Envelescape: Thornbright Mansion Chapter 1 | Review
Envelescape Review: You and your party of property investors are eager to view the illustrious Thornbright Mansion that has just gone up for sale, but not everything is as it seems. Strange damages, missing documents, and cryptic notes alert you to something far more sinister inside this home.
Date Played: February 2022
Time Taken: 25 minutes
Number of Players: 3
Difficulty: Very Easy
Envelescape is probably best known for running a Kickstarter way back at the start of 2023. Fully funded within one hour, it ended up raising 71 593 CA$ which meant success – the project would be brought to live. Fast forward to a year later, and one of the creators reached out inviting us to play. Though I’d missed the Kickstarter myself (*shakes fist at the universe for always being broke in January*), I was excited to play the game in it’s fully realised, shiny, pop-up form.
Envelescape has done an excellent job of building up a community. From a team of fairly unknown game designers, to hit the big numbers in Kickstarter and be as popular as they have been in the months since, a big round of applause! To say we were excited would be an understatement. And so, on a bright Tuesday afternoon, I invited 2 of my favourite puzzlers round of an evening of ‘envelope’ games – Including Scarlet Envelope, Enigmailed, and Envelescape. For no particular reason, we went with Envelescape first. In hindsight this was the right thing to do, as Envelescape, being vastly easier and quicker to play than the other two, warmed up our brains in a fast paced 25 minutes.
I wasn’t sure if 25 minutes was right, since the Kickstarter suggested 60 – 90 minutes, so in true The Escape Roomer form, before writing the review I handed the game to one of my fellow writers here for a more balanced opinion. How long did they take? 15 minutes, solo. So, it’s a quick game. But why? Well, it’s easy – but is it too easy? Maybe yes. Let’s get into why.
Image (c) Envelescape
Welcome to Thornbright Mansion
Envelescape is a fairly non-linear game set in a small ‘pop-up environment’, representing the front hallway of Thornbright mansion. There’s a web-portal with six images on it, representing the six puzzles to be solved in the environment. You can more or less do these in any order, although the solutions for some of them may help with later ones. But in all, the flow of the game was straightforward. We looked at the 6 images, found where they were in the house, solved the puzzle, inputted our answer, and then opened an envelope. Inside each, a scrap of paper such as a letter, or a receipt. Some of these papers were puzzles in themselves, but most were narrative – carrying the story along. Rinse and repeat until you’ve solved all 6.
Of the six puzzles, we found most of them self contained, and very easy. For example – light spoilers incoming – one of the puzzles was a riddle written on the floor. This riddle wasn’t well hidden, in fact, due to the way we opened the game, it was actually visible to us from the beginning. It was also a well known riddle we’d seen countless times before. Before we read the introduction, one of our party had already solved the riddle, citing that they’d seen it on one of those Facebook “Can you solve this brainteaser” posts earlier that same week. What you see is what you get. In this specific case, the whole puzzle was contained within the one riddle, and this rule held more or less the same for the remaining 5. No secret step 2, and no hidden layers.
At the 10 second mark of the game, we were 1/6th of the way through the game… That’s got to be a record, right?
“But what about the story, the materials, the fun factor?” I hear you ask!
Paper Ghosts, or Something Scarier?
Since we solved all the puzzles quickly, the bulk of our gameplay was spent reading the materials. Between the three of us, we took turns reading each of the materials in silly voices, putting on affectations of the characters in the house. The house was full of curious characters, and we loved bringing them to life. For sure, there isn’t a huge amount of reading. There’s an introduction, and then the additional information supplied by the materials in the envelopes… But despite the few materials in this game, the creators managed to communicate the story quite well! A certain aura of the creepy, the mysterious, and a touch of the macabre. A mysterious old house, and you – a team of property investors coming to investigate. But with documents missing, and strange scratches in the wall… What is going on?!
Well… I don’t know.
Unfortunately this is the first chapter, so we were left with more questions than answers by the end. A cliff hanger? Gasp!
I have a theory about what is really going on in the house, and if I’m right, I have to congratulate the authors on seeding little clues in this first chapter. But until that time, we’re left wondering.
Image (c) Envelescape
A Physical, Tactile Experience
So how does Envelescape look? How does it feel? Well, it’s a small tactile pop-up room that fits down into a small envelope. It’s made from a sturdy card stock and glossy laminate. Our particular copy of the game had to travel a really long distance from Canada to the UK. It had some slight damage on arrival – bent card, and the envelopes inside looked like they’d jostled around a little too much. But I can’t fault the creators for that since that’s outside of their control.
In terms of illustrations… Envelescape is super bright and visually very fun! The illustrator did a really lovely job of bringing a spooky old house to life, with a blocky, cell-shaded cartoon-like veneer. It’s really pretty. I love pop-up games, and I doubley love them when you can tell the creators have put a lot of love into making them visually impressive.
However, if you want to really enjoy and take in the lovely illustrations, you’ll have to be quick. There was no mechanic in the game to keep the pop-up scene open, and so one of us always had to keep their hands on the game holding it open manually whilst the other two people solved. We tried using our mobile devices and pins to keep it open, but the process was a little clunky, and the game didn’t feel built for anything other than holding it open with your hand. In the end, taking some photographs and viewing them from our mobile device rather than try to wield the pop-up scene worked best for us. For a pop-up game, this was a little disappointing and felt like a big oversight. For such an impressive and good looking game – I want to show it off! It would look beautiful open on my board game shelf, and it should really stay open on its own. Perhaps there’s an opportunity in the future for the company to sell a stand and pushpins to use to keep their game open?
But that brings me to the second thought our team had, and that was: Why pop-up?
Don’t get me wrong, I love pop-up games, but we definitely felt that besides looking ‘behind’ objects, there wasn’t anything in the game that particularly lent itself to pop-up mechanics, and the pop-ups themselves were fairly basic. A pop-up flight of stairs, and two cupboards. The rest was a flat illustration. According to the Kickstarter, the game was designed to recreate the physical feeling of being in an escape room, but we thought that besides one moment in the game (a moment we accidentally bypassed anyway) the game didn’t need to be pop-up at all. It would have worked just as well on a single, printed piece of paper, or as a digital point and click game.
If that sounds like a criticism, it isn’t meant to be. I love that they had a cool idea and decided to render it in something that (at the time) not a lot of companies were doing, it makes Envelescape unique and marketable. But pop-up environments are meant to be immersive. They’re unique and rich with opportunities for really creative puzzles that don’t fit into other mediums. I would love to see Envelescape take better advantage of this and create puzzles that only work in this environment.
This game has a lot of good points, and an equal number of areas we felt slightly disappointed in. I think we all thought the game had more potential, however any company’s first game is always going to be a bit of test run (I would probably die of embarrassment if someone wrote a review today of the first few games I designed and published) . With this first chapter of what I hope is a long and successful series, the creative team probably knows what works and what doesn’t work, and I’ve no doubt they’ll carry the learnings well into the next. I’m actually really excited to see what Envelescape do in the future. It’s clear the company has fantastic ideas, a dedicated and talented team, their first game was fun – it just needed more. And players wanting ‘more’ of a game is an excellent problem to have!
As a final note to this whole review, as someone who is a game designer who works on pop-up puzzle games myself, I thought long and hard about asking one of my co-writers to lead on this review instead. But after weighing up the pros and cons (and since all of us who played broadly agree on the verdict), I decided that actually my background gives me a good experience, perspective and a certain authority to talk about pop-up puzzle games as a medium. What works, what doesn’t work – and what has big potential. I recognise the hard work Envelescape have put into Thornbright Mansion (god knows it’s hard making a game like this) and I would applaud them for it. I’m excited to see what they come up with next.
So do we recommend this game? Yes! Support the company. Support creative people with a vision and the drive to create it. Support pop-up games. If you want to support Envelescape, consider buying Chapter 1 on their website here.