Escape the Crate: The Games of Olympus Game Review

Escape the Crate is a subscription box in the vein of the escape game phenomenon and home game variations such as the Exit series. This is my second crate from them after Escape the Circus Heist, which I enjoyed quite a bit.

** SPOILER FREE **

The subscription service delivers a new “crate” every other month. Some of their “retired” (past) boxes are available for individual purchase (at a higher price than getting them blind as they come out through the subscription). It’s nice to have the option to pick up old ones, and makes sense to offer them as possible given the effort that goes in putting this type of experience together.

Similarly to Circus Heist, Escape the Games of Olympus contained an introductory letter directing the player to a required website, a few props, several cards, envelopes, and sheets for the puzzles. There was no dedicated sheet to be cut up and written on that can be reprinted this time, but this box didn’t really need it.

The structure was a bit different this time where the bulk of the game is actually a batch of four smaller sub-adventures that can be played in any order (with their own time goals so if you are playing with that optional aspect it’s easy to stop between parts). I’m a bit of a mythology buff, so this theme was right up my alley and they did a good job incorporating the subject matter into the puzzles.

I liked some of the puzzles much more than others, but overall this was another really solid and fun experience. Even the part that was a touch less enjoyable than the rest for me was fairly and logically built and wasn’t bad to finish once I made slight use of the extensive and well done hint system. And when this box shined, it really shined. I found a couple of the puzzles to be particularly clever.

The way in which the website is used to support the story elements for a bit of immersion while also providing progression framework continues to be impressive. Again extra touches like optional recordings of the text from the websites make this a well developed, engaging product, and the password system does a nice job of both allowing the story elements to have progression and to let players attempt to answer a puzzle without spoiling the actual solution if they are incorrect.

The props are well integrated with the puzzles, and the fact that the inside of the boxes themselves are used as well continues to be one of my favorite things about these. Games of Olympus also has an optional side element, which was interesting enough and the way it was implemented was a very nice thematic touch.

Finally the connecting narrative between the boxes provides a nice (if a little out there) link between each installment while still allowing each to stand alone. So far there’s absolutely nothing preventing someone starting with any given box from what I’ve seen, although playing the two back to back hinted at some larger story points and had a couple of really nice callbacks.

Another good game box overall. I do feel I’m getting my money’s worth from these thus far (particularly considering they are resettable) and while they won’t necessarily challenge experienced puzzlers too deeply they are quite enjoyable and I do recommend them.

Escape the Crate: Circus Heist Game Review

I adore the escape game phenomenon, and the home game variations it inspired including the excellent Exit series.

A subscription box service version called Escape the Crate came to my attention, and here’s a SPOILER FREE look at my first experience with them.

The subscription service delivers a new “crate” every other month. Some of their “retired” (past) boxes are available for individual purchase (at a higher price than getting them blind as they come out through the subscription). It’s nice to have the option to pick up old ones, and makes sense to offer them as possible given the effort that goes in putting this type of experience together.

The box for Escape the Circus Heist contained an introductory letter directing the player to a required website, a few props, several cards, envelopes, and sheets for the puzzles, and a dedicated sheet to be cut up and written on that can be reprinted (so the other elements remain undamaged and the box can be reset/replayed). There are also a number of puzzle and theme related elements printed on the inside of the box itself, which is a wonderful, immersive touch.

I was a little trepidatious about the required internet aspect but it really adds to the experience. Most of the actual puzzle elements are in the box, with the website providing setup, story, and hints (if wanted). It allows the game to be deeper and more fully formed and makes it very clear at any point which items are in play. There are also extra touches like recordings of the framing elements to play if preferred to reading them.

Every visited page is password protected, with general pages for the box being played requiring a password given in the introductory letter and puzzle solutions (generally a series of numbers or letters) used as the passwords for subsequent pages as the player advances. It’s a clever way to do things, as it means means players can check their solutions without spoiling the right answer if they are incorrect.

Of course the most important part of something like this is the puzzles themselves. They were solid, logical, and fun. I thought the difficulty was reasonable, neither so difficult to be frustrating nor so easy to be boring. Experienced puzzlers won’t struggle with this, but it was quite satisfying progressing through. The target time is an hour to an hour and a half depending on the player’s experience, which is standard for games of this type.

The nature of this type of production model makes it more expensive than some of the other options available, but I found this worth it so far (and unlike examples like the Exit games these are resettable).

Overall I really like how this all came together, and am looking forward to playing another. 

Son of Doctor Esker’s Notebook Review

Doctor Esker’s Notebook was an interesting and overall enjoyable batch of puzzles in a fairly unique format. There was obviously a lot of potential to expand on the idea, and here I’ll take a look at the sequel Son of Doctor Esker’s Notebook.

Like the original, Son of Doctor Esker’s Notebook is a series of puzzles presented via a deck of cards. There are 74 cards total, made up of 59 puzzle cards, 10 solution cards, and 5 instruction cards. It stands alone and does not require Doctor Esker’s Notebook or any knowledge of it to play.

The solution to each of the 10 puzzles in the deck is a 2-4 digit numeric code. The solution cards are numbered 0-9 on their backs, and when arranged in the correct order for each solution they will identify the next puzzle to be played (via seemingly random elements on the answer cards coming together to form words, pictures, etc). It’s a very clever, elegant way to handle solving the puzzles and as with the original game is well implemented here.

Like with the original, I played this solo but felt it would also work well with a small group (I’d probably cap it at 4 players rather than the “1-6, or more” the box suggests).

There was a wider variety of difficulty in these puzzles, although I thought they were a little easier on average. I found several of them really clever and well executed though, and the game built to a nice crescendo with some of the best puzzles coming toward the end.

I particularly loved the fact that the final puzzle parallel that of the first game without really feeling like a repeat. The minor production issues from the first were missing here, making things feel more polished.

However I did feel a couple of the puzzles tried too hard to be accessible. These puzzles aren’t really deep enough to have multiple paths to solve, so when one puzzle was actually two completely separate, simplistic puzzles that lead to the same answer it completely felt like unnecessary padding.

Even more annoying was that one puzzle had essentially included instructions on how to solve it. It was weird and unwanted. It would have been a great puzzle otherwise, but was instead reduced to a rote exercise.

Outside of those issues though I found the remaining puzzles engaging and fun.

The online only hint system is exactly the same here, with several hints for each puzzle allowing players to choose how much help they want. I like the approach a lot, but it’s worth mentioning that the hints and solutions are strictly available online so if players get stuck on a puzzle visiting the website is required to continue on.

Despite some minor criticisms the Doctor Esker series is continuing to be quite good for what it is, which is a fun little collection of decent puzzles presented in a cost friendly, portable, and reusable way. Son of Doctor Esker’s Notebook doesn’t really break the established mold at all, but there’s nothing wrong with more of a good thing.

Doctor Esker’s Notebook Review

I’m a big fan of puzzles and puzzle type games so was very interested to check out the curious little box of cards called Dr. Esker’s Notebook.

As implied above, Dr. Esker’s Notebook is a series of puzzles presented via a deck of cards. There are 73 cards total, made up of 58 puzzle cards, 10 solution cards, and 5 instruction cards.

The solution to each of the 9 puzzles in the deck is a 2-4 digit numeric code. The solution cards are numbered 0-9 on their backs, and when arranged in the correct order for each solution they will identify the next puzzle to be played (via seemingly random elements on the answer cards coming together to form words, pictures, etc). It’s a very clever, elegant way to handle solving the puzzles and is well implemented.

The puzzles themselves were quite good, with decent variety to them and some really inventive elements. There were a couple I thought were exceptional, and only one I didn’t really care for. I played this solo, but it feels like it would also work well with a small group (I’d probably cap it at 4 players rather than the “1-6, or more” the box suggests).

There were some minor execution issues that hindered my enjoyment just a little here and there, but nothing that was impossible to work around. For example, when several puzzles depend on lining things up properly having white borders on the cards is a particularly poor choice. There were other small things that I’ll avoid discussing in detail due to spoilers, but again largely things that in my opinion kept some good puzzles from being great puzzles rather than anything really problematic.

There is a decent hint system available with several hints for each puzzle, allowing players to choose how much help they want. I like the approach a lot, but it’s worth mentioning that the hints and solutions are strictly available online so if players get stuck on a puzzle visiting the website is required to continue on.

Dr. Esker’s Notebook felt somewhere in between board game versions of escape rooms like the Exit series and puzzle books like  Journal 29 to me, and that’s a pretty favorable place to be. The deck of cards approach is creative in the way it was done and keeps this cost friendly, portable, and reusable. Overall I had fun with this and would welcome more puzzle games in this vein.

Tapestry Board Game Review (First Impressions)

Tapestry is the newest offering from Stonemaier Games, makers of several board games I adore including Viticulture, Euphoria, and Scythe.

I’m going to state up front that I enjoyed the game quite a bit overall, as there are some criticisms to explain and I don’t want the tone of the review to seem overly negative as I go through them. Bottom line is I’ve definitely had fun in the games of this I’ve played thus far (once 2-player and once 4-player).

Tapestry is advertised as a civilization game, which it is in theme only. The various trappings seem well researched and appropriate and it’s a fine theme, but nothing about playing feels like the mechanics really marry with the theme. There are no gameplay effects to changing ages, no real resonance between actions and consequences, etc. This is an engine building cube pusher, nothing more or less. WHICH IS PERFECTLY FINE, and it does it well. But it bears mentioning for those looking for a deeper thematic experience.

Also, Stonemaier’s usual high production quality admittedly and unfortunately feels like a case of style over substance here. The attractive, individually sculpted landmark tokens end up only having one function from a gameplay standpoint: to cover squares on a player’s capital city mat. And for that they are rather poorly designed.

The smallish bases with rounded corners make them cover a smaller area than they should, and in addition to not fully covering the intended areas they sometimes “fit” into spaces they shouldn’t (areas smaller than the number of squares they are supposed to cover). Yes, there are established, correct areas for them and it’s playable keeping this in mind and “centering” the tokens in the proper areas. But again, this is literally the ONLY thing these intricate tokens are for, so placing aesthetic preferences over functionality is a puzzling and disappointing production choice.

Lastly, some members of my gaming group’s initial impression is that Tapestry’s somewhat unbalanced and a bit too influenced by luck. The person who concentrated on the navigation track was disappointed in the space tiles compared to the rewards players received for completing other tracks, civilization bonuses have a potentially huge impact on the game, tapestry cards vary wildly in usefulness depending on when they are drawn with no real way to minimize the effect, etc.

They are all interested enough to try it again though, and I personally found the luck of the draw aspects fine. Also, luck of course tends to balance out over several plays. But the effect is large and for the type of gamer that prefers careful progress to adapting to circumstance changes this probably won’t be their cup of tea.

All that said, as indicated up top there is a lot to like about in Tapestry.

Each player continues taking turns to move their tokens along the various advancement tracks until they need to or want to take an income turn (during which points and resources are generated, among other things). The big innovation here is that the game lasts five income turns for each player, so since it’s their choice when those turns are taken the game can and likely will end at different times for different players. It’s a really cool and creative idea leading to interesting choices and is well implemented.

Moving along the four different advancement tracks is a strong central mechanic, particularly in how the tracks interact with each other and with the player boards. Removing buildings from the income mat increases resources and points collected as well as filling in the capital mat for bonuses as they’re then placed, discovering and advancing technology cards give other bonuses and special abilities, choosing which tracks to advance on and which resources to spend effects when income turns have to be taken, exploring and moving about the central map creates other opportunities for scoring, etc. I have minor quibbles with how a few aspects interact (and combat outcomes really should have more involved than pure luck of the draw), but overall the general frame is nicely done and it all gels well.

I’m curious to see how this feels after more plays with varying player counts, but so far despite perhaps not being quite as polished as Stonemaier’s previous offerings in some respects I found Tapestry a fun, creative game that I’m happy to have added to the collection.

Walking in Burano, Chronicles of Crime, and Planet Game Reviews (Quick Thoughts)

A brief look at some games I got to try out (somewhat) recently.

 

Walking in Burano

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Walking in Burano is a spacial card game in which players choose building sections to add to their area under ascetic and other point related restrictions. There’s an interesting balance created by the different sections needed for building, elements on cards that lead to scoring, placement restrictions, and the cost of taking actions. It all gives a nice layer of depth here. Subtle aspects of needed strategy might not be immediately obvious, but the gameplay itself is easy enough to jump into.

I’ve only played this 2 player thus far, and there’s a mechanic specific to that version that really makes long term strategy difficult in how quickly cards disappear. I imagine it will be a VERY different game with more players because of this. Still enjoyed it quite a bit though and look forward to playing again. 

 

Chronicles of Crime

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Here’s another game to join things like Watson & Holmes and Detective  right in my sweet spot of providing decent mystery complexity in a way that’s still accessible and fun. This is incredibly application heavy, needing use of a phone to analyze clues, check answers, and even look around crime scenes. But it’s extremely well done and integrated. Excited to continue to progress with this one.

 

Planet

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Planet provides an interesting variation on tile placement games as players fill in the twelve sides of their planet trying to maximize sections of their secret land type collected while satisfying certain conditions to claim animal cards (both of which provide victory points at game end).

The gimmick is a fine one, although the all important magnets that secure tiles in place should be stronger. It’s much too easy to knock off a piece accidentally when turning the planets around or otherwise handling them, which is pretty much what the whole game is based on doing. 

The variation of goals and rules surrounding them is reasonable, as is the drafting aspect that governs who gets what tile. It feels like there could have been a little more to this, although I’ll admit I’m not sure in what respect. Decent, quick playing, reasonably unique game none-the-less.   

Montague Island Mysteries and Other Logic Puzzles Review

Montague Island Mysteries is a collection of logic puzzles thematically presented as a series of visits to a remote island. Your hosts, as well as the fellow guests, are fellow puzzle enthusiasts who gather at the island for twelve weekend visits, during each of which a mystery puzzle is presented along with several ancillary ones. The theme is used nicely as the reader will be determining things like the guests’ backgrounds, what room everyone’s in, further details about the island, etc.

Of course with a book like this the quality of the puzzles is paramount, and in this respect MIM is spot on. Classic grid based logic puzzles are mixed in with a nice variety of spacial reasoning, unique visualizations, etc. The mystery puzzles feature a mechanic I particularly adore that involves the “culprit” secretly being among the guests and giving statements that might or might not be true. It provides a nice twist and was used with just about the right frequency (although a few more in this style would have been great).

There are a couple of minor missteps. A few puzzles are based on every attendee, including the player, being given two cards or something similar with the instructions “don’t show them to anyone else” and the solution based on determining who has what. But the reader’s own cards are not revealed, their persona just presents statements that may or may not be true like everyone else. This does not affect solving the puzzle, but is thematically awkward given the presentation and a bit of a missed opportunity as well.

Some of the puzzles were too long and/or required too much brute force for me, although given the scope and variation of what’s presented a few puzzles not being to my particular tastes is no big deal. One pushed mathematical logic versus linguistic logic a bit far for my liking, but again that’s personal preference.

Overall Montague Island Mysteries is a wonderful collection of puzzles with a solid connecting theme. I enjoyed this book quite a bit and look forward to checking out the sequel.

The Mind Game Review (First Impressions)

Note: The rules treat the main aspect of how the game is played as a spoiler, which is beyond ridiculous but consider this a “warning” that going by the rulebook my discussion starting below the box image includes “spoilers.”

Welcome to “waiting: the game.” In The Mind players try to play cards of increasingly large hands drawn from a deck numbered 1 to 100 in order without sharing any information or signals about what cards they have.

So the communication becomes “teasing” playing cards and how long you wait to play. They dress this up with a “vitally important” phase where all players put a hand on the table and concentrate on the level they’re about to play (no, I’m not joking) and other mumbo jumbo about being in tune with the flow of time.

Some will get into the window dressing. Personally I wish that effort went into adding something to the actual game instead. It was a curious experience for a couple of rounds, but seems way overrated to me.

I’m a mathematician, and this largely bored me. This game is simply subconsciously playing the deck odds (which is a pure crapshoot with few cards in hand) and guessing how long a pause is appropriate (which is close to a pure crapshoot with many cards in hand). I felt no real engagement or investment in whether or not I can guess with no contextual info whether my fellow player was holding a card between the one I just played and the ones left in mind hand nor felt much of anything but annoyance when we lost a life because he happened to be holding say a 71 instead of 73 when I played a 72. There’s no “better move” to have been made there, nothing to be learned or refined.

Put another way, I could simply count to myself and play my cards as I reach it’s number (without telling the others players that what I was doing, because it would be cheating otherwise) and achieve roughly the same level of success. The only way to get better at this game is subconsciously learning how long my friends mentally wait to signal a jump in numeric value of 25 vs a jump of 10, etc and that just holds no interest for me whatsoever.

So as the meaningful experience the instruction book (jokingly?) implies this falls flat. As a filler game it’s just feel so slow (the main mechanic is *waiting* after all) not matter how short the rounds are and I have a closetful that are more interesting and fun. For games that do no talking / contextual info only better I have things like Magic Maze, Ravens of Thri Sahashri, etc. Kudos for trying something different and to each their own, but this was a big miss for me.

Fighting Entropy: Spirit Island Board Game Review (First Impressions)

There are plenty of good civilization building games, but Spirit Island takes a wonderful alternate approach where players take the role of spirits trying to protect/reclaim their island from colonists building towns and cities, often at the expense of the natural habitat.

 

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Spirit Island is a challenging co-op with a real sense of entropy and things getting out of hand. Each turn the game controlled colonists the players are working against explore new areas, while building villages and cities in areas they’ve already explored and cause damage to the island, native inhabitants, and spirits in areas they’ve already built in.

The mechanics that govern the progression of what players are fighting against are ingenious, including an interesting, natural mechanic where one of the victory conditions gets less stringent as the game goes on. That’s not to say it gets easier though, as the colonists and their buildings spread rapidly and become more entrenched turn by turn. At the same time the spirits evolve and grow of the course of the game, giving players more options to fight back with. This is something that really feels different among all the games I play, to great effect.

There are couple of different ways to win, speaking to different strengths of spirits and strategies around winning by causing destruction versus purely scaring the colonists away. The game is also specifically designed to scale with the number of players, in all aspects from the number of various counters used to the board size itself. So far it all seems really well designed and balanced.

 

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But the wonderful thing is within that balance they’ve achieved a tangible feeling of pressure and escalation. At times we felt a bit of the type of frantic energy and “quick – what are we going to do now?!” edge usually present in real time games, which is an impressive feat in a game where there isn’t actually any time pressure to the turns. The level of immersion and the way the gameplay draws the players in is fantastic, and perhaps most importantly in a game like this while challenging it is beatable, and players can easily see how close they came even in case of defeat.

I’ve played Spirit Island with 2 players with a couple of different people, and have tried it solo as well. As harrowing as things were with 2 players, I found the single player mode even more difficult as there’s no help to make up for your particular spirit’s weaknesses. It’s a really interesting, different challenge, and I can see myself playing both solo and multiplayer modes regularly in the future.

There are also scenarios, specific colonizer adversaries, and a variety of spirits to play that enhance variety and replayability. This looks to stay fresh and engrossing for quite some time, even before diving into the available expansion content.

 

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Overall Spirit Island is a well executed, highly thematic, fun game of increasing pressure.

Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game Review (Spoiler Free)

Given the mystery based nature of the game let me state up front that this review will be spoiler free.

 

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I’m a big fan of immersive storytelling experiences in games like T.I.M.E Stories, and a huge mystery buff, so was extremely intrigued by the concept of a modern style investigation in the form of a game.

Players are agents of a special investigative agency in current times, and that’s pretty much all the background needed before jumping in. Cards and well implemented online features provide information as the cases proceed, and it’s all up to players to decide how to use the (in game) time they have to pursue leads and then piece together the answers needed for the particular case they’re tackling.

The rule book warns that there’s no “right answer card.” This isn’t a matter of searching for that one statement that jumps up and down saying “you win now!” There’s plenty of information to analyze, but players will never see it all and have to make choices about what to investigate and (even more importantly) make inferences from what’s discovered. A series of summary questions at the end of the case will determine if the players were successful, or if they’ll need to try that particular case again.

The feel of the game and level of immersion were incredible. Playing felt like we were doing detective work. This is a storytelling experience as much as it is a game, and each case will run around 3 hours or so. But it never felt that long.  The way research is integrated, the story elements,  a real sense of discovery and tension, and the constraints of not being able to investigate everything while still feeling like we got enough to figure things out kept us engaged and excited.

There are historical and real world connotations wonderfully tied into the fictional narrative that unfolds, and the mechanics and the way everything comes together is really clever and well done.

I played this with one other person. It went extremely well with the two of us given our level of gaming experience, etc. I think for most groups three people would be the sweet spot, although the game is listed as for 1-5. Everything is highly connected from case to case in the included campaign (five cases), so it’s highly preferable to continue the campaign with the same group from start to finish.

I’ve seen some understandable criticisms of some of the leaps of intuition needed in a couple of places and of some plot points. But I thought the mystery level overall was challenging but reasonable, and the story engrossing and well enough executed as the campaign unfolded from case to case. One case bordered on frustrating in some ways for us (and we did have to replay it), but it was still fine in the end, fit into the greater picture well, and we loved the other four.

With the length, note taking, gradually unfolding pace, and other elements I’ve mentioned, there is a rather specific target audience that will enjoy Detective. For me it was a wonderfully compelling cooperative game. Simply incredible overall.