Puzzle Game Theme Ideas for Creators

Immersive puzzle games are on the rise and creative puzzle makers and story tellers are getting in on the action.  We’ve got subscription boxes, books, at home escape rooms, stand-alone boxes with real items you can touch and feel.  One thing that can get a little stagnant though are the themes.  Anybody that’s played a few of these games will start to realize that murder mysteries dominate the market.  I’m not saying to stop with the murder mysteries, because nothing makes a good story quite like a murder.  However, there are plenty of other themes and ideas that creators can work with.  By their nature, escape-room-based games have a wide variety of themes and so this list doesn’t necessarily apply to them.  Here is my list of themes that consumers would like to see more of. 

TREASURE MAPS

This theme is the most obvious on this list and has been used a few times already.  One thing that could be explored is diverging from the pirate treasure story line.  There is so much treasure throughout history and pirates didn’t have their grimy hands, or hooks, on all of them.  There’s the confederate gold from the US Civil War, Montezuma’s gold hidden from the conquistadors, Pancho Villa’s gold, although he’s kind of a land pirate.  There are treasures like Alexander’s lost library, the city of Atlantis or any other equally exciting lost civilization.  Stories of lost treasure are probably as old as human history itself.  It’s a known fact that language was invented so a caveman could ask another caveman where the shiny rocks are.  You won’t even have to invent your own, I guarantee there’s hundreds of stories that almost nobody else has ever heard of just waiting to be unburied.

HORROR

This theme has also been touched on by a few games but there is so much more to bring to the light.  We are already being swamped with horror inspired by the stories of H.P. Lovecraft.  The horror genre is so vast in content that we shouldn’t be limiting ourselves here.  We may have seen a cabin in the woods movie several times before, but have we ever been the ones locked in a cabin?  If your little sister got possessed by an evil demon, would you be able to unlock the clues and codes to figure out its name to do an exorcism.  If you were an evil devious puzzle maker in real-life, would you stop when you found yourself dead and haunting a castle.  I personally think everything is better with little pinch of horror in it.  I guess murder isn’t horror enough for me though.

CRYPTOZOOLOGY

Whether you believe in him or not, hunting for the big foot is something everyone loves and jokes about.  In the US alone we have the sasquatch, the Mothman, the Jersey Devil, wendigos, skinwalkers, thunderbirds, the goat man, the dog man, living dinosaurs, chupacabras, and rabbits with horns on their freaking heads called Jackalopes.  We have so many shows, movies, and books covering people’s encounters with these creatures and how they escaped.  People go out looking hunting for mythical beasts all the time either trying to debunk them or catch them on camera.  Combine this with a Scooby-Doo type of plot and you’ve got yourself a mystery to solve.

SPIES

Surprisingly this has not been covered nearly as much as you would expect.  You could create a game where the player is a spy trying to complete a mission and get out before time runs out.  You could have the players be spy hunters and uncovering a widespread network of notorious baddies trying to create chaos and mayhem.  Combine this with a historical element and you might create something truly unique.  Some of the best cryptography techniques were invented during wars.  I don’t know if Caesar invented the Caesar cipher, but maybe there was a Roman spy network.  The Revolutionary War was full of spy rings and encrypted messages on both sides.  Don’t get too crazy though, even the best cryptogram enthusiast might balk at trying to solve the Enigma Box from World War II by hand.  Unless someone out there wants to make a replica enigma box for a game. (OMG DO IT!!!!)

CONSPIRACY THEORIES

This one is the most untapped mystery that should happen.  Everyone loves a good conspiracy theory.  Everyone has a good conspiracy theory.  You would think there would be a bunch of games where you get the bottom of what really happened as Roswell and Area 51.  Did NASA really go to the moon or will we be caught in a massive web of lies that goes all the way to the top, the President of the United States.  Is the Bermuda Triangle really a triangle?  The Freemasons, Illuminati, Men in Black, and New World Order are all mysteriously missing from any mystery box I have ever seen.  Maybe there’s something to this and soon you will see my blog mysteriously vanish.

These are just a few mystery ideas that I would like to see come up in the future.  Is there a theme I’ve missed or something you would like to see in a game?  Feel free to comment and let creators know.  And creators, keep doing all the awesome work that we love.  Never leave a mystery uncreative!

-J.C. Mystery Detective

Legend: A Game of Maps Review

One thing I love about these immersive puzzle games is there is so much room for creativity. Just about everyone that has played these games has an idea brewing in their mind. I discovered one of the most brilliant and creative mystery games that I’ve played to date. Well-hidden amongst the arts and crafts of Etsy is an independent game called Legend: A Game of Maps. A true piece of art by its own right.

The game is beautiful and ingenious. The documents and maps you receive are made with great care and craftsmanship. They all look and feel hundreds of years old and possibly lead to some long-forgotten treasures. All the puzzles make it seem as though you’re the historian treasure hunter discovering hidden messages and codes in these old documents. Right now, there are two chapters of the game that can be purchased separately or as a bundle. Although, I can’t imagine just stopping at one.

Legend: A Game of Maps first game.

The first game came to me in a shiny red envelope with my name hand-written in cursive on the front. The personal touch is something you won’t find anywhere else. Opening the envelope revealed a letter from the Kettering Institute asking for my help with the following documents. Three pages written in a strange cipher and an accompanying clothe map. They believe the pages contain some clue in finding a buried treasure and naturally they heard I was good at this sort of thing. They must be fans of the blog.

This chapter of the game is enjoyable if you like cracking ciphers. It’s challenging because it uses symbols instead of letters. I spent a good hour or two doing frequency analysis before I realized there’s a hint in the Kettering Institute letter that saved me a bunch of time. Always read the directions people! After solving the message I was able to plot some locations on the map and sent in my findings to the Kettering Institute via email. After a couple of days I received the conclusion to the story.

The second game is where things get really exciting. The difficulty level also goes way up and it’s where we leave behind the amateurs. Once again I received a personalized envelope which contained a letter from the Kettering Institute asking that I take a look at the following documents; a large map of the Caribbean, a Mayan manuscript, a letter from a sailor to his wife and daughter, several cards with symbols and cutouts, and a paper artifact. The Kettering Institute thinks that the Caribbean map and Mayan manuscript are linked somehow. The other items are their own mystery which means we are getting two treasure hunts in one game.

Holy lifeboat, this game is amazing. I cannot believe the volume of puzzle that the creator managed to fit into these documents. Every time I solved a piece, I got an elated feeling of accomplishment. Imagine if you were Nicholas Cage in National Treasure and finding the Templar treasure. This game is more riddle based and you will have to go from riddle to riddle finding the clues. When I found the first hidden message in the sailor’s letter, I thought that was all there was to it. But as I pondered what it could mean I realized there was more. I was in shock when I found the next step and realized that this single letter contained an extremely sophisticated set of riddles that seemed to never end. With that much puzzle you would think the letter would be a jumbled mess of words, but it reads like a simple letter from a man to his wife, just describing some of his adventures. There’s even a part where you have to make a decision on which path you continue forward.

The Caribbean map and Mayan manuscript are their own incredible puzzle. Studying the map shows a lot hidden content, but where to start. From the title of the map of course. It’s hard to go into detail without spoiling anything, but you will go back and forth between the map and manuscript as it’s clear the Spanish explorers used the manuscript to create a treasure map. Eventually you will decipher some coordinates that will lead you to the buried treasure. X marks the spot! Once you are completed you will email the Kettering Institute with your findings they will explore those areas and report back what they’ve found.

Ron Francesangelo is the creator and I believe a one-man operation. I personally think he’s a genius as I’ve never seen this level of puzzle before. If you get stuck on any part and need a hint, you can email him with the address provided and he was happy to help. His hints are perfect as they give away nothing but help you on what you should be focusing on.

You need to buy this puzzle! There are two ways to buy, you can buy the first and second parts independently for $25 or $35 respectfully, or you can save $5 and buy the bundle for $55. At only $55 for both games, it’s a steal. I spent $50 in New Zealand on a map of Middle Earth, and that only gets me to the dumps of Mordor. This game is hand crafted and everything looks and feels like it’s hundreds of years old. The website claims that this is only the beginning in a whole series. I might be biased, but you need this game. I cannot wait any longer for the third installment to come out.

www.legendagameofmaps.com

-J.C. Mystery Detective

Was the Zodiac Killer a Genius?

The Zodiac Killer terrorized the San Francisco Bay area during the 60’s and 70’s. Five murders were attributed to him although he has claimed many more. What really set him apart was his mysterious letters and ciphers that he sent to the local newspapers to taunt the police and the public. The first cipher was cracked by a couple of puzzle enthusiasts while the others remain unsolved. These cryptic messages have forever changed how we perceive the serial killer especially in fictional stories. Serial killers leave clues and codes for the police to follow and only the smartest detective is up to that task. Is it really that hard to make an unbreakable cipher though?

Even if someone has the key to break a cipher, it’s still a rather tedious task especially without a computer. Without knowing the key, it takes a patient person to look for patterns in the letters and words. From there you can solve each letter one by one as you recognize certain words and phrases. The couple that solved the first Zodiac cipher, called the 408 cipher due to there being 408 letters, did just this by correctly assuming that the Zodiac would use “I” in the first sentence and the word “kill”. Even then it took them about 20 hours to completely solve.

Zodiac 408 Cipher Sent to Three Different Newspapers

What they learned is that the Zodiac used a homophonic substitution cipher which suggests that he had at least studied cryptography. Homophonic substitution ciphers use more than one character for one or more letters for the message. The idea behind this is to hide certain patterns and trends in the encrypted message. E, T, A, O, I, and N are the most common letters used in the English language. By using more than one character to represent each of these, it can make frequency analysis useless. For the letter E alone, he had six characters.

It is believed that these messages were not truly meant to be decrypted. After his first message was solved, and relatively quickly, he probably felt that he needed to increase the difficulty of his cipher. Several factors can aid to really increase the difficulty and with minimal effort. His most famous cipher is the short 13 letter cipher that supposedly contains his name. By making the cipher so short and using a different key than previously, a lot of assumptions would have to be made and many mistakes or incorrect guesses have confused things. Did he actually give his name? Did he use his full name or middle name? The number of letters is roughly the average of most English names in the United States which leaves a lot of room for false matches. My name wouldn’t work no matter what I tried. So, rest assured I’m definitely not the Zodiac.

Zodiac Name Cipher

Other factors can make it more and more difficult to solve. Using symbols makes it more challenging especially when you don’t have a name in your head to associate with it. Not using spaces between words or punctuation for sentences really forces you to focus on common patterns in words. Misspellings can really mess with your confidence that what your solving is working. From what we see in the first cipher, all these tactics were employed.

So now we move on to the 340 cipher which was the last cipher sent to the press by the Zodiac. Many people claimed to have solved it but their decrypted messages is usually garbage. Even with powerful software designed to find the smallest patterns in codes and ciphers have failed to pick up any clues. For over fifty years it has gone unsolved, and in my opinion will never be solved. We cannot know if he even played fair in creating a cipher. He could have changed the key every line. He could have used a combination of ciphers on top of one another. He could have used a Vigenere cipher where the key word is also 408 characters long. He could have made a message out of complete gibberish.

Unsolved Zodiac 340 Cipher

One problem with making ciphers and codes is that you can quickly make it too difficult for other people to solve. The issue with this, is typically you want other people to solve it. During war you need to make your codes and cipher difficult enough so that the enemy cannot understand it but follow simple enough rules so that your ally can quickly get the message. So, intelligent and well-planned ciphers that are meant to be solved are where true skill and craft come into play. If you want to make something impossible to solve, all you have to do is make an impossible set of rules that follow no real logic, or make something so short that multiple solutions muddle the result.

To answer the question proposed in the title, I do not believe the Zodiac Killer was a genius. I believe he was egotistical, and it served his purposes to make it seem like he was smarter than the police. He clearly studied cryptography and purposefully used tactics that make it difficult or impossible to solve.

If you want to read more on the Zodiac ciphers, check out http://zodiackillerciphers.com and watch the videos presented by the American Cryptogram Association.

-J.C. Mystery Detective