PN Review: Crossword Mysteries: Terminal Descent

Almost two years ago, the first Crossword Mysteries movie debuted. A Puzzle to Die For introduced the puzzle world (and the mystery world) to crossword editor Tess Harper and NYPD detective Logan O’Connor, as the unlikely duo unraveled the murder of an art dealer with a crossword puzzle in his pocket.

During the final commercial break, three more Crossword Mysteries films were announced for the fall of 2019. The second Crossword Mysteries film — Proposing Murder — debuted on schedule on October 13th.

The third film — Abracadaver — was originally scheduled to air one week later, but was suddenly pushed to January of 2020 to make room for more Christmas movies. In October. At some point, any mention of the promised fourth film simply vanished.

Naturally, folks couldn’t help but wonder what happened. I even pitched ideas for a fourth movie! Fans waited the whole year to find out.

Finally, I heard from a fellow puzzler that the fourth film would be debuting on Valentine’s Day.

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Our first taste of Crossword Mysteries in over a year? Marvelous! Let’s get to it, shall we?

But first, a heads-up. I’ll recap the story below, and then give my thoughts on the whole endeavor. If you’d like to read my conclusions but skip the full recap, scroll down to the next solid black line.

Ready? Okay, let’s dig in!


FILM RECAP

The film opens on a Wednesday at 3:30 PM.

Businessman Morgan Daniels disconnects a hard drive from a laptop, then tucks it into his pocket as he leaves the conference room. He awkwardly bumps into a staffer, and by bumps into, I mean full-on chest-to-chest sumo-collides with her. Morgan apologizes and continues on, stopping to say goodbye to crossword editor Tess Harper and head for the elevator.

He speaks to the elevator, asking for the parking garage, and the elevator actually answers him. But instead of going down, it starts ascending. It suddenly stops, then plummets downward. In a panic, Daniels cries out to the interactive computer programming that runs the elevator, BB, as he falls.

Everyone, including Tess, hears the crash. Once again, Tess simply being in the vicinity has caused another death. We are approaching Jessica Fletcher levels of coincidence here.

Also, if we’re getting a murderous crossword-obsessed supercomputer villain in this Crossword Mysteries movie, I am totally on board.

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Cue a very brief intro with the Crossword Mysteries logo, but none of the usual main character introductions or trappings. We get right down to business.

The story starts six hours earlier.

Tess speed-solves a puzzle in 2 minutes, 13 seconds. She’s prepping for a showdown with BB, the XCAL Communications supercomputer. New crime desk reporter Frank, who shares a workspace with crossword editor Tess, comments on how the chess-playing supercomputer Deep Blue and the Jeopardy!-quizzed Watson both defeated humans. We know, Frank. We’ve tried to warn people about this.

Tess’s new assistant Sonia highlights that Tess is a woman and all the previous human vs. computer showdowns have featured men, which is an interesting point.

Tess asks Sonia to cook up a list of “computer and tech jargon” to do a series of tie-in puzzles for the week of the exhibition. (We later see Tess working on one of these puzzles, and the jargon includes TERABYTE. Which, if she is symmetrically placing themed answer words, is opposite either PRIME RIB or SPARE RIB for some reason.)

Tess then leaves to meet the competition.

We jump to the police station, where Detective Logan O’Connor is chatting with new detective Amrita Kapoor. He’s then called into the chief’s office where his father (the chief) is having tech trouble with the new filing system. We’re only a few minutes in, and we’re already getting John Kapelos, because Hallmark knows what the audience wants. The chief talks about possible retirement. NOOOO, don’t you dare, Hallmark.

We then jump to Tess and Aunt Candace, walking and talking. Tess mentions being slightly overwhelmed with her deadlines and her Crossword Club newsletter — I think Patti Varol and Penny Press might have something to say about that — and a singles charity event that she’s helping with that never gets brought up again.

At the XCAL building, Tess chats to old friend Viv Banks, who helped put together this woman vs. machine promotional showdown. Viv shows Tess how they can talk to BB to use the elevator, which is totally not faster than just pushing a button yourself. INNOVATION.

They meet the XCAL VP Paul Redford and talk about XCAL and the upcoming exhibition. 

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They introduce Tess to a giant interactive monolithic version of BB, and she’s invited to ask it a few puzzle clues to test it out. (BB is very loud. Is everyone in the building hearing this demonstration?)

BB answers two simple clues, and Tess immediately has doubts about her performance. She seems to be half-joking, although she mentions potentially getting replaced at The Sentinel by BB.

Tess has a meet-awkward with a maintenance worker over a nearby plant that Tess seems to know more about than him. Tess and the audience are immediately suspicious.

She meets CEO Morgan Daniels, and asks him why he decided to test BB’s programming with crosswords. He tells a charming story about his father’s contentment sitting at home solving crosswords. In pen, of course. This pleasant moment is immediately ruined when plot intervenes in the form of Jesse Alexander, a woman who warns Morgan against taking a government contract, fearing the obvious Big Brother implications.

Morgan goes off with Jesse, and Tess shrugs this off, continuing to chat with VP Paul, who mentions that her voice is in the system. This means BB will respond to her elevator commands, and would even set off the alarm if she chose. This will definitely not come into play later in the movie. This is absolutely not foreshadowing.

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At this point, time has caught up to the opening scene where Morgan enters the elevator. It’s only a brief distraction by Viv that prevents Tess from entering the same elevator as Morgan and plummeting to certain doom.

Also, Tess mentions to Viv that tomorrow’s crossword waits for no one. SHE HASN’T FINISHED THE PUZZLE FOR TOMORROW YET?!

There’s a brief jump in time, and we’re looking through the broken elevator doors at Logan and Amrita, who have arrived at the behest of the Mayor, who is demanding action. It turns out the elevator’s safety protocols were overridden. The NYPD’s Computer Crimes department are investigating how this could have happened.

Tess and Logan meet up, asking why each other are there. I would think Logan’s reason for being there is obvious, Tess.

She mentions the maintenance man, and then tries to shrug it off as irrelevant. (We know it’s not.) Logan awkwardly compliments her hair. What a charmer.

Amrita starts interviewing nearby staff members, and Logan talks to VP Paul. VP Paul claims that Morgan is the only one who could have disabled the safeties. And in fact, Morgan is the only person who can modify BB and her impressive data-mining and searching abilities. WHAT?!

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They do bring up the possibility of hacking, and VP Paul mentions that someone would have to be in the office to make any system changes to BB. They claim Morgan’s firewall is impenetrable, so the tampering could only be internal.

Tess finally connects the very large dots regarding the maintenance man, and confirms with building security that he was an impostor. There’s only one plant guy for this entire building. That must be one busy dude. She tells Logan when they bump into each other again, and they check the plant.

Logan unearths something metallic from the soil, which Tess immediately recognizes as a listening device. (How? Has this come up previously at her shared crime/crossword desk at work?)

Logan receives confirmation from Computer Crimes that the elevator was, in fact, tampered with. This was a murder.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Logan meets with VP Paul and Viv, and asks about potential threats made and enemies accumulated by the company. A rival company, Eisner Industries, immediately comes up, as they’ve been behind corporate espionage, hiring ex-employees, the works.

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Amrita shows up with a picture of the fake maintenance guy, which from the angle and resolution, appears to have been taken from the cameras filming this movie.

While waiting in line near a food cart, Tess chats with Frank, mentions the woman vs. machine exhibition has been cancelled, and then immediately starts sharing crucial information about the case and the maintenance man in public. She remembers a tattoo the man had on his forearm. Frank says he might be ex-military, and runs a few potential images past her, but no luck.

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[I love the subtle grid patterning on Tess’s clothes.
It’s one of my favorite stylistic touches in the series.]

Back at the office, Tess searches for the image and gets it on her very first click. It’s a motorcycle club. Tess goes to investigate.

Meanwhile, Logan and Amrita have turned up nothing on fingerprints and gotten no hits on facial recognition. Thankfully, Tess calls to inform him she’s putting herself in wildly stupid danger by heading to the motorcycle clubhouse herself.

She walks into the club, gets called “honey,” and drops some motorcycle knowledge, impressing the bartender. Then she immediately blows it by asking for details on a club member in the narc-iest manner possible. She looks around, sees a polaroid of the man from XCAL, and the bartender says his name is Eric. We get a swell of music to tell us a tense moment is approaching.

Logan arrives to find Tess charming the bikers with a story. Oh movie, you tricked us. She shares what she learned with Logan and he calls it in. Logan again warns Tess about putting herself in dangerous situations, then informs her that her new bartender friend is called Hammer because he committed felony assault with a hammer. Tess shrugs it off.

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The film cuts to Logan meeting Eric Ogden as he drives a van into an alley. He tries to bolt, but Amrita magically teleports into his path and stops him.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Logan is interrogating Eric. Eric stays silent until Logan accuses him of conspiracy to commit Morgan’s murder. Eric then confirms that Eisner Industries hired him, but claims he knows nothing about the murder. He has a hard drive in his apartment with all the audio he recorded from XCAL.

At The Sentinel, Frank thanks Tess for offering to introduce him to Viv, getting him a crucial in at XCAL. Frank offers some exposition on XCAL’s early days, including a partner named Gregory Sackett that Morgan booted from the company before they went public and became a cash cow.

At the police station, surveillance footage confirms Eric was never near a computer, so he couldn’t have been the one who reprogrammed BB and killed Morgan. He and Amrita talk suspects, and rule out Viv, but mention Jesse, who turns out to be lead programmer. They also mention the insane idea that Daniels was the only person who could make changes or maintain BB, and how that doesn’t make sense. Good call, movie. We were all thinking it.

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Logan sees the police commissioner is talking to the chief. I swear, movie, if you are writing out John Kapelos, I will fight you.

One visit to Jesse’s apartment yields no Jesse, but a neighbor confirms she left a few hours ago with a duffel bag.

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Meanwhile, Tess is finally crosswording, in the lobby of XCAL for some reason. She better have finished Tuesday’s puzzle by now. Logan bumps into her there. SHE MENTIONS HER PUZZLE IS DUE IN TWO HOURS. Tess, seriously?!

They banter back and forth about people skills. It’s pretty cute, honestly.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Logan crosses paths with reporter Frank and fires off a friendly “no comment” before talking to Viv. They observe VP Paul having a heated phone call with the board of directors. Eisner has put in a bid on XCAL, swooping in during the chaos. It turns out XCAL didn’t get the government contract because all the programming for it was on a personal hard drive Daniels was carrying, which Viv presumes was destroyed.

Yeah, it surely wasn’t nabbed from his pocket during the incredibly awkward bump-into earlier in the movie. I SEE YOU, MOVIE. I SEE YOU.

Frank and Tess are in the parking garage, and it turns out Tess’s vehicle knowledge also includes cars, as she correctly identifies the problem Viv is having with Morgan’s car. Viv is  trying to return it to his wife. Tess volunteers to drive it back with her.

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At the police station, the chief talks retirement with Logan after finding out from the commissioner that a colleague died at his desk. Amrita arrives to inform them that the audio files weren’t on the hard drive from Eric’s apartment. Someone erased them. The chief deduces that the killer is mopping up after their crime.

Eric confirms that Keith Eisner, the CEO of the rival company, was the one who hired him. Eric offers up that he overheard a heated argument Morgan had with someone named Patricia about a government contract and that “he’d sign the papers over his dead body.” Logan begins forming a theory connecting the missing Jesse with Patricia, and heads out to talk to the latter, who it turns out is Morgan’s wife.

But guess who is already on the way…

Tess and Viv chat en route. In Morgan’s messy car, she finds evidence that he was spending a lot of time at New York General Hospital. They talk about Jesse and Viv mentions how much Morgan trusted her input.

Logan has somehow beaten Tess and Viv to Patricia’s house, and it turns out the papers he wouldn’t sign were divorce papers. Patricia had fallen in love with someone else: Keith Eisner.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Tess and Viv arrive in Morgan’s car. She mentions the hospital to Logan, who is baffled by their increasingly unlikely meet-ups across New York. She cons a ride home with Logan. WAIT, HOW WAS SHE PLANNING TO GET BACK TO THE CITY? THAT CAB FARE WOULD BE OUTRAGEOUS.

[Tess adds “grand theft french fry” to her long list of previous crimes and indiscretions.]

Over lunch, Logan and Tess talk about Patricia and Eisner possibly orchestrating Morgan’s demise. Logan conspires with Tess to have socialite extraordinaire Aunt Candace test the chief’s interest in actually retiring.

Amidst their chatting, Tess reveals she was once engaged, but called off the wedding. Logan is about to share something, but is interrupted by a call. Turns out there’s no link the police can find between Patricia and Jesse.

Tess and Logan visit the hospital. But the nurse, a true professional, won’t divulge who Morgan was visiting. Tess doesn’t get a chance to try out her biker-soothing charms, because Logan gets a call, and there’s no sign of a hard drive in the elevator wreckage. Audience suspicions of pickpocketing confirmed.

Tess herself confirms this when Logan asks if she remembers anything, and she mentions the pre-elevator bumping-into. They go looking for the bumpee at XCAL, and it turns out she was a temp, so she wouldn’t have been on the employee list Viv gave the police.

[The temp, right after bumping into Morgan.]

Amrita looks up the temp, Layla Barnes, and she’s got a record. Apparently Jesse recommended her for the job.

In a coffeeshop, Aunt Candace and Tess chat about Logan and the chief, and Candace agrees to help Logan find out his dad’s thoughts on retiring. Tess gets a call. Frank has located former XCAL founder Gregory Sackett. He offers to bring Tess with him to talk to Sackett.

Logan arrives at Layla’s apartment building and hears a scream. Behind the building, he finds Layla on the ground, checks her pulse, and gets struck from behind by an unknown black-clad assailant.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Lots of flashing lights as we return to the alley behind Layla’s apartment. Amrita and the chief are there to check on Logan. He has a headache and a serious bump on the noggin, but otherwise he’s alright.

Amrita reports that Layla was killed by a single gunshot. Her laptop is there, along with a bunch of burner cellphones, but there’s no sign of Morgan’s missing hard drive.

Meanwhile, Frank and Tess chat, theorizing that Morgan and Sackett patched things up, and Sackett was the person Morgan was visiting at the hospital. It turns out that Morgan found out about Sackett’s illness through BB’s search algorithm, and that’s what made him reach out and mend fences.

At Sackett’s home, the ailing man mentions there was a third founding member of XCAL, Guinevere Rice. Tess puzzles out that XCAL is a reference to the sword Excalibur from Arthurian legend, and Sackett confirms the company was named in her honor. He also mentions that Guinevere and Morgan had been dating, and split at some point around the same time Sackett got booted.

At the police station, a phone call between Aunt Candace and the chief wraps up just as Logan and Amrita arrive. One of the burner phones they found at Layla’s apartment had call listings to all the biggest tech companies. She was trying to sell Morgan’s hard drive. Most of the phone calls were a minute or less, indicating no luck. The only long phone call — eight minutes long — was with Eisner Industries.

As soon as Logan arrives at Eisner, all of the computers in the lobby — because employees work in the lobby for some reason? — are hacked and start displaying the word CONFESS with seven exclamation points.

Now, we all know that three exclamation marks or more are the sign of true insanity, so seven is incredibly dangerous territory.

Logan meets with Keith Eisner upstairs as the hacking chaos continues. Eisner claims that the bugs were the result of an overzealous employee and that he only listened to Layla’s call for eight minutes to get details to report to the police. He admits that he and Morgan were rivals, but claims that their rivalry pushed each other to greater heights.

I really liked this touch. So often, antagonists — either actual bad guys or just red herring suspects — are cartoonishly mean or evil. To have their rivalry painted as a positive is a nice take that adds much-needed depth to what could have been a bland boilerplate suspect.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

At dinner, Aunt Candace and the chief chat about retirement and making changes when you’re older. He takes an interest in the cooking class she mentions.

At The Sentinel, Frank has no luck locating Guinevere Rice. Tess suggests reaching out to the alumni organization at the college Morgan, Guinevere, and Sackett all attended. Tess spins an obvious lie to the alumni office, but manages to find out Guinevere died in 1993 in a car accident. She is given contact information for Guinevere’s daughter. It leads to the voicemail of Jesse Alexander.

Jesse is Guinevere’s daughter. GASP.

At the police station, Logan confirms that Eisner filed a report with the NYPD, and the chief reveals that Layla and Jesse were in the same work-release program. Jesse used to be known as Stephanie Rice, and got in trouble after some major hacking she did back in the day.

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And in the saddest of the three revelations, the chief confirms that he’s retiring. YOU EVIL MOVIE. IF WE DON’T GET A CRIME-SOLVING RETIRED JOHN KAPELOS SPINOFF, I WILL RIOT.

We cut to a random sidewalk, where a black-clad individual is shadowing Tess. (We can see it’s Jesse, but Tess cannot.)

Tess, showing much greater awareness than in previous movies, notices she’s being followed and ducks into a store. Jesse stares through the front door, unsure of what to do next.

Tess then somehow emerges from the subway stairwell behind her pursuer, reveals herself, and is stunned to discover that Jesse was the person following her.

While this is going on, Amrita and Logan are searching Jesse’s apartment, and Amrita finds a hard drive. They assume it’s Morgan’s. Logan gets a call from computer crimes that confirms Morgan gave access to XCAL’s systems to Jesse a week ago. The net around Jesse tightens.

Meanwhile, Jesse and Tess talk in the park. Jesse reveals that Morgan was her father but he didn’t know that when he hired her. She disappeared because she’s been trying to find his killer through less-than-legal means. But before he died, Morgan found out her true identity when he searched her name in the increasingly unsettling and hyper-efficient BB search program.

Logan finds out Jesse has been spotted in the park talking to an unidentified woman. It’s surprising the entire police force doesn’t know Tess by now. She’s the famous crossword lady who interferes in all the best and puzzliest investigations!

He shows up and arrests Jesse for the murder of Layla Barnes. He also quite testily shuts down Tess’s attempts to explain, reminding her how dangerous it is to interfere in a police investigation, and leaves with Jesse in tow.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

In interrogation, Jesse claims she didn’t know Layla took the hard drive from Morgan and she’s shocked that it was found at her apartment. She believes she’s being framed. When Logan asks about her hacking Eisner Industries and posting the Confess!!!!!!! message, she lawyers up.

Tess shows up at the station to explain, and the chief gives her a kinder version of the dressing down Logan offered earlier. He mentions that if anything happened to Tess, Logan would never forgive himself. He alludes to Logan being attacked at Layla’s apartment — to highlight how dangerous this case is — and Tess is concerned, only just now hearing about the attack. Still, she presses on, making a case for Jesse’s innocence to Logan and the chief.

The trio soon joins Amrita at her desk. Computer Crimes can’t get into Layla’s laptop, but has determined there’s a seven-digit password. Tess suggests “1234567” because it is insanely common. She also casually mentions that there are 33,000 possible seven-letter words that could also be the password.

The chief suggests Layla might’ve kept a list of passwords nearby (because he does), and Logan finds some 7-digit numbers in a notepad she kept on her desk. One of the numbers works, and they’re in. Logan tries to use this success to convince his father not to retire.

The detective offers to give Tess a ride home en route to returning the hard drive to XCAL. Tess rightly points out it’s evidence, but apparently Viv made a call to the Mayor’s office. This is very sus, as the kids would say.

Our dynamic duo arrives at XCAL, and plot intervenes to separate them in the form of a phone call from Tess’s editor. SHE HAS NOT SUBMITTED TOMORROW’S PUZZLE YET. COME ON TESS, WHAT THE HELL?!

Logan turns over the hard drive to VP Paul, who asks about Jesse, confirming that she’s been apprehended. Logan gets a call from Amrita, who finds copies of Eric’s audio files on Layla’s computer. She listened to some of them, and it turns out that Morgan and VP Paul disagreed about the government contract in the days leading up to Morgan’s death. Morgan sided with Jesse.

(This seems out of the blue, given Jesse publicly chiding Morgan for the contract right before he died, but it’s possible when he pulled her aside, it was to appease her before breaking the bad news to everyone. Jesse clearly didn’t know in interrogation, so he couldn’t have told her then. Anyway, I digress.)

Logan, now realizing that VP Paul has been playing him this whole time, baits Paul with references to Layla and the hard drive. We see Paul has a gun concealed behind him, and he draws on Logan when Logan confirms that Paul murdered Layla.

FINAL COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Tess finishes her call, and considers going to look for Logan, but then mumbles to herself, “Stay out of it, Tess,” and sits back down. Oh movie, look at you, making us disregard otherwise prudent advice for the sake of drama. I see you, movie.

Paul gets Logan to put down his gun, then starts monologuing about selling the hard drive on the black market and leaving for a country without an extradition treaty. Classic villain stuff.

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Then the elevator opens and Tess emerges, ignoring the prudent advice. She sees Logan being held at gunpoint.

Remembering the alarm thing from her earlier visit to XCAL, she yells, “BB, activate the alarm!” and Logan manages to put some distance between himself and VP Paul after a shameful scuffle where he fails to disarm the bad guy.

VP Paul orders BB to shut down the alarm, but this gives Tess time to slide Logan his gun. Paul fires toward Tess, and Logan puts a bullet in Paul’s shoulder.

Later, we see Tess, Logan, and the Chief for the loose-ends wrap-up.

Morgan’s hard drive was empty. Presumably Morgan erased it before he died. And apparently Paul saw Morgan enter his password one time and that’s how he gained access to the system. (So the impenetrable system only Morgan could operate was foiled by something someone could memorize after seeing it once. Huh.)

Logan and the chief thank Tess for saving Logan’s life. She is humble about the whole thing. Is that the end?

No! We cut to the police station, where Logan needs to grab his wallet before taking his dad out to dinner. The chief deduces that Logan has lured him here for a retirement party, but Logan claims that’s wrong.

The chief reveals he’s not ready to retire yet. The people rejoice!

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As it turns out, Logan has organized an UNretirement party for the chief, because he knew the chief wasn’t ready yet. Good job, Logan.

During the festivities, Logan and Tess share a quiet moment, and Logan reveals that he was married before and it ended because of his job. (This was what he wanted to tell her during their lunch.)

He thanks Tess for helping him realize that he shouldn’t keep people at arms length. They clink glasses. And the camera drifts away from the couple.

The End.

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[SORRY, ROMANCE LOVERS. YOU’LL HAVE TO WAIT AT LEAST ONE MORE CROSSWORD MYSTERIES FILM FOR THE GOOD STUFF.]


CONCLUSION

I confess, I’m torn on Terminal Descent. The mystery is interesting and well-constructed, and the twin reveals of a third founding member and her secret daughter actually worked quite nicely. (It does tend dangerously close to “secret twin” territory, but overall, I enjoyed the twist and how the characters played off each other.)

But then again, these are the Crossword Mysteries, and this was the least puzzly entry in the series yet! The first had an actual crossword at the center of the story, the second a cipher, and the third had a riddle and all sorts of twisty magic happenings that encouraged some brain teaser-like deduction.

But this one had no puzzle element at all. We lose the woman vs. machine bit about ten minutes into the movie; it would’ve been nice to close with that, just to give Tess a chance to prove her puzzly mettle.

Yes, I obviously had some fun joking about the plot elements in my review, but any criticisms were made with tongue placed firmly in cheek. I quite liked the cast of potential suspects — Eisner in particular was a nice reinvention of a tired trope — and would have enjoyed spending more time with these characters.

Tess and Logan remain immensely likable, and I enjoyed that moments of tension between them moved from the “Tess, you’re interfering AGAIN?!” gimmick of the earlier movies to Logan’s genuine concern that Tess not be harmed and sincere appreciation for what she brings to the investigation. It feels like movement forward, which is always welcome in any relationship. Sure, it was borderline ridiculous how many times they bumped into each other during the movie, but at this point, it’s practically a trope of the series.

And, of course, John Kapelos shined as the police chief and father figure of the film, funny and distracting in equal measure. He is just the best.

In sort, the movie is light, frothy, slightly murdery fun. You can’t go wrong with that.

Fair warning, though: the film did lack a Will Shortz cameo as far as I could tell, but given that it was filmed in late 2020, it’s totally understandable while filming under COVID-safe conditions. Still, we potentially missed out on Biker Will Shortz, which would have been fantastic.


Crossword Mysteries Terminal Descent Final Image Assets

Plus, there’s more to come!

There is at least one more Crossword Mysteries movie scheduled for 2021. The fifth entry in the series is entitled Riddle Me Dead and has a scheduled release date of April 11th, 2021.

So do not fret, puzzle fans. There’s more of Tess and Logan to come!


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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.


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PuzzleNation First Look: Everything Board Games Magazine

cover

The world of board games is expanding and evolving in new ways every day. Encompassing everything from traditional board and dice games to card games, roleplaying games, and more, we’re talking about an ever-expanding universe of gameplay possibilities.

So when I heard about a new publication called Everything Board Games Magazine, I simply had to investigate. Based on the ambitiousness alone, I was intrigued.

The debut issue of the magazine is now available for free on their website, and I’ve gotta say… I’m pretty impressed.

It’s 82 pages, a full-color reading experience that is vibrant, visually engaging, and absolutely jam-packed with content. I’m pretty plugged into the board game world, and I discovered half a dozen games I knew nothing about.

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After a few pages of ads, we’re greeted with a letter from the editor, and you immediately get a sense of the passion and excitement that permeates every page of the magazine:

Thank you for taking the time to read through the first ever issue of Everything Board Games Magazine! We know there are a lot of voices vying for your attention in the wonderful world of board games. We’ve strived to produce something that will bring value and joy to the gamer in every walk of life. Our team of board game fanatics have scoured the wide-world of gaming to bring you a diverse and interesting selection of articles, interviews, game reviews, previews and more! It is our hope and desire to connect with you once every two months, filling your mind with gaming pleasures.

Every piece in the magazine — whether it’s a game review, informational article, or interview — is loaded with enthusiasm. The writing crackles with excitement, and every contributor clearly loves the world of board games.

And honestly, in a world where a lot of genre-focused content seems to drip with sarcasm and know-it-all condescension, it’s refreshing to read pieces full of sincerity and affection, even when offering constructive criticism.

The magazine has teasers for upcoming games and Kickstarter campaigns, loads of reviews (though many reviews are just links to the full reviews on their website), as well as interviews about hobby gaming, board game design, running a board game cafe, and more.

Giveaways, polls, board game art, a bi-monthly top 5 games countdown… every page is packed with content.

preview

And every last page is interactive. Links with more information, links to websites, links for ads, links for email, links to contribute or suggest content or offer feedback. Interactive everything. (And thankfully, no auto-play ads or videos or audio clips to spoil the experience.)

In this first issue alone, they featured games based on history, monsters, latte art, the golden age of sci-fi, theme parks, mythology, war, painting, and crime-solving.

They even managed to throw in a free print-and-play stock trading game AND a free RPG adventure for Dungeons & Dragons.

Aside from a few typos here and there, the debut issue of Everything Board Games Magazine was a brisk, engaging, thoroughly enjoyable read. The only bad thing is waiting two months for the next one.

You can check it out and sign up for your free subscription here.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Mad Libs: The Game!

mad-libs_uawibn

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

There are a lot of puzzly games where wordplay is key. In Scrabble, Bananagrams, or Words with Friends, it’s all about forming words and fitting them into grids. In Taboo, it’s all about communicating without using certain words. In Balderdash, it’s all about crafting the perfect definition, either to mislead other players or to demonstrate your mastery of language and vocabulary.

Mad Libs: The Game follows in that grand tradition of wordplay, but instead of forming words, avoiding them, or defining them, this game is about using them to their utmost in order to entertain your fellow players.

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Each player starts with 7 Word cards. Each card depicts a word in noun, verb, adjective, or adverb form (or multiple forms, for adaptable words), and these cards are the ingredients for cooking up funny, weird, entertaining sentences in the game.

But what do you do with those cards? Easy! Just like the original fill-in-the-blank stories, you’re going to use those cards to conjure up the best ways to fill the blanks in our Sentence cards.

So each round begins with a new Sentence card and the players choosing Word cards from their hand in order to come up with the most entertaining words to fill in the blanks for this round’s Sentence card. Then everyone reads their completed sentence aloud, and a vote is held where players point to the player with the best completed sentence. That player then wins a point.

The first player to earn three points wins.

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Now, this style of gameplay won’t seem revolutionary to anyone who has played with magnetic poetry or indulged in the much-raunchier Cards Against Humanity or one of the many other games in that vein.

But whereas those games tend to traffic in shock value for their humor, Mad Libs: The Game is all about silliness. This is a game that encourages that same level of creativity, wordplay, and surprise, but in a way that’s appropriate for family gameplay. For example, unlike the very adult themes found in CAH, the harshest words in this game are more along the lines of “pierce” or “heartless,” nothing that would raise a parent’s eyebrow.

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[Example of a completed sentence:
Puppies may make the world go ’round,
but it’s flower girls that pay the bills.”]

This is a terrific gateway game for younger puzzlers to get them to not only think about words, but to explore how to use them effectively. It combines humor, storytelling, silliness, and craft to make a good, clean, and most importantly, fun time.

Looney Labs is usually the home of gleefully chaotic games like Fluxx and Loonacy, but they always manage to couch their products in family replayability, and Mad Libs: The Game is no exception.

You can pick up Mad Libs: The Game here, and to check out all of our reviews of Looney Labs games and products, click here!


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Compose Yourself

Compose Yourself, ThinkFun’s latest offering, is unlike any product I’ve ever reviewed before, and that’s part of what makes it special. It is a single unending puzzle and a million different smaller puzzles all at once. It is literally as simple or as complex as you choose to make it.

You’re given sixty transparent cards (two copies each of thirty distinct note patterns). Each card features four different codes: one for the notes as they appear, one for the notes rotated 90 degrees, one for the notes backward, and one for the notes backward AND rotated 90 degrees. This allows for a staggering number of choices for a budding composer.

As you play around with placing the transparent cards in various order, you can log into the ThinkFun website and use the code provided to access a digital composing program.

[A picture of my first composition in progress…]

Input the codes from your layout of transparent cards in groups of four — as many as you wish! — and then click play. You can hear your new composition played on marimba, performed by an orchestra, or in both modes simultaneously!

Now, I confess, I am not a musically inclined person, but after fifteen minutes or so playing around with random cards — placing, flipping, reversing, and rotating them — I finally clicked play, and I was surprised by the results. (I’d unintentionally created a tune that felt perfect for the background of a Legend of Zelda game. *laughs*)

It feels like your work comes to life at your fingertips. And all you can think about is how to improve it, how to make the most of it, and how new cards will change it.

Each card represents part of a puzzle, and you may have no idea what the finished product will be, but that doesn’t make the process any less satisfying. This is old-school free-form creativity, like dipping your hands into a bucket of LEGOs, pulling out some pieces, and seeing what you can create.

ThinkFun has challenged us in the past with puzzlers like Houdini and Gravity Maze, and they’ve offered younger solvers the chance to learn coding in Robot Turtles and optics in Laser Maze, all while enjoying an experience that feels like play because it IS play.

But they’ve truly outdone themselves with Compose Yourself; it’s a learning experience, a creative experience, and a puzzly experience all at once. What a treat.

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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Indie 500 Puzzle edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

May 30 marked the first (hopefully annual!) Indie 500 Crossword Tournament, hosted in Washington, D.C. by constructors Erik Agard, Peter Broda, Neville Fogarty, Andy KravisEvan Birnholz, and Finn Vigeland.

While I couldn’t attend the tournament, I did download the tournament puzzles, and after a few weeks, I had the opportunity to sit down and tackle the six puzzles prepared for the event. And today, after a few weeks’ reflection, I thought I’d offer my thoughts on those puzzles, both for the organizers and for any interested PuzzleNationers who might be considering participating in the future.

[Note: I solved the PDF versions of these puzzles, which apparently differed in some ways from the PUZ versions.]


Puzzle 1: Welcome to D.C. by Erik Agard

The opening puzzle offered a solid challenge, utilizing the colors for the various lines of the Washington Metro as clues for the themed entries. (For instance, “Red Line” led you to the answer BASE PATH.)

Agard’s effort set the tone for the rest of the tournament with a some accessible pop culture-fueled clues as well as a fleet of strong, fair clues most puzzlers should have no difficulty cracking. A few more obscure references were made — an Internet meme and a Hunger Games “ship” name among them — but without hindering fair cluing.

Interesting grid entries included GINSU, YOUSE GUYS, and NIQAB, and my favorite clue was probably “Summer’s end?” for TOTAL.

Puzzle 2: Looseness of the Vowels by Peter Broda

Broda’s puzzle incorporated shared boxes — some grid squares were divided in half, allowing two vowels to be placed instead of one — and answering each themed clue required a two-word phrase that shared every consonant.

(For instance, clue 52 Across read “With 52 Across, what David Ortiz practices that annoys his neighbors?” And the grid, once filled, read B[I/A]GP[A/I]P[IE]S, a.k.a. BIG PAPI’S BAGPIPES. This is why the clue cites itself in “With 52 Across,” so that the solver knows the answer word applies twice)

Those neat touches of wordplay weren’t the only tough crossings, however. The crossing of two unusual phrases in BE GENTLE with LAYS STAX actually forced me to abandon the puzzle at one point and return to it later to complete.

Interesting grid entries included TV CHEF, ICE KING, and VISA BILL, and my favorite clue was “Former red giant” for USSR. (Being a science and astronomy geek, I was instantly misled by this one.)

Puzzle 3: Candy Bars by Finn Vigeland

Finn was chosen as the guest constructor to join the five fierce puzzlers who organized the Indie 500, and I was thoroughly impressed with the very clever construction of his grid. In Finn’s puzzle, certain paired black squares were replaced with a graphic of a candy bar, and it was up to the solver to deduce that each entry, either down or across, that touched the candy bar was missing either C, Y, or both.

[The candy bars were in color in the PDF, but I printed them in b and w for solving.]

For instance, in this section of the grid, DIS and ALL (clued as “Checker, for one” and “Word after straight or male, in social justice conversations,” respectively) were actually DISC and ALLY when you added the CY. [Get it? CandY bar?] Similarly, REST and ALTA were actually CREST and YALTA, and the across entry CLING WRAP was actually the theme entry CYCLING WRAP.

This was my favorite of the six puzzles in the tournament, one with a great hook and excellent execution.

Interesting grid entries included SENIOR GALA, DOT GOV, OH BEHAVE!, and PT BOATS, and my favorite clue was easily “Brian who crosswords would have you believe is the only musician worth knowing (other than 97-Across, maybe)” for ENO. (97-Across was, predictably, ONO.)

Puzzle 4: A Cute Puzzle by Andy Kravis

After a pair of heavy-thinking puzzles, Puzzle 4 was an excellent palate cleanser difficulty-wise, complete with solid cluing and some fun entries. Kravis’s puzzle had solvers adding an accented E to the end of themed entries in order to complete them. For instance, “A giant leap for elephant-kind?” was JUMBOJETE.

A well-constructed puzzle (quite possibly designed to lure solvers into a false sense of security before Puzzle 5 walloped them), this was probably the most accessible puzzle of the six, one that casual solvers would quite enjoy.

Interesting grid entries included MINAJ, TEAM USA, KOOPA, and A-MINUS, and my favorite clues were the mildly-risque pair of “Prince Albert’s can?” for both ARSE and LOO.

Puzzle 5: Swap Meet by Neville Fogarty

Apparently, whether it’s the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament or the Indie 500, Puzzle 5 shall forever be a beast of a solve.

Fogarty’s puzzle was by far the toughest of the six, and I admit, it took me forever to uncover the hook: antonyms which crossed at the same starting box were swapped. For instance, 1-Across was “Numbskulled” for THICK and 1-Down was “Dilute” for THIN, but you had to place THICK as 1-Down and THIN as 1-Across.

Beyond that, challenging crossings like IDEA MAN and LAD MAG kept me guessing, and the creative grid entries left few crossword standards for any struggling solvers.

Interesting grid entries included ONE SEC, SHAKY CAM, FAIR GAME, XKCD, and IRISH STEW, and my favorite clue was probably “Number for the troops” for OVER THERE.

[Say, since we’re discussing crosswords, have you checked out the
Penny Dell Crosswords App? This concludes our shameless plug.]

Puzzle 6: The Final Lap by Evan Birnholz

The closing puzzle of the tournament was offered in two difficulty levels: the Inside Track (designated for solvers who finished in the top 25% of the field in a crossword tournament with published standings in the past 5 years) and the Outside Track (designated for everyone else). I opted for the Outside Track, then looked over the cluing for the Inside Track.

This themeless closer was no layup, though; no matter which track you were on, the cluing relied on solid trivia knowledge and classic puzzle-solving skill. (Kudos to Evan for crafting a solid grid with tough AND tougher clues. And for dropping a much-appreciated Army of Darkness reference in the Inside Track clues.)

Interesting grid entries included WHAT ON EARTH?, MOON UNIT, EDIT MENU, and PIE CHART, and my favorite clue (among many I quite liked) was probably “Things a benched player might work on during practice” for ETUDES.


Overall, I thought the Indie 500 was an impressive series of puzzles, rich with cleverness and style. Puzzle 5 easily rivaled ACPT’s Puzzle 5 in terms of difficulty, and the cluing was topnotch. I look forward to its return next year, and hopefully some of you will join me in accepting the Indie 500 challenge!

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