Journal 29

By | June 7, 2018

Room-in-a-box, Jun 2017

Rated 4 out of 5
Toby says:

I originally decided not to write a review for Journal 29, because it never claims to be an escape game – quite correctly so in my opinion. So many publishers are jumping on the ‘escape game’ description because it’s hot at the moment, but it’s often used purely for marketing with little justification. Worse is when a home game copies conventions from real life escape rooms that make the product worse – such as the one-hour time limit, which is unnecessarily short for a home game. Journal 29 describes itself as an ‘interactive book game’, an accurate description that avoids all the baggage that comes with being an ‘escape game’.
Still, I’m writing a belated review for it now for two reasons. The first reason is that other books do call themselves escape games, so I feel obliged to review those, and it then seems odd to leave out Journal 29; and secondly, I consider it the closest thing I’ve seen to a gold standard for puzzle books, and it deserves to be lauded.
The format is straightforward: 63 puzzle pages (plus an introductory example), each with a facing page that gives the URL to verify that puzzle’s answer. Each puzzle resolves to a word, or a number, or in a couple of cases a more arbitrary sequence of letters and digits. The solitary paragraph of story states that the book is a journal left behind after the team on a secret excavation mysteriously vanished; there is no further narrative, but the artwork and some of the puzzle ideas have a connecting space/crypto-archaeology theme that hints at exploring relics from an extraterrestrial culture. Visually it’s an attractive book, with a distinctive art style that turns quite abstract puzzle concepts into intriguing mysteries for you to explore. At the same time the artwork is kept carefully under control, with few extraneous elements that could distract and confuse.
Journal 29 is a highly impressive puzzle book for several reasons, and one big reason is the ‘key’ mechanism it uses. Each time you enter a correct answer into the webpage provided, it gives you back a keyword for that chapter. Subsequent puzzles may then include text such as {key29}, meaning you should substitute in the keyword you received on solving puzzle #29. The result is that you can skip a puzzle you’re stuck on, but you do not have free reign to attempt the puzzles in any order; if you skip a puzzle, you may be able to solve some of the following pages, but you’ll soon find a puzzle that requires the missing keyword, and subsequent puzzles will rely on that puzzle in turn. The dependencies are chained so that, bar some lucky guessing, you are unable to complete the final puzzle until you’ve finished all the earlier ones.
The genius of that approach is that it allows you to keep going when you hit a roadblock, but then accumulate subsequent puzzles that you’re sure you could complete if you only had that missing keyword – which motivates you to go back and persist until you solve the page you skipped. In comparison, a strictly linear structure means people are more likely to give up or look for hints when they get stuck, so that they can continue; and full freedom to solve the puzzles in any order would incentivise players to do all the easier ones, and then be left with a discouraging mass of all the hardest pages.
It’s occasionally possible to solve a puzzle for which you don’t have all the required keywords, jumping ahead of the intended structure, but since the keyword for any given puzzle is completely distinct to the actual solution of that puzzle, there’s also no way to use that to figure out an earlier answer.
The other big reason why Journal 29 works so well is the discipline of the puzzle construction; each puzzle is based around one simple idea, and the page’s illustrations cryptically suggest that idea without resorting to distractions and red herrings. Where there might be ambiguity over an answer format, there is always some form of visual hint that means once you have the solution you can be confident in it. In 63 puzzles, there were only a small handful pages that fell below that standard, and those didn’t require much guessing to find the expected answer amidst the plausible approaches.
The puzzle style here is very much lateral thinking, where either you get it or you don’t; although some pages intentionally use external knowledge, and you are expected and encouraged to resort to the internet where needed. Inevitably there will be some puzzles which you don’t get, although I was impressed by how often initially impossible-seeming puzzles eventually yielded to further thought. Where you hit a dead-end, passing the book to a friend is your best option. A book is not very well suited for multiple people to work on simultaneously, all clustered around a page and fighting to look more closely. But Journal 29 is still best tackled as a pair or small group; I recommend passing it around for each of you to attempt independently, and then periodically compare notes to hint each other past any blind spots. Failing that, there is an online forum where clues may be found.
I noted a number of small flaws as I went: a few places where I thought a detail of the illustration was accidentally misleading, and a couple of places where the intended solution seemed to me a less natural fit than an alternative. None seemed like serious flaws, and against that, quite a number of puzzles went beyond being merely solidly designed to impressing with their creativity and ingenuity.
Tastes vary, and I’ve noticed a lot more variation in what play-at-home games people enjoy even more than in which live escapes they like. When you get stuck on one of Journal 29’s puzzles, you’re generally left waiting for that sudden flash of insight; very few are ‘process’ puzzles that need you to grind your way through them, and if the moment of inspiration doesn’t arrive then a page may become a complete dead end. But the whole structure is perfectly judged to mitigate the impact of getting stuck, and to motivate you to keep at it until you solve it. As it depends on a webpage to check solutions, it’s hard to read on a plane journey, but as long as you have internet it’s a great puzzle book for travel; and it’s likely to keep you busy for quite a while longer than a typical play-at-home escape game. For all those reasons it’s hard to go wrong with it; of all the home games available to date, whether books or boxed experiences, Journal 29 is the one I recommend most warmly to the widest range of people. 4 / 5
Pris rated this:4 / 5

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