The enigmatic Doctor Esker has died, and what he has left behind is his notebook. But true to what we knew of him in life, his notebook is full of riddles.
Doctor Esker’s Notebook is a puzzle game. It’s comparable to an escape room without the overarching narrative. And despite the clear marks of small, indie publishing, it’s a pretty good entry into the genre, at least if your main concern is the puzzles.
The chief selling point of Doctor Esker’s Notebook is portability. The entire game fits inside a cardboard tuckbox. Because the game and rules fit entirely on standard-size playing cards, it’s easy to fit in a backpack, a purse, or even a pocket. Beyond this, it’s portable in the sense that you also don’t need a lot of space to do individual puzzles. I played this on a portion of my desk at work and on a loveseat at home, and it worked fine in both venues.
It’s also easy to set up and put away. If you don’t have time to finish a puzzle, it’s easy to pack up and get going again. Or if you only have time for one puzzle, it’s easy enough to try a puzzle and stop. Unlike some escape rooms, where you aren’t certain when to use an item, the puzzles in Doctor Esker’s Notebook are all discrete and self-contained; the scope is set by the number of cards used, and no more or less is necessary.
That being said, besides the space concerns, it’s helpful to have a phone, tablet, or computer handy, because if you get stuck, puzzle hints are on the Doctor Esker’s Notebook website. And at least if you’re like me, you’ll probably need some hints. I played Doctor Esker’s Notebook solitaire, and I could have benefited from brain sharing. For each puzzle, I would say I probably figured out about 80% of it by myself, but there was usually one or two leaps that I had trouble making on my own. The hint system is kind of nice, because it’s a graduated system, with small, medium, and large hints, so you can tailor the help you need to the trouble you’re having.
Aside from its portability, which separates it from other puzzle books or games or escape rooms, the main draw of Doctor Esker’s Notebook will be the puzzles. And I found these interesting. Without giving too much away, the game uses its card-based format well, and while I did need hints for several puzzles, there was only one puzzle where I felt that the leap was a stretch farther than I could have made in the right frame of mind. In the other puzzles where I used hints, I was more upset with myself–“It was all right there!”–than with the game.
I think the cleverest bit of Doctor Esker’s Notebook is the solution system. Ten cards are included to test solutions, numbered 0-9. Once you have the code solution for a puzzle, you flip the cards over and see…a lot of stuff. At first, it looks like a jumbled mess, but if you get the code right, it’s pretty obvious what you’re supposed to do next. This is an ingenious way to keep the game simple components-wise but still offer the thrill of revelation and allow for iterative problem-solving (something that Deckscape, for example, another completely card-based puzzle game, does not).
There are some potential downsides of the puzzles here. For one, despite the game making the most of its components, it is still just cards. I think this works better for a straight puzzle game than for, say, Unlock, where the cards are also telling a story, but at times you can feel the limitations of the medium. This problem is occasionally exacerbated by the production, where it’s sometimes difficult to align components the way they’re supposed to be aligned for the puzzle to work. (The cards are not full bleed.) Still, it’s mostly doable to get this to work. A potentially larger problem that some may have with Doctor Esker’s Notebook is that, aside from relying on logic or on information fully contained on game components, some puzzles require outside knowledge of facts or words. The hints are good if they’re needed, and none of the information was specialized, but this may frustrate some players. (I remember years ago playing Witness and another player being very upset that it required knowledge of the Mercedes logo. I don’t think this problem is quite as pronounced in Doctor Esker’s Notebook, but it’s worth mentioning.)
Perhaps the largest potential downside is that, because there is a lack of narrative here, it’s often difficult to determine the scope of what you’re supposed to do. The rule cards are sparse so as not to give anything away, but when you turn over the first puzzle cards, it feels a little like an old ventriloquist’s manual I read, where the instructions were “Step 1: throw your voice.” I know I’m supposed to be doing something, but I’m not yet sure how I communicate with the game or what I’m expected to know or use that’s outside the game. The early puzzles involved more hints than the later ones as I learned what was expected of me, but the first few puzzles were more challenging just from a usability standpoint. This is made worse because codes can be varying lengths, puzzles were various sizes, and so on. Now that I’ve played this one, I think I would do better with a sequel. And this didn’t detract from my enjoyment too much. I’m not too proud to use hints, and I still got around two hours of enjoyment from the small deck of cards in the box.
I’ve always been a fan of puzzles, so I love the escape room trend: it’s a socially acceptable way to enjoy puzzles with others. Doctor Esker’s Notebook, while clearly within this trend, may not be a hit with all escape room fans because it lacks a strong sense of narrative. I, however, enjoyed it a lot because puzzles are more important to me than story, and these puzzles are interesting. (I especially enjoyed the finale.) But for those who prefer strong (or any) narrative , they might want to look elsewhere. Still, this is a good value (especially because no components are destroyed–you can pass it on when you’re finished), and my interest is piqued enough to try other entries in the series when they’re available.