Puzzle Pamphlet Design Diary #01: Ephemera

Design Diary - Puzzle Pamphlet - Ephemera

Why those little bits of paper that aren’t designed to last can be one of the most powerful immersion tools in a puzzle experience.

Here I’ll talk through my though processes, highs and lows of designing and creating a escape-adjacent puzzle experience I’ve dubbed the Puzzle Pamphlet. It’s one of my 2020 goals to get it published before the year is out.

I’ve had an idea in my head for a good six months now for a paper escape-adjacent puzzle experience that didn’t rely on locks, was small enough to fit in a letterbox and had a decent degree of narrative running through it.

And all the while I had a single word floating around my brain – ephemera.

What is ephemera?

According to all the dictionary websites I visited, ephemera is a collection of stuff that isn’t meant to last. This usually applies to paper objects, so things like:

  • ticket stubs
  • business cards
  • menus
  • posters
  • receipts
  • letters
  • newspapers
  • pamphlets
  • ration books

The irony is that ephemera tends to be highly collectible once it’s past a certain age. A quick search on eBay for “victorian ephemera”, for example, comes back with over 3,000 listings.

I can see why people dig it. In an escape room environment especially, these bits of paper can sometimes be the best way to enhance immersion in whatever story you’re creating. A laminated set of instructions is okay, but a tattered looking journal entry from a ship’s captain is in keeping with the theme and gives you a tactile sense of the world you’re in.

A recent Kickstarter from Beehive Books took Bram Stoker’s Dracula and turned the novel into a series of actual letters, diary entries, photographs, maps and phonograph records.

Though expensive, the whole package looks incredible and lets the reader discover the story for themselves however they wish. Being able to hold the letters someone has actually penned, the maps someone actually used, is a powerful experience.

It’s why Mysterious Package Company is so popular, though these experiences come in sizable crates and have the price tag to match a bigger experience.

So it got me thinking – what if you could sneak in a collection of puzzles into a bunch of ephemera, tied into a cohesive story that made for a small-scale, affordable experience?

Credit where credit’s due

This isn’t new thinking at all on my part. There are several others who’ve achieved this to varying degrees and who’ve inspired this idea to some extent. I know there are many more out there, but these are the ones I’ve played.

  • Legend: A Game of Maps by Ron Francesangelo is a beautiful puzzle experience and treasure hunt, laid out to look and feel like a collection of coded maps from the Age of Exploration. The attention to detail is astonishing and it makes you feel like a real treasure hunter. I’m still working through it and I’m loving it.
  • Cryptogram Puzzle Post by Jack Fallows is a narrative-driven puzzle experience with gorgeous artwork that deals with alchemy, the occult and survival. Your solutions – both right and wrong – drive the story forward in each issue. I’ve done a few of them and I get a kick out of them every time.
  • Flatpak by The Escapages is a puzzle experience designed to look like an innocuous furniture catalogue. The puzzles are cleverly concealed, and the answers start to spin a dark tale about kidnapping and conspiracy. Flatpak was successfully funded through Kickstarter, but I’ve played through the few dozen puzzles they published on social media.
  • The Wish You Were Here series by The Enigma Emporium – a series of ciphers and codes contained within a series of postcards that are connected by a single narrative. These are challenging and fun to crack, and the theme makes the use of codes and ciphers believable.

Puzzle pamphlets

What I want to do is create a series of portable puzzle experiences that are contained within a simple trifold pamphlet – the kind you’d see in tourist information office. They’d all be themed around and set during the Victorian Era.

Close up screenshot of the Puzzle Pamphlet by Armchair Escapist
A sneak-peek at the prototype for the first Puzzle Pamphlet. Say hi to my great grandparents on the right!

The pamphlets themselves would be accompanied by other bits of ephemera (ticket stubs, telegrams, business cards) to flesh out the world and to act as puzzle hints and decoding aides. My aim is for all these to fit in a standard envelope rather than a box so they can be posted worldwide without too much trouble.

So that’s my jumping off point. I’ve made a start on the first ‘issue’ but I’ll leave that for a future update.

In the meantime, if you’ve any recommendations for great at-home puzzle experiences (preferably in the UK – shipping and customs is not always kind), let me know!