In the past few years, an awesome trend has sprung up in gaming, and it’s been quickly growing and evolving: home mysteries. One-off, cooperative puzzle adventures, often strongly story driven and with a lot of emphasis on atmosphere.
They’re sort of a hybrid between subscription boxes like The Mysterious Package Company (check those out if you haven’t!) and the many escape room board games that are flooding the market. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the immense success of escape rooms, I’m not sure any of these games would have existed today.
As the creator of Puzzelpost, a Dutch home mystery, I have been keeping a keen eye on the developments. Since there hasn’t been any one breakout success to define the genre, there still is a great range of different forms and ideas. Let me show you some of my favorite examples. Some of these are much larger and more ambitious than others, but each has their own unique qualities. This list is mostly spoiler free. Part of the wonder is in the unboxing and discovering the contents for the first time!
1. The Tale of Ord by PostCurious
- Mail order game, 4 packages
- Recommended nr. of players: 1 to 4. I’d say it’s perfect with 2.
- Duration: 3 to 4 hrs per package according to the Postcurious website. We took 2 nights for each package.
- Difficulty: high
- Price: $165,-
- Resettable: sort of
Before I start raving about the wonderful experience that is The Tale of Ord, just keep in mind that I’m not being paid to write any of this. In fact, all games on this list are technically my competition!
In The Tale of Ord, you play as a private detective, looking for two missing professors from a Swedish academic institute. Over the course of four mind-bending packages, the story moves ever deeper into Norse mythology, becoming gradually more magical.
This is reflected in the documents and other objects inside the packages: they get more exciting and otherworldly as the game progresses. When I opened the first one, the contents seemed a bit underwhelming. There was some cool stuff I won’t tell you about, but it mainly consisted of letters, notes, a business card, etc. But every box after that was more impressive than the last. Amulets, real world objects, moving parts, materials with hidden properties… The final package (and the largest) is just incredible to look at. My wife and I obsessively went through all chapters, saving the last for a special occasion.
The Tale of Ord is beautiful and very thematic, but it’s also hard. It plays like an escape room, where each solution leads to a clue for the next puzzle. We are quite experienced puzzlers and we’ve been trying to keep away from hints, but we did need a couple so far. However, the puzzles are always fun, logical and fair. I have one little gripe: the story is compelling, but the relation between it and the puzzles doesn’t always make sense. We’ve learned to stop wondering why a character would hide a certain message in such-and-such way or how they would even know to hide it.
But don’t let that discourage you: this experience is one-of-a-kind. If you’re interested, you might want to be quick: only 500 were made. Luckily, the creator is working on a sequel.
2. Cryptogram Puzzle Post by Jack Fallows
- Mail order & store bought. 24 issues released so far, can be played separately.
- Recommended nr. of players: 1 to 6.
- Duration: ±1 hour each.
- Difficulty: medium
- Price: approx. $10 to $20
- Resettable: yes
No relation to my own games (called Puzzelpost). A friend recently discovered Cryptogram Puzzle Post during a trip to London and bought me several issues as a gift. It couldn’t be more different from The Tale of Ord, making it a perfect example of how varied this genre is.
Cryptogram Puzzle Post is short and sweet, cheap and gorgeously illustrated. Creator Jack Fallows has a background in comics. He calls his project ‘an art, gaming and storytelling experiment,’ as well as ‘a monthly bundle of interlinking puzzles, codes, spells and illusions inspired by witchcraft and alchemy.’
Each issue tells one short chapter in the ongoing story of a young witch called Anne. It consists of an envelope with 8 pages inside. You’re supposed to keep the pages in order and only move on to the next after you’ve solved each puzzle. The solution to the final page can be e-mailed for confirmation. The story is divided into seasons of 3 issues; solve a whole season and you’ll receive a secret ‘art prize’ in the mail. No idea what that is though; the few chapters I have are all from different seasons.
It’s a very nice experience. It can be done with slightly larger groups than most of the games on this list, because there isn’t really any material to go around, just a conundrum to discuss. So far, the first page of each issue I solved has been a riddle, followed by a number of logic puzzles. We’re not really into riddles, so this first page is always the only one we get stuck on. But that’s just personal preference of course. Highly recommended.
- Mail order. Two trilogies released so far.
- Recommended nr. of players: 1 to 4.
- Duration: ±3 hours per box.
- Difficulty: medium
- Price: approx. $75 for a trilogy.
- Age: 16+
- Resettable: yes
These boxes for ‘Belgium’s largest detective team’ are in Dutch only, just like my own. Crimibox just released their second trilogy. It’s the only entry on this list that doesn’t have a mystical or historical theme: you’ll be solving cold-blooded murder.
Players apply as members of a special civilian detective squad and are sent monthly files of cases the police isn’t able to solve: police reports, interview transcripts, photos and pieces of evidence (like bits of bloody fabric). Apart from that, a large part of the experience is digital, like online video, social media accounts and their custom Crimibase app. A chatbot is used as the hint system.
Crimibox is another good example of the diversity in home mysteries. It isn’t quite as escape-room-y as most. Instead of solving self-contained puzzles, it’s all about following tracks and making logical deductions, like a detective would. The creators greatly encourage players to work together through their large private Facebook group.
Note: Crimibox seems to have a lot in common with Hunt a Killer, a successful puzzle subscription in the US. They have a similar theme and tone and also use monthly shipments. I never played Hunt a Killer, so I can’t go into detail.
4. The Wilson Wolfe Affair by Simulacra Games
- Mail order (Kickstarter)
- Recommended nr. of players: ±1 to 4.
- Duration: hard to say (see below). Long, though.
- Difficulty: hard
- Price: approx. $75 (‘silver tier’) to €280 (‘platinum tier’)
- Resettable: Yes
Woof! Now this is a huge, packed to the brim, extremely ambitious product. The Wilson Wolfe Affair has a very distinctive look. The theme is early 20th century animation: bold lines, bright colors, and a lot of material with a toy-like feel. All the props look incredible.
“Upon finding the diary of a studio animator in a box of old cartoon memorabilia, you become convinced of his theory that someone was hiding secret messages in the cartoons.” The price for the full game (the ‘platinum tier’) is very high, but there is just so much in the box: a zoetrope, two board games, multiple maps, magazines and newspapers, 3d glasses, a slide viewer (one of those stereoscope things), and much, much more. In their words: “The amount of content is colossal. The full game covers more than 40 […] smaller puzzles. Each of these might take 15-60 minutes to complete.”
However, Kickstarter games are known for roping backers in with meaningless goodies. That’s why I bought the cheaper ‘silver tier’, and I’m glad I did. It still contains dozens of items and close to 30 puzzles.
The game is less like an escape room, and more like a puzzle hunt: a series of largely unrelated puzzles, with very little handholding. Every puzzle leads to a word or phrase; find all of them to solve the final step. Some puzzles are much harder than others, and to be honest: some are much more fun than others. There is an enormous amount of creativity in this game, but sometimes it can feel like a chore.
The Wilson Wolfe Affair isn’t for sale at the moment. I believe they intend to prepare a full launch, now that all pre-orders are shipped.
5. Journal 29 by Dimitris Chassapakis
- Recommended nr. of players: 1 or 2.
- Duration: ±5 hours total.
- Difficulty: easy to medium
- Price: $15
- Resettable: Yes
Journal 29 is quite different from all the others on the list. It might not even fit some of the narrower definitions of a home mystery game. But I’m including it, because I can. This list is all about variation anyway.
Journal 29 is cheap, fun and easy to take with you. We solved our copy outside, at a camp site in France. It’s a book with a single puzzle on every page. Enter the solution on the website, get a keyword in return, and continue to the next page. You’ll need previous keywords to progress through the book.
The mysterious book contains the notes of a team of investigators working on a top-secret excavation. Something happened in the 29th week: the team disappeared; all that was left behind was their journal. And… that’s about all there is to the story. It gives the puzzles a bit of a theme and there are a lot of nice-looking sketches, but don’t expect any plot development. It’s all about the puzzles. Some of which are brilliant and tricky, others I consider filler material. That’s ok though; there are 63 of them. And the creator recently released a sequel, which does have a bit more story to it.
Before I tell you about my own home mystery, Puzzelpost, I want to mention some titles that didn’t make the list. Most of these I haven’t played, so I’ll leave the reviewing to someone who has.
Wish you were here was recently funded on Kickstarter. It’s tiny, consisting of exactly 5 postcards. They are crammed with codes and puzzles, and online research is encouraged to be able to solve them all.
Airmail Adventures are just starting out, but their premise is great: an ARG for kids! Imagine finding a treasure map in the attic as a kid, starting off an adventure where you receive mail from foes and allies over the following weeks. With parents as an accomplice, this could be really cool.
Letters from dead people. “From a studio in 1920s New Orleans, L. Delaney solves mysteries, chases ghosts, and makes miniatures. Subscribe to receive or send prettily forged historical documents, and/or tiny curios.” Sounds great, and the materials look very nice.
Disney’s Ghost Post. Yep, The Walt Disney Company also tried their hand at a puzzle subscription box. The Ghost Post was made as a promotional product for the Haunted Mansion in Disney Land. Only 999 were made and I believe they all sold out on the first day. The material was quite beautiful, and not only could you play at home, there were some parts you could only find or solve inside the park.
The Armchair Detective Company. Oh how I wish I could have reviewed the Armchair Detective Company today. A large locked wooden chest, with smaller boxes and lots of handcrafted materials inside, this was one of the first home mysteries to be offered online. Alas, the IndieGogo campaign was recently cancelled for personal reasons after several years of delays.
Hunt a Killer. As mentioned above in the Crimibox review, Hunt a Killer is quite a large company, serving puzzle boxes to tens of thousands of customers in the US. They have a modern look and a serial killer theme.
The Mysterious Package Company. Seriously, you haven’t checked them out yet? The MPC is kind of the granddaddy of, well, mysterious packages. The quality of the materials is absolutely top-notch, but so are the prices. The main reason it didn’t make the list is because their beautiful boxes aren’t really games at all. There is little to no puzzling to be done; it’s 100% narrative.
The list goes on (have you ever heard of S, for example?). But your time is precious and so is mine. I’d still like to tell you about my own game!
- Mail order
- Recommended nr. of players: 1 to 5
- Duration: ±3 hours per title
- Difficulty: hard
- Price: ±$55
- Resettable: Yes
I’m sorry, all my games are in Dutch only for now. (That might change in 2019!)
The first Puzzelpost package came out one year ago, thanks to crowdfunding. Het Boekanier Dossier (The Buccaneer File) contains the remnants of an old missing-persons case: in 1979 the 19-year-old amateur investigator Abigail Boekanier disappeared from a small village. Decades later, her sister Helena is the only one who still has a little hope left.
The dossier was designed to be solved in one or two nights. There are no game rules and no digital elements, just the box with all the evidence Helena could find. It does play like a linear escape room, though: each solution offers a clue to the next puzzle.
As you may have noticed from this list, I care a lot about how convincing the materials look. I did my best to make all the newspapers, maps, letters and other documents seem as real as possible. Puzzelpost cases are sent through the mail, often as an unsuspected gift. An introductory letter, containing a little note from the gifter, precedes the box.
Het Boekanier Dossier is the start of a trilogy. In the later parts, the story slowly develops from a small-town detective mystery to an international Cold War drama. The final chapter will come out later this year; each part can be played separately.
Last august I released a sort of add-on called The Filomela Letters. These letters are different from the games: they read like a book, adding depth to the story. They do contain a bunch of puzzles and secret messages, but those aren’t linked together to lead to a single final solution (also, some of them are fiendishly hard).
It’s a great privilege to be able to design and publish these mail order mysteries. So much is possible, and I can’t wait to announce all the things I have in mind for after this trilogy ends. I am sure the genre will keep growing and evolving, slowly expanding the market and giving us ever more variation.
If you haven’t experienced a home mystery before, I hope this article piqued your interest. Try one. Or gift one; it’s a fantastic surprise!