Journal29 [Review]

They were here before…

Location: at home

Date played: Summer 2017

Team size: 1 -¯\_(ツ)_/¯; we recommend 2-3

Price: $16 per copy

Story & setup

A top secret excavation yielded no interesting results until the team suddenly vanished on the 29th day leaving behind no evidence of their existence except for a mysterious and cryptic journal.

Created by Dimitris Chassapakis, Journal29 was a puzzle book with a narrative experienced entirely through puzzles and illustration.

The Journal29 book, a pencil, and a iPhone with the Journal29 website open.
All that you need to play.
Playing Journal29 required the book, a pencil (seriously, don’t try this with a pen), and a computer or smartphone.

Every 2 pages of Journal29 contained a URL / QR code and puzzle. When we thought we had a solution to a puzzle, we visited the URL, submitted our answer, and the page either told us we were wrong… or rewarded us with a “key” word. The keys from the puzzles would ultimately be plugged into subsequent puzzles.

Puzzles

Journal29 contained 63 individual puzzles. Each one was unique. If a particular method of solving worked once, it would not work again. In the book’s own words, Journal29 required us to “write, draw, search, fold, combine, and more.”

Standouts

While some of the puzzle types were familiar, many were remarkably inventive.

The mix of puzzles was fantastic. These included both simple ones and mindbogglers.

The first 8 puzzles built a elegant on-ramp for the rest of the book.

The website was simple and effective.

The key system was smart. If we solved a puzzle based on incomplete information (we didn’t have one of the necessary keys) and then backsolved that key, it did not spoil the puzzle that was meant to yield the backsolved key. We simply had the key to an unsolved puzzle… not the solution to the puzzle. (I’m looking at you puzzle #28. One day I’ll figure out what the hell you are.)

We loved how some puzzles daisy-chained via keys. This meant that certain portions of the book would bind up until we made progress on an earlier puzzle. In the meantime, however, we had other puzzle tracks and puzzles that required no keys. Because of this design decision, we could be woefully stuck in one segment and simply move on to different puzzles. We’d periodically revisit the puzzle we were stuck on until we had a breakthrough. As a result, every time we sat down with Journal29, we made some progress.

Journal29 was low commitment. It lasted us a few weeks of on again, off again puzzling.

I liked the geometric aesthetic of Journal29’s illustrations.

Shortcomings

The handwriting font used in Journal29 was occasionally difficult to read. This led to transcription errors when we jotted down keys, which later resulted in frustration in the form of unsolvable puzzles.

The QR codes were worthless. It was easier to type into the URL bar to jump between puzzles. This was important because after the first 8 puzzles, we stopped solving them linearly. Also… QR codes are a silly, ugly, and insecure feature for people trapped in 2013.

A few puzzles in Journal29 got a little weird. They all ultimately had reasonable and clear solutions, but it was a grind to get through some of them.

The story was present, but not so compelling.

I really, truly wish that the answer website had accepted minor variations on puzzle solutions. There were times where we derived an answer along the lines of 123-456-7890, but it had to be entered as 1234567890. We lost a lot of time and built up a lot of frustration over minor variance in solution formats.

Journal29 had no built-in hint system. The Journal29 forum, however, did have spoiler discussions for each puzzle. I used this twice and the experience was mediocre because the discussions were unstructured, often giving me more detail than I wanted or requiring me to dig deep because some of the comments were more confusing than the puzzles. Both times that I used the forums, I learned that I had a key transcription error. I wish that the Journal29 simply had a structured and predictable help website; it would have been a better experience.

Should I play Journal29?

If you’re a puzzler, Journal29 is a fantastic purchase. It was more intriguing than a normal puzzle book. It was deeper, more challenging, and more entertaining than a 60-minute at-home escape room.

We’ve been traveling more than normal these past few months and we carried Journal29 with us. We’d pull it out on a train and solve a puzzle or two or focus on it for hours during a flight delay. It was lightweight and low tech. Because most of the puzzles solved with “ah-ha!” moments rather than grinding process puzzling, we could experience it casually.

I recommend Journal29 for small groups of people who spend a lot of time together. As a couple, it was fantastic. We could easily share the book and it was always remarkable when Lisa easily saw a path forward that was completely invisible to me (and vice-versa). If I was going to attempt this book with 3 or 4 people, I’d consider purchasing a second copy just to make sure that everyone could participate.

It is possible to solve Journal29 without destroying it, but you’d have to work very hard and probably photocopy many of the pages to do so. Jorunal29 was designed for destruction and that was absolutely fine with us.

Grab your copy of Journal29, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Thank you to Amanda Harris for giving us a fresh copy of Journal29. You’ve brought us hours of entertainment.

(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.)

 

Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers and Secret Writing [Book Review]

Shift by 23: Wklv xvhg wr eh plolwdub judgh hqfubswlrq.

Author: Paul B. Janeczko

Year: 2006

Page Count: 144

ISBN: 978-0763629724

Price: ~$6 in paperback

Synopsis

I had a realization that most of the ciphers, codes, and hidden messages that we see in escape rooms are essentially ancient intelligence tools that are easily appreciated by older school kids. This isn’t a judgment, but a simple fact of the escape room format. A dozen or so puzzles all designed for rapid solving creates an environment that doesn’t lend itself to complexity.

So I sought out a kid’s guide to codes and ciphers and found Paul Janeczko’s Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers and Secret Writing.

Book cover for Top Secret, looks like a brown folder being held by a pair of black gloved hands.

It is exactly as advertised, discussing a little bit about the history and how-tos of simple encryption and decryption.

Written at about a 5th grade reading level, it’s the lightest read I’ve picked up in a long time. Top Secret is cute. It focuses on turning all of these old techniques into fairly straightforward craft projects. The information is good, if dramatically simplified.

Standouts

It’s an excellent and likely empowering book on how to make, transfer, and keep secret messages for kids.

As a light guide to ciphers for escape rooms, it’s a surprisingly solid book. I’ve read quite a lot about the history of cryptography as of late, yet there were a few basic forms of encryption covered in Top Secret that I had neither seen nor heard of.

The historian in me would have loved to see more detail in the book. However, it is likely more useful for those interested in creating escape games because it glosses over the historical context and focuses on how to create and use the basic ciphers

The table of contents is detailed and useful.

Illustrator Jenna LaReau’s art is adorable, warm, and humorous.

Book illustration for the "code breaking" chapter. A spy chopping a code book like a martial artist chopping wood.

Shortcomings

Janeczko’s writing is a little uneven. At times Top Secret is matter-of-fact, but then it can shift into a decidedly condescending tone that I think would have irked me even at age 10.

Should I read Paul B. Janeczko’s Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers and Secret Writing?

Retailing around $6.00 and taking nearly no effort to read, Top Secret was worth both my time and money. I learned a few concepts that I hadn’t yet come across.

If you’re looking to really understand the history, intricacies, and application of cryptography from antiquity to the present, then you should read a book like Simon Singh’s The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum CryptographyTop Secret is simply too light and airy to develop a serious understanding of the subject matter.

If you are looking to create an escape room and aren’t well versed in simple codes, ciphers, and methods of hiding messages, then Top Secret might be the most useful and easy-to-read $6 reference book you’ll ever buy.

Order your copy of Paul B. Janeczko’s Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers and Secret Writing from Amazon using this link, and a small percentage of your purchase will go towards supporting Room Escape Artist.

 

The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography [Book Review]

Yesterday’s military grade ciphers are today’s toys and puzzles.

Author: Simon Singh

Year: 2000

Page Count: 432

ISBN: 978-0385495325

Price: ~$12 in paperback, ~$10 on Kindle

Synopsis

Simon Singh writes an entertaining abridged history of cryptography (the making of ciphers) and cryptanalysis (the breaking of ciphers).

Singh shifts back and forth between careful explanation of cryptographic concepts and wonderfully entertaining historical anecdotes involving codes and ciphers.

The Code Book's cover has fine writing of assorted encodings covering it.

The anecdotes are by far the most fun aspect of the book. The story of the legendary Beale Papers is a particular standout. If someone hasn’t already turned that story into an escape room, it’s ripe for the medium. I was also quite taken by the stories of the cryptanalysts of Bletchley Park during World War II as well as the incredible efforts that went into deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs and the Mycenaean Greek script, Linear-B.

The explanations take the reader through the most basic codes and ciphers that so regularly appear in escape rooms and puzzle games. As the complexity ramps up, The Code Book begins to explain how modern cryptography works.

The closeout is an exploration of the concept of quantum cryptography, which, while interesting and well-explained, also makes the brain explode into little tiny pieces.

Standouts

Singh clearly communicates complex concepts. His descriptions of ciphers, how they work, and how to use them were exceptional.

I was legitimately nervous as I approached the chapter on the German Enigma cipher. I knew how complex the thing was and I was jittery about my ability to comprehend its inner workings. I had to pay close attention while reading, and occasionally read a paragraph twice, but when I finished the chapter, I understood how the thing worked. That was honestly exciting.

Learning the details, history, and context of these common (and uncommon) ciphers that I play with so often in escape rooms and puzzle games was deeply satisfying.

The anecdotal tales of real-life cipher-making and -breaking gave me so many ideas for how puzzles could be used to tell stories now and in the future.

Shortcomings

While Singh has a rare talent for explaining the intricacies of codes, ciphers, cipher breaking, and mathematics, his explanations occasionally become redundant. Since each chapter is written largely as a standalone, information can become repetitive.

Singh keeps the math to a minimum. However, in the middle of the 20th century, cryptography stopped being a linguist-based profession and morphed into a mathematical craft. If you’re allergic to reading about mathematics, then you’re likely going to drop the book at the halfway mark.

Should I read Simon Singh’s The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography?

Reading The Code Book fostered a feeling of connection to the ciphers that I see in escape rooms. The more I have come to understand what those ciphers are, where they came from, and their significance throughout history, the more meaningful they have become.

The later chapters felt like reading a different, yet equally important book as they helped me achieve a deeper understanding of the crypto that makes the world we live in work. Now more than ever, I see how critical it is that we have access to strong cryptography.

Finally, this quirky realization: yesterday’s military grade crypto is today’s children’s toy. It hadn’t occurred to me that messing about with a basic shift cipher was the military intelligence equivalent to swinging a sword or firing an arrow. Those old ciphers that we play with today were a critical method of maintaining secure military communications. That understanding is wonderful.

Reading The Code Book has shifted my perspective on the world. You can’t ask any more from a book.

Order your copy of Simon Singh’s The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography from Amazon using this link, and a small percentage of your purchase will go towards supporting Room Escape Artist.

Human Motivation & Escape Rooms

We made an appearance on the Room Escape Divas Podcast a few weeks ago. We had a great time talking about escape rooms and blogging with the Divas.

Room Escape Divas Logo, a cartoon representation of the four hosts.

Whether or not you listened to our episode of REDivas, I highly recommend that you give their fourth episode with Professor Scott Nicholson a thorough listening, as I think it’s their best.

Scott Nicholson

Scott is a Professor of Game Design and Development at Wilfrid Laurier University (and formerly of Lisa’s alma mater, Syracuse University). He created the Facebook Enthusiast Group, which is the only room escape Facebook group that team Room Escape Artist frequents.

He created the easy-to-learn and super fun auction table top game Going Going GONE.

Most importantly, Scott wrote the seminal room escape white paper Peeking Behind the Locked Door: A Survey of Escape Room Facilities (2015).

Another Blacklight

A quick digression…

The episode opens with Errol’s incredible parody of Disney’s Aladdin theme “Arabian Nights,” reworking it into “Another Blacklight.”

I think this should be expanded into a full song and turned into a music video.

Daniel Pink on Motivation

Scott and the gang cover a lot of interesting topics, one of which is Dan Pink’s research on the unexpected idiosyncrasies of human motivation. His work has interested me since 2010. I cannot agree more with Scott on the importance of understanding what actually motivates people when designing games (or designing anything, really).

I highly recommend picking up a copy of Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Whether you’re designing products, games, organization, or teaching, this book will reshape how you think about motivating others and yourself.

If a book is too much commitment, take 10 minutes and watch his RSA video:

Or really go nuts and spend 18 minutes listening to his TED Talk:

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

Path Puzzles by Rod Kimball [Product Review]

Rod Kimball, professional juggler with The Flying Karamazov Brothers, is also a puzzle designer in his spare time.

He created a new type of pen and paper puzzle and published a book of them: Path Puzzles.

We met Rod at the New York Puzzle Party this past February, where we spoke about escape rooms. He recently gave us a copy of his book.

The cover of his book reads “Easy to pick up, hard to put down” and I have to agree.

Easy to pick up

The basic rules are simple:

  • There’s a polygon grid of squares.
  • The grid has two openings along its edges.
  • The grid has numbers along the edges.
  • You have to draw a single line from one opening to another, with that line passing through each row and column of the grid matching the numbers along the side
    • If a column or row has the number 4 beside it, then the line must pass through 4 squares on the grid.
    • If a column or row has the number 0 beside it, then the line must never pass that column.
    • If a column or row has no number beside it, the line may pass through anywhere from none to all of the squares–it’s up to the solver to figure out.

Path Puzzle Example

That’s all there is to learn to get started.

There are a few advanced rules that apply to more challenging puzzles, such as multiple false openings along the edges and numbers in the middle of the grid. These serve to greatly increase the difficulty of later puzzles.

Hard to put down

From March through June, I spent a lot of time traveling for work and fun. Throughout my seemingly endless string of flights, I would swap between two puzzle games:

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (ported to 3DS), one of the finest puzzle adventure video games of all time, and Rod Kimball’s humble book Path Puzzles.

I was torn between them… which is just about the kindest compliment I can bestow upon a puzzle.

Since Rod gave us a free copy of Path Puzzles we have bought additional copies as gifts because they are wonderful, easy to learn, and ultra portable.

I’ve burned out on Sudoku and Path Puzzles has grown into a refreshing replacement as my go-to pen and paper puzzle.

Rod’s book is a steal at $12.

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