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.)

 

Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment – Revisited

Back in the old, innocent days of February 2016, Lisa and and I were a month away from our wedding when we received a message from Julianna and Ariel, the creators of Escape Room In A Box. They asked, and I’m paraphrasing:

“We’re about to launch a play-at-home escape room on Kickstarter. Will you promote it?”

Now we were not sold on this and thought it seemed like a pretty terrible idea. We’d seen our share of bad escape rooms and the last thing that we wanted to do was blindly promote a pile of garbage, so we responded:

“Nope, we won’t promote it… but we would review it if you could get one to us.”

We thought that would be the end of the discussion, but Julianna and Ariel said “sure” and overnighted the game to us.

We gathered our regular team, plus a newbie (as we generally try to include fresh eyes). While everyone was skeptical at the beginning, no one was at the conclusion. This was the review that I wrote then (in our old, non-standardized format):

Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment [Review]

Revisiting The Werewolf Experiment

Some 20 months later we gathered a new group of escape room lovers, cooked them risotto, baked them cookies, and watched them play the Kickstarter First Edition of Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment.

In-game: The stop warning, time will begin as soon as the panel is lifted.

While The Werewolf Experiment was our first attempt at a tabletop escape game, this new group of players had seen many of the at-home escape rooms on the market. We worried it wouldn’t hold up, but they had a great time.

Assorted illustrations and the box tied off with rope.

I’m happy to report that we’re able to let that old review stand with a few additions:

  • The packaging in the Kickstarter edition was dramatically improved from the prototype that we played.
  • The art, illustration, and general presentation of the Kickstarter edition were cohesive and massively improved. (I don’t really remember any in-game art in the prototype.)
  • I didn’t know enough about at-home escape room games to comment on the hint system at the time. Now I can add that the hint system is easy to use and a lot less annoying than most of the tabletop escape game hint systems.
  • We also called out that many of the puzzles were paper based and felt a little homework-y. While I think that style of puzzle is more acceptable in a tabletop game than a real life escape room, I also think that those puzzle types will stand out even more nearly 2 years later.
  • We found a minor typo in the hint & answer booklets.
  • This game still has some of the most brilliant escape room-y moments in all of tabletop escape games.

In-game: 2 locked tins, and one locked antidote bag.

 

Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment, Mattel Edition

This November, the retail version of The Werewolf Experiment will hit store shelves as the game was picked up by Mattel.

Box art for Mattel's Escape Room in a Box.

The new edition will cost $29.99 and we will run a test group through it as well.

Kickstarter lateness

Some closing thoughts on the nature of Kickstarter:

Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment shipped roughly 7 months late and some folks have expressed resentment to Lisa and me over this. Not directed at us, but in our direction.

I’d like to take a moment to praise Julianna and Ariel for shipping within a year of their expected ship date and handling their Kickstarter with professionalism and grace. They kept in regular contact with their backers and focused on delivering a quality product. They did just that.

Lateness and Kickstarter go together like steel toilets and hidden keys. I backed something in November of 2014 and it was supposed to ship in March of 2015… and in October 2017, the dude is still working on it.

Backing something on Kickstarter is like paying someone in advance to keep a pinky swear. When a Kickstarter ships within a year of its expected date and turns out to be what was promised in the initial description, that’s a win.

While we’re on the subject of Kickstarter, have a look at our analysis of escape room crowdfunding efforts:

Should you Crowdfund an Escape Room? A Data-Driven Look

Escape the Crate – Escape the Queen Anne’s Revenge & Escape the Colosseum [Review]

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📦 ⚓ 📦 ⚔️

Location: at home

Date played: July 7, 2017

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

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $29.99 + shipping charged every other month when a new box ships

Story

In the second and third chapters from Escape the Crate, we continued to chase our villain through time to stop him from altering history by retrieving the anachronistic objects that he had left behind.

The second chapter, Escape the Queen Anne’s Revenge, brought us to 1718 at the Blockade of Charles Town aboard Blackbeard’s ship.

Opened Escape the Queen Anne's Revenge crate shows brig bars with writing on them. Through the bars the ship's masts are visible.

The third chapter, Escape the Colosseum, took us back to a gladiator fight in Ancient Rome.

Escape the Colosseum opened, depicts a schedule of spectacles, a magnifying glass, and a picture of the Colosseum.

In each episode, our mission as time traveling agents was to retrieve the anachronism so that our present time would exist as it should.

Structure

Escape The Crate is a subscription service that delivers a tabletop puzzle adventure every other month.

Opting for a lower cost, higher output model, Escape the Crate packed game segments into sealed envelopes that we earned entry into by submitting puzzle solutions to a website. The website also delivered audio messages that narrated the story as well as provided guiding instructions to keep the game flowing.

The website included hint delivery as well. Each puzzle had a series of hints that escalated in detail until the final hint provided the solution.

The components of the game were generally made from paper or inexpensive fabric. There were a few props that were more tangible, but they were the exception, not the rule. At the end of the game, we were instructed to keep a few key components for use with future Escape The Crate shipments. As subscribers, we continue to build an arsenal of equipment by retaining certain items from each adventure as we chase this time-hopping villain through world history.

Puzzles

Similarly to Chapter 1: Escape the Confederate Spymistress, in these subsequent chapters, Escape the Crate designed puzzles themed on the relevant historical era and location.

We needed to observe carefully and “unlock” sealed envelopes that represented different containers or rooms in each episode’s “set,” Queen Anne’s Revenge and The Colosseum, respectively. The puzzle structure mimicked a physical escape room.

While most of the puzzling was paper-based, each episode incorporated a few more interactive challenges.

Standouts

We appreciated Escape the Crate’s commitment to the historical setting of each episode. Both Escape the Queen Anne’s Revenge and Escape the Colosseum involved thematically appropriate ciphers (although the Roman game did this better)… If you know anything about ciphers, you’ll know what to expect from Escape the Colosseum.

Escape the Crate augmented the contents of each crate with a web interface. The website provided the “locks,” hints, and narrative audio clips. It was intuitive to use – on both desktop and mobile – and didn’t detract from the game components on our table.

Overall, Escape the Crate provided generally entertaining and satisfying puzzles.

These two Escape the Crate episodes were not cookie-cutter. Each chapter included significant puzzle design or gameplay components that were unique to that episode. In Escape the Queen Anne’s Revenge, one puzzle actually created the semblance of physical space. Escape the Colosseum introduced a new type of gameplay that we hadn’t seen in either tabletop or real life escape rooms.

Escape the Queen Anne’s RevengeEscape the Colosseum, and their first chapter, Escape the Confederate Spymistress, were each individual stories with narrative and episodic resolution. In addition to being entertaining and satisfying as self-contained escape rooms, they each teased the upcoming episode. Each chapter felt like a part of a larger time-traveling adventure.

Shortcomings

A critical component of Escape the Queen Anne’s Revenge did not work as planned for us. Our speculation is that the box was shipped to us when it was cold and dry and we didn’t play it until it was hot and humid… We think that things may have expanded a bit. This key component became stuck and after taking a few hints that didn’t help, we resorted to “outside tools” and a bit more than “finger strength” to “solve the problem.”

A plastic bottle with a mangled mouth. A pair of wirecutters and pliers sit beside it.
It was neither pretty nor proper, but it worked.

Escape the Colosseum had a few structural flaws that caused frustration. An observant player with knowledge of ciphers can easily jump ahead, skipping other puzzles, and create a time paradox of sorts within the game. We did this and ended up having to backtrack after realizing that we’d broken the order of the game.

Additionally, while Escape the Colosseum introduced a new and exciting game mechanic, in practicality it was frustrating. It needed improved clueing and a better web interface to support it. This design mechanism had a ton of potential, but it wasn’t quite ready for primetime at the Colosseum.

While both Escape the Queen Anne’s Revenge and Escape the Colosseum made strides in production quality, they still felt too homemade. Escape the Crate episodes would benefit from additional attention in print design and production, which could improve the quality of many game elements without a ton more effort.

Should I play Escape the Crate’s Escape the Queen Anne’s Revenge & Escape the Colosseum?

We continue to be impressed by Escape the Crate’s subscription model. Their episodic at-home escape rooms work as stand-alone games and fit into a larger adventure. Furthermore, they continue to output new episodes on the promised delivery timeline. So far each chapter has included an innovative design element.

Because they continue to innovate and output at this rate, however, each episode included moments that could have used more testing and refinement.

In terms of production, Escape the Crate episodes are not polished compared to most other mass market at-home escape rooms available from larger companies. That said, they’ve designed a gameplay structure that works, complete with locking, story delivery, and hinting. In our opinion, that’s the crux of an escape room, and the folks from Escape the Crate continue to make a fun product at a fast pace and affordable price.

We recommend Escape the Queen Anne’s Revenge and Escape the Colosseum for an hour (each) of educational, family-friendly puzzle entertainment in your own home.

Subscribe with Escape the Crate, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Note that Escape the Queen Anne’s Revenge and Escape the Colosseum are now “retired” games that you can purchase individually, outside of the subscription model. Your purchased subscription will start with the current month’s game.

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

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Inexpensive & satisfying.

Location: at home

Date played: May / June, 2017

Team size: 2-6; we recommend 2-3

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $13 to 20 per game

Exit: The Game is series of tabletop escape games originally published in Germany by Thames & Kosmos. The Abandoned CabinThe Secret Lab, & The Pharaoh’s Tomb have all been adapted for an English-speaking audience.

Structure

All three Exit: The Game scenarios were destructible standalone games that operated with the same core mechanics.

In-game: A mess of cards, the decoder wheel, images of the cabin's rooms, and a book that reads, "Welcome Guests..."

We opened the box and found:

  • Journal – The 10-page color booklet had illustrations of the game’s “room” and other close-ups of things found about the space. It was essentially a hybrid map and puzzle book.
  • Decoder Wheel – The first round of answer verification, this worked exactly like the answer wheel from the ThinkFun tabletop escape games. Answer verification then had a second step involving the deck of Answer Cards.
  • “Strange Items” – These were little cardboard bits specific to each scenario.
  • Three Decks of Cards:
    • Riddle Cards – Labeled with letters on the backside and puzzles or puzzle components on the front, they became in-play after we “found” them in the room or earned access through others puzzles.
    • Answer Cards – Labeled with numbers on the backside and answer verification methodology on the front, these existed to make sure that we could not accidentally brute-force the Decoder Wheel.
    • Help Cards – Labeled with shapes on the backside and systematic hints on the front, these cards were predictable. Each puzzle had 3 hints. The first hint card explained which riddle cards, game components, and journal page(s) were necessary to complete the puzzle, along with a soft hint. The second hint card provided a heavy hint. The third hint card was a solution card.

In-game: An assortment of hint cards organized by shape, riddle cards, and answer cards.

All three games were:

  • puzzle-driven
  • light on the (ignorable) prose narrative
  • approximately the same level of difficulty
  • about an hour
  • of similar quality
  • partially destroyed during the playthrough

Story & setting

Each of the three Exit: The Game scenarios was set against an incredibly common escape room theme:

The Pharaoh’s Tomb: Egypt. Pyramid. Curse. Puzzle to safety.

The Abandoned Cabin: Car breakdown. Old cabin. Haunted. Puzzle to safety.

The Secret Lab: Experiment. Passed out. Woke up trapped. Puzzle to safety.

Each game had a range in artwork detail on the cards and in the journals. Some portions were surprisingly intricate and elegant, while others were clearly simplified to reduce red herrings. A few of the puzzle illustrations in each game were a little goofy.

Puzzles

The Abandoned CabinThe Secret Lab, & The Pharaoh’s Tomb were purely puzzle games. Most of the puzzles were visual and solvable with minimal manipulation of the bits and pieces in the box.

That being said, there were plenty of satisfying solves in each box. Each of the three games had 2 truly standout puzzles.

Standouts

The Abandoned CabinThe Secret Lab, & The Pharaoh’s Tomb were all:

  • strong puzzle games
  • sometimes surprisingly creative
  • affordable
  • easy to set up & start playing

Having played a lot of tabletop escape games, my favorite part of the Exit: The Game series was the hint system. It was useful, easy, and predictable. This straightforward system empowered us to use it as we saw fit, which has not always been the case with at-home escape games.

The story was done with a light, unobtrusive touch.

I was particularly fond of a few of the more creative puzzles in The Secret Lab & The Pharaoh’s Tomb.

Shortcomings

It occasionally seemed like we had enough components to solve a puzzle and we ended up taking a hint just to learn that we didn’t have everything we needed. [Pro tip: If you find yourself using a hint to confirm that you have all of the components, cover the bottom half of the first hint card, so that you don’t see the additional hint].

Some of the printed materials could only be used by one person at a time, which created a massive bottleneck. In each game, this was especially true of the journal booklet.

All three Exit: The Game titles were marketed as a game for up to 6 players and that’s a joke.

All three games had a broad range of print design quality. Some hokey design elements seemed out of place. Rummaging back through the boxes, I’m still a little surprised at the inconsistency.

The Abandoned Cabin’s “strange items” were hyped up throughout the game… and oh my were they anticlimactic.

The Pharaoh’s Tomb had a specific puzzle that suffered from poor print quality.

Should I play Thames & Kosmos’ The Abandoned Cabin, The Secret Lab, & The Pharaoh’s Tomb?

The Abandoned Cabin, The Secret Lab, & The Pharaoh’s Tomb were satisfying puzzle games. At roughly $15 each for an hour of gameplay, they were competitive with other professionally produced at-home escape games.

These would be great games for 2 or 3 people to share, but more than that and you will end up watching your friends solve puzzles. We played each of the games with another couple and it worked because everyone went out of their way to share. However, if Thames & Kosmos were to release another episode of Exit: The Game, I would probably just play it with Lisa.

There weren’t a lot of the puzzles in The Abandoned CabinThe Secret Lab, & The Pharaoh’s Tomb that require us to destroy components. There was, however, just enough destruction to make it very hard to reassemble the games. If you want to go miles out of your way to preserve these games for your friends, you can do it. That said, at this price point we didn’t mind wrecking these games.

If you’re curious… Lisa and I agreed that we liked The Pharaoh’s Tomb best. Our opinions were split over the other episodes, but we liked them both.

As with all of the at-home escape games that we’ve played, the Exit: The Game series did not replace the exhilaration of a great real life escape room. At a fraction of the cost of admission to an escape room, however, these boxes are a fun way to get your puzzle fix.

Crack open a bottle of wine and lock yourself into The Abandoned CabinThe Secret Lab, & The Pharaoh’s Tomb.

Full disclosure: Thames & Kosmos sent us a free reviewer’s copy of each game.

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

Spin Masters – Escape Room The Game Funland & Murder Mystery Expansions [Review]

At least you can turn them into a drinking game.

Location: at home

Date played: June 2017

Team size: 3-5; we recommend 2-4

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: ~$16 per expansion, base game is required

Structure

I described how this at-home escape room game works in detail in last year’s review of the Spin Masters’ Escape Room The Game. The Funland & Murder Mystery expansions do not change the formula at all. They play in exactly same ways but provide 2 more hour-long scenarios.

Both Funland & Murder Mystery require the original base game.

The chrono decoder, Funland cover, and game components along with a bottle of Ibuprofen.
Ibuprofen not included, but strongly recommended.

Puzzles

Funland‘s puzzling was built around traditional logic puzzles and played nearly identically to the original scenarios in the base Escape Room The Game.

Murder Mystery was the first Escape Room The Game scenario to deviate from the norm. This game attempted to cast us as detectives searching through a crime scene and using what we found to conclude whodunit. It had some puzzles, but this game focused on detailed (nitpicky) observation.

Standouts

Funland had a few puzzles that were satisfying solves.

My favorite part in Murder Mystery was solving the sort of puzzle to bring up the walkthrough on the game’s website.

Shortcomings

The price. The base version of Escape Room The Game will cost you $30 and provide 4 scenarios. These expansions cost $16 each for a single hour of play. These expansions were not of higher quality, nor did they introduce new props and tangible pieces.

The chrono decoder, hint decoder, keys and various components from Murder Mystery.
Most of what you see here came with the original game.

Escape Room The Game’s hint system was punishing and tedious. It time-released hints and more often than not, they didn’t help us. Either we had figured out the thing that was being hinted or they gave us something that added to our confusion.

Funland included an exact recreation of an old puzzle that has been circulating around the internet for years.

We misinterpreted Funland’s first puzzle and our bad answer used the same keys in the same order as a previous scenario’s first answer. The Electronic Chrono Decoder accepted it and then wouldn’t accept any of our subsequent answers. (The first correct answer you input tells the device what scenario you are playing.) I ultimately realized what had happened and restarted the game, but Electronic Chrono Decoder was a dumb machine without any sensible feedback or contextual awareness. It’s also so buggy that we legitimately couldn’t tell if the problem was it or us. Spin Masters would have been better served creating an iOS and Android app… At least they could patch bugs on a mobile app.

Murder Mystery had the most groan-inducing observation puzzle in the Escape Room The Game series. It was lame as a puzzle and it was silly in the narrative.

One puzzle in Murder Mystery had such tiny and fine details that I took a photo of the component so that I could zoom in. It’s worth noting that while my distance vision is insufficient, my reading vision is impeccable.

 

Should I play Spin Masters’s Escape Room The Game: Funland Murder Mystery?

I was lukewarm on Escape Room The Game’s base set because I thought that it had one game’s worth of good puzzles spread out over 4 scenarios. However, I did recognize that it offered a lot more value than any other at-home escape room games. It’s hard to say the same thing about Funland Murder Mystery.

Together they cost the same amount of money as the base game for a lot less material. You’re talking about spending $16 on a box with a few paper puzzles and there’s a lot of air in the box.

If you’re among the folks who truly enjoyed the original scenarios in Escape Room The Game, then you’ll probably get a kick out of Funland; it felt a lot like the original scenarios. I don’t think it’s a great value, but at $16 it won’t break the bank.

As far as Murder Mystery is concerned. I think that it’s a complete waste of money.

Thank you Amanda & Drew for sending us your copies of these two expansions.

(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.)

Mystery Mail – The Criterion [Review]

Puzzles postal

Location: at home

Date played: Q1 & Q2 2017

Team size: player’s choice; we recommend 2

Duration: however long it takes

Price: $125

Story & setting

A series of puzzles sent in 5 letters, Mystery Mail’s The Criterion wasn’t really a mystery so much as a collection of puzzles where the pieces arrived every few weeks.

The tiny letters contained paper-based puzzle components that were supplemented with a web-based answer/ hint page as well as the occasional third party browser-based app.

Photo of 5 opened letters and a pile of assorted puzzle material including a partial QR code, a 2 of spades, and a cipher grid.

Puzzles

Mystery Mail had a range of puzzle types including but not limited to logic, spatial, and reasoning challenges.

The mailings weren’t self-contained. Individual puzzles were frequently spread over multiple mailings or the entire multi-month experience.

Standouts

The core concept.

We enjoyed many of the puzzles that Mystery Mail sent our way.

The hints were structured such that we couldn’t receive a hint to any given mailing until the next one had arrived. In theory, we liked this structure.

Shortcomings

At $125, it’s incredibly expensive for what was delivered.

A few puzzles were pretty tedious. One puzzle involved a particularly shitty Flash-app. Its inclusion in the game baffled me.

The individual mailings did not contain any level of individual resolution, which was problematic. There were times when we sat on puzzle components for months without any idea of what to do with them. There were also times when we knew exactly what was coming, but had to wait weeks or months for it to arrive to tell us the specific letters, numbers, or symbols we’d need.

The hint website was confusing to navigate and at times didn’t resolve our puzzle confusion. This was frequently a byproduct of the mailings containing components that were essentially useless when we initially received them.

Upon completion of the last mailing, the website told us that we had earned a final bonus puzzle. We’ve waited a couple of months for that to arrive and finally decided to just publish this review without it.

Should I play Mystery Mail’s The Criterion?

We were really excited about Mystery Mail’s concept. Upon receiving the first couple of mailings we attacked them with vigor. As we realized that the letters were incomplete puzzles, we grew frustrated and finally let the game sit until we received the final mailing. Incomplete puzzles were not fun.

Had the mailings offered some kind of regular resolution or an engaging mysterious narrative, I think we would have had a lot more fun. It’s still possible to have episodic resolution within a larger puzzle running through a long-term experience, but this was a long-term puzzle with periodic resolution. Without any mystery, that didn’t cut it for us.

It’s too expensive and far too underwhelming. Skip it.

 

Escape the Crate – Chapter 1: Escape the Confederate Spymistress [Review]

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The Civil War delivered to our door.

Location: at home

Date played: February 12, 2017

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

Duration: 60 minutes

Price: $29.99 + shipping charged every other month when a new box ships

Story

In a Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego-esque history-changing puzzle adventure, our mysterious dispatchers learned that an equally enigmatic villain was attempting to alter history. We were sent back to 1861 in order to prevent the assassination of Abraham Lincoln from occurring 4 years earlier than it was supposed to happen.

In order to accomplish our mission, we had to seek out the home of Confederate spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow, rummage through her belongings, and uncover the dastardly plans to murder President Lincoln and his family.

Many of the game's props and components staged. There are ciphers, grids, flags, maps, and photos.
Image via Escape The Crate

Structure

Escape The Crate is a subscription service that plans to deliver a tabletop puzzle adventure every other month.

Opting for a lower cost, higher output model, Escape the Crate packed game segments into sealed envelopes that we earned entry into by submitting puzzle solutions to a website. The website also delivered audio messages that narrated the story as well as provided guiding instructions to keep the game flowing.

The website included hint delivery as well. Each puzzle had a series of hints that escalated in detail until the final hint provided the solution.

The components of the game were generally made from paper or inexpensive fabric. There were a few props that were more tangible, but they were the exception, not the rule. At the end of the game, we were instructed to keep a few key components for use with future Escape The Crate shipments. As subscribers, we would build an arsenal of equipment by retaining certain items from each adventure as we chased this time time-hopping villain through world history.

Puzzles

The puzzling in Escape the Confederate Spymistress was somewhere between a Puzzled Pint event and an escape room.

The puzzling was well-themed on US Civil War history, offering a series of challenges based on events, concepts, and people from the era. These puzzles started off simple and grew in complexity.

The escape room vibe came from a reliance on searching, keen observation, and the “locks” that we opened via the Escape the Crate website.

Standouts

Escape The Crate’s use of US Civil War spy history was a great choice for the game’s setting.

The audio recordings successfully delivered instructions and story while reducing the volume of reading.

The puzzling and flow were generally strong and kept Escape the Confederate Spymistress entertaining.

I like the idea of a subscription service that has players retain key components for future use, thereby reducing the cost associated with each subsequent package while increasing the volume of tools at the players’ disposal.

Shortcomings

Two puzzles could have used a little more playtesting; they were both almost smooth. One in particular was lacking a critical piece of clue structure. Having essentially solved it, we had to go through all of the hints on that puzzle and when we found out what we weren’t doing, we couldn’t help but roll our eyes.

I really wish that the website with the digital locks wasn’t case sensitive. I can’t think of a good reason why it needed to be.

Escape the Confederate Spymistress doesn’t look at all impressive. Aesthetically, it has all of the charm of a pile of paper puzzle prototypes in beta testing.

It would be possible to repack Escape the Confederate Spy Mistress for replay, but you would have to carefully unpack everything and not destroy any components while playing. Additionally, the reusable items would need to be retrieved prior to playing the next game. Thus it is essentially a one-and-done game.

Should I play Escape The Crate’s Chapter 1: Escape the Confederate Spy Mistress?

Depending upon what you value, Escape The Crate will be either great or terrible.

If you’re willing to forgo aesthetics and beauty in favor of a tabletop escape room with fairly strong puzzles and you like the subscription model, then Escape the Crate is a wonderful choice. It’s smart and family-friendly.

The low-key approach to component design might actually make for a sustainable subscription model.

However, if this description sounds like a box of ugly puzzles printed on paper that can’t really be shared with more people than the ones sitting at your table when you play… that’s not an inaccurate interpretation of Escape the Crate either.

This is a value judgment.

For what it’s worth, we received a free reviewer copy of Chapter 1, but have since subscribed at full price. We had a good time and want to see where this goes.

Subscribe with Escape the Crate’s Chapter 1: Escape the Confederate Spymistress, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Note that Escape the Confederate Spymistress is now a “retired” game that you can purchase individually, outside of the subscription model. Your purchased subscription will start with the current month’s game.

Full disclosure: Escape the Crate provided us a free reviewer’s copy of Chapter 1. We have since purchased a subscription. 

 

Spin Masters – Escape Room The Game [Review]

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Batteries not included.

Location: at home

Date played: December 2016

Team size: 3-5; we recommend 2-4

Duration: 4 60-minute games

Price: $40, although it’s usually less expensive on Amazon

2016 brought a wealth of at-home escape games and Spin Masters introduced one with a twist: they created an at-home escape room framework and then 4 individual hour-long escape rooms that followed their at-home game mechanics. Given this design, they have opportunity to release inexpensive expansion packs.

Escape Room The Game Box - Depicts and ugle door with a large padlock on it.

Structure

Each game followed the same 3-act structure with envelopes (and in one case, a small box) containing all of the puzzling components.

We used the contents of the envelopes in conjunction with the “Electronic Chrono Decoder,” 16 keys, and a hint decoder.

The Chrono Decoder contained the game clock and 4 slots to input the various keys. The keys came in a few varieties with different markings to form answers.

The hint decoder was a red filter that made hint cards readable. Each game came with its own set of hint cards, marked with different timings. When the game clock displayed that time, we were cleared to look at that hint. When it worked correctly, this maintained the game’s pace.

The four games in order from least to most difficult were: Prison Break, Virus, Nuclear Countdown, and Temple of the Aztec.

Puzzles

Puzzling was the reason to play Escape Room The Game. Now, I’m not saying that they were the greatest puzzles out there, or that their implementation was particularly exceptional; I can’t make those claims. However, the experience was puzzle-focused.

None of the games offered an excellent puzzling experience from start to finish. It felt like one game’s worth of good ideas was split between 3 different episodes, and then there were no good ideas left for the last one.

A game mat from Prison Break with a few puzzles and the Chrono Decoder.

Standouts

There were a few excellent puzzles contained within Prison Break, Virus, and Nuclear Countdown.

Escape Room The Game costs between $30 – $40 for 3 hours of adequate puzzling and 1 hour of skippable garbage. It’s a good deal.

I loved Spin Master’s structured approach to at-home escape games. The general concept of an at-home table top escape room framework that could be inexpensively expanded was brilliant.

Nothing was destroyed in the course of playing these games, so it was easily repackaged and shared. In fact, our copy was mailed to us by our friend EscapeRoomer in Portland, Oregon, who also has reviews of these games (Prison Break & Virus).

Shortcomings

Temple of the Aztec was one of the worst puzzle games I’ve ever played. I think it failed because Spin Masters didn’t know how to make a harder game. Instead of including more difficult puzzles, they broke the clue structure. We won… but we were shocked when our final answer worked. Don’t play it unless you’re looking to observe a disaster in the wild.

Each game began with an obnoxiously long setup to read that was completely inconsequential. These could have communicated just as much information at 1/16 the length.

The back of a game envelope with a long letter to read before the game.
Yawn.

While playing Virus, the Chrono Decoder returned a false negative, telling us that we had a correct answer wrong. I corrected this problem by pushing the final two keys in at once. For some reason that worked.

None of the games told a cohesive story.

The speaker on the Chrono Decoder was way too loud.

The hinting structure only worked if a team kept on pace with the expected gameplay. We generally found ourselves pretty far ahead of the hints. Thus if we got stuck, we wouldn’t earn a helpful hint for a long time. By the time the hint arrived, we had usually managed to solve the puzzle, despite a lot of intermittent frustration.

Should I play Spin Masters’ Escape Room The Game?

The decision to purchase Escape Room The Game is a value judgment. All boxed escape rooms are single-use experiences, even if they can be repacked and shared with friends. There are other games available that are, without a doubt, higher quality experiences. However, to our knowledge, no other at-home game comes close to providing this much puzzling time per dollar.

The Chrono Decoder, hint cards, and all game envelopes for Prison Break. A snifter of whiskey sits on a CD of Final Cut Express 2.
Yes, that coaster is in fact a Final Cut Express 2 CD from 2004. Thank you for asking.

Beginners will have plenty to puzzle over and will likely find these games a serious challenge.

Experienced players will find games that are easy to share with friends and family when bad weather keeps you inside.

We played Escape Room The Game in a two different sessions. Both groups had fun (except when we played Temple of the Aztec). This wasn’t the most brilliantly designed game out there, but we all enjoyed our time puzzling together, and that ain’t nothing.

Buy your copy of Spin Masters’ Escape Room The Game & 3 AA Batteries (which are not included).

(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).

 

Coventry Road Games – Conundrum [Review]

Family friendly bomb scare.

Location: at home

Date played: November 8, 2016

Team size: 1-8; we recommend 2-3

Duration: 60 minutes, give or take

Price: $50 per box plus $10 shipping (US only)

Story & setting

This Etsy-purchased boxed escape room was a “bomb in a box.”

Upon opening it, we read the friendliest bomb-threat ever written and began to puzzle our way to survival. (In retrospect, we would have had more than enough time to just toss the explosive box in the Hudson River.)

A timer mounted to the box-top. A note reads,

Conundrum was an unusual game even compared to the diverse array of at-home escape room games on the market. It was essentially hacked together out of school supplies. I’m not sure whether its creator is an elementary school teacher or has elementary school-aged kids, but I’d bet my last penny it’s either one or both.

From a letter-locked pencil case to a beautifully modified ruler, it felt as though the creator was dared to build a game entirely out of school supplies.

Puzzles

Conundrum was a box of puzzles. Possibly because of the materials, it included some strange and intriguing puzzles.

An assortment of locked game items.

These puzzles demanded some surprising activity, so much so that we were at times worried that we were seriously misinterpreting what we needed to do.

Conundrum’s puzzles brought back random childhood memories.

Standouts

The box contained a lot of locks. They were inexpensive Chinese knockoffs of common room escape locks, but they were tangible and interactive nonetheless. That was neat.

The low maintenance hinting system was simple and well-executed.

There were some great puzzles and wonderfully strange interactions in Conundrum.

Conundrum jerry-rigged the box with creative tech. This was minimal, but it was also a completely unnecessary touch that put smiles on our faces.

Shortcomings

The game required some destructive interactions and we weren’t quite clear on that at the onset. We spent a lot of time looking for the permission to wreck things that didn’t quite materialize. We had to take a hint to find that permission… and it was difficult for us to determine which hint was for the interaction that we needed to do at that moment.

Playing Conundrum destroys some significant components. This game is not replayable and cannot be easily reloaded. If you’re motivated, you absolutely can repack the thing and replace the destroyed components, but it would take some doing.

For a non-replayable at-home room escape, at $70 per box, it’s expensive.

Should I play Coventry Road Games’ Conundrum?

Conundrum was a strange game. It was made from a crazy assortment of kid-friendly crafting items. It had more technology than most at-home games. It was loaded with idiosyncratic interactions and puzzles. All of this made it a fun and interesting at-home puzzle experience.

It was also hacked together, unpolished, a little difficult to follow at times, and expensive.

Conundrum would be a great family entertainment experience; play this as a family of 3-5 and let the kids touch the pieces. For adults, this could be a fun time for 2-3  if you can’t get to a room escape, but know that it’s pricey compared to what you can get from a live room escape or other mass-market at-home games.

Conundrum box top. Ages 10+ 1-8 players.

Conundrum was so very handmade it should be Etsy’s mascot. What it lacked in polish it made up for in love.

Did it feel like an immersive race to defuse a bomb? Absolutely not. But it never tried to be.

It was a quirky box of family-friendly puzzles and school-supplies-turned-oddities. If that sounds like its your jam, then you should buy a copy.

Buy your box of Coventry Road Games’ Conundrum, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Full disclosure: Coventry Road Games provided a complimentary reviewer’s copy of this game.

50% Off “Escape Room, The Game” Today

Escape Room The Game box contents. Depicts an array of puzzles and puzzle-items.

We’ve played through two of the four scenarios in the at-home Escape Room, The Game.

While this is in no way a review of it, I can tell you that at nearly half off it’s absolutely worth purchasing at the low price of $23.99.

Get it now on Amazon while the sale is going on.

A full review will come soon.

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 truly appreciate your support.