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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What makes a great riddle?

[Image courtesy of PNG Find.]

I have always suspected that riddles were our first experiments with puzzles and puzzly thinking. Long before crosswords, Sudoku, codebreaking, and magic squares, the potential for wordplay and outside-the-box thinking would have appealed to storytellers, teachers, philosophers, and other deep thinkers.

Who doesn’t enjoy unraveling a riddle, parsing the carefully constructed sentences for every hint and nuance lurking within, and then extracting that tiny purest nugget of a solution from the ether?

Riddles appeal to our love of story and adventure, of heroes with wits as sharp as their swords. Riddles are the domain of gatekeepers and tricksters, monsters and trap rooms from the best Dungeons & Dragons quests.

And so, for centuries upon centuries, even up to the modern day, riddles have been a challenging and intriguing part of the world of puzzling.

We can trace them back to the Greeks, to Ancient Sumeria, to the Bible through Samson, and to mythology through the Sphinx. Riddles abound in literature; we find riddles in Shakespeare, in the works of Joyce, Carroll, and Austen, all the way up to the modern day with The Hobbit and Harry Potter. Every locked room mystery and impossible crime is a riddle to be unraveled.

[Image courtesy of Campbell County Public Library.]

But this raises a crucial question: what makes a good riddle?

At first glance, it should be confusing or elusive. But after some thought, there should be enough information within the riddle to provide a solution, either through wordplay/punnery OR through looking at the problem from a different perspective.

Let’s look at an example. In this instance, we’ll examine the riddle from Jane Austen’s Emma, which is posed to the title character by a potential suitor:

My first displays the wealth and pomp of kings,
Lords of the earth! their luxury and ease.
Another view of man, my second brings,
Behold him there, the monarch of the seas!

The answer is “courtship.”

The first half of the riddle refers to the playground of royalty — court — and the second half to the domain of her suitor — ship — and when combined they form the suitor’s desire. This riddle is confusingly worded, to be sure, but it makes sense when analyzed and it’s totally reasonable when the clever Emma figures out the answer… and turns down the suitor’s attempt at riddly courtship.

[Image courtesy of Yale.edu.]

So, what’s an example of a bad riddle? Well, unfortunately, we don’t have to look too hard for an example of one. Let’s examine Samson’s riddle from The Book of Judges in the Old Testament, which he poses to his dinner guests (with a wager attached):

Out of the eater,
something to eat;
out of the strong,
something sweet.

The answer, bafflingly, is “bees making a honeycomb inside the carcass of a lion.”

This is borderline nonsense unless Samson actually told you the story of killing a lion with his bare hands and later returning to the corpse to find bees building a hive inside. So, basically, this riddle not only screws over his dinner guests — who lost a wager to buy fine clothing if they couldn’t solve the rigged riddle — and serves as an excuse to brag about killing a lion. Samson is a jerk.

This is a bad riddle, because it’s designed to be confusing, but does not offer enough information to get to the desired solution. It’s purposely unsolvable, and that sucks. Riddles shouldn’t be arbitrary or nonsensical.

James Joyce pulled this in Ulysses. Lewis Carroll pulled it in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And each of these examples give riddles a bad name. (Even if they do serve a literary purpose, as scholars claim they do in the Joyce and Carroll examples.)

Even if you want the hero to seem (or be) smarter than the reader, the riddle should still make sense. When confronted with five riddles by Gollum in The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins solves four of them (and answers the fifth through charmingly dumb luck). It doesn’t hurt his character or make the reader feel like they’re being cheated when these riddles are resolved.

That’s another quality of a great riddle. Even if you don’t solve it, when you DO find the answer, it should feel like you were outwitted and you learned something, not that you were involved in a rigged game.

Oh, and speaking of learning, that reminds me of another example of a challenging yet fair riddle, one that comes from Ancient Sumeria (now, modern-day Iraq):

There is a house. One enters it blind and comes out seeing. What is it?

The answer, as you might have puzzled out, is “a school.”

Riddles can be devious or tricky; they can rely on misdirection, our own assumptions and biases, or careful word choice to befuddle the reader. But they should always be learning experiences, like the house you enter blind and leave seeing.

What are some of your favorite riddles, fellow puzzlers? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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Win a Shakespearean Lady’s Heart… With a Puzzle

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In the past, we’ve discussed some of the puzzly conspiracies and theories that surround the works of William Shakespeare. But we’ve never discussed the actual puzzle that appears in one of his plays.

No, we’re not talking about the clever wordplay that leads Macbeth to believe his reign is unassailable. In today’s post, we’ll look at the puzzle from The Merchant of Venice that held the fate of the heiress Portia locked away.

In the play, Portia’s father devises a brain teaser to prevent unworthy suitors from winning his daughter’s hand. It is most likely inspired by those mind ticklers where there are three guards or three doors to choose from, each with different conditions.

Any suitor seeking Portia’s hand must choose one of three caskets in the hopes of picking the one with Portia’s picture inside. If the suitor chooses the wrong casket, he leaves empty-handed.

The prospective suitor’s only hints are the words on each of the three caskets.

  • On the gold casket: “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.”
  • On the silver casket: “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.”
  • On the lead casket: “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.”

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[Image courtesy of Pinterest.]

The puzzle is less about being tricked by logic or wordplay than it is carefully reading what is right in front of you. It’s about presentation, assumption, and intention.

Not only is the gold casket the most ostentatious, but it stabs at the heart of “what many men desire.” It represents the fallacy of choosing something for beauty and aesthetics alone, warning the wrong-headed suitor that “all that glitters is not gold.”

The silver casket isn’t as eye-catching, but the inscription reveals how presumptuous the suitor is. After all, “as much as he deserves” implies the hand of Portia, and it’s presumptuous in the extreme to assume that he was automatically worthy of Portia’s hand for the simple act of picking a casket.

The lead casket is the least attractive physically, but the most insightful. The inscription of the lead casket is all about one’s intentions. The suitor who chooses it is promising to not only be generous and work hard — to give all he hath — but be willing to sacrifice for the hand of Portia.

The suitor who chooses the lead casket — and finds the picture of Portia — doesn’t do so out of trophy-hunting vanity or grossly overestimating himself, he does so by pledging to devote everything he is and has to the task at hand… being worthy of Portia.

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[Image courtesy of Pinterest.]

Of course, when it comes to both the play and Portia’s feelings on the matter, it works out nicely that the suitor who chooses the lead casket is also the man Portia loves.

It does raise the question, though, of what happens to the three caskets when Portia is married. Hopefully her father gave them to her as a wedding gift. Or at least melted them down into something more manageable. Imagine trying to pay your bills with caskets made of precious metals.


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PN Review: Crossword Mysteries: Abracadaver

On March 10th, 2019, Crossword Mysteries: A Puzzle to Die For debuted, introducing the puzzle world (and the mystery world) to crossword editor Tess Harper and 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. The second Crossword Mysteries film — Proposing Murder — debuted on October 13th. But the third film, originally scheduled to air one week later, was suddenly pushed to January of this year to make room for more Christmas movies.

In October.

But I digress.

This past Sunday, the third Crossword Mysteries film finally debuted on Hallmark Movies and Mysteries.

Its title? Abracadaver.

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 do this!


FILM RECAP

The show opens at the Magic Manor, a combination magic school and performance space. We see a gun being prepared for a performance. A woman aims it through a sheet of glass at the magician, who stands with his arms spread wide and his mouth open.

While crossword editor Tess wanders around the mansion, admiring old posters, she hears the gunshot.

Cue the credits, introducing the main characters and framing them with crossword grids and clues, setting the aesthetic for the film.

Tess peeks in on the rehearsal in time to see the magician — the Amazing Alisdair — remove the bullet from his mouth, no worse for wear. Tess is then chastised for sneaking a look at another magician’s rehearsal. Apparently Tess is a student of magic in her voluminous free time.

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The next day, Tess is hard at work on a puzzle with random theme-appropriate words strewn throughout the grid: MAGIC, WAND, etc. She writes an incredibly bland clue for FRENCH DROP, a classic sleight of hand technique.

We then meet Reed, the new crime reporter for The Sentinel, who will be sharing a desk with Tess. (Apparently, he’s been hired to replace the crime reporter murdered in the first Crossword Mysteries film, which was months ago at this point. Has no one been covering the crime beat in New York City since then?)

Naturally, he is instantly charmed by our friendly neighborhood crossword editor, as all people are everywhere. Ask any puzzle editor. We are beloved figures.

Tess’s assistant, Josephine, mentions Tess’s upcoming birthday dinner at the Magic Manor. As it turns out, she’s taking magic classes as research for a puzzle she’s working on. (This checks out. I once disappeared for five years in the mountains of Tibet while doing research for a puzzle on sasquatches.)

Tess invites Reed to join in the magical birthday festivities. Reed seems nice, in that his jerkier tendencies appear unintentional.

We cut to the Magic Manor, where Tess arrives for class. They do sleight of hand practice and play with disappearing foam balls. The instructor talks to a testy Amazing Alisdair, and the words “no more favors” can be overheard. By Tess. Nosy nosy Tess.

Later, Alisdair is testy with his assistant Bianca before the show. A large steamer trunk is delivered.

At dinner in the performance area of the Magic Manor, Tess chats with her Aunt Candace and her assistant Josephine, and they mention fundraising efforts for the Manor’s upcoming museum of magic. Detective Logan O’Connor shows up, and Tess is surprised. Aunt Candace is playing matchmaker. He gives her a charm bracelet with a little crossword charm on it.

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Reed arrives with flowers for Tess, and there is instantly dude tension between Reed and Logan over the pretty girl. Thankfully, the performance is starting soon and we can leave the forced love triangle behind for a bit.

Backstage, Bianca brings a drink to Amazing Alisdair. Onstage, the emcee mentions the Magic Manor used to be a speakeasy. (I am instantly on alert for secret passages from here on out.)

As Amazing Alisdair does his introduction, the camera lingers on a nearby table, where Suspicious Man and Dude Wearing Sunglasses Inside are sitting. Amazing Alisdair asks for a volunteer, pointedly ignoring Suspicious Man’s raised hand and choosing Josephine instead.

He does some sleight of hand with her watch. Tess, the magic student, asks how they do that. She is clearly a bad magic student.

Amazing Alisdair leans over in a worrying manner after helping Josephine down from the stage, as if winded or fatigued. He then grabs the gun, and prepares for the big illusion: the Bullet Catch. Tess is invited onstage to mark the bullet, which she labels with her initials.

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Bianca and Amazing Alisdair prepare for the Bullet Catch. His hand shakes while he loads the gun. Bianca fires, the glass shatters, and Alisdair is left laying on the ground. Suspicious Man and Dude Wearing Sunglasses Inside immediately bolt for the exit, as innocent people are wont to do. Logan then stands up, calls in the crime, identifies himself as a cop, and gets everyone to wait outside while he secures the scene.

A Good Samaritan doctor checks on Alisdair, but he’s dead. Logan and the doctor can’t find a bullet wound.

Suddenly, the lights go out as Logan finds a bullet on the ground nearby.

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The assembled guests loiter around the Magic Manor. Aunt Candace tries to comfort the shaken Bianca. Logan’s partner Winston shows up to investigate the murder.

Logan talks to Bianca, and she mentions the drink before the show, as well as Alisdair’s hand shaking. Bianca asks to go to her dressing room, and when she and Winston arrive, the room has been broken into and ransacked. Keen-eyed viewers notice there’s no sign of the steamer trunk.

The doctor walks around looking suspicious. The emcee, Rocco, also paces about nervously.

Logan talks to Tess about her time at the Magic Manor. She’s been taking classes for a few weeks, and mentions the exchange between Cormac (her instructor) and Amazing Alisdair. Alisdair wanted a favor. Cormac agreed, but said it was the last time. Tess mentions Alisdair’s weird lean and sweatiness. Logan sends her home, and asks her not to investigate, then wishes her a happy birthday.

Naturally, Tess ignores his wishes immediately and for no apparent reason follows a woman in a sparkly dress upstairs. And all around the manor. But then loses her in a corridor with no exit.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

At the police station, Logan and his father (the Chief) discuss the trick, explaining the bullet Logan on the floor and the lack of a bullet wound; the trick didn’t kill Amazing Alisdair. They’re waiting on autopsy to report on heart attack or other possible explanations. Logan gets a call from forensics that there was residue on the bullet from Alisdair’s mouth. He might’ve been poisoned.

At The Sentinel, Reed and Tess chat about the long night. Reed considers taking magic classes at the Manor to get a different angle on the story. Tess dissuades him, but offers to share anything she learns during her classes. He tries to dissuade her in return. Mutual dissuading continues for a bit.

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[Tess in her subtle crossword-pattern jacket.]

Back at the police station, Logan gets details. A fish poison, tetrodotoxin, was found on the bullet. Forensics also found traces of it on Amazing Alisdair’s scotch glass.

At the Magic Manor, Tess and Bianca talk while they clean up the dressing room. Tess discovers that Bianca and Amazing Alisdair used to date. Bianca mentions their bad breakup and namedrops Sinclair, the person who convinced Alisdair to do the Bullet Catch trick.

Logan arrives, and is immediately mad at Tess for investigating. She compares him to “a paper that keeps printing the same puzzle day after day after day.” She comes off as quite a jerk here, but mentions the woman in the sparkly gold dress before she leaves.

Logan talks to Bianca. Turns out Amazing Alisdair brought the scotch with him. Bianca swears no one would want to harm the magician. When the detective checks out Alisdair’s place later, Winston mentions that the lock may have been picked. The repair guy, who has apparently read the script, asks if Alisdair had a secret life.

Logan finds a note being used as a bookmark, callously disregards Alisdair’s efforts to mark said page, and takes the note, which reads “Meet me beyond the stars. XO”

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COMMERCIAL BREAK!

At the police station, we meet Amazing Alisdair’s aunt. They discuss Alisdair’s sister Claire, an anthropologist whom rarely visits. The aunt was surprised to hear Claire was in town. She also mentions that Rocco was threatening to take away Alisdair’s headliner status in exchange for a bigger cut of the profits of his performances at the Magic Manor.

Conveniently, Tess is at the Magic Manor, learning the ball and cup trick from Alisdair’s former partner Cormac. Logan talks to Rocco and gets the list of people with reservations the night of the murder. Tess and Cormac discuss Alisdair’s relationship with the mysterious Sinclair.

She and Logan meet again, and after the appropriate scolding for her constant interference in the investigation, she spills the details about Bianca and Alisdair.

Later, Tess investigates Sinclair through his incredibly annoying website, which employs cryptic clues instead of helpful directions to Sinclair’s workshop. A white rabbit tells Tess to “travel by rail through the looking glass.” Another clue instructs her to “find a good friend. Stop just past where the spirit catches you.”

Tess and Josephine ponder these instructions and come up with Carroll Street subway station as a starting point, and Delavan Street as a destination. (Delavan is apparently an Old English word for friend.)

Tess, wandering alone of course, spots a distillery, “where the spirit catches you” and keeps going, heading down an incredibly sketchy back alley and into a warehouse full of magical claptrap.

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She meets a strange woman who offers to let Tess play with a giant saw blade. Sinclair mentions designing Alisdair’s Bullet Catch mechanism.

At the police station, Logan and Winston try to track down Ann Morrison, who wasn’t on the reservation list, but was present for Alisdair’s death (given that they found her fingerprints at the scene). Her name is in the system because she was present for the explosive death of another magician in Vegas.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Logan is suspicious of both Ann Morrison and Alisdair’s sister Claire, both of whom are difficult to locale. While verifying the statements of the Manor’s guests after the murder, Drexler (our Suspicious Man) apparently had a good reason for leaving, and the only curious name left is the Good Samaritan doctor, who hasn’t responded to their inquiries because he’s at a conference.

Logan then talks to Cormac, who is getting Alisdair’s spot now that he’s dead. Cormac claims he was working nightclub security during Alisdair’s performance.

Tess arrives at the Manor and sees Cormac’s poster has replaced Alisdair’s. While talking to Tess, Bianca realizes the giant steamer trunk that was delivered the night of Alisdair’s murder is missing. This has somehow slipped her mind for days now. Tess and Bianca talk about Alisdair’s love for ballroom dance, before Bianca discusses being nervous about performing Cormac’s sword cabinet trick tonight. She will be assisting the new headliner.

Logan and Tess literally collide at The Sentinel and she mentions the missing steamer trunk. They talk about misdirection and seeing what someone wants you to see. (I suspect at this point, Tess’s boss would want to see a finished crossword.)

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Logan confirms the trunk delivery with security footage and asks Winston to see if he can find when the trunk leaves the building. They also see footage of Drexler (who is some sort of tech billionaire) as he leaves the Magic Manor. Winston is suspicious of Drexler’s excuse for his quick exit. Logan notices that Drexler left the theater, but hung around the Manor for ten minutes before leaving. What was he up to for that ten minutes?

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

A figure dressed in all black, complete with gloved hands, replaces Bianca’s trick handcuffs before the show. DASTARDLY. (It looks like a woman’s walk as the saboteur exits.) Bianca overhears footsteps and investigates, finding a broken vase, then calls Tess. Tess misses the call because she keeps dropping the bracelet Logan gave her. (This will in no way become a plot point later on.)

Bianca leaves a message for Tess and asks her to meet up at intermission. We then cut to Bianca and Cormac performing the sword cabinet illusion as Tess searches the Magic Manor for her. Tess finds the broken vase and the trick handcuffs as Cormac slides the first sword into the cabinet.

Cormac inserts a second sword into the box, and there is an unpleasant sound when he does so. Tess runs onstage and stops him from adding the final sword (which would have gone through Bianca’s heart!) and we hear her screaming for help from inside the box.

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Logan arrests Cormac and talks to Bianca, who confirms that the assailant was wearing high heels. Regarding Cormac’s arrest, I’m kind of with Logan on this one. HOW DOES YOUR CRAPPY TRICK USE REAL SWORDS AND SOMEHOW HINGE SOLELY ON A PAIR OF TRICK HANDCUFFS FOR THE WOMAN’S SURVIVAL?!

Tess and Aunt Candace talk, and Candace mentions a friend of hers had an antique snuffbox stolen during the fundraiser at the Magic Manor. Amazing Alisdair was in attendance, alongside a blonde woman — possibly the woman Tess followed for no reason — and Tess asks her aunt for the guest list from the fundraiser.

Logan stops Drexler and his lackeys, including Dude Wearing Sunglasses, discussing the missing ten minutes from the night of Alisdair’s murder. We also find out a jade bowl of Drexler’s was stolen during a party. Drexler is a smug jerk the whole time, because each Crossword Mysteries film needs an insanely unlikable red herring.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Tess is charming a gaggle of police officers at the station when Logan arrives. She mentions the missing snuffbox and ponders whether Alisdair and an accomplice were stealing from the fundraiser during his performance. (She also demonstrates misdirection and sleight of hand for Logan. Logan is charmingly befuddled.)

Tess sees a photocopy of the “beyond the stars” note, and Logan mentions the handwriting isn’t Bianca’s. Tess then looks at Logan’s Pinterest wall of Alisdair Case Details and recognizes Ann Morrison as Sinclair, the woman she met in Red Hook.

Logan visits Sinclair’s workspace, and she says Alisdair had everything he needed for the Bullet Catch trick weeks ago; she seems genuinely surprised that someone tried to kill Bianca. Logan then confirms that Sinclair didn’t send the trunk.

Tess tries to track down the dance studio where Amazing Alisdair and the blonde woman would dance on Sunday nights, and makes a specious connection between the Galaxy Dance Studio and the “beyond the stars” note.

She calls Logan, and they head to the dance studio. AND IT’S TIME FOR WILL SHORTZ’S CAMEO.

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(Logan doesn’t recognize him as the cop from the second film or the table tennis player from the first, so this is meant to be a different character. Perhaps New York City is loaded with Will Shortz lookalikes, and the fourth movie will involve two dozen or more Will Shortz characters as suspects.)

Tess recognizes a painting on the wall from the background of Alisdair’s trophy photo. This is definitely the place.

Logan and Tess dance the tango, and he dips her twice while they banter. The second one is full of swoony romance. He stares at her while she notices a clue: a photo of Alisdair and the blonde woman. Tamara, the owner of the studio — who was dancing with Will — comes over and helps identify the woman. It turns out, she lives upstairs. Convenient!

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Upstairs, Logan and Tess meet Julia, and Tess pretends to return Julia’s earrings to her as a reason for the meet-cute. Tess spots that Julia has a bag packed and is generally anxious to get rid of them.

The next day at the police station, the Chief is back to his pastry-thieving ways, and we love him for it. John Kapelos is the best.

Logan gives him details on Julia, who is a married pharmacist (and therefore would have access to tetrodotoxin). The Chief asks the very reasonable question of why the married woman would kill Alisdair. Logan suggests that maybe it was her husband instead.

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The Chief mentions that there’s no sign that the trunk left the Magic Manor on the night of the murder, and no sign of it inside the Manor. He suggests they get blueprints of the building. (The Chief, like me, suspects secret passages are afoot!)

At the Manor, Tess is at another class — good lord, are magic classes every single day? — and she asks Rocco about Julia, but he claims not to have seen her on the night of the murder. He then quotes Houdini and says nothing ever vanishes.

At the police station, father and son compare blueprints and discover that the entire basement has been covered up, along with several closets and the exit for that strange hallway Tess saw.

AND SPEAKING OF THAT HALLWAY, Tess is there now, sneaking around and looking for a secret exit by loudly knocking on the walls. Tess is not a subtle human being. Her bracelet falls off — plot point confirmed! — and we await her imminent peril/kidnapping, because why else would the dropped bracelet be a thing?

Tess finds the secret exit, complete with a ladder to the basement. As Logan arrives at the Manor, Tess wanders around the basement, then hides when she sees someone with a flashlight behind her.

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In the hallway, Logan finds Tess’s bracelet just as Tess is grabbed by an armed thug. He ineffectively covers her mouth and her screams can be heard TWO FLOORS ABOVE, THROUGH A WALL, BY LOGAN.

Tess tags the goon in the gut with an elbow as Logan arrives, and he chases the man through the basement, though the thug manages to escape. In the meantime, Tess has found the missing trunk in the basement, empty.

COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Tess arrives at The Sentinel, and Reed mentions that Amazing Alisdair was at the party where Drexler’s jade bowl went missing. Following a tip from Reed, Tess goes to an antiques dealer looking for the jade bowl. He mentions he already sold it. And naturally, she bumps into Logan there. (At this point, he should just LoJack her and follow her around for case-solving convenience.)

They confirm that the goon who attacked her was the one who sold the jade bowl to the dealer. (The dealer, realizing Logan’s a cop, claims he didn’t know the bowl was stolen when he sold it.) Tess and Logan posit that Drexler was at Alisdair’s show because of the theft, and perhaps he spent that missing ten minutes ransacking Bianca’s dressing room looking for it.

At the police station, they review the footage of the trunk delivery and confirm the deliveryman was the same goon who attacked Tess and sold the jade bowl. Cormac’s alibi for the murder checks out. So does Julia’s. Oddly, the Good Samaritan doctor has an alibi as well. Apparently, he was in Seattle the night of the murder. Say what?

Amidst the confusion, the morgue attendant arrives, and he mistakes Julia for Alisdair’s sister Claire, who IDed the body. Logan checks the morgue, and the body labeled Alisdair isn’t actually Alisdair’s body. (Dental records confirm the body is Julia’s husband.)

As Logan gets a warrant to search Julia’s properties, Tess meets with Bianca at the Magic Manor to warn her that Alisdair is still alive. Bianca confesses that she followed Alisdair one night to a place in the Bowery where he met a woman.

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Logan arrives at Julia’s place and Tamara tells him she already left. She mentions she hasn’t seen Julia’s husband since “the fight,” and Logan finds a piece of jade from Drexler’s bowl under the chair.

At the Magic Manor, Tess has another encounter with creepy flickering lights — they must have the same electrician as the college library from Proposing Murder — and gets a jump-scare from Rocco. He gives her a key to pass along to Logan; it’s the key to the trapdoor in the stage floor, which he claims they haven’t used in years.

Tess tries the key, and the trapdoor works perfectly.

FINAL COMMERCIAL BREAK!

Tess explores the secret room, then hides when she hears someone. Only it turns out to be Logan, because of course, they bump into each other forty-nine times a day.

There’s a conveyor belt up to the stage, which they think was used to sneak Alisdair from the stage and swap the body of Julia’s husband onstage in its place while the lights were out.

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While they figure out the plan and how Julia was involved — the steamer trunk most likely contained the body of Julia’s husband — the trapdoor closes and they’re locked in the room. Logan immediately gets frustrated, while Tess smartly realizes that VERY RECENTLY other people got in and out of this room without using the trapdoor, so she goes hunting for secret passages.

She finds marks on the floor where a bookcase has recently moved. The goon from earlier opens the trapdoor again and tries to shoot them, but they’ve already figured out how to open the secret door and escape. He pursues them through the secret passage, but ha-ha! They fooled him by hiding under the conveyor belt, and they head back up through the trapdoor. Looney Tunes-style trickery wins out again!

Back onstage, Logan gets a message that Julia’s phone was last used in the Bowery. With Tess’s help, Logan stops Julia from escaping. A very much alive Amazing Alisdair arrives just as Winston puts Julia in the back of a squad car. Logan uses a completely unnecessary bit of subterfuge to sneak up on Alisdair and pull a gun on him. Alisdair is captured, but not before Logan fires off a few one-liners.

In an interrogation room, Logan interviews the hired goon (Julia’s cousin), Julia, and Alisdair, filling in the little bits of pieces of how they all met.

Tess arrives at the Magic Manor, bringing flowers to Bianca, who is headlining tonight’s show. A happy ending for the nearly-sworded former assistant!

Cormac and Sinclair attend the show, along with Logan, Tess, Reed, and Aunt Candace.

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After the show, Logan quotes Reed’s article about Tess cracking the case. Reed conveniently vanishes so Tess and Logan can flirt and grab a late bite to eat together. Awww.

The End.


CONCLUSION

Abracadaver is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, it’s easily the twistiest edition of the Crossword Mysteries yet, with fake deaths, secret rooms, and all sorts of chicanery involved. The plot moves briskly and all the magical accoutrements are great window dressing for the film.

There are a few glaring plot holes, like the fake doctor, who is never explained. How did Tess know to follow one random well-dressed woman? Why the attempt on Bianca’s life? Were they trying to frame Cormac for both Bianca and Alisdair? Why is Bianca headlining? Cormac was in the crowd, so he’s not still in jail. Did he feel bad for nearly killing her and that’s how she ended up headliner?

These detracted ever-so-slightly from my enjoyment of the film, simply because I enjoy a tightly-crafted mystery, and this one had more than a few lingering threads.

But the movie is harmless fun, a ridiculous and cheesy romp that will no doubt satisfy Hallmark’s many mystery fans.

But it’s also the least puzzly of the three films. I mean, other than the brief glimpse of Tess’s magic puzzle in progress — oof — the only puzzly endeavor is Tess and Josephine unraveling Sinclair’s peculiar directional riddle. Other than that, there’s no puzzling to be had.

Tess didn’t even get to employ her sleight of hand to steal a clue or something. That’s a real missed opportunity, given the subject matter.

Three episodes in, Tess remains very likable, despite her lackadaisical approach to puzzling. And Logan shined here as both love interest and detective. He was charming, protective of Tess, and generally effective as a crimefighter. Very little of the smug condescending character from the first film remains. Instead, we root for him to get the bad guy and the girl.

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

It’s light, frothy, slightly murdery fun. Plus dancing Will Shortz. How can you go wrong?


Did you watch the film? What did you think? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.

And hey, if you missed Sunday’s airing of Abracadaver, worry not. It’s airing again tonight at 9 PM Eastern, and there will be a Crossword Mysteries mini-marathon on Sunday, January 12th, with A Puzzle to Die For at 2 PM, Proposing Murder at 4 PM, and Abracadaver at 6 PM.


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Riddles, Riddles Everywhere!

I’ve had riddles on the brain recently, because I keep seeing them everywhere. Over the last few weeks, they’ve popped up in games, TV shows, books, and even emails to the blog.

It all started with our twice-monthly office D&D game. Every other Thursday, a group of us commandeers one of the conference rooms at lunchtime and enjoys an hour of dice-fueled storytelling, adventure, and fun.

As is often the case with a fantasy-inspired game, there was a river to cross and a riddle to answer in order to pass.

A murderer is condemned to death. He has to choose between three rooms. The first is full of raging fires, the second is full of assassins with loaded guns, and the third is full of lions that haven’t eaten in a year. Which room is safest for him?

This is a classic riddle, usually titled “Three Doors” or “The Murderer’s Riddle.”

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And when you’ve got a team of puzzle solvers in your D&D group, this riddle is no challenge at all.

(If you’re curious about the solution, you pick door #3. After a year of not eating, the lions would be dead, so it would be safe to enter that room.)

Later on in the game, we again had to barter passage across a body of water, either answering a riddle or battling a demon to the death.

Naturally, we chose the riddle.

What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?

This is another classic riddle — the Riddle of the Sphinx, most famously solved by Oedipus — and posed no challenge to our merry band of misfit adventurers.

(If you don’t know this one, the answer is “man,” since you walk on four legs as a child, aka crawling, two legs as an adult, and with a cane when you’re older. The day — morning, noon, and evening — represents a lifetime.)

We crossed the lake, and our adventure continued, and I thought I was done with riddles for a bit.

Then a few days later, I got caught up on the latest season of MTV’s The Challenge, a reality/competition game show. (I’ve written about some of their puzzly challenges in the past.)

And, wouldn’t you know it, this week’s challenge involved a riddle.

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Both teams would start on this platform, sending pairs of swimmers out on a long swim to retrieve keys. Those four keys would then open both a chest full of letter tiles and a riddle to be solved. The first team to solve the riddle with the letters available would win the challenge.

Once all the drama of selecting partners — given that many of the players weren’t strong swimmers, and the slowest-swimming team would be eliminated from the game — there was plenty of tension to be had.

But finally, all four keys were retrieved by the teams, and the riddle revealed:

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I am a 5 letter word.

I am normally below you.

If you remove my 1st letter, you’ll find me above you.

If you remove my 1st and 2nd letters, you can’t see me.

The teams were initially baffled, playing around with different words and various combinations of letter tiles in the hopes that it would spark something.

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Eventually, competitor Ashley came up with a three-letter word that you couldn’t see — AIR — and her team quickly came up with the correct answer: CHAIR.

(A chair is normally below you, hair is above you (sorta), and air can’t be seen.)

So, three riddles in a matter of days. It’s officially a pattern. And so far, I’m three for three on solving these riddles.

A week or so later, though, yet another riddle arrived, this time by email. And I admit, I’m a little stumped.

What has a bell but isn’t a church. Is full of air but is not a balloon?

What do you think, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Any ideas? Let me know in the comments section below. I have a few theories, but nothing that feels like a conclusive answer.


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How to Get Started in Cryptic Crosswords

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[Image courtesy of Amazon. The Times Cryptic Crossword Book.]

On Twitter yesterday, Oliver Roeder from FiveThirtyEight asked, “If one wanted to learn/practice solving cryptic crosswords, with what puzzles should one begin?”

Most of the replies mentioned different cryptic crossword outlets to try out, like The Nation, Harper’s Magazine, and The UK Times Quick Cryptic Crossword Book. The Nation in particular was recommended as a good starter cryptic.

Monthly offerings from constructors like Andrew Ries and Cox & Rathvon were also mentioned, though I would add Patrick Berry’s Son of the Crypt cryptic collection to the list of suggestions. (I would normally also recommend The Guardian because of their great cryptics, but they’re pretty tough, particularly for beginners.)

This, of course, presumes that Roeder meant which cryptic puzzles one should start with.

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[Image courtesy of The New European.]

It occurred to me that he might be asking what OTHER puzzles are good for beefing up your cryptic crossword solving game.

Given the different kinds of clues used in cryptic crosswords, I have a few suggestions.

1. Anagram puzzle

Anagrams are a staple of cryptic cluing, and any puzzler looking to get into cryptics should have some facility with them. There are plenty of ways to practice — the Jumble, Anagram Magic Square and other puzzles from our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles, and even Bananagrams, Words with Friends, or Scrabble will help build your anagram skills.

2. Rebus

Rebus puzzles are all about adding and subtracting letters to form words or phrases, and there’s plenty of that in cryptic cluing. This is a good way to get used to breaking down longer words into abbreviations, anagrams, and so on in order to puzzle out the answer to a cryptic clue.

3. Brain teaser/riddle

Many cryptic clues rely on words with multiple meanings, as well as words that serve as both instructions and hints. Brain teasers and riddles employ similar wordplay, and they can help you develop a proclivity for looking at words from a new point of view.

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[Image courtesy of Eastern Daily Press.]

Of course, if you want help learning to decipher the many variations on cryptic crossword cluing that you’ll encounter, there are some great resources out there.

Penny Dell Puzzles has a PDF containing examples of the most common cluing tricks, and you can bolster that with similar insights from Wikipedia and The Nation.

If you’re looking for deeper dives into all sorts of cryptic cluing, my one-stop shop for insight is The Guardian’s crossword blog. They offer regular features breaking down various kinds of cryptic clues.

In the last few weeks alone, they’ve covered cycling clues, “stuttering” in clues, and how the points of the compass can be used in cluing, and there are dozens of similarly illuminating posts in their archive.

It’s a terrific resource for newbie cryptic solvers and established puzzlers alike.

And it’s worth getting into cryptic crosswords, if only for the occasional subversive little Easter egg like this one from yesterday’s The Guardian cryptic:

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Did I miss any resources or outlets for great cryptic crosswords? Let me know in the comments section below! I’d love to hear from you!


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