Puzzle Snacks [Book Review]

Incredibly great (9)

Location:  at home

Date Played: July 2019

Team size: we recommend 1-2

Price: $10

Publisher: Tiller Press

REA Reaction

I love word puzzles, but I don’t have a lot of time. Puzzle Snacks stepped right into a void in my life with word puzzles for an extremely busy lifestyle.

Eric Berlin’s Puzzle Snacks made crossword-style cluing more accessible with “bite-sized” puzzles that asked the solver to think creatively about words. It linked words together in interesting ways.

Cover of Puzzle Snacks, "More than 100 clever bite-sized puzzle for every solver" by Eric Berlin.

While I liked some puzzle styles more than others, they were mostly quite enjoyable, and it was easy to skip the one puzzle type that really wasn’t for me.

Newer puzzlers will find these puzzles approachable. Experienced puzzlers will find them quick, yet elegantly satisfying. If you love crosswords, or want to like crosswords, we highly recommend picking up a copy of Puzzle Snacks to enjoy on your own or with a friend, for those fleeting free moments where you just need a word puzzle.

Who is this for?

  • Word puzzlers
  • People with limited time or limited attention span
  • All experience levels

Why play?

  • Crosswording made more approachable
  • Impressive and elegant puzzle designs
  • Bite-sized puzzles

Setup

Each page of Puzzle Snacks presented a crossword-like puzzle. There were 110 of these puzzles. We could dive into any puzzle at any time. They were each standalone solves.

The grid for one of the Spiral puzzles.

Gameplay

Puzzle Snacks was a puzzle book with a low-moderate level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around solving crossword-like clues, and fitting words and letters together in interesting ways.

Analysis

Puzzle Snacks was loaded with elegant puzzles that made us stop and marvel at how everything came together. We were particularly taken with the “Spiral” puzzles that solved both forwards and backwards. Frankly it’s worth the price of admission just to solve these.

Puzzle Snacks made crossword-style word puzzles approachable. As noted in his introduction, author Eric Berlin stuck to everyday words that normal people know. Each puzzle had less than half the number of clues of a standard crossword. He wrote crossword clues for the uninitiated, opening these puzzles to newer word puzzlers or puzzlers with limited time or limited focus.

➕ The puzzles were satisfying solves. Moreover, they were truly impressive creations. I loved how the words fit together. In these puzzles, words I’d already solved clued the ones I was working on, similarly to in a crossword puzzle, but in my opinion, even more elegantly. I loved how the words spiraled, reversed, boxed, crossed, or pathed into each other in interesting ways.

➕ We finished every puzzle we started in that same sitting. That provided immense satisfaction. Even when we struggled, we could approach from a different vantage point and continue along. We were never stumped for more than a minute or two.

➕ The puzzle types repeated, but with different crossword clues and different words fitting into the puzzle designs. We could find the types we liked best and solve a few of them in a row. While we had to read and understand the directions for each puzzle type, we didn’t have to do that for each individual puzzle.

➕/ ➖ The book provided hints at the back. These were noted in such a way that we could find them easily, but wouldn’t accidentally read more information than we wanted. They said just enough to give us something to sink our teeth into if we’d paused. That said, there weren’t enough hints to walk someone through an entire puzzle piece by piece. If you’re seriously struggling, you’ll have to look at the solution to hint yourself, which means spoilers.

➖ The first puzzle seemed stylistically different from most of the others. It asked us to think a bit differently. While we enjoyed it, we found it more challenging than the majority of the puzzle types. It seemed like an odd jumping-off point for the rest of the puzzles in the book. It might turn off a few would-be solvers.

➖ We found the “quote” puzzle type excessively tedious. After solving one of those, we decided not to do any more of that variety. 

➕ We’ve solved a lot of puzzles and there are tons more in this book. I’m looking forward to taking it on planes and trains.

Author Eric Berlin also wrote The Puzzling World of Winston Breen, a fun story where you get to solve alongside a character.

Tips For Player

  • Space Requirements: a small table, or even just a lap
  • Required Gear: a pen or pencil and occasionally a straight edge. We recommend FriXion pens.

Buy your copy of Puzzle Snacks, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Tiller Press provided a sample for review. 

(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. We appreciate the support.)

Can’t Escape Love: A Reluctant Royals Novella [Review]

Innuendo Sauce

Location:  at home

Date Read: June 2019

Team size: 1; we recommend 1

Page Count: 139 pages

Price: $4.99 paperback; $1.99 kindle

Author: Alyssa Cole

Publisher: HarperCollins

REA Reaction

In Can’t Escape Love, romance novelist Alyssa Cole brought together a nerd blogger and an escape room designer in a 2019 novella, as part of her Reluctant Royals series. I’m not a romance novel connoisseur, but when my sister mentioned this novella, I was intrigued to see how someone outside this industry would portray my lifestyle. After all, the main character was a nerdy, 100% focused, busy-all-the-time woman blogger.

Can't Escape Love by Alyssa Cole's Novella cover depicts a woman in a wheel chair sharing ice cream with a man.

Can’t Escape Love cultivated the characters’ romance around a genuine issue: building escape rooms in established intellectual property and navigating the fandom that comes with that opportunity. The novel nailed what’s at stake in this scenario.

I found the writing hokey. To me, the characters’ relationship felt unrealistic, and at times downright silly. That said, I lacked the context of the larger series and the romance novel genre.

If you like romance novels and are interested in the idea of an unusual novella based around escape rooms, bloggers, nerd culture, and diversity, try this out.

Who is this for?

  • Anyone with experience in puzzles, escape rooms, blogging, or romance novels
  • Discerning romance novel aficionados looking for a lot more story than sex
  • Folks who recognize that representation matters
  • Best for people who have read Alyssa Cole’s Reluctant Royals novels, given how novellas tend to work (see below)
  • People interested in how escape rooms are portrayed in other media

Why Read?

  • Worlds-collide crossover between escape rooms and blogging that plays out in a romance novella
  • An antidote to bodice-ripper stereotypes about romance novels (complete with three-dimensional characters, consent, and a heroine who doesn’t need saving)
  • A plot that addressed genuine issues, albeit in a magical version of the world where you can always expect a happy ending

Story

Reggie was a nerd blogger and a businesswoman trying to launch an online media company in the 21st century. (Sounds familiar!) Gus was a puzzle-obsessed designer tasked with creating an escape room based on a popular anime series for an upcoming con.

Reggie struggled with insomnia. Gus had the most soothing voice.

Gus couldn’t understand the appeal of the IP he was working with. Reggie was a huge fan.

When they traded his voice for her knowledge, they discovered a chemistry. Could they escape love?

Gameplay

Can’t Escape Love was a fairly typical romance novella in some ways (story structure and role in a larger series) and an emphatically non-stereotypical one in others (decidedly feminist and inclusive perspective).

There wasn’t any gameplay, per say. As a reader I could appreciate that the characters were enjoying puzzles, but I couldn’t solve alongside them.

Core “gameplay” revolved around reading.

Analysis

➕ Alyssa Cole captured the blogger life pretty realistically. I could identify with her portrayal of a nerdy blogger. Reggie had depth of character and her day-to-day was relatable.

➖ The puzzle enthusiast character lacked depth. I wanted more insight into the puzzles Gus was designing and solving. Puzzlers and escape room players will likely want more from this character and his work.

➖ The story felt corny. His voice? Really? I don’t read a lot of romance novels, but there were so many cringe-worthy lines as they started to fall for each other. For instance “… maybe it was the happy-anime endorphins rushing through her veins, but everything they said to each other seemed to be dipped in an innuendo sauce and served with a side of ‘let’s bang’ fries.”

➕ While I didn’t connect with the story, the emotions seemed heartfelt. I could empathize with the characters.

➕ In the story, Gus was designing an escape room based in a popular IP. Fans will play this escape room and judge it… as only the fan can. Alyssa Cole nailed this conflict. She also captured a fan’s excitement for a creative world.

Time Run faced these same hurdles in real life with Sherlock: The Game is Now. Creative Director Nick Moran alludes to this commitment to getting it right for fans in our interview from last summer, before the room opened. His talk at Up the Game in 2019 homed in on the challenges involved.

Gus was out of his element designing an escape room around IP he didn’t understand and couldn’t appreciate… until Reggie showed him what it meant to her, and convinced him of its value. As we see more escape rooms based in IP, this will be what sets the good ones apart.

➕/➖ Can’t Escape Love was a crossover that could appeal to both puzzle nerds and romance readers, and especially to anyone who already likes both. I’m thrilled to see escape rooms featured in different genres of culture. That said, Can’t Escape Love didn’t quite build the necessary bridge. As someone who doesn’t know and appreciate the format of a romance novel, the story felt contrived and, at times, downright preposterous. Someone who reads romance novels but doesn’t know or appreciate escape rooms will probably feel similarly, wondering why the characters care so much about that weird thing people do for fun that seems terrifyingly like Saw.

❓Romance novels aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. That said, romance novels can do good things in the world, and even more so when they represent the vast array of humans who fall in loveCan’t Escape Love is this kind of romance novel. While its style may not satisfy everyone’s desires, it’s written with intent.

Can’t Escape Love is a novella in Alyssa Cole’s Reluctant Royals series. Novellas typically give more depth to minor characters who show up in the longer novels in a series. This makes novellas awesome if you’ve already read the novels and wanted to see a minor character’s happy ending. This also makes novellas a little confusing and light on context as a place to start. I read Can’t Escape Love without having read any of the novels that give it context. Without this, the culminating conflict fell flat. I could relate to the conflict as a person who is close to her sister, but I wasn’t invested in the characters’ own drama and I didn’t really understand a good portion of it. In contrast, my sister had already read the book about the protagonist’s sister and knew exactly what the final conflict was about (and could also relate as a person who is close to her sister!).

Speaking of my sister, this is her first appearance on Room Escape Artist. We co-authored this review.

Tips For Reader

  • You will get more out of the story if you either already like the romance genre or want to give it a whirl.
  • You will get more out of the story if you’ve read the novels in the Reluctant Royals series. I found it a bit hard to get into. I think my lack of a previous connection to the characters had a lot to do with this.

Buy your copy of Can’t Escape Love, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

(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. We appreciate the support.)

“The Escape Room,” a Novel by Megan Goldin [Review]

“This isn’t an escape room.” (page 295)

Author: Megan Goldin

Release Date: July 30, 2019

Page Count: 368

Price: $26.99

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

REA Reaction

The Escape Room is a novel that uses the escape room setting as a hook for a corporate thriller about corruption in the financial industry.

The escape room gimmick seems like a good opportunity to integrate puzzles into a mystery storyline, but readers intrigued by the title will likely be disappointed that The Escape Room is no more of a brainteaser than the average thriller novel.

The gold covered novel for "The Escape Room" by Megan Golden. There is a person peering through a narrowly opened door.

The bleak setting, clichéd characters, and unrefined puzzles made the reading experience feel almost like being stuck in an elevator right along with these four unpleasant people.

If you’re an avid reader of thrillers with some time on your hands, you may decide it’s worth indulging your curiosity. But don’t be deceived by the title—at its core, The Escape Room isn’t really about an escape room at all. If you’re looking for engaging puzzles or an elegant mystery, don’t think twice about skipping this one.

Who is this for?

  • Voracious readers who can’t get enough thrillers
  • People who like seeing investment bankers suffer

Why Read?

  • To find out who made it out alive

Story

Four shady investment bankers from Stanhope and Sons were summoned to play an escape room as a team-building exercise. They got more than they bargained for when they were locked in an elevator together and forced to solve the mystery of why they were really there and what happened to their former colleague Sara Hall.

The title of "The Escape Book" bleeding through from the next page beside a Sun Tzu quote, "The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting."

Gameplay

The puzzles are not a particular selling point for The Escape Room. It’s marketed as a thriller, with no particular emphasis on a game component except as part of the plot.

The story includes a handful of simple riddles and word puzzles, some of which must be solved with knowledge only the characters have. There is no interactivity or game structure to the puzzles—you can’t really solve along as you read.

Analysis

➕ The concept of describing two timelines at once in alternating chapters made the reading experience more interesting. Guessing where the storylines converged was one of the more enjoyable things about the book.

➖ The writing style felt repetitive and clichéd. There were extravagant details about suits, ties, makeup, jewelry, gourmet food, and other accoutrements of wealth. All this description seemed like overkill, especially for a book that also emphasized the dangers of greed.

➖ The escape room itself wasn’t much like an actual escape room at all. The handful of puzzles had no structure or progression, so there was no game to play along with. Also, the escape room took place entirely in an elevator. This limitation put the immersion factor much lower than the recent Escape Room movie, for example. But the game aspect of The Escape Room also fell short of some of the incredible real-life escape rooms we’ve seen set in small spaces, such as The Basement’s Elevator Shaft, which made an elevator setting far more interesting and dramatic. Since a novel can have unlimited special effects, it would have been exciting to see a more innovative use of the escape room setting.

➖ Spending hundreds of pages stuck in an elevator with such despicable main characters made The Escape Room less fun than it could have been. The four investment bankers embodied variations on the standard greedy villain, with backstories that didn’t do much to give them emotional depth. If their characterization had provided more insight into how they felt rather than just what they wanted, the plot would have felt more like a robust narrative than a chess game.

➕/➖ Near the beginning, the characters’ interactions in the elevator scenes were amusingly reminiscent of bumbling escape room first-timers. But in later chapters, they easily made logic leaps that would be challenging for real-life players.

➖ The mystery structure felt haphazard and lacked the element of surprise. The pacing dragged, and the plot played out quite predictably. (The cover text even hints at the endgame.) The story could have benefited from some crafty red herrings, an aha moment where everything falls into place, or some form of redemption for any of the greedy, selfish characters.

The Escape Room is a book about how money and status corrupts, but it simultaneously implies that money can buy happiness. There is no middle ground, and both ends of the spectrum are portrayed as unenviable, with no way out. It was a bleak point of view.

➖ One character in The Escape Room was an autistic math genius who was repeatedly described as having “poor social skills” and dehumanized with descriptors like “robotic” and “otherworldly.” Beyond these harmful stereotypes, she was also treated badly by other characters, and her story was told largely through other people’s speculation about her motives. It was disappointing to see her treated like a plot device rather than a fleshed-out character with her own agency.

➕ The opening of The Escape Room teased a thrilling story of an escape game gone wrong. The excitement of that prologue made it clear that the escape room scenario could provide an intriguing hook for plenty more thriller novels in the future.

Tips For Reading

  • The Escape Room is a quick, easy read that won’t provide too much of a challenge on a long flight or a lazy weekend.
  • Be aware that the plot includes detailed descriptions of sexual assault and violent death.
  • If you can’t figure out a puzzle, don’t beat yourself up. It’s probably just because you’re not a high-powered investment banker at Stanhope.

Buy your copy of The Escape Room, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: St. Martin’s Press provided advance readers’ copies for review. Some details may change before publication.

(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. We appreciate the support.)

The Escape Book: Can you escape this book? [Review]

“Like a toboggan-ride of pain” (page 126)

Location:  at home

Date Played: October 2018

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

Duration: It depends (see below)

Price: $10

Publisher: Ivan Tapia

REA Reaction

On its surface, The Escape Book: Can you escape this book? was a good product. It had well-tested puzzles, quality printing, a strong hint system, and a well-defined aesthetic. Unfortunately, these were overshadowed by the problems.

The Escape Book's black, white, and yellow cover of a door opening. It asks, "Can you escape this book?"

The Escape Book contained 18 puzzles in its 176 pages. Most of the book’s content was long, rambling, repetitive, droning, and repetitive drivel. The story constantly shifted between uncomfortable, laughable, and boring. 

Play through The Escape Book to breeze through its puzzles. They weren’t special, but they worked well. While this may appeal to some newbies, we suggest taking a pass on this one. If you choose to play, skip most, if not all of the story. 

Who is this for?

¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

Why play?

  • The puzzles solve cleanly.
  • A well-designed and generous structured hint system

Story

Candela Fuertes, a brilliant 28-year-old investigative journalist/ hacker, had been writing a story on the currency-manipulating Castian Warnes and his Wanstein Club.

Warnes, the evil multibillionaire, had publicly claimed to have created The Daedalus, a death trap labyrinth that housed his secrets. Anyone could enter it freely, but they would perish if they failed to complete his puzzles within 60 minutes.

In-book, page reads, "The Beginning, Candela has 56 minutes left to live."

Candela decided to enter this escape room/ death trap in an attempt to uncover Warnes’ misdeeds. For reasons that never made sense, she did this without telling her editor or loved ones. 

We played as Candela, navigating her through the puzzles.

Setup

The Escape Book followed a simple structure. In each chapter we read a few pages of prose, which told a bit of the story, and concluded with a puzzle.

In-book, page shows the first puzzle: a grid of circles that look like flat-head screwheads, some oriented vertically, others, horizontally.

The puzzle solved to a number. We then turned to that page number to continue the story. 

In-book, page, shows the answer input.

If we struggled with a puzzle, the book provided a page that we could turn to for hints. Each puzzle (except for the final one) had 5 hints that increasingly simplified the puzzle.

In-book, page,shows portions of the first puzzle's hints.

Finally, we could turn the page in the hint section to reveal the solution.

In-book, page shows that the puzzle's solution is on the next page.

Gameplay

The Escape Book was a simple puzzle book with a low level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around observing and basic puzzle solving.

Story overshadowed gameplay.

Analysis

➕ We liked the appearance of the book. The black, white, and yellow aesthetic looked sharp. The Escape Book was printed well.

➕ Most of the puzzles were clued well and solved cleanly. 

➖ One late-game puzzle felt poorly clued. It seemed instead to clue a future puzzle, which deviated from the patterns set by the book.

❓ The puzzles were easy. Most of them took us less than 30 seconds to solve. Those that took a little longer required some process work. This wasn’t inherently good or bad; it comes down to how much you want to have to work at solving a puzzle. 

In-book, page reads, "Clue Zone" with an unlocked padlock.

➕ It was easy to use the thorough hint system. We appreciate any play-at-home game that allows puzzlers of any experience level to play on their own terms. 

➕ We liked the concept of an interactive novel with puzzles. We’ve seen this before with the Winston Breen series, which we really enjoyed.

➖ Far too much of The Escape Book was rooted in its narrative. We spent most of the time reading prose… which might have been great, if it had been an entertaining story. 

➖ The writing was uncomfortably bad. The story amounted to a dull, repetitive tale of currency manipulation with a couple of rants about George Soros thrown in for flavor.

➖ When we weren’t reading droning passages about shorting currency futures, we were treated to descriptions of a nonsensical villain who was supposed to seem scary, but came across as silly.

“The Daedalus, the security system created by a man incapable of remembering names or passwords, is about to finish Candela off” (page 80).

➖ Our heroine’s actions were laughably shortsighted, which uncomfortably juxtaposed against how badass she was supposed to appear. All of this was further undermined by excessive descriptions of her body. How many times did we need to read about the rising and falling of her chest? It went “up… down… up…” 

In-book, first story page shows the description of the main character.
This is the first page. ⬆️⬇️⬆️

My favorite utterly unnecessary passage: 

“In her final year at university, Candela had shared a flat with Mark, a computer addict. They were friends with benefits. Over the course of living with him, Candela had learnt a bit about sex and a lot about the stock exchange” (page 39). 🔥Hot 🔥

The Escape Book was originally written in Spanish. It’s possible that something about the writing was lost in translation… but there came a point where that didn’t matter.

❓ We could have solved most of the puzzles without reading the story, or by only reading the last couple of paragraphs of a section. I think that this would have been the optimal way to play. 

Tips For Visiting

  • Space Requirements: None. We solved most of the book while sitting in a diner. 
  • Required Gear: Pen (we recommend Frixion pens) or pencil. An internet-connected device is required to complete the book. 
  • Optional gear: A knife or scissors.

Buy your copy of The Escape Book: Can You Escape This Book?, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

(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.)

Trip 1907 [Review]

We finished with 86 sanity… which seems accurate.

Location: at home

Date Played: May – June 2018

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

Duration: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Price: $17

REA Reaction

Damn I wish I could draw like this. The incredible art in Trip 1907 made me want to study every page of the book. In addition to beautiful illustrations, Trip 1907 presented 44 puzzles, most of which solved cleanly. It wrapped the puzzles in a Lovecraftian mystery through ancient artifacts, monsters, cultists, and rituals. The thematic hint system forced us to sacrifice our sanity for assistance.

An intricate sketch of a long-necked dragon-like sea monster.

I wish I could end this review here and wholeheartedly recommend this book. It got a lot right… but I can’t.

A minority of puzzles felt imprecise or nonsensical. The thematic hint system was blind; it vacillated between helpful, cruel, and silly. This combined to beat down our confidence in the game. When we got stuck, we couldn’t be sure if we weren’t puzzling well… or if we would later learn that the puzzle was rubbish. This lack of trust sucked a lot of fun out of working through challenging puzzles.

The entirely linear nature of the book exacerbated these frustrations. When we got stuck, we couldn’t move on to anything else until we finished the puzzle.

There was a lot to love in Trip 1907; it got a lot right. However, the stuff that didn’t work well tainted the fantastic. When we finished the final puzzle we were happy, not because we felt accomplished, but because we were done.

If you’re a puzzler who’s willing to embrace all of the wonderful aspects of Trip 1907 and let its flaws be, then there’s good content and value within its pages.

Who is this for?

  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Some great puzzles
  • Beautiful illustrations
  • An interesting and cohesive story

Story

Trip 1907 told the Lovecraftian tale of a boathand on a freighter ship carrying a mysterious and nefarious cargo.

As the mystery expanded, so did the main character’s madness.

The faux leather cover of Trip 1907: Interactive Escape The Book Game features a gold compass rose with tentacles emerging from North.

Setup

Trip 1907 was played with a book and an internet-connected device. (We used an iPhone exclusively.)

Similarly to Journal 29, each 2-page spread offered a puzzle/ illustration. We submitted our answer through a website.

The website also provided a fairly substantial amount of prose – not included in the book – to convey the story.

Trip 1907 had a structured hint system whereby we could trade sanity for a hint. The website kept track of our sanity. We started with 100 sanity points and could trade 4 points for a mild hint and 6 points for a heavy hint. Solving puzzles restored some sanity.

A long hand-written prose journal entry dated September 15 1907.

Gameplay

Trip 1907 was a puzzle-based book with a detailed narrative and a heavily variable level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around observing, building connections, and puzzling.

Analysis

+ Many of the puzzles in Trip 1907 solved elegantly. If we struggled, we took a break and returned later to find a workable solution.

– Early on, the web app seemed to have intentionally hidden hyperlinks that were critical to puzzling. This may have been easier to find on desktop, but the lack of hover-states on mobile made them almost impossible to find. This made a fairly straightforward puzzle infuriating.

– Some puzzles didn’t fit together cleanly. Some of these weaker puzzles were a little obtuse; others seemed deliberately misleading.

In-game: Illustration of a hooded cultist saying, "What?"

– Midway through Trip 1907, a puzzle completely changed the rules of the book without any warning or sufficient cluing. Once the shift happened, we knew what to look for, but the change was needlessly brutal.

+ The illustrations were beautiful, even if they weren’t all that relevant to the puzzles.

+/- The story was entertaining and generally well written and compelling. The online content, however, struggled with readability. The center justification and font choice made the act of reading the story uncomfortable. It also could have been edited down by, say, 20%.

+ If we’d wanted to completely ignore the story and focus entirely on the puzzles we could have.

+ The hint system was baked into the web app, always accessible, and tied to a Lovecraftian sanity point system. Solving puzzles earned sanity; using hints burned sanity.

– When we really needed a hint, the hint system rarely provided anything helpful. We were typically caught up on some small late-puzzle detail. The hints usually pointed to concepts that we had already figured out. Additionally, because the hints were blind, and we were penalized sanity points for taking them, it was extra irritating to receive information we already knew.

– Trip 1907 required us to solve it linearly. This meant that if we got stuck on a puzzle, we couldn’t advance at all until we’d solved it. As a result, we put the book down for weeks at a time.

– Two late-game puzzles utterly shattered the mythology of the book. I might have forgiven this if the puzzles were any good, but I think they were also the two weakest puzzles in the entire book.

Tips for Playing

  • Playing Trip 1907 requires a copy of the book, an internet connected device, pencil (or Frixion pens), and scissors.
  • Headphones are optional.

Order your copy of Trip 1907, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Escape from the Room – The Curse of Old Maid Milly [Review]

Crazy cat lady puzzle book.

Location: at home

Date Played: March 2018

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

Price: $16 per copy

REA Reaction

Escape from the Room: The Curse of Old Maid Milly was a charming and generally straightforward reimagining of a real-life escape room as a puzzle book. While it wasn’t a challenging game, it captured the quick-hit escape room puzzle style quite well.

If you’re looking for a puzzle book to push the boundaries of your puzzling ability, there are more challenging options out there. If you’re looking for a puzzle book that captures the feel of an escape room, this a great choice. We loved carrying it with us on our travels.

Escape from the Room: The Curse of Old Maid Milly being held up beside an airport window.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Travelers
  • Crazy cat people

Why play?

  • It’s cool to see an actual real life escape room adapted into a book.
  • The puzzles play well.
  • It’s inexpensive and fun.

Story

This real life escape room-turned-puzzle book casts the reader as Dr. Alan Harris, a professor of paranormal activity. Dr. Harris was investigating a room where a mysterious reclusive cat lady named Milly had died when he was suddenly locked in.

Could Dr. Harris uncover the secrets that have kept Milly’s soul trapped in her home and escape?

Setup

The Curse of Old Maid Milly began its life as an actual escape room in the United Kingdom (review by Ken Ferguson at The Logic Escapes Me). After closing the real life escape room, the creator converted it into a book-based escape game. According to Ken, roughly 50% of the puzzles were changed in the shift to print.

Each 2-page spread of the book presented either puzzle and story or a black and white sketch of the game environment.

Puzzle and story pages would deliver most of the content as prose. Light gray text was explicitly for story and could be ignored by the more puzzle-minded. Black text was necessary for the completion of a puzzle.

Gameplay

Maps

Map pages depicted a larger area. The map would be labeled with corresponding pages that contained illustrations of what we would see if we looked in that direction.

Location Illustrations

The black and white sketches filled us in on the aesthetics of the room and contained observable clues for solving puzzles.

Puzzles

Puzzle pages contained a page number (more on that in a moment), light gray story text, and black puzzle text. Some puzzles also contained additional graphics.

The answer converter the allows players to translate directions and letters into numbers.

Inputting Answers

Puzzle solutions came in the form of page numbers. To verify an answer, we had to flip to that page and see if we should be heading there. If we were correct, the page we flipped to had the next segment of story and a puzzle.

Not all of the puzzles initially resolved to a number. There was a consistent translation mechanism that enabled us to convert directions and words into numbers.

Satchel

Occasionally the book would inform us that Dr. Harris had decided to save an object in his satchel. This news was always delivered in black puzzle text and satchel was bolded for extra effect. Whenever this happened, we needed to log the item, as we would eventually need to recall it in order to solve certain challenges.

Analysis

+ This was a good beginner puzzle book. The puzzles resolved cleanly. Few offered serious challenge. When we were stumped, it was usually because we had failed to notice a detail.

+ The page jumping mechanic was an interesting approach to answer checking.

– Because we were constantly jumping from the back of the book, to the middle, to the front, and back again, at any given point in time, we had little concept of how deep into the game we were.

– We did not enjoy the satchel game mechanic. It made a good effort at recreating the feel of using found objects to solve puzzles, but it wasn’t exciting. These “puzzles” felt more like throwaway moments. It was more effort to track satchel items than it was worth.

+/- The story was good, but entirely too wordy. There were times where if felt as if the story text may have been added simply to fill white space on the page.

+ The light gray vs black text to separate story from puzzle worked well.

+/- Old Maid Milly had a cute print-based take on escape room search puzzles. We didn’t love these puzzles, but they absolutely captured the right vibe.

+ The hint system was structured and easy to use.

+ This book was fun to carry around on a trip. We would make a little progress here and there. It was easy to put down and pick up again.

Tips for Playing

  • You will want some sort of bookmark.
  • You need to log all of the satchel items. Failure to do so will result in annoyance and backtracking later on. We might be speaking from experience on this.
  • It is possible to play this game without writing in the book, but requires extra effort.

Book your hour with Escape from the Room’s The Curse of Old Maid Milly, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Escape from the Room provided a complementary copy of this book.

 

The Crazy Story of a Real Life Treasure Hunt

Nerdwriter, one of my favorite YouTube channels, created a video essay about a children’s book with hidden puzzles to a real life treasure: MASQUERADE, by Kit Williams.

MASQUERADE's cover a boy with a rabbit mask running around a flowering tree.

The story of this book is pretty strange and created the niche treasure hunt book genre that has inspired geocaching as well as escape rooms (which get a mention in the video).

Spoiler warning: This video will explain the rather complicated puzzles contained within the book. If you care to try and solve this puzzle even though the treasure has been found, you’ve been warned. 

I hadn’t heard of MASQUERADE before watching this, but I’ve now ordered a copy.

In the mean time, the book is out of print, but there are copies available used on Amazon for a few dollars if it interests you.

(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.)

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.

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.)

 

Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers and Secret Writing [Book Review]

Shift by 23: Wklv xvhg wr eh plolwdub judgh hqfubswlrq.

Author: Paul B. Janeczko

Year: 2006

Page Count: 144

ISBN: 978-0763629724

Price: ~$6 in paperback

Synopsis

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.

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

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.

Standouts

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.

Book illustration for the "code breaking" chapter. A spy chopping a code book like a martial artist chopping wood.

Shortcomings

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 CryptographyTop 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.

Order your copy of Paul B. Janeczko’s Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers and Secret Writing from Amazon using this link, and a small percentage of your purchase will go towards supporting Room Escape Artist.