A lot of people ask me for recommendations of what to play. Last year I wrote a post about some tabletop puzzle games I enjoyed, and it seemed about time to write another one.
This is not a ranking, nor are these comprehensive reviews, but rather some overall impressions on a breadth of games I thought others will enjoy. Hopefully this will help you discover something new!
What is it?
The Curious Elevator of Mr. Hincks is a whimsical puzzle game that arrives as a box full of mostly paper items. The puzzles are solved in a linear manner as you enter solutions on a website in order to go up to higher floors in the elevator.
The puzzles generally solved well but hints were also available through the website.
Although I normally prefer non-linear games, I wasn’t frustrated by the format in this one. The puzzles didn’t overstay their welcome and the online submission system worked smoothly.
The game was humorous and lighthearted. It often made us smile, and we appreciated the joy that the creators embedded into it.
Narratively, there isn’t much to sink your teeth into. It’s not trying to be that kind of game, but if you’re looking for a deep story you won’t find it here.
It subverted a trope by making very good use of one particular item. We loved that.
A good number of the puzzles were word-based, so it may be a little harder for non-native English speakers.
Time spent: ~2 hours
This game is for you if: you want a delightful self-contained game to puzzle through and are not looking for a big challenge or a heavy narrative.
What is it?
Society of Curiosities offers a subscription-based game with a pirate/treasure-hunt theme. You will receive small packages that will take you through a series of puzzles both on and offline. Answers are submitted via text message, which adds to the immersion and gives the experience structure.
The game flowed well and felt approachable. A couple puzzles felt a little under-clued, but thankfully there is a great hint site.
The components were nicely crafted and the puzzles made use of a commonly underutilized prop.
The game is fairly family-friendly (especially with the pirate theme).
The online elements were clearly signposted so as not to open any deep rabbit holes. There was no tedious research, but it did a nice job of blending the fiction of the story with the real world.
I appreciated the debrief sent at the end which explained all the puzzles in context with the story.
Time spent: ~2 hours for the first chapter
This game is for you if: you enjoy a treasure hunt with a mix of puzzles and online sleuthing.
What is it?
There are currently two chapters of this game in existence, out of a planned total of seven. It centers around a sea voyage of a character searching for an ancient treasure. The two chapters so far are very different in terms of gameplay and difficulty: the first contains about 2-3 puzzles and many pages of deciphering, while the second opens up a whole world of new mysteries.
This game has beautiful hand-aged components, many of which really do feel like old artifacts. Some of them have a staggering attention to detail, which you appreciate more and more as you progress through the game.
Some of the information is hard to see (small fonts, very faded text, etc.) Although it sometimes makes for new discoveries, if you don’t have great vision, this could be an issue.
I enjoyed slowly cracking the cipher, but ultimately the first chapter was mostly translation. It was absolutely worth it to be able to continue to chapter 2, but it took some patience.
The game would benefit from an online hint system and fewer red herrings.
The puzzles in chapter 2 were varied, interesting, and challenging. Some of them contained layers upon layers of riddles and discoveries, and overall this was one of the most satisfying solving experiences I’ve had in a while.
Difficulty: 1.5/5 for chapter 1, 4/5 for chapter 2
Time spent: ~1.5 hours for chapter 1, 5+ hours for chapter 2? I lost count.
This game is for you if: you enjoy beautifully aged components and challenging, layered puzzles… and don’t mind translating several pages of text to start with.
What is it?
I would describe Root of All Evil as more an experience than a game but it was certainly a special one. You receive a mysterious crate packed with weathered papers, a journal, and some religious objects, and follow the story of a priest as he navigates a supernatural mystery that takes place around a strange tree on the grounds of an asylum. The gameplay centers around finding and decoding hidden messages in the journal and some of the objects.
This is an entirely handmade game, and it is clear that the creators put a lot of effort into the weathering, presentation, and packaging of the components. The level of care and attention to detail definitely enhanced the experience.
The experience is centered around a journal, so there was a fair amount of reading, but I didn't mind it in this case. I played this one solo though, so I am not sure how it would translate to a group experience, but I did wish I had a second pair of eyes for the more subtle clues.
Since the experience was on the shorter side, it would be nice if it could be repackaged. It is much too nice to throw away, but space is an issue in an apartment. This would be remedied with a refill kit.
There is a clever mechanic that you can use at the end to make sure you didn’t miss out on any of the puzzles. Since there was no online hint system, this was a welcome addition.
The interactions in the game were exciting. It has a couple great surprises and a fantastic ending.
Time spent: ~2-3 hours
This game is for you if: you appreciate hand-crafted items, realistic artifacts, and creepy stories, and don’t need a ton of puzzles to enjoy an immersive mystery.
What is it?
An interactive mystery comprised of five chapters, The Haunted Dollhouse is a handmade game that uses historical documents and miniatures to reconstruct a 1923 crime. The player unravels a story about a broken family and a New Orleans mansion as they parse through letters, tiny paper furniture, and build a mini dollhouse using their findings.
I really enjoyed both the substance and presentation of the mystery and puzzles. It felt more sensitive and unique than the typical murder mystery. Relationships, letters, and little bits of humor gave characters more depth.
The artistry of the creator is reflected in every component and detail.
The dollhouse structure itself was a bit wobbly and the furniture delicate, but putting everything together was very satisfying. (There are even tiny books!) Note that there is a fair amount of cutting in the game.
The story unravels as you proceed through the packages, but they do not have a clear end point. There is not a lot of guidance on many of the puzzles, but it is also not necessary to solve them to progress through the game.
A full conclusion and guide was available at the end if you missed anything.
Time spent: ~4 hours
This game is for you if: you appreciate hand-crafted items and miniatures, and don’t need a ton of puzzles to enjoy an immersive mystery.
What is it?
This is an episodic game consisting of 5 chapters, which can be purchased all at once or as a monthly subscription. The player acts as a detective trying to hunt down a cold blooded killer after the murder of two women in a small town. Each box comes with a case file including suspect interviews, bags of evidence, etc. It’s up to you to piece together information and deduce which suspects can be eliminated. (Disclaimer: I’ve only played 2 of the 5 chapters so far, so the following commentary is based solely on those.)
The quality and materials were well put-together. It really puts you into a detective’s shoes as you examine all the files and evidence.
Rather than a series of individual puzzles, the goal of each box is to eliminate a suspect(s). There is a lot of information to take in, and even when you do eliminate someone, it doesn't mean you're done with the box. There is often other information to find or puzzles to solve (which I presume will be important in later chapters as you uncover more of the story?)
When I was ready to start the second chapter I had to refresh myself on part one since a couple of months had passed. I recommend playing all the boxes in a shorter period of time so you can remember the details.
The game uses USB sticks to give you info, which can be a security concern for some.
There are hints and solutions available if you want to double check your answers or need help. I appreciated that the longer ciphers were translated in this section as well.
Time spent: ~2 hours per chapter
This game is for you if: you enjoy deductive mysteries and examining materials like a real detective.
What are your favorite tabletop puzzle games?