I enjoy puzzle games but I often feel a bit out of my element when I try to review them. Puzzles are, in some sense, more pure than board games. Their appeal is almost entirely mechanical and when they fail they fail in one of two ways: the solution is either too obvious or too arbitrary. But puzzles, assuming they avoid those pitfalls, are also more inscrutable. I know, for instance, that there have been puzzles I’ve found more enjoyable than others, but I have a difficult time analyzing what makes those puzzles superior.
Perhaps the best puzzles are multi-layered, not getting their thrill from one large revelation, but from a series of smaller, connected revelations. Perhaps both styles can result in great puzzles. Perhaps the satisfaction gained from a puzzle is more subjective than usual, as the difference between a trivial solve and a brain-burning one might not lie so much in the puzzle itself but the skillset of the solver.
Regardless, I’m tasked with reviewing Blackbrim 1876, a two-part puzzle game along the lines of the EXIT or Dr. Esker series. Puzzling Pursuits have created a solid package of varied puzzles that took Amber and I about three or four hours to complete. The framing device is simplistic but unobtrusive: a criminal mastermind has kidnapped every (!) police officer in a small English town and has released a series of puzzles that, if solved, will lead you to their location. How convenient.
The story doesn’t develop much past that, save for one puzzle that reveals some new and disturbing information about the villain. But that’s unfortunately an aberration. I don’t expect a game like this to provide a riveting narrative, but if you tease it, why not try to deliver? The production design does a pretty good job at keeping you in the 19th century setting with high-quality paper stock and cursive fonts and such. I particularly enjoyed the unfolding cardboard briefcases that house each of the game’s two puzzle sets (separated, I assume, to imply that each makes for a good gaming session).
The best aspect of the puzzles are their variety. Blackbrim is a hodgepodge of puzzle types, and with a group you’re guaranteed to find something that suits your tastes. At one point I opened up one envelope to find a delightful logic puzzle. “Ugh”, Amber said, “it looks like it came straight from the LSAT”. I, having never taken the grueling LSAT, was not so scarred by it. I’d gladly do LSAT questions all day, every day if I could. She opened the next puzzle while I happily worked through the (sadly easy) logic. Another time I got completely stuck on one aspect of a multi-layered puzzle and Amber figured it out in 2 seconds when I showed her my conundrum.
What else? You will probably need to use your phone to complete everything in Blackbrim. I don’t mind it, but I know some of you out there are picky about such things, so fair warning. I caught one misprint that sent me on an unsuccessful rabbit trail for a few minutes, but it wasn’t too frustrating. You check your answers on the publisher’s website, where they also offer hints if you get stuck. Beware: the hints are VERY helpful.
Unfortunately the game isn’t meant to be replayable, which always gives me pause. If you’re careful and if you use a pencil you might be able to reset it well enough to pass on to a friend, but that’s clearly not the intended use.
Overall, Blackbrim 1876 made for a pleasant couple of evenings. None of the puzzles stood out as being particularly brilliant, but none of them were stinkers, either. That’s rare to find, as nearly every other puzzle game I’ve played had some aspect that left a bitter taste in my mouth. Most of the puzzles in Blackbrim have one trick to figure out before you’re lead to the answer, but the trick is never arbitrary. You’re always pointed, one way or another, towards the solution. As someone who can’t even imagine how he would go about creating a puzzle game, a package of a dozen well-crafted puzzles is something of a magic trick.