Deckscape – Heist in Venice [Review]

Don’t shuffle in this casino.

Location: at home

Date Played: September 15, 2018

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

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $10 per box

REA Reaction

Heist in Venice delivered fast-paced gameplay through aha puzzles. In one moment we were trying to figure out what was going on; in the next moment we’d solved that puzzle and moved on to the next one. That frenetic gameplay mixed with a the casino-heist theme and some unexpected plot twists created a fun at-home escape room.

We found Deckscape’s penalty system frustrating. A few puzzles felt either deliberately obtuse or accidentally underdeveloped… which was also how we felt about the previous two installments from Deckscape.

Over all, we recommend Heist in VeniceWe found it slightly less interesting than Deckscape’s Test Time, and a lot better than The Fate of London. We look forward to Deckscape’s next edition.

The box for Deckscape Heist in Venice.

Who is this for?

  • Families
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Tabletop gamers
  • Story seekers
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Lots of puzzles
  • Some inventive puzzles
  • Low price

Story

A mysterious stranger had blackmailed our retired heist crew into one final job. We had been summoned to Venice, Italy and forced to break into a casino vault to steal a €1,000,000,000 poker chip.

The start of the game deck, and a piece of paper that reads, "The plan of the heist in Venice, open this only when instructed to."

Setup

Heist in Venice followed Deckscape’s card-based and puzzle-centric gameplay, a structure established with their earlier games. We solved cards sequentially until the game instructed us to split the deck into multiple piles where each pile could be solved concurrently.

Playing Deckscape games doesn’t require players to write on or damage any components.

We detailed the structure in our previous Deckscape review:

Deckscape – Test Time & The Fate of London [Product Review]

Gameplay

Deckscape’s Heist in Venice was a puzzle-centric tabletop escape game with a varied level of difficulty.

Core gameplay revolved around puzzling and making connections.

Mid-game, assorted cards are revealed on the table.

Analysis

+ The mix of puzzles was fairly varied. Heist in Venice included inventive puzzles.

– Like with the previous Deckscape games, we found a couple of puzzles to be unfair.

+ Deckscape games tell a cohesive story. Heist in Venice followed suit.

+ Heist in Venice delivered playful art, story, and gameplay. The gameplay never felt dire; it didn’t take itself too seriously. Even the challenging puzzles felt approachable.

– As with the previous games, the penalty system felt punitive. It diminished the fun of the experience. There were a few gotcha moments that made us roll our eyes. Had we taken them seriously, they would have pissed us off.

+ There was a structured, self-service hint system with 1 hint for each puzzle. This worked for A Heist in Venice because most of the puzzles were aha puzzles. Normally I’d like to see more granularity in a hint system, but the 1-hint system felt fine for this game.

– Heist in Venice presented us with a blind choice; I wasn’t impressed with the pay off. This choice created a clash between the setup of the game and its conclusion.

Two character cards, one for a mentalist codenamed Houdini, the other a burgler codenamed Passepartout.

+/- The character cards added an interesting twist and an unusual way to handle the problem of outside knowledge. Some of these interactions felt great; some seemed more flimsy.

+ The climax was amusing… and completely unexpected.

+ It’s easy to reset Heist in Venice to share it with other players. Nothing gets destroyed while playing. Resetting only requires stacking the cards in numerical order.

Tips for Playing

  • Make sure that your deck is in sequential order and all cards are present before starting (especially if you’re playing with a secondhand copy).
  • Don’t take the penalty system too seriously; you’ll have a more fun.

Purchase your copy of Deckscape’s Heist in Venice, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

U Gears Treasure Box [Review]

Treasure Box

Finger strength only?!

Location:  at home

Date Played: September 15, 2018

Team size: 1-¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ; we recommend 1-4

Duration: 2-4 hours

Price: $44.90 per box

REA Reaction

The U Gears Treasure Box was a small engineering marvel. Over the course of a few hours, we put together its 190 components without any adhesives (and almost no tools). In the end we built a precise, multi-functional work of art that proudly sits on display in our home.

Assembly took a lot of attention to detail and quite a bit of finger strength.

Completed Treasure Box open, a Room Escape Artist logo magnet is hiding inside.

While there was a rough learning curve, and we missed a small detail that diminished the functionality of the box, I enjoyed the time that we spent with our friends putting it together. I love the intricacies of the Treasure Box.

If you have the patience and the interest, give this a shot, or check out any of U Gears’ other mechanical projects; they are gorgeous. I look forward to tackling another one in the future. 

Who is this for?

  • Mechanical puzzlers
  • People who are competent with their hands
  • Lovers of laser cut work
  • People who can follow IKEA instructions without destroying the thing they are building… or their relationship with the people they are doing it with. 

Why play?

  • The box is beautiful
  • The mechanisms are remarkable
  • It’s amazing that this actually worked

Setup

We opened up a box with 190 wooden components and followed the IKEA-esque instructions to turn these disparate parts into a mechanical treasure box.

We also needed tea candles to melt wax and lubricate the moving parts. We needed an X-Acto knife and a cutting surface. I found a pair of wire cutters useful as well (more on that later). These items were not included.

U Gears component tree beside an x-acto knife set.

Gameplay

Constructing U Gears Treasure Box was like building an incredibly precise, complex LEGO set. There wasn’t gameplay and it wasn’t a traditional puzzle… but assembling it certainly felt like a puzzle.

Putting the Treasure Box together tested our attention to detail, precision, and finger strength.

Partially assembled treasure box.

Analysis

➕ This thing worked! It was as cool as it was beautiful.

Ornate top of the completed Treasure Box

➕ U Gears produced the Treasure Box with remarkably tight tolerances. 

➖ Those tight tolerances made some aspects of assembly uncomfortably difficult.

➕ In principle, we needed no extra adhesives or tools beyond what was listed on the box.

Wire cutters next to cut component trees.

➖ In practice, we needed to apply a ton of force onto some small components. I found myself using a pair of wire cutters to cut the wooden stems that the pieces came in to hack together rudimentary tools for pushing these small bits into place. 

➕ The instructions broke the assembly up into workable steps.

A burned out tea candle next to toothpicks covered in white wax.

➕ Once we got the hang of waxing the moving parts, it was easy, and it worked well. 

➖ Sometimes it was difficult to tell exactly where we needed to apply wax. In once instance we didn’t read these instructions correctly, which adversely affected the functionality of the box when we finished. It was absolutely our fault. We misread the instructions for a moment, however, and we couldn’t recover.

➕ This thing was far more durable than we were expecting (which was good because we had to use a lot of force to assemble it).

Mostly assembled treasure box

➖ Assembly was rough on our fingers. 

❓ Between the wax and splinters, assembly was a bit messy. 

➕ The box included plenty of duplicates of the really small bits. We never needed them, but we were happy to have the backup, just in case.

❓ There was a bit of a learning curve. Now that we understand how the models function, I feel like we’ll do a much better job on a future U Gears project.

➕ U Gears included a ton of artistic embellishments on this box. The layers of detail make this creation standout. It’s fun to show it off to guests.

Left side of the the completed treasure box. An internal geared mechanism is exposed.

Tips For Playing

  • Don’t start without tea candles, matches, an X-Acto knife, and cutting surface.
  • You’ll have to get aggressive with some of the parts. Don’t be afraid to apply strength when needed. 
  • Assemble the box accurately, minding details. You’re creating a precise machine.
  • We split up the work into 3 jobs: read directions and separate/ organize pieces, wax application, and assembly 

Buy your copy of U Gears’ Treasure Box, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: U Gears provided a review sample.

(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.)

Legends of the Hidden Temple Shirts (or Halloween Costume Idea)

Depending upon your age… and whether or not you had cable in the mid ’90s, this is either amazing or ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ . I happened upon a collection of t-shirts from the various teams that competed on the Nickelodeon game show Legends of the Hidden Temple, one of the forerunners to escape games.

T-shirts!

You can choose from all of the teams: (Clearly the Blue Barracudas are the right choice.)

Go Full Halloween Costume

Halloween is right around the corner. If you’re looking for an easy couple or group costume, all you have to do is toss in a gold helmet, elbow/ kneepads, and a Legends of the Hidden Temple nametag… and you have a nostalgic, fun, and easy Halloween costume.

Exit: The Game – Dead Man on the Orient Express [Review]

“My name is Achilles Pussot and I am probably the second greatest detective in the world.”

Location: at home

Date Played: September 13, 2018

Team size: 1-4; we recommend 2-3

Duration: 1-2 hours

Price: $15 per box

REA Reaction

As a fan of the Exit: The Game series, Dead Man on the Orient Express has been one of my favorite installments. I enjoyed the puzzles and the way the difficulty mounted to an especially challenging final puzzle. This game deviated from some of the predictability of the past games.

At the same time, Dead Man on the Orient Express will not change anyone’s opinions on the series… and I’m hoping the creators will break more significantly from their patterns.

If you’re a fan of Exit: The Game, this is a must-buy. It’s one of their stronger installments. If you don’t like the series already, take a pass. If you’ve never played, I’d suggest getting started on one of their earlier games, as this one is tough.

Game box for Dead Man on the Orient Express, depicts a spilled wine glass in a fancy train compartment.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Logic puzzlers
  • Players with at least some experience with the Exit: The Game series

Why play?

  • Some of the cleverest puzzles we’ve seen from Exit: The Game
  • A fair difficulty curve
  • A higher level of difficulty

Story

Based not so loosely on the Agatha Christie classic Murder on the Orient ExpressDead Man on the Orient Express cast us in the role of world-famous detective, Achilles Pussot. A man had been killed on the train and there were eight suspects. We needed to identify the killer before the train reached its destination in Constantinople.

The riddle cards, answer cards, and help cards decks.

Setup

Dead Man on the Orient Express was structurally identical to all of the previous Exit: The Game installments that we have reviewed.

This was a paper-based game with a booklet, a few decks of cards, a solution wheel, and a pair of card stock “strange items.”

Exit: The Game installments are destructible. I’m sure it would be possible to preserve the game for replay by other players, but I don’t think it would be worth the effort.

For a more in-depth explanation of the game mechanics of the Exit: The Game series, give our original review a read:

Exit: The Game – The Abandoned Cabin, The Secret Lab, & The Pharaoh’s Tomb [Review]

Gameplay

Exit: The Game’s Dead Man on the Orient Express was a typical play-at-home escape game with a murder mystery twist.

Core gameplay revolved around searching, detailed observation, deduction, and puzzling.

The notebook of Achilles Pussot, an answer wheel, and three train compartment components.

Analysis

+ The puzzles in Dead Man on the Orient Express were generally satisfying. They had a comfortable difficulty curve and became pretty challenging.

+ This game captured the Agatha Christie murder mystery vibe while keeping the gameplay firmly in puzzle-game territory. We were puzzlers, not detectives.

– Because so much of the game was in a booklet, the gameplay bottlenecked. The cabin cards and puzzle cards helped to distribute the gameplay, but the booklet still boxed players out of the fun. (Teams of 1 or 2 people won’t have this issue.)

? The final logic puzzle was especially challenging. We were impressed with the twist on traditional logic puzzling cluing. This puzzle also required an attention to detail that exceeded the level of commitment that we were mentally prepared for. If you haven’t paid attention throughout the entire gameplay, this will be brutal. In our opinion, this was the most complicated puzzle that we’ve seen from the series. Whether this is great or terrible is up to you.

– The final puzzle hinged on some details that were a little too difficult to perceive with confidence. This was on-theme for the material, but also felt a little unfair.

+ The art and style of Dead Man on the Orient Express was consistent and elegant.

– Speaking as a fan of the Exit: The Game series, I respect that they deviate slightly from their formula in each game. With 9 installments in-market, however, I find myself wishing that they would change things up a lot more.

+ The hint system was useful and predictable. I would like a bit more granularity, but Exit: The Game’s hint system is still the most comprehensive of the multi-installment series released by large game publishers.

Tips for Playing

  • You have to destroy the components to play this game. Embrace it.
  • The train cabin components are double sided. Be aware of that.
  • The final puzzle was, in our opinion, the toughest puzzle in the Exit: The Game series. Take that one seriously.

Pickup your copy of Exit: The Game – Dead Man on the Orient Express, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Thames & Kosmos 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.)

Cypher House Escape – Murder at the Paisley’s [Review]

Dinner & a murder

Location: at home

Date Played: September 15, 2018

Team size: 4-8; we recommend 4

Duration: 120 minutes

Price: $29.99

REA Reaction

Murder at the Paisley’s brought a light-hearted murder dinner puzzle game to our dining room table. While largely paper-based, it incorporated some tangible prop-based interactions and offered more puzzle depth than many other at-home escape rooms.

Visually, Murder at the Paisley’s wasn’t all that purdy, but this was more than made up for in gameplay quality.

If you’re looking for a small-group tabletop escape room, we recommend Murder at the Paisley’s.

Murder at the Paisley's box opened, revealing a party invitation and character envelopes.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Interesting puzzles
  • Tabletop escape game meets mystery dinner structure
  • Approachable and family-friendly

Story

The Paisley family loved entertaining friends and neighbors on their large farm. We were visiting for dinner when one of the Paisleys was found dead. We had to solve the murder mystery.

Character envelopes for Mathew O'Dean, head of the farmer's union, and Julie Nanda crop market salesperson.

Setup

Murder at the Paisley’s arrived in a cardboard box containing a collection of sealed envelopes and some printed materials. We logged into their web interface, where we would receive additional audio context and submit solutions.

The materials of the game were clearly handmade, mostly out of paper, with a creative use of cotton balls, and some farm-related toys thrown in for more tangible interactions.

The coversheet for part 2, features an image of a farm.

Gameplay

Cypher House Escape’s Murder at the Paisley’s was a tabletop escape game with a moderate level of difficulty.

Each player received a character envelope with some special items, secret information, and character traits for groups that want to roleplay throughout the game. (We didn’t roleplay.)

Murder at the Paisley’s played out in two parts: a warm-up dinner party puzzle followed by a more in-depth puzzle investigation. There was a scheduled intermission between the two stages should the organizer want to actually serve dinner.

The puzzles were largely paper-based, but included the occasional more tangible components.

Core gameplay revolved around listening, reading, making connections and puzzling.

Puzzle components including tiles with animal feed, little plastic farm animals, and farm maps.

Analysis

+ We enjoyed the structure: We played a warmup puzzle to get to know the mechanics and the characters. We had the option to break for dinner. Then the real mystery unraveled.

Murder at the Paisley’s offered a lot of puzzle content.

+ The puzzles took standard concepts, but offered unique twists. The clue structure was clear and the puzzles solved cleanly.

+ The puzzles were thematically appropriate.

– At times, the puzzle components didn’t fit together as neatly as they should. Cypher House Escape could use tighter tolerances when designing interrelated components.

+ The tchotchkes mattered. They were part of the puzzles.

– The puzzles were not narrative-driven. They didn’t really make sense in the context of solving the murder.

– While the gameplay was high quality, aesthetically Murder at the Paisley’s felt homemade and unrefined when compared with many of their competitors.

+ All instructional and background content was available to read or listen to. We could choose or do both.

+ Cypher House Escape merged tabletop escape game with murder mystery dinner, giving us each a role in the staging and additional knowledge that would come into play later as clue structure.

– Although we liked the character concept, it could use refinement. The secret information felt a bit hokey. If you play with more than 4 players, you’ll find the characters to be unbalanced. A couple of them seemed like filler content.

+ This was an adorable, family-friendly murder mystery.

Tips for Playing

  • Keep track of your solutions on the sheet provided.
  • It was easier to use a computer than a phone for the website interactions, but Murder at the Paisley’s could be played with either.
  • There is a built-in pause for dinner, should you choose to make an evening of the game.

Purchase your copy of Cypher House Escape’s Murder at the Paisley’s, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Cypher House Escape sent us a complimentary reviewer’s copy of this game.

Enigma Emporium – Wish You Were Here [Review]

A good thing in a small package.

Location: at home

Date Played: September 6, 2018

Team size: 1-¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ; we recommend 1-4

Duration: 2-3 hours

Price: $12 for Kickstarter backers in the US, $15 for international backers

REA Reaction

Enigma Emporium’s Wish You Were Here took us by surprise. Although the small package of five postcards initially seemed unimpressive, as we began to solve it, we realized how much love and care went into cramming these cards with quality puzzle content. It felt like there was always another thing to solve on the cards.

While some of the puzzles turned a little too process-focused in order to have us extract more narrative, most of this game revolved around ah-ha moments.

If you’re into puzzles, we wholeheartedly recommend backing Enigma Emporium on Kickstarter. We eagerly await their next product.

The Enigma Emporium envelope and a UN postcard.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Any experience level (experienced puzzlers will have a significant advantage)

Why play?

  • Puzzle quality
  • Puzzle density
  • Low price

Story

We received five encoded postcards from a fugitive accused of stealing a valuable piece of art. We had to peel back the layers of obfuscation from his messages to solve the mystery of his crimes.

The assortment of Enigma Emporium cards and the envelope.

Setting

The entire mystery was presented on five 6 x 4 inch postcards. Each card had a distinctive theme and contained a slew of puzzles.

The cards looked like postcards that you’d expect to find in any tourist trap… with some puzzley additions.

There were some additional discoverable materials and a structured hint system, all available via a web browser.

Gameplay

Enigma Emporium’s Wish You Were Here played like a mini puzzle hunt. It had a high level of difficulty relative to most tabletop escape games… but a low degree of difficulty relative to puzzle hunts.

Core gameplay revolved around observing and puzzling.

Analysis

+ I’m still shocked by how much puzzle play Enigma Emporium crammed into 5 standard postcards. They made just about everything matter.

+ The puzzle quality was generally stellar. We liked some more than others, but overall, the consistency was impressive.

+ Each card had a consistent theme and vibe.

+ The US Presidents postcard contained a brilliant cipher.

– The literature postcard dragged relative to the rest of the game.

+/- We pulled a fair amount of cohesive story from these puzzles. That said, if you’re the type of player who seeks narrative, this story won’t surprise anyone.

Earth Shaking Story Spoiler

He’s not really a bad guy. I know… it’s shocking.

[collapse]

– After an aha moment, some of these puzzles turned into hefty process puzzles to facilitate the extraction of story.

+ The structured hint system was easy to use and generally helpful.

– One puzzle didn’t seem like a puzzle… it just seemed faded and broken. We ended up circumventing it, and only realized the right way to solve it after we finished the game and dug into the hint system.

? Outside of the hint system, the game didn’t really provide a means of verifying answers and checking progression as we went. We always knew when we had a puzzle solved because it resolved cleanly… but we didn’t know if we had found everything that there was to solve on a card. Ultimately everything came together all at once at the end.

+ The solution submission process was a neat concept, even if it was a little cumbersome.

+ At $13, Enigma Emporium’s Wish You Were Here is more than affordable.

Tips for Playing

  • You will need an internet-connected device. We recommend a computer, but a mobile device will work fine.
  • Keep yourself organized while solving this game. Details matter. You will have a lot of puzzle paths open at once and as you solve them, you’ll need to hang on to the solutions.

Back Enigma Emporium’s Wish You Were Here on Kickstarter, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Update: The Kickstarter funded. Buy Enigma Emporium’s Wish You Were Here.

Disclosure: Enigma Emporium provided a copy for review.

iDventure – Unfinished Case of Holmes [Review]

Holmes could have solved this one.

Location: at home

Date Played: January, 2018

Team size: up to 5 people; we recommend 2

Duration: 90-120 minutes

Price: $20

REA Reaction

Unfinished Case of Holmes was a paper-based play-at-home puzzle game with a companion app that facilitated story, hint, and player progression.

While the app wasn’t fully translated into English and the hint system left something to be desired, this affordable game offered a variety of puzzles and some fun twists on more common puzzle types.

Unfinished Case of Holmes wasn’t a must-play, but if you’re into puzzle games, it would absolutely be worth a play through . Give this one a shot on a rainy day.

The Unfinished Case of HOLMES's components fanned out.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • It’s affordable
  • Some interesting puzzles

Story

Sherlock Holmes had left this case unsolved. We stepped in to investigate a mysterious death.

In-game: A colorful Aboriginal mask over a text about the myth of the Rainbow Serpent.

Setup

Unfinished Case of Holmes included a collection of paper-based puzzles and an app interface.

In-game: An assortment of unusual items paper.

Gameplay

Unfinished Case of Holmes solved linearly, guided by an app.

For each puzzle, the app delivered narrative context and informed us which puzzle components to rely on. We could also take hints through the app. The puzzles came together through the printed components we’d received in the mail.

In-game: A folder with a piece of paper with a matrix of clock faces, and an envelope labeled, "Level 3."

Analysis

+ iDventure printed on quality paper stock.

+ Each individual component was deliberately designed.

+ There was a good variety of interesting and challenging puzzles. Although primarily paper based, iDventure created interactive pieces. Unfinished Case of Holmes didn’t feel like homework worksheets.

+ The puzzles offered more depth than we’ve come to expect from paper-based play-at-home games. We appreciated the layered challenges that we could sink our teeth into, but still solve, as a series, in one play through.

– Although the puzzles were complex, if we got far enough, the solutions were brute-forceable. We could narrow down possible solutions and guess a few times until we found the right answer. (The app punished hints, but not incorrect guesses.)

– The punitive hint system wasn’t adaptive enough. At one point, we needed to take three hints before we received any helpful information. (The first two only gave us information we’d already deduced.) The app deducted time for each of these three hints, which felt unnecessarily punitive, especially since we’d figured so much out on our own.

– Some of the app’s interface had not been translated into English (which isn’t an issue if you read German).

Unfinished Case of Holmes was an affordable, worthy opponent.

Tips for Playing

  • For the Amazon version, iDventure sells two modes for Unfinished Case of Holmes: Expert and Standard. According to their website, “expert mode is with less tips and suitable for people with more experience with Escape Room games.”
  • iDventure also offers a downloadable version that requires more set up time.
  • We played the Amazon version in Expert mode.
  • For any version, you will need to download the app (available for IOS and Android) and have an internet connection.

Purchase iDventure’s Unfinished Case of Holmes, 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.)

The Gray Matter Sodality [Review]

Piece of mind.

Location: at home

Date Played: August 7, 2018

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

Duration:  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Price: $25 for each monthly installment with a month-to-month subscription, $63 for a 3-month subscription, $114 for a 6-month subscription, $204 for an annual subscription

REA Reaction

The Gray Matter Sodality was a monthly subscription puzzle game. Each monthly package had us solving a single layered puzzle in search of a segment of Albert Einstein’s brain (not kidding).

The story was as humorous as it was clever. The narrow puzzling was kind of refreshing… when it worked well. Unfortunately, The Gray Matter Sodality was hamstrung by issues with puzzle ambiguity, requirements for unusual gear, and an aggressively high price tag.

In-game: A pencil, plastic brain, GMS notebook, map, and a letter from The Gray Matter Sodality.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Players seeking a limited and focused puzzle experience
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • Fantastic setup
  • Narrow, focused puzzling

Story

When Albert Einstein passed away in 1955, pathologist Thomas Harvey extracted the brain of history’s most famous physicist without permission. Harvey ultimately persuaded Einstein’s son Hans Albert to allow him to keep the brain, under the condition that it would be used for scientific research. After decades of keeping the brain in a jar, Harvey dissected Einstein’s brain into 240 blocks and 1,000 microscopic slides, distributing them to researchers around the world. (This is a true story, by the way.)

We were recruited by an international organization dedicated to reclaiming and reassembling the scattered pieces of Einstein’s deconstructed gray matter.

In-game: A deck of playing cards and a pair of dice on top of a letter from The Gray Matter Sodality.

Setup

The Gray Matter Sodality sent us monthly envelopes with a letter and some clues to find the location of a piece of Al’s brain. (This review is based on a sample of 3 installments.)

Each envelope contained a few pieces of paper and a key prop like a deck of cards or a cassette.

We also frequently needed to find or acquire other items to solve some of these puzzles.

When we solved the episode’s puzzle, we submitted the solution (the location of the brain fragment) to a website to confirm and complete the challenge.

Gameplay

The Gray Matter Sodality was a monthly mailing with one layered puzzle per envelope. The level of difficulty and time commitment to solve varied broadly across episodes.

Core gameplay revolved around observing, making connections, puzzling, and finding the right tools to solve a challenge.

Analysis

+ Turning the real life story of the dissection and dissemination of Albert Einstein’s brain into the basis for an episodic puzzle game was &%^*ing inspired. It’s one of those ideas where I am confident that there will be many other creators wishing that they had come up with it.

+ We really appreciated the focused nature of The Gray Matter Sodality. After playing some massive multi-month subscription games with multi-hour playtimes, backtracking, and lots of information to parse, it was relaxing to open up a small package, find a few items, and know that they all tied to a single puzzle.

The Gray Matter Sodality‘s puzzles had a few layers, so while each installment may have been one puzzle, there was some depth.

– The need for some unusual gear ranged from annoying to infuriating. We were able to get around some of this via free iPhone apps, but one required the real thing…

Spoiler - The infuriating gear...

I’ve gotta vent…

It wasn’t just the gear, but how it was presented.

We needed a cassette player. In 2018. A cassette player. A cassette player.

In-game: a cassette take labeled

Setting aside that we needed a piece of technology that was far more than two decades past being useful for most people, the presentation of this cassette was ill conceived.

When we flipped the cassette we found a label with shortened URL that sent us to a Spotify playlist. When we found that playlist we thought, “Brilliant! It’s a cassette, but the contents are on Spotify. What a clever workaround.”

Then we realized that the playlist was far longer than the capacity of a cassette and so we reached out to the hint system… which confirmed that we needed to listen to the cassette. These were two different threads of the same puzzle, not an inspired workaround.

So I set out to find a cassette player; it was not particularly easy.

David's Facebook post with a poop emoji background asking,

Unsurprisingly, most of our friends and family didn’t have a cassette player. Eventually we got one from Lisa’s aunt who works in radio.

[collapse]

– Some of the cluing felt incomplete. After we solved the main challenge of one puzzle, we spent 15 minutes guessing because there was a shocking amount of ambiguity in deriving the actual solution.

+ The month 7 cards & dice puzzle was really clever.

? The production value was fine. Nothing terrible, but nothing special or visually impactful.

– The variability of commitment was too broad. We solved one of these episodes in less than 10 minutes, another in about 25 minutes… but a lot of it was filling in a cluing gap, and the last one took about an hour. The expectation setting wasn’t great.

+/- There wasn’t a self-service hint system. Despite this drawback, we received prompt email responses to any hint requests (even when we used a friend’s email address.) We don’t know how well this will work for people in diverse time zones.

The Gray Matter Sodality was too expensive. There wasn’t a lot to it. It was mostly printer paper, toner, and postage. Personally, I find it difficult to justify $25 for a 10-minute puzzle. The production value and puzzle quality didn’t do anything to help justify the price tag. Even the $17 per package (if you subscribe for a year) seems a bit steep based on the three episodes that we played.

+ After speaking to someone who has subscribed to more episodes from The Gray Matter Sodality, I’ve heard that there is at least one better puzzle in another mailing that we didn’t receive. I’m glad to hear that there’s a bit more depth.

Tips for Playing

  • The mailings are not fully self-contained. You will need to buy or find additional equipment to solve some of these puzzles.
  • Because the installments are focused, The Gray Matter Sodality is really only a 1-2 person activity.

Order your subscription to The Gray Matter Sodality, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: The Gray Matter Sodality provided a complementary reviewer’s sample of three mailings.

(If you purchase via our Cratejoy links, you will help support Room Escape Artist as we will receive a very small percentage of the sale.)

Unlock! – Tombstone Express [Review]

Off the rails.

Location: at home

Date Played: August 4, 2018

Team size: 1-6; we recommend 2-3

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $14.99

REA Reaction

Unlock! is branching out and experimenting with the tabletop escape game format. In their most recent batch, this has had mixed results ranging from the fantastic Adventures of Oz to the interesting yet confounding Noside StoryTombstone Express took even more risks and pushed the boundaries of what Unlock! can offer… and it went off the rails.

The puzzling was weak and infrequent. We had access to so many cards at once that it was tough to have any idea of what was going on, let alone what was important.

The creators of Unlock! were playing with a lot of interesting ideas, but they didn’t come together cohesively. Play Tombstone Express because it’s experimental and unusual. If that doesn’t interest you, then you can comfortably skip this episode in the series.

Unlock! Tombstone Express's box, with a beautiful locomotive in an old west scene.

Who is this for?

  • Story seekers
  • People who are open to experimental narrative tabletop gaming
  • Players who really love the Unlock! series
  • Best for players with at least some experience with the Unlock! series

Why play?

  • Narrative-driven gameplay
  • It’s different and unique

Story

The year was 1890 and we had to protect a US marshal bearing a precious gem that could seal a peace treaty with the Apache nation. Our train was an hour away from our destination in Tombstone, Arizona.

In-game: An intro card explaiing the story, two decks of cards, 6 card stock bullets, and 5 bits of gray card stock.

Setup

The basic game mechanics of Tombstone Express were functionally identical to the earlier Unlock! games that we reviewed. Those mechanics are described in detail in our earlier review:

Unlock! Escape Adventure – The Formula, The Island of Doctor Goorse, and Squeek & Sausage [Review]

The key difference in Tombstone Express was that it focused heavily on narrative, with the app time-releasing events, and the core game mechanics being used more to facilitate narrative than puzzle play.

Gameplay

Unlock!’s Tombstone Express was an unusual tabletop escape room with a high level of difficulty. Much of the challenge stemmed from wrangling all of the Unlock! rules along with the massive number of active cards.

Core gameplay revolved around searching, managing cards, and puzzling.

Analysis

+ The folks behind Unlock! have made an interesting decision to morph the series away from pure escape room style play and use the series to tell stories.

Tombstone Express put an interesting spin on the red card + blue card game mechanic.

– Tombstone Express rapidly descended into madness. We quickly reached a point where we had more than 20 cards in play, which was paralyzing. There was too much going on.

– With so many cards in play, the Unlock! hint system, which wasn’t amazing under the best of conditions, became almost useless. It turned into a guessing game as to which cards were even relevant to take a hint on.

– As Unlock! introduces more features, I wish that they would do a better job of setting expectations and explaining new ideas in the intro or tutorial. Their old tutorial doesn’t cut it for the newer, more narrative-driven games.

– Unlock!’s penalty system continued to feel random and punitive.

+ Using the app to time-release events was a creative twist that made the software feel relevant and important.

A desperado card with a card stock base knocked over by a card stock bullet.
We had to stand these desperado cards up with a little base and throw paper bullets at them to knock them over.

– Some of these time released events were annoying time wasters… and the bullet game mechanic was pretty lame.

– There weren’t many puzzles; the puzzles that were present were weak.

+ Case-solving was a nifty endgame.

– Deriving the correct solution wasn’t necessarily a given. We only got one guess. If we screwed up, we automatically failed, ending the game immediately. There was no way to see the correct solution or the proper case deduction without replaying the entire game. It was a pretty sour ending.

+ Tombstone Express had beautiful card art.

Tips for Visiting

  • Inspect everything for hidden numbers.
  • Be sure to keep a close eye on which cards are in play and which cards should be discarded. A single lapse in this can wreak some havoc.

Pickup a copy of Unlock!’s Tombstone Express, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Full disclosure: Asmodee sent us a complementary reviewer’s copy of this game.

(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.)

Cryptogram Puzzle Post [Review]

That art!

Location: at home

Date Played: Spring-Summer 2018

Team size: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ; we recommend 1-4

Duration: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ minutes

Price: £7.50 per single issue, £20.00 per seasonal (three issues) subscription, £70.00 per annual (twelve issues) subscription. International shipping is available.

REA Reaction

Cryptogram Puzzle Post was an art-and-puzzle hybrid that delivered a story in monthly installments. While it was made of only paper and ink, it never lacked for narrative, aesthetic, or puzzle depth.

Due to its linear nature and lack of self-service hint system, when it stalled, there was no graceful way to make any forward progress. The puzzle content was uneven, but when it was on, it was magical.

We give away or throw away all of the play-at-home games that come our way. I am absolutely keeping everything we’ve received from Cryptogram Puzzle Post. It’s so beautiful that I may frame it all.

The back of one of the Cryptogram Puzzle Post envelopes. Sealed and with the illustration of a letter emerging from an envelope.

Who is this for?

  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Art connoisseurs
  • Occultists
  • Players with at least some puzzle experience

Why play?

  • The illustrations are bonkers
  • Some of the puzzles are fantastic
  • The presentation

Story

This monthly subscription followed the cryptic and epic journey of the mysterious protagonist Anna on her journey thorough witchcraft, alchemy, and the arcane.

Three incredibly intricate and beautifully illustrated Cryptogram Puzzle Post envelopes.

Setup

Each monthly installment told Anna’s tale through:

  • magnificent illustrations
  • a poem to set the tone
  • a musical playlist to establish the mood
  • a bit of prose to present the story
  • puzzles to take us on the journey

Each mailing came in a beautifully illustrated envelope (which was not part of the puzzle) and 8 sheets of paper. The first sheet contained the poem, playlist, and a bit of explanation, none of which played into the puzzle.

From there, we tackled each of the 7 puzzle pages sequentially. The answer from one page fed into the puzzle on the following page until we reached the conclusion of the installment.

The first page of a Cryptogram Puzzle Post laying on an open envelope with a beautiful illustration.

Gameplay

Cryptogram Puzzle Post was an at-home puzzle game with a variable level of difficulty from mailing to mailing and puzzle to puzzle. The challenges ranged from straightforward to complicated.

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

The first puzzle page for one month of the Cryptogram Puzzle Post.

Analysis

+ I’m going to keep raving about the illustrations on the envelopes because they are so damn beautiful.

+ When the puzzles flowed, they flowed really well.

– When the puzzles didn’t flow, Cryptogram Puzzle Post ground to a halt.

– There seemed to be no rhyme, reason, or indicator for the difficulty. We would have appreciated a more deliberate difficulty curve.

– While we could request a hint PDF and an answers PDF, Cryptogram Puzzle Post really needed a structured, self-service hint system. When we got really stuck, I had to stop puzzling, look at the PDFs and then essentially gamemaster the experience for Lisa and our friends.

– One month was printed in yellow ink… and it basically made the content invisible. We found ourselves shining a blacklight on the pages to better reveal the content.

Cryptogram Puzzle Post was really creative with the puzzles, especially considering that everything was purely paper and fairly limited in size.

+ I am not much of a poetry person (humorous haiku notwithstanding), but I enjoyed the tone set by the poems at the start of each package. Similarly, the playlists were an unnecessary, but welcome addition.

+ While the components were all paper, we felt good about the price and value of these mailings because they were so beautifully created.

Tips for Playing

  • The paper is thin. Be careful erasing.

Subscribe to Cryptogram Puzzle Post, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Cryptogram Puzzle Post sent us a complimentary season of this game.