Room-in-a-box, Nov 2017
iDventure is a German company who have an online game creation system, and who sell a set of games built using that system. There are currently four different games, and each can be purchased either for print-and-play or in physical form. We tried the physical version of their Sherlock Holmes game; this comes in Standard and Expert variations, and this review is based on the Expert version.
The physical game components consist of a sheaf of glossy A4 papers and a series of envelopes containing additional clue items, mostly made from light card. The game structure is driven by an app, which provides narrative text and a verification mechanism. Each puzzle follows the next in linear sequence, and you progress by entering the correct solution into the prompt in the app. Each envelope is marked for a particular ‘level’ (stage) of the game, and the app instructs you when to open them. The papers are available at all times, and it’s up to you to work out which are relevant at which point.
The app also provides hints for each stage. The first hint for each stage is relatively subtle, and taking repeated hints for the same stage gives increasingly blatant clues; each hint subtracts two minutes from your remaining time. That works fine, except where a stage involves multiple puzzles and you want a hint on the final part, and you end up suffering the time penalty for a couple of useless hints before you get one that’s relevant to the bit you’re stuck on.
The quality of artwork and visual design is impressive, and looks thoroughly professional. If it has a more homemade feeling than some of the other play at home games available, it’s mainly because the paper clues are separate one-sided sheets of paper, where a larger-scale operation would likely have them bound into a booklet. On the other hand, after the many games that have required us to squint at tiny details on card illustrations, the larger format is refreshing.
Play at home escape games need to have something to make them more engaging than a simple puzzle magazine. Narrative helps a lot there, but it’s also important that the puzzles are more inventive or interesting than typical magazine puzzles, preferably getting beyond the printed format in some way. This game succeeds there, primarily by using the additional components from the envelopes to add a little more physicality than would be possible with the printed sheets alone.
It adds in a couple of more technological elements too via the app, which has a ‘Tools’ section that provides a compass and a map. By ‘map’ I don’t mean some picture of a map, I mean a full Google Maps map. These elements are novel and interesting but I’m not convinced by the map in particular. Firstly, it means that players need an internet connection while playing; and secondly, the use of an obviously present-day map jarred rather with the 19th Century setting. I might be biased here though, since the stage that used the map was also the one where I felt the puzzles were weakest, with a rather arbitrary clue and a distracting piece of information that was a bit of a red herring.
That aside, Unfinished Case of Holmes compares well to the main commercial play at home games on the market. It has a decent narrative, and I liked that the payoff for each puzzle was another piece of information filling in the answer to the mystery. It’s easy enough to play without marking the components so that the game can have a second play-through by another team, though since the game is tied to an individual’s account in the app you might need to lend them your phone for them to play.
A team of 2-3 is probably the optimal number of players; the difficulty level is not too challenging, harder than the ThinkFun games but easier than the Exit ones and most of the Unlock ones. The quality of the components improved the experience, and I suspect I’d have enjoyed the game less had I needed to print and cut out all the smaller parts before playing; if postage costs are bearable I’d recommend going for the physical version.