Puzzle dossiers and boxes, 2022

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Tagged: puzzles, puzzle boxes, the vandermist dossier, the emerald flame, puzzle dossiers, redl0ck

The past decade or so has seen a modest revival of puzzle books. I suspect it's expanded out from the escape-room craze -- that's demonstrated a general audience for puzzle stuff. Plus Kickstarter, of course, which has been good for all sorts of niche markets.

I've tried a few of these puzzle books, although not every available one by far. (See blog posts on Daedalian Depths and the Sherlock Holmes Escape series.) I also don't frequent escape rooms. Even before the pandemic, I was more of a stay-at-home solver. Which is fine; there's plenty of Mystery-Hunt-style online puzzle events these days.

However, the pandemic has popularized another format: the mail-order puzzle artifact. It's sort of a hybrid -- triangulating the ideas of the puzzle book, the online hunt, and the escape room. What the heck, I thought, and backed a few on Kickstarter.

As it happened, three showed up in the same month! So a couple of (vaccinated) friends and I got together to try them.


This is a pure puzzle-box. Well, there's a bit of frame story on the web site; you can watch a short introductory video. But it's more of a framing trope list. Someone is trying to solve a puzzle; there's a murder. Spy stuff, check. Get on with the puzzles. (The video is not a puzzle.)

The puzzle is nicely constructed in laser-cut wood, with sliders and knobs and dials on the outside and the promise of more within. It's a little flimsy, but everything moves smoothly without requiring force. If you mean to play fair, you can make it work. (If you don't mean to play fair, you wasted your money.)

The puzzles are pretty good. You basically cycle between solving physical slider puzzles, figuring out symbol-matching puzzles with the info thus revealed, and dialing in combinations with the symbols. That unlocks another piece; you find another slider puzzle; repeat. About two and a half layers and you're at the gooey center. We spent about 45 minutes on it -- short as puzzle hunts go, but pretty impressive for a single physical object.

We ran into one mechanical failure: when we opened the first layer of the box, an internal panel came loose. (The nine-square maze panel.) It wasn't immediately obvious that this was a mistake, so we unlocked the next stage by directly observing the "hidden" gears. Once we figured out what had happened, we backsolved the skipped puzzle to make sure it made sense. (It did.)

An enjoyable construction, if short. Without the loose panel, our solving time would have been closer to an hour.

The original Kickstarter page details a whole "season" consisting of four boxes, four short films, and a branching storyline with multiple endings. I hope the designers make it that far. My rule of episodic story games is "they never get finished". Play optimistically, but don't hold your breath.

I'll buy the next one, anyhow.

The Vandermist Dossier

Amsterdam, 1979: Your sister Abigail Vandermist has disappeared. She's left you a dossier of her investigation into earlier disappearances. Everything is clues. Start solving!

This is reminiscent of "crime dossier" games like the classic Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. You get maps, letters, a notebook, a scribbled-on napkin, and so on. But it's definitely a puzzle-solving experience (cryptograms and hidden messages) rather than a detective game (interviews and witness statements). The clues generally fit into the story logic; they are messages that Abigail deliberately hid. However, the designers are willing to stretch the bounds of mimesis for the sake of a sneaky clue.

It's a wonderfully high-quality production. The newspaper page is newsprint and the torn-out directory page is crumpled. The letters are in envelopes and the tourist map comes in a decorative box. Everything feels real as you unpack, unwrap, and unfold it.

This leads to a few design problems, though. You can discover a lot by unwrapping, unfolding, and so on. The game is clearly meant for an escape-room-style "examine everything" mentality. However, some of the puzzles exist only to reinforce this point. That is, sometimes you'll solve a puzzle and the solution says "examine [thing] real close!" If you already did, because why wouldn't you, then the puzzle is redundant and you feel a bit let down. We had a few of those moments. But then, we also had some moments where we shouted "The [thing]! Quick, examine it!" and made a delightful discovery. It works both ways; you just have to roll with the non-linearity.

We spent about two hours on the dossier, and completed the main story quest. (There's bonus puzzles that we didn't look into.) We had a bit of trouble verifying our answer -- the web site didn't accept an obvious synonym for one field. However, that didn't spoil the fun. We just poked at the online hints, which verified stuff we already knew and then gave us the correct spelling of the answer. There's a nice epilogue on the web site, too. And a hook for a sequel! Works for me.

The Emerald Flame

An investigation into an enigmatic alchemical society in Prague.

This is another dossier -- or rather three dossiers. You get three complete episodes, each a folder full of stuff. There's also a prologue (the "Apprentice Pack") which you can order separately as a teaser. As of this writing, we've played the prologue and the first episode, which took about three hours total.

The dossier provides a heady mix of maps, diagrams, and some nifty etched-acrylic puzzle parts. It's all high-quality printing, although it doesn't quite match the materiality of Vandermist's distressed and torn papers.

As long as I'm comparing the two... Vandermist was a mix of puzzle, clue-hunting, and narrative. Its codes and puzzles were hidden in personal letters and journals which advanced a storyline. Emerald Flame is much heavier on the puzzle than the story. You don't spend much time inspecting the artifacts or reading the letters; you're pretty much straight into the solving. Whether you think that's a strength or a weakness will be a matter of taste! Either way, it absolutely oozes alchemical character. Everything is herbs, crystals, and occult geometry. The Voynich-esque herbal booklet is particularly nice.

The puzzle structure felt nice and tight. There are four major puzzles to work on, and you can work on them in any order (or in parallel) once you figure out which clues relate to each other. We had three solvers so this worked out well for us. As for the puzzles themselves, there was a bit more trial-and-error than I prefer, but nothing broken. We got stuck on one puzzle and peeked at one clue, which isn't a bad ratio for three hours of solving.

Definitely excited to play the other two episodes.