Ellusion Adventure Games – The Labyrinth: Prequel Puzzles (Review)

Location: Your Home!

Players:  We recommend 1-4

Price: $18 for the Prequel Pack (Reviewed here), $195 for the Standard Edition of The Labyrinth, and $275 for the Deluxe Edition (Fancy!)

Twists and turns

Theme:

From the The Labyrinth Kickstater:

A crate full of unique physical puzzles, and the story of a lost civilization. Solve the puzzles. Find the treasure. Escape the maze. The Labyrinth is a unique multi-platform experience unlike any other – a combination of an escape room, puzzle hunt, mystery novel, and alternate reality game. You will receive a crate full of everything you need to participate in the challenge from the comfort of your home, including engaging physical hands-on puzzles, puzzle boxes, an online forum, models, photos, printed maps, tools, and ciphers. The goal of the challenge is to move through the rooms of a mythical labyrinth, solve the different clues in each room, and advance to the  center. Each puzzle leads into the next,  and to solve them all,  you will need to think outside of the box!

First Impressions:

The Labyrinth Puzzle Challenge appeared on Kickstarter in July, and was immediately intriguing. Promising to be filled with physical puzzles, and strange items, it certainly had my attention. After speaking with the creators, they asked if I’d be interested in trying out their prequel packet, which, of course I was!

High Points:

I didn’t quite know what to expect going in to the Prequel Pack for The Labyrinth. I knew there would be a run of puzzles, and a few artifacts to toy with, but upon opening up the pack, I was immediately drawn to one item in particular. As I had opened the package a few days in advance, I was chided multiple times for puzzling over it before we were meant to begin working on the puzzles. It was just too cool not to play with! Of course, this item was solved well in advance, but luckily it wasn’t a timed experience, so I can’t be faulted for, say, not listening to the intro and starting to solve puzzles around an escape room. Which I’ve never done, definitely not. This is all to say that the tactile interactions that are included within this pack are great, and I always love when an original design like this is included within these sorts of games. Obvious care has been taken to ensure that each prop is not only well designed, but fits into the lore of the game, and at no point did I feel like any of the puzzles we were solving were included as filler or “because puzzle box.” I really enjoyed digging up the subtle lore of the adventure as we solved, and once we finished up the experience and checked our answers with the designers, a great denouement and lead in to the full adventure was included, further piquing my interest in the full Labyrinth experience.

The puzzles are a good taster for Ellusion Adventure Games design sensibilities, and I feel like their logical style flowed well throughout the experience. There was a complete freedom in what we would work on at any time, with a completely non-linear experience that directed towards one final meta-puzzle to tie everything together. The adventure was of a more advanced difficulty, and while we did have a few critiques here and there, the overall mystery was challenging without being obtuse or frustrating. There is some googling, and while that can be very hit or miss with us, the inclusion within this experience does present some nice “reality blending,” heightening immersion and keeping players engaged within the world-building. I think enthusiasts will have a lot of fun working through this set of puzzles, as it definitely appeals to those seeking a somewhat higher challenge, but the hint system is well set up to ensure that even those newer to the puzzling hobby will be able to have a good time solving at their own pace.

Low Points:

One particular puzzle could use a mite bit more direction. It feels like it could go several places, depending on how it is interpreted, so I didn’t really feel confident in the solve for a while. Eventually we got there, but it felt a little bit like we were guessing and checking rather than putting together the clues to come to a solution. One late game puzzle had several steps to follow, but the very first was somewhat vaguely worded, making the rest of the solve tenuous. A particular important item for this solve was also difficult to read, so it might help for future versions of this prop to be printed in a somewhat more high definition manner. One interaction is super cool, but wasn’t precise enough to direct us precisely, so there was a bit more guess and check involved with this item. The ending of the puzzle set wasn’t 100% clear to us, but I think that was more a symptom of these being prototypes, rather than the full experience, so I’m sure this will be clearer once everything has been finalized.

Also, the Goblin King doesn’t make an appearance. Wrong Labyrinth, I suppose.

Verdict:

The Labyrinth’s Prequel puzzles are very creative, and though there are a few spots that felt just a bit too vague, the experience is, on the whole, extremely creative and a blast to work through. It is especially cool to see how well designed the props, lore, and puzzles are for this ambitious project, and I look forward to seeing how Ellusion Adventure Games continues to evolve! I recommend checking out the prequel pack, and should that pique your interest, upgrade to the full adventure! Begin your journey into the Labyrinth here!

7.5/10 (Good)

Full Disclosure: Ellusion Adventure Games provided a complementary sample pack.

Crack-A-Nut Mysteries – S.O.U.P. (Review)

Location: Your Home!

Players:  We recommend 1-2

Price: $87

Everyone loves SOUP!

Theme:

From the S.O.U.P. Facebook page:

Is your mundane life bringing you down? Are you in a rut and looking for a way to break the monotony? Do the weird, unexplained, less than normal and downright bizarre interest you? If you answered “YES” to any of these questions, WE WANT YOU!

WELCOME TO THE SOCIETY FOR THE OBSERVATION OF UNKNOWN PHENOMENA!

We travel the world over ferreting out ideal candidates to join the ranks of the most esteemed society the world has ever known (. . . well, the world would know if it wasn’t such a well-kept secret!) Aside from a dandy acronym, S.O.U.P. offers intrigue, extensive travel to exotic places, the opportunity to research lost legends, investigate the unknown, and the promise of advancement. And in addition to all that, there is something sinister afoot behind the closed doors at S.O.U.P. headquarters, and you have been nominated to unravel the mystery and bring the culprit to justice.

First Impressions:

After the more narrative based, horror filled experience that was Root of All Evil, I was interested to see how Crack-A-Nut Mysteries would approach a more puzzle focused adventure. With S.O.U.P. having just released, I would soon find out!

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High Points:

S.O.U.P.’s game play is divided up into several different assignments, all of which relate to a different supernatural hot spot, and present wildly varying puzzles, all of which are creatively designed and well thought out. All tie into an overall theme, and I really enjoyed how the ending was multi-pronged, allowing for not only induction into the Society itself, but the solving of a great crime against S.O.U.P.! All the assignments were an enjoyable romp, but the first assignment really started things off with a bang! I loved the props that were included within this one, and we really liked how there were many paths you could take with this multi-layered, choose your own adventure style puzzle. The writing was humorous, and really set the stage for the rest of the experience well. The difficulty curve was smooth, and ramped up excellently, leading to some really devious conundrums near the end which took a lot of pondering and connection making, but never strayed into the realm of logical leaps or obtuse challenges. Every assignment was self contained, and it was easy to ensure we knew what items went with what solutions, but the game certainly didn’t hold our hand.

A couple of nice keepsake items, one of which is personalized, are a fantastic addition, and really got my wife excited to try out the game, especially since I had recently asked her to take a photo and wouldn’t tell her what it was for. Other props that were integrated into the puzzling were excellent, with a few that had been aged beautifully in order to capture the look and feel of an ancient artifact. S.O.U.P.’s website is well designed to provide instant feedback on whether your answers for each assignment are correct, and the set up for one of the final meta puzzles is really awesome. Overall, the experience we had with S.O.U.P. was immensely enjoyable, and the run of creative, multi-layered puzzles made for an excellent few hours of solving.

Low Points:

One particular assignment took us a very long time to get. Unfortunately, it ended up being a particular task that you’ll either get, or you won’t, and there isn’t a whole lot you can do to ensure you see what you need to see. It doesn’t help that the answer does not follow some of the previous conventions, so we were trying to find the wrong thing. Luckily, since the alternative was to stare at what we’d gathered until the answer revealed itself, we were able to look up the solution on the hint site. Definitely not as satisfying, but it did save us a lot of time, and allowed us to move on. At first, we did not realize the website was required for verification of answers and to finish up the story, as we thought it was only for hints, per our intro letter. However, as we did need to look up a few hints about halfway through, we realized the site was multi-functional. One of the finale metas was somewhat anticlimactic, resulting in doing some simple math, but luckily the other meta was much more satisfying.

Verdict:

S.O.U.P. was an awesome time, and we really loved the intuitive puzzling, humorous writing, and fantastic ending to the story. The assignments are well thought out, and are intuitive, yet challenging, ensuring that puzzle enthusiasts and new players alike will find a lot to love inside. Crack-A-Nut Mysteries continues to provide premium props and a story that is joy to interact with, and I definitely recommend giving this game a shot! Join the Society for the Observation of Unknown Phenomena here!

8/10 (Great)

Full Disclosure: Crack-A-Nut Mysteries provided a complementary copy.

Crack-A-Nut Mysteries – Root of All Evil (Review)

Location: Your Home!

Players:  We recommend 1-2

Price: $155

It’s not so simple as money…

Theme:

From the Root of All Evil Facebook page:

A mysterious crate arrives on your doorstep packed with aged ephemera and artifacts. You are a character in this interactive-literature told through an old journal, newspaper clippings and other peculiar objects. Follow a newly ordained priest as he battles his demons – both real and imagined. Decode puzzles and solve the mystery surrounding an eerie tree on the grounds of the Northern Michigan Asylum. Can you locate the ritual and save the soul of the damned without sacrificing yourself in the process?

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First Impressions:

Root of All Evil arrived at our doorstep along with four other mystery experiences in early June. It was like an early escapist’s Christmas! I hadn’t told my wife it was coming, and she was confused about the weird box that arrived for her. After explaining what it was, (she’s not a huge fan of horror, so I didn’t let it get too immersive,) she was very intrigued! However, the first order of business was to somehow crack open this box that had been nailed shut…

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High Points:

As a narrative experience, Root of All Evil has immersion down pat. From the aged, nailed tight box to the many physical props, including a fantastic centerpiece that ties everything together hauntingly, not one item felt out of place within this experience.  Our favorite part was somewhat surprising to us, as the centerpiece of the experience is a journal that took each of us a little over an hour to read while taking notes. Usually we get burned out reading, but this journal is so superbly written, that once we started, we had to finish! The characterization and world building is incredibly convincing, and drew us into the world of Root of All Evil immediately. We usually play games of this sort together and solve in tandem, but due to the set up of this particular experience, we found that a sort of “solo play, but with joint discussions” made more sense. After we’d finished up the main reading portion, we shared our theories and discoveries with each other, and pored over the other items included within the box. As we made connections, we took on several of the puzzles together, and spent the next couple days mulling the items we left on our game table at our leisure, sometimes making satisfying breakthroughs with the puzzles, and other times just appreciating the beautiful props included, or reading back over our notes in an effort to puzzle over the situation we (fictionally) found ourselves in!

Working through Root of All Evil is a great time, and a lot of care has been taken to make sure this experience feels as realistic as possible. My wife said she truly felt creeped out by the narrative, and as we revealed some pieces of the enigma we had previously only read about, the mystery became even more immersive. There are several points of discovery that are immensely satisfying, and there’s quite a bit to find within this hauntingly beautiful adventure. The climax was exciting, and the developers really spared no effort to ensure that it feels like you’ve truly finished the experience by completing the main objective of the mystery.

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Low Points:

The puzzles within the box are good, but those expecting the mystery to be puzzle focused may be somewhat disappointed. In our experience, solving puzzles tended to either reveal something we already knew, or give us slightly more story, rather than immediately further the experience. Many puzzles are some form of code breaking, so your enjoyment of this facet really depends on how much you enjoy this sort of thing. We did, and there are some well hidden clues, but as the experience is designed to focus on narrative and be solvable without doing the puzzles, so it can feel as though the codes are very secondary. When working towards the ultimate goal of the adventure, sometimes we thought we might like a clue, and were able to get in touch via the Root of All Evil Facebook page, but a self service hint system might work better for players, and prevent questions from needing to be answered personally. Those looking to play this one in a big group may find it somewhat difficult, as my wife and I found the experience really lends itself to solo play, especially when reading the main portion of the game, as previously mentioned, however, this didn’t affect our ability to still enjoy the game together.

Verdict:

Root of All Evil is a beautifully designed and wonderfully written narrative experience that immerses players within its world from start to finish, challenging unwitting participants to uncover an ancient evil, and put an end to the horrors this Pandora’s box releases. Though we would’ve loved the puzzles to have had a bit more bearing on the experience, we did enjoy what was there, and can say that we definitely recommend checking this one out! Begin to dig up the Root of All Evil here!

8/10 (Great)

Full Disclosure: Crack-A-Nut Mysteries provided a complementary copy.

The Armchair Detective Company – The Kidnapped Crossworder (Review)

Location: Your Home!

Players:  We recommend 2-4

Price: $75

Game design is a highly dangerous profession.

Theme:

From The Armchair Detective Company’s website:

Mr. Alfred B. has invented a new game. Eager to show it off, he brings it to his local crossword puzzle enthusiasts’ club. However, the prototype is stolen soon afterwards, and he begins to suspect his fellow club members of foul play. He sets about gathering evidence…only to disappear himself.

This Mysterious Case contains lots of code breaking puzzles (don’t we all have a never-ending secret desire to play with decoder wheels?) and a winding plot with a cadre of secretive characters. It’s up to you to find out who stole the prototype, and the location of its inventor!

First Impressions:

When the box arrived from The Armchair Detective Company, I could already tell this was going to be a special experience! The box itself had an aged look and feel, and even gave off a not unpleasant woody smell, adding to the mystique. I could not wait to crack this one open and give it a go, and once we did, there was just so much to explore!

Mysterious boxes within mysterious boxes!

High Points:

This experience is definitely priced at a premium, but is absolutely worth every penny of the $75 asking price! The beautiful boxes and locks included lend an immersive quality to the game that cannot be beat, and the handcrafted nature of the props included is just amazing. The game is just a joy to interact with on all levels. So many puzzles and clues are included, as well as a plethora of engaging story items that really draw you into the mystery. The game is set up perfectly for multiple players, as it is completely non linear from the start, allowing you go begin puzzling wherever you like! This also allows each player to solve puzzles that play to their strengths and preferences, making this an excellent and highly unique date or board game night activity. So much of this adventure is incredible and tactile, bringing the experience of an escape room into your home in one of the most convincing ways I’ve ever seen.

Most puzzles are some form of code breaking, but the myriad ways that this is done keeps the game flow feeling fresh from start to finish. The threads of each puzzle’s path are intuitive and challenging, eliminating any ambiguity. There really aren’t any hiccups to the flow either; we were constantly working on something new or making narrative connections throughout our time with the game. Overall, the amazing attention to detail, immersive storytelling, and tight puzzling make this just one of the most mind blowing at home experiences currently available on the market!

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Pro tip: Use a big table. This is what the game looked like when we were finished. We are a highly organized people. (Some items shown aren’t part of the game. The PlayStation Vita, for instance.)

Low Points:

We noticed that we did not solve everything once we had reached the ending, so when we did finish, it was a bit of a surprise. We weren’t 100% sure where the conclusion would be, and we used some deductive reasoning since we were under the impression some of the unsolved puzzles would require further locked away items. Luckily, we didn’t have to guess at any point to come to our conclusions, and the puzzles were just as fun to solve later. In total, there were only two of the many puzzles that were left unfinished at the end, so it still absolutely felt like a full experience.

Verdict:

The Kidnapped Crossworder is easily one of the greatest home puzzling adventures money can buy. If you’re looking for a game that combines a thrilling mystery with mind bending enigmas that lead to a great meta-puzzle, you absolutely cannot go wrong with The Armchair Detective Company. I cannot wait to see what comes next from them, as the upcoming larger boxes, (The Druid’s Catacomb and The Star Crossed Scientists,) look like an amazing time! You can order your copy of The Kidnapped Crossworder here!

9.5/10 (Excellent)

Full Disclosure: The Armchair Detective Company provided a complementary reviewer’s copy.