A Logic Puzzle Mystery, Brought to Life!

Halloween might be over and done with, but there’s still plenty of spooky puzzling to be found if you know where to look.

For instance, if you’re looking for a game that takes the traditional logic puzzle in a new direction, let’s talk about Return of the Obra Dinn, a PC game that has received some rave reviews recently.

In 1802, the merchant ship “Obra Dinn” set out from London for the Orient with over 200 tons of trade goods. Six months later it hadn’t met its rendezvous point at the Cape of Good Hope and was declared lost at sea.

Early this morning of October 14th, 1807, the Obra Dinn drifted into port with sails damaged and no visible crew. As insurance adjustor for the East India Company’s London Office, find means to board the ship and recover the Crew Muster Roll book for assessment.

With that intense historical premise to work with, you know you’re in for a few scares and some sinister storytelling.

So the game centers around a first-person perspective of this ship as you explore what happened to the crew. You’re armed with two items: a book that contains the ship’s manifest and other documents, and a pocketwatch that, when worn near a corpse, magically reveals what happened at the moment of the character’s death.

The book works like a standard logic problem’s puzzle grid, where you can fill in the information you know and deduce, say, the last names of five people in a marching band, their ages, and what instrument they play. Except, in the case of the Obra Dinn, instead of the details of a fictional marching band, you need to uncover the identity of every person on the ship, how they died, and who killed them.

The pocketwatch sequences are the centerpiece of the puzzle, giving you a static scene of the moment of death, the characters frozen in place, along with the sounds and dialogue that accompanied the person’s demise. You can walk around the frozen scene and examine details, using the book to help document what you discover and slowly eliminate possibilities from the list.

It’s a bit like a scene from Sherlock or Hannibal, as you play the detective walking through the death scene, trying to tease out the key information lurking within.

So the book is both a solving tool and the main body of the puzzle itself, a place for storing information, making guesses, and confirming when you have the correct chain of events for a given character’s death.

The Obra Dinn is one giant, interconnected puzzle, built out of many little moments like this, and only when you’ve taken the time to examine all of it, exploring the ship and the crew from all angles, can you fill in the story of what happened.

It’s essentially a murder mystery novel, but only the first chapter and the finale are in place; it is up to you as you piece together disparate fragments and assemble the narrative. In the end, it’s a simple story, but one told backward, forward, and out of order.

Return of the Obra Dinn is the kind of storytelling that takes puzzles off the page and plants them smack-dab in the center of your imagination. And that’s pretty cool.

If you’d like to try out the game for yourself, Return of the Obra Dinn is out now on PC and macOS for $19.99.

[For more information, check out these reviews from Kotaku and Screen Rant, as well as the creator’s homepage.]


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PuzzleNation Product Review: The Oregon Trail Card Game

For gamers and puzzlers of a certain age, there are many fond memories of a certain historical journey that tested your wits, your luck, your tactical skills, and your endurance. I’m speaking, of course, of The Oregon Trail, a computer-game classic that not only taught millions of young minds about the perilous journey, but probably introduced most of them to the concept of death by dysentery.

Ick.

For those not in the know, The Oregon Trail was a computer game designed to explore 19th-century pioneer life on the long journey between Independence, Missouri, and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Players would manage food, supplies, and the pace of the trek in their covered wagon, occasionally dealing with dangers like disease, thieves, broken equipment, accidents, and treacherous rivers to cross.

A classic in the eyes of many, this beloved game has made the jump from the digital realm to the analog one with a card-game variation released this year by Pressman Toys.

Pressman Toys have outdone themselves with this nostalgia-fueled adaptation. The trail cards themselves evoke the classic black-and-green screen of old-school computers, while the supply and calamity cards are pixelated in a style more akin to 8-bit video games.

I daresay, though, that the card game is harder than the computer game. I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered a game that stacks the deck against the player quite so brutally.

To make the journey to Oregon successfully, players must traverse 50 trail cards, avoiding illness and unpleasant twists of fate along the way (represented by the calamity cards that come up all too often), managing meager supplies, and testing their luck against river crossings (where a roll of the die determines your fate).

This quickly becomes a strategic battle of resource management, trying to hold onto fort and town cards for as long as possible (since they provide some of the rare opportunities to gain new supplies), playing trail cards (which must link up in a continuous line), and deciding whether it’s better to spend medicine and clean water supplies on saving fellow players stricken by illness or letting players die and hoarding supplies for the survivors.

I’ve played the game a few times now — each session has lasted about 30 minutes, with the team failing to reach Oregon both times (though we made it more than halfway on the second try) — and it remains an engaging, enjoyable play experience. Yes, it can be disheartening to see a player die early on (as I did by rattlesnake bite in my very first turn one game), but the group play experience — pitting all of you against the game itself — is only enhanced by the difficulty.

There are some aspects of the computer game — hunting, for instance — missing from the card-game experience, but I suspect the development of simple house rules (like spending a bullet card and letting a handful of dice rolls determine your success hunting, to more closely recreate the computer game’s hunting mechanic, for instance) would enrich the gameplay.

Whether you’re a fan of the classic computer game or a newcomer to the franchise, I suspect The Oregon Trail will delight you (and challenge you!) like few card games ever have.

[The Oregon Trail Card Game is available at Target stores and through online outlets.]


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