escape room gameplay and bottle security.

Cheers!

(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).