James Hamer-Morton: Escape Room Puzzles

By | December 13, 2018

Room-in-a-box, Nov 2018

Rated 3.5 out of 5
Toby says:

I have no idea how to rate this book. Its introduction states that it is “different to any puzzle book you’ve encountered”. Naturally, I dismissed that as marketing hyperbole, only to discover that it’s entirely true. The introduction also tells you that “no puzzle in this book is truly easy”. While that’s not literally true, it conveys the truth that this is a very difficult book, and you should expect a challenge.
“Escape Room Puzzles” suggests a loose collection of stand-alone puzzles for you to dip into. What it actually is is almost the precise opposite of that. The book is a single narrative divided into ten chapters, each chapter comprising a complex set of interlocking puzzles. The narrative text is detailed and plentiful, and while you can skip over most of it and focus just on the puzzles, here and there that approach will leave you stuck. Puzzles do not neatly confine themselves to one page apiece – instead you have a variety of different puzzle components spread throughout the chapter, interleaved with the text. Sometimes the text tells you to find a solution before proceeding to the next page (which may use all or only some of the puzzle clues shown in the chapter up to that point); sometimes you read all the way to the end of the chapter before being told to solve anything.
This made starting the book an overwhelming experience. After a prologue section (three pages of text, which confusingly gives you a padlock code just before the first page turn without requiring you to solve anything, followed by a warm-up puzzle), chapter one dumped fifteen pages of story text on me plus something to cut out and a huge variety of apparent puzzles. When I eventually got to the chapter end, it gave me confirmation that yes, I was supposed to have read to that point without having first solved the chapter’s contents, and also suggested a starting point – a courtesy few of the later chapters offer.
The book’s structure is explained clearly in the introduction, and I’ll happily admit that a lot of my early confusion was because I’m not very good at reading the manual before diving into something. But readers more diligent than me may still end up confused, since the very first time the book tells you to stop until you’ve solved something, it does so in different, less clear language than that used elsewhere. Then just as you start to settle in, the second chapter has two puzzle gates partway through the chapter, and then nothing additional to solve at the chapter end. The lack of consistency meant it wasn’t until around the fourth chapter that I was confident I was approaching it the right way.
Then there are the puzzles. In one sense this book is the most successful attempt I’ve seen yet at translating the escape room experience into book form. The way it provides a set of apparently disparate clues and lets you work out how they connect to each other and the surrounding environment truly captures the feel of an escape room in a way I’ve not seen any other puzzle book manage. In another sense, the puzzles here are much more like those you might see in a puzzle hunt, and will come as a rude shock to many escape room enthusiasts – because they are so hard, and so much work.
For variety and for the level of intellectual invention on display, the puzzles are first rate. Even at the several points that familiar magazine-style puzzle types are used, those are familiar ideas used in cleverly novel ways. But it’s really not shy about making you work to get to the solution. Expect to make copious scribbles and to sometimes need to copy large, complex elements from the book to put them in a form where you can solve them. The most extreme case of this was so jaw-droppingly labour-intensive that as soon as I was sure I knew what I was supposed to do I went straight to checking the answer in the back so I could skip it.
While the creativity of the puzzles is superb, the implementation often has serious weaknesses. Each of the ten chapters is more or less equivalent to an entire home escape game, or a Puzzled Pint episode, and each one had what I’d consider to be some real issues with the puzzle design. The problems are varied, but for example there are several puzzles where you can laboriously do the right thing and get what looks like nonsense, until you spot the additional step needed to transform the output into something meaningful. The problem is that, with such a host of potential ways to approach the clues, it can throw people off track unnecessarily. Other parts felt wildly obscure, in the sense of needing to pick up on small details correctly, or of having so many different ways to try to combine the clues that it’s a matter of luck or exhaustive persistence to find the correct approach.
Fortunately, there is an extensive hint system at the back of the book with four levels of hinting. The structure didn’t always work for me, with the first couple of levels of hints usually either too obscure or telling me things I already knew, and sometimes giving more of a hint than I wanted. I found I had to make regular use of the hints throughout the book, often for reasons that I felt were more to do with the book being unreasonable than me having missed things. But what I’m criticising is misdirection, lack of feedback while solving, occasional wilful obscurity, and other factors that make the puzzles harder. To a sufficiently dedicated puzzle nut those are acceptable barriers. This book is blissfully free of the more serious sort of flaw, where puzzles have multiple equally reasonable solutions. There are all sort of reasons you might struggle to get to the intended solution, and sometimes significant ambiguities along the way, but when you eventually do find the final answer to a chapter, you’re unlikely to be left in doubt whether it’s correct. As a result, despite all the confusions and frustrations and inevitable reliance on the hint pages, I found myself enjoying each chapter more and more as I continued.
Escape Room Puzzles is a very singular book. It is precisely what it sets out to be, and manages it with some brilliance. On the other hand, what it sets out to be is almost the opposite of approachable, sometimes grindingly arduous and occasionally savagely difficult. One of the big advantages of a book rather than a boxed game is that it’s well suited for solo solving on a train or plane, and Escape Room Puzzles misses that advantage almost entirely by being so very demanding. There’s a great deal to read, and while you wouldn’t buy this as a novel the text is better written than that in other story-based puzzle books.
It’s also astonishingly good value for money, comparing solving time against the cost of the book – it’s cheaper than any of the boxed escape games, despite containing closer to ten games’ worth of content than one; and production quality is excellent throughout. At the same time, most casual puzzlers and escape enthusiasts will find it difficult to get started on and frequently confusing, inconsistent or frustrating. With that strong caveat, for the right audience this is a fantastic product. If you’re willing to persist with it, and can find a balance that suits you between resorting to the hint pages and sheer persistence in chasing down possibilities and teasing out what works then you’ll find a great many imaginative, multi-faceted puzzles to enjoy – and frankly, the fact that you’ve read to the end of this very lengthy review increases the chances that you’ll get on well with it. 3.5 / 5

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