I loved the idea of having to puzzle through an almost entirely black and white jigsaw puzzle.
Should I buy the New York Puzzle Company’s Coffee Break?
Niemann’s Coffee Break illustration is incredibly intricate. Jigsaw puzzling through this image was both a beautiful and challenging experience.
Piecing this image together required me to visually interrogate every little intricacy of the illustration. By the time I was finished, I had gotten to know every reference and joke in the image.
It was challenging and occasionally frustrating because it’s essentially a black and white puzzle loaded with false leads and rapidly changing patterns. As soon as I had a handle on one section of the puzzle, it was finished… and suddenly there was a new section to learn. As a result, this took me about double the time that a 500-piece puzzle usually requires.
In the end, Coffee Break was a fun, yet fair challenge. It’s a wonderful illustration to spend some time exploring.
Shift by 23: Wklv xvhg wr eh plolwdub judgh hqfubswlrq.
Author: Paul B. Janeczko
Page Count: 144
Price: ~$6 in paperback
I had a realization that most of the ciphers, codes, and hidden messages that we see in escape rooms are essentially ancient intelligence tools that are easily appreciated by older school kids. This isn’t a judgment, but a simple fact of the escape room format. A dozen or so puzzles all designed for rapid solving creates an environment that doesn’t lend itself to complexity.
So I sought out a kid’s guide to codes and ciphers and found Paul Janeczko’s Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers and Secret Writing.
It is exactly as advertised, discussing a little bit about the history and how-tos of simple encryption and decryption.
Written at about a 5th grade reading level, it’s the lightest read I’ve picked up in a long time. Top Secret is cute. It focuses on turning all of these old techniques into fairly straightforward craft projects. The information is good, if dramatically simplified.
It’s an excellent and likely empowering book on how to make, transfer, and keep secret messages for kids.
As a light guide to ciphers for escape rooms, it’s a surprisingly solid book. I’ve read quite a lot about the history of cryptography as of late, yet there were a few basic forms of encryption covered in Top Secret that I had neither seen nor heard of.
The historian in me would have loved to see more detail in the book. However, it is likely more useful for those interested in creating escape games because it glosses over the historical context and focuses on how to create and use the basic ciphers
The table of contents is detailed and useful.
Illustrator Jenna LaReau’s art is adorable, warm, and humorous.
Janeczko’s writing is a little uneven. At times Top Secret is matter-of-fact, but then it can shift into a decidedly condescending tone that I think would have irked me even at age 10.
Should I read Paul B. Janeczko’s Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers and Secret Writing?
Retailing around $6.00 and taking nearly no effort to read, Top Secret was worth both my time and money. I learned a few concepts that I hadn’t yet come across.
If you’re looking to really understand the history, intricacies, and application of cryptography from antiquity to the present, then you should read a book like Simon Singh’s The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography. Top Secret is simply too light and airy to develop a serious understanding of the subject matter.
If you are looking to create an escape room and aren’t well versed in simple codes, ciphers, and methods of hiding messages, then Top Secret might be the most useful and easy-to-read $6 reference book you’ll ever buy.
Yesterday’s military grade ciphers are today’s toys and puzzles.
Author: Simon Singh
Page Count: 432
Price: ~$12 in paperback, ~$10 on Kindle
Simon Singh writes an entertaining abridged history of cryptography (the making of ciphers) and cryptanalysis (the breaking of ciphers).
Singh shifts back and forth between careful explanation of cryptographic concepts and wonderfully entertaining historical anecdotes involving codes and ciphers.
The anecdotes are by far the most fun aspect of the book. The story of the legendary Beale Papers is a particular standout. If someone hasn’t already turned that story into an escape room, it’s ripe for the medium. I was also quite taken by the stories of the cryptanalysts of Bletchley Park during World War II as well as the incredible efforts that went into deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs and the Mycenaean Greek script, Linear-B.
The explanations take the reader through the most basic codes and ciphers that so regularly appear in escape rooms and puzzle games. As the complexity ramps up, The Code Book begins to explain how modern cryptography works.
The closeout is an exploration of the concept of quantum cryptography, which, while interesting and well-explained, also makes the brain explode into little tiny pieces.
Singh clearly communicates complex concepts. His descriptions of ciphers, how they work, and how to use them were exceptional.
I was legitimately nervous as I approached the chapter on the German Enigma cipher. I knew how complex the thing was and I was jittery about my ability to comprehend its inner workings. I had to pay close attention while reading, and occasionally read a paragraph twice, but when I finished the chapter, I understood how the thing worked. That was honestly exciting.
Learning the details, history, and context of these common (and uncommon) ciphers that I play with so often in escape rooms and puzzle games was deeply satisfying.
The anecdotal tales of real-life cipher-making and -breaking gave me so many ideas for how puzzles could be used to tell stories now and in the future.
While Singh has a rare talent for explaining the intricacies of codes, ciphers, cipher breaking, and mathematics, his explanations occasionally become redundant. Since each chapter is written largely as a standalone, information can become repetitive.
Singh keeps the math to a minimum. However, in the middle of the 20th century, cryptography stopped being a linguist-based profession and morphed into a mathematical craft. If you’re allergic to reading about mathematics, then you’re likely going to drop the book at the halfway mark.
Should I read Simon Singh’s The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography?
Reading The Code Book fostered a feeling of connection to the ciphers that I see in escape rooms. The more I have come to understand what those ciphers are, where they came from, and their significance throughout history, the more meaningful they have become.
The later chapters felt like reading a different, yet equally important book as they helped me achieve a deeper understanding of the crypto that makes the world we live in work. Now more than ever, I see how critical it is that we have access to strong cryptography.
Finally, this quirky realization: yesterday’s military grade crypto is today’s children’s toy. It hadn’t occurred to me that messing about with a basic shift cipher was the military intelligence equivalent to swinging a sword or firing an arrow. Those old ciphers that we play with today were a critical method of maintaining secure military communications. That understanding is wonderful.
Reading The Code Book has shifted my perspective on the world. You can’t ask any more from a book.
Sometime around 1992 my father returned from a business trip to Germany bearing an unusual pyramid-shaped puzzle created by Ernő Rubik, the famed creator of the Rubik’s Cube.
I lost the thing at some point. Over the years, I’ve occasionally tried to find one to no avail… until I found one at this year’s Toy Fair. The vendor thought it was a brand new puzzle and was pretty bewildered when I picked it up, took it apart, and swiftly reassembled it. Throughout this she insisted that there was no way that I had ever seen this particular puzzle before.
The 4-colored pyramid has approximately the same solution as a Rubik’s Cube: one solid color per side. The primary difference in the Rubik’s Triamid is that instead of twisting, it breaks apart and the goal is to rebuild it.
It consists of 10 colored cubes and 4 black connector pieces. These pieces snap together in a manner that is particularly satisfying.
Is it hard?
I solved the thing when I was 7 or so and it took some doing. Decades later I still remembered the key trick to it.
At this point, I cannot objectively tell you if it’s tough. However, I do find its functionality and elegant solution satisfying.
It’s also a fun response to the people who say, “I can solve a Rubik’s Cube if I take it apart.”
Get yourself a Rubik’s Triamid and relive one of my favorite childhood puzzling memories.
(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).
Price: $24.75 (prices may vary based on seller and configuration)
Why test this lock?
tl;dr (too long; didn’t read):Escape rooms are a difficult environment for locks, and the Marine Brass 38 was designed for harsh environments.
Padlocks aren’t typically designed to be opened a dozen times a day. They tend to age quickly and seize up from the overuse of an escape room.
The Marine Brass 38 was designed specifically for use on boats and docks, a different harsh environment. Between the moisture and salt, locks don’t usually fare well near water. This is why I decided to grab one to test for escape room usage.
tl;dr:The Marine Brass 38 has a simple, lightly branded, largely timeless look.
The Marine Brass 38 is built from thin interlocking pieces of laminated brass. Its body is dense and solid. Its shackle is a boron steel alloy. The lock has barely any branding on it.
It has a simple, clean, and classic look. Out of the box, it is bright and shiny, but it will quickly darken with handling.
The brass aesthetic makes it easily visible in a room. It doesn’t suffer from the in-your-face branding that makes many of the more common locks feel out of place in historical rooms. It doesn’t look ancient, but it doesn’t look overtly modern either.
The brass keys look like they belong with the lock.
tl;dr:The Marine Brass 38 works smoothly. It is less likely to break than most of your common escape room locks.
The lock’s dead core means that the cylinder holds no spring tension. Similarly, the shackle and locking mechanism have no spring tension. As a result, the key takes nearly no pressure to turn. Once unlocked, the lock simply falls open. Everything is smooth.
This lack of tension reduces the amount of kinetic energy being transferred between the various lock components. Additionally, with fewer moving parts in the lock, there is less that can go wrong.
You can skip this section if you’re only interested in escape room usage.
The Marine Brass 38 is a 5-pin lock. All of the pins are security pins (alternating serrated / spool pins). The keyway is narrow and paracentric (curved) like a European keyway. I can pick and rake it open (because the lock I have has fairly level pinning), but it certainly takes a lot more effort than any other lock I have found in the price range.
The shackle is held shut with ball bearings that prevent shimming.
The back of the keyway is shielded. I could not find any methods of bypassing, nor did I find anyone publishing information about possible bypasses.
Knowing that Master Lock No.1 – 4 can take a bullet, I have no doubt that this similarly designed Commando Lock can as well.
Lock Dimensions: 3 x 1.625 x 0.875 (inches)
Shackle Diameter: 0.5 (inches)
Shackle Height: 1.5 (inches)
Key Dimensions: 1.75 x 0.875 (inches)
Should I buy Commando Lock’s Marine Brass 38?
Manufacturing in Michigan, Commando Lock Company does a mindbogglingly good job of producing a high-quality, low-cost product. I keep hearing that it can’t be done in America, but damn it, they did it.
I’ve picked and opened this Marine Brass 38 somewhere in the realm of 500 times and it still opens like the day I pulled it from the box. This is not the case with the Master Locks that I own, which stick and seize up with regular use.
I feel confident recommending this lock for escape rooms because it truly feels up to the task.
Price: $29.99 + shipping charged every other month when a new box ships
In a Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego-esque history-changing puzzle adventure, our mysterious dispatchers learned that an equally enigmatic villain was attempting to alter history. We were sent back to 1861 in order to prevent the assassination of Abraham Lincoln from occurring 4 years earlier than it was supposed to happen.
In order to accomplish our mission, we had to seek out the home of Confederate spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow, rummage through her belongings, and uncover the dastardly plans to murder President Lincoln and his family.
Escape The Crate is a subscription service that plans to deliver a tabletop puzzle adventure every other month.
Opting for a lower cost, higher output model, Escape the Crate packed game segments into sealed envelopes that we earned entry into by submitting puzzle solutions to a website. The website also delivered audio messages that narrated the story as well as provided guiding instructions to keep the game flowing.
The website included hint delivery as well. Each puzzle had a series of hints that escalated in detail until the final hint provided the solution.
The components of the game were generally made from paper or inexpensive fabric. There were a few props that were more tangible, but they were the exception, not the rule. At the end of the game, we were instructed to keep a few key components for use with future Escape The Crate shipments. As subscribers, we would build an arsenal of equipment by retaining certain items from each adventure as we chased this time time-hopping villain through world history.
The puzzling in Escape the Confederate Spymistress was somewhere between a Puzzled Pint event and an escape room.
The puzzling was well-themed on US Civil War history, offering a series of challenges based on events, concepts, and people from the era. These puzzles started off simple and grew in complexity.
The escape room vibe came from a reliance on searching, keen observation, and the “locks” that we opened via the Escape the Crate website.
Escape The Crate’s use of US Civil War spy history was a great choice for the game’s setting.
The audio recordings successfully delivered instructions and story while reducing the volume of reading.
The puzzling and flow were generally strong and kept Escape the Confederate Spymistress entertaining.
I like the idea of a subscription service that has players retain key components for future use, thereby reducing the cost associated with each subsequent package while increasing the volume of tools at the players’ disposal.
Two puzzles could have used a little more playtesting; they were both almost smooth. One in particular was lacking a critical piece of clue structure. Having essentially solved it, we had to go through all of the hints on that puzzle and when we found out what we weren’t doing, we couldn’t help but roll our eyes.
I really wish that the website with the digital locks wasn’t case sensitive. I can’t think of a good reason why it needed to be.
Escape the Confederate Spymistress doesn’t look at all impressive. Aesthetically, it has all of the charm of a pile of paper puzzle prototypes in beta testing.
It would be possible to repack Escape the Confederate Spy Mistress for replay, but you would have to carefully unpack everything and not destroy any components while playing. Additionally, the reusable items would need to be retrieved prior to playing the next game. Thus it is essentially a one-and-done game.
Should I play Escape The Crate’s Chapter 1: Escape the Confederate Spy Mistress?
Depending upon what you value, Escape The Crate will be either great or terrible.
If you’re willing to forgo aesthetics and beauty in favor of a tabletop escape room with fairly strong puzzles and you like the subscription model, then Escape the Crate is a wonderful choice. It’s smart and family-friendly.
The low-key approach to component design might actually make for a sustainable subscription model.
However, if this description sounds like a box of ugly puzzles printed on paper that can’t really be shared with more people than the ones sitting at your table when you play… that’s not an inaccurate interpretation of Escape the Crate either.
This is a value judgment.
For what it’s worth, we received a free reviewer copy of Chapter 1, but have since subscribed at full price. We had a good time and want to see where this goes.
Note that Escape the Confederate Spymistress is now a “retired” game that you can purchase individually, outside of the subscription model. Your purchased subscription will start with the current month’s game.
Full disclosure: Escape the Crate provided us a free reviewer’s copy of Chapter 1. We have since purchased a subscription.
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.