Board Game Gumbo: Spice it up! with Doctor Esker's Notebook
People that game with me on a regular basis know that I am sometimes perplexed by the puzzles presented in modern board games. This should not come as a surprise. The word “puzzle” itself has roots in Old French as a descendant of the word aposer. Solving puzzles to me is both a skill that can be honed as well as an innate ability some people display. Some puzzles seem obvious and easy to me, while others are as transulescent as pig iron.
Yet, one of the coolest things in board games is when a designer’s handiwork results in the player feeling clever. Puzzles in games are a great opportunity for designers to give you that feeling. I wish I were better at them; I wish I were half as good as some of the krewe at figuring them out quickly. But not being good at something has yet to stop me from enjoying a challenge!
Does your game group like to solve puzzles? Are you the kind of gamer that refuses to start the day without solving the puzzles in the morning newspaper?
Well, then, puzzle fan, it is time to spice up your game night with Doctor Esker’s Notebook! (Note: Plankton Games was kind enough to provide us with a review copy. You can purchase a copy right from the Plankton Games website for about $15).
Doctor Esker’s Notebook is a 2018 little card game designed by David Dobson, and published by Plankton Games. No artist is credited for the work in the game. According to BGG and the game notes, it plays from one to six puzzle solvers in about 60 - 180 minutes. In our play tests, we had teams of one and twos geaux through the puzzles in roughly a couple of hours, but your mileage will certainly vary.
This can easily be both a solo game or something fun to do with friends on a game night or dinner party. You just need enough space to spread out four to ten cards or so on your tabletop.
The theme according to the game page is
Doctor Esker has vanished, leaving behind only a mysterious book full of puzzles written in his own hand. Nobody has cracked his cryptic codes yet. Are you up to the challenge?
It is a nice touch to include some theme, but I am not giving anything away to tell you that this is essentially a puzzle book in a deck of cards, highly portable, highly enjoyable, but there is really not much of a theme. Does a deck of puzzle cards needs an overarching, highly visible theme to work? I do not think so, but it was nice of the designer to come up with a mysterious theme, and it gives a little gravitas to some of the handwritten notes.
The game comes as a deck of standard sized playing cards, with the words “Esker” and a funny symbol emblazoned across the front. Inside, the gamers will find 73 cards that are part of nine different puzzles to solve.
There is not a lot to talk about in terms of presentation, since it is essentially just a deck of cards. The cards seem to be adequate in card stock quality, although my graphic designer buddy Carlos complained a little about the lack of “bleed” on the cards that made some of the puzzles a little more difficult to finish then they could have been. I think I understand what he is saying -- having the full print of the artwork / graphics go from edge to edge would have made a couple of the puzzles easier.
I will congratulate the designer on a few things from a presentation perspective. For 90% of the game, the typeface and size used is absolutely readable. My tired eyes had trouble on only a few cards, with some tiny print, but my son Jack’s eagle-honed Marine eyes had no trouble seeing everything on all of the cards. The combination of pictures, hand written notes, and
The gameplay is very simple. Gamers will crack open the deck, look at the first few cards which contain all the instructions you need to start solving puzzles, and then grab the deck marked “start.”
From there, any further discussion could get little tricky (spoilers!). Part of the fun of games like this is “discovering” (as Rodney Smith of Watch It Played would say, at least according to Tony & Marty of Rolling Dice & Taking Names) the conceit of how the designer put the entire package together.
But I really do not think it gives anything away to mention that the decks are essentially word, picture, spatial and critical thinking puzzles. Solve the puzzle, in other words, figure out the numbered clues contained within the puzzles, and that will direct you to the next deck (another puzzle). Solve all nine puzzles to “win”. Trust me, you will know for certain that you have completed the last puzzle.
BUT IS IT ANY FUN?
More than any other game we have reviewed, the determination of whether a play through of Doctor Esker’s Notebook is fun is going to be dependent upon the person who played it. I’m not being coy here -- if you like puzzles, you will love Doctor Esker’s Notebook, and if you don’t, well you are in for a long hour.
But even if you don’t, I still think you should give it a try, and here’s why. The designer included a cheat sheet, basically a link to a website that contains gradually more revealing clues.
I was not expecting that in such a small production, but let me tell you, it was much appreciated. I like puzzles as much as the next gamer, and I had fun going through them with Jack, but I’m not too embarrassed to admit that we struggled on a couple or three. In fact, the very first puzzle stumped us, and we needed some pretty heavy hints to get through it.
Thinking back on it, the necessity was a no brainer, since neither one of us do these kinds of puzzles even on a semi-regular basis, so training our brain to think in the terms required by the puzzles took a little time. We do not do escape rooms, or very many of the Unlock / Escape / Exit series of games -- even though these are BIG hits with the rest of the Krewe de Gumbo, who flock to the BGG libraries and vendor halls to seek out and destroy the latest iterations.
So, even for us non-puzzle fans, working through the puzzles was a joy. Sure, some of them took more hints to help us solve than others did. But you know what? Even on the ones where we got down to the very last hint, we still felt a sense of accomplishment when we figured out the puzzle before using the last hint. It is such an aha moment when you hit the right solution, that it really did not matter to us how fast it took us to get there or how many nudges we needed. In fact, on two of the puzzles, we had the right answer, just were not very sure of it, and so it ended up we did not even need the hints in the first place. C’est la vie…
All total, four different groups from the Krewe de Gumbo tried out Doctor Esker’s Notebook, and the average play time was just under two hours. If the krewe is telling the truth, all but my group used only a few hints to get through the puzzles, while Jack and I used at least the easy ones on each puzzle, and for a few, had to resort to all the hints! That’s a short way of saying that each group that played felt the challenge level was just right.
Puzzles are VERY well done
Puzzles are varied
Hint system is well done and easy to use
Gives you that feeling of cleverness when you did hit upon the solution
Great solo or small team game experience, with only a couple of hours to invest
Can be broken up into multiple sessions
Can be passed around to your friends
Theme is minimal
Would’ve been nice to have a unique overarching theme
Some of the card production elements stymied just a teensy bit of the puzzle solving
If you like puzzles that are portable, devious, make you feel clever when you solve them, and very reasonably priced, then I highly recommend picking up a copy of Doctor Esker’s Notebook. It is an even more portable version of the very popular escape-room-in-a-box type games, even though there is no real “escape room” flavor in this particular offering.
Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!
— BJ @boardgamegumbo