Tuesday, June 30, 2015


Unplugged Dilintia: Houdini: Master of Escape Brainteaser

If you've spent any amount of time with puzzles, chances are you've come across one or two "escape puzzles".  You know, the kind with lots of rings and strings, and the objective is to get one of the pieces free from the rest of them.  They're fine in their way, but the problems are readily apparent.  They usually only require one trick to solve, and resetting them is usually just as much trouble as solving them in the first place.

And so, in much the same way that they improved the sliding block puzzle with Rush Hour, ThinkFun have reimagined the escape puzzle with Houdini.  It's a single-player puzzle game with forty challenges, ranging from Beginner to Expert, in which you must attempt to free a plastic Houdini figure from a tangle of ropes and rings.  Just like in the classic escape puzzles, the key often lies in recognizing which pieces can slip past each other in order to slip Houdini past his knots.

The kit you get is marvelous.  The strings have metal clasps on the ends that make it easy to assemble and disassemble the forty different puzzle configurations that they give you.  The strings are very clearly colored -- one a very bright yellow and one a very dark blue -- to make it absolutely clear to you which one is which, which is incredibly helpful as they start getting tangled together.  And the theming is perfectly charming.  Every piece in the set is unique in some way, and they all look like they belong in a magician's act -- two ropes (of different lengths), a metal ring, a plastic barrel, a plastic padlock, a plastic cage, and Houdini himself: a plastic ring for the body, and a flexible felt "ring" for his legs.

Setting up a puzzle is considerably more complicated than, say, slotting the cars into place in Rush Hour, but the illustrations are perfectly clear, and I never had any real difficulty with them.  Solutions are another matter.  They didn't even bother to include any kind of written solutions with the set; instead, they've set up a YouTube channel with video demonstrations of each solution.  It's probably the best they could have done, but even this might not be enough sometimes; the one time I broke down and looked up the solution to a puzzle, there was one crucial step in the puzzle where I couldn't quite see what they were doing, and so I still ended up having to figure it out on my own.  (What I did see in the video did, admittedly, put me on the right track.)

I've done a couple escape puzzles in the past, so I was able to breeze through the first thirty puzzles easily, but I found the last ten to be diabolical, some of them leaving me stumped for days at a time.

ThinkFun has really been attracting some ingenious puzzle designers lately.  Fussing around with rings and strings is a nice change of pace from their usual grid-based board games, and watching all of the ropes slide away as you pull Houdini's legs out of the cage really feels like a magic trick!  It's fun, it's challenging, it's satisfying -- it's another hit from ThinkFun.


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