A Cold Case: A Story to Die For is a tabletop mystery game created by ThinkFun.
Style of Play:
Tabletop mystery game
Play on demand
Required Equipment: computer with internet connection
Recommended Team Size: 1-3
Play Time: about 1-2 hours, maybe more with all the reading
Booking: purchase and play at your leisure
Your job is to solve an old murder case. To do so, you examine all the evidence in the case file and answer four questions about the particulars of the case. When you have your answers, you input them into a website for confirmation.
There were no “puzzles” along the way to the solution, just reading and comparing evidence. Note that there is a lot of reading.
We’ve heard whispers for years about Rebecca Bleau and Nicholas Cravotta’s followup to their original two Escape The Room games published by ThinkFun (Mystery at the Stargazer’sManor & Secret of Dr. Gravely’s Retreat). We had heard tales of a dollhouse built from the game box, creating the feeling of an actual escape room on your table.
Those rumors were true.
Playing Escape The Room: The Cursed Dollhouse felt a lot like playing an escape room on our table. We did a proper turn-down search in each room of the dollhouse – the first time we’ve searched like that since the beginning of March… and that felt damn good.
The puzzles in The Cursed Dollhouse played well. They were approachable, but noticeably more challenging than in ThinkFun’s previous two games. We enjoyed playing through almost all of this game, with the exception of a late-game segment that felt like a bit of a grind.
Overall, this was a premium product. It delivered the kind of experience we would have expected from a high-end boutique tabletop puzzle game company, not a mass market product, buyable off of a store shelf or Amazon. Thinking about it… it’s crazy that this product was manufactured with this level of care, and for that, our hats are off to the folks at ThinkFun.
We recommend you buy this thing. It’s novel, fun, and feels like an actual escape room in a box.
Who is this for?
Players with at least some experience
Strong and crafty puzzle content
You build a dollhouse out of the game’s packaging
Everyone in the neighborhood remembered Old Man Garrity being a good guy, but ever since his daughter disappeared, he had withdrawn from the community.
Recently people had been hearing strange noises coming from the shed in Garrity’s backyard. We decided to break in… and found a dollhouse?
This escape room in a box was the second one to market from table top and education game company ThinkFun. It worked identically to its predecessor, Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor, which we reviewed very positively. Literally everything I said about the first game applied here, so I won’t rehash how the game was constructed or functioned.
The twist with Secret of Dr. Gravely’s Retreat was that it was a bit darker and contained a few more complex puzzles.
“The year is 1913 and you are the lucky winner of a free stay at Foxcrest Retreat, where the famed Dr. Gravely has improved upon the latest in spa treatments and relaxation for those of high social standing. You take a long all-expense-paid train ride to the retreat. Upon your arrival, however, you and your fellow guests may find the “health retreat” is not what it seems…”
As with its predecessor, the story was well-written but far too wordy.
ThinkFun served up another round of paper and cardboard puzzles that were far more fun than paper and cardboard usually are.
The twist this time around was the introduction of more complex physical puzzles. These were the star of the show and added a surprising new dynamic. They were reasonably durable, but were absolutely breakable.
The new physical puzzles were super clever.
The art was beautiful.
Their solution wheel system for answer verification was still brilliant.
Those new and awesome physical puzzles unfortunately created some massive bottlenecks. There was no way for multiple people to work on them, so when we encountered one, the person who held it was the only person playing. Fortunately our team was mellow and good at taking turns.
The final couple of puzzles were surprisingly weak compared to the early and mid-game puzzles. The game faded away when it should have gone out with a bang.
The story didn’t feel quite as compelling as the story of the Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor. We weren’t as invested.
Should I play ThinkFun’s Escape The Room: Secret of Dr. Gravely’s Retreat?
At $22.00, Escape The Room: Secret of Dr. Gravely’s Retreat is a steal for any puzzle room lover. Play it with an intimate group and you’ll have a lot of fun.
Some puzzles were better than others, but overall this was a quality experience, especially when considering the price point.
The box weighs in at only one pound, and measures 7.9 x 2 x 10.2 inches.
If I was skeptical of The Werewolf Experiment when it arrived in the mail, the lightness of Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor’s box and its shockingly low $22 price tag had me feeling mighty uneasy.
Theme & story
Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor was a 19th century mad science mystery.
A wealthy astronomer turned recluse after the death of his wife and disappeared. We were part of a small group of individuals who cared about the man and approached his manor in an attempt to find him.
What’s in the box?
Upon first opening, Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor seemed like it would be a waste of time.
We found a short instruction booklet, a card that clearly started the story, five sealed envelopes with interesting artwork, and a rotating disk decoder-looking contraption.
Everything was lightweight.
Only the quality of the artwork, and the ThinkFun brand name (which carries some weight with me) hinted at the product’s production value.
I was still frightened that I had invited people over to play.
How does it play?
Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor was surprisingly innovative.
The story and its puzzles unfolded over a series of chapters or scenes. It was a linear experience that uncannily simulated playing a linear escape room.
The puzzles were almost entirely made from cardboard and paper, but they did not require any writing. There were no Sudoku, crosswords, or word searches. While each puzzle offered a unique challenge, they were mostly spacial puzzles (which gave some of us a significant advantage).
The story was well written, but far too wordy. Each scene in the game opened with a written narrative. As the scenes unfolded, so did a compelling narrative. This story added depth, even if it usually wasn’t necessary for solving the puzzles. There were many instances when by the time someone had finished reading the passage, someone else had generally figured out a good chunk of that scene’s puzzle.
There was a well-designed website with tiers of instructions ranging from a gentle nudge in the correct direction to full idiot-proof explanation for each scene of the game.
We didn’t use it during our game, but it was executed well.
Resetting the game
The hint website also contained easy-to-follow instructions for resetting the game.
So long as you don’t play like a barbarian, Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor is completely replayable. There were no single-use items in the box. Be gentle.
ThinkFun bills Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor as a 3 to 8 person game. Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that we recommend 2-4 players.
Because of the linear nature of the game, we worked on one puzzle at a time. Each puzzle could engage at most each 3 of our 6 players. This made for sporadic tedium.
Play with fewer people.
The game clock was also determined by the number of players.
3-5 players were allotted 2 hours.
6-8 players were allotted 1.5 hours.
We finished the entire game in ~47 minutes and we didn’t rush.
Take your time, play with a small group, and enjoy each piece of the game. Pride is the only reason to rush.
A few questionable components
[Update: ThinkFun had warned us in advance that they were having some trouble with envelope wear in the sample version of the game, and were working with the factory to keep those problems from impacting the production model. In the craziness of our wedding and honeymoon prep, we completely forgot about this conversation. Sorry ThinkFun!]
$22 doesn’t purchase a whole lot these days, but in the case of Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor, it bought a whole lot more than I was anticipating. Still, there were a few cut corners (or split in this case) that diminished the experience.
The aforementioned envelopes had two problems with them. First, the edges of my copy were already showing signs of heavy wear before I even removed them from the box.
Second, the envelopes were sealed with stickers that were too sticky for the paper. It took finesse to peel them open without tearing the envelopes, and our envelopes have the scars to prove it.
Third, the game contained small dowel rods. Although used ingeniously, they lacked a head like a nail. We spent more time figuring out how to keep the contraption they supported together than we did solving that puzzle.
Should I play ThinkFun’s Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor?
At $22, the price of a single ticket to a bargain escape room in the United States, I am highly recommending Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor. It’s a better, more creative game than at least 50% of the escape rooms I’ve played.
It’s not quite an escape room and not quite a board game. It’s replayable, but once you know how to solve all the puzzles, you probably won’t replay it.
As with Escape Room in a Box: The Werewolf Experiment, if you approach Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor wanting an immersive escape room filled with props, expensive components, and large set pieces, you’re going to be disappointed.
If you approach the game thinking it’s a replayable table top game that you’ll keep in your game night lineup, then you’re going to be disappointed.
If you buy Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor knowing that it’s an hour-long puzzle with elegant art, creative puzzles, and will occupy you for an evening, then you’re doing it right.
At this price, it’s worth buying even if you want to play it completely on your own… but don’t. Invite a friend or three.