“An unexpected envelope arrives containing evidence that makes you question everything you know to be true. After a second mysterious mailing, the sender vanishes and you receive a box of seemingly unrelated artifacts. You are left to make sense of it all before another person disappears.”
I played the first two Crack-A-Nut games pretty early on and found them both to be wonderful experiences. In fact, I was so enamored with Root of All Evil, that I ordered Double Major before I even finished that experience!
The game arrived over the course of a few weeks in four separate mailings. The first two are appetizers for the main events with a few puzzles each. I played through them pretty quickly as they arrived. But when package three—the big box filled with all of the stuff—arrived, I stopped myself from opening it up and put it on my shelf. I knew it would be a big and fun experience, but I wanted to put a bit of distance between myself and my playthrough of Root of All Evil to keep myself from comparing the two endlessly. Root was so memorable that it took two years to get that distance, but earlier this week, I felt the time was finally right to sit down and play it.
The first thing I did was go back over the first two mailings, pull up my notes, andrefresh myself on the experience. Then it was time to crack open the box. Inside were a nigh overwhelming array of well-made props, the centerpiece of which was a large plaster heart. It took about four hours to sort through the various newspaper clippings, photos, and invitations and solve the puzzles contained within.
I’ve now played through all of Crack-a-Nut’s currently released experiences in reverse order of release. Double Major was the first game that Crack-a-Nut mysteries made, originally intended as a one-off for a puzzle competition and later turned into an at home experience for the broader public. It was certainly memorable and I had a lot of fun playing through it, but there were some rough edges present in the design, many of which have been sanded down in their later games with experience. But that’s not entirely a bad thing. There are elements present in this game that no other designer would attempt, because they would impede the game from being scaled up to a wide audience—but they were very cool and unique and I’m so happy that they were in there. There was clearly a lot of passion and heart involved in making this experience and I’ll take a slightly messy big swing over something perfect and safe every time.
Double Major has, without question or competition, the most audacious opening of a puzzle experience that I’ve ever experienced—and likely ever will. Reader, believe me when I say I gasped; I laughed a maniacal laughter; I said “No way” about ten times in a row. I fear I’ve already said to much and I don’t want to spoil a thing about how this experience kicks off. I’ll just say that Crack-a-Nut is the only game company I know of that would attempt something like this. And it works.
The opening immediately invests you in the mystery that follows, even though the main mystery is a very different sort of story. What Double Major does well within that mystery is immersion. The game gives you a box of things and a reason for those box of things to be encrypted and hidden. It relies on you to make all of all the connections and to put it all together. It made me want to setup a pin board, grab some red thread, and do my best Pepe Silvia-esque rant. The whole experience is very mimetic1It’s been a while since I’ve been able to link to excellent article from Errol! in that regard, but that authenticity comes at a bit of a price. There was no ascribed order to tackle the puzzles in, so often times I’d find myself solving a puzzle that told me a piece of the story that I’d already discovered somewhere else. It also meant that instead of building towards a big ending, the solving of the mystery and the big revelations came more towards the middle of the experience while the experience petered out at the end.
The story itself is pretty interesting and tied smartly into some real world events. You get to know the quest-giver character fairly well, though, unlike the central character in Root of All Evil, this character has a fairly bland viewpoint. The other people involved in the experience seemed more interesting, and I would have liked to learn a little more about them. There were a few really great a-ha moments through the experience, along with a satisfying dénouement that featured one last touch of Crack-a-Nut magic. Overall, I really enjoyed the narrative.
The same mimetic design that made the narrative both immersive and a bit unfocused had the same sort of effect on the puzzle play. There’s not a lot of signposting throughout the experience, so sometimes the solution to one puzzle will provide a hint or clue towards a puzzle you have already solved. However, this approach perfectly gelled with the story that was being told: The character who gives you the box was trying to ensure that no one else could decipher it, so why would he leave clues on how to solve it?
The puzzle play is also pretty unique in that it’s assumes a fair amount of real world puzzle cipher experience on behalf of the player. Where other games might give you a clue or two towards the kind of cipher you’re dealing with and how to potentially solve it; there’s not much in the way of hand holding here, just the inclusion of a list of recommended resources that can teach you about different ciphers. This led to some very difficult puzzles and a lot of trial and error between similar types of ciphers. However, I enjoyed the challenge and learning about new ciphers was a lot of fun. However, it may not be for every player.
Thankfully, given the difficulty, there is a hint site in place that provided progressive, though at times esoteric, hints for the puzzles. I was happy for it, as I definitely needed a few nudges here and there to make my way through the experience. Though while I needed some hints, I didn’t need to be able to discern one color from another to solve any of the puzzles—a colorblind accessibility win!
Double Major was an incredibly memorable experience and one I’ll be thinking about for some time to come. It doesn’t quite match the heights of Root of All Evil but it does some things that I’ve never seen anywhere else in a puzzle experience.
For players that hate going through the deciphering process once they’ve figured out how solve a puzzle or are just lukewarm on cipher-style puzzles in general, this probably isn’t the experience for you.
For players that have never played through a Crack-a-Nut Mysteries experience before, I would highly recommend starting with S.O.U.P., as it’s a great entry-point into their gameplay.
After S.O.U.P., I think your next pick should be Root of All Evil. That’s still one of my absolute favorite at-home puzzle experiences of all time and with a better story and a smoother experience than Double Major.
If, like me, you played through Root of All Evil and still want more, then I absolutely recommend Double Major. You wont be disappointed.