Room-in-a-box, Dec 2017
Whereas boxed escape rooms are now thoroughly established with about three dozen products available, book-based escape games are still very novel. Newly translated from its original Spanish, The Escape Book claims to be the first of its kind, which might even have been true when it was originally published; so far there are certainly no more than a tiny handful of similar products though.
It’s a blend of novel and puzzle book, and includes a substantial amount of text telling the story of an investigative journalist, poisoned and trapped in the private maze of an eccentric megalomaniac, with an hour to escape, find the antidote and foil his dastardly schemes. After each 2-4 pages of story, you’re presented with a puzzle page. Solving the puzzle gives you the page number from which to continue reading the story.
Having sixty minutes to escape has become a defining trait of escape games, with only a handful of shorter or longer games, and many play at home games also have that as a target time. But while that length of time is optimal for a live game, it makes less sense for a home-based game. There isn’t the same financial requirement for an operator to fit a decent number of groups into a day, and players’ attention spans and energy levels last longer when seated around a table. An hour is a good length of time for an experience, but short for a book. In addition, a book is an opportunity to provide much more narrative and flavour text, but if you’re racing against the clock, that may feel like an unwanted distraction from the puzzles.
The Escape Book takes a novel approach to its time limit. At no point are you, the reader, given a deadline. Instead, the character in the book has sixty minutes, and her time remaining is stated at each step. This has the curious effect that the story’s conclusion coincides with the time deadline no matter how quickly or slowly the reader solves the puzzles. Perhaps that reduces the tension, but I took it as an invitation to read through the book and complete its puzzles across multiple sittings.
I found the puzzle style in this book to be both varied and variable. It has a well-judged difficulty gradient with an assortment of ideas that range from observation to lateral thinking, from visual illusions to logic puzzles, and largely manages to stay away from the style of problem you might find in a puzzle magazine. Its weaker points include two places that involved external knowledge to some degree, a certain task that’s infamously impossible for some people (though cool and fun for those who can do it), and a couple of puzzles that are more time-consuming than interesting. At least one seems designed with the intention that you destroy the page in the process of solving it, though you can avoid doing so if you prefer.
To me, escape games are intrinsically a group activity, whereas this book is a solo experience. Even so, its billing as an escape game isn’t just marketing; the design, the style of puzzles and the connecting story make it work. That story is workmanlike – this is a book you buy as a puzzle experience not as a novel – but succeeds at holding the thing together so that it’s more than just an unrelated set of puzzles.
This isn’t a game to gather friends around for an evening of escaping. It’s far better suited as solo entertainment on, say, a plane or train journey, or to dip into intermittently, and for that purpose it does its job well. While there are some points of frustration those are mitigated by the well-designed hint section at the back, and the rest is solid; plus, with it priced as a book not as a board game, it scores well on value for money too.