Full disclosure: A preview copy of The Vandermist Dossier was provided by Diorama. Some art, gameplay, or other aspects of the game may change between this preview and the fulfillment of the Kickstarter, should it fund, as this is a preview of a currently unreleased game.
Two escape room games in two weeks? Yes, it’s a blessing for us all. Maybe more to come in the future? I never really know how my schedule will work, despite having a schedule. Makes you wonder what the point of the schedule is. I think it’s to add some more stress to my life? I’ve been told I could use more of that. Or less. Oh well. This time, I’m checking out The Vandermist Dossier from Diorama! I’ve not tried one of their games before, so I’m looking forward to it. Let’s see how it plays!
In The Vandermist Dossier, you’ve been asked to look into an old missing persons case from the 70s. Little do you know that once involved, you’ll uncover a web of mystery, intrigue, and maybe even some betrayal. Hopefully not yours. But who knows before you really get into these things, you know? All you have to go off of is a letter, a map, some tchotchkes, and a notebook. You’ll have to keep your wits about you as you dive deeper and deeper into the mystery of it all. What really happened to Abigail Vandermist?
There’s a box, and it’s full of stuff. You’ll probably want to empty it out.
There should be two letters; one marked READ ME FIRST (in my copy), and another from Abigail. Read the READ ME FIRST letter first and then try Abigail’s letter. And that’s all you get from me, here.
There’s a mystery afoot, and you’re the only person left who can solve it. Your goal is to sift through the items in this box and answer two questions:
- What location was Abigail Vandermist taken to on August 29th, 1979?
- Who took her there?
To do so, you’ll have to crack codes, muddle through maps, and find out secrets that were enough to disappear over. This plays largely as your standard escape room game. Solve a puzzle to get clues that you need to solve another puzzle, and keep working through them until you’ve cracked the solution. Generally, I’d recommend having a pad and paper to take notes on, as the game components are reusable and nothing needs to be destroyed.
If you get stuck, there are hints online to help you, but there’s enough information in the box to solve this mystery. See if you can!
Player Count Differences
It’s always hard to be precise with this sort of thing on an escape room game, since I really only get one shot at it. That said, I’d say my ideal player count for The Vandermist Dossier is two. We had three trying most of the game, with one player occasionally being in and out, and I largely found that while two people were either splitting puzzles or taking turns dictating and writing, after the initial setup there wasn’t that much for a third person to do. They could organize or collate or be part of the discussion, but the puzzles aren’t quite branching enough that it really made sense to have another player do more than that. For the solo folks out there, I would actually recommend a second person. There are a number of interestingly complicated puzzles where having another player to write while you dictate would be a good idea, just to make sure you don’t have to start anything over. It matters a bit for one of them. I also just generally don’t love escape room / puzzle games at one player, because I tend to move quickly and make some mistakes. I think these experiences are largely better with multiple people, so that’s where my recommendation usually lies. I do think this is a solid pick if you’re looking for something to play with just another person, though.
As with most escape room games, Strategy can often devolve into “here’s how you should solve this problem”, so I tend to go pretty light on this section.
- Make sure you have all the pieces for the problem you’re trying to solve. I find this is always the Big Challenge of any escape room / puzzle game. You get inundated by stuff at the beginning of the game, and part of the first puzzle is sifting through and figuring out what problems you can solve right now. Sometimes there aren’t many! But making sure you have all the pieces in order can be critical to getting through the next puzzle.
- Taking notes may be helpful, but you shouldn’t need to necessarily write on any of the actual game components. This is partially strategy, partially longevity, but I almost always recommend a notebook, even if the game wants to be written on. I just still get antsy about writing in things; I wouldn’t even write in textbooks in college. Taking notes or writing things down is helpful, as the solutions to some puzzles might be too much to fit in the active memory part of your brain.
- The hint system is pretty solid about not giving you too much information, so check that if you get stuck. Generally, I’m pro-hint in these games. I like escape rooms, but I can’t always figure everything out on my own. That’s just the name of the game, for me. I appreciate this hint system giving me the recommended order of the puzzles, and a few hints on each one before offering me an explanation and a solution. A few hints is usually enough to get my bearings, though, and I’d recommend that instead of flailing if you can’t make progress after some effort.
- This is a fairly detailed game, so you may need to shift your perspective, think about angles, or look a bit closely at things to make sure you don’t miss any details. Try attacking a problem from a few different directions if you’re not sure how to move forward. If you’re well and truly stuck, a hint can often help! The puzzles even have explanations for how they arrived at the solution, if you want to try and get into the designer’s mindset.
- Keep in mind what your end result looks like. You’re not done until both question are answered. If you don’t have both answers, you’re not at the end of the game. Make sure that’s what you end up with.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- It has a kind of authentic curio feel to it; I really like that! A lot of stuff feels like it was burnt or clipped or bought or found, and I love that. It’s very immersive, and that’s always super nice for a puzzle game. A lot of these can do things that your more … chain-y escape room game puzzles don’t do, since they’re more indie. While I appreciate the consistent design language of some of the more common escape room games, they’re not really getting me immersed with the tactile sensation of playing the game. Instead, I just enjoy it as a Puzzle Experience and move on. This really feels like we’re sifting through something old, and I like that a lot. If the game weren’t all reusable I’d honestly suggest shadowboxing it. Or I would, if I didn’t live in the Bay Area and I had enough storage space to make art projects of all the games I wish I could make art projects out of.
- Good hint system, which is always appreciated. The hint system in particular does one thing that I love, which is tell you the order in which puzzles are supposed to be taken on. One thing that escape rooms do really well that escape room games can’t always emulate is an ordering to the puzzles, themselves. You move from one room to another in an escape room and occasionally have some overlap (at least, in the ones I’ve done); in an escape room game, you often just get a glut of cards and tokens and you need to figure out how to sift through them all on your own. I appreciate that the hint system just makes the ordering clear from the start.
- The types of puzzles are fairly varied, which is nice as well. A good mix of a few different things.
- It’s about the right level of difficulty, for me. I think it’s roughly where I would look at a couple hints to make sure I’m on the right track, but I can get through most of the puzzles self-powered. While I think I enjoyed The Emerald Flame more, for instance, it was much more difficult. I’d put this maybe slightly harder or about the same as an EXIT game? But maybe a bit shorter.
- In general, I enjoyed the narrative. It’s got a good bit of intrigue and the plot advances a bit as you move through the various puzzles, which is good. For me, a lot of what makes an escape room exciting is the cohesiveness of the experience, and the narrative, clues, and puzzle items themselves come together nicely in this one.
- I also appreciate that this puzzle set had a solid narrative through-line; it was very easy to tell when we had solved a puzzle and could move on to the next one. I was doing another puzzle box / mystery game where the narrative element was kind of muddled; we weren’t sure exactly what we were supposed to be looking for or why we were supposed to be thinking of that, specifically, and we got pretty confused. It was a little frustrating, being real? That wasn’t the case with The Vandermist Dossier. Here, we got clear instructions and a clear path to move on to the next thing once we cracked it. There were a few times we weren’t sure what to do, but those were largely at the beginning. Once we got a good pace going, we were moving at a solid clip for most of it.
- It’s reusable! You don’t actually need to write on, draw on, or destroy any components. This is something I try to note when I play escape room / puzzle box games. I love the EXIT series, granted, but I am always a bit sad when I have to trash the game after playing it (or pass it off to a friend who can maybe use the internal components for other games). It seems like kind of a waste of material. I appreciate reusable escape room games for that reason, though I often remember the puzzles decently well so that kind of ruins the longevity aspect for me. Instead, I tend to let other folks try them at my place when they come over, which seems to mostly work! I’ve been getting a few friends into escape room games, as a result.
- A number of the puzzles are complex ciphers, so you may need more than one player around so that you can dictate text without having to write everything down yourself. This is more just something you gotta learn along the way. I found that writing and converting was too much for me, so it was nice to have an extra player that I could just dictate letters or words to and they wrote it down / organized it into coherent sentences. It’s a real team effort.
- Honestly, I think the only thing I really minded about it was that the story is multiple chapters, so I have to wait until the next one to see how this all resolves! I will freely state that the story is not fully resolved at the end of this, which is gently irksome. Not really mad at the game; I’m just not a big cliffhangers person, so while this wasn’t much of a cliffhanger, I am kind of looking forward to finding out what happens next. I think that’s more a credit to the immersion the game creates, though, so this is like one of those interviews where someone says their biggest weakness, but it’s actually more of a strength. Oh well, that’s what you get in the reviews, sometimes.
Overall: 8.25 / 10
Overall, I thought that The Vandermist Dossier was a pretty solid escape room game experience! I think that Vandermist does a solid job of capturing what I like about escape rooms, which is a good synergy between the puzzles and the narrative through-line of the experience. I want a game that isn’t just abstract puzzles and a game that isn’t just a storytelling experience, but rather puzzles that play into an overarching narrative and components that feel authentic within the narrative’s bounds, and Vandermist has both of those in spades. It’s got a cool map, a burnt driver’s license, and a notebook with pages that feel torn out. Or, at least, my preview copy did; I’m not sure exactly how the components will change in the final version. But that level of care is immersive, and I appreciate that. There are some bits where a cipher translation is longer than I expected, but the puzzles are generally interesting and fun to solve, and I enjoyed solving them with my puzzle group. I would like more of a conclusion to the narrative, but I suppose that just means that I was invested? I tend not to love cliffhangers (I watch a lot of TV), but oh well. I’ll be interested to see where the rest of this goes. The game reminds me, in some ways, of Illimat, in that it feels like a collection of found items rather than a game that someone just constructed, and I love that about both experiences. It makes them feel more interesting and more fun (and frankly, it makes me more inclined to overlook any foibles because I’m too busy being immersed). From a critical standpoint, that’s wise, but from a product standpoint, I think folks will hopefully hit the same level of narrative investment that I hit. I just like neat things, and the box is full of them. And puzzles, too! If you’re looking for a thematic escape room experience or you just enjoy puzzles, mysteries, and a bit of intrigue, you might want to check out The Vandermist Dossier! I certainly enjoyed it.
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