Room-in-a-box, Apr 2019
Cryptogram Puzzle Post is a subscription puzzle product, definitely not marketed as a home escape game, but filling much the same niche as subscription-based home escape games. In its own words it is a “monthly illustrated storytelling experiment inspired by witchcraft and told through the medium of interlinking puzzles”. Each episode is a sheaf of seven A5 puzzle pages, plus a cover sheet. At time of writing it has just finished its second year, and all 24 episodes form a single on-going narrative involving the heroine’s discovery of witchcraft and the spirit world. Although by this point there’s a lot of backstory, I had no problem jumping into the narrative midway at the start of the second year.
What you’ll notice first about any episode of Cryptogram Puzzle Post is the lush, evocative artwork. The main puzzle pages are tinted monochrome, but illustrated with pictures and diagrams that suggest genuine mystical secrets; and those illustrations are reproduced in vibrant colour on the outside package. As a puzzle game consisting of only a few pieces of paper it ought to feel much more slight than games that consist of a box of physical artefacts, but the exquisite presentation makes it instantly appealing. It’s clearly a labour of love for its creator, an impression reinforced by the inclusion of a music playlist and a snippet of poetry on each episode’s cover sheet, provided not as part of the puzzles but purely to add atmosphere.
The story too is well-written and substantial, not to the point where I’d subscribe for the sake of reading it, but it successfully frames each episode’s puzzles with meaningful context. Each of the seven puzzle pages links together not just narratively but also within the puzzle structure: typically the solution to one page is a word or symbol or number or something else that you need to use to solve the following page. Looking at later pages doesn’t provide spoilers to earlier pages, because puzzles are often constructed such that they work with a variety of inputs, each giving a different result, and only the correct input leads to the intended answer.
Puzzle hunts typically result in nonsense if you’re on the wrong track, possibly after giving you one or two initially promising false leads. With CPP, if you get something wrong initially you may follow that through to a plausible but wrong answer; or you may find yourself hopelessly confused on a later page, uncertain whether that’s because you haven’t understood the current puzzle or because you’re approaching it with dud data from an earlier stage.
Coupled with the very ambiguous nature of some of the puzzle pages, that very often results in frustration. Rather than solving each page sequentially, as I suspect is intended, I end up jumping back and forth through the sequence working out how one page could connect to another, using that as a clue to guess how to approach the earlier pages, and working out alternative solutions for later pages based on answers that might be correct further upstream.
I actually rather like how this means you end up solving it holistically, as a single integrated puzzle instead of a series of independent steps. At its best it has the satisfaction of assembling a watch, where nothing works until everything is in its correct place, and then suddenly everything works. What I dislike is that too often a month’s episode fails to come together in that way, because one or two steps are just a bit too open to interpretation, a little too based on intuition. And because the pages are so cleverly sequenced, an ambiguity at one step makes the overall result unclear. When an episode resolves cleanly, it’s deeply pleasing; but more often an episode ends up feeling maddeningly incomplete, because an earlier ambiguity leaves you with a couple of possible ways to resolve the final answer.
I should note that, entirely by chance, the episodes I’ve tried are some of those with the highest difficulty ratings, and the couple I’ve done with lower difficulty ratings have tended to involve fewer ambiguities. So it’s possible I’ve received a slightly skewed impression of the difficulty of the series. In any case, although much my experience of the series has been characterised by frustration and a lack of clear payoff, I still find each episode compelling and eagerly dive into each new one.
It’s deeply appealing in a way that makes me willing to overlook puzzle ambiguities and happy to persist with it where I’d have given up on a different product. That’s partly the lovely presentation, but also an impression of it being as much an artwork as a commercial puzzle product, the opposite of something designed by committee. It’s simultaneously maddening and fascinating, impenetrable and enchanting. I would expect a majority of people, even those who do plenty of puzzles and escape rooms, will find it unapproachable, too much hard work for too uncertain a reward – but if all that hasn’t put you off, you might just love it.