Son of Doctor Esker’s Notebook [Review]

Its father’s son.

Location:  at home

Date Played: November 24, 2019

Team size: 1-6; we recommend 2-3

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: about $15

REA Reaction

I’m going to give you a decision tree to answer the question, “Should I buy Son of Doctor Esker’s Notebook?”

The purple box for Son of Esker.
  • Did you play the original Doctor Esker’s Notebook?
  • Did you enjoy Doctor Esker’s Notebook?
    • If yes, continue on. If no, you can probably leave.
  • Do you want a 9-puzzle expansion pack for Doctor Esker’s Notebook?
    • If yes, buy now. If no, 👋

These are structurally the same game with different puzzles. For me, single biggest difference between Doctor Esker’s Notebook and Son of Doctor Esker’s Notebook was that I greatly preferred the final puzzle in the original. Beyond that, these games played identically and felt just as satisfying.

I enjoyed another dip into this particular pool, but my hope is that future installments will expand or change the gameplay and mechanics.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Players with at least some experience

Why play?

  • You liked the first Esker
  • Strong puzzles
  • The Esker solution input mechanism is still great


As with the original Doctor Esker’s Notebook, Son of Esker didn’t have a noticeable plot line; it was a collection of puzzles.

10 stacks of cards with photographs and art on the back.
Each stack of cards contained the components for an individual puzzle.


Son of Esker was functionally identical to the original. There were 9 different puzzles presented as stacks of cards.

There was a 10th stack of cards used to assemble solutions. The solution to one puzzle pointed us to the next puzzle in the sequence.

If we needed hints, they were available via a website.

Closeup of a stack of cards that reads "Start"
What could this mysterious message mean?


Son of Doctor Esker’s Notebook was a challenging, puzzle-centric play-at-home escape game contained within a deck of cards.

An assortment of cards with a hand drawn map on the.
A glimpse of the first puzzle.


See our original review. Our structural critiques apply to the sequel as well. The primary difference was that we didn’t encounter any learning curve problems the second time around, but that had more to do with us than it did the game.

➕ We truly enjoyed most of the puzzles.

❓ The leap in difficulty from the first to the second puzzle was substantial. While it was jarring, it wasn’t necessarily bad in the context of a sequel.

➖ One puzzle hit a sour note for us. Another graphic-heavy puzzle was bizarrely designed and had us wondering if we really were seeing what we saw.

➖ We didn’t love the final puzzle. It played with many of the same ideas as the final puzzle in the original, but the sequel’s conclusion wasn’t as friendly for group solves. It was a considerably more complicated logic puzzle and we found that it was better for a single solver to work on it in focused silence… which led to a quiet, solitary conclusion.

Tips For Players

  • Space Requirements: a small table or the floor
  • Required Gear: pen and paper

Buy your copy of Son of Doctor Esker’s Notebook, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Son of Doctor Esker’s Notebook provided a sample for review.

Unlock! – The Night of The Boogeymen [Review]

A great bad dream

Location:  at home

Date Played: January 11, 2020

Team size: 1-6; we recommend 2-4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: about $15

REA Reaction

The Night of The Boogeymen is as good as Unlock! and table top escape games have gotten for me so far. I loved playing this game… and we’re not going to give away our copy (like we normally do) because one day I’m going to forget the puzzles and I’ll replay it.

Unlock's The Night of the Bogeymen box art depicts a cartoonish child hiding under the covers from a monster with red glowing eyes under the bed.

The Night of The Boogeymen had a simple, relatable premise: to help a child suffering from bad dreams. Artistically, the cards struck a beautiful balance of creepiness and childishness that felt perfect for this setup. The gameplay knocked it out of the proverbial park by adding abstract dream like constraints that were regularly changing the feel and play style of the game.

All of this was underpinned by a more (but not entirely) linear narrative that kept the number of cards on the table from getting out of hand or feeling too restrictive (both of which regularly wreck Unlock! games for us).

I highly recommend Unlock! The Night of The Boogeymen. Space Cowboys took their standard formula and added the best kind of spin to it.

Who is this for?

  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • A brilliant and engaging bad dream like mechanic
  • Story-driven gameplay
  • Adorable art


Young William was haunted by monsters that went bump in the night. Four boogeymen stalked the dreams of the child. As the boy slept we had to banish these beasts from his mind.

A stack of player cards on the left, the card backs are covered with glowing red eyes beside a story card explaining that a child is being hauned by monsters at night.


Unlock! games all follow the same structure of card-based gameplay supplemented by a mobile app. I explained it in detail in our first Unlock! review back in 2017.

A card depicts a book holding a door closed.


Unlock! The Night of The Boogeymen was a story-driven, play-at-home escape game with a moderate level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching, making connections, puzzling, and a little dexterity.

The first two chapter cards explain the nature of the Boogeymen


➕ The story was simple, effective, and relatable.

➕ The art was great. It captured the look of childish imagined horrors. When we were finished, I found myself looking though the cards to make sure that I picked up on all of the details.

➕ I found the puzzling delightful. Plenty of challenges were simple and straightforward, but there were enough chewy, satisfying solves to keep it from feeling like all we were doing was plugging related objects together.

➖ One puzzle was conceptually brilliant, but we felt that it was a bit too tangled up in precision. It was far too easy to get it wrong, even after having figured out exactly what we needed to do.

➖ Another puzzle was poorly gated. It seemed like we had all of the necessary information to solve it… but after incurring a few time penalties we eventually realized that we needed a little more information.

➖/➕ I still have no love for the hidden number scavenger hunt in Unlock! games. It’s a weak mechanism. That said, I do appreciate that the app points these out, but still, we occasionally aren’t sure if we’ve found the particular hidden number referenced by the app.

➕ The monsters that we had to battle were fantastic – both as villains and as game mechanics. The constraints that came with facing these monsters transformed this from a game to an experience.

Tips For Player

  • Space Requirements: a small table 
  • Required Gear: a smartphone with the Unlock! app

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

Disclosure: Asmodee provided a sample for review.

Talking Tables – Host Your Own Escape Room [Review]

“With Interactive Ending” 🤔

Location:  at home

Date Played: January 11, 2020

Team size: 2+; we recommend 2

Duration: 60 minutes (in theory)

Price: about $20

REA Reaction

Talking Tables’ Host Your Own Escape Room was not designed for us. If you’re a regular reader of Room Escape Artist, we can pretty much guarantee that it wasn’t made for you either. This game feels like light entertainment for adults who don’t play or puzzle much.

A lantern, instruction booklet, and welcome information.

Host Your Own Escape Room looked good, but it didn’t have much of anything going on beyond its elegant production.

Including setup time, we finished Host Your Own Escape Room in 20 minutes. There was a light searching component and approximately 3 puzzles (depending upon your definition of puzzle), all of which were incredibly common and basic puzzle types.

That isn’t to say that they were bad (except for the one that demanded a bit of outside knowledge). The puzzles were cleanly executed. However, there simply wasn’t much to it.

Creators in the escape room world are making so many delightful and creative games. Host Your Own Escape Room simply wasn’t representative of where this medium is moving.

Who is this for?

People who want to enjoy the faintest whiff of an escape room from the comfort of their own home.

Why play?

  • The 3 puzzles all solve cleanly
  • High production value


We were trapped inside of a cinema in Tokyo.

Assorted large cardboard Japanese items.


A host is supposed to open the box, read the rules, and hide a few items in a room within their home.

Once the guests are in the room, said host reads a brief introduction to the setting and so begins the game.

The host can play with the group, provided they didn’t solve the puzzles in advance. They just have to hold back on searching (and maybe provide searching hints if they hid items too well or their friends are lazy searchers.)

If the team requires hints or solutions to any of the puzzles, the instruction booklet contains them in the last few pages.

The red maze box art for Host Your Own Escape Room.


Talking Tables’ Host Your Own Escape Room was a standard play-at-home escape game with a low level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching and puzzling.

A welcome letter, part of a sudoku, a folder for clues, a collapsed lantern, and part of a script.


➕ For $20, the production value of Host Your Own Escape Room was impressive. All of the materials looked great. They had an elegant red, black, and white aesthetic that demonstrated that someone really cared about the presentation of this game.

➕ The option and instructions for adding a search component into the game were well executed.

➖ The story was only thematically relevant.

➕ The puzzles within this game all solved cleanly, and pulled from Japanese culture and puzzle design.

➖ The puzzles were all common puzzle types without much of a twist.

➖ A large volume of the objects within this game had no purpose other than to look thematic. It’s a shame that these components weren’t worked into the gameplay at all.

➖ One puzzle required outside knowledge.

➖ The phrase, “with interactive ending” literally meant that we needed to use a web browser in the most basic way possible.

Host Your Own Escape Room came with a beefy notepad. It was hilariously large for this game. We’ve kept it and will be using it for some time.

A large notepad that says "Notes" at the top.

Tips For Players

  • Space Requirements: a room with a door and a small table
  • Required Gear: an internet-connected device, paper and pencil (or pen if you like to live dangerously)

Buy your copy of Talking Tables’s Host Your Own Escape Room, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Talking Tables provided a sample for review.

So You Wanna Save the World – Episode 0 [Review]

Who wants to save the %#(@ world?

Location:  at home

Date Played: October 2019

Team size: Unlimited; we recommend 1-2

Duration: Variable; probably 2-3 hours

Price: Free

REA Reaction

So You Wanna Save the World is envisioned as a monthly puzzle subscription service intended to replicate the feel of playing an escape room. The monthly package hasn’t launched yet, but this free prequel episode offers a taste of what the creators have in mind.

Considering the online setting, Episode 0 felt a lot like a puzzle hunt, but with more of a story focus. The secret agency backstory provided a clever meta-explanation for the physical mailer format. Using websites, videos, and phone calls upped the fun factor.

The gameplay itself felt uneven at times, as some moments of insight came significantly more easily than others. Trial and error played a role as we determined which components fit together. The puzzles ranged from delightfully challenging to frustratingly opaque.

Logo with text reading "So You Wanna Save the World: An Online Escape Room Experience."

The tone of So You Wanna Save the World was edgy bordering on aggressive. Players who prefer a more welcoming, supportive atmosphere should probably look elsewhere.

So You Wanna Save the World made big promises of being cinematic and game-changing. Episode 0 delivered a slick and entertaining game, but with some rough edges. Producing fun, balanced content every month isn’t easy, but with lots of playtesting, future installments could live up to those promises.

Who is this for?

  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Players with at least some experience

Why play?

  • The puzzles
  • The edgy, roguish vibe
  • To banter with a smart-mouthed AI


We had been recruited by the Mail Marshals, a secret government agency embedded inside the post office. Two Mail Marshals agents, along with an experimental AI, provided evidence and secret messages for us to decipher in order to prove our worth and catch the bad guy.

Two agents sit at a desk labeled "Mail Marshals" in front of a giant screen showing a close-up of a globe.


So You Wanna Save the World used websites, phone numbers, and videos to present a series of puzzles enmeshed in a secret agent story. An online account saved our progress in a Case Notes section, complete with writeups of our progress so far. We could confer with other players via the Recruit Network (a Facebook group) if we needed help.

In future installments of So You Wanna Save the World, each episode will start with a physical mailing sent to players’ home addresses. This introductory episode began with a digital version of one of these mailers.

A mailer for Anderson and Sons Plumbing, with additional marketing text and a man in a jumpsuit giving a thumbs-up.


So You Wanna Save the World: Episode 0 was an online puzzle game with a high level of difficulty. Core gameplay revolved around observation and cracking codes.

The puzzles varied in difficulty and usually involved aha moments. This meant some puzzles took just a few moments to figure out and others took far longer.

The puzzles were presented in tandem with a story about the case we were working on. The tasks mostly emerged authentically from the story and the puzzle’s medium (video, audio, or graphic).


So You Wanna Save the World integrated websites, phone calls, and physical mailings. The puzzles felt natural in all of these habitats.

➕/➖ The website, videos, and other materials went a long way towards making the experience immersive. The production value was slick and professional, but the characters lacked a sense of urgency. We found ourselves wishing the videos had expressed the intensity that saving the world would ostensibly require.

➖ Our interactions with Tachyon, our AI helper, were persnickety. We sometimes had to experiment to find the specific wording that would get her to react. When she didn’t understand, she berated us with insults that quickly became repetitive.

A chat window with a robot avatar saying "Oh look, it's Recruit Willson here to waste my time."

❓ Speaking of Tachyon…So You Wanna Save the World was explicitly not for children. The cursing was gratuitous and unabashed, and the story included descriptions of violence. This may limit the potential audience somewhat, particularly for families interested in puzzling together.

➕/➖ So You Wanna Save the World presented bonus evidence and Easter eggs concurrently with the main storyline. We enjoyed searching for the extra hidden content. At times the bonus puzzles stood out more than the ones on the main branch of gameplay, so we accidentally forked away without realizing. Further playtesting might help even out the difficulty of the branches.

➕/➖ Solving puzzles and determining which components to combine often required trial and error. Many of the stand-alone puzzles provided satisfying moments of insight. When we needed to choose which clues fit together to make progress, the lack of structure made things more challenging, and occasionally frustrating.

➖ Because we didn’t know what style or caliber of puzzle to expect, we had trouble getting our bearings at first. We spent almost an hour on the first puzzle before the insight necessary to solve it dawned on us. An easier start or some form of onboarding would give players a better idea of what sort of challenge awaited.

➕ The Case Notes section of the website recorded our progress and included recaps of previous puzzles. This helped us keep our findings straight and reorient ourselves after stepping away from the game. The Case Notes also helped show how a puzzle was solved when we weren’t quite sure how we’d done it.

➖ The first-person format of the Case Notes became jarring when the notes expressed attitudes opposed to my own. Late in the game, Recruit Willson praised a character whose actions I would never support in real life. Seeing my actual name on this entry was unsettling. A more neutral stance in the notes would preserve immersion.

➕/➖ The Facebook group was a creative in-game way to get hints. It was tricky to describe where we were stuck, since the puzzles weren’t linear or explicitly named. The other recruits’ posts were helpful, though we had to dodge spoilers for puzzles we hadn’t reached yet. Also, the group could become more or less useful in the future as the community grows or shrinks.

➕ The Mail Marshals backstory explained the purpose of the physical mailer components cleverly. Episode 0 started online instead of via snail mail, but searching through actual junk mail for secret messages in future episodes sounds like fun.

Tips for Playing

So You Wanna Save the World: Episode 0 requires an internet connection and a US phone number. A pencil and paper will come in handy, but otherwise you don’t need any special equipment.

Playing alone or with one companion seems ideal, since the puzzles aren’t particularly collaborative. If you typically like approaching puzzle hunts and similar games solo, try this one by yourself.

And ignore Tachyon when she tells you you’re a useless $*@%. You’ll show her.

Room Escape Lover’s Holiday Buyer’s Guide – 2019

‘Tis the season to bepuzzle your family and friends. We’re here to help.

Room Escape Artist Holiday Buyer's Guide 2019 masthead, features the REA logo with a Santa hat.

Every year we assemble a unique list of puzzles, tools, and other items that we think escape room lovers would love to give or receive.

This year’s list contains the most expensive item we’ve ever listed… as well as the spiciest item. (These aren’t the same item.) Enjoy!


We’ve got all manner of puzzles for you, broken out into categories for your convenience.

Tabletop Escape Games

We play and review a lot of tabletop puzzle games every year. We separate the great from the rest so that you don’t have to.

These were our 5 standouts (in no particular order) that put their own twist on the medium.

EXIT The Game- The Catacombs of Horror

$21.50 – Amazon

Exit: The Game Catacombs of Horror box art featuring a skull, and lit candle.

The folks behind the EXIT The Game series have been cranking out tabletop escape games for a few years. Catacombs of Horror is decidedly the crown jewel in the current collection. We loved this double-length tabletop puzzle experience.

Escape Room in a Box: Flashback

$20 – Amazon

The Flashback box art.

Escape Room in a Box: The Werewolf Experiment was the early gold standard in tabletop escape games. The women behind that game have released its sequel, Flashback. Predictably, it was fantastic.

Doctor Esker’s Notebook

$15 – Amazon

The small card deck sized box for Doctor Esker's Notebook.

Looks can be deceiving. Doctor Esker’s Notebook didn’t look like much, but it had some brilliant puzzling. We highly recommend this little deck of cards. We also have the sequel, Son of Esker, waiting on our to-play pile. We can’t vouch for the sequel yet, but we are excited to give it a go.

Ravensburger Escape Puzzle

Witches Kitchen – $16 – Amazon

Space Observatory – $20 – Amazon

The cover of Ravensburger Escape Puzzle, Witch's Kitchen.

Ravensburger’s Escape Puzzles are part jigsaw puzzle and part tabletop escape game. Players first solve a 759-piece jigsaw puzzle. Then they solve the puzzles embedded within the image to ultimately resolve a meta-puzzle. The Escape Puzzle twist added more purpose to the jigsaw assembly. Our favorites were Space Observatory, which was a more challenging jigsaw but an easier escape puzzle, and Witch’s Kitchen, which looked great and played evenly across all types of puzzles.

The Escape Game – Escape from Iron Gate

$44 – Amazon

Escape Iron Gate's box featuring a prison and labeled, "The prison break party game."

The Escape Game put a new twist on the tabletop escape room format with Escape from Iron Gate. This competitive escape game pitted us against each other in a quest to puzzle, act, draw, and trade our way out of prison the quickest. It’s easy to learn and accessible to non-gamers… but don’t underestimate its strategic depth.

Jigsaw-ish Puzzles

3D Rubber Ducky Puzzle

$11.50 – Amazon

A 3D crystal jigsaw puzzle of a rubber ducky.

I honestly thought this was going to be garbage, but I was wrong. These 3D puzzles are surprisingly satisfying and solid. They offer a lot of different designs, but I went with the Rubber Ducky… it was the one.

Infinite Earth Puzzle

$120 – Nervous System

A laser cut wooden jigsaw puzzle of the eather that has no beginning or end.

We’ve reviewed a few Nervous System puzzles and this Infinite Earth Puzzle looks like it might be their coolest product yet.

Puzzle Video Games

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening [Switch]

$49 – Amazon

Link climbing a mountain to a massive egg.

Nintendo has done a full remake of this classic. Whether you’ve played the original or never heard of it, I highly recommend it.

I Expect You to Die

$25 – Schell Games

This is a killer James Bond-meets-escape-room VR game. Room Escape Artist’s puzzle video game reviewer Steve Ewing loved it.

Puzzle Books

This year’s selection of books is different from those we’ve featured in the past. We’ve been branching out.

Puzzle Snacks

$8 – Amazon

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

Puzzle Snacks was an inspired idea for a book. It’s a collection of word puzzles deliberately designed for quick solving. They don’t require any crossword puzzler wizardry, nor do they necessitate an extensive vocabulary. They are straightforward, fun, and clever. We ate them up.

Ship of Theseus

$22.50 – Amazon

Ship of Theseus title page.

Created by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst, Ship of Theseus is an immersive novel with layers of storytelling. The other day, Room Escape Artist correspondent Sarah Willson published her review that was months in the making. All I can say is, I wish that I had the time to dive into the deep end on this one. I’m glad she did.

Cain’s Jawbone

$15 – Amazon

The box art for Cain's Jawbone depicts a library with a deadman on the floor and a person in the shadows outside of the window.

If Ship of Theseus isn’t puzzley enough for you… Try Cain’s Jawbone. This is an 85-year-old puzzle that was recently reprinted. It’s an intensely cool concept and I’ll likely never be able to solve the copy that I own.

Bletchley Park Puzzles

$7 – Amazon

The elegant black, white, and blue Sudoku Puzzle book.

When I was looking for a Sudoku book, the Bletchey Park Puzzle Books caught my eye, not because they are special from a puzzling standpoint, but because the cover art was simple and understated. Most puzzle books of this style have loud covers that look like they were designed by a 6-year-old who just learned about WordArt.

Bletchey Park Puzzle Books also offers other titles including Logic, Cryptic Crosswords, Math Puzzles, and of course Code Breaking.


Triforce Alarm Clock

$30 – Amazon

A golden triangle assembled from 4 smaller triangers. The centerpiece has an alarm display.

It’s dangerous to wake up alone! Take this.

Chocolate Key Mold

$6 – Amazon

4 antique lever keys in a clear mold.

Lisa and I love dessert… a lot. We like making desserts and we especially enjoy consuming them. Chocolate key molds bring together a few of our favorite things. We’re guessing that there might be a few other folks who feel the same way.

Morse Code Doormat

$19 – Etsy

Morse code welcome mat reads, -.- -. --- -.-. -.-, -.- -. --- -.-. -.-.

When we moved into our house, we commissioned the creation of this doormat… and now it’s for sale on Etsy for all to enjoy.

Tabletop Games

Ex Libris

$42 – Amazon

The cover of Ex Libris depicting a strange magical library.

Ex Libris is a competitive tabletop game where everyone is a wizard librarian working to assemble the most impressive and best organized collection of magical books. If that description is speaking to you, then you probably need to buy this game.

Throw Throw Burrito

$33 – Amazon

The cover of throw throw burrito depicts two cartoonish burritos.

A card game meets dodge ball… but with foam burritos. Created by Elan Lee and Matthew Inman (The Oatmeal), this is a delightful and funny game. Lisa beta tested this back before the Kickstarter.

What’s That Smell?

$17 – Amazon

Whats That Smell's box in the bag.

I hate this game. If there’s someone in your life that you aren’t fond of, but are stuck with, and you need to get them a present, this is the low key, passive-aggressive gift you’re looking for. For a good time, read my review.


Wera Screwdriver

$32 – Amazon

A Wera screw driver with extendable neck, and 6 bits that store in the handle.

I’ve long wanted a lightweight, full-sized screwdriver with interchangeable bits that is also easy to toss into a bag. It turns out that penetration tester (and quite possibly the most interesting person on the internet) Deviant Ollam found the solution.

I freaking love this screwdriver. It lives in my bag now. I’ve already bought a second one to give to a friend. I have a feeling that I’ll be giving these things as gifts pretty often.

Klein Tools Non-Contact Voltage Tester

$10 – Amazon

A Klein NCVT-1 Voltage Tester

We bought our first house this year and I’ve been learning to do a little electrical work. This tool is a lifesaver. Sure, you can do it with a multimeter, but why bother when the non-contact voltage tester is so effortless?

Klein Tools Outlet Tester

$11 – Amazon

A Klein RT210 outlet tester.

This little guy plugs into an AC outlet and immediately checks its functionality. This is one of the most efficient tools I’ve ever used. If I had to use a multimeter to check every outlet in the house, it would have taken so much more time and effort.

Gerber 7-in-1 Shard Keychain Solid State Tool

$7 – Amazon

A gerber shard with a bottle opener, pry tool and, cutting tool.

I’ve been carrying this simple multitool on my keychain for a little over a year. It’s not a comprehensive tool, but it’s great for quick, reactionary situations… and it’s TSA friendly.

Paasche MIL-Set Double Action Siphon Feed Airbrush

$65 – Amazon

An airbrush kit.

Earlier this year I asked Justin Nevins, the creator of the one true Cryptex, what his favorite tool was. His answer was an airbrush, which surprised me. He suggested this Paasche brush and followed it up by saying, “I swap out the plastic bottles for glass. I like this brand over Testors’ because of the metal components.”

It’s also worth noting that it requires an air compressor.


$300 Early Bird – Room Escape Artist

RECON - Reality Escape Convention logo features a penrose triangle and and a blue eye.

We’re producing an escape room convention on August 23 & 24, 2020 in Boston. The escape room creator in your life (which may be you) should absolutely attend. We’re doing the hard work and believe that we’re building something special.

Stocking Stuffers

NY Times Crossword Puzzle Calendar

$13 – Amazon

Box for the NY Times daily crossword calendar, depicts a crossword grid.

Shhh… I’m getting this for Lisa. Don’t tell her.

Secret Aardvark – Habanero Sauce

$9 – Amazon

Bottle of Secret Aardvark Habanero Hot Sauce

Hot sauce habit intensifies.

I love me some hot sauce. I’m not competitive about it, nor am I a masochist. I just love me some spice and the flavor of habanero peppers. Secret Aardvark is a flavorful, medium-heat hot sauce with no calories, carbs, or sugar. I put it on basically everything that isn’t a dessert.

Why is this on here? I love it. Also, it’s “secret” aardvark. It’s totally on-brand for us.

Hoberman Switch

$14 – Amazon

A blue ball with unusual cuts n the side. One the inside you can see purple coloration.

Created by artist/ engineer/ architect Chuck Hoberman, the Hoberman Switch is far more interesting than a fidget toy. When you toss this ball in the air, its outside flips inside and the color changes.

Frixon Highlighters

$8 – Amazon

6 flourscent highlighters in a package with Japanese writing.

Last year we shared Frixion pens in our Holiday Buyer’s Guide. Since then, we’ve learned of Frixion highlighters… which are pretty great, although admittedly less versatile than the pens.

Hanayama Harmony Cast Puzzle

$8 – Amazon

A tangled musical note and the treble clef symbol.

I’m not the biggest fan of entanglement puzzles, but this one was special. The aesthetic offers something more than just two pieces of metal twisted together. It’s also a satisfying solve.

For Real Little Ones

Lock Latch Board

$17 – Amazon

A child's latch board with a keyed lock, a gate latch, a combination lock, and a briefcase lock.

Help your tiny humans enjoy themselves and build fine motor skills while training them for escape room greatness.

I’m not naming names or anything, but if your kid can effectively use a briefcase lock, they might be a more useful teammate than some of the adults that I’ve played escape rooms with.

Curiosity: The Story of a Mars Rover

$13 – Amazon

Cover art of "Curiosity: The Story of a Mars Rover," depicts an illustrated anthromorphic Mars rover.

This book is as beautiful as it is adorable. Child me would have made my mom read it to me until she had it memorized.

Escape Room Tickets

Amanda, Drew, David, & Lisa post-game at Escape From the 6. Each is wearing costumes and props from their games.

This is your annual reminder that a gift certificate to a favorite local escape room is a great gift.

Take a look at our escape room directory or regional recommendations guides to find something fun.

Something Special

Custom Secret Message Ring

$600 – Erica Weiner

A stack of three rings in silver, gold, and rose gold. Each has a different arrangement of stones on the band.

Erica Weiner makes delightful custom jewelry. These rings add an extra layer of intrigue because the gems are used as a cipher to hide a message.

Hobbit Hole

$2,390 or $3,270 (depending upon size) – Etsy

A Hobbit Hole home open with small furniture inside.

This is pretty much the greatest material gift that one could give.

Is it too expensive? Maybe… if you don’t love your kids.

Past Holiday Buyer’s Guides

We still stand by our previous holiday buyer’s guides. They are worth exploring:

The Escape Game – Escape from Iron Gate [Review]

Playing by prison rules.

Location:  at home

Date Played: October 26, 2019

Team size: 3-8; we recommend 4-5

Duration: 45-60 minutes

Price: about $44

REA Reaction

Escape from Iron Gate was quite the surprise and a breath of fresh air in a tabletop escape room scene that’s always riffing on the same “real-life escape room on your table” structure.

Escape Iron Gate's box featuring a prison and labeled, "The prison break party game."

The Escape Game’s take on the tabletop escape room was 100% competitive, not collaborative. It had a board-gamey feel to it. We moved our meeples through different areas of a prison, rolled dice, collected sets of item cards, and earned those cards through solving puzzles – and playing charades or Pictionary.

This was an approachable game. Whereas I find myself playing tabletop escape games mostly with puzzle people, I could play Escape from Iron Gate with almost anyone.

Moreover, as we played harder, we started to find more strategic depth than we’d expected.

The board set up, there are meeple in the cell block and a massive stack of puzzle cards.
There was no shortage of puzzle cards.

The main drawback to Escape from Iron Gate was that some (not all) of the puzzle types got stale. For example, if you’re an escape room veteran going in, substitution and pigpen ciphers aren’t going to throw you for a loop for even a second. We found ourselves disregarding these and drawing something else, which was fine.

I really enjoyed this game, and absolutely recommend it for families and friend groups. It was light-hearted, easy to learn, and varied. I truly liked that we weren’t just solving puzzles, or just playing Pictionary or charades. The constant flux of game modes kept things playful.

Moreover, this is a fully replayable game. We have replayed it and we will continue to do so. We’d love it if The Escape Game created an expansion with more challenging actions, puzzles, and a set of blank “create your own” action and puzzle cards. Personalization would add even more replay value to Escape from Iron Gate.

If you enjoy tabletop games, party games, and puzzles, you’ll enjoy their combination in Escape from Iron Gate.

Who is this for?

  • This is general audience tabletop game.
  • Avid puzzlers, talented drawers, and skilled pantomime actors will have some advantages.

Why play?

  • Humor
  • Flexible play
  • Some amusing puzzles
  • It had a lot more depth than initially appeared


We had all been wrongfully accused of crimes and locked up in Iron Gate prison. Naturally, the only path to freedom was a puzzle prison break.

Close-up of The Yard with two meeple and a pair of large custom dice.


Escape from Iron Gate was a competitive tabletop game the blended a few genres into a unique experience with a party game vibe.

We aimed to collect sets of item cards that would allow us to bust out of different areas of the prison. We had to proceed from the cell block, to the yard, to the cafeteria, and finally to the warden’s office before achieving freedom (and winning the game.) Each area required each player to collect a unique set of items.

We earned item cards by solving puzzles, playing dexterity mini-games, and playing Pictionary or charades. Dice rolls and luck of the draw determined which games we’d play when.

The details are explained in this video:

Special Rules

If there was a gap in the rules or the group wanted to tweak the way things worked, we were encouraged to create our own prison rules. We quickly added our own rules and adapted the game to our play group.

The REA Rule: Whenever a player used a card set to break out of an area, that player had to tell the group a story about how they used each item to do the deed.

4 stages of gate cards.
Each player gets their own set of unique gate cards.


The Escape Game’s Escape from Iron Gate was a party board game with a puzzle-solving component and a moderate level of difficulty.

Unlike escape rooms, Escape from Iron Gate was a competitive (not collaborative) game.

The puzzles were drawn from a massive stack of cards and included a mix of spatial puzzles, logic puzzles, riddles, ciphers, and reasoning challenges. They were all contained on individual cards, so they were static.

Core gameplay revolved around rolling dice, playing charades, playing Pictionary, accomplishing mini dexterity challenges, searching, solving puzzles, negotiating, and planning ahead.

A gate card and its matching card set.
Accomplishing a gate card collection allows a player to advance to the next area.


➕ The artwork looked great. We liked the matte aesthetic and the color scheme. Everything felt polished.

Escape from Iron Gate was easy to learn. The engaging rules video presented the game clearly. The rulebook included a full-page diagram of the sequence for a turn, which we found to be especially helpful while we got the hang of the gameplay.

Puzzle card examples including some wordplay puzzles, a cipher, and a reasoning challenge.
A few examples of puzzle types.

➕ The structure of actions, puzzles, and trading kept everyone continually engaged, even on other players’ turns.

Escape from Iron Gate was reasonably well balanced. For a puzzle game, it included quite a bit of chance, but that kept it interesting. Even with the chance, it felt fair.

➖ Some of the puzzles quickly became tasks (especially the ciphers). We could only have the aha moment the first time we encountered some of these puzzle types.

➕ Gameplay was funny. The whole concept was ridiculous. Escape from Iron Gate didn’t take itself too seriously… which encouraged us to laugh along with it.

Action card examples, including a pictionary card and a charades card.

❓/➕ Acting and drawing really didn’t fit the prison escape theme all that well. We debated whether the actions in the game were thematically relevant, but in the end it didn’t really matter to us because they were entertaining.

➕ The red filter hint/answer system was simple and effective. Additionally, hints mattered less in this game than most tabletop escape games because failure to solve a puzzle didn’t break the game.

➕ We appreciated how Escape from Iron Gate drew from escape room mythology, but stood alone as its own game. It was set in The Escape Game’s Prison Break. We enjoyed the nods to that game. In no way, however, did it feel like playing a rehash of that escape room (or any other tabletop game).

Tips For Players

  • Space Requirements: a small table
  • Required Gear: each player needs scratch paper and a pen
  • The Escape Game encourages players to make their own house rules. We embraced this whole heartedly. REA house rules included telling a story of how you used your items to pass each gate.
  • This would work well as a family game or a drinking game. We can see lots of great opportunities for adding drinking game rules.

Buy your copy of The Escape Game’s Escape from Iron Gate, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: The Escape Game provided a sample for review.

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


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.


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."


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.


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.

Professor Puzzle – Escape from the Grand Hotel [Review]

A beautiful hotel with spotty service.

Location:  at home

Date Played: June 27, 2019

Team size: 2-8; we recommend 2-3

Duration: 90 minutes

Price: $24.99

REA Reaction

Escape from the Grand Hotel was Professor Puzzle’s first foray into tabletop escape games… and they got a lot right.

The printed materials and package design were beautiful.

The ornate and gilded box art for Escape From The Grand Hotel.

The gameplay took some clear inspiration from the ThinkFun tabletop escape games, using location envelopes and paper components to tell a puzzle-driven narrative. Their approach to answer verification was clever.

Professor Puzzle stumbled with hinting and editing. Bluntly, this game felt under playtested. There were too many little problems that were easily fixable. The hint system was innovative, but insufficient.

There are some interesting ideas and a lot of great execution in Escape from the Grand Hotel. If you really enjoy tabletop escape games, this one had a lot to offer. However, there were too many little flaws and gaps that got amplified by the limited hint system for me to comfortably recommend this to a tabletop escape game newbie.

Who is this for?

  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Players with at least some experience

Why play?

  • Beautiful game materials
  • The structure and gameflow
  • The answer mechanic
  • The opportunity to make an evening of a tabletop puzzle game


The storied Grand Hotel was once the place for the rich and famous to visit. After decades of disrepair, the mysterious and wealthy Blossom family had restored the hotel to its former glory. We were invited to its grand reopening.

An invitation to the reopening of the Grand Hotel.


Escape from the Grand Hotel had an interesting structure.

The opened box reveals stacks of invitations and a map of the hotel.

Each player received an invitation. This included character information and encouraged costuming. (We didn’t really use any of this because we didn’t realize it was an option until we already had our friends over and the box open.)

The ornate white doorway card for our room.

Once we began, we unfolded the beautifully printed cardstock hotel settings. We could observe what was in each space. In many, we also found additional paper items (puzzle pieces).

Our room opened up, reveals an image of a luxurious white bathroom. There is a note and a portion of a photo.

If we solved a puzzle, it would resolve to a clue to the next location within the hotel for us to visit. Sometimes this meant that we derived a room number. Other times we uncovered a more cryptic clue like the color of one of the doors or some other descriptor.

9 different folded doorways. Each with a unique aesthetic.
The various doorways to open.

If we needed a hint, we could unfold one from the location. Interestingly, the hints were usually puzzles in and of themselves… puzzles without their own hints.

At the bottom of our room is a folded segment labeled "clue inside are you sure you choose to seek help?"


Professor Puzzle’s Escape from the Grand Hotel was a standard play-at-home escape game with a moderate to high level of difficulty. If you’re comfortable with tabletop escape room puzzles, this was moderately difficult. If you aren’t comfortable with the format, the limited hinting could make this game quite challenging.

Professor Puzzle also encouraged making the game into an event by providing character roles.

Core gameplay revolved around searching, observing, making connections, and puzzling.

The instructions for the game revealed upon moving a stack of invitations.
The instructions were buried under the invitations… which really was the wrong order.


➕ We enjoyed the structure of Escape from the Grand Hotel. Each puzzle led us to another room in the hotel. It was fun to explore the hotel in this way.

➕ The first puzzle worked well for onboarding players. It wasn’t too challenging. Through it we understood how Escape from the Grand Hotel wanted us to play it.

➕ The solution mechanism was fantastic. The idea that the puzzle solutions alluded to the next area of the game was a smart twist on the tabletop escape game format. This approach allowed Professor Puzzle to strip out artificial answer checking mechanisms and keep things in-world.

➖ We encountered some taxonomy inconsistencies within the in-game instructions. The way that it referred to things sometimes shifted. This got confusing.

➕ Professor Puzzle designed a beautiful product with high-quality printed materials. From the box to the game components it looked and felt great. We especially enjoyed the illustrations of the rooms in the hotel. We really loved the box.

An envelope labeled "Puzzle Solutions for emergencies only"

➖ Although the artwork was beautiful, it included a visual variance that factored into the gameplay. Cluing needed to match the artwork, or vice versa.

➕ Escape from the Grand Hotel included a variety of puzzles of different types and difficulties.

➖ In some instances, the puzzles needed additional cluing.

➖ In one instance, ambiguous wording turned the final stages of a complex puzzle into trial and error. This got old quickly.

➕ Professor Puzzle provided duplicate copies of one of the more tedious puzzles so that more players could participate.

➖ The hint for each puzzle was concealed in a pocket in each “room” we entered. Although we liked this presentation of hints, Professor Puzzle included only one hint per puzzle, which was insufficient. The hint system needed far more granularity. In some instances, the hints themselves were puzzles and they didn’t have hints for themselves.

➕ The story was hokey, but it came together well enough in the end. It worked for the game and made us smile in the end.

➕ Professor Puzzle encourages players to make an evening of Escape from the Grand Hotel. They included invitations to mail to guests, who can come in character and in costume. This would be a fun way to make a play-at-home puzzle game into a bigger event.

➖ While character roles were fun, they were not relevant to the gameplay.

➖ It wasn’t clear that those character invitations were even an option until we had started the game.

➖ Although the game can be played without destroying any of the components, it didn’t provide reset instructions. We were able to pack it up correctly by referencing the solutions guide, but without instructions, we had to repack one puzzle in the solved state. 

Escape from the Grand Hotel required only the materials in the box. It did not require an app download or internet connection.

Tips For Player

  • Space Requirements: a small table
  • Required Gear: pen and paper
  • To make a larger event around this game, mail out the enclosed invitations and have your guests arrive in character and in costume. Note, the character roles are entirely for fun and are not relevant to the gameplay.

Buy your copy of Professor Puzzle’s Escape from the Grand Hotel, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Professor Puzzle 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.)

Deckscape – The Mystery of Eldorado [Review]


Location:  at home

Date Played: October 22, 2019

Team size: 1-6; we recommend 2-3

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: about $17

REA Reaction

The Mystery of Eldorado was the fourth installment in Deckscape’s card-based, story-driven escape game series. We were lost in the Amazon (rain forest… not website) and Deckscape added a survivalist twist to the puzzles.

In The Mystery of Eldorado, we had to make decisions – lots of them. Our choices came with ramifications: some foreseeable, others that came out of nowhere. In puzzle-driven games, if you’re solving well, you usually feel in control. The Mystery of Eldorado, however, always felt a little out of control, which was equal parts thematic and annoying.

The jungle and ruins art of the Deckscape Mystery of Eldorado box.

This was a strong installment, especially for Deckscape fans. The art was good. The story was playful. There were plenty of puzzles to fill a play session; we just wished that there was a little more variety to the puzzle types.

All in all, this was a fun game for the price and a good value for table top escape room players.

Who is this for?

  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Survivalists
  • Players with at least some experience

Why play?

  • Some truly unusual puzzles
  • An interesting story
  • You’re a Deckscape fan
  • It’s cute


While searching for the lost city of Eldorado, our plane had crashed in the jungle. With limited resources, and danger lurking in the leaves, we were committed to finding the legendary city or to die trying.

4 cards with different survival tools.


The Mystery of Eldorado followed the same structure and core mechanics of Deckscape’s previous games. We explained this in detail in our review of Test Time & The Fate of London, so we won’t rehash it.

As with previous Deckscape games, the print quality was great, as was the art.


Deckscape’s The Mystery of Eldorado was a standard play-at-home escape game with a moderate level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around searching, observing, puzzling, and reasoning though options.


 The Mystery of Eldorado had a fun premise. It didn’t take itself too seriously… but it also worked well. It was a good balance.

➕ The writing was entertaining and the game world was funny. We played in English, which was a translated version. The writing held up.

➕/➖ There were many choices to make within The Mystery of Eldorado. That was cool because they were often consequential. However, many of them were blind choices and the ramifications felt haphazard.

➕ The artwork was great and had a consistent look about it.

➖ There were a few instances of eye-catching red herrings within the cards. Deckscape seems committed to their gotcha moments.

➕ Most of the puzzles were delightful and satisfying. The survivalist twist was well executed. It was surprising to have to attempt to reason through some of the more realistic logic puzzles.

➖ A minority of the puzzles were pretty dubious, which is kind of a thing with Deckscape. That said, there weren’t too many of these.

➖ There wasn’t quite enough puzzle variety for our liking. A few puzzle types were repeated with minor alterations.

➕ Deckscape created diegetic hints. They crafted characters and props within The Mystery of Eldorado that would provide the hints. This was fun.

Tips For Player

  • Space Requirements: a small table or the floor
  • Required Gear: pen and paper

Buy your copy of Deckscape’s The Mystery of Eldorado, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Deckscape provided a sample for review… and we lost it when we moved. So we bought our own copy to review it.

Enigma Emporium – Carte Rouge [Review]

Loaded Deck

Location:  at home

Date Played: Summer 2019

Team size: we recommend 2-3

Duration: 8-12 hours

Price: $25

Publisher: The Enigma Emporium

REA Reaction

We’re big fans of Enigma Emporium’s postcard-based puzzles… so we were eager to dig into their larger, more elaborate, and beautiful deck of puzzle cards.

We ciphered through the cards in two extended sessions and found the experience mixed.

The Carte Rouge deck.

We loved the concept, the art, and a lot of the early puzzles… but as the mystery pressed on, it got repetitive. Then it got really repetitive.

Overall, Enigma Emporium absolutely delivered when it came to production value. From a gameplay standpoint, there was a lot to love and we’re happy that we played through it. At the same time, it’s hard to keep ourselves from imagining other things that could have been done with such a gorgeous deck of puzzle cards.

If you’re into cipher-play and have the patience to buckle up for a 6 – 12 hour mystery, then Carte Rouge is worth exploring.

Who is this for?

  • Code breakers
  • Story seekers
  • Players with at least some experience

Why play?

  • Beautiful card art and high production value
  • An interesting story hidden behind ciphered messages
  • You enjoy progressive discovery


A mysterious and strange deck of cards had arrived in the mail. A note was included asking us to investigate its origins and purpose.

The King and Queen of Hearts from Carte Rouge. Both have clearly have ciphered messages around the boarders and on their clothes.


Carte Rouge was an actual deck of 52 cards plus a pair of jokers. Embedded in the card art (particularly the face cards) we found hidden messages and puzzles.

They were printed on quality card stock. If one wished to purchase this deck and use it exclusively to play card games, that would be a viable option.

The cardback from Carte Rouge.

The art itself looked fantastic. Enigma Emporium managed to maintain that classic card art, while hiding loads of messages.


Enigma Emporium’s Carte Rouge was a play-at-home escape game with a high level of difficulty relative to most tabletop escape games.

Core gameplay revolved around observing, deciphering, making connections, and keeping organized.

The Jokers from Carte Rouge are covered in intricate ciphers.


➕ We were captivated by the puzzle-in-playing-cards concept. This setup also facilitated collaborative gameplay. We could spread the cards out among players and work through the puzzles as a team.

➕ The cards were beautiful and intricate. They looked and felt like the real deal. The artwork was exquisite.

❓ The puzzling in Carte Rouge was almost entirely deciphering. If you enjoy ciphers, this is your tabletop game; it’s great. If you don’t want to solve ciphers and translate passages, this will not be for you.

➕ Our favorite ciphers were clued brilliantly by other patterns. For us, these ciphers were the pinnacle of the gameplay in Carte Rouge. Most of them appeared earlier in the experience.

➖ Much of the ciphering resolved to narrative embellishments, but didn’t advance the plot of the game. We translated brutally long passages, working through them long after the aha moment. In the end, a lot of it was flavor. This got repetitive.

➖ Multiple puzzles used the same cipher. Once we’d worked out that particular system, we had to work through a number of different instances. This was repetitive and seemed like a missed opportunity.

➖ While sometimes the ciphers were subtly clued in the artwork, other times they weren’t clued it all (as far as we could tell). As we played, we found that there were limited encipherment options. We’d just hack at different possibilities until a passage resolved to something meaningful.

➕ Enigma Emporium crammed a lot of game into only a little space. This was impressive. They fit an incredible amount of information into a card.

The 2, 3, & 4 of Clubs from Carte Rouge. They look normal except for an "R" printed in the middle of the 2.

➖ The deck of cards itself felt like a missed opportunity. We were anticipating mechanics involving magic, placement, math, poker hands… really anything that one does with a deck of cards. Yet, it didn’t matter how these cards were held or arranged. In fact, there was little interaction between the cards at all. Additionally, most of the cards were barely used. The gameplay revolved around only a small portion of the deck and we didn’t need to do much beyond regard and rotate.

➖ The hint system lacked sufficient granularity. We’d be hinted at the same thing repeatedly and then be provided the answer. Furthermore, the hints for some key puzzles were buried in the sequence of hints for the final puzzles. In an effort not to spoil later puzzles for ourselves, we didn’t find them until well after we needed them.

➖ All these ciphers begged for an interesting extraction, hidden within the cards. Instead, the game resolved with a narrative quiz of sorts. This felt out of character with the rest of the experience.

Tips For Player

  • Required supplies: a small table, an internet-connected device, paper and pencil
  • While you don’t need a laptop, we found keeping track of solutions in a spreadsheet to be helpful.
  • If your reading vision isn’t great, you’re going to want a good magnifying glass.

Buy your copy of Enigma Emporium’s Carte Rouge, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Enigma Emporium provided a sample for review.