Our 5 favorite Mystery Box 2021 subscriptions
After enthusiastically speaking to my family about the letters in one of our weekly Zoom calls, my mom confessed to buying me a subscription to Dear Holmes, a courier service that sends mysteries through the mail in a series of weekly letters, gradually revealing a new case each month.
Turns out, this is just one of the many ways that stories and puzzle-solving experiences are delivered through the mail. A little later, a colleague at Wirecutter mentioned that she had received a case from the popular Instagram Hunt a killer service, and due to a mixture of professional curiosity and a personal desire to collect things to do if, for example, I was forced to isolate myself in my apartment for some reason, I started to delve into the enigmatic world of puzzles by mail.
For this guide, I researched companies that offered similar games, focusing on boxes with props and physical items in addition to clues and written stories. I read player reviews, checked each company’s website, and unearthed YouTube videos of gamers solving past cases to get a feel for what each service offered.
What I have found is that immersive games are broadly divided into two types of experiences: narrative mysteries that focus on inferring and exploring a fictional environment, and boxes full of puzzles. which aim to offer an escape room type experience at home.
Once I got a feel for the types of experiences available, I ordered and played through five options that my research seemed to illustrate what these boxes offer. Whether it’s the open world feeling of Mysterious Package Company boxes or experiences laden with clues in the campaign of Researchers Researchers, these boxes show what you can expect if one of these cryptic missives arrives at your doorstep.
During my research I also spoke to Mairi Nolan, an escape game reviewer and mystery storyteller, and Dave neale, the author of the most recent edition of the tabletop deduction game Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Baker Street Irregulars. Both have helped me understand the process of putting these kinds of narrative puzzles together and what makes good puzzles different from bad puzzles.
Apparently, the puzzles inside these boxes are meant to challenge the player and engage their curiosity or observational skills, and all of these puzzles do, to varying degrees. But the best of these boxes takes the player to a place where they feel like they’ve solved a puzzle that only they could have solved. “Anything that turns you on or gives you an ‘aha’ moment is really good,” Nolan said. “In the end, it must give you joy.” Creating that epiphany feeling, the kind you usually get in novels only after the mystery has been solved for you on the last few pages, is where our favorite boxes shine.
Note on difficulty: The difficulty of the puzzle is relative and will vary (sometimes enormously) between players and even between boxes of the same department. The ratings below are based on my playing experience as someone who enjoys puzzles and mysteries and played a few similar boxes before I started working on this guide. Your mileage may vary.