Exit: Secret Lab & Abandoned Cabin Board Game Reviews

I adore the Escape Game phenomenon, and have previously played the first of ThinkFun’s home version. I’d heard a lot of positive things about another series with a slightly different approach to the concept of adapting the experience. Here’s a SPOILER FREE look at two of the Exit games.



Exit games are similar to the Escape the Room version in that there’s an introductory booklet that basically just sets the stage and explains how to check your answers via the decoder disc. The disc is really well implemented here with colors and numbers on three different rings to be lined up with whatever symbol matches the puzzle to be solved, revealing a card number to check. There’s also a chart determining a final score depending on how long players take to solve everything and how many help cards they choose to consult. Reasonable enough way to provide incentive without real penalties for needed time/assistance.

From there Exit games become unique in the way they try to simulate the feeling of being trapped in a room with locks to unlock and puzzles to solve. The box is small and warns that the game can only be played once, as game materials will be marked up, folded, and torn. The main components are a booklet and a deck of cards, usually with a couple of additional “strange objects” which players are told to ignore until a called for.

Players start by diving into the booklet and “exploring” the environment by looking at the various puzzles, pictures, and maps inside. Whenever a picture of a card is found that card is removed from the deck and enters play. Many of the puzzles will involve a number of cards with new information, so there’s a real sense of unfolding discovery.  It reminds me a bit of T.I.M.E Stories somewhat in the excellent and innovative way cards are used and incredible amount of atmosphere and immersion achieved with only a booklet and deck of cards.

I was also reminded of the puzzle book Journal 29 in the clever way the format was used to enhance the puzzles. I won’t go into further details to avoid spoilers, but I was very impressed with the execution in both Exit games I’ve played.

Another nice touch is the presence of help cards, which are coded to the puzzles with the same symbols that are used on the solution wheel. The first help card for each puzzle lists in full what materials are needed to solve the puzzle (so players know if they’re trying to solve a puzzle prematurely) and provide a small clue. The second a more pointed clue and guide for solving, and the third gives the solution. This is a great way to allow players to control the difficulty and prevent anyone from becoming permanently stuck.

The decision to make these disposable, one time experiences actually serves the games well, as they aren’t limited in puzzle construction by needing components to be preserved. This all combines to make these feel much closer to an actual escape room than the other types I’ve tried. Add in the fact that they found a way to pack a lot of gameplay and information in a small package to keep the cost down and I think their approach is fantastic.

As for the specific two I’ve played, both The Secret Lab and The Abandoned Cabin were engaging and fun with interesting puzzles. I think I liked Cabin better by just a touch, but I recommend either as a starting point into this great series of games. Great stuff overall, and I can’t wait to play more of them.

The Captain is Dead Board Game Review (First Impressions)

Here’s a “survive dire straits” scenario as the players are crew members on a damaged starship under attack by aliens and the captain has just been killed. Can a random assortment of lower level crew hold off the aliens and stem the damage long enough to repair the jump core and escape to safety?




I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this curiously themed cooperative game, dripping with Star Trek homages and a combination of tongue in cheek humor and impending doom.

If ever there was a game that exceeded my expectations, it’s The Captain is Dead. The odd premise is incredibly fun and engaging from the moment the game begins, as well as being ingeniously integrated into the gameplay and highly engrossing.There’s a real sense of entropy that the players need to get ahead of to succeed.

The mechanics are solid and really conductive to the game’s feel of being able to respond just enough to the ever increasing pressure.  Little touches like random starting damage to the ship and distinct, useful player abilities contribute to the immersion. The implementation of the starships various “systems” is a fantastic hook. In general powered up versions of basic actions are available until/unless that system goes down. It makes it important to repair things and gives the players important decisions while still allowing a minimum level of effectiveness and choice when things are damaged/destroyed.

The group will need to react to the situation as needed, so there is the possibility of some players could have to to run a lot of “damage control” and end up doing the same things over and over. A willingness to adjust play style to what’s needed is key, so this admittedly might not necessarily appeal to players who prefer to be proactive and have total control over their role in the game.

The replayability for this looks to be incredibly high. The random elements in terms of the order of increasingly severe obstacles and a simple but deep card based approach to skills and actions provide great variability from game to game on their own. On top of that though is a variety of player roles with unique powers that have a big effect on gameplay. Changing just one of the four characters we were paying with would have completely changed our strategy and made for a significantly different experience.

With four players (three of us were new to the game) things seemed balanced at like the game would scale well to different player counts. With a bit of luck we survived by the skin of our teeth on “Veteran” difficulty (the exact middle of the seven possible levels), which seemed reasonable with a couple of seasoned gamers at the table. Success felt difficult but possible, which is exactly what a good co-op should strive for.

Great co-op all around. Maybe not something I’d want to play constantly due to its specific nature, but definitely one I want to revisit at some point. Highly recommended for anyone who’s ok with reactive gameplay and the quirky sci-fi setting.


Thunder and Lightning Board Game Review (First Impressions)




Thunder and Lightning is a unique card game that combines hand management and elements from the classic game Stratego in interesting ways. The latter part particularly intrigued me. 

Cards are played face down on opposing sides in (up to) 3 by 4 grids. Your first row can challenge your opponents first row Stratego style, with the higher value winning and staying on the board while the lower is discarded. There are a lot of little details that add up to surprising depth, such as the number of actions a player gets depending on how many columns they have in play, specific card actions and abilities, and the ability to decided which cards are kept in hand versus on the table. 

All of it put together means the game has a rather steep learning curve with regards to strategy. The mechanics are easy to grasp, but I fumbled around during first game in terms of trying to win, only starting to get feel for how I should be playing towards the end. As such while I think I really like it, it will take more plays for a final verdict.

It’s nice that there are a few ways to play/win (such one player not being able to use all their actions on a turn), although finding the opposing ring/crown does seem like it’d be the game ender 90% of the time. I think the alternate conditions are there to prevent certain stalemates, which is good foresight.




The art is beautiful, and the components of good quality. The player markers are nice but completely unnecessary, feeling tacked on to justify the asking price. I have mixed feelings on the oversized cards. It makes reading the text easier and emphasizes the aforementioned excellent artwork, but it’s really awkward for the (up to) 8 row setup and the powers are worded such that it’s often necessary to reference the rulebook anyway (which lessens the ease of reading advantage). I kind of wish the cards had been designed/printed horizontally instead of vertically, although that would have admittedly made the hand management aspect more difficult. 

Overall I enjoyed my first play of Thunder and Lightning and am looking forward to the opportunity to try it again and see if I have a better feel for strategy and how everything is supposed to work together.


Quick Thoughts: Century: Spice Road and Einstein

Some quick impressions on my first experiences with a couple of new games.


Century: Spice Road




This is a decent little engine builder where you use various acquired cards to get and swap “spices” (colored cubes) in order to get the proper combinations to trade them for victory point cards.




Not much to say positive or negative about this one. It’s accessible and solid but a little bland for my tastes and nothing about it stands out enough for me to be in a rush to play again. Would likely be a good gateway game though, and what it does it does well so it’ll definitely appeal to a fair number of gamers more than it does to me.

I’ve heard this compared favorably to Splendor, but I personally can’t speak about that as I’ve never played the latter.





Einstein: His Amazing Life and Incomparable Science



That full title is a mouthful. Einstein is a quick, fun game that’s simple to play but has a nice sense of depth. Each player has the same number of four set shapes to play (representing different academic disciplines) but unique “ideas” (compound shapes) on cards in their hands that they are trying to create in the central play area. The catch is any basic shapes of your opponents’ that you use give them bonuses. The shapes fit together well and in interesting ways and a general pool of “major idea” cards that anyone can complete add nice options. Cool little light abstract.



Will be back with more soon. 🙂

Stonemaier Games’ Realistic Resources

In addition to an incredible library of games (Viticulture, Euphoria, Between Two Cities, and Scythe) with incredible production values, Stonemaier Games has produced a series of “realistic” resource tokens with the same high standards of quality applied.




These can be used in place of standard pieces included in a variety of games to “upgrade” the gaming experience. These are high quality sculpted accessories, so while an extremely good value for what they are they are not inexpensive. They are also very well made and look and feel wonderful.



At this point there are a great number of tokens available of impressive variety. The original Treasure Chest contained realistic style pieces to represent common gaming resources in the form of gems ore, bricks, gold, stone, and wood.



Starting with the second wave of three sets the tokens got more diverse, and each had a general theme. Food Crate contained grain, meat, corn, bread, crates, and coffee beans. Resource Vault provided sacks, cloth bundles, barrels, yarn balls, steel, and water pails. Energy Box had oil drums, coal, trash, campfires, gas canisters, and uranium.



The next batch was available together in a slipcase and called the “Token Trilogy.” It was made up of the individual themed sets Adventure Atlas (treasure chests, potions, single and double edged axes, two types of scrolls, sleeping bags to represent fatigue, furs, and bucklers),  Gadget Guide (wrenches, ammo cases, energy crystals, med kits, tech tablets, and deflector shields), and Terror Tome (magnifying glasses, hearts, blood vials, cleavers, brains, skulls, and books). The details on these collections were particularly incredible, including traces of blood on only one side of the metallic bladed weapons, intricate seals on the scrolls, vein coloring on the brains, etc.




The most recent “set” is a group of animal tokens (sheep, horse, dog, pig, cow, fish), offered for purchase separately rather than boxed together as with previous tokens.

There are also pumpkin resource tokens now available for Stonemaier’s upcoming game Charterstone.



So far I’ve used pieces from the Token Trilogy the most, in games like Tragedy Looper, Scythe, and T.I.M.E Stories. That’s really one of the most appealing aspects of these: Stonemaier Games has gone to great lengths to ensure most of these are useful for a variety of games, so whatever’s in your collection you can likely find some that will get a fair bit of use. Top Shelf Gamer also offers sets of tokens grouped for specific games, such as a bundle of 20 each of wood, food, metal, and oil tokens for use with Scythe.


Overall these tokens are great accessories for board game enthusiasts and another series of extremely high quality products from Stonemaier Games.

Journal 29 Interactive Book Game Review

I stumbled upon this as an Amazon recommendation and was extremely intrigued with the idea.

Here’s some of the self description:

“A top secret excavation did not bring any result for 28 weeks.
It was on the 29th week that something unexpected happened.
The team disappeared and the only thing that was left behind was their Journal.
You must solve the riddles in order to solve the mystery.

To solve the riddles you will need to think out of the box.
Write, draw, search, tear paper, fold pages, combine and more.
You don’t need any special app to play the game.
Just a browser will do
(preferably on your smartphone)”





Journal 29 is one of the most interesting concepts I’ve seen in a while. Somewhere in between classic pen and paper puzzles and phenomenons like escape room games, the book does a great job of adding something new to the genre.  

It’s a book of 63 puzzles with a loose thematic theme tying them together. The puzzle themselves are generally great, but it’s the clever implementation that really sets this apart. First, each puzzle leads to an answer (usually a word or number) to be entered on a specific webpage to receive a “key” for the puzzle (again, usually a word or number). QR codes are provided so things are very smartphone friendly, but urls are also given and it was fine to play using a laptop. Keys are often used in future puzzles, so there’s a nice feeling of progress throughout the book.

Second, there are a lot of interesting puzzle variations, with some inventive uses of the internet involvement, connectivity between the puzzles, and the book format to stretch the genre a bit. There are also some similar looking puzzles here and there, but with different approaches and solutions that creates an additional level of intrigue. It’s really well put together, with solid levels of variety, originality, and challenge.

The story elements provide a nice theme and aesthetic, but are also minimal from a narrative point of view. This is a book of puzzles with a story framework, not any sort of complete tale. Which is perfectly fine, but should be kept in mind if you’re particularly intrigued by the story setup.

The book can be “played” solo or with a group (each person having their own copy is recommended). For people (like me) who opt for the solo play and have no other minds to bounce ideas off of, there are online message boards one the same site answers are entered that have hint threads by page. It’s a pretty good resource and reasonably useful help is provided without full spoilers. I referenced it several times for a little help to get started or when stuck (some of the puzzles are a bit obtuse and a push in the right direction greatly appreciated), and its availability generally prevents anything from getting too frustrating.

There was one puzzle I was unable to solve even with the hints (I know exactly what I need to do, but am not capable of it and got tired of trying different combinations of educated guesses). The hints were good, so short of someone handing me the answer there’s no further help to be gained. I was however able to reverse engineer that particular key from a later puzzle (which certainly won’t be possible in the vast majority of cases) so I wasn’t kept for completing anything else nor from finishing the book. The idea of that puzzle was quite good too, just the implementation was off for me. A little disappointing, but only one out of sixty three missing the mark is pretty good odds and it didn’t significantly detract from my enjoyment.

I managed to complete the book without writing in it, damaging pages, etc (by using scratch paper and occasionally photocopying pages), but if I had it to do over I probably would have just used the book straight up as intended. It’s well worth the price ($18 retail) and I likely spent too much effort and made some things harder on myself trying to keep it pristine to potentially be lent out / used again.

Overall Journal 29 is a unique puzzle experience that comes together really well. Recommended to anyone who enjoys stretching their brain a bit.




Castles of Mad King Ludwig Board Game Review (First Impressions)

With all the comparisons made to Suburbia (which was great) and pieces somewhat reminiscent of Princes of Florence (which is my favorite game of all time) Castles of Mad King Ludwig certainly piqued my interest, and I had been looking forward to trying it out.




Castles of Mad King Ludwig takes various mechanics I’ve seen in other games (the tile selection method, bonuses for taking pieces that have been available longer, etc) and combines them all with a nice layer of spacial gameplay by utilizing different shapes and sizes of tiles/rooms that players need to fit together. Add in different types of rooms with specific rewards and various scoring options and bonuses and there’s a great deal of depth apparent right from the outset.

It all comes together well and my general impression of the game is quite good. I like the idea and implementation, and it’s extremely well designed in the way rooms of different size and shape can interact.




But I have to admit as good as it is I’m not sure it’s as good as I expected. Given the extra layers the different shaped buildings add and a couple of other mechanical differences I feel like I should prefer it to Suburbia, but I don’t think I do. In Suburbia what opponents build can have a scoring effect on your area, and even that small amount of additional interaction has a large effect on the dynamics of the game.

Beyond comparisons to other games though the biggest drawback of this one was the feeling that my castle was just really getting interesting as game ended. I’m sure it’s specifically balanced but the amount of rooms I could build feels low and my initial impression was I wanted the opportunity to do more. Since the number of rooms available is determined by the player count I don’t see this changing in future plays, it’s just something that I’d have to get used to.




Overall Castles of Mad King Ludwig is solid though. It’s unique in presentation and the spacial elements associated with the different room sizes and types add a nice dimension to the gameplay.  My initial impression is there’s perhaps a little too much variety in the rooms for the set collection / chaining powers aspects, but obviously one play’s not enough to determine that definitively.

So I enjoyed Castles of Mad King Ludwig but I’m not sure I’m completely sold on it. I’d like to try again to see if it feels as abrupt the second time, and/or see how it scales with more players.