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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Escape Room Gameplay at Home: Unlock! and Exit: The Game

mind bender escape room

[Image courtesy of The Portland Press Herald.]

In yesterday’s post, we discussed different ways you can enjoy escape room-style puzzling at home. We covered books, apps, and audio formats, but we left the largest category for today’s post: escape room games.

There are a myriad of games that try to encapsulate the escape room experience — searching the space, finding clues, interacting with the environment, solving puzzles, and experiencing the narrative — with varying degrees of success.

Escape Room: The Game, Escape Room in a Box, Escape from Iron Gate, Escape from the Grand Hotel, and Escape Tales: The Awakening are just five examples that turned up with a cursory search. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, of course, when you consider games that incorporate escape room-style or timed elements, like Mission X-Code, Cut the Wire, Bomb Squad Academy, Fuse, and Two Rooms and a Boom.

But all of those games are dwarfed in the marketplace by the industry leaders — based on sheer number of available puzzly experiences, anyway — so we decided to sample those and explore escape room gameplay from.

I solved three games from the Exit: The Game franchise and three games from the Unlock! franchise.

Let’s dive in, shall we?


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[Image courtesy of Meeple Mountain.]

Exit: The Game products create an escape room experience by combining a deck of cards, a guidebook, a sliding decoder ring, and miscellaneous items to be used throughout the game. The deck of cards is divided into red riddle cards (labeled by letter), blue answer cards (labeled by number), and green help cards (labeled by symbol).

There is an app as well that hosts a tutorial, your timer, atmospheric sounds and music, and a star-based scoring mechanism rating your performance at the end of the playthrough.

In the easier games, the guidebook progresses page by page, and you’re meant to go no further until the answer cards tell you to do so. You’ll use what’s on each page, along with the information on the riddle card to solve each puzzle.

Most of the puzzles will result in a three-digit number, which you enter into the decoder wheel. The decoder wheel will reveal a card number, which you will pull from the answer card deck. If you’re completely wrong, you flip the card to reveal a red X and go back to the drawing board. If you’re on the right path, the answer card will have different card numbers for each of the different puzzle symbols. You find your symbol, then go to the card in the answer deck indicated.

For instance, if you’re solving a puzzle with a triangle symbol, you solve the puzzle with a three-digit code, and enter that code into the decoder wheel. It sends you to, say, card 29. On card 29, you look for the triangle symbol, and you go to the card number listed. If you’re correct, you move forward in the game with new riddles, rooms, and in the easier games, the next page in the guidebook. (In harder games, the entire guidebook is “in play” the whole time, and you must figure out which pages connect with which puzzles and riddle cards.)

Some of the riddle cards and guidebook pages must be cut, manipulated, or destroyed in order to complete the various puzzles, so each Exit game is a one-time play experience. Each also requires some outside-the-box thinking (sometimes literally!) in order to crack various riddles.

I found each game to be an enjoyably interactive experience, and it felt like many of the above activities associated with escape rooms were replicated nicely. (One of the harder games not only had the puzzles and riddles to solve, but a murder mystery as well, which really kept me on my toes, because I wasn’t just thinking about the next riddle and discarding the bits and bobs I’d used. I had to pore over every detail in order to solve the murder!)

In case you’re interested, the three games I tackled were The Haunted Roller Coaster (difficulty: 2/5), The Abandoned Cabin (difficulty: 2.5/5), and Dead Man on the Orient Express (difficulty: 4/5).


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[Image courtesy of Escape Games Canada.]

Unlike the Exit series, Unlock! games consist of entirely of a deck of cards and your app. But that doesn’t make it any less interactive. Instead of the guidebook, decoder ring, and riddle cards being manipulated, more of those experiences are handed through the app.

The cards provide locations, challenges, helpful items, solutions, and warnings, all identified with numbered or lettered cards in the deck. So you can end up with quite an array of cards in front of you while you solve.

The app, on the other hand, hosts your timer, atmospheric sounds and music, a penalty button (which removes time from your timer!), a hint button, a machine button, and a code button. Any codes you unravel are entered into the code screen (instead of a decoder ring), and certain puzzles are mechanical, which you manipulate in the app. The app then tells you what number/letter card(s) to draw from the deck to proceed.

The number system for the Unlock! cards is interesting. Each card representing a puzzle to be solved or an item to be used has a number associated with it; to see if you solved the problem correctly, you add its two numbers (one for the challenge, one for the solution).

If you combine a helpful item’s card number with a challenge’s card number, the total equals another card in the deck. If you’ve solved the challenge correctly, the card matching that sum reveals something: an opened lock, a new room, additional puzzles and helpful items, etc. If you’ve combined items incorrectly, the card matching that sum reveals a time penalty. (For instance, if you have a key on card 16 and a keylock on card 25, you’d go to card 41 in the deck.)

There is no destroying cards or anything here, so if you wished, you could reshuffle the deck and allow someone else to try the game. (It wouldn’t be much challenge for you, since you know all the riddle solutions now. But it’s nice to know I could walk less experience escape room solvers through the game on a replay, enjoying their efforts. That’s not possible with an Exit game.)

In case you’re interested, the three games I tackled were The Night of the Boogeymen (difficulty: 1/3), The House on the Hill (difficulty: 1/3), and Squeek & Sausage (difficulty: 2/3).


Each brand has its pluses and minuses.

While the guidebooks in Exit are more detailed than the location cards in Unlock! games — and the miscellaneous items are a nice touch — I found I had to do more searching with the location cards. I would scrutinize every nook and cranny, because some numbers were hidden in shadow, or written at odd angles so your eye slides right past them. Exit is less devious with that aspect, but only because it has more space to play with for puzzles in the guidebook.

Both game systems had red-marked cards to indicate your failure on a given puzzle, but in Unlock!, you were penalized twice over, because you’ve already lost the time on the clock you spent on that dead end, and then you get the timer penalty as well.

Unlock! definitely makes greater use of its app. Honestly, except for the star-ranking system and some nice atmospherics, you could do without the Exit app. (Particularly since group solving can be pretty noisy, so the atmospherics are mostly lost unless you’re in quiet contemplation.)

I was thoroughly impressed by how both systems tried to recreate so many aspects of the escape room experience. Searching the space, finding clues, interacting with the environment, solving puzzles, and experiencing the narrative were all included to some degree, and I felt genuine pressure watching the minutes and seconds tick away as a particularly vexing puzzle left me baffled, if only momentarily.

I would recommend games from either series to anyone trying to recapture that escape room spirit in these trying times. But they’re also terrific icebreakers for people who have never tried an escape room, but don’t want to feel the pressure of being on-location, instead solving from the comfort of home.


I hope this brief look at these two puzzly franchises — I purposely stayed light on actual puzzle or scenario details to avoid ruining the experience for anyone — offered yet another avenue for you to explore as you enjoy escape room solving from home!

Don’t forget, tomorrow is the finale of Escape Room Puzzle Week, as we review ThinkFun’s latest diabolical creation, Escape the Room: The Cursed Dollhouse!


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Escape Room-Style Solving From Home!

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[Image courtesy of Yelp.]

Unfortunately, the ongoing global crisis is preventing a lot of people from feeling safe while engaging in communal puzzly events. While crossword tournaments (and events like the upcoming Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League) have adapted to the online and remote-play spheres, escape rooms haven’t been so lucky.

Sure, some have reopened during this difficult time — and anyone familiar with escape rooms was probably using a fair amount of hand sanitizer to begin with, even before all this! — but there’s no doubt that the industry has taken a hit.

Some escape rooms have adapted, hosting virtual escape room experiences on Zoom and other platforms, and I’ve heard good things about those communal play experiences.

But there are other ways to harness that escape room-style solving vibe for yourself from the comfort of your own home. Today, we’re going to look at a few options.


Escape Room Apps

While The Room is probably the benchmark series for escape room apps, there is a vast world of escape room-inspired apps available for both iPhone and Android users.

A casual glance at each brand’s offerings give solvers a host of intriguing choices. Names like Forever Lost, RealMyst, Agent A, The Birdcage, All That Remains, Adventure Escape, House of Da Vinci, Rusty Lake, War Escape, Cube Escape, and Spotlight hint at hugely different solving experiences.

Some are point-and-click-style explorations of a space, ranging from a series of doorways to vast multi-room affairs loaded with secrets to uncover with the touch of a finger. Others, like our own Wordventures: The Vampire Pirate, give you an entire town to explore!

Some go beyond point-and-click, letting you actually manipulate objects, twisting knobs to open doors, spinning wheels on combination locks, moving puzzle pieces into place, and more.

And the different narratives behind each are virtually limitless. You might be a prisoner concealing your efforts to escape from the guards, or a bird trying to free yourself from your cage, or a person onboard the sinking Titanic, or a secret agent pursuing your nemesis.

For a relatively low price — or sometimes even free (with the occasional ad) — there are plenty of options available right in your pocket.


Escape Room Books

These come in all shapes and sizes, and can be delivered right to your door.

Some are constructed like Choose Your Own Adventure novels, allowing you to make different choices and explore the outcomes, both good and bad, resulting from your decisions.

Others are built like labyrinths to be explored and unraveled. A good example would be Brad Hough’s The Maze series, which offers a first-person perspective on labyrinths, as if you’re actually wandering into each room and new area.

Still others are page-by-page progressions, full of puzzles and wordplay that require you to solve certain challenges before you can proceed forward.

Each of these offer the sort of sequential chain-solving that escape room devotees look for. You can make choices, solve puzzles, and move forward in the narrative toward the next challenge!


[Image courtesy of I Googled Israel.]

Escape Room Audio

Yes, you can even solve interactive audio versions of escape rooms now! My sister showed me this recently — utilizing the voice-activated Alexa feature on her phone — and I’ve tackled several different scenarios.

It plays like an old text adventure game, where you give the game vocal commands and it responds with information. For instance, you can tell it to look left, look right, look up, look down, or look at a particular object, and it will tell you what you see.

As you build a visual idea in your mind of what the room and its contents look like, you must find useful items, crack codes, solve puzzles, and escape!

The quality of these can vary by setting; for the most part, they’re competently assembled and feature puzzles that wouldn’t feel out of place in a real escape room. (One of them, though, had a solution so nonsensical and wacky that I couldn’t believe THAT was the correct solution. As always, your mileage may vary.)


Do you have any other suggestions for escape room-style solving from home, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know! We’d love to hear from you.

And remember, we’re continuing this discussion on Thursday with a look at two of the top at-home escape room game brands on the market today, Unlock! and Exit: The Game, before reviewing ThinkFun’s new 3-D escape room puzzle game The Cursed Dollhouse on Friday!

Stay tuned, and happy puzzling!


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

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!