The Curse of Old Maid Milly Review

There are several puzzle books out there and it’s difficult to decide which ones are worth your time.  There’s the successful puzzle book series like Journal 29, but they can be challenging at times and not the best for beginners.  I’ve seen a few lately that are designed to be more like an escape room where the book is more like a choose your own adventure rather than sequentially reading through the book.  I took a chance on an independently published book called Escape from the Room: The Curse of Old Maid Milly.  The game ended up being very entertaining and a lot closer to an escape room experience than I anticipated a book could get. 

The story begins with a professor of the paranormal that has come to investigate a haunting.  As he enters the room of Old Maid Milly, the door behind him locks and he now must escape the using the puzzles and clues left before him.  The first page is a map of the room with page numbers labeled in various directions.  For example, the bookcase is labeled with Page 4.  The remaining single-digit pages are all various items and directions that you can look at in the room from the start.  Like walking into a physical escape room for the first time, you’ll want to take in everything you see for future reference.  If you see a page number on the image you may go to the page to get a better look.  As you solve puzzles, they will direct you to the next page. 

The game implements a satchel where you can collect items you find while rummaging through the room.  You can’t pick up just anything however and the game is clear when you should put something in your bag.  Occasionally a puzzle will require you to use one of the objects.  They should be fairly common sense, such as using a wrench when you find a bolt for example.  A couple times it was a little bit of a stretch, but you don’t have a lot of items in your bag so it’s not hard to eliminate a few options.  I like this mechanism and I think it was used well.  However, I was lazy and didn’t want to write anything down.  I was able to remember most of the items that I could use at my disposal but sometimes I had to flip through the book to find the item.  Of course, it would have been much easier if I just wrote it down. Thinking back, I could have easily used notepad on my phone since you’ll need your phone for hints anyway. 

The puzzles come a wide variety but are mostly logic or enigma type puzzles.  A majority of them are fairly easy but are still original and entertaining.  I still got stuck on a few which is inevitable as everyone thinks differently and some puzzles will always be more challenging to some than others.  I would say that this book would be great for that budding puzzle solver whether they be new to the genre or a young teenager.  Even though the puzzles are easier than some other books, it will be enjoyable to an experienced puzzle solver as well.  Sometimes I get annoyed with the puzzle books that force me to stare at a single puzzle for a day or a week.  This book allowed me to casually solve a few puzzles after work without having to wrinkle my brain too hard.  My brain is already melted after a long day, so I find the easier puzzles to still be engaging and relaxing.

If you get stuck and need a hint, this book utilizes a web page to aide you.  Like flipping to the back of the book on older puzzle books, all the hints are listed on one page.  There are two hints to each puzzle.  The hints are numbered to their corresponding pages in list format.  Because you must flip back and forth through the book, the chances of accidentally reading the hint for the very next puzzle or slim.  However, I did accidentally read a hint or two that luckily I forgot by the time I found that puzzle.  The first hint directs you where to focus and the second hint nearly spells out how to solve the puzzle for you.  Finally, there is a solution list if you find yourself completely stuck.  I never had to look at the solutions but a couple of times I did peak at hint 2. 

The book has an interesting key to convert the answer to the puzzle into a two-digit page number.  It allows the puzzle to be letters, words, cardinal directions (N, S, E, W), or basic directions (up, down, left, right).  This makes the puzzles more diversified rather than always looking for a two-digit number.  It’s always fun in a real escape room to have a directional lock so I loved that it was incorporated into this game as well. 

Pages from the puzzle book Escape from the Book: The Curse of Old Maid Milly by Nathen Newark.

Despite the picture on the cover this game is very family friendly.  There is a ghost in the room with you, but the story is never scary.  The main character is a professor at the London Institute of Paranormal Activity and he is investigating a supposed haunting at the late Old Maid Milly’s home.  She was a cat lady and has several cat paraphernalia strewn about her room.  The pictures are roughly sketched like what you might see in a children’s book.  They are not amazing pieces of art but get the job done and add to the whimsical flair of the story.  The story of Old Maid Milly is sad like most ghost stories, but you will reach a happy conclusion as you help her ghost move on.

The directions in the game are very clear.  The author went to great lengths to make sure you understood what the puzzle was asking and where to focus your attention.  There is a lot of story to the book as the professor explains his thoughts or remembers funny previous haunts that he studied.  If the story is not relevant to solving the puzzle it will be in plain font.  When something is relevant to the puzzle, it is darker font or bold.  The puzzles and rooms are only on the right-hand side of the pages.  The left-hand side has additional information you can use such as the hint website, other pages you need to solve the puzzle, a close-up view of the puzzle, and the key to convert the solution into numbers.  This makes the book great for beginners (and me).

Overall this book surprised me with its carefully constructed puzzle formats and entertaining story.  The beginning of the book explains that this game was based off a real escape room that the author created at their business in London.  The author Nathen Newark has a clear talent for creating puzzles and obviously loves escapes rooms.  The way that he was able to translate the experience into a book format is amazing.  He also put a lot of care into making the game accessible to people with a range of different experiences which has its own challenges.  A lot of books out there push to make harder and harder puzzles which isn’t too difficult when they just lack any explanation for how to solve them.  The real talent is making a challenging puzzle that explains exactly what they are looking for.  I think this game balances that better than most even if it is a little on the easy side.  There is second book to the series as well called Escape from the Room: Murder in the Village that promises to be just as fun as this book.  Never leave a book unescaped!

-J.C. Mystery Detective

A ‘Sharpe’ Distinction Review

Last Saturday I hosted my first ever Murder Mystery Dinner Party.  I was nervous about how it would go, but I am happy to say that it was fantastic.  Everyone dressed up and we ate and drank and merrily tried to solve a murder.  The game we played is called A ‘Sharpe’ Distinction by A Murder of Crows – Murder Mystery Games.  They are relatively new and had a successful Kickstarter campaign where they launched A ‘Sharpe’ Distinction and coming soon ‘The ISS Constantine’.  They graciously offered me a copy of the game to review and I am so glad I tried it.

The game is played with 10 guests choosing 1 of 10 characters.  This can be done ahead of time as you send out invitations or you can choose at the start of the game.  Each character has a sheet that describes their back story as well as characteristics that you can use during the game to sharpen those acting skills.  Each character receives an envelope that contains additional information on your character, your alibi and motives surrounding the murder, your goals for the game, two ability cards, and your character’s secret.  This should all remain confidential until the end of the game or you reveal them to the other characters.  You can lie, eavesdrop, trade information, or use other techniques to piece together the story and ultimately solve the murder. 

One of my guests had played two other murder mystery games before.  So, although I am unable to compare this game to others, she gave some insight on how murder mystery parties usually go down.  Typically, there will be a script and several rounds of dialogue.  Everyone will sit around a table and read aloud their parts for the first round and discuss everything freely as a group.  You will move on to round two and continue the game in this fashion until everyone is finished.  If I compare this game to that description, I would say that ‘A Sharpe Distinction’ is much more dynamic and livelier.  Each character knows one tenth of the story and it’s your job to gather that information.  I can see the merits of both gameplays, but this game suited our party much better.  It made it feel more like an actual party where you are free to wonder and talk to whomever you choose.  The only things you need to accomplish are your goals.  Where this might put some people off is very little direction is given.  You may think you understand the story only to realize you were deceived or there was a whole other narrative going on that never came up in your line of questioning.  It also made for a slow start as everyone needed 10-20 minutes to read through their character sheets and understand what was expected of them.  Once we got past this initial crawl, everyone was off and having a great time. 

The ability cards help push the game forward if you’re feeling stuck getting information from a particular character.  Each character seemed to have one ability to gather someone’s secret and one to hide their own secret.  You can only use the ability once for the game although several in our party forgot this and just kept using them.  It didn’t help them a whole lot so it wasn’t a critical rule to enforce.  The secret should remain a secret for as long as you can keep it.  Once another character has this secret, they are free to tell anyone they choose for their own purposes. 

There was 4-5 pieces of evidence that everyone can rustle through. This was a nice touch as it allows you to take a quick break and gather some additional clues for your investigation.  One of the papers included a cipher which I thought would be a little difficult during the game.  Only 2-3 guests were interested in solving it so it might be something not every gamer is willing to try.  I knew it had to be simple since ciphers are generally time-consuming.  One guest brought up a clue which I immediately knew was the key.  One of the characters saw what we were doing and acted nervous and tried to distract us by offering us drinks.  It’s the fun little interactions like this that made the game really pop.

Choosing the location for your party is important.  Most of our party was located outside on the patio.  We also had the kitchen where the food was served and the living room where the bar was located.  I was mostly in the kitchen or living room for obvious reasons.  Everyone agreed that having multiple rooms and areas to have private discussions made the game more fun and easier to prevent pesky eavesdropping.  Finish off the atmosphere with some decorations or some prohibition era music and you’re golden. 

Choosing your friends is another important decision.  Picking a group that is willing to be in character and actively participate brings the story to life.  My group all dressed up and some even went all out.  My brother was packing some heat with some BB guns and shoulder holsters and one of the ladies playing Dina came with dark eye shadow and a goth look.  Everyone looked great as you can tell from the pictures. 

Esteemed guests at my Murder Mystery Party! At least one of them is a murderer!

For food I followed the suggestions by the game as well.  I had shrimp cocktails, deviled eggs, a cheese and meat platter with crackers, and several other finger foods.  I ended up having way too much, but it allowed everyone to grab what they wanted or just continue their conversations into the kitchen.  You could have a sit-down dinner but I think it would slow down the game or stifle your progress.  It would also allow everyone to hear other’s conversations which might spoil the game if you are trying to keep secrets and discover other’s secrets.

The game says that it will last for 1-3 hours depending on the diligence of the participants.  You can take breaks if you wish but because the game allows you to roam freely, we didn’t need one.  We easily played the game for 3 hours before I decided to make a last call for everyone to achieve their goals and start the endgame.  As host, it will be your job to judge the progress of your guests in the game and decide if everyone is getting tired or no longer playing.  The conclusion starts when the host reads the final speech.  Before the speech, our party came together and discussed all our findings and theories.  From there I began reading the final speech which brings to light everyone’s secrets and ties all the narratives together.  It’s only two pages but it was easily my favorite part of the night.  There were several revelations that got everyone excited and laughing.  As we covered what each character was up to, they had a chance to explain themselves and laugh about their difficulties trying to stay in character or keep a secret.  We then concluded with the finale of the murderer’s identity.  I think only two were able to guess correctly apart from the murderer of course.  We all joked that it would be a crazy twist if the murderer didn’t even know.

I think a testament to how well the game was written is that our murder mystery party veteran was able to guess correctly.  She told us that in the other two games she played, nobody was able to solve the murder.  It’s very difficult in murder mystery stories to keep enough secrets and throw out enough red herrings to keep the mystery exciting.  It’s extra challenging to make the game solvable.  Everyone at the party had a motive and possible opportunities to murder the victim.  As you sift through all the alibis however, there can only be one murderer, unless you’re on a train or something. 

One possible issue that could arise is the fact that you need exactly 10 players for this game.  A Murder of Crows said they can send you a modified version if you could only muster 8-9 or had a no-show.  There’s also a version now with 12 characters that’s available if you can manage it.  One way the game says you can get around this issue is to invite more people than needed and only have 10-12 play.  You must be actively playing your character for a good 1-3 hours so that might not be very fun for the additional people.  Those people might even get bored and sabotage your game a little since they have no stake in keeping secrets. 

There are 4 female characters and 6 male characters in the 10-player version.  The additional 2 players for the 12-player version are both female I believe.  Two of the characters can be either gender and the art is simply an interpretation of that character.  A Murder of Crows has stated that they can change any character to use genderless language if anybody feels uncomfortable playing a character of the opposite gender.  One of our guests had to play a male character and she was a good sport about it.  This cannot be helped unless you pick guests with the exact female to male ratio and you should just roll with the roles. 

I believe the way A Murder of Crows has structured the game will make murder mystery parties much more appealing and inclusive.  It’s dynamic and exciting to be forced to interrogate your friends or try to weasel information from them.  The game releases that stuffy stigma that might come with a murder mystery party and really opens it up to several types of personalities.  If you’ve ever played a murder mystery party before, this is a great game to change things up a bit.  If you’ve never played one before, this is an awesome game to start with.  I feel very accomplished to have my first murder mystery party to be such a success.  This game helped make that happen with their great suggestions and well written story.  Thank you A Murder of Crows!  Never leave a murder mystery party unsolved!

-J.C. Mystery Detective

Check out their website to see other fun content like The ISS Constantine!

The Birdcage Vs. The Room

Physical puzzles have been popular ever since the first caveman hid a berry under rock and baffled his friends and family. Where did it go? Ever since then puzzle boxes and hand held puzzles have gotten a little more complex. The newest additions to the genre are virtual games that you can play in your hand. This allows creators to make seemingly impossible objects come to life. Today I’m talking about two popular games that you can play on your smart phone or tablet; The Birdcage and The Room.

The Birdcage

First 10 levels are free, $0.99 for every additional 5 levels, 25 levels total, usually has a 50% off deal to buy the full game with all levels

Screenshot from the game The Birdcage.

The Birdcage is a virtual game where you have to solve a series of puzzles to find the key to the birdcage. All of the puzzles are designed into the framework of the birdcage itself. You will collect objects and manipulate mechanisms to find secret compartments and solve puzzles. Once you get the key you will release the bird inside who thanks you by magically flying out with sparkles and an empowering soundtrack.

Things I love:

The first 10 levels are free to play giving you the opportunity to try it out before paying for the full version. They start from very easy and progressively get harder as you advance in the levels. It never gets super difficult and overall the puzzles are relatively easy. This makes the game more relaxing as you can methodical solve puzzles without too much frustration. Like playing a Sudoku or crossword puzzle, you’re still using your brain but in a calm fashion to help you unwind.

You can play in two modes: normal or AR. The AR is pretty awesome. You will set up the birdcage virtually in the middle of your room. You can adjust the position and height before getting started. Once setup is complete, you will walk around the cage and play the game as if it was actually in your home. It’s all through the screen of your phone or tablet of course but it’s pretty impressive. Unfortunately I’m lazy and mostly play in normal mode. In normal mode you simply control the camera with your fingers to move the birdcage around.

Things that can use improvement:

This is something that all virtual escape room and puzzle games suffer from but The Birdcage isn’t too bad. When a puzzle relies on you hitting an exact pixel in the screen or is so well hidden there’s no way a normal human could see it. You end having to click the screen a million times either because you know something is there but it’s not responding or you’re just completely lost and desperately looking for something to work. The Birdcage is actually pretty descent in this regard but it still happens occasionally. Overall The Birdcage is well lit and simple to manipulate.

The hints aren’t really hints and simply highlight exactly what you should be doing next. It’s a “physical” puzzle so it’s not like they could describe what to do in a riddle. Just be aware that clicking the hint button means you’ll see the solution.

The Room

$0.99 for full version, free to try

Screenshot from the game The Room.

At this point The Room is now seven years old and can be downloaded as The Room Pocket for smart phones. The first level is free to try and then you will pay for the remainder of the game like most apps. You begin in a room with a large table that seems to have several hidden compartments, artifacts, and mechanisms. Once you find your first clue you progressively work through the puzzles into this ever growing enigma. The puzzles and amount of mechanisms hidden within seem endless.

Things I love:

If this thing was made into a real physical object, it would be the single greatest puzzle table of all time. Just when you think you are getting close to solving the whole thing another mechanism is triggered and a whole new section mechanically grows out of it. Almost everything seems like it could be made into a real table if there was any genius mechanics out there willing to try it.

This game is significantly harder than The Birdcage. The puzzles are fairly complex and you must find all the pieces to a puzzle before you can move on. This game is a lot closer to an escape room experience with the sequential nature of opening locks and doors and collecting items for the next puzzle.

There’s a fun eyepiece that you wear to find hidden symbols and messages. This is similar to using a black light to find invisible ink. Anytime you think you are stuck you can put on the eyepiece and there’s usually something that was hidden. This adds an extra layer to the experience but also means you have to remember the eyepiece when you get stuck.

Things that could use improvement:

When it comes to having to click everywhere on the screen, this game suffers a lot. It’s very dark and so finding hidden compartments and small scratches or indicators that something is movable can be challenging. It isn’t worse than most escape room games I’ve played so don’t be discouraged into thinking it’s flawed.

Because the puzzles are sequential it can be very challenging to figure out what is supposed to happen next. There’s a three part hint system that knows where you are based on your progress. The hints start off by telling you where to look and get more specific as you progress. There’s also a time limit so you can’t just look at all the hints at once. The hint system is actually a huge help but there’s so much to look at that it can be a bit overwhelming to figure out the next step.

There are some puzzles that require that you look through the eyepiece and change your perspective to create a symbol. The puzzles themselves aren’t bad but it takes away from what I said about how it could be a real physical puzzle. How would the table know that now I can see this specific symbol and open a drawer? I just want this table to exist in real life.

Overall both games are engaging and addictive. Once downloaded onto your device, neither game will require an internet connection to play. I felt like The Birdcage went by too fast only to realize I had been playing for a couple of hours. The Room gets more and more exciting as you progress and the table becomes more intricate. I think The Birdcage wins for being a very relaxing game that you can unwind with. It would also be great for kids and you can watch them run around in circles to solve the game in AR mode. The Room easily wins if you’re looking for a challenge. The theme is fantastic and it’s one of the best escape room type of games out there. Both games have sequels so the adventure doesn’t have to end once you excitedly blast through the first. Never leave a birdcage locked or a room unsolved!

-J.C. Mystery Detective