Room-in-a-box, Nov 2018
Puzzle books and magazines have always had a loyal following, as shown by the puzzle sections in almost every newspaper and the various puzzle magazines seen in newsagents. The boom in escape rooms appears to have had a welcome spill-over effect in encouraging a market for puzzle books that are somewhere between an ‘escape experience’ and traditional puzzling. Journal 29 pioneered the format, and the latest book in this style is Codex Enigmatum. This doesn’t claim to be a book version of an escape room, and has very little story or setting. But in contrast to the sort of traditional puzzle publication that has fifty variations on the same puzzle type, each page is a different puzzle idea and the intended approach to solving it is often difficult to find – giving it more in common with the experience of solving an escape room.
At time of writing Codex Enigmatum is available on Kickstarter, and I have to caveat that I reviewed a pre-release digital version of the book. The main effect of this was that I couldn’t physically write on the pages while solving it, although I could use image editing software to ‘write’ on screenshots of them. This made some puzzles easier (instant perfect erasing of marks) and some trickier, though less than I’d expected. However, you should expect to need to write in the book to complete it, or to use a workaround such as copying it via tracing paper or a photograph.
Each double-page spread is a single puzzle, and there are 63 in the book (barring any last minute extras added as Kickstarter bonuses). Unlike other similar books, there is no online component, no webpage on which to check your answers. Instead, the back of the book has a set of hints followed by a list of answers (printed in reverse, to make it harder to accidentally see other answers). The advantage of this is that you can solve the book anywhere, without needing an internet connection (though some puzzles do use outside knowledge and expect you to resort to the internet). Against that, having the answers right there means you may be tempted to peek at them sooner than you otherwise might have.
Codex Engimatum is inevitably going to be compared to Journal 29, and they both use a system of substituting keywords from previous puzzles into later ones, such that you can’t attempt a puzzle until you’ve solved any earlier dependencies. In both books this is a very smart way to allow players to skip occasional puzzles, while still having to approach it in a mostly linear order and to eventually return to the ones skipped. An important difference is that in Codex Enigmatum the keywords you substitute in are the earlier puzzles’ solutions, not unrelated codewords. This means that you may be able to back-solve some of the book. In particular, I found I could complete the final puzzle while I still had several missing dependencies, and could then work backwards to make it easier to solve the pages I’d skipped. Whether you view that as a nice feature or a weakness will likely come down to personal taste.
Greyscale artwork adds aesthetic appeal throughout while managing not to pollute the puzzles with accidental distractions, and sometimes acts as a hint towards the intended approach. The book includes a variety of ‘process’ puzzles (where the solving method is not hard to see, but takes work to apply correctly) and ‘aha’ puzzles (where the difficulty is entirely in figuring out what to do). Several use riddles, though typically extracting the riddle text is the main part of the puzzle and solving the riddle is the easy bit. Some pages resort to puzzle types recognisable from magazines, which I thought was a step down in creativity. Others are satisfyingly original, and the book has some smart ideas.
What I admired about Codex is how it sets up its puzzles. There’s an art to providing just the right level of nudging in a puzzle’s presentation, such that it’s not obvious but all makes sense once understood. I thought the book did that particularly well, anticipating and removing potential points of confusion where needed, and giving subtle prompts towards the right solution without anything as clumsy as explicit instructions.
Tastes vary, and you won’t like every puzzle – there were a couple that I disliked and a couple I found more hard work than fun. But it’s impressively consistent, and often very good. If you liked Journal 29 and want something similar, Codex Enigmatum is a safe buy. If you just want a bunch of interesting puzzles to dive into – well, it’s still a good option.