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

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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.

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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.

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!

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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PuzzleNation Product Reviews: Loonacy

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Looney Labs is a game company with a creative model everyone can get behind: high replay value through wildly interactive, adaptable game play. Perhaps best known for their card game Fluxx, Looney Labs games are designed for portability, packing a lot of punch into smaller, more efficient packaging.

Their latest release is Loonacy, a pattern-matching card game that requires quick reflexes, a quicker eye, and no small amount of strategy.

In Loonacy, players compete to drop all of the cards in their hand by dropping them one-at-a-time into various piles by matching one of two symbols on the card. For instance, if you’ve got a card with a cookie and a brain on it, you can drop that card onto a pile with a cookie on top or a brain on top.

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You can try to strategize by arranging cards into your hand by symbol or possible chains — brain/cookie, cookie/ship, ship/puppy — but you have to play each card individually before you can drop the next card. And since everyone is racing to empty their hands at the same time, it can rapidly become a very chaotic playing experience.

(And in your enthusiasm, you’ll probably end up bending a few cards. Hey, it happens.)

But there is an element of strategy to the gameplay. If you have multiple cards with a cookie, you’ll want to play the card where the other symbol doesn’t help your opponents. (For instance, if there’s already a brain symbol showing and no one can play on it, play the cookie/brain card.)

That way, you can play your second (and hopefully, your third) cookie cards in a row and decrease the number of cards in your hand in a hurry. Of course, if someone drops their card on top of that cookie card, your strategy might go right out the window.

But that’s part of the fun. Loonacy tests observation, reflexes, and decision-making skill, all in the matter of a few minutes per game.

While it’s light on the puzzling, it’s high in charm, replay factor, and style. The sheer number of potential images to match makes this far more interesting than the average card game or pattern-matching challenge.

Looney Labs has a winner on their hands with Loonacy. I suspect it’ll be a big hit on Saturday during our International TableTop Day celebrations at home.

[Click here to check out our reviews of several other Looney Labs products!]


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