Room Escape Lover’s Holiday Gift Guide – 2020

Welcome to our 5th Annual Holiday Buyer’s Guide. The fact that we’ve been doing this for 5 years blows my mind. As always, we’re here to help you solve the puzzle of what to get family and friends.

REA logo with a Santa hat atop.

Each year we assemble a list of puzzles, games, tools, and some truly random stuff that we think would make fantastic gifts for the escape room or puzzle-curious people in your life.

We do not (intentionally) repeat items, so feel free to check out our past Holiday Buyer’s Guides for additional inspiration. They have all been crafted with love and we still stand behind them:

Puzzles

We cover a lot of ground here, so puzzles are broken out into sub-categories for your convenience.

Tabletop Escape Games

Scooby-Doo: Escape from The Haunted Mansion

$30 (Amazon)

Scooby-Doo Escape from the Haunted Mansion box art depicts th Mystery Inc gang in front of an ominous mansion.

David: “Jinkies, this game was adorable. It was about as Scooby Doo as it could have gotten, and it’s the perfect family-friendly tabletop escape room.” (Review)

Escape The Room: The Cursed Dollhouse (Think Fun)

$43 (Amazon)

The Cursed Dollhouse fully assembled.

Lisa: “It’s a dollhouse. You turn the game box into a dollhouse, and then you play it like it’s a real-life escape room. Sure, it had a couple of bumps, but it’s so much fun. And did I mention that it’s a dollhouse?” (Review)

Box One Presented By Neil Patrick Harris

$30 (Target)

Hand holding a gold Box One challenge coin over the game's box art.

David: “This one really surprised us. It was teed up as a single player experience (but we played it as a couple). We didn’t know what to expect or what we were getting into… and in the initial moments it seemed like it might disappoint, but wow. Must play. Few tabletop puzzle games have pushed the idea as far as Box One did.” (Review)

Witchery Spell

$58 + shipping from the Netherlands (DarkPark Games)

A pentagram surrounded with decorative symbols, with a lit candle in the center.

David: “We had Sarah Willson review this one because Lisa volunteered to play a part as one of the witches. In both my opinion and Sarah’s… this game is great. Also, I think that one of the witches in this game is really hot.” (Review)

Mystery Subscription Box: Madok’s Lost Treasure

$19.50 per month, or save on individual boxes with a quarterly or annual subscription (Society of Curiosities)

A wax sealed letter and a gold coin.

David: “This is a beautiful and unique take on the subscription game. It has an entirely different feel and style from anything else we’ve seen and puts a heavy focus on challenges and fiction that feel more real than purely puzzley.” (Review)

The Curious Set: Elevator & Stairs

$51 (BlueFish Games)

Initial opening of the box shows a wide variety of paper components.

Lisa: “We loved the Curious Elevator of Mr. Hincks and said as much in our review… but we loved its prequel/ harder followup Curious Stairs of Mr. Hincks even more. That review is coming soon. These are quality, approachable puzzle games.” (Review)

Root of All Evil

$130 (Crack-A-Nut Mysteries)

Closeup of the box contents includes a Holy Bible, newspaper clippings, and other items.

Lisa: “Root of All Evil built a grim fictional world and truly sold it through an attention to detail that rivals anything else we’ve seen in the tabletop mystery market. I’ve never enjoyed reading a journal more than in this experience.” (Review)

Jigsaw Puzzles

Ravensburger Sort and Go Jigsaw Puzzle Accessory

$11 (Amazon)

Puzzle Tray packaging beside a stack of trays.

David: “As an jigsaw puzzler, I always thought that buying dedicated sorting trays was a decadence that I didn’t need. Turns out, it’s a decadence that I love.” (Review)

H. H. Holmes Murder Castle 1000 Piece Jigsaw Puzzle

$35 (Etsy)

Illustrated box art for the 1000 piece Murder Castle puzzle.

David: “The book The Devil in the White City is fantastic on so many levels. It also introduced me to the real and insane story of H.H. Holmes and his murder castle. This illustrated puzzle brings the stories to life. It’s an interesting jigsaw puzzle because it has so much detail and the act of assembling it really makes sure that you take in every little bit.”

Puzzle 29

$40 (Etsy)

29 translucent blue acrylic jigsaw pieces and a white frame that fits them.

Lisa: “You think you’re a good jigsaw puzzler until a 29-piece puzzle kicks your butt. This thing is loaded with intrigue and smart design. Have fun figuring out what the deal is with that 5th corner piece.”

Mechanical Puzzles

Mondrian Blocks

$25 – each color offers a different set of challenges (Amazon)

Mondrian blocks logic puzzle box.

Brett: “A series of challenges with one simple rule: place the starting pieces in specified locations, then figure out where the remaining pieces fit. It escalates from easier puzzles to quite difficult ones, but always producing an attractive color block pattern. Challenge cards and pieces are packaged in a clever case, making it good for portable puzzling.”

DanLock

$180 (Etsy)

Danlock puzzle lock with a key attached to the shackle and a broken key.

David: “I’m a big fan of puzzles and locks… so blending them together is a no-brainer for me. In the annals of puzzle locks, the Dan Lock is a puzzle that really established a lot in this niche genre. I’ve never owned one, but I did solve a friend’s.”

cluebox

$37 (Etsy)

A wooden puzzle box with a spindle of gears.

David: “ClueBox is a really clever puzzle. It blends mechanical puzzling with escape room-style clue structure. The result is approachable fun for newbies and experts alike.” (Review)

Puzzle Books

The Master Theorem Book

$30 (Amazon)

The Master Theorem book cover.

Lisa: “We took a bit of a break from puzzle books in 2020, but Master Theorem was the exception. It has a unique voice and an assortment of quality puzzles that we kept returning to.” (Review)

Home & Office

AfterShokz Titanium Open Ear Wireless Bone Conduction Headphones

$80 (Amazon)

David: “About 15 years ago I read a science fiction novel called Daemon (which is fantastic and could make a great gift as well). The book passively mentioned bone conduction headphones. It wasn’t essential to the plot, but it captured my imagination. In 2020, I’ve spent a lot of time in headphones and I don’t like over-ear or earbuds, so I tried a pair of these bone conduction headphones and they are really cool. They leave your ears completely open. There is also a more expensive waterproof/ exercise model.”

Fever-Tree Premium Indian Tonic Water

$29 for a 24 pack (Amazon)

The key to a good gin & tonic is the tonic.

Lisa: “It has been a long time since we’ve gone out to a bar, so we’ve been mixing our own potions. Gin & tonic is an easy choice, but most people buy inferior tonic. Splurge for the good stuff; it will completely change the way you think of the classic gin & tonic.”

A fever tree bottle glowing under blacklight.
It also looks amazing under blacklight. (To be fair, so does inferior tonic.)

Flatiron Pepper Co Chile Flakes Gift Set, 4 Pack

$35 (Amazon)

A collection of 4 different bottled pepper blends.

David: “A non-trivial portion of the joy that I’ve experienced in 2020 has been from exploring spices and hot sauces. The gift set from Flatiron Pepper Co is by far the most versatile product that I’ve found. These pepper blends are so fresh, flavorful, and vibrant. There’s a pepper blend for every meal in this box. Give the gift of 🔥.”

OXO Good Grips Multi Grater (The Strange Bird Grater)

$13 (Amazon)

A v shaped cheese grater with a flexible hinge.

David: “I learned about this cheese grater in an unusual Facebook thread over in the Everything Immersive group where Haley E R Cooper educated me. As is so often the case… she was right. If you want to read the original conversation, have at it. You’ll just have to join the Everything Immersive Facebook group first.

Kishibori Shoyu – Premium Artisanal Japanese Soy Sauce

$23 (Amazon)

Premium soy sauce bottle.

Lisa: “It turns out traditional soy sauces are amazing. I wouldn’t cook it into something, but in the right places, this stuff is an outrageous finishing touch.”

Tabletop Games

Magic The Gathering Challenger Decks

$22 – Cavalcade Charge or $25 – Flash of Ferocity (Amazon)

4 different magic challenger deck boxes.

David: “I’ve been playing Magic The Gathering on and off since I was about 10 years old. I love brewing up decks, and I truly enjoy the complexity of the game… but I don’t really like to keep up with buying tons of cards. The Challenger Decks are amazing because most of them are legitimately good out of the box, and with a few upgrades, it’s easy to turn these things into powerhouses. All 4 are interesting, but I think that Cavalcade Charge and Flash of Ferocity are the strongest out of the box.”

Magic The Gathering Arena Starter Decks

$10 (Amazon)

Two magic starter decks and a play guide.

David: “If you’re brand new to Magic, the Arena Starter Decks are really good – Magic has a dodgy history when it comes to starter deck quality. These also come with the added bonus of working in Magic’s digital format, Arena, as well (which is also where I do most of my playing these days).”

Gloomhaven: Jaws of The Lion

$48 (Amazon)

Box art: Assorted fantasy weapons on a tavern table with a map and gold.

Lisa: “Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is a collaborative fantasy, adventure, and strategy game. It is the little sibling of Gloomhaven (2018 Buyers Guide), an epic tabletop game designed to be played over dozens of sessions… and we have been playing it throughout 2020. The smaller version is far less of a commitment in terms of playtime, price, and complexity… but it’s still really fun.”

Pandemic Legacy: Season 0

$75 (Amazon)

Pandemic Legacy Sason 0 with 1960s characters on the box.

Lisa: “Truthfully, we haven’t played this yet, but it’s sitting next to our table waiting for us to play it in December. We recommended Season 1 & 2 in past guides and they were a marvel of game design. I can’t wait to see what catharsis Season 0 has in store for us.”

Lucky Duck D20 DND Die

$15 (Etsy)

Clear D20 with rubber duckies inside of them.

David: “It’s a ducky in a 20-sided die! Do I really need to sell you on this?”

Tears of My Players DnD Coffee Mug

$17 (Etsy)

Hands holding a much that depicts D20s and reads, "Tears of My Players."

Lisa: “I’m pretty sure that every dungeon master we’ve ever played with secretly sips from this. You know who you are and what you’ve done.”

Tools

Mini Right Angle Ratcheting ScrewDriver

$9 (Amazon)

A right angle ratcheting screwdriver with 18 different bits of various types and sizes.

David: “The Wera screwdriver that I recommended last year is my go-to fix-most-things tool… but this cheap, silly little tool has worked miracles for me in tight spaces. I don’t always need it, but when I do, I am so happy that I have it.”

Sparrows – Challenge Vault

$129 (Sparrows)

David: “This is a small safe designed to teach you how to crack safes. If you’re into mechanical puzzles, lock picking, or you’re the kind of person who likes to know how to do things, this product is incredibly cool. The only reason that I do not own one right now is that I know that I don’t have the time to get really good at this… yet.”

Stocking Stuffers

Uni Mechanical Pencil Kurutoga

$7 Pencil (Amazon) & $6 Graphite Refills (Amazon)

A red, a blue, and a pink pencil with a rotating mechanical mechanism.

Lisa: “If it’s wrong to love a pencil, I don’t want to be right. This mechanical pencil slowly rotates as you write with it so that the graphite wears evenly. It’s magnificent. David and I both use them when puzzling. Buy extra graphite; the pencil doesn’t ship with much in it.”

Foldology – Origami Puzzles

$14 (Amazon)

Foldology oigami puzzles in various states of solve.

Lisa: “I’ve always loved origami. Any scrap paper or candy wrapper turns into a bird in my idle hands. I also really enjoy folding my way through these squares while we watch TV.”

CH751 – A key that opens far too many locks

$6.00 (Amazon)

2 ch751 keys

David: “Now is the time that I entertain and educate you. This silly little key goes to the most commonly-used lock on office furniture, cabinets, and RV compartments… and it shows up in a lot of escape rooms. It’s a dirt cheap lock that manufacturers keep using out of laziness and stupidity. So buy yourself a “skeleton key” to keep on your key-chain… and seriously make sure that you are never locking up something important behind a lock keyed to CH751.”

For the Little Ones

The Mad Hacker

$10 The Mad Hacker (Amazon)

Cover art for the Mad Hacker Escape Game Adventure book.

Lisa: “If you’re looking to open the world of puzzling up to your primary-school age child, The Mad Hacker is an adorable and beautifully illustrated entry point.” (Review)

Playmobil Scooby-DOO! Adventure in The Mystery Mansion

$99 (Amazon)

A purple and green haunted house playset with Scooby-Doo Playmobile characters.

Lisa: “If you asked tiny me what I wanted for the holidays, the answer was always Playmobil. My obsession was intense. What I love about this particular playset is that it’s a great way to introduce kids to mystery, adventure, and trap doors. Teaching your kids to love trap doors is just good parenting.”

Escape Room Tickets (Real-Life or Online)

Recommendations for Avatar-Guided Online Escape Games – In these games, you interact with the escape room through an in-game avatar who is your eyes, ears, and hands in the physical game space.

Stylized image of a laptop with a large Zoom meeting and a cup of coffee.

Recommendations for Play On-Demand Online Escape Games – These are games that are always available to start now – no need to book a time slot.

A team photo from THE BASEMENT. One player looks like a disembodied head due to green screen funniness.

David: “Whether you play in real life at your friendly neighborhood escape room business or try one of the countless digital escape room variants, these companies absolutely need the business. It has been a hard year, and supporting them is as important as it is fun.”

REA Merch

REA Merch Shop

Lisa “For the first time, we finally have REA logo swag available and we’re super excited. If you’re debating between the items, let me tell you that the hoodie is so soft and comfortable. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted in a hoodie. The mug is also really great.” (About REA Merch)

Something Special

Rune Cube

$500 (Art of Play)

Wooden Rune Cube puzzle box.

Brett: “If you are looking for something high-end, this puzzle box has hours of play value. With more than 100 different configurations, taking from 6 to 115 moves to open, you won’t soon run out of challenges. Made by Kagen Sound, one of the best puzzle craftspeople out there, it is also a beautifully precise piece of woodworking.”

Cluvens Scorpion Computer Cockpit

$3,299 (monitors and computer not included)

An elaborate scorpion shaped work station. It looks like it would be used by a villain in a cyberpunk story.

David: “Every year I explore the internet in search of something completely bonkers for the person who has everything. I keep imagining how funny it would have been running RECON from something this ridiculously super villainous.”

Support Room Escape Artist’s Mission

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

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

Box One Presented By Neil Patrick Harris [Hivemind Review]

Box One is a tabletop escape game presented By Neil Patrick Harris.

Hand holding a gold Box One challenge coin over the game's box art.

Format

Style of Play: tabletop escape game

Required Equipment: an internet-connected device

Recommended Team Size: 1

Play Time: While active playtime was under 2 hours, you will not be starting and finishing this game in a single evening; don’t try.

Price: about $29.99

Description

Box One is a tabletop escape-room-esque experience that describes itself as “an ever-evolving game of trivia, codes, puzzles, and discovery – only from the mind of Neil Patrick Harris.” It was explicitly designed for a single player to enjoy on their own, but there is nothing about the game that prevents more players, beyond designer’s intent (which ain’t nothing). Saying much more than that about its structure will spoil things that ought not be spoiled.

Red, black,and gold, with NPH's eye peering through a keyhole Box One packaging

Recommendations Guide: Avatar-Guided Online Escape Games

Looking for an online escape game? This is the most common format for remote play.

What is an Avatar?

An avatar is your hands, feets, eyes, ears… your entire body in an online escape room. From behind your computer, in the comfort of your own home, you’ll direct your avatar in what to do to escape the room.

These games need to be booked in advance for specific time slots, just as one would book a real-life escape room. Remote players usually connect with the avatar through Zoom, or another video conferencing platforms.

The avatar might be dumb hands, or they might be a full-fledged character in your experience. As a character, they come in different styles, from eager to take action to fearful to hostile. However they play it, the avatar is a part of experience.

First person view of an old building, the avatar's hands are visible along with various HUD indicators.
Photo of Avatar Stalker

Norms

Most avatar-guided escape games:

  • have a first-person camera angle. You see the physical space from the vantage point of the avatar.
  • utilize a physical room somewhere in the world. The avatar is there, in the space, touching physical game components since you cannot be.
  • set the story such that it makes sense for you to be remote and for the avatar to be on-site.

There are exceptions to all of the above, including in some of our recommendations below, but the constant is the avatar character who acts at your direction.

Hivemind Reviewer Favorites

Listed alphabetically

New Video: Manda’s Brilliant & Bonkers Character Talk + Guest Star Errol

I love this talk so much. It was as hilarious as it was informative! And I can tell you with confidence, no one worked as hard on crafting their talk at RECON as Manda did. She put her heart, soul, and knowledge into this thing, and I am so thankful to her (and Errol).

Most escape room creators could learn a lot from this session.

Featured Talk Information

Characters in Escape Rooms

Details: Originally presented on Monday, August 24 at 14:15 (New York)

Speakers: Manda Whitney

Company: Room Escape Divas

Abstract: Manda always puts character at the center of her creations – in escape rooms, large-scale narrative-driven puzzle productions, and her own writing. In this talk, Manda provides you with key components of creating and representing a compelling character. Whether you’re starting from scratch or seeking to retrofit characters into existing games, Manda’s tips provide an effective and inexpensive way to lift the quality of any immersive experience.

Manda Whitney's headshot.

About RECON ’20

RECON ’20 was Room Escape Artist’s digital escape room convention featuring 15 pre-recorded talks, live Q&As, and over 30 exhibitors. We had over 900 attendees from 62 countries watching and participating live.

We’re releasing each of the 15 talks for free on our YouTube channel this fall. More than half the featured talk videos are already available there!

Please subscribe to the RECON Newsletter to receive updates on RECON ’21 – we are just getting started.

Book By Time [Innovation Interview Series]

This is the second in a series of interviews about innovations that enhance storytelling, the next frontier in escape rooms.

In 2019 Off The Couch of Santa Clara, CA acquired 3 popular games from Evil Genius Escape Rooms of Los Angeles, including Chapter 3: The Morgue which landed in the #7 position in the latest TERPECA ranking. These games helped form a base on which Off The Couch built their newest project Pandorum.

The game clock and the frenzy that comes with it as we try to escape before it ticks down are standard practice in the escape room industry. But is that really the best way to experience everything the creators have provided for us? Playing for speed isn’t always the most fun.

A futuristic skyline.

About Pandorum

Pandorum is a single, 3-chapter game requiring several hours to play from start to finish. The innovative idea employed by Off The Couch is a system that allows players to buy blocks of time and then play the game at their own pace. Never feeling rushed, they have time to explore, understand, and appreciate the entire game and the story it tells.

For creators, once they decide to allow teams to move at their own pace, opportunities arise for additional story and even optional content. They don’t have to worry about fitting everything in 60 minutes.

Pandorum incorporates several interesting ideas, but the book-by-time innovation is something I am interested in keeping an eye on going forward. It is an adaptation that has tremendous possibilities with regard to storytelling. 

Pandorum currently has an uncertain future. Check in with Off The Couch for the latest details.

Nick Schilbe, sometimes known as Panda, owner of OTC, told me more about Pandorum and the reasons behind the book-by-time system:

A morgue with a body on a slab.

Why Book By Time?

Schilbe: We are moving away from the concept of “getting out / doing X in Y amount of time” for this game after reviewing data on hinting in our previous games. As part of our games, we offer an unlimited number of hints. After reviewing all of our hint data, it turns out that almost 80% of all hints asked for by our players are asked for in the last 10-15 minutes of a game. The players simply don’t want to lose the game and will rapid-fire ask for hints at the end just to see all of the content. This creates two things that we dislike:

1) Players have to rush through the final puzzles, which most commonly include the best puzzle or the main, climactic puzzle. This also means they are rushing through any ending story elements. As a game designer, we want players to see all of the content the way that it was meant to be played instead of rushing through it.

2) Players are not playing the way they would otherwise play. We feel that if a player wants to play quickly and ask for tons of hints, they should be allowed to do that. On the other hand, if a player wants to ask for zero hints, they should also be allowed to do that too. 

To solve these problems we made Pandorum a book-by-time (instead of a book by slot) kind of game. Players can buy as much time as they like for Pandorum. When their purchased amount of time runs out, we save the players’ status and progression in the game. When they come back, they purchase more time and simply pick up where they left off, just like in a video game.

A couch in a strangely lit living room like space.

What is the key to your system?

Schilbe: The ability to save game progress is a huge game changer for us. It allows us to create more elaborate and longer game experiences. This means the stories are more complete, the players get a chance to become more immersed in the environment, and we get to experiment with more innovative ideas when it comes to puzzles.

What other video game concepts are you employing?

Schilbe: Pandorum plays more like a real-life video game than a traditional escape room. It still has all of the puzzle elements that people have grown to love about escape rooms, but it also introduces some new mechanics: side quests, classes, experience points, levels, and in-game items. The side quests serve as additional puzzles that make the game seem more realistic and can unlock prizes like in-game currency, exclusive souvenirs, and even additional game time. 

We are also pushing the idea of player agency as an important part of the game. Most escape rooms follow a linear path and every outcome of every puzzle is the same. We wanted the players to feel more involved in how the game plays out by having their choices and actions impact future parts of the game. 

For example, there are segments of the game where the players have to accomplish something in a certain amount of time. Success and failure result in different outcomes with potentially different experiences.

An art gallery.

How long will a full playthrough take?

Schilbe: The length is a bit of a moving target, but we are expecting the average player to take around 4 hours to get through the main story of the game. There will also be the side quests that introduce more gameplay, if the players pursue them.

Take Your Time

Almost every escape room player appreciates when a game operator pauses the clock and allows the team to continue playing past the deadline. Being able to book as much time as desired and knowing up front that you will be able to experience a deeper level of game detail and more story is an exciting concept. 

Most storytelling media do not benefit from being rushed. We’d all want our favorite scenes or chapters to be extended, to be in that fictional world just a bit longer. Escape rooms are our chance to live inside of compelling stories. Book-by-time can allow us to more fully enjoy where the story goes. We can appreciate it, take it in, experience it… rather than race against the clock in the moments where the storytelling might be at its best.