Game Design

journal 29 review: a tedious, incomplete puzzle book

The biggest puzzle I’ve encountered with Journal 29 is why this book exists at all.

This has little to do with the quality of puzzles, which cover the same range of any typical puzzle book, from obvious to unfathomable.  It’s more about the design of the experience in general.

In this blog post, I will outline the design flaws of Journal 29, with the hope that puzzle book creators can learn from them.

Journal 29 is Way Too Tedious, and Requires You to Constantly Switch Focus

I received Journal 29 as a gift from a friend who knows that I enjoy puzzles.  Billed as an “interactive book game”, the book contains 63 puzzles.  The only things you’ll need, it claims:

  1. A copy of Journal 29
  2. A pencil
  3. An Internet connected device (preferably a smartphone)

This is where the trouble starts.  Journal 29’s greatest offense is having you hop back and forth from the book to your browser, and that’s not all.  Each puzzle requires you to enter an answer into a webpage in order to retrieve a “key”.

These puzzles often require external work, like adding large numbers together, or researching latitude and longitude coordinates, or decoding a phrase.  There are no hints or answers in this book, so instead they direct you to this online forum hosted by Journal 29 where you can find suggestions from other players.

Image from: Journal 29

This means that at times you have to juggle all these things:

  1. A copy of Journal 29
  2. A pencil or pen
  3. A notepad for rough paper
  4. A browser for inputing your answers
  5. A browser for research
  6. A browser for the online forum if you need hints
  7. A QR code scanner for jumping from one puzzle to another
  8. A calculator
  9. … maybe more

It’s a lot.  And having to go from device to the book to pad and pencil and back again is really tiresome.  It greatly takes away from the experience of puzzle books.

Puzzle Books Should be Self-Contained, and Journal 29 is Not

I like puzzle books as much as the next person, but no puzzle book should require this amount of stuff to do.  Puzzle books that are self-contained, have their own hints and answers and all the information you need, are a great escape.  This is because they never pull you away from the immersion in the story and in the puzzles.

Image from: Journal 29

As technology has evolved, it’s common to see books that tout themselves as “transmedia” experiences, containing links or companion apps that are meant to expand the experience of reading.  But for Journal 29, there’s no benefit to the links where you input your answers.

It would make more sense if the webpages provided added value, maybe more of the story, or animations and videos that aren’t possible in the physical book.  I would be happier if those links were optional, as additional content if you so choose to seek it out.

But Journal 29’s webpages are mandatory in order to solve the puzzles.  And they are very basic, text only, with a box for the answer.  The website doesn’t provide any hints if you’re close (which they should do, given they have data of the common wrong answers that have been submitted).   The pages don’t provide any perks of actually being a website.


Journal 29 Chooses Style Over Substance and Story, to its Detriment

The book and website suffer from a problem of style over substance.  Perhaps the most egregious design flaw is the choice of font.  The font is stylised and difficult to read, something that tends to be important in puzzles.  Numbers are difficult to grok, “j”s look like “f”s, and don’t even get me started on those “v”s.  Moreover, the font is blurry and way too small in some instances, leading to frustration.

Another lacklustre aspect was the promise of a story, again focusing more on stylistic choices than actually delivering on content.  Journal 29 opens with a short paragraph about a top secret excavation where the team went missing on the 29th week.

The book is meant to contain clues to unlock the story, but the puzzles are unrelated.  What’s more, places where the creators could have inserted story or world-building, like the “keys” you get from solving each puzzle, are equally disconnected and unimportant.

Disappointingly, the story promise is unfulfilled even at the end.  I couldn’t tell you what happened, and I’m afraid I didn’t even get invested enough to care.

Journal 29’s Puzzles are Frustrating Because the Book Has No Hints

On the puzzles themselves, I think Journal 29 makes a good attempt at providing a variety of different types, albeit hampered by the design issues mentioned above.

It does fall into the trap of the impossible puzzle, where players have to get over a hurdle that they can’t see.  This is exacerbated by the fact that there are no hints in the book.  This places an unnecessary obstacle in front of the reader, requiring them to open yet another browser and scroll through the forums.

Some of the puzzles are difficult for US versus European audiences as there are cultural nuances, for example the length of a phone number.  There are also a few puzzles that have inconsistent or strange internal logic for no reason, especially with the more tedious mathematics or number related questions that not every puzzler is going to want to solve.

Image from: Journal 29

The book also suffers from having several extremely convoluted puzzles with no good hints to get started or ways to skip them.  Instead of being challenging, these puzzles get boring quickly.  Again, designers don’t take advantage of the connected webpages to provide hints.

Jumping around the puzzle book is possible, but I felt discouraged because of the answer input system.  Having to type or scan a QR code to jump to a different page so I could submit my answer was more work than I was willing to put in.  This annoying constraint is yet another drawback from having no hints and answers in the book itself.


Journal 29 is an Incomplete Puzzle Book, Better as an App

Journal 29 is an incomplete book, impossible to just sit down and do, which is what puzzle books are all about.  The designers have tried to make a hybrid of digital and physical and ended up in a no-man’s land.

A stronger product would have been one of two things, all physical or all digital.  Create a puzzle book with all answers, hints and information included, scrapping the cumbersome online answer submissions.  Or, just make the whole thing an app.

A better story and using the “keys” to tie the puzzles together wouldn’t hurt either.  And while you’re at it, somebody, please change that font.