Escape Room Gameplay at Home: Unlock! and Exit: The Game

mind bender escape room

[Image courtesy of The Portland Press Herald.]

In yesterday’s post, we discussed different ways you can enjoy escape room-style puzzling at home. We covered books, apps, and audio formats, but we left the largest category for today’s post: escape room games.

There are a myriad of games that try to encapsulate the escape room experience — searching the space, finding clues, interacting with the environment, solving puzzles, and experiencing the narrative — with varying degrees of success.

Escape Room: The Game, Escape Room in a Box, Escape from Iron Gate, Escape from the Grand Hotel, and Escape Tales: The Awakening are just five examples that turned up with a cursory search. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, of course, when you consider games that incorporate escape room-style or timed elements, like Mission X-Code, Cut the Wire, Bomb Squad Academy, Fuse, and Two Rooms and a Boom.

But all of those games are dwarfed in the marketplace by the industry leaders — based on sheer number of available puzzly experiences, anyway — so we decided to sample those and explore escape room gameplay from.

I solved three games from the Exit: The Game franchise and three games from the Unlock! franchise.

Let’s dive in, shall we?


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[Image courtesy of Meeple Mountain.]

Exit: The Game products create an escape room experience by combining a deck of cards, a guidebook, a sliding decoder ring, and miscellaneous items to be used throughout the game. The deck of cards is divided into red riddle cards (labeled by letter), blue answer cards (labeled by number), and green help cards (labeled by symbol).

There is an app as well that hosts a tutorial, your timer, atmospheric sounds and music, and a star-based scoring mechanism rating your performance at the end of the playthrough.

In the easier games, the guidebook progresses page by page, and you’re meant to go no further until the answer cards tell you to do so. You’ll use what’s on each page, along with the information on the riddle card to solve each puzzle.

Most of the puzzles will result in a three-digit number, which you enter into the decoder wheel. The decoder wheel will reveal a card number, which you will pull from the answer card deck. If you’re completely wrong, you flip the card to reveal a red X and go back to the drawing board. If you’re on the right path, the answer card will have different card numbers for each of the different puzzle symbols. You find your symbol, then go to the card in the answer deck indicated.

For instance, if you’re solving a puzzle with a triangle symbol, you solve the puzzle with a three-digit code, and enter that code into the decoder wheel. It sends you to, say, card 29. On card 29, you look for the triangle symbol, and you go to the card number listed. If you’re correct, you move forward in the game with new riddles, rooms, and in the easier games, the next page in the guidebook. (In harder games, the entire guidebook is “in play” the whole time, and you must figure out which pages connect with which puzzles and riddle cards.)

Some of the riddle cards and guidebook pages must be cut, manipulated, or destroyed in order to complete the various puzzles, so each Exit game is a one-time play experience. Each also requires some outside-the-box thinking (sometimes literally!) in order to crack various riddles.

I found each game to be an enjoyably interactive experience, and it felt like many of the above activities associated with escape rooms were replicated nicely. (One of the harder games not only had the puzzles and riddles to solve, but a murder mystery as well, which really kept me on my toes, because I wasn’t just thinking about the next riddle and discarding the bits and bobs I’d used. I had to pore over every detail in order to solve the murder!)

In case you’re interested, the three games I tackled were The Haunted Roller Coaster (difficulty: 2/5), The Abandoned Cabin (difficulty: 2.5/5), and Dead Man on the Orient Express (difficulty: 4/5).


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[Image courtesy of Escape Games Canada.]

Unlike the Exit series, Unlock! games consist of entirely of a deck of cards and your app. But that doesn’t make it any less interactive. Instead of the guidebook, decoder ring, and riddle cards being manipulated, more of those experiences are handed through the app.

The cards provide locations, challenges, helpful items, solutions, and warnings, all identified with numbered or lettered cards in the deck. So you can end up with quite an array of cards in front of you while you solve.

The app, on the other hand, hosts your timer, atmospheric sounds and music, a penalty button (which removes time from your timer!), a hint button, a machine button, and a code button. Any codes you unravel are entered into the code screen (instead of a decoder ring), and certain puzzles are mechanical, which you manipulate in the app. The app then tells you what number/letter card(s) to draw from the deck to proceed.

The number system for the Unlock! cards is interesting. Each card representing a puzzle to be solved or an item to be used has a number associated with it; to see if you solved the problem correctly, you add its two numbers (one for the challenge, one for the solution).

If you combine a helpful item’s card number with a challenge’s card number, the total equals another card in the deck. If you’ve solved the challenge correctly, the card matching that sum reveals something: an opened lock, a new room, additional puzzles and helpful items, etc. If you’ve combined items incorrectly, the card matching that sum reveals a time penalty. (For instance, if you have a key on card 16 and a keylock on card 25, you’d go to card 41 in the deck.)

There is no destroying cards or anything here, so if you wished, you could reshuffle the deck and allow someone else to try the game. (It wouldn’t be much challenge for you, since you know all the riddle solutions now. But it’s nice to know I could walk less experience escape room solvers through the game on a replay, enjoying their efforts. That’s not possible with an Exit game.)

In case you’re interested, the three games I tackled were The Night of the Boogeymen (difficulty: 1/3), The House on the Hill (difficulty: 1/3), and Squeek & Sausage (difficulty: 2/3).


Each brand has its pluses and minuses.

While the guidebooks in Exit are more detailed than the location cards in Unlock! games — and the miscellaneous items are a nice touch — I found I had to do more searching with the location cards. I would scrutinize every nook and cranny, because some numbers were hidden in shadow, or written at odd angles so your eye slides right past them. Exit is less devious with that aspect, but only because it has more space to play with for puzzles in the guidebook.

Both game systems had red-marked cards to indicate your failure on a given puzzle, but in Unlock!, you were penalized twice over, because you’ve already lost the time on the clock you spent on that dead end, and then you get the timer penalty as well.

Unlock! definitely makes greater use of its app. Honestly, except for the star-ranking system and some nice atmospherics, you could do without the Exit app. (Particularly since group solving can be pretty noisy, so the atmospherics are mostly lost unless you’re in quiet contemplation.)

I was thoroughly impressed by how both systems tried to recreate so many aspects of the escape room experience. Searching the space, finding clues, interacting with the environment, solving puzzles, and experiencing the narrative were all included to some degree, and I felt genuine pressure watching the minutes and seconds tick away as a particularly vexing puzzle left me baffled, if only momentarily.

I would recommend games from either series to anyone trying to recapture that escape room spirit in these trying times. But they’re also terrific icebreakers for people who have never tried an escape room, but don’t want to feel the pressure of being on-location, instead solving from the comfort of home.


I hope this brief look at these two puzzly franchises — I purposely stayed light on actual puzzle or scenario details to avoid ruining the experience for anyone — offered yet another avenue for you to explore as you enjoy escape room solving from home!

Don’t forget, tomorrow is the finale of Escape Room Puzzle Week, as we review ThinkFun’s latest diabolical creation, Escape the Room: The Cursed Dollhouse!


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You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

Escape Room-Style Solving From Home!

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[Image courtesy of Yelp.]

Unfortunately, the ongoing global crisis is preventing a lot of people from feeling safe while engaging in communal puzzly events. While crossword tournaments (and events like the upcoming Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League) have adapted to the online and remote-play spheres, escape rooms haven’t been so lucky.

Sure, some have reopened during this difficult time — and anyone familiar with escape rooms was probably using a fair amount of hand sanitizer to begin with, even before all this! — but there’s no doubt that the industry has taken a hit.

Some escape rooms have adapted, hosting virtual escape room experiences on Zoom and other platforms, and I’ve heard good things about those communal play experiences.

But there are other ways to harness that escape room-style solving vibe for yourself from the comfort of your own home. Today, we’re going to look at a few options.


Escape Room Apps

While The Room is probably the benchmark series for escape room apps, there is a vast world of escape room-inspired apps available for both iPhone and Android users.

A casual glance at each brand’s offerings give solvers a host of intriguing choices. Names like Forever Lost, RealMyst, Agent A, The Birdcage, All That Remains, Adventure Escape, House of Da Vinci, Rusty Lake, War Escape, Cube Escape, and Spotlight hint at hugely different solving experiences.

Some are point-and-click-style explorations of a space, ranging from a series of doorways to vast multi-room affairs loaded with secrets to uncover with the touch of a finger. Others, like our own Wordventures: The Vampire Pirate, give you an entire town to explore!

Some go beyond point-and-click, letting you actually manipulate objects, twisting knobs to open doors, spinning wheels on combination locks, moving puzzle pieces into place, and more.

And the different narratives behind each are virtually limitless. You might be a prisoner concealing your efforts to escape from the guards, or a bird trying to free yourself from your cage, or a person onboard the sinking Titanic, or a secret agent pursuing your nemesis.

For a relatively low price — or sometimes even free (with the occasional ad) — there are plenty of options available right in your pocket.


Escape Room Books

These come in all shapes and sizes, and can be delivered right to your door.

Some are constructed like Choose Your Own Adventure novels, allowing you to make different choices and explore the outcomes, both good and bad, resulting from your decisions.

Others are built like labyrinths to be explored and unraveled. A good example would be Brad Hough’s The Maze series, which offers a first-person perspective on labyrinths, as if you’re actually wandering into each room and new area.

Still others are page-by-page progressions, full of puzzles and wordplay that require you to solve certain challenges before you can proceed forward.

Each of these offer the sort of sequential chain-solving that escape room devotees look for. You can make choices, solve puzzles, and move forward in the narrative toward the next challenge!


[Image courtesy of I Googled Israel.]

Escape Room Audio

Yes, you can even solve interactive audio versions of escape rooms now! My sister showed me this recently — utilizing the voice-activated Alexa feature on her phone — and I’ve tackled several different scenarios.

It plays like an old text adventure game, where you give the game vocal commands and it responds with information. For instance, you can tell it to look left, look right, look up, look down, or look at a particular object, and it will tell you what you see.

As you build a visual idea in your mind of what the room and its contents look like, you must find useful items, crack codes, solve puzzles, and escape!

The quality of these can vary by setting; for the most part, they’re competently assembled and feature puzzles that wouldn’t feel out of place in a real escape room. (One of them, though, had a solution so nonsensical and wacky that I couldn’t believe THAT was the correct solution. As always, your mileage may vary.)


Do you have any other suggestions for escape room-style solving from home, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know! We’d love to hear from you.

And remember, we’re continuing this discussion on Thursday with a look at two of the top at-home escape room game brands on the market today, Unlock! and Exit: The Game, before reviewing ThinkFun’s new 3-D escape room puzzle game The Cursed Dollhouse on Friday!

Stay tuned, and happy puzzling!


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You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

A Dash of Poetry Punnery! — The ReHASHtag Game

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You may be familiar with the board game Schmovie or hashtag games on Twitter.

For years now, we’ve been collaborating on puzzle-themed hashtag games with our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles, and this month’s hook was #PennyDellPuzzlePoetry. Today’s entries all mash up Penny Dell puzzles with famous poets, verses, titles, poetry styles, and more things associated with the world of poetry!

Examples include: Langston Hughes Calling?, The Crossroads Not Taken, and “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s Daisy?”

So, without further ado, check out what the puzzlers at PuzzleNation and Penny Dell Puzzles came up with!


Puzzly Poets!

Ezra Spellbound

Wizard Wordsworth

Sylvia Plathfinder

Maya Right Angelou

John Keats It Moving

Dylan Thomasterwords

Christina Rows-Garden-setti

Wallace Odds and Stevens


Puzzly Poems!

Codewords on a Grecian Urn

The Spider’s Web and the Fly

As the Rhyme Time Draws Nigh

Stepping Stones by Woods on a Snowy Evening

The Red Wheelsbarrow

Kubla Khansonant Search

A to Z-mandias

Jabberwacky Words


Puzzle Haiku!

It’s hard to keep this
many puzzles in order.
Take your Places, Please!

Deduction Problem
Letterboxes, Brick by Brick
The sharpest pencil

Two angry puzzlers
often traded Sudokus
and exchanged cross words.


Famous Puzzly Verses!

I think that I shall never see, a puzzle lovely as These Three.

There is no frigate like a variety puzzle book-
to take us lands away…

Quoth the Raven “Superscore.”

For he on Honeycomb-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Pairsadise.

Who made the Crossword?
Who made the Word Seek and the Fill-in?

It came without Fill-Ins. It came without mags.
It came without Patchwords, Letterboxes or Mixed Bag.

2-B or B-2, you sunk my Battleships.


“Wasting Ink”

Made thirty-one copies, but I’m solving in pen
so it’s back to the printer again and again.


Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star, how I wonder where You Know the Odds are,
Match-Up above the Whirly-Words so high, like a Diamond Mine in the sky,
Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star, How many Triangles I wonder where you are


One intrepid puzzler even reimagined Edgar Allan Poe’s classic work “The Raven” with a puzzly perspective, complete with art! Check it out!

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Members of the PuzzleNation readership also got in on the fun when we spread the word about this hashtag game online!

Twitter user @pauliscool1927 immediately leapt at the opportunity, offering the delightful riff, “A dog with a muzzle solves a puzzle?” which feels like both a short rhyming piece and a crossword clue.


Have you come up with any Penny Dell Puzzle Poetry entries of your own? Let us know! We’d love to see them!

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The Search for the Greatest Palindrome

[Palindrome, written as an ambigram.]

Palindromes are a classic — and challenging — form of wordplay. Essentially, you’re trying to come up with phrases or entire sentences that read the same backwards and forwards.

Although palindromes have been around for a very long time — dating back to magic squares — they’ve gained additional prominence in recent years. The 2017 World Palindrome Championship was determined alongside the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament the same year. They have their own awards ceremony: The SymmyS Awards. There was even a documentary on the subject.

Palindrome creation was a popular pastime in Bletchley Park during the off-time of the codebreakers and staff. And those palindromic magic squares we referenced earlier? It was once believed that they held magical properties and served as incantations to ward off threats both spiritual and physical.

Musician, parodist, and wordsmith “Weird Al” Yankovic, no stranger to palindromes himself, once said that “the writing of a brilliant palindrome is a small miracle, and that, I think, deserves to be honored more than a lot of the stupid and inconsequential things we often celebrate in our culture.”

They’re an integral part of puzzle history.

But why do I have palindromes on the brain today? Because I’ve been trying to figure out which one is the best one ever created.

It’s a tricky topic, extremely subjective. What parameters do I use to choose the palindrome in the top spot?

The most famous one is either “Madam, I’m Adam” or “a man, a plan, a canal… Panama!”

I prefer the latter. It’s not just thematically appropriate to its subject, but it’s also a univocalic, a sentence using only one vowel. There’s a lot of linguistic legerdemain going on here.

It has been expanded upon, of course. I’ve seen this wordier version around:

A man, a plan, a canoe, pasta, heros, rajahs, a coloratura, maps, snipe, percale, macaroni, a gag, a banana bag, a tan, a tag, a banana bag again (or a camel), a crepe, pins, Spam, a rut, a Rolo, cash, a jar, sore hats, a peon, a canal — Panama!

Do I go by sheer length? Some palindromes are incredibly long, but are mostly nonsense.

My friend Troy recently shared this lengthy palindrome with me:

Dennis, Nell, Edna, Leon, Nedra, Anita, Rolf, Nora, Alice, Carol, Leo, Jane, Reed, Dena, Dale, Basil, Rae, Penny, Lana, Dave, Denny, Lena, Ida, Bernadette, Ben, Ray, Lila, Nina, Jo, Ira, Mara, Sara, Mario, Jan, Ina, Lily, Arne, Bette, Dan, Reba, Diane, Lynn, Ed, Eva, Dana, Lynne, Pearl, Isabel, Ada, Ned, Dee, Rena, Joel, Lora, Cecil, Aaron, Flora, Tina, Arden, Noel, and Ellen sinned.

It makes more sense than the Panama one, but just barely. It’s a thinly disguised list, that’s all.

So, is narrative coherence a necessity for the best palindrome ever?

World Champion Palindromist Mark Saltveit claims that his first palindrome was “Resoled in Saratoga, riveting in a wide wale suit, I use law, Ed. I, wan, ignite virago, tar a snide loser.”

It’s lengthy, and it mostly makes sense. But Saltveit rarely worries about that. One of his most famous creations is this borderline nonsensical concoction:

Devil Kay fixes trapeze part; sex if yak lived.

Sure, it manages to use Xs and a Z, but it’s gibberish. I much prefer his winner from the First World Palindrome Championship in 2012:

I tan. I mull. In a way, Obama, I am a boy, a wan Illuminati.

The Bletchley Park palindromists demanded some level of coherence. One of the most impressive produced there was “Doc, note, I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod.”

It’s certainly impressive, and feels like it could be spoken casually.

Maybe the ideal palindrome walks the tightrope of cleverness, innovation, length, and coherence.

Although it’s quite short, I do enjoy this existential one from the 2018 SymmyS Awards: “Am I man-made? Damn! Am I, Ma?”

I’ve pored over dozens and dozens of palindromes, trying to find one that best represents the wordplay and the art form. And I’ve made my choice.

In my humble, puzzly opinion as a self-appointed adjudicator of palindromic magnificence, I choose Anthony Etherin’s “The Failed Cartographer” as the best palindrome I’ve ever seen.

Please enjoy this wistful, almost operatic bit of wordplay:

Demand a hill, at solid nadir…. Damn it! One morn I saw I was in Rome,
not in Madrid, and I lost all I had named…

Magical.

Can you think of a palindrome that better epitomizes the genre? Please share in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!

Oh, and as for my favorite palindrome? That’s easy. It’s a stupid one I wrote for a friend.

“My friend Sean has a really weird last name: Emantsaldriewyllaerasahnaesdnierfym.”


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A New Weekly Crossword League Coming Soon!

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The internet puzzle community has done an impressive job over the last six months of adapting to the social distancing restrictions of the current COVID-19 crisis, with tournaments like Crossword Tournament From Your Couch, Lollapuzzoola, and Boswords successfully going virtual in 2020.

And now John Lieb and Andrew Kingsley, the creative team behind Boswords, have announced a new tournament-inspired online puzzle project to keep crossword fans engaged for the next few months!

It’s called The Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League, and every Monday night in October and November, a new themeless crossword will be posted for competitors to solve. That’s eight puzzles (plus a championship round to follow), along with a preseason puzzle to get people used to the format.

Although each week’s puzzle only has one grid, there will be three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. When you register to participate, you’ll choose the difficulty level for your clues.

From least challenging to most challenging, the ranks are called Smooth, Choppy, and Stormy. (Quite appropriate, given that we’re heading into unfamiliar waters here!)

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Each week’s puzzle will be accompanied by a Twitch stream where participants can follow along and discuss all things puzzly with their fellow crossword enthusiasts!

You can compete as an individual or as part of a pair, and with a one-time registration fee of $25 — or $5 for students and those in need — that’s very reasonable indeed!

Not only that, but they’ve already announced the team of constructors assembled for the League, and it is a stacked roster of talent.

Nate Cardin, Emily Carroll, Tracy Gray, David Quarfoot, Amanda Rafkin, Claire Rimkus, Sid Sivakumar, Yacob Yonas, and Stella Zawistowski are all contributing puzzles, and you won’t know ahead of time which constructor’s puzzle you’ll get on a given week, which keeps things interesting.

With experienced crossword constructor and editor Brad Wilber as the League’s puzzle editor and the dynamic duo of Lieb and Kingsley as assistant editors and League directors, I have high hopes for this project going forward.

Check out the full informational video on the Boswords homepage, as well as links for further info and registration! (Register by September 28th to participate!)

I think this is an incredibly cool and ambitious project, and a really neat way to bring tournament-style solving in a bite-size format to as many puzzlers as possible.

Will you be taking part in this exciting new puzzle challenge, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Farewell, Forrest.

For fans of Forrest Fenn’s “The Thrill of the Chase” treasure hunt, it’s been a strange and frustrating year.

In 2010, Forrest Fenn hid a treasure chest full of gold and diamonds, purported to be worth millions, somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. The only clues offered — nine, to be specific — were hidden in his poem, “The Thrill of the Chase.”

After a decade of dissecting his poem, searching across a half-dozen states, engaging in hundreds (if not thousands!) of hours of brainstorming, deliberating, planning, and exploring, no one had found a thing.

And then, seemingly out of nowhere during the pandemic, Fenn announced on his website on June 6th that the treasure has been found. The hunt was over.

But there were no details. No revelation of the treasure’s location, no hint as to the lucky treasure hunter’s identity, nothing. The best we got was that he was from “back East.”

As you might expect, many would-be treasure hunters were disappointed, and more than a few cried foul, believing that either the announcement was a hoax, or the entire hunt had been a hoax. Doubters couldn’t decide if the treasure was never buried at all, was buried and then recovered later, or if the finder was an accomplice.

fennfound3

Weeks later, Fenn offered some photos — two of him examining the treasure and one of the treasure chest supposedly in situ, long exposed to the elements — which proved unconvincing to the doubters. If the photos of Fenn handling the treasure were taken after it was found, why did the finder bring the chest and treasure back to him?

It was all very confusing and more than a little suspicious.

Finally, more than a month after announcing that the treasure had been found, in response to many cries for him to reveal the solution and end the mystery for so many, Fenn revealed… the state in which the treasure had been found: Wyoming.

That answer satisfied some, particularly those whose solutions had pointed to other states, like New Mexico, Colorado, or Montana. But others remained upset. Understandably so. Wyoming is a pretty big state, after all.

Unfortunately, the hunt may truly be over, as Forrest Fenn passed away this week at the age of 90.

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Fenn leaves behind a complicated legacy. Five deaths have been attributed to the treasure hunt, as well as numerous costly search-and-rescue operations (including one in the Grand Canyon!), several court cases, and even a break-in at Fenn’s house.

Beyond the treasure hunt, Fenn was also associated with federal investigations regarding antiquities and artifacts. In 2009, his home was raided by federal agents and several items seized. Fenn escaped charges, however.

Regardless, many hunters and admirers are in mourning, sending heartfelt messages in celebration of the man who enriched their lives with this curious endeavor.

But, once again, solvers have been left without a definitive solution. In an interview, Fenn claimed there is a way to verify that the chest was found even after he’d gone, but he didn’t specify how.

And now, his passing has reignited the doubters, who find the timing of everything all the more suspect. Exactly ten years after it was first hidden, the treasure is found by an unidentified seeker, a virtual ghost. Then a few months later, Fenn passes away.

forrest fenn

[Image courtesy of The Santa Fe New Mexican.]

The idea that he wanted to end the hunt (or the hoax) before his passing does seem more plausible, given the timing. It’s especially notable given that he claimed on more than one occasion that his dream was to pass away BESIDE the treasure, and achieve immortality by being found with the treasure, as if we were an Egyptian pharaoh or something.

We don’t know if this is truly the end for “The Thrill of the Chase” and all those treasure hunters over the last decade.

What we do know is that an inventive and captivating figure brought his love of nature, the outdoors, and adventure to thousands of strangers through his treasure hunt. And whether it was real or fake, the magic of that puzzle, and the good times they had trying to solve it, can never be taken away from them.

Farewell, Forrest. Thank you for the mystery.


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You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!