Nancy Drew: Mystery at Magnolia Gardens (Game)

I have a really soft spot for Nancy Drew. I didn’t grow up with the character (I was a Three Investigators and Five Find-Outers kinda kid) so this isn’t based on the nostalgia of childhood. Rather it is fixed on a couple of experiences as an adult.

The most recent and rather powerful one is that my kid loves the character. Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew is still my daughter’s favorite series of books and these titles have been responsible for her becoming interested in mystery stories more generally which I obviously love.

The deeper reason though is that there was a series of video games made a few years ago by a company called Her Interactive that adapted titles from the book series. In the early days of our marriage my wife and I would play these together and we worked our way through the whole range – only stopping when the games stopped being published. We both have really fond memories of puzzle-solving together so when we saw that Hunt a Killer had made a Nancy Drew mystery game in a box, we both ended up getting it as a gift for the other…

The idea is that you are a friend of Nancy Drew who has found herself mixed up in another case. During a visit to the Magnolia Gardens in River Heights, Nancy stops by the director’s office for a cup of tea and notices that her friend is having a bad allergic reaction. She realizes that something is wrong with the tea but ends up hospitalized a short time later. Unable to work on the case, Nancy sends all of her materials to some friends – the players – asking them to pick up where she left off and to complete her investigation.

The player has three questions to solve – who was the poisoner, how did they do it and why.

The players have everything they need within the box and will not require any additional knowledge or objects to solve the case. I would suggest that players may benefit from pens and paper and I will share that we found clear tape to be helpful, though it is not essential…

In addition to the solution envelope, the box contains a couple of objects – one of them locked with a combination padlock – and a variety of documents. The instructions will give the player a suggested way to start their investigation though you can tackle them in any order you wish. Some groups may prefer to pass the items around and take turns reading – we preferred to read them and summarize for each other.

We had a lot of fun with it. The 60-90 minute play time suggestion proved to be pretty much spot on for us and we found the difficulty level to be pretty accurate. The puzzles all seemed pretty logical, the solution made sense and we never had to utilize the online hint system. That’s probably just as well as we found that the website link given in the booklet was broken when we went to check it out after gameplay to read the epilogue. It is on the manufacturer’s website but we ended up having to search around for it.

The game is designed to be played with one or more people, though I would suggest that more is a good idea. While I am sure you could have a good time working on solving this by yourself, a large part of the fun we had was in sharing our thoughts and ideas with each other. One thing to be aware of is that this game is designed to be played just once as the solution will always be the same. That wasn’t an issue for us but I know that will be a consideration for players in assessing the set’s value for money.

The theming is done well and the puzzles were pitched well for casual, social play. As we expected we had a great time playing this as found it to be a highlight of our day together. It was fun to solve a mystery together – it definitely took us back to those days playing those Nancy Drew video games together. We would certainly be interested if Hunt-a-Killer ever make another of these and perhaps some day we’ll check out some of their other boxes.

Overboard (Videogame)

Overboard! is a recently released video game for PC, Mac and Nintendo Switch (EDIT: I missed that it is also available for iOS – thanks Stephen) in which you take the role of socialite Veronica Villensey. You were traveling with your husband to start a new life in America when, while taking the air on deck, you decide on the spur of the moment to toss him overboard and get rid of him once and for all. The problem is that with eight hours until the ship arrives in New York there is still lots of evidence of your crime, not to mention several witnesses who, given time, may put two-and-two together.

As soon as the game begins you find yourself making important decisions that will determine whether you get away with the crime or not. Conversations with characters have multiple speech options and your choices will have consequences. You also direct where Veronica is headed and which of the passengers or crew you will encounter next. Each movement takes time away however and edges you a little nearer to port – a fact you are reminded of by a clock that ticks down the time you have left.

There are lots of different strategies you can pursue, some of which will only become apparent on subsequent play throughs. The game encourages and rewards discovery through trial and error by including more things to do than you can possibly fit into that short time before the ship docks. What that also means is that even after I beat the game for the first time I wanted to go back and try again to see if I could get a completely different approach to work or discover a different character’s secrets.

Whatever you choose in a play through be prepared that your choices will have consequences. Some of these are immediately apparent – a decision to admit something in conversation may close off some possibilities or open up new ones – while some will only become clear at the end of your play through. The first time I evaded the detective’s questions I was sure I had got away with everything only to find another loose end had kept me from achieving a perfect run. A big part of the fun here is in figuring out exactly what choices led you astray and revisiting them to see if you can improve your outcomes.

The cartoonish art style is simple and charming, designed to give you a sense of a character’s personality rather than depict each action or their lip movements. It won’t be mistaken for a triple A release (and is not priced as such) but is appropriate for this sort of storytelling-focused game, supporting the text rather than distracting from it. You can get a sense of the animation from the game trailer though be warned that it does provide some pretty heavy hints to a few story points.

Given that you will replay the events of the same day over and over again, players have the ability to speed through familiar conversations which reduces frustration when you get caught in a loop. If you make a mistake, and act fast enough, you can even rewind a scene once to give yourself a chance to select a better option if a choice didn’t give the outcome you expected. It’s a simple but effective game mechanic that lets you replay a decision rather than having to start over and recreate all of your choices up to that point.

Another charming aspect of the game is that each play through is relatively short. Assuming your character remains conscious and alive throughout the journey, you can expect it to take between thirty and forty-five minutes to complete a run (and you can speed this up further by skipping dialogue as mentioned above). This makes it an ideal game to quickly dip into for short gaming sessions.

Aside from a few snippets of speech at the beginning, the dialogue appears as text rather than spoken. The dialogue plays with some mystery tropes and conventions but can be decidedly modern in places, depending on your playing strategy and the characters you interact with. In other words, I enjoyed this as a pastiche of the Golden Age-style whodunnit rather than as an attempt to perfectly recreate it.

Overall then I am happy to say that I found Overboard! to be a pretty enjoyable experience. It has already given me three or four hours of entertainment and I feel I still have other things left to do and see and I will look forward to dipping into it from time to time to see if I can experience every possible outcome. If you enjoy choose your own adventure-style gameplay and lightly comic pastiches, you may well enjoy this too.

Sherlock Holmes Magazine

The cover for the first issue.

This week has been a frustrating one as I have been stuck at home waiting for the results of a COVID test (I feel fine – it’s a contact tracing thing). Thankfully the much-awaited first issue of Sherlock Holmes Magazine showed up when I needed it most, serving as an excellent form of diversion.

I first saw news of the publication on Twitter and had been intrigued enough to add myself to the preorders list. While I admit to not being as devoted a Sherlockian as my father (who had files full of various fanzines and publications in his office when I was growing up), I have enough interest in the Great Detective that I thought it could be interesting. That interest only grew when I saw that the magazine would not only cover the canon but the many derivative works and adaptations that have been done over the years.

For those who are curious, the magazine is glossy and heavily illustrated. It is larger than the typical US magazine, clocking in at about 12 inches by 8.25. It feels like it could sit very comfortably on any newsagents’ shelf, although being self-published and having a very limited print run, it unfortunately lacks that store shelf visibility.

The magazine contains some short snippets of news at the front but the bulk of the pages are devoted to feature articles. Some focus on the various adaptations such as the feature on the tenth anniversary of Sherlock or the fun article defending Nigel Bruce’s portrayal of Watson. I found most of these to be interesting, particularly the piece discussing the history of Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. I hope that future issues may see similar features for some more obscure adapted or inspired works.

There are also several articles that focus on Doyle’s texts themselves such as an article about Moriarty or the fascinating one discussing how the stories came to be banned in Switzerland. I found these to be just as engaging and felt I learned something from each of them, particularly the latter. I suspect that the biggest challenge for the magazine will be creating new book-focused material that hits that sweet spot between being accessible to a wider audience and providing something of interest to devoted Sherlockians but based on this first issue I have confidence that they are up to the task.

Finally there are a couple of pieces that are quirkier and harder to categorize. The one that stands out most is the article about the Holmes tartan. This is beautifully illustrated but was probably the least interesting of the articles to me. Others may feel differently though and while the content was not particularly tailored to my own interests, I did appreciate it as a change of pace. I prefered the Holmes in Lockdown piece, discussing the Don’t Go Into The Cellar plays performed on the web during lockdown. These were completely new to me and felt surprisingly timely (I had assumed that much of the content would have been written prior to the COVID breakout).

Overall, given that this was a first issue I was very impressed. A few sections – particularly the Letters to the Editor pages – feel like works in progress (they probably would benefit from comments in response) but my overall impression has been very positive. This is a far more polished product than I had expected I would receive and as a result I feel very happy and keen to get subsequent issues. This publication seems have a lot of promise.

I think there are only two issues I have with the publication. The first is that I would love to see a reviews section focusing on new Sherlockian material or, failing that, at least an article specifically laying out what new things are on the horizon. Perhaps that will come with future issues.

The other is that there is a whole page advert at the end of this issue advertising how to subscribe but following the link takes you to a page that says subscriptions are still not available. I hope that gets updated soon: I would love to be able to sign up and support the venture going forwards.

While the first issue’s limited print run sold out very quickly, the producers have recently announced they have done a second printing and stock is available once again. If you are interested in finding out more and maybe reading a copy for yourself, check out their website for further details.

Outfoxed: A Cooperative Whodunit Game


Ages 5+
2-4 Players (Cooperative)
20 minutes

The Blurb

Mrs. Plumpert’s prized pot pie has gone missing and now it’s a chicken chase to crack the case! Move around the board gathering clues and then use the special evidence scanner to rule out suspects. You’ll have to work together because the guilty fox is high-tailing it towards the exit! Will you halt the hungry hooligan before it flies the coop… or will you be Outfoxed?

Well, this wasn’t exactly what I had planned last week when I said to be prepared for something a little different this weekend. Actually, as I noted on Twitter I have no memory at all of what I had planned but all my ideas had to be shelved after what has been a really busy week.

We are still currently in the working from home phase which we have been balancing with frequent meetings and the need to entertain our five year old. Throw in the really frustrating mix of our AC unit breaking and really warm weather and it has not been the most comfortable week! Hence no Wednesday or Friday reviews.

Fortunately we were able to get our AC unit and furnace replaced. While that means I have to be a bit better behaved when it comes to expanding my TBR pile in the coming months, fortunately I had a whole set of books on their way before that and, it turns out (because I ordered it at the start of the stay at home order), a whodunnit board game that we could play as a family.

There is also an instruction booklet that is not shown.

While I normally would grumble at a game taking over a month to arrive, in this case the timing could hardly have been better. As it happens my daughter had recently discovered a children’s book series with animal detectives (The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake) and so the idea of a mystery game was enthusiastically embraced.

This game is also animal-themed as the players each play as detective chickens while the culprit is one of sixteen fox suspects. The players work together to identify clues that will enable them to identify and whittle down the suspects. The problem is that while they work to do that the thieving fox is making their way to their den along with their loot.

In terms of gameplay this feels like a blend of a sort of cooperative version of Clue and Guess Who. Players decide whether they will be looking for clues or identifying suspects on each turn. Then they need to roll three dice and get each of the sides showing a symbol matching their goal. If they fail to do this within three rolls the fox gets to move instead of the players.

The clues that are uncovered each show a different item of clothing that the different foxes are wearing in their suspect card pictures. Any individual item is held or worn by three or four foxes so the key is in balancing looking for suspects and new clues.

When a clue is uncovered it is placed into the viewer shown below. Each clue has a hole cut into it in a different place around its edge. When aligned with the window, if a green dot shows through then the guilty party holds or is wearing that item. If not, the guilty fox will not be. It is a clever mechanic that works well and keeps you from accidentally seeing the guilty party.

My daughter did raise the concern that the fox may have changed their clothing to avoid suspicion. She also wondered if all of the foxes may have been working together in some sort of conspiracy. She really enjoyed the story of the game and quickly understood the object of the game and the rules.

So, I love that this game has a luck component that allows adults and children to play together (though their role will be to support the young players in gathering evidence). Younger children could easily play with an older sibling and each feel that they contributed to the solutions. I also think that it teaches coordination of activities and deductive reasoning skills well to young ones.

The game pieces feel durable and the instructions are reasonably easy to follow. I enjoyed the theming of the game as much as my daughter and the twenty minute set up and play time is about perfect for a five year old’s attention span. There are also suggestions of ways that the players can adjust the rules to make the game more challenging.

Having had this for several days now, my daughter shows no sign of losing interest in the game yet and so I feel pretty good about this purchase. To my delight she is showing interest in other detective stories and I am looking into some series I might be able to shake with her (I may, for instance, return to the Miss Mallard mysteries or try the Cam Jansen books).

Do you have any favorite mystery stories or series that you might recommend to a 5 or 6 year old? If so I’d love to hear any suggestions.

Unboxing: Coffee and Crime (September 2019)

This past weekend I travelled to Port Townsend near Seattle to attend my sister-in-law’s wedding. With a five and a half hour flight each way, I was left with plenty of time to read and I managed to polish off four or five books over the course of three days – not to mention several comics into the bargain.

A few of those books you will already have seen reviews for here – others will be added in the next couple of days.

Aside from the festivities themselves, the other highlight of my trip was finding some used book stores that actually stocked some vintage crime novels. I posted the photo below of some of my haul – the discovery of a set of three pristine Levin paperbacks was particularly pleasing to me, and while I have been able to buy Carrs through AbeBooks, it was nice to see a few actually on the shelves in person. Unfortunately the only one I didn’t already have was The Hollow Man but still…

The flight home was exhausting and honestly I think I will be spending most of the week recovering, not least from the repeated kicking my back received the whole way back. Still, Seattle looked pretty cool from my all-too-brief time there and we hope to make it back there again someday.

Happily a surprise awaited me when I collected my held mail – my latest Coffee and Crime subscription box. If you are curious what was contained within, I once again opened the box up on camera.

As always I was thrilled with the contents – particularly the selection from one of crime fiction’s more divisive figures. Expect reviews of these in the next few weeks!

The Coffee and Crime subscription box is a venture by Kate at CrossExaminingCrime where the recipient receives a box containing two vintage crime novels (in very good condition) and other assorted goodies that crime fiction fans will enjoy. You can find out more details about the box itself and the various subscription offers at Kate’s Etsy store.

Unboxing: Coffee and Crime (August 2019)

It has only been a couple of weeks since I opened my first Coffee and Crime subscription box on camera but I came home to find bookpost waiting for me and I couldn’t resist doing it all over again.

The Coffee and Crime subscription box is a venture by Kate at CrossExaminingCrime where the recipient receives a box containing two vintage crime novels (in very good condition) and other assorted goodies that crime fiction fans will enjoy. You can find out more details about the box itself and the various subscription offers at Kate’s Etsy store.

I paid full price for my own three month subscription and I have really enjoyed the surprise of discovering just what lies inside the boxes. Last month’s authors were both pretty much unknown to me and so far I have already tucked into (and loved) the spy thriller by Holly Roth. As you will see, I was much better acquainted with both of the authors – enough that I could actually comment a little about them.

Once again I was very happy with the package overall though I think my favorite surprise was the postcard. Which reminds me that I really ought to get around to writing (or perhaps talking about) that series of films in more detail…


My review of Holly Roth’s The Sleeper.

You can see my thoughts on the Elizabeth Daly novels I have read so far here.

Thoughts on the Ellery Queen novels.

Unboxing: Coffee and Crime (July 2019)

Let’s do something a little different today…

I have been wanting to treat myself to a Coffee and Crime subscription for a while and when my wife suggested I should treat myself I couldn’t resist. I was very excited when I found out that the box was waiting for me when I got home today and I decided to go ahead and shoot a quick video where I open it up and let you all see what I got along with me.

Suffice it to say that I am not a natural in front of camera but hopefully this gives you a better sense of what these boxes are like and whether they may appeal to you!

One thing I forgot to say in the video is that the two books themselves were both in excellent condition given their age and had minimal wear and tear. In fact in the case of the Holly Roth the text itself was pristine. I was very pleasantly surprised!

If you are interested in checking these out for yourself they can be purchased from Etsy here. Please note that if you want to make requests such as changing the coffee to tea or hot chocolate or sharing your reading preferences that you can message Kate through the store.

I am really excited about the two books that Kate sent, not least because they’re now the first Penguin green cover paperbacks in my collection. Quite how I got away with being a vintage crime fan without any of these before I don’t know. I hope to review both books at some point soon as they sound excellent.

If you have any questions about the box or opinions about either book do let me know!

The Pocket Detective compiled by Kate Jackson

The Pocket Detective
Compiled by Kate Jackson
Originally Published 2018

The holiday season is still several months away but knowing my readers are a canny bunch I am sure many of you are already giving thought to gifts or are perhaps tentatively putting together your lists for Santa. The Pocket Detective is pretty much the perfect stocking-stuffer for fans of Golden Age-era mysteries and, in particular, the British Library Crime Classics range.

It has taken me a week or so to get around to writing about this book because I wanted to have done (or at least attempted) every single puzzle. Being a genuinely pocket-sized book, I have been able to carry this with me wherever I have been and reach for it in quiet moments or during breaks at work. I appreciated the sturdy yet flexible binding and can happily report that after a week of heavy use it still looks very attractive.

While I didn’t manage to work out all of the answers – I am terrible at working out anagrams – I had a good time working through these and found the experience to be simultaneously quite calming and stimulating. It is a great book to reach for in a quiet moment and in most cases you can dip in and out of the puzzles at your leisure.

The book contains a nice variety of puzzle types from simple word searches and crosswords to odd one outs and letter jumble puzzles. Most of these are themed after titles from the British Library Crime Classics range but there are a few puzzles here that deal with Christie and Sayers too which came as a nice surprise for me.

One of my favorite puzzle types involves titles of mystery novels being broken up and jumbled around the page. The reader then has to reassemble the titles using each word only once. I hadn’t encountered that type of puzzle before but I felt it worked really well.

If, like me, you have only read a portion of the British Library’s output you have no need to worry. For one thing there is a handy list of titles at the back of the book that can be invaluable with some of the crosswords. More importantly though, very few puzzles require specific knowledge about the plots of stories – really only the Odd One Out puzzles and even those can usually be worked out by referring to their blurbs on Amazon. This makes it quite approachable, even for those puzzlers who are not avid crime fiction readers, while staying true to the theme of the book.

Pretty much my only (minor) complaints are that I wish that the puzzle types had been grouped together and that I think the color print in the Spot the Differences section was a little dark making spotting a couple of differences in The Notting Hill Mystery and Quick Curtain puzzles a little more challenging than I suspect they were meant to be. Neither issue seriously affected my enjoyment however and I think some of the differences are really quite cleverly achieved!

Overall I had a very good time with this and will no doubt continue to attempt to solve those last few remaining crossword clues in my spare moments in the weeks to come. I may even go back to try to work out some of the anagrams that had me stumped earlier in the week as I found my skills with them have noticeably improved!

Chimney Meddler Hog

Review copy provided by the publisher for early review though I have a copy on order. It is being released in the UK on October 18. This book is being published in the US as Golden Age of Detection Puzzle Book on November 6.