The Master Theorem [Review]

Pure Puzzle Play

Location:  at home

Date Played: 2019-2020

Team size: 1 – ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Price: about $29.99

REA Reaction

The Master Theorem was a pure puzzle book presented beautifully.

Whether or not you buy this really comes down to a single question:

“Do I want a puzzle book?”

-You

If the answer is “yes,” then buy it… otherwise don’t.

The Master Theorem book cover.

The Master Theorem simply succeeded at puzzle book. It was pretty, well written, and beautifully presented. My only gripe was that its solid-enough hint system could have been a little bit more nuanced and user-friendly.

Whether you’re a seasoned puzzler or brand new to puzzles, there’s something to enjoy here… the difference will be how much time you spend enjoying it.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Any experience level – it will teach you over time if you’re a newbie

Why play?

  • A collection of finely crafted puzzles
  • The layouts and color print quality was beautiful
  • The solution descriptions were especially thorough
  • The writing style

Story

The Master Theorem was narrated by the mysterious character “M.” M’s goal was to grow his global secret society of problem solvers, something that the world desperately needs more of… so M produced a book for an expanded reach.

Continue reading “The Master Theorem [Review]”

Escape Game Adventure: The Mad Hacker [Book Review]

A kid’s guide to drone repair

Location:  at home

Date Played: February 2020

Team size: we recommend 1-family

Duration: 15-60 minutes

Price: about $10

REA Reaction

Like The Last Dragon, The Mad Hacker was a lovely kid-friendly puzzle book with great art and a soft difficulty curve.

Cover art for the Mad Hacker Escape Game Adventure book.

While we preferred the setting of The Last Dragon, we felt that the puzzles of The Mad Hacker had a bit more charm and, in a couple of cases, depth.

For families, The Mad Hacker is a fantastic follow-on to The Last Dragon. If you’re a seasoned escape room player, this one still isn’t really for you, but if you’re going to buy one of the Escape Game Adventure books, it should be The Mad Hacker.

Story

We had been sent to the year 2394 to stop a super computer virus from destroying all of the world’s technology.

Art of a person entering a large, futuristic, building.

Analysis

The analysis in this section is about the content of The Mad Hacker. To see our analysis of the structure, refer to our Escape Game Adventure Books overview.

➕ The puzzles were thematic, varied, and age-appropriate. Of note, they leaned a little more heavily on logic than the puzzles in The Last Dragon.

➕ We enjoyed how one puzzle incorporated an additional step of reasoning before a standard style of process puzzle.

➖ One optical puzzle missed the mark and thus wasn’t really a puzzle at all. You just had to look at it.

Drone Language for Beginners guide, beside a few paper cut items.

➖/➕ With The Mad Hacker our ratio of time spent cutting out pieces to solving puzzles leaned a bit too heavily toward cutting. That said, the game used the cutout pieces well, which we appreciated.

➕ The art was thematic, detailed, and enjoyable.

Tips For Players

  • Space Requirements: a small table
  • Required Gear: pencil, scissors

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

Disclosure: we received a media sample for review.

Support Room Escape Artist’s Mission

There are lots of ways to support Room Escape Artist, like buying from Amazon after clicking into the links included in this post or backing us on Patreon.

The money that we make from these helps us to grow the site and continue to add more value to the community that we love so much.

Escape Game Adventure: The Last Dragon [Book Review]

How to train your dragon kid to puzzle

Location:  at home

Date Played: February 2020

Team size: we recommend from 1 to family

Duration: 15-60 minutes

Price: about $10

REA Reaction

The Last Dragon was an adorable, kid/ family puzzle book.

The castle cover art for The Last Dragon Escape Game Adventure book.

The art was inviting and the puzzles were appropriate for children.

Of the initial 2 Escape Game Adventure books, this one is probably an easier starting place for kiddos to learn on (but it’s not a massive leap in difficulty to The Mad Hacker).

If you’re an avid escape room player, there isn’t much here for you aside from adorableness and a shot of dopamine for a completionist’s brain.

If you’re a family looking to ease your kids into a love of puzzles, and dragons are your kid’s jam, give this one a read.

Story

The evil King Badking had stolen the last dragon egg! We had to recover it and return it to the mother dragon before it became an omelet.

Illustration of a castle just beyond a forrest.

Analysis

The analysis in this section is about the content of The Last Dragon. To see our analysis of the structure, refer to our Escape Game Adventure Books overview.

➕ Can we take a moment to appreciate the name “King Badking?”

A guide book with a Knight's Templar Code key, magcal flask volumes, and a color mixing chart in CMY.

The Last Dragon consisted of reasonable, age-appropriate, varied puzzles. Overall, the puzzles required enough process for kids to build mastery and feel that they had earned their wins.

➖ One puzzle lacked sufficient explanation for the image on the page. This one would spin more freely with more robust clue structure on the page itself and not in the hint section.

➖ One puzzle required us to cut out an intricate design. There was no reason for the cutting to be as precise as it was.

Dooz giving a thumbs up beside a length of rope.

➕ The art was adorable. It was vibrant, colorful, and fun.

Tips For Players

  • Space Requirements: a small table
  • Required Gear: pencil, scissors

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

Disclosure: we received a media sample for review.

Support Room Escape Artist’s Mission

There are lots of ways to support Room Escape Artist, like buying from Amazon after clicking into the links included in this post or backing us on Patreon.

The money that we make from these helps us to grow the site and continue to add more value to the community that we love so much.

Escape Game Adventure Books [Overview]

Puzzling happily ever after.

Location:  at home

Date Played: February 2020

Team size: we recommend 1-family

Duration: 15-60 minutes

Price: about $10

REA Reaction

Escape Game Adventure books were family-friendly puzzle books with bold, beautiful illustrations and a light narrative. Each book represented an adventure through time and space to right a fantastical wrong.

The covers of both the Last Dragon & The Mad Hacker Escape Game Adventure books.

We’re in favor of anything that helps kids find a love of puzzling and using their minds to have fun. The Escape Game Adventure books comfortably fit that description.

They weren’t long or challenging. Their thorough approach to hinting and solution descriptions meant that anyone who wants to understand how a puzzle works can learn. Learning is what these books were all about. They would be a fantastic first step on a young puzzler’s journey.

Series Installments

Who is this for?

  • Kids & families
  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Adorable
  • Gorgeous illustrations
  • Kid friendliness
  • Straightforward, but real puzzling

We’re going to publish short reviews of each book in the series. For the sake of simplicity and repetition reduction, we’re covering the basics in this overview.

Setup

Escape Game Adventure books were play-at-home escape games in a book format designed for kids ages 8 to 12.

While the individual Escape Game Adventure books each offered a unique story and puzzle set, they all followed the same structure.

Each book opened with a:

  • 1-page history of escape rooms, that references our data (but doesn’t cite us… we’ll live)
  • 2-page spread with the rules
  • 1-page narrative lead-in

To play, you’ll need:

  • One of the books
  • Something to write with
  • A pair of scissors

Gameplay

The core gameplay of the Escape Game Adventure books revolved around observing, making connections, puzzling, and scissor skills.

Each book was broken down into pages labeled in 3 colors:

  • Puzzles – Green
  • Hints – Red
  • Solutions – Purple
Green puzzle page indicator.

Puzzles – Green

While this escape room was presented in book format, we didn’t flip through the pages in order like we would with a traditional storybook. Each puzzle resolved to a page number, thus taking us to another page in the book.

Closeup of a graphical dogear.

If a puzzle took up more than one page, this was noted in lower corners with a graphical dogear.

At the back of the book there was an answer validation grid mechanism to verify that we were moving to the correct page, but we didn’t use it after the first puzzle. (Kids probably will use it.)

Hints – Red

Each puzzle had between 2-5 hints (usually 4) presented in order. The hints were well-structured and granular. If you need help, the hints will provide good nudges.

Solutions – Purple

The solution pages were graphical and outlined each puzzle step-by-step. Even if you cannot solve the puzzles, the Escape Game Adventure books will not leave you hanging.

Analysis

This analysis refers to the structure of play, which was standard across the Escape Game Adventure book series. Refer to the individual reviews for the analysis of the content of each book.

Dooz beside a time portal.

➕ We loved Dooz, the robot friend that aided us throughout our escape. His speech bubbles added character to the cluing and the hint pages. Dooz reminded me a lot of Babbage from the original Time Run games.

➖ The books opened with a text-heavy description and light history of escape rooms before leaning into the rules. This felt a little too long for the audience and gave us the bad impression that the books would overwhelm us with prose. Fortunately, they weren’t.

➕ The answer validation grid was an elegant mechanism to help kids confirm that they had solved the puzzle correctly and keep them on the right track.

❓ With the solution always a page number in the book, that limited the structures of answers (and would make back-solving easier.) This wasn’t inherently a problem, but may make the solutions start to feel repetitive over time, as the book series expands.

➖ The graphical dogeared page corner indicator that a puzzle continued on the next page was not eye-catching enough. We regularly struggled to notice them.

➕ The hint system was easy to find and clear to follow. The solution pages were separate from the hint system and just as easy to locate. Both hints and solutions were thorough and clear.

➖ The instructions did not mention that we’d need scissors. We definitely needed them.

➕ The Escape Game Adventure books included vocabulary lessons on many of the pages. A “Did You Know?” bubble told the reader some basic information about a thematic word that will likely be unfamiliar to kids.

Tips For Players

  • Space Requirements: a small table
  • Required Gear: pencil, scissors
  • Note that while you do cut pieces out to solve the puzzles, if you save the pieces and don’t write in the books while solving, you could give these to other players.

Buy Them Now

Buy your copies of the Escape Game Adventure books, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: we received media samples for review.

Support Room Escape Artist’s Mission

There are lots of ways to support Room Escape Artist, like buying from Amazon after clicking into the links included in this post or backing us on Patreon.

The money that we make from these helps us to grow the site and continue to add more value to the community that we love so much.

Ship of Theseus by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst [Review]

Meta masterpiece.

Author:  J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

Release Date:  October 29, 2013

Page Count: 472 plus inserts

Price: About $30

Publisher:  Mulholland Books

REA Reaction

Ship of Theseus, also known as S., is hard to categorize. Presented in book form, it’s an ambitious piece of experimental fiction with many layers of story and meaning. Ship of Theseus started with an innocuous central premise — who is the author V.M. Straka? — and infused it with unique storytelling to create an epic reading experience.

Ship of Theseus felt more like a novel than anything else, but its supplemental documents and many narrative layers made it more involving than passively reading a regular book. At times, the unusual format felt as exciting as a movie and as nonlinear and interactive as a game.

Ship of Theseus title page.

There were ciphers embedded in Ship of Theseus, and deciding how to tackle the layers of story required some strategizing. But mostly the point was to explore and gradually gain familiarity with its rich fictional world of academia and intrigue.

Due to its length and complexity, Ship of Theseus was intimidating. If you’re looking for a straightforward read or clearly delineated puzzles, the setup may feel overwhelming. Just like with certain other J.J. Abrams projects, not all the open questions got clear answers. But even without uncovering all of its secrets, Ship of Theseus had a lot to offer casual readers.

If you love the feeling of exploring someone’s communications and unlocking a grand story piece by piece, Ship of Theseus was made for you.

Who is this for?

  • Avid readers who enjoy being immersed in a story’s world
  • Cipher enthusiasts
  • Fans of experimental literature

Why Read?

  • Rich, intricate world building
  • Impressive construction of story layers
  • Mysteries at every turn

Story

V.M. Straka wrote many novels, but his true identity remains shrouded in mystery. His final book, Ship of Theseus, followed a man with amnesia journeying to distant lands to discover his true identity and motivation. Straka’s translator published the novel posthumously in 1949.

Decades later, two students at Pollard State University meet by writing notes back and forth in a copy of Ship of Theseus left at the university library. By delving into Straka’s web of associations and solving hidden messages in the book, Jen and Eric connect over a shared interest in discovering Straka’s identity. Along the way, they’re thrown into a conspiracy story of their own with life-or-death stakes.

Ship of Theseus book and slipcover.

Setup

Ship of Theseus was presented as an old hardcover book. It had copious notes written in the margins and an assortment of paper mementos interspersed throughout the pages. Besides the authors’ names on the box, the entire package appeared to be an artifact from the story’s fictional world.

The novel unfolded as a stand-alone narrative within the literary intrigue surrounding the associates and scholars of V.M. Straka. 

In the margins, Jen and Eric discussed research about Straka, goings-on in their corner of academia, and typical getting-to-know-you topics. They also shared theories about secret messages hidden in Ship of Theseus. They wrote in different colors in different time periods, so part of the reading process involved untangling the timeline of their findings and the events they described.

By perusing the novel, the translator’s footnotes, the conversations between Jen and Eric, and the documents slipped between the pages, I attempted to puzzle out the concurrent narrative threads and eventually solve the central question: Who is V.M. Straka?

Sample pages of Ship of Theseus, along with a postcard that says "Greetings from Brazil."

Gameplay

Ship of Theseus was primarily a nonlinear reading experience, but certain elements felt a bit like solving puzzles. Determining the timeline of Jen and Eric’s notes based on the color of their pens gave me logic puzzle vibes. Piecing together details from different timelines and different sources helped deepen my understanding of the story world.

Ship of Theseus included a number of ciphers within its pages. The margin notes frequently pointed out odd details about certain passages and theorized about possible hidden messages. Jen and Eric wrote out solutions to several of the book’s ciphers in the margins.

Because Ship of Theseus was presented as a found object, no other solutions were available. The creators initially published websites and social media posts dedicated to solving the mysteries of Straka, in the vein of an ARG. These are cryptic, however, and some of the links may have decayed in the ensuing years.

Reading and rereading Ship of Theseus and its supplementary documents created an increasingly clear picture of Straka’s life and legacy. I felt comfortable putting the book down when the story seemed complete enough. Hunting for puzzles to solve felt like a whole new dimension — one that, in my case, eventually became a burden.

Analysis

Ship of Theseus felt like an artifact with a rich backstory. The paper and binding were yellowed and worn like a real old book. Maybe I’d imagined it, but the pages even smelled a little musty. This authentic design set the stage for the story to come. It also meant I didn’t have to be careful with the book. If you scuff it up or accidentally splash tea on the pages, that only makes it more lifelike.

➕ Between the novel itself, the translator’s footnotes, the inserts, and the margin notes, Ship of Theseus contained at least half a dozen points of view from several different time periods, all presented at once. It blew my mind to imagine the work that must have gone into keeping all these layers straight and combining them to create an immersive, cohesive story world.

A sample footnote plus margin notes from Ship of Theseus.

➕ As a novel, Ship of Theseus stood on its own as an odd but engaging piece of fiction. The parallels between the novel and the side stories added to the intrigue.

➕/➖ The expansiveness of the mythology was impressive, even extending to seemingly official websites and social media posts. But the book came out in 2013, and certain links are no longer live (if they ever were). I found online communities dedicated to solving the book’s mysteries, but the conversation had died down since its publication. At that point, I felt like I was on my own.

➕ Because of all the simultaneous layers, the material appeared out of order and without full context, especially the margin notes. This structure may sound daunting, but in practice it felt empowering to make connections among all the story threads. After I’d spent a few months with Ship of Theseus, it felt like a major triumph to have gone from utter confusion to near fluency with the story’s literary world. But that doesn’t mean less patient readers will get lost: even without deep knowledge of what everything means, the story feels complete, and regular plot reminders help keep most things straight.

➕ Jen and Eric were strong, fleshed-out characters, right down to their distinctive handwriting. Because of Ship of Theseus’s nonlinear design, they developed over time in a unique way. The older margin notes reminded me of my own college days. The more recent ones illustrated how the characters have grown.

➕ Most of the ciphers in the book were pre-solved in the margin notes, but usually not on the same page. I appreciated being able to consider them as long as I wanted before reading on to find the code explained. Cipher aficionados might prefer to spend more time poring over the text before moving on.

❓Sometimes the notes indicated a seemingly important detail that might be part of a code, but never resolved the mystery. My internet research didn’t turn up any answers about the importance of these details. If they are secret messages, they’re extremely hard to decode. If not, they’re just red herrings.

➖ Ship of Theseus felt like it contained a multitude of hidden messages, but I didn’t find much to actually solve. Of the ciphers explained in the margins, the average puzzler couldn’t solve most of them without help. Not that they should’ve dumbed it down — but it hurt a little to solve literally nothing on my own.

➕ As a whole, Ship of Theseus presented a message of hope and perseverance. The conclusion of the various threads felt emotional and satisfying — though it never exactly felt like the end, because I can always pick up the book again and revisit Straka’s world someday.

Tips For Reading

Some of the margin notes refer to things that happen later in the novel, so reading the novel before the notes would be an efficient way to set out…in theory. However, it’s hard to ignore the eye-catching notes in the margins. See what feels right. You could read chapter by chapter, or go through the notes again after reading the whole book in order.

Even if you don’t attempt any extra sleuthing, Ship of Theseus is not a weekend read. Because it’s a longer narrative experience, it helps to keep notes, however you approach your readthrough. With all the out-of-context references, it might even be worth making an index. It all depends on how serious you want to get.

If you aren’t interested in rabbit holes, you can read casually and have most of the details doled out like a regular book. Without the extra trappings, Ship of Theseus is still a memorable, satisfying story.

Finally, don’t let the inserts fall out. But if they do, you can find guides online that describe where they all go.

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

Support Room Escape Artist’s Mission

There are lots of ways to support Room Escape Artist, like buying from Amazon after clicking into the links included in this post or backing us on Patreon.

The money that we make from these helps us to grow the site and continue to add more value to the community that we love so much.