When I was young, I used to enjoy reading the Encyclopedia Brown mystery stories, where the namesake of the series would solve small-stakes mysteries while being protected from the neighborhood bully, Bugs Meany, by his friend Sally Kimball. In theory, there was always a way for the reader to solve the mystery before Encyclopedia Brown revealed the answer, but I don’t think I ever did. I blamed this on the fact that the clues were impossible for a 9-year old to possibly figure out; one time the answer involved knowing that the letters “c” and “v” are adjacent on a QWERTY typewriter, another involved the fact that “a narrow flight” and “an arrow flight” sound similar. I remember those two to this day because I was so frustrated by them being unsolvable without spoilers, and when I go to college I found out that my roommate Craig was also held a bit of a grudge against the series over the “arrow flight” solution. That said, I still read all the books in the series, but it was always a little bit love/hate.
With that in mind, I decided to try my luck with some mystery puzzles from the German company, Esc-Welt. Welt is the German word for World, so the brand offers the promise of a nice escape from reality as you immerse yourself in Esc-Welt’s beautifully crafted wooded puzzles.
Esc-Welt sent me two games to review, plus a standard wooden jigsaw puzzle that was fun but nothing special. What was special were the two “escape room in a box” puzzles they sent: “Quest Pyramide” and “House of the Dragon” (both of which rated 4 out of 5 on the difficulty level). The idea behind these wooden puzzle games is that they have a secret compartment inside of them and only by deciphering the hints on the outside of the puzzle can you slowly unlock the container to get to the secret reward hidden within.
It was very exciting to sit down with the pyramid fully intact, and I was truly eager show myself just how clever I’ve become as an adult by solving the game’s mysteries. Instead, I got a lot of that old Encyclopedia Brown vibe while attempting (and failing) to unlock these visually impressive wooden puzzles.
Once I got “Quest Pyramide” unboxed and figured out that I was supposed to stare at four riddles printed on the underside of the square pyramid, I immediately hit a wall. WTF did any of it mean? The first riddle was just 3 symbols, a downward facing arrow, a jagged line, and a hieroglyph that resembled an eye.
From this, I was supposed to be able to infer an action related to a portion of the pyramid with a specific shape, but after 10 minutes, I had not, so I availed myself of an 11-second spoiler video. This video showed me what to do, and half-explained why I was supposed to have guessed it on my own, but even after I managed to unlock the mechanism related to this first puzzle, I never figured out what the hieroglyph had to do with the solution. Even now, after having completed the whole puzzle, I only half-understand how I might have teased out the solution on my own, but in reality, I still feel no more satisfied by the solution to this puzzle than I did when Encyclopedia Brown explained to me why he knew the missing item was hidden in a vat, rather than a cat, due to an “obvious” typo.
Nevertheless, with this first hint of how the system worked, I hoped to do better on the rest of the pyramid. Instead, I ended up using spoilers on every step, sometimes more than one. I began to celebrate when I half-solved the riddles on my own before conceding and turning to the video spoilers, but none of the answers ever gave me the feeling of “oh, right, I should have seen that on my own!” Rather, my reaction was more like “how the hell was I supposed to guess that?” The capper for the pyramid puzzle was that the last spoiler was labeled as being in English but the audio only available in German, and while I know a bit of our cousin-tongue, I had to seek out third-party help via a puzzle-solver’s YouTube page to understand the final step to unlock the top and get my secret reward.
The reward was reminiscent of the benefits of the Ovaltine decoder ring from the movie “A Christmas Story,” but the real reward, of course, is that feeling of having solved the dang thing (or in my case, 37.5% of the dang thing), and the prize was cute in its own way.
The next day I sat down to tackle the House of the Dragon puzzle, now fully aware that I had flailed in my efforts on the Quest Pyramide, but hoping my awareness of how the game designers’ minds worked would give me a leg up on the second puzzle. Alas, dear reader, it did not. With the pyramid, I had been pointed to four puzzles printed on the bottom, but with the House of the Dragon, after I was told the backstory of the carpenter who made the puzzle and his motivations for creating it, I was given nothing but a link to the spoilers to get me started. Based on what I’d learned through the pyramid, I did see there was information designed to guide me through some sort of puzzle for each side of the box. I undertook 15 minutes of messing with the box, after which I resorted to looking up the first spoiler, only to find the spoilers for this puzzle are missing from Esc-Welt’s website. Like not just “only in German” but missing entirely.
Thankfully, there was a spoiler video provided by a person who had solved it, using a prototype. This video helped me ham-and-egg my way through the puzzle, again getting something on the order of 3/8 of it on my own. When done, I tried to reassemble the puzzle so my wife could take a crack at it, but despite following the reassembly video exactly, I managed to (a) break one of the pieces and (b) fail to reinsert one of the pieces, so I now have a rather sad-looking, mostly re-usable damaged House of Dragon puzzle.
Ugh, I am still more than a little frustrated after my Esc-Welt play experience. Neither of the puzzle games made me feel clever, while at the same time, none of the spoilers gave me that cool second-best feeling of “oh, of course, I should have seen that.” It was a mystery I could not solve, with a solution I did not like. The fact that I broke one of the puzzles trying, unsuccessfully, to restore it to its original state only helped to create an emotional low point when I was done. Perhaps a better puzzle solver would have avoided these pitfalls but for me, Esc-Welt was an unsatisfying escape from the world. I wanted to love the Esc-Welt puzzles, but in the end I felt like I’d taken a pounding from Bugs Meany, and not in the satisfying way some brain-burners reward your effort.
I gave these puzzles a rating of 2 stars. Had the spoiler videos been fully functional, it might have risen to a 2.5, and if the game itself had given me more clues to solve things without resorting entirely to spoilers, it might have been a 4. To get to 5, the game would have needed to be easier to reassemble without breaking. In other words, this is a great concept for a puzzle game, but more than a little spoiled by poor implementation.
Who would enjoy these games? Perhaps if you know a real puzzle savant who can tease out clues from the ether, with better fine-motor skills than I have, this might make a nice gift. But I can’t really recommend it to the average BGQ reader (or Encyclopedia Brown fan), since I think most of us will be left frustrated with that “how the hell was I supposed to know that?” feeling, even absent the physical damage I did to these lovely wooden objets d’art.
Final Score: 2 Stars – Best I can do, at least in terms of their execution of what is a potentially fun concept.
• The puzzles are so beautiful prior to being disassembled (or broken).
• This is an awesome game concept, and the fact that (in theory) it can be reassembled and regifted has the potential for a very nice chain of custody of fun.
• I am smart, have multiple degrees from prestigious universities, enjoy being challenged mentally, and I couldn’t make heads or tails out of the games’ riddles without major hand-holding from spoiler videos.
• I had to resort to third parties because Esc-Welt’s videos were missing or, in one case, only available in German.
• I managed to break one of the games while trying to reassemble it.