PuzzleNation Product Review: Escape the Room: The Cursed Dollhouse

[Note: I received a free copy of this game in exchange for a fair, unbiased review. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that.]

All this week, we’ve been discussing different ways to enjoy escape room-style solving from home. We’ve measured each style against the various elements present in most escape rooms — searching the space, finding clues, interacting with the environment, solving puzzles, and experiencing the narrative — to see which ones help scratch this particular puzzly itch from the comfort of your own house.

Today, we continue that journey as we look at ThinkFun’s most elaborate and engaging escape room puzzle game yet. Join us as we accept the challenge of Escape the Room: The Cursed Dollhouse.

Now, unlike our typical reviews which are absolutely loaded with pictures showing you the art, the puzzle layout, different solving styles, and so on, this review may feel a little sparse on the details. But unfortunately, when you’re talking about an escape room puzzle game that’s this involved, this elaborate, and this labor-intensive to bring it to fruition, I wouldn’t want to ruin a single moment of puzzle-solving fun for one of our readers.

So instead, let’s get into the spirit with a nice, spooky little intro.


Every neighborhood has that one house, the one kids whisper about. The one that inspires spooky stories and dares to see how far you can progress into the yard before you panic and run back to your friends.

Your neighborhood is no different. Mr. Garrity’s house has become that mysterious house, ever since his young daughter went missing. Now there are strange lights coming from the shed in his backyard, and other children have been reported missing.

What is going on in that mysterious shed? You decide to find out.

You sneak in, and you’re baffled to find nothing suspicious at all. Just a dollhouse sitting on the work table.

Except it’s glowing…

Drawing you closer…

Until you take one step too many…

Suddenly, the real game begins. And your puzzly skills are the only thing standing between you and a monstrous curse!


A three-dimensional interactive puzzle-solving experience, Escape the Room: The Cursed Dollhouse is one of the most impressive puzzle games I’ve ever seen from ThinkFun. (And when you consider their previous efforts involving magnets, lasers, and other fantastic elements, that’s really saying something.)

Designed for solvers 13 and older, The Cursed Dollhouse is expected to take upwards of two hours to solve, and between the setup, exploring the various rooms, and tackling the numerous different puzzles inside, that feels like a very fair assessment.

After sliding the box from its protective (spoiler-preventing) sleeve, both the top and bottom of the box itself open up to form the frame of the dollhouse. Thick punch-out boards provide the floor, roof, and various pieces of furniture for the house, and an envelope full of different materials await eager solvers to challenge their minds with mechanical puzzles, riddles, deduction, and outside-the-box thinking.

Furniture, walls, ceiling, floor… every inch of the playspace is utilized in some form or fashion, creating one of the most immersive escape room game experiences I’ve ever played. Heck, some puzzle apps aren’t this engaging, and that’s with no physical barriers or restrictions when it comes to the puzzles.

One of the hardest things to replicate from the escape room experience is the tactile sensation of puzzle solving. The sheer joy and satisfaction of physically manipulating pieces, moving objects, finding secrets, fitting pieces together, and completing tasks is very difficult to simulate in miniature.

But this game has that solving fun in SPADES. Virtually every piece has to be handled or used in some way, and getting to play around with these pieces puts all sorts of solving skills to the test, whether it’s jigsaw-style puzzling, pattern recognition, brain teasers, or logical deduction.

And anyone who experienced their fair share of escape rooms knows the feeling of dealing with puzzles in stages. Some of the game pieces and items you find are relevant to the puzzles at hand, while others must be tucked aside or saved to be carried forward into different areas. The Cursed Dollhouse is no different, offering puzzles for each room in the house as well as information and game pieces to keep with you that will prove vital later.

It can be a bit overwhelming to have so much at hand at once, but it’s immensely satisfying to slowly assign different pieces to their particular puzzles and eliminate them one by one. It’s like whittling down the puzzliest to-do list of all time, and it’s great fun.

They’ve even added a new spin to a classic puzzler’s tool.

Anyone who has bent their brain with one of ThinkFun’s earlier Escape the Room games, as well as readers of yesterday’s post, will be familiar with one of the key solving elements: the decoder ring.

Utilizing a system of symbols for every puzzle, the decoder ring even has a locking feature to add a touch more suspense to the proceedings. Once you’ve turned each wheel and lined up your symbols, you slide the locking lever to the side, and several small windows open in the center of the disc. If the symbols revealed match the puzzle symbol, you’ve got the correct solution!

It’s a nice little touch that adds a lot to an age-old solving trope, and seeing the faces of younger solvers light up when the ring confirms their solve is a terrific moment of puzzling to treasure.

Similar to the Exit: The Game products, The Cursed Dollhouse also has a guidebook. It offers descriptions of the narrative as you progress and instructions on when you can proceed. For younger solvers, it’s a solid framework for the sometimes chaotic and undirected energy of escape room-style solving.

The Cursed Dollhouse offers fewer moments of frantic running around, but you won’t miss it; you’ll be too busy poring over every inch of the house and the gameplay pieces to miss all the skittering about you’re used to.

Be careful, though; younger solvers and older alike should be wary of the tape and sticky substances holding many of the various gameplay elements in the house in place. I worried on more than one occasion that I might damage one of the gamepieces just trying to free it. They’ve traded a bit of user-friendliness in service to keeping the puzzle elements in their places.

The game also offers an online resource to print and recreate any puzzle elements you manipulate or destroy in the course of your solve, so that you can reset the game for other players. It’s a nice touch that ensures more players get a chance to tackle this devious series of puzzles, and also helps mitigate a price point that’s a little higher than the average at-home escape room set.

The webpage also offers solving hints and solutions for any puzzles that flummox you, complete with visuals and videos, so you can not only progress forward, but learn precisely how the puzzle works (so if you encounter a similar puzzle in the future, you’ll know what to do).

I really can’t say anymore with giving something away, so I can only hope this review has managed to convey just how impressed I am by this puzzle game. The amount of thought, detail, and care that has gone into it is staggering, only matched by the ingenuity and deviousness of the puzzle designers. It brings the escape room experience home like never before, and young solvers and older alike will find plenty to enjoy in this meticulously crafted package.

Plus it’s gloriously spooky, which makes it perfect for fall and Halloween solving.

Escape the Room: The Cursed Dollhouse will be available on October 1st from Amazon for $42.99, and it’s worth every penny.


Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

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!

PuzzleNation Product Review: Puzzle Books Galore!

As part of our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, we reached out to companies far and wide to explore as big a swathe of the puzzle/game world as we could. And a plethora of puzzle books arrived in response.

With eight in total to cover in this review, we’re going to work from simplest to toughest in terms of difficulty, whilst bundling some books with similar puzzles or styles of presentation together for ease of navigation.

So please enjoy as we peruse offerings from USA Today, the Puzzle Society, and Andrews McMeel Publishing.


ampws

We start our puzzle book journey with objectively the easiest type of puzzle in the group: word searches.

Posh Simple Word Search collects grids and lists of hidden words to test your word recognition skills. The different sizes, themes for puzzles, and variations of word search puzzles (like an Eiffel Tower-shaped grid!) across more than 100 puzzles will have you looping words to your heart’s content.

Factor in a spiral binding that allows you to lay each page flat as you solve, and you’ve got a perfect intro to puzzles.

amppocketxwd1      amppocketxwd2

From word searches to another iconic and traditional puzzle type: crosswords.

For a travel-friendly puzzle book with eye-catching cover designs and enjoyable pocket-sized puzzles, look no further than Pocket Posh New Crosswords 1 and New Crosswords 2.

With fun, accessible clues and grids designed to test newer, less experienced solvers, Pocket Posh New Crosswords won’t stand in the way of a New York Times-level solver, but they will serve as a satisfying puzzle experience for solvers working their way up the difficulty ladder.

Featuring more than 50 puzzles each, these books are loaded with content created by The Puzzle Society’s pool of talented constructors. (All of whom are credited by name!)

ampxwd

For a step-up in difficulty and notoriety, check out USA Today’s Crossword Super Challenge.

Packed with 200 puzzles previously published in USA Today, this collection offers a range of difficulty levels depending on the constructor. And the names here are top-notch. Puzzly elites like Elizabeth Gorski, Martin Ashwood-Smith, Gail Grabowski, Frank Longo, and George Barany are featured in the collection, along with numerous contributions by USA Today‘s Crossword Editor, the inimitable Fred Piscop!

This array of 15×15 grids presents loads of different types of themed clues, serving as an ideal crash course in crosswords for solvers with a bit more experience but also have room to grow. Perfect for anyone who enjoys your local daily/weekly syndicated newspaper crossword.

It’s a little thick to make a great travel book — not as pocket-friendly as the Pocket Posh series — but it’s just right for an afternoon or two of cozy armchair solving.

ampsudoku

We then move from one world-conquering puzzle style to another that more recently took the world by storm: Sudoku.

Another in the USA Today series of Super Challenge titles, USA Today’s Sudoku Super Challenge is armed to the teeth with 200 Sudoku puzzles to challenge any fan of the infamous puzzle juggernaut.

Each puzzle is ranked on a scale of 1 to 5 stars in terms of difficulty, so you’ll be solving your way through increasingly tricky number puzzles the deeper you get into this book.

And despite being packed with hundreds of puzzles, this one will easily fit into a pocket, purse, or carry-on for any trip.

ampkurosu

Are you a Sudoku-savvy solver looking to test your number-placement skills in a new way? Posh Kurosu might just have what you’re seeking.

With dozens of examples of Kurosu puzzles — also known as noughts and crosses — this puzzle book packs a surprising amount of variety into a simple solving mechanic. Instead of nine digits to fill the grid, all you have are Xs and Os. And you can’t have more than two Xs or Os next to each other in any column, row, or diagonal.

This is the only kind of puzzle in this selection of puzzle books that I’d never encountered before, and it was a welcome change of pace to try my hand at something that felt familiar and yet fresh all at once. Posh Kurosu tests your logic and deduction chops in fun, unexpected ways.

amplogic

After collections of Sudoku and Kurosu puzzles, it feels appropriate to follow up with a puzzle book loaded with puzzles that test your logic and deduction skills in other ways.

USA Today’s Logic Super Challenge fits the bill nicely, mixing traditional story-driven logic problems (complete with those iconic solving grids to help you weed out false paths) with other logic-based puzzles like Killer Sudoku, Battleships, and Domino Search.

All of these puzzles will bend your brain around corners as you try to hold multiple facts in your head at the same time, waiting for them to fall into place and reveal a new piece of the overall puzzle solution.

And with 200 logic problems in various forms, you certainly won’t run out of devious deduction puzzles anytime soon.

mysteriousmansionsmall

But if you’re looking for a unique solving experience, something that is as visually immersive as it is engagingly puzzly, then you can’t go wrong with Daria Song’s The Mysterious Mansion.

Mixing lushly illustrated scenes with black and white drawings meant for you to color in, this narrative puzzle book incorporates mazes, spot-the-difference games, word searches, and other puzzly endeavors in a story about one girl’s journey through a strange and confusing mansion.

Designed to relax, engage, and puzzle the reader in equal measure, this book is one you could lose yourself in for hours. The gorgeous full-color illustrations are a feast for the eyes, and the puzzles are seamlessly woven into the art and story of each scene.

Daria Song gleefully takes activity books to the next level with this beautiful puzzle experience, a fairy tale that you not only help write, but make your own by doing so.


All of these puzzle books are available from Andrews McMeel Publishing as well as some local and online retailers. They’re also part of this year’s Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide!

[Note: I received a free copy of each puzzle book in exchange for a fair, unbiased review. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that.]


Thank you for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

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 Tips Galore!

The movie Escape Room opens today in theaters, so naturally, I’ve got escape rooms on the brain.

For the uninitiated, an escape room is an interactive series of puzzles or challenges set in a closed space. The group needs to explore the room and complete various tasks in order to escape the room within the allotted time.

Escape rooms have exploded in popularity over the last few years, so it’s likely you’ve either already participated in one or at least heard of them.

But the idea of being locked in a room with a fixed time limit and an unknown number of tasks to accomplish can be intimidating or discouraging.

So today, I thought I could offer some helpful tips to get you going.

#1 Communication

Whether it’s your first escape room or your twentieth, communication is always key. There’s a room to search, puzzles to solve, and tasks to complete, and everyone is going to have their own unique insights.

So speak up! Point out things you notice, keep everyone informed of what you’re doing or trying to do, and let people know if you’ve solved or discovered something.

And if you need help or you’re not sure about something, ask. It’s a team game.

#2 Note-taking

Most of the escape rooms I’ve done usually give you a whiteboard and a marker or a notepad and pencil to take notes with. This is an incredibly useful tool in solving the room, because it lets you keep track of code words, number chains, and possible combinations for the various locks you’ll encounter. And once you’ve used a code to unlock something, you can cross it out so nobody wastes time reusing a code you’ve already figured out.

If there’s not some way to physically keep track, you can always ask someone to try their best to mentally keep track of which ones you have used or might need in the future.

#3 Organization

There’s a lot going on in any escape room, so keep things simple by setting up two areas: puzzles in progress and puzzles solved.

Many puzzles or tasks you encounter in an escape room take time to fully form. For instance, you might get a keycard in one color, and not know what it’s for. But as you explore the room and solve a few puzzles, you find more keycards in other colors. Suddenly, you’ll find the use for ALL of them in a new puzzle. So have a designated place to keep things you find that you haven’t used yet. You’ll be glad you did.

Also, once a puzzle is complete or a clue is used, put it into your “puzzles solved” area. You don’t need extraneous clutter confusing you, and it’s a good way to discard solved locks, used keys, and other parts of the game you’ve completed in a way that won’t slow you down moving forward.

Doing so is also part of good communication, since everyone will immediately know what’s still in play and what’s been handled.


That should be enough to get you started, but if you’d like more advice, check out this terrific breakdown of more escape room tips that can make your solving experience more fruitful:

Whether you’re enjoying a friendly day of solving or tackling a monstrous challenge like the characters in the Escape Room film, these clues are bound to come in handy.


Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

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!

5 Questions for Author Derek Taylor Kent (Plus a Puzzly Announcement!)

Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!

It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)

And I’m excited to continue this series with Kubrick’s Game author Derek Taylor Kent as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

Derek is a screenwriter, musician, and author, and his works have spanned print, TV, virtual reality, and soon, film. Although he’s better known for his middle grade efforts like Simon and the Solar System and the Scary School series, he has recently ventured into books for adults with his cinematic puzzle-fueled thriller Kubrick’s Game (which I recently reviewed here).

He has an exciting announcement connected to Kubrick’s Game to share with you, but before we get to that, let’s spend a little time getting to know this ambitious and amiable author, shall we?

Derek was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!


5 Questions for Derek Taylor Kent

1. Was Kubrick’s Game your first foray into combining puzzles and writing? If so, what inspired the union of the two? If not, which came first for you, puzzles or writing?

In terms of puzzles being the crux of a plot, yes. I had incorporated some riddles and simple puzzles into some of my children’s fiction before, but only as a small element.

My primary inspiration for combining the two came from reading Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One back in 2011. In that book, the characters have to solve three intricate puzzles based on ’80s pop culture. The author was obsessed with 80s movies, music, and video games, so I began ruminating about what my subject would be if I were to write such a story. The obvious choice was Stanley Kubrick. He had been my favorite director since I was in high school and I was obsessed with his movies and all of the mystery that surrounded them.

As I delved further into it, the choice became more and more clear. Kubrick himself was an avid gamesman who loved puzzles, symbolism, and subliminal messages. The more I studied, the more I realized that it was not only believable, but almost likely, that he might have created a complex puzzle connecting each of his films. From there, it was just a matter of playing it out using markers that were already present.

[Image courtesy of Cinema Research Institute.]

2. How did the puzzles in the book come together? What did Kubrick’s game look like in its earliest iteration?

I had specific ideas for several of the puzzles and a general idea for others that I wanted to incorporate. Early in the process, I recruited two of the premiere puzzle-creators alive — Bob Glouberman and Larry Toffler of Fantastic Race. They create city-wide scavenger hunts, escape rooms, and puzzles for TV and movies. Luckily, they happened to be just as obsessed with Kubrick as I was and were very excited to come on board to help me create them.

If I were to write a book based on diabolical puzzles, I knew the book could only be as good as the puzzles themselves. While I could have probably created okay puzzles myself, I knew that theirs would be incredible and indeed they blew my mind.

I also knew that I wanted the puzzles to be Kubrickian, or cinematic in nature. That is, the clues would incorporate imagery, music, editing, and symbols, as opposed to wordplay or mathematical riddles. Also, they could only be solved by those familiar with the filmmaking process and masterful in its techniques, such as editing, lighting, projection, and sound design.

The final puzzle, which I dare not give away here, was present from the very beginning and had me most excited to write the book. I knew it had to end in that very special place, and was a type of puzzle that had never been created before, but it also made total sense considering the themes and hidden meanings of Kubrick’s final films.

3. If you’d been presented with a mystery like the one in your book, would you have taken the UCLA approach, the USC approach, or the antagonist’s approach?

Since the UCLA teammates are our protagonists, they were enacting my personal approach…most likely. They were most concerned with playing the game how Kubrick would have wanted it to be played, as opposed to other groups who, shall we say, put ethics aside for the sake of victory.

4. What’s next for Derek Taylor Kent?

Depending on how well Kubrick’s Game is received, I have plans for a continuation of cinema-themed puzzle adventure novels. I am also still writing middle-grade fiction and picture books and hope to have more of those released in the near future. I also wrote a horror feature film that is currently in pre-production, which will hopefully be coming out winter of 2018.

If your readers are interested in checking out any of my other work, everything is at DerekTaylorKent.com. Oh, and if you go to the Fun and Games section of ScarySchool.com, there’s a memory game you can play, and beating it will earn you the weirdest trophy you’ve ever seen.

5. If you could give the readers, writers, film enthusiasts, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

Well, since that is a very wide range of people, I think I will share my favorite piece of advice I ever received, which happened to come from the great actor Robert Forster. He told my class: “99% of everything you ever hear in your life will be somebody trying to convince you of something that’s not true in order to get into your pockets.”

What I like best about it, besides the encouragement of skepticism, is that as a novelist, I love being able to make a living selling something that isn’t BS. I can honestly tell kids, parents, or now my grown-up readers, that for a very reasonable price, my books will give you many hours of entertainment, and perhaps some enlightenment.


And speaking of hours of entertainment, it’s time for Derek’s big announcement!

As a marvelous real-world tie-in to Kubrick’s Game, Derek has launched The Game, an interactive solving experience guaranteed to challenge solvers and delight puzzlers worldwide!

This is a game for all readers to play.
If you’re reading this, play has already begun.
Six different puzzles each month to the day
Need to be solved for the game to be won.

That’s just a snippet of the introduction to set the scene. You can click here for full details — the first clue was revealed yesterday! — and sign up for his newsletter (bottom of the page here) to keep up on all things Derek Taylor Kent and Kubrick’s Game! (And, of course, you need to read the book to give yourself a fighting chance at solving The Game and finding the treasure!)

I think it’s an awesome way to expand on the world of the novel and to give solvers a puzzly conundrum to look forward to cracking! Good luck, my fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers!

Thank you, Derek, for taking the time out for 5 Questions! I can’t wait to see how The Game unfolds!


Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

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!