Online, May 2020
When reviewing Cluequest’s first play at home game I complained about the amount of time it made me spend cutting out paper clues before I could start playing. With Alpha Brain Scan, instead of reducing that they’ve doubled down. Pre-game preparation involved 40 minutes of cutting out paper fragments, a highly tedious task that had me ready to dislike the game before I began. And despite that, having now played it I have no hesitation in saying that the effort was completely worth it and I’m eagerly looking forward to the next instalment.
As with the first of their print & play games, you get a PDF of a couple dozen black and white pages, and an online portal that provides story videos as well as a place to verify your answers. The story picks up where the last one left off, though it wouldn’t particularly matter if you played this one before the other.
I’ve done some printable escapes where the cutting out seemed gratuitous, where a little visualisation could probably let you solve the puzzle without cutting the pieces out, or where it’s just for the sake of an uninspired jigsaw of paper fragments. Alhpa Brain Scan is much more ambitious, so much so that in places it starts to feel as much like a papercraft session as an escape game. (And okay, yes, it also has a jigsaw of paper fragments, but a pretty unobjectionable one, and it’s part of a more considerably more interesting puzzle not just a jigsaw for its own sake.)
Because of the papercraft element, it’s remarkably physical for a home game. That makes it better suited for groups who are all in the same location, though we managed okay playing over Zoom each with our own copy.
What I loved most of all was the way the puzzles came with zero explanation, and needed none. One of the first pages in the PDF of content is an index that lists the game’s stages and which components go with which puzzle, and that’s pretty much all the guidance you get. Beyond that you just need to look at the apparently disparate items provided and work out how you can combine them and how that might lead you to a solution. The fact that they can do that says a great deal about the efficiency and elegance of the puzzle design.
I wouldn’t have counted myself as a puzzle nerd, but I guess after several hundred escape rooms that’s changed. And the proof is in a particular puzzle in this game, which involved so many moving parts it should have been a confusing mess but which instead fitted together so neatly and elegantly I spent the next five minutes squeeing over it instead of focusing on the game. That was the highlight, but every puzzle in the game is original, smart, challenging and satisfying. I also very much enjoyed the cute stylised videos that connect the puzzles into a story, though those were a secondary benefit.
Rating home games on the same scale I use for physical escape rooms has its limitations; I’ve told people more than once that I don’t expect to ever give an online or printable games a score higher than 4*, because it’s just not possible for them to live up to the sort of physical game to which I might give a higher rating, even when allowing for the lower price point. For the sheer quality and creativity of its puzzles, Alpha Brain System is one of only two games that for me have managed to break through that ceiling.
The pre-game prep remains a chore, and I’d recommend getting that out the way a day before playing the actual game instead of immediately beforehand – or preferably bribe someone else to do it for you. You should also be prepared for a sometimes challenging game that offers no hand-holding; there is of course a hint system, though I’d recommend persevering without clues if at all possible – it’ll be that much more satisfying to complete without them.