The Puzzling World of Winston Breen [Book Review]

If only puzzles became hunts for real treasure.

Author: Eric Berlin

Year: 2007

Page Count: 209

ISBN: 978-0-399-24693-7

Price: ~$8 in paperback

Synopsis

Winston Breen is a teenager who loves puzzles. When he inadvertently gives his sister a birthday gift containing a mysterious puzzle, Winston, his family, and his friends find themselves in the middle of a treasure hunt.

The Puzzling World of Winston Breen is written at a middle school reading level.

The cover art for the first volume of The Puzzling World of Winston Breen.

Puzzles

The Puzzling World of Winston Breen is full of puzzles. These are mostly word, number, or spatial puzzles. They are presented on paper and solvable without any additional tools. (At times, however, a writing implement is helpful.)

Some of the puzzles support the narrative. I could solve them alongside Winston and the other characters or continue reading to learn the solutions.

Other standalone puzzles are peppered throughout the book. I could stop and solve them if I felt inclined.

Standouts

Winston is a likable and relatable character. I was immediately drawn to this puzzle-loving kid. His adventure is fun and entertaining.

The main narrative revolves around solving a puzzle. This puzzle is challenging and engaging. I wanted to solve it almost as much as Winston and the other characters did. In the end, the solution was satisfying.

Berlin interjects standalone puzzles throughout the book. Because they are presented by Winston and the other characters to each other, they feel like they belong. These puzzles are strategically presented at breaks in the action. I never felt that I was creating my own cliff hanger by stopping to solve something,

Shortcomings

Some of the standalone puzzles feel like homework. Winston likes any sort of puzzle. I’m a bit more discerning. Sometimes I could see how to solve a puzzle, but I wasn’t interested in going through the motions.

Should I read The Puzzling World of Winston Breen?

The Puzzling World of Winston Breen is a fun read.

I particularly recommend it for preteens or teenagers who enjoy puzzles. They will enjoy Winston and solving along with him.

The puzzles can be easily enjoyed as a family. As they popped up, I would occasionally offer them to David too. He could engage in the puzzling with me even though he wasn’t reading the story.

If you just want to solve puzzles, this won’t be for you.

If you’re intrigued by puzzles, but you find that a book of them lacks the context and meaning you need to want to solve them, then The Puzzling World of Winston Breen might be just the story you need to get puzzling.

Order your copy of Eric Berlin’s The Puzzling World of Winston Breen from Amazon using this link, and a small percentage of your purchase will go towards supporting Room Escape Artist.

SparkFun – The Prototype HARP [Review]

“This is a strange device.” -Barry2 in The Prototype HARP’s comments

Location: at home on Windows 10, macOS, & Linux

Date played: Fall 2017

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

Duration: Solved in 3 sessions that span 1 to 3 hours

Price: $60 + ~$6.50 in additional components

Story & setup

Electronics store SparkFun sent us a mysterious board containing an artificial intelligence and a dark secret.

The Prototype board plugged in and resting on an anti-static bag.

HARP stands for “hardware alternate reality puzzle” and that’s an accurate description of The Prototype. The package we received from SparkFun contained a board, a microSD card, a microSD reader, and a cable. Those were the puzzle components.

Puzzles

The Prototype was a test of electronics skill and puzzling know-how. The game was a strange merger of traditional puzzle hunting and bringing up and debugging a board.

You absolutely must be competent with electronics in order to solve The Prototype. You should be comfortable soldering, working with Arduino (or something similar), and reading chip datasheets.

The Prototype board with all of the other components. They are sitting on top of a cipher wheel.

Standouts

The Prototype was exceptionally strange and we interacted with it unconventionally.

Puzzling generally follows predictable patterns, even when the solutions are hard to derive. Due to this unusual and open-ended medium, this puzzle could ask all sorts of unexpected things of us.

The puzzle accurately replicated the exciting feeling of exploring a prototype piece of hardware with sometimes flaky behavior.

As we progressed through the game, the board had an interesting mechanism for indicating our current stage.

Solving these outlandish puzzles was enormously satisfying. When we took an action, we were confident that it would work, but seeing it work was still surprising.

I wasn’t expecting it, but this thing actually carried us through a narrative… and it was funny.

The ending was enjoyable.

Shortcomings

This was not a game for casual puzzlers. It also required at least one player who is comfortable with electronics. Lisa and I absolutely could not solve this on our own. My dabbler’s level knowledge of electronics was insufficient. Thankfully we recruited an electronics-savvy teammate who had the necessary pieces on hand and knew what things like “SPI” meant.

The puzzle accurately replicated the frustrating feeling of exploring a prototype piece of hardware with sometimes flaky behavior.

If you aren’t equipped for working with electronics, there’s a solid $45+ worth of additional gear you’ll need including (some spoilers can be implied from this):

Minor Spoiler - Equipment List

You’re going to need a soldering iron, solder, assorted resistors, wire, a multimeter, X-Acto knife (or something similar),  an Arduino, and breadboarding kit.

This kit has a low-cost soldering iron, solder, and a few other tools that might be useful.

This kit has an Arduino and all the other pieces you’d need, plus some extras if you want to explore Arduino programming beyond what you’ll need for the HARP.

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It is not possible to solve The Prototype in a single sitting. It will require you to purchase something inexpensive along the way. No, I cannot tell you what you will need to buy. Don’t bother writing in and asking.

The Prototype was designed for Windows 10, macOS, and Linux. Older Windows systems (including 7 and 8) do not have the proper drivers to talk to it. While you may be able to make virtualization work, the hardware implications are complex and I wouldn’t bet on it.

While the narrative worked, some of the writing and delivery was hokey.

There was a major red herring that seemed to be due to a puzzle being removed, but the associated clue documents still being included.

There were several points where we knew the correct thing to do but had to attempt it multiple times to get it to work. This was especially frustrating in the final resolution of The Prototype. It took us 50 minutes to trigger the end sequence after we had already solved everything. This was further complicated by the aforementioned red herring that we essentially turned into a puzzle that it wasn’t. It was a rough way to end the journey.

Should I play SparkFun’s The Prototype HARP?

The Prototype HARP is an odd, fun, and difficult beast to conquer. It also has a hyper-specific audience.

Is The Prototype for you? Well that depends on the answers to these questions:

  • Do you like puzzles?
  • Are you competent with electronics and comfortable with things like connecting chips to Arduinos?
  • Do you have a puzzle-loving friend who is competent with electronics?

If you love puzzles, but electronics are completely out of reach, I recommend almost any other product that we’ve ever reviewed ahead of The Prototype. You simply will not be able to participate, let alone solve this thing.

If you answered at least two of these questions affirmatively, then you should buy The Prototype. It’s a wild ride. I hope they make more HARP products.

Buy SparkFun’s The Prototype HARP, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: SparkFun provided a complementary media copy of this game.

3 Classic Games That Are Common Escape Room Puzzles

Game design cannibalizes ideas from past games. It’s the nature of gaming in general and we see it in tabletop games, video games, and escape rooms.

We’ve seen these 3 games turned into escape room puzzles on too many occasions to count. Sometimes we see straight implementations of the classic games; others times they are well-hidden or reimagined.

If you feel like leveling up your escape room skill, mastery of these 3 games will come in handy.

A simon game with green, yellow, red, and blue buttons arranged in a circle.

1: Simon

It’s a simple game of repeating button pushes in a particular pattern. It’s also the kind of thing that can be difficult to do as a group or under pressure.

As a kid, I’d play Simon for hours. If I’m being honest, I think I was better at it back then. 

A blue Mastermind Board covered in multicolored pips.

2: Mastermind

A codemaker sets a secret code and the codebreaker tries to crack it through deduction, logic, and a bit of guess work. The mechanics of this game are incredibly simple, but it has a ton of depth to it.

Somehow I never encountered Mastermind in my pre-escape room life and I’m kind of sad about that. 

A beautiful wooden towers of hanoi puzzle. There are three vertical rods. One rod has a cone of cylinders stacked on it.

3: Towers of Hanoi

Towers of Hanoi is a straightforward logic challenge. There are 3 pillars and the more disks you add to it, the harder (and more interesting) it becomes.

I’ve seen some especially creative interpretations of this puzzle in escape rooms.

Not an endorsement for use in escape rooms

Each of these three puzzles has its place and its virtues. When we encounter Towers of Hanoi in an escape room such that it’s fun and make sense, that’s fantastic. That said, these classic puzzles don’t belong in every single escape room.

If you design escape rooms, please don’t read too deeply into this post. Don’t replicate these puzzles just because.

Hunt A Killer – Season 1 [Review]

“What’s in the box?”

Location: At home, monthly subscription

Date played: Most of 2017

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

Price: $165 per season (9 boxes over 9 months)

Spoilers?

This review will be discussing the entirety of Hunt A Killer Season 1. Spoilers will be hidden unless clicked open. However, it includes a discussion of the game’s structure from which you could glean nuance and solving tactics. If you’re sensitive to the spoilage of any detail, please don’t read this. You’ve been warned.

Story & setup

Season 1 of Hunt A Killer was centered on The Listening Friends of America, an organization that links “isolated men and women living in prisons, hospitals, and psychiatric wards” with volunteer pen pals. Listening Friends put us in contact with a man named John William James (JWJ), as his pen pal.

JWJ, an intelligent and charismatic individual, had spent many years under compulsory psychiatric care after committing murder. All communication with JWJ was screened by Listening Friends inspectors, so he elected to fill his ongoing communication with veiled and encoded messages.

This was the detective story that Hunt A Killer presented to us: each month we would receive a Listening Friends package from JWJ. We had to chew on the letters, documents, clippings, and items that we received to explore the past, present, and future of this criminally insane individual.

Materials

Hunt A Killer’s boxes, notebooks, pins, and other paraphernalia that arrived in the packages all looked slick.

In-game: An assortment of box 1 items laying on a stack of Hunt A Killer boxes. They are illuminated by a blacklight.

With rare exception, the boxes that we received had high quality, meticulously designed materials.

In a game where every detail could be important, Hunt a Killer minded a lot of details on the component level.

Puzzles

Hunt A Killer Season 1 was interactive fiction with some puzzles (not the other way around). The puzzles within these boxes were generally about achieving understanding, identifying details, and researching references.

While the experience did include the explicit puzzles that an escape room player or puzzle hunter would consider to be a puzzle, there were maybe one or two per box and they almost never identified themselves without research.

Hunt A Killer was striving to present a detective game, not a puzzle game.

Standouts

Hunt A Killer had phenomenal aesthetic style and excelled at carefully selecting materials to send subtle messages. Observing these details was without a doubt my favorite part of each episode.

The folks at Hunt A Killer were clearly iterating on the product in real time. A few episodes in they introduced “Inspector’s Notes” which were in-character hinting provided by the Listening Friends’ inspector who was reviewing JWJ’s communications. This was an essential addition to the game.

We enjoyed the set up with the Listen Friends of America and our pen pal JWJ, which created an interesting dynamic to deliver a mystery. We welcomed the narration via documents, letters, innuendo, and encoded message. All together, this was a compelling way for us to dive into a world, rather than being told about a world.

The first two boxes were seductive. They set up enough intrigue that we felt compelled to dive into this continuous river of madness. It was clear that we were going to have to swim upstream and we were not certain that we would enjoy the journey… but we couldn’t deny ourselves the challenge.

At the end of the experience, we received a final box including an epilogue and review of each previous box, with an item-by-item explanation of each’s significance, insignificance, and puzzle solutions.

Shortcomings

The Hunt A Killer Season 1 episodes were not self-contained and didn’t conclude with any resolution. There was no way to know when we were finished investigating a box.

For as much information as Hunt A Killer would throw at us, we were given almost no feedback in return. When we learned or accomplished something, we could assume that we’d solved something because our conclusion felt right; there was almost never confirmation. We figured out a ton of this mystery, but along the way, we never knew how much we had actually solved nor what we were still missing.

Season 1 also suffered from a serious depth problem. Every component in each box needed to be interrogated and researched. As a player, it was impossible to tell if the significance required digging deep or taking a thing at face value.

Minor spoiler example:

One of the boxes included a maroon, unsharpened Listening Friends of America pencil. What did it mean? When we couldn’t figure it out, we sharpened it. It seemed like a normal pencil… but it had to mean something. However unlikely, maybe something was something hidden within it? So we sharpened it and sharpened it until it was a freaking nub. In the epilogue, we learned that it was just a pencil. We kind of knew from the beginning, but because of the nature of the game, we couldn’t be certain. As a result of this depth problem, the various blog posts and forum posts by Hunt A Killer fans are a mess of treatises on constellations, mythology, and other nuances that emerged in the story. Most of these dove entirely too deep, but then every once in a while there was a clue that required an insane amount of exploration.

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The longer the Hunt A Killer season went on, the more troublesome the volume of content became. Since these boxes weren’t self-contained, anything could be in play. More often than not, backtracking wasn’t required… but sometimes it was. By the final box, the threat of having to look back through two thirds of a year’s worth of content was depressing.

Minor box 1 spoiler

To further illustrate the backtracking, volume, and depth problems, consider the blacklight included in box 1. This blacklight revealed a minor detail that was also re-revealed repeatedly throughout the story. We didn’t need to see this detail illuminate in UV ink, but since we had been given a blacklight in box 1, that meant that we had to use it on every damn item that we received from that point forward, because you never know.

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While the printed materials were smartly designed, the physical objects were generally weak (although there were one or two great ones). This is a problem that I’ve seen recur in many subscription games. I think it stems from needing to purchase these items in bulk while controlling weight, size, and cost. Since these items are never designed by the game’s creators, they generally feel tacked on. This is unfortunate because tangible objects stand out among paper and it’s natural to ascribe more meaning to them, even when it’s undeserved.

When Hunt A Killer established a game mechanic, we learned how to work with it. Then in some critical instances, they shifted the function and meaning of the mechanix. Praised be design controlled. This violated a basic tenet of game design. I understand that storytelling was the main thrust of Season 1, but it was still a game, which was sometimes forgotten in the puzzle design.

Bluntly: There were too many logic leaps. Most of the details that we missed necessitated insane connections. When I was reading the epilogue, at times I felt like the person who wrote it must have known that these puzzles and deductions were nonsense.

While the box-by-box summary in the epilogue was great, we needed each to arrive within the next box. This would have at least prevented us from feeling like we had missed too many details to move forward.

In the first few boxes, I really cared about a few of these characters – the ones that Hunt a Killer worked to develop a bit – but as the story progressed, they became utterly unbelievable. I stopped caring whether they lived or died or achieved their goals (good or evil). In a game focused on storytelling, this was Hunt A Killer Season 1’s cardinal sin. I’ll explain, but this is a deep spoiler:

Serious late game spoilers

The emails from Valerie Madson did not read at all like a letter from a mother of a young child whose husband had disappeared. (I’m not referring to the autoresponder… that was cool). When this character was killed off, I didn’t care at all. What a wasted moment.

Then there was JWJ’s progression from charismatic and enigmatic murderer to omniscient and unstoppable super-villain. This guy was so much more compelling when he seemed like a human, deranged though he may have been, he was still human. By the end, I was completely indifferent to him.

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Should I play Hunt A Killer’s Season 1?

The Hunt A Killer team did so many things so right with materials that subtly conveyed plot details. I loved that. I wish that this review could have been more positive, but the truth is: I did not enjoy Hunt A Killer Season 1. By the end, I just wanted it to be over.

Once the first couple of boxes offered no resolution, I became frustrated. Still, I needed to know where the story was going and what Hunt A Killer would do with it. It was clear that they were attempting something different. I respected that enough that I wanted to see it through.

The game improved in some ways over the course of Season 1. They were iterating on their product live, which I respect. However, this made Season 1 feel like an elaborate beta test. Almost everything felt like it hadn’t been tested enough. This was a critical issue in a game that was infinitely open-ended.

The story started out strong, but it buckled when it shifted from telling an intimate tale of murder to a grand murderous epic.

The puzzles and gameplay never really worked. Their flaws snowballed as the volume of game mechanics and content increased with each subsequent box.

Hunt A Killer Season 1 fell victim to its own decadence. It attempted to tell too grandiose a story. It demonstrated a blatant disregard for its players. The logic leaps were painful. The lack of clue structure was mind-boggling. The game mechanics were far too fluid to ever feel like you could achieve mastery over this experience. Plus, there were too many things to research… and too many of them weren’t relevant without any means of discerning what mattered.

In spite of this, I know that there is an audience for this concept. I know that there are people who have enthusiastically embraced JWJ and his story. I know that there are people who are enrolled in Season 2. So here are my final thoughts on Hunt A Killer:

I love and respect what Hunt A Killer was trying to do. I don’t think that the finished product was satisfying and I didn’t enjoy the journey. If I hear that Hunt A Killer has created mechanisms to tighten the gameplay, I will eagerly re-enroll in the future. But for now, there is no way that I can recommend Season 1 and I cannot even bring myself to look at the Season 2 material that came with the epilogue.

If you loved Hunt A Killer and think that I’m wrong, let’s discuss. I’m going to pull a page from Theme Park University’s playbook and ask that you tag your comment with #IReadTheWholeReview and I’ll happily engage with you on the nuances of the game’s design.

Also know that the comments might have spoilers. I am not going to police them.

Sleuth Kings – Case 001: The Guilty [Review]

I’ll be back in 5 minutes.

Location: at home, with an internet connection

Date played: October 9, 2017

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

Duration: up to one month

Price: $24.95 per month

Story & setup

Sleuth Kings is a new play-at-home escape game subscription service that mixes mailed materials with online inputs.

We played the role of remote assistants to private investigator Sullivan King. King sent us a file of evidence and then we emailed with him when we’d solved pieces of the case or needed a little extra help from him.

The materials in Case 001: The Guilty were printed papers, photographs, and a rather fetching folder with Sleuth King’s logo emblazoned on the cover.

The Sleuth Kings folder of materials next to a laptop with the Room Escape Artist logo.

The internet interactions were predominantly email-based. Sullivan King was in fact… an email bot.

Surprise Chipmunk
Dun, dun, DUN!

Case 001: The Guilty had us investigating a street revolutionary who went by the moniker Dictator Sin. We had to team up with Sullivan, root-out Dictator Sin’s plans, and stop him.

Puzzles

Sleuth King’s puzzle game was strong with varied, challenging, and interesting puzzles driving gameplay.

After we resolved a puzzle, we would email the solution to Sullivan who would “act on the information” and provide us with followup details.

Standouts

I really enjoyed the puzzle offerings of Sleuth Kings.

The conversational interface of emailing with Sullivan was a good way to narrate a story and keep everything cohesive.

The Sleuth Kings logo is slick.

Sleuth Kings delivered puzzles that weren’t in the initial packaging.

Shortcomings

As we sent information to Sullivan, he would take time to act on it. He’d reply, something like, “The address isn’t far. Give me five or ten minutes and I’ll email you when I’m there.” Then we’d literally have to wait 5 minutes or so before receiving another email moving the story forward and giving us our next task. This shattered the game flow.

Hinting got a little awkward because Sullivan-bot could only discern three things:

  • Correct answers
  • Incorrect answers
  • Requests for help

When we were almost there, and simply inputting our answer incorrectly, it was treated as a wrong answer without any feedback that we were on the right track and simply needed a nudge.

Additionally, Sleuth Kings was constantly creating new email threads. All in, I had 19 threads through Case 001: The Guilty. It wasn’t initially clear to how this threading/ replying dynamic operated.

The many of the printed materials were a little hokey.

The story was fine, but not particularly believable.

Should I play Sleuth Kings’ Case 001: The Guilty?

If you evaluate the standouts versus shortcomings in this review purely on word count, it would be easy to think that Sleuth Kings was bad. It wasn’t. It was actually quite fun, and this was their first chapter.

Sleuth Kings has a fantastic concept and an interesting structure. It needs additional refinement to run smoothly, but it largely works.

Interaction with automated characters smartly mixed story, puzzling, and gameplay. If Sleuth Kings can refine the pacing issues and make the system a little more aware and able to identify nearly-correct answers, this would be phenomenal. Swapping from email to a chatbot, or the addition of another character who could “run errands” while the gameplay continues, could smooth over some of these issues.

Sleuth Kings is strong contender in the burgeoning subscription puzzle game market, and could make for a fantastic holiday gift for that special puzzle lover in your life.

I welcome our robotic puzzle overlords and look forward to where Sleuth Kings is heading.

Subscribe with Sleuth Kings, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Note that Case 001: The Guilty is no longer available. Your purchased subscription will start with the current month’s game.

Full disclosure: Sleuth Kings comped our tickets for this game.

 

Room Escape Lover’s 2017 Holiday Buyer’s Guide

Now US-, Canada- & UK-friendly!

REA logo wearing a Santa hat.

‘Tis the season for gift giving… and stressing over finding great gifts. We’re here to help you find the perfect gift for your escape-rooming, puzzle-loving friends and family.

We’re not repeating anything from last year, so check out our first 2016 Holiday Buyer’s Guide for additional inspiration. 

Tabletop escape games

Let’s start with the obvious…

Escape-Room-Photo

Escape Room in a Box

(Amazon US)

Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment was the first tabletop escape room we played… and gun to our heads, probably still our favorite. It was just as much fun when we revisited it this year when the Kickstarter shipped. A new version is now available for purchase just in time for the holidays!

Unlock Box Art

Unlock!

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

Unlock! Escape Adventure is a card-based at-home escape game series with 3 games currently available. In terms of dollars for gameplay, these are a great deal… Plus, you won’t destroy them at all while playing the game! Read our full review.

In-game: A mess of cards, the decoder wheel, images of the cabin's rooms, and a book that reads,

Exit: The Game

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

Exit: The Game is series of tabletop escape games with 3 games currently available in English (more in German). Again, in terms entertainment value for your money, these are a great deal… But go in knowing that you’re going to destroy this game while playing it. Read our full review.

Journal29 1

Journal 29

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

Journal 29 is an intriguing puzzle book with a narrative experienced entirely through puzzles and illustration. It is deeper, more challenging, and more entertaining than your average puzzle book… but it ain’t a cakewalk. This thing will fight you. It’s a wonderful companion for a flight delay. Trust me, I know. Read our full review.

Many of the game's props and components staged. There are ciphers, grids, flags, maps, and photos.

Subscription – Escape The Crate

Among the current selection of at-home subscription games, we recommend Escape the Crate. In each episode, we chase the villain through time to stop him from altering history. Escape the Crate games are not polished (they look like prototypes); however they make up for it with innovative mechanics and consistent quality of gameplay.Read our reviews of Chapter 1 and then Chapters 2 and 3.

Home

A strange clock made of many gears and bicycle chains.

Needlessly Complex Clocks

Lisa and I don’t own one of these, but oh my, do we want the Dual Chain Planetary. If you’d like to spend lavishly on us this holiday season, this is at the top of our “we absolutely don’t need it, but we want it” list.

A while ceramic cup with black 1s and 0s imprinted all over.

inaeent ceramics

This Etsy shop has dozens of beautiful, strange, and unique bowls, plates, and cups. I love the Binary Wine or Tea Cup.

A chain standing upright, magically floating a bottle of wine.

Magic chain wine bottle holder

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

This simple illusion proudly floats a wine bottle in our dining room. It’s amusing. Note that it doesn’t like wide-mouthed bottles. 

Tabletop games

These are a few collaborative games that escape room players will love:

Pandemic Legacy Seasons 1 / Season 2

(Season 1 – Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

(Season 2 – Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

Pandemic is one of the great collaborative tabletop games. Pandemic Legacy turns it into an ongoing, episodic experience that permanently evolves, damages, and changes the board with each successive episode. It’s gaming with consequences.

Mysterium box art.

Mysterium

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

This social game of deduction has one player facilitating as a ghost giving signs and the rest of the group playing as psychic detectives. It’s like Clue and Dixit had a much prettier and considerably more fun baby.

Arkham Horror the Card Game box art.

Arkham Horror: The Card Game

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

This Lovecraftian horror game is intense. It plays out over multiple campaigns and it’s shockingly challenging. If your character dies, they are gone for good. I grew so attached to my character that when he nearly perished at the end of an episode, I couldn’t sit still.

This game also has a boatload of expansions with more on the way. I’ve played them all and I love them.

Cold War: CIA vs KGB box art.
This box is far smaller than it appears.

Cold War: CIA vs KGB

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

This last one isn’t collaborative, but it’s a fantastic, inexpensive, compact, and quick 2-player head-to-head game that has both players vying for political dominance in a surprisingly well-researched and thought-out card game.

I love small games that don’t require long rule readings. This is a great casual game that anyone can learn.

Puzzles

A silver metal loop made of two interlocking pieces.

Cast Loop

(Puzzle Master US/UK/CA)

This puzzle isn’t a killer, but the trick is clever. No matter how many times I solve it, I love the feel of it. Note that this puzzle is best presented in two pieces. It’s trivial to solve if someone hands it to you completed. 

A cast metal diamond of silver and black materials. They snugly fit together.

Cast Diamond

(Puzzle Master US/UK/CA)

The Cast Diamond is another puzzle that won’t break your brain. It’s just a joy to solve and feels so satisfying. Note that this puzzle is best presented in two pieces. It’s trivial to solve if someone hands it to you completed. 

A bronze cast metal layer cake puzzle.

Cast Cake

(Puzzle Master US/UK/CA)

You want something hard? Try separating this layer cake into 4 pieces. I’ll wait.

This thing took me forever to figure out and I’m not ashamed to say so. It’s tough.

Rubik's Triamid assembled but color jumbled.

Rubik’s Triamid

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

I wrote a full review of this long forgotten puzzle that captured my imagination as a child.

A multi colored ball made of up of tiny gears.

Gear Ball

(Puzzle Master US/UK/CA)

I am terrible at Rubik’s Cube-type puzzles and have zero chance of solving this thing. Ever. However, this crazy ball of gears is so psychologically satisfying to manipulate that it doesn’t matter.

It’s absolutely purchasable as the thinking person’s fidget spinner.

The art for the Harry Potter Flying keys 1000 piece puzzle.

New York Puzzle Company – Harry Potter Flying Keys

(Amazon US, Amazon UK)

At 1,000 pieces, Harry Potter Flying Keys (and yes, it’s licensed) is the perfect jigsaw puzzle for escape room lovers. It’s beautiful. The New York Puzzle Company produces high quality puzzles (we reviewed a different one earlier this year).

They have many more puzzles to choose from if you’re looking for something different.

I am Lion, Wolf, Panda, & Horse

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

These animal head jigsaw puzzles are beasts to solve. They have irregular edges, large swaths of repeating patterns, consistent coloration, and unusual piece shapes. They range from 550-700 pieces.

“I am” is a pun because if you want to have a prayer of solving these, begin with the animal’s eyes.

If you love difficult jigsaw puzzles, this is a must-buy… but know that you’re playing on hard mode.

Tools

Sugru

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

It molds like silly putty and hardens into rubber. It’s insulated against electricity and it’s heat- and cold- resistant. This was one of the first things that we published about on Room Escape Artist over 3 years ago… so like 5 people have seen that post. I use it all of the time to repair and customize things around our home.

Fun fact: I once brought Sugru to a humanitarian crisis and fixed a whole bunch of things around a UN field office with it.

3M SandBlaster ultra flexible sanding sheets logo.

Sandblaster Ultra Flexible Sanding Sheets

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

Hey escape room owners! I sure hate picking up splinters while playing escape rooms. This especially flexible sandpaper is fantastic for smoothing over all sorts of nooks and crannies. I am a big fan… and no, I’m not kidding… I think sandpaper is fantastic.

Video Games

Nintendo Switch+ The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

(Nintendo Switch – Amazon US, Amazon UK)

(Zelda– Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

Breath of the Wild is a modern masterpiece and a brilliant display of adventure puzzle game design. Hopefully Nintendo makes enough Switches available this holiday season. If you can get your hands on one, you will not regret the time you spend exploring Hyrule.

A hand holding the tiny Super Nintendo Classic in the palm of a hand.

Super Nintendo Classic

My brother procured an SNES Classic for me and ever since our Escape Room Tour of NYC ended, I’ve been enjoying some of my all-time favorite video games once again. Mega Man X, Super Mario World, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past are three of the finest examples of game design out there.

There is so much to learn from and enjoy about these games.

The catch: These things are maddeningly hard to acquire at the moment, but if you get one, you win Christmas. I’m pretty sure that’s how this works. 

Books

The three installments of the End Game series. The gold covered first volume is on top of the pile.

Endgame Series

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

Endgame is The Hunger Games for puzzle lovers. For anyone who enjoys dystopian teenager fiction and puzzles, this trilogy offers both. The first person to solve the puzzle in the first book Endgame: The Calling won $500k in gold. It’s a crazy hard puzzle.

Break Out book cover features an Apple II with Oregon Trail's load screen.

Break Out – How the Apple II Launched the PC Gaming Revolution

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

If you’re interested in the history of game design, the early PC gaming era is a treasure trove of stories and learning. Break Out chronicles the creation of many classic Apple II games. I loved the Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego chapters.

The cover art for the first volume of The Puzzling World of Winston Breen.

The Puzzling World of Winston Breen

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

Winston Breen is a puzzle-loving teenager. In this story, Lisa puzzled along with Winston as he got swept up in a treasure hunt. The book presents puzzles within an entertaining narrative. (Full review forthcoming.)

Movie

Movie cover for Raiders! depicts the 3 main characters dressed in their costumes.

Raiders! : The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made

(Amazon US)

This documentary tells the insane story of a group of teens in the 1980s who decided to recreate Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark shot-for-shot. It took them years and thus their ages change from shot to shot. They almost killed themselves creating this. It’s a hell of a story.

The intensity and ingenuity demonstrated in this film reminds me of some of the most interesting escape room companies that I’ve encountered. It’s also streaming on Netflix at the moment.

Stocking stuffers

3 in 1 flip book cover

Flip book!

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

Ok, I was skeptical too, but this thing is mesmerizing, beautiful, and so damn cool.

Packaging for 4 different gear ties. Art illustrates the flexibility and versatility of the product.

Nite Ize Reusable Rubber Twist Tie

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

We’re always on the move, electronics in tow. These reusable rubber twist ties are perfect for securing the cords for our phones and earbuds.

A quirky PowerCurl neatly wrapping a MacBook power cable.

Quirky PowerCurl

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

For our laptops, we swear by the Quirky PowerCurl for taming our Macbook power cables. Be sure to get the right size for your power cable. 

Escape room

Escape Again logo stylized.

This one might seem obvious… but you can give the gift of an escape room.

I recommend, however, that you plan out the entire excursion instead of buying a gift certificate. It’s better to provide the full experience rather than a gift card that’s likely to get lost.

Kids

Cover art. Young Pedro standing in front of a castle made of puzzles.

Pedro and the Puzzle Palace

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

I found Pedro and the Puzzle Palace in a local bookstore earlier this year, on a shelf promoting local authors. In this adorable picture book Pedro learns core values through puzzles. This is for real, little ones.

Spy Code Games

(Break FreeAmazon USAmazon CA)

(Operation Escape RoomAmazon US, Amazon CA)

(Safe BreakerAmazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

Spy Code offers 3 games for children: Break Free, Operation Escape Room, and Safe Breaker (reviewed individually). Each game teaches different puzzling skills through brightly colored plastic props, with some remarkably satisfying and fun interactions.

Box art and traffic jam puzzling components of Rush Hour Jr.

Rush Hour Jr.

(Puzzle Master US/UK/CA)

Rush Hour Jr. is a fun spatial puzzle for kids as young as 6. If this one seems a little too basic, try the version for adults instead.

Book cover for Top Secret, looks like a brown folder being held by a pair of black gloved hands.

Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing

(Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA)

This fantastic book is perfect for helping kids learn the basics of cryptography… as well as the roots of so many escape room puzzles. It’s also a great read if you design escape rooms (full review).

Charity

Child's Play logo

Child’s Play

Ok, I lied. I’m repeating one thing from last year: supporting Child’s Play.

I’ve written about this a few times because I love this organization. They allow you to buy and send toys directly to children’s hospitals. There are plenty of good causes to give to, but since we’re focused on fun and games, I can’t think of a better way to give back than to provide some fun for kids who desperately need an escape.

Thank you!

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

Please share this buyer’s guide far and wide.

We truly appreciate your support.

How Escape Room Boss Destroys Fun in Escape Rooms

Escape Room Boss offers “escape room game management software” as an iPad app.

The website claims it will let your “customers enjoy a superior escape room experience.”

In my experience as a player, however, it has diminished some otherwise fantastic escape rooms.

What is Escape Room Boss?

Escape Room Boss is an app that runs on an iPad. The app provides:

  • audio or visual game introduction
  • self-service hints for puzzles
  • self-service answers for puzzles
  • game timer

The app works in conjunction with QR codes, which are affixed to the escape room set. Players scan the QR codes with the iPad when they need hints.

Set defacement

QR codes are ugly and they mar beautiful sets.

An intricate and old skull statue with a QR code on the forehead of the skull.
Yup. This looks better.

We’ve seen these QR codes affixed to six of the most incredible sets we’ve ever encountered. They disrupt an otherwise gorgeous and immersive environment.

Also… why would an ancient temple have QR codes?

The impossible art of QR code placement

There isn’t an artful way to place a QR code on an escape room set.

If it’s positioned exactly where the puzzle is, it’s a dead giveaway for the puzzle. Instead of finding puzzles organically within the environment, we can go directly to the QR codes and work backwards toward the puzzles. Immersion broken.

If it’s positioned too far from the puzzle, we won’t know what it refers to. It is rendered entirely useless at best… or more likely, exceptionally frustrating.

Either way, expect disappointment.

Hint roulette

When we call for a hint, we have surrendered. The fun has stopped and we want the fun to return. An attentive human gamemaster can provide the nudge needed to get us playing again. Escape Room Boss turns this process into a game of chance:

We might scan the wrong QR code and receive a hint for something we have already solved. This has happened to us using Escape Room Boss.

We might scan the wrong QR code and receive a hint just to learn that a puzzle can’t be solved yet. This too has happened to us using Escape Room Boss.

The hints are preprogrammed. Even if we scan the correct QR code for the puzzle, we won’t necessarily receive useful information. More often than not, the hint will tell us everything we already know. Oh boy, has this happened to us using Escape Room Boss.

Forced answers

If the one or two preprogrammed hints don’t help, our only recourse is to click to see the solution. We don’t get to work through the puzzle. We don’t get any satisfaction out of the solve.

Giving players the solution to a puzzle outright should rarely be the response to a hint request.

Penalties

In most implementations of Escape Room Boss, it feels punitive. Taking a hint or a solution results in a “time” penalty.

This doesn’t affect the actual game clock. Rather, it gets added on to the end. For example, if we escape in 55 minutes, but take two hints costing 5 minutes each, our time shows 65 minutes.

This makes wins feel like failures.

Scanning time sink

Scanning a QR code requires bright lighting… which isn’t the norm in escape rooms.

You want to know what isn’t fun? When scanning a QR code turns into an additional puzzle.

Escape Room Boss requires players to scan a QR code to end the game. If you want to see the joy of winning an escape room evaporate, watch a team that just triumphantly completed a final puzzle realize that someone needs to run back two rooms to find a flashlight so that they can get enough light on the QR code to make it scannable and stop the clock, which refuses to stop even though the game is already won.

Value prop

Escape Room Boss is designed to make operating an escape room easier. Maybe it does this for the escape room operator, but it is at the expense of the player experience.

The operator can hire fewer gamemasters, train them less completely, and watch the games run themselves.

Except that they don’t.

Escape rooms are supposed to be challenging. With Escape Room Boss, however, we struggle against all the wrong challenges. These challenges are frustrating instead of fun.

Don’t make me step out of your seamless, beautiful world to work a clunky device.

 

 

Limited Edition Mystery Oreos [Review]

You had me at the word “mystery.”

Manufacturer: Nabisco

Team size: A 15.25 ounce package contains 30 cookies. Recommended team size is 30 people.

Story & setup

Nabisco, the maker of Oreo cookies, has a mystery for us to solve:

What flavor cream have they snuck into these seemingly normal Oreos?

White packaging for Mystery Oreo cookies. There is an opened Oreo with a question mark engraved in the cream.

Between now and 11:59pm on November 30, 2017, those who take on the taste testing mystery can submit their flavor guess for a chance to win $50,000.

Aesthetically, the packaging looked slick and the cookies looked completely normal.

Puzzles

The Oreo chocolate cookies remained the same. The puzzle was determining the flavor of the cream.

3 mystery Oreos laid on a black and white plate. One of the Oreos has been twisted open.

Standouts

The packaging was quite fetching.

The concept was fun.

As far as store-bought cookies are concerned, the Oreo chocolate cookies are a solid base to work with.

Shortcomings

More than any other package of Oreos that I’ve ever opened, the scent that wafted from these cookies was obscenely sugary. It smelled like diabetes.

That cream was a shadow of a regular Oreo’s glory. It was fine when consumed with the cookie, but on its own… yuck. Its well documented that eating the cream first is the correct way to Oreo.

Should I eat Nabisco’s Limited Edition Mystery Oreos?

The big question remains: what did it taste like? So, it’s spoiler time.

Spoiler: What did it taste like?

Faux-citrus-y. I thought it tasted like extra sweet Fruity Pebbles. Lisa’s vote was for orange flavored Flintstones vitamins. So… the flavor is basically “sugary citrus childhood.” Yes. That’s absolutely the answer that’s gonna win $50,000.

[collapse]

This Oreo was not my cup of sugar.

I loved the concept; a flavor mystery was a great idea.

I loved the packaging design; it just looked enticing. Who can say no to a question mark engraved in Oreo cream?

However, It didn’t come together. This was like an escape room with a great setup, a beautiful set, and lackluster gameplay.

Personally, I was hoping for candied bacon.

If this sounds like your kind of treat, or like me, you just can’t resist a mystery, no matter how minor… give the Limited Edition Mystery Oreos a shot while you can.

(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.)

Dispatch by Breakout – On the Run, Box 1 [Review]

Box of soap opera.

Location: at home

Date played: October 8, 2017

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

Duration: as long as it takes to solve the puzzles

Price: $24.99 per month for a monthly subscription

Story & setup

A package came in the mail filled with media clippings, journal, wedding invitation, wedding program, and letters. My (the collective ‘my’) best friend’s heiress wife had turned up dead on his honeymoon and he had disappeared. I (the collective ‘I’) knew that something strange was going down and had to sift through the evidence to make sense of these tragedies.

Dispatch, On The Run box. A cardboard shipping box made to look like it was covered in stamps.

Upon opening Dispatch by Breakout, the first thing that I noticed was the high quality printing of just about everything in the box. The wedding invitation was an actual invitation and newspaper clippings were on newsprint. Everything else was printed in color on quality stock.

The second thing that became immediately apparent was the volume of reading material. We played this in the car driving between New Orleans and Houston. It took us well over an hour to read everything in the box aloud.

Structure

Breakout is one of the largest escape room chains in the United States. Dispatch, however, was decidedly not a boxed escape room. I would describe it as interactive fiction. Dispatch was more like a novel, broken up between different written materials, than it was like an escape room (boxed or real life).

An assortment of papers from Dispatch, On The Run. Newspaper clippings, a journal, wedding invitation, a wedding toast, the cover of a tabloid magazine.

On The Run was the first chapter of Dispatch. It set up a lot of different mysteries that I assume will be addressed in future installments.

Puzzles

We had to use the information in the box as well as a web browser to explore the world that Dispatch built. There were a handful of puzzles to solve. I counted 3, but I think that you could count differently. They had to be solved sequentially.

Dispatch, or at least this first chapter, was far more focused on building a world than on puzzling.

Standouts

On the Run set up an engaging story. After reading through all the written materials and poking around on the different websites they mentioned, we were invested in the characters and the mystery.

On the Run was approachable and physically compact. There weren’t any heavy objects or tiny odds and ends. The elements in the box were high quality paper products. They were legible and accessible.

Additionally, the handwriting fonts used throughout the game were easy to read. This might seem like a minor thing, but we’ve seen far too many challenging handwriting fonts.

It was clear when we reached the conclusion of the first episode. We had many more open plot threads than resolutions, but we knew we’d achieved success.

We really enjoyed the first puzzle. We didn’t find it particularly difficult, but it got us rolling and we found it amusing.

Shortcomings

After that first puzzle, On the Run was like finding a needle in a haystack. We had tons of information to work with and little direction. The solutions ultimately relied on information that was out of the proverbial box.

There was a lot to read, which was not conducive to group gameplay. We ended up having one person read everything aloud to the group. This seemed to be the only way to reasonably engage everyone in the mystery.

While there was a lot of story to absorb, there were only a few puzzles to solve in the first box. We spent a lot of time working on just a few things.

This turned out to be a printed story and an internet hide-and-seek. We all searched the internet for information that was more or less challenging to uncover. While On the Run created a world to explore, it was much like day-to-day existence, searching through browser tabs.

A lot of the internet-based components were simply not believable. I’m no Instagram expert but that was decidedly not the Instagram profile of a sexy tabloid-stalked heiress.

The hint system was delayed. When we asked for a hint, we received it almost 24 hours later. If we’d intended to explore On the Run over a long period of time, this could have been interpreted as experiential. Since we played through the box in a single (long) car ride, by the time we had received a hint, we no longer needed it… because we’d texted a friend.

Should I play Dispatch by Breakout’s On the Run?

Dispatch was interactive fiction with some puzzles. The story pulled us in enough that we wanted to see it through, even when the game was not what we thought we were getting into.

Expectations really matter here. Dispatch was absolutely not the game that we thought we were receiving from an escape room chain. It bore almost no resemblance to an escape room. That’s not a knock against it; it’s simply a description.

If you’re looking for a play-at-home escape game, there are many on the market; this is not one of them.

If an interactive novelization with a soap opera-y narrative and a few puzzles sounds like something that you could enjoy over an evening or two (or a long car ride), then Dispatch by Breakout will have plenty of drama and intrigue for you to explore. You just have to go in knowing that the few puzzles there are can be a bit obtuse.

This is not really my go-to type of game, but I am pretty curious where this story will go and what they will do with it as Breakout refines their storytelling.

Buy your copy of Dispatch by Breakout’s On the Run, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Dispatch by Breakout provided a complementary first episode.

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.)