Escape the Crate

If you had a time travel machine, where in time would you go? It’s kind of an arbitrary question because you now have a time machine, you can go everywhere! You literally have all the time in the world now! You can ride a dinosaur, become a pirate, watch a Houdini show, rob a bank with Bonnie and Clyde, join a jousting tournament in Victorian England, walk like an Egyptian. You know, the usual time traveling vacation destinations. It’s not all fun and games though when you race against time to chase a super villain as a member of a law enforcement agency. Actually, it is a game and you can do all of these things with Escape the Crate.

Escape the Crate is a subscription box where the escape room experience is delivered to your door. You will be sent back to various time periods by a time traveling agency called EMIT working for The Clockmaker. A nefarious time criminal named simply Mr. X will keep you on your toes as you attempt to foil his plans. At each location you will race against the clock, solving puzzles, and gathering clues to stop him.

You are in control of the stopwatch and therefore there aren’t any real consequences to going over your allotted time. The game starts with the three levels of Expert, Regular, and Easy. This simply means if you feel you’re a pro at this, then you only have one hour to complete the game. As a beginner you can take a “leisurely” hour and half to complete the game. I will say the two games I played took me one and half hours each with a healthy amount of hints. The puzzles are meant to play to different people’s mental strengths and talents and it is difficult to play by yourself and not be on easy mode. Once your time is complete though, you can be honest on the website and hit the times up bottom. Usually the website will explain that you lucked out in some fashion and now have five extra minutes. Even if it said game over after so many attempts, you would still be able to play the game again and quickly get through all the passcodes that you’ve already solved.

The puzzles range from logic puzzles, hidden messages, to anagrams. Different rooms or cabinets are “locked” into sealed envelopes that you must not open until instructed to do so. Each envelope is thrilling to open as it usually overstuffed with several items. Some you will hang onto as you collect similar items that will be used for puzzles later in the game. Even the box is used to hide secret information or as a reference to a puzzle within. The puzzles are nearly identical to the types you would see in a live escape room. You only have one hour so the puzzles aren’t the time-consuming type like solving a cipher. Instead you will just have to figure out what they are asking for. This is probably the most challenging part of the game, figuring out what is needed to solve the puzzle. They help out as much as they can by including the amount of digits you need to open the envelope. There is also a series of hints that get progressively more on the nose with what you need. Each series of hints concludes with the solution if you’re absolutely stuck. I found I could usually get the point after the first few hints, but there were a couple where I did roughly 10 hints before finally looking at the solution.

Unlike some games, all the little goodies and trinkets are used as part of a puzzle. As I collected gems in the Bonnie and Clyde box, they were used to solve a fun logic puzzle a the end of the game. A little toy horse in the Curse of the Queen box was used as I counted the spaces needed to joust in a tournament. To me this completes the escape room experience. If you’ve never been to one there’s usually all kinds of objects around that add to the theme and are sometimes used to solve puzzles. The keepsakes in this box are cheap but fun and I will most likely keep most of them. I’m definitely adding the jewels I stole borrowed from the bank to my treasure hoard. The first box you receive also comes with a mini blacklight that’s super useful for finding all those secret messages. I literally scanned every piece of paper looking for invisible ink.

A great thing about this company is that you can join the subscription or you can buy what they call the “retired” boxes. A lot f companies are doing this now and it makes sense to me. A lot of work goes into making this games and when you discover a good company, you want to be able to get the older boxes. I understand that this can seriously ramp up production costs as they now have to make a new box once every two months and also keep the old boxes in stock. However, I think fans are willing to wait even if certain boxes go out of stock for a few months or so. The fun part about escape rooms is the themes and people want to be able to buy the theme that appeals to them the most. To make up the extra production cost, the retired boxes are $35 as opposed to the $30 subscription cost. Since they only send out a box every two months, this is a great way to try new boxes as you eagerly await for your next subscription.

If you love escape rooms, this box is the closest to the real-life experience out of all the games I’ve played so far. The puzzles are challenging and will sharpen up that brain muscle. There’s plenty of hints and help on their website during the game to make it accessible for everyone from first timers to experienced veteran’s. Every bit of the box and it’s contents are used for game play which makes it feel like you are truly trying to escape the crate. I can’t wait to jump in my time machine and see what other kinds of trouble I can get into. Never leave a crate unescaped.

-J.C. Mystery Detective

The Culper Spy Ring

The Revolutionary War is taught in the United States from an early age to invoke pride and patriotism in ourselves.  General Washington lead the untrained colonists to victory even though they were outnumbered.  With just shear will power they were able to defeat the British armies and navies and become an independent nation.  However, George Washington knew that just will power could not win a war.  He even knew that he was not a great general after a decisive defeat when the British took New York early in the war.  He knew that intelligence would be key in this war and he employed a tactic that was considered lowly at the time for a gentleman.  That tactic was spying.

Naturally both sides used spying and intelligence gathering.  The act of spying however was left for a lower class and was usually unreliable due to double agents who would sell information to whichever side would pay the most or just sell it to both sides.  Another challenge at the time was that only one third of the colonists believed in becoming independent.  Another one third were loyal to the king and, true to most Americans today, the other one third just didn’t care.  George Washington needed loyal individuals willing to risk their lives and be clandestine enough to never get caught.  Perhaps the most successful of the teams was called The Culper Spy Ring. 

George Washington approached Major Benjamin Tallmadge about creating a spy ring to gather intelligence from New York City.  From there Tallmadge got to work and recruited his life-long friend Abraham Woodhull.  Woodhull had regular business in New York and a sister giving him a reason to enter and leave New York for a decent reason.  He was terrified and anxious every time and eventually came under suspicion.  After that Robert Townsend was recruited to aide Woodhull and act as lead.  Others included Caleb Brewster, Austin Roe, Anna Strong, Hercules Mulligan, and a woman only known as Agent 355.

How the ring passed information sounds like something you would see in a modern spy movie.  One of the spies would gather information by eavesdropping on British soldiers not being cautious enough with their information.  They would then write a message in codes, ciphers and invisible ink and pass it along using a series of drops.  Woodhull would drop his letter under a rock at the corner of his farm property despite British soldiers taking quarters in his home.  Brewster would then sail the message across the Long Island Sound to one of six caves in the cliff side.  Anna Strong would hang coded massages on her clothesline that would indicate whether a drop was ready by a black petticoat and which cave it was in by the number of handkerchiefs.  Tallmadge’s dragoons would intercept the information from the cave and eventually work their way to General Washington. 

Their techniques were so good that the spy ring wasn’t fully discovered until 1930.  They had many successes including uncovering a double agent, the infamous Benedict Arnold.  Perhaps their most successful intelligence was informing General Washington about a possible attack at Newport.  The colonist diplomats were able to convince the French to send a navy and soldiers to aide in the Revolution.  It was critical that the French be able to land safely and have a few months to recoup from their long journey.  It was discovered that the French had landed and the British sent their ships to meet them at Newport.  Once Washington was aware of this, he was able to trick the British into believing he was attacking New York which caused the British to pull back.  This gave the French a chance to organize with the colonists and eventually take back New York.

Scan of the Culper Spy Ring Code of the Library of Congress.

Most of the messages employed a sophisticated code system that the Culper Spy Ring employed.  The code consisted of over seven hundred and sixty numbers.  Each was three digits long and represented several words and names that you wouldn’t want to get caught talking about.  Agent 711 was George Washington himself.  Benjamin Tallmadge had the alias John Bolton.  Abraham Woodhull used Samuel Culper Sr. after which the ring was named after.  George Washington picked the name Culper from Culpeper County, Virginia which was his first assignment as a land surveyor.  Robert Townsend was Samuel Culper Jr. and Anna Strong was possibly the unknown Agent 355.

They also used a popular cipher of a page number, line number, and word number of a book.  The difficulty with this cipher is that it must be a book that both parties have available.  They used a popular dictionary for the time.  Another method was called a sympathetic stain or invisible ink.  This technique was known and used frequently even by the British.  You simply had to apply heat or another chemical agent to get the stains to appear.  For added security George Washington had a new invisible ink invented that only appeared with a specific chemical known to them.  It’s funny how war often advances innovation. 

There’s so much more information about the Culper Ring that I encourage you to research. Of course there were many other spy rings on both sides of the war with their own successes and innovations.  There are theories that the French ran out of money to help the American colonists which eventually lead to the French Revolution.  History is fascinating and the Fourth of the July is the perfect time to reflect on how we got here today.  That and blowing anything and everything up with fireworks!  Happy Fourth of July!  Never leave a firework unlit!

-J.C. Mystery Detective