Time to Escape – Flashback [Review]

Totally rad Dragonlance collection!

Location:  Lakewood, CO

Date Played: September 8, 2019

Team size: 3-10; we recommend 4-6

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $25 per player

Ticketing: Public or Private

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

Time to Escape’s Flashback was a traditional escape game in a large space.

The puzzles played well and the set was loaded with 80s charm. It was a solid old-school escape room.

In-game: Wide shot of the main character's 80s bedroom.

There wasn’t much wrong with Flashback, but there also wasn’t anything truly memorable about it either. If you’re in the area and looking for an escape room fix, it’s a fine option.

Seeing where Time to Escape started and where they are heading, they are clearly on an upward trajectory. After peeking inside, I’d be curious to play their next game when it officially opens.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • 80s lovers
  • Any experience level
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • Fun traditional escape room gameplay
  • Totally rad references

Story

It was 1989 and someone had kidnapped the pioneer of time travel technology. We had to investigate her home and explore her work to find the secret of time travel.

In-game: A dry erase board in pright pastel colors reads, "Totally RAD."

Setting

Flashback was set in the main character’s 1980s teenage bedroom. From a construction standpoint, there wasn’t anything special going on. Where the environment’s design shined was in the details. The room had a lot of personality beyond the standard 80s cliches that most 80s rooms lean heavily on.

In-game: The main character's bed and bookcase.

Gameplay

Time to Escape’s Flashback was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

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

In-game: a Ouija board on a desk.

Analysis

➕ Flashback was adorable. We enjoyed the props that harkened back to the ’80s. It also had a great soundtrack; we danced our way through the puzzles.

➖ Flashback felt homemade. The set looked like a home, which wasn’t particularly interesting, and by the end even that look had kind of evaporated.

➕ Our favorite puzzles repurposed period appropriate games and toys into escape room-style solves. Time To Escape also leaned into some more niche 80s props, which was charming. These worked well.

➖ Time to Escape struggled with digit structure. At times, we’d derive a combination and try it in the wrong place because we had too many similarly structured inputs. This hampered momentum.

➕ We enjoyed the final puzzle sequence. It was an interesting, layered solve.

➖ Although it was fun, Flashback wasn’t exciting. It needed a memorable moment or a dramatic turn.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.

Book your hour with Time to Escape’s Flashback, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Time to Escape comped our tickets for this game.

Disclosure: Our trip to Denver was sponsored by the Denver escape room community. Contributions were anonymous.

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!

Puzzles

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.

Home

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.

Tools

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.

RECON

$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:

Support Room Escape Artist’s Mission

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

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

Scott Weiss’s Virtual Escape Rooms – Communing With Nature [Review]

Imagine Bearded Dragons

Location: At home

Date Played: September 17, 2019

Team size: best with 2 (including an adult), but up to 2 additional kids may be added

Duration: 45-90 minutes

Price: $15 per group with option to donate the fee to suggested charities

Ticketing: By appointment

REA Reaction

Communing With Nature was an enjoyable hour full of audio gameplay that included entertaining mental images and solid puzzles.

Inspired by Escape This Podcast, Scott Weiss has created two virtual escape rooms that are played over Skype or Google Hangouts and geared toward families.

While Communing with Nature required a lot of initial note-taking, as we learned about the setting, it soon got rolling with well-crafted puzzles and fun moments.

Check it out if you’re looking for a convenient at-home puzzle fix that’s great for the whole family. Added bonus: no risk of random people joining. Scott is a seasoned puzzle creator with a patient disposition. You’ll be in good hands.

Who is this for?

Why play?

  • An escape room from the comfort of your home
  • No ticking clock
  • Good value

Story

It was our first day volunteering at the Waterstone Park Nature Center. Our stern supervisor was Ms. Turner. Our task was to feed Matilda, the albino tree python.

Setting

Scott painted a vivid picture of the nature center though his description of the many animals found there. The design of the center was clearly well thought out and clued in such a way that we could see in our minds how pieces of the overall puzzle went together.

A screenshot of a Google Doc puzzle: "Count the Animals!". It involves illustrations of animals. The image of a single bear has been selected.
One of the visual aids for a puzzle.

Gameplay

Communing With Nature was a virtual escape room geared towards families, with a moderate level of difficulty. The puzzles will likely require one adult to assist.

This was a primarily audio experience. After we said hello to Scott and heard the rules of the road, Scott turned off the video feed on his end.

He started with a setup of the story, including dialogue from the nature center supervisor. We also received a simple diagram of the room via Google Docs. With the basic layout in front of us, we navigated the room and interacted with objects by verbally stating our intent. Scott responded with the result of our actions, D&D style. When we encountered puzzles through our exploration, we received them via Google Docs. Scott monitored the progress of our puzzle-solving conversation and interjected as needed.

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

Analysis

➕ There were word, math, logic, and lateral-thinking puzzles. The variety ticked every part of our brains.

➕ Scott offered hints at appropriate moments and walked us through puzzle sticking points with the patience of my favorite elementary school teacher.

➖ Most of the puzzles had an associated Google Doc that contained the information we needed. Their appearance was basic. With a little dressing up, they would help with the immersion of the virtual world.

➖ We spent a lot of the early-game walking from cage to cage in the room and hearing about the contents of each (as well as the books on the bookcase.) There were a lot of details we needed to keep track of and we spent substantial time writing. We would have welcomed a written description of each cage for reference after we’d heard about it.

➕ Scott rolled with the punches. Like any good 1980’s computer adventure, when we tried to do something unexpected, he improvised a funny response to get us back on track: “As you attempt to open Ms. Turner’s desk drawers, she crosses her arms and fixes you with an icy stare. You decide to stop doing that.”

➖ Because a virtual escape room doesn’t require an actual set, we’d love to see an even more ambitious story and surprises.

➕ The nature center was an ideal setting for kids, most of whom love animals to begin with.

Tips For Visiting

  • Have multiple sheets of scratch paper on hand.
  • Scott’s website lists times and dates that he’s available. Choose one and fill out the form at the bottom of the page to book your appointment.

Book your hour with Scott Weiss’s Communing With Nature, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

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

Story

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.

Setup

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.

Gameplay

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.

Analysis

➕ 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.

Support Room Escape Artist’s Mission

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

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

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

Meta masterpiece.

Author:  J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

Release Date:  October 29, 2013

Page Count: 472 plus inserts

Price: About $30

Publisher:  Mulholland Books

REA Reaction

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

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

Ship of Theseus title page.

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

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

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

Who is this for?

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

Why Read?

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

Story

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

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

Ship of Theseus book and slipcover.

Setup

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

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

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

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

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

Gameplay

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

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

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

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

Analysis

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

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

A sample footnote plus margin notes from Ship of Theseus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tips For Reading

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

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

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

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

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

Support Room Escape Artist’s Mission

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

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

Golden Puzzle Room – The Lighthouse [Review]

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Location:  Lakewood, CO

Date Played: September 8, 2019

Team size: up to 6; we recommend 4-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price:  A 1 or 2-person team is $54. Additional players are $27 each.

Ticketing: Private

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

The Lighthouse was a solid, traditional escape room. The set was simple but scenic, and the puzzles worked well.

Our biggest gripe with the experience was that it lacked energy. Golden Puzzle Room could transform this game into something considerably more special if they added a little more drama to the experience.

In-game: An old Tandy computre in front of a large window with a ocean view.

If you’re in the area, The Lighthouse is a solid old-school game that can scratch your escape room itch.

If you have younger children, we especially recommend checking out Golden Puzzle Room because they are one of the few companies that has games designed specifically for the age group.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Lighthouse aficionados
  • Any experience level

Why play?

  • The late game interactions
  • ASCII art!

Story

Stranded in an abandoned lighthouse in the 1980s with a wrecked boat, we needed to get the lighthouse up and running to signal for help.

In-game: closeup of a lighthouse model with a #3 on it.

Setting

The Lighthouse opened in a homey study-like environment. The most special item in this space was an old Tandy computer… which was used to good effect.

The set wasn’t particularly enticing, but there was one nifty set piece in the second act… I just wish that it did more.

In-game: A quaint roob with a chair, fireplace, and lighthouse statues.

Gameplay

Golden Puzzle Room’s The Lighthouse was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

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

Analysis

➕ Golden Puzzle Room designed scenery to portray the view out the lighthouse. This enhanced the experience.

➕ We loved the ASCII lighthouse art. It was a fun and unusual touch that gave this escape room character.

➖ Although the puzzles solved cleanly, they suffered from a lack of gating and digit structure variety. With so many open puzzles, we spent our time on items that couldn’t be solved yet. When we solved something we’d try to input a solution into many different possible locations. All this overlapping made it challenging to find and follow the thread of gameplay.

➕ The puzzles were generally sound. We especially loved the final puzzle. It was interactive and concluded the narrative.

➖ We felt like the story was missing a key final beat. Once we’d turned on the lighthouse, there was an obvious interaction that could have put a bow on the whole experience.

➖ Our playthrough felt one-note. The Lighthouse needed a memorable moment or two. It lacked energy.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.

Book your hour with Golden Puzzle Room’s The Lighthouse, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Golden Puzzle Room comped our tickets for this game.

Disclosure: Our trip to Denver was sponsored by the Denver escape room community. Contributions were anonymous.

21 Keys Escape Rooms – Project Iceworm [Review]

Operation Frozen Snake!

Location:  Colorado Springs, CO

Date Played: September 9, 2019

Team size: 1-6; we recommend 4-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $30 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

Project Iceworm was a good puzzle-heavy game set in the dark. Armed with headlamps, we puzzled our way through a quality old-school game.

For puzzle lovers, there’s a lot to enjoy in Project Iceworm. We really just found ourselves wishing that 21 Keys Escape Rooms would have built a puzzle that turned on the lights.

In-game: Closeup of of a pair of gas masks.

If you’re seeking a challenging yet fair puzzle game in Colorado Springs, look no further than Project Iceworm.

Who is this for?

  • Puzzle lovers
  • Players with at least some experience
  • Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle

Why play?

  • A challenging mix of puzzles
  • Strong, traditional escape room gameplay

Story

Project Iceworm, a covert 1960s venture by the US military, attempted to hide medium range nuclear missiles under the ice of Greenland. This was planned without the knowledge of the Kingdom of Denmark, of which Greenland is autonomous territory. The intent was to enable secret first strike capabilities against the Soviet Union.

The project was ultimately a failure and cancelled in 1966, its secrets lost beneath the ice… until now.

And yes, Project Iceworm was a real thing.

In-game: The entry way to the game, a restricted area with a lab beyond the door.

Setting

We entered Project Iceworm armed with flashlights or headlamps (our individual choice).

The gamespace was physically small, with an elegant wood and metal makeshift laboratory look. It had a unique aesthetic that was obscured a little too much by perpetual darkness.

In-game: Closeup of mounted box gloves for handling hazardous materials.

Gameplay

21 Keys Escape Rooms’ Project Iceworm was a standard escape room with a higher level of difficulty compared to other local games.

Core gameplay revolved around searching and puzzling.

In-game: Closeup of a control panel.

Analysis

➖ / ➕ Project Iceworm was unnecessarily dark. We wished we could have solved something that would have turned on the lights. That said, 21 Keys Escape Rooms provided headlamps, so we all had hands-free flashlights that illuminated whatever we were working on. This lighting situation, however, bumped awkwardly against a particular search puzzle.

➕ Project Iceworm was a puzzle-driven escape room. It had solid, layered puzzles with satisfying solves. These puzzles rewarded persistence, in a good way.

➖ Much of the clue structure was on laminated paper. Although this worked for the game, we would have liked the cluing to be more fully integrated into the gamespace.

➕ 21 Keys Escape Rooms built an interesting dexterity contraption into this game. It was a fun puzzle and we appreciated the extraction. It was unexpected.

➖ Project Iceworm was grounded in a story, but the story didn’t play a role in the escape room. Our experience didn’t have an introduction, conclusion, or dramatic event. The overall experience felt one-note and too emotionally level.

➕ The set was small, but it looked good.

Tips For Visiting

  • There is a parking lot.

Book your hour with 21 Keys Escape Rooms’ Project Iceworm, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: 21 Keys Escape Rooms comped our tickets for this game.

Disclosure: Our trip to Denver was sponsored by the Denver escape room community. Contributions were anonymous.

EscapeWorks – Beyond the Flower Shop [Review]

Prune and fertilize

Location:  Denver, CO

Date Played: September 7, 2019

Team size: up to 12; we recommend 3-5

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $28 per player

Ticketing: Public

Emergency Exit Rating: [A+] No Lock

Physical Restraints: [A+] No Physical Restraints

REA Reaction

It gives me no joy to tell you that we didn’t enjoy Beyond the Flower Shop. If I had to encapsulate the experience in one word, it would be “lifeless.”

The set had potential. Much of it looked good, but it had no spark of life… which is not how a speakeasy ought to feel.

In-game: A bar with beers, a mixed drink, and an ashtray laying atop it.

The gameplay felt utterly flat and was mostly a mixture of searching and the kind of static puzzles that show up in my Facebook feed. There was no intrigue, no mystique.

All of this was burdened by weak gating and hints that were only released at the gamemaster’s discretion… long after the death of the little momentum that we’d managed to build.

EscapeWorks was recently under new management when we visited, so I’m not writing them off yet. I think that there is potential in both this game and this company. I hope that it will be fully realized.

Who is this for?

  • Searchers and scavengers
  • Completionists

Why play?

  • You’re looking for a Prohibition-themed scavenger hunt

Story

It was 1926, Prohibition was in full swing, and we had gone off in search of a good time. A friend had told us about an establishment that was hidden behind a local flower shop.

In-game: shelves of flowers.

Setting

Beyond The Flower Shop was initially set in a flower shop before moving us into a speakeasy.

The flower shop portion did the bare minimum to set the stage as a flower store. The set was sparse and dominated by stark white walls.

In-game: an antique cash register on a tabletop.

The speakeasy portion was considerably better looking. I wouldn’t have minded having a drink at the bar. That said, it still felt empty and lifeless.

Gameplay

EscapeWorks’ Beyond the Flower Shop was a standard escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.

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

In-game: closeup of a small tabletop on a barrel with a drink and lantern atop it.

Analysis

➕ Our gamemaster gave a strong introduction.

➕/➖ EscapeWorks put effort into this set. The brickwork looked brick-y and the music gave it a speakeasy vibe. That said, the space felt empty. It seemed like it was designed without a creative direction beyond generic speakeasy.

➕ One late game open was a fun reveal that brought us somewhere unexpected.

➖ Most of the gameplay resolved around search, observe, and connect. The only puzzle in the space was of the static “gotcha” variety that acquaintances post on Facebook.

➖ Beyond the Flower Shop struggled with gating issues. We spent a lot of time working on puzzles that weren’t fully available to us.

➖ We wasted a lot of time because of a tech-fail. When the obvious solution failed to trigger, we tried absolutely everything else in the space… and then tried to solve things that weren’t open to us yet.

➖ Many of these problems were complicated by the fact that hints were delivered entirely at our gamemaster’s discretion. The effect was that we spent much of our time frustrated and waiting for a hint that we knew we needed and would have asked for far earlier.

➖ The story logic was confusing. If we were looking for a good time. Why were we repairing the boiler? Everything in the space solved according to escape room logic.

➕ EscapeWorks staff was outstanding. Our game intro was especially well presented. 

Tips For Visiting

  • There is nearby street parking and public parking lots.

Book your hour with EscapeWorks’ Beyond the Flower Shop, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: EscapeWorks comped our tickets for this game.

Disclosure: Our trip to Denver was sponsored by the Denver escape room community. Contributions were anonymous.

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

Story

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.

Setup

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?"

Gameplay

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.

Analysis

➕ 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.)

Detroit Michigan: Room Escape Recommendations

Latest update: November 16, 2019

We really enjoyed the escape rooms in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan.

When we visited in August of 2019 we found a market on the rise… and it was truly exciting to behold. We’re looking forward to seeing where Detroit is heading.

Stylized image of the Detroit skyline.

Market Standouts

  1. The Aurora Society, Decode Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti
  2. Infirmary, Michigan Escape Room, Clinton Township
  3. The Houdini Trap, The Fifth Wall Escape Rooms, Ferndale
  4. The Minerva Project, Decode Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor

Games we haven’t played but wish we had:

  • Comic Excape, Excape Games, Livonia
  • Minerva’s Escape, Decode Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor
  • Michigan Escape Room – in general – we wish we’d had time to play more with them

Set & Scenery Driven

Puzzle Centric

Tech Heavy

Newbie Friendly

You are always welcome to contact us if this recommendation list doesn’t answer your specific questions.