I don’t know about you, but I love solving puzzles. Puzzles have a constant theme throughout my entire life. Most of the earliest memories I have involve literal puzzles with physical puzzle pieces. I remember one with Easter bunnies that was maybe 30 or 40 pieces. I loved that puzzle.
Anyway, as I grew up, that love spread into puzzles of all forms – anything that required logic and problem solving. My mom would buy be these “Mensa Mindbender” puzzle books and I would just spend hours going through them, solving everything front-to-back. It’s what I did for fun. I didn’t have many friends…
But, look, now I am not alone. Escape rooms are a growing industry across the world, and there are now many board game approximations of the the same thing. There is just a pure joy to being presented with a logic puzzle and then successfully solving it, overcoming the challenge and feeling good about yourself.
It took me a while to actually give the escape room board games a whirl. I almost played one at Geekway to the West called Escape Room: The Game, but one of the components required batteries, but they weren’t included in the box, and we were in the middle of a convention hall, so that didn’t quite happen. But I did end up trying out one of the Unlock games on my anniversary a couple weeks ago. It was kind of an anniversary present to myself, but I figured it would be an activity my wife enjoyed as well. We played the “Squeak & Sausage” scenario.
And we did, indeed, enjoy it, but was the one-hour experience for two people worth $15? Eh, both of us agreed that it wasn’t really that good. There were a few clever puzzles, but the fact that it was just a deck of cards sort of limited its scope. The artwork on the cards was mostly used to just hide numbers of other cards, which didn’t really feel very puzzle-y. Plus it seems like they padded the play time by putting all the cards in some weird random order. It became more of a game of Where’s Waldo mixed with alphabetizing your bookshelf, with a couple puzzles sprinkled in. Not super-satisfying.
Plus it was very linear. The best escape rooms, if we’re going to make the comparison, let people loose in a big room with lots of stuff, and there are plenty of directions to go so that people aren’t stumbling over each other to all solve the same puzzle. (I talked about the importance of this in an old D&D post.) A linear set of puzzles is just inherently less interesting for a larger group.
I might be harping on Unlock too much. My point is that it left me with a taste of something great, and I wanted to go deeper. The natural progression, then, was to check out this year’s Kennerspiel des Jahres winner, Exit. Luckily my local board game cafe had a copy of the “Abandoned Cabin” on tap, so we didn’t even have to buy it. One of the main differences between Unlock and Exit is that Exit has destructible components and is only intended to be played once, so you might be wondering how the cafe can let multiple groups play their copy over and over. I can’t speak for the other scenarios, but it was very easy with the Abandoned Cabin to not ruin any components.
So I will start off by saying that the Abandoned Cabin was also woefully linear – there was really only one puzzle you could solve at any given time – but I have heard the other scenarios are less so. Other than that however, Exit was very much more what I was looking for. Though it was largely composed of decks of cards, there were also other interesting components, like a cool little book filled with all sorts of random hints and clues.
It filled you with more of a sense of wonder. You open the box and start looking through the book, and your head is immediately filled with so many questions. “Is this orange skull important?” “What’s with this big grid of numbers?” And the puzzles were far more prolific and satisfying as well.
So now I’ve got the bug. Not only am I interested in trying out more of the Exit games, I really want to incorporate more puzzle elements into the upcoming Gloomhaven expansion.
I know one of the complaints people have with Gloomhaven is that the scenarios are very combat-oriented and there really isn’t any puzzle-solving, which is an important aspect to any good role-playing campaign, in my opinion. There is, of course, one big puzzle in Gloomhaven to be solved, and I am proud of that, but I want to expand upon that ten fold – add more secrets to be unlocked and even incorporate puzzle solving into individual scenarios.
It’s going to be crazy. It’s going to be epic. And it’s going to take me a long time to get right, but it’s going to be worth it.