Room-in-a-box, Dec 2019
Ever since Journal 29 there’s been a boom in similarly formatted puzzle books, each with one puzzle per double page spread, where the first challenge of solving is often in working out how to approach the cryptic illustration. 404 is the latest such, produced following a Kickstarter (which I backed, but the book is now on general release).
This book styles itself as a coded message from the underground resistance in a dystopian surveillance state, a setting which is evoked more than described, with the details left vague for your imagination to fill in. You enter solutions into a website for verification (though this is optional – the book can be solved entirely offline if you prefer), and sometimes a correct solution triggers a short message. Those messages build the setting, but are not required. Although there are extraneous background illustrations and bits of flavour text, in other respects the book itself avoids non-puzzle content that could become red herrings.
The 56 puzzles, plus the handful of bonus hidden puzzles, can be solved in any order – with a couple of minor exceptions. That gives you the freedom to jump around to the puzzles that catch your eye; on the other hand, it makes it likely that you’ll finish the ones that you can do and then be left with a mass of all the ones where you have no idea how to even begin.
And it’s likely that will happen, because this book is hard. Working as a pair we solved all of Journal 29 without hints, but we got barely more than half of the puzzles in 404 before resorting to the website’s help section. They’re also more wordy in style. If you’ve tried Puzzled Pint or a puzzle hunt, then you’ll recognise these puzzles as being somewhat closer to that style; puzzles often involve some quantity of text, which may provide subtle clues to what to do, or raw material from which the solution will be extracted, or both.
The website hints take great care not to provide more information than you want, with typically 4-8 levels of hint per puzzle. I did find the first 3-5 hints would normally just re-state the obvious, sometimes literally repeating text from the page, but I suppose it’s sometimes useful to have your attention drawn to the key elements. The hints don’t go all the way to the solution, and if you’re still stuck then there’s also a forum to check – it’s sparsely populated at time of writing, but I imagine it’ll fill out over time.
Both the difficulty and the style make 404 a bit less accessible than other books in this genre. But if you have some experience in serious puzzling, or are up for a challenge, the puzzles here are for the most part excellent quality. Pretty much everything resolves cleanly with efficient use of all provided elements, with no doubt as to whether the solution is the intended one. The nature of the puzzles means you may have a considerable variety of dead end ideas to explore before you find the right approach, but when you do find it you can count on it being clearly more satisfying than any of the alternatives. And the answer is always a word or phrase that ties into the theme both of the puzzle and of the overall book (though sometimes it’s a word in Greek, which will please the classicists and confuse the rest of us).
So I wouldn’t suggest 404 as a good starting place if you haven’t tried any similar books before; but if you’ve rattled through other books of the sort and are looking for something more meaty, or if you’ve done a few puzzle hunts, then you’re the right audience for this book and I can heartily recommend it.