The Tale of Ord
Designed by Rita Orlov
Artwork by Rita Orlov & Ayodhya Ouditt
Published 2018 by PostCurious
Review by Jack Eddy
Like em’, hate em’, one-and-done puzzle games are here to stay. I mean, the genre isn’t exactly new, but thanks to the rise of exciting experiences both on and off the table, interactive narrative puzzles and mysteries of all sorts have become a revitalized and burgeoning staple of tabletop gaming. The thing is, while fun, these games never really clicked for me, climbing their way out of novelty and truly cementing themselves as a legitimate format, demanding innovation and teasing endless potential.
That is, until I played The Tale of Ord.
What is it?
The Tale of Ord is the first adventure being published by PostCurious, a subscription service that sends out installments in the adventure by mail. While it’s easy to draw comparisons with other tabletop adventures and puzzles like Exit The Game and Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective (perhaps with a dash of Where in the World is Carmen SanDiego thrown in for good measure), The Tale of Ord feels altogether like a beast unto itself; exciting and new.
This is going to be a bit different of a review, but then again is a bit different of a type of game... puzzle... mystery tabletop thingy(?). I’ve been sent the first two chapters which I’ll speak to here, and I’ll write a follow up after receiving and playing the next two.
Also, because so much of what makes this game great is the mystery and subsequent sense of discovery, I’m steering clear of spoilers (aside from the basic premise of the story). My main focus will be about my groups feelings navigating these puzzles, the type of experience we had, and help explain just what made this wonderful package so incredibly special.
The contents within my stylish and foreboding PostCurious box were three items: Two manilla envelopes labeled Part 1 and Part 2 (each full of all kinds of other stuff), and a branded PostCurious notebook full of blank pages, as if to say “Yo dude, you’re going to need this”. Without reading a single instruction, I was already in the mood for adventure.
The “Read First” attached to each envelope explains what you might need, encourages you to check the contents when you open it, and confirms that the scope of this game extends beyond what’s in the box. Sure, most of the tools are there, but as I’ll explain a bit later, don’t for a single moment think that the experience is confined to the table.
Once we made sure all the components were there, we dived into chapter one with pens, notebook, laptop and french press coffee in hand. One by one, we skeptically looked at each item: cards, clippings, half written journals, diagrams, and most importantly, a letter. More than anything, this letter is the portal between our world and that of the story. Mikhail Soterman, The Chairman of the Emerens institute, is hiring your team of private investigators to help find two missing professors and uncover the mystery of their disappearance.
There is no time limit, there are no rules, there is no structure - You truly are the investigators and you can use whatever resources are at your disposal to solve the mystery; by merely opening the package and reading the letter, you’ve effortlessly entered the magic circle.
Playing the Game
So what do you get? Again, it’d be a spoiler to even describe it to you; other than to say nothing is meaningless. I was astounded by the skill and effort put into coming up with so many bespoke and wonderful components. And I’m not talking about the structural quality, which is fine, I mean the immersion and sense of place. These things actually look and feel like weird items taken from someone’s apartment.
Some items are overtly cryptic, others may appear meaningless or like they exist strictly for narrative purposes, only to become immensely important later on as you stumble upon some revelation. In our group of three, we went through each item as a group and then naturally gravitated to individual items that each of us would turn our attention to.
This is one of the biggest strengths of the Tale of Ord; even though there is a grand mystery within each chapter, individual puzzles can be solved in parallel. Countless times over our first session, one of us would loudly exclain “guys, guys! Check this out” and we’d excitedly detail a theory for the others’ consideration. Often this led nowhere, but with each attempt, new connective tissue was uncovered. What if the cards mean this? What are those weird numbers? Isn’t this formatting strange?
Our excitement was further compounded when we realized that our freedom to explore beyond the components of the game wasn’t just possible, but was encouraged. The puzzle has a few really smart moments that have you utilize a device connected to the internet, and you begin to see that many of the things referenced in the game are from the real world. Not only did looking into the subject matter of our missing archaeologists help contextualize some of the clues on the table, it did a fantastic job of immersing us in this fiction; we used real world tools, rather than arbitrary game rules, to complete our adventure.
Throughout the three hours it took us to tackle episode one, numbers, ciphers, patterns, metaphors, codes, they all begun to reveal themselves, sometimes leading us to new tools that would let us crack another puzzle, or give us one of piece of the chapter’s overall solution. In both episode 1 and 2 there were each at least three moments that felt like it completely blew the case wide open, offering a deluge of new possibilities to explore. And all of that is great, if you are successful...
Staring into the Abyss
The big risk in PostCurious’ formula is that you constantly feel like you are on the precipice of understanding, which is great because it makes success feel so incredibly rewarding. The flipside of that, though, is that the game has you teetering on the edge of failure; tempting you to give up out of frustration. Fortunately, the game does some really smart things in order to make sure that you can grab a foothold.
First off, the components themselves are disparate but offer several context clues as to how they may interact. Either through language use, their dimensions, or even nature of existence, you will have some natural inkling as to how to begin your experimentation.
Next, the PostCurious website has a fantastic system for providing hints for each of the chapters’ puzzles and a way to make sure that your solutions are correct. Remember, in each session there are multiple smaller puzzles that have independent solutions, leading to one overall solution; the ability to check your work before tackling the final beast is a must.
And those hints? There are a ton for each puzzle and each will progressively reveal just a little bit more information each time. With each click, you can check your assumptions and reorient your group. In our first game, we completed the puzzle without a relying too much on the clues, but the second adventure they became a must; making sure we weren’t out in the weeds with our wild theories. They really do a beautiful job of nudging you in the right direction without taking agency and the sense of accomplishment out of your hands.
(Our) Final Countdown
Our group had an absolute blast with both chapters. I think it’s worthwhile to note that while all three of us enjoy puzzles and may occasionally be accused with being clever, none of us would consider ourselves gifted or even particularly inclined to the sort or mental gymnastics that one would associate with decrypting secret messages and assembling three dimensional puzzle boxes.
But that’s what made this experience so wonderful and so rewarding. The game is designed in such a way that encourages experimentation rather than simply relying on base intellect, tantalizing you with clues that inspire an adventurous heart. Each time we finally understood how a puzzle was meant to be solved it was a triumph, a moment of clarity that felt so empowering that we needed to chase the threads to their end.
And the end itself was satisfying, the victory after finishing chapter one left us talking at the table for another hour about how awesome of a time we had. It felt remarkable how clever each puzzle was, seemingly opaque, yet giving you just enough intuitive crumbs that you could see yourself through, resulting in one of the most intense cooperative gaming sessions I’ve ever had.
Our second session was admittedly more difficult. Not only did the challenge seem to ramp up, but one of our teammates was about to move. After about 2 hours of puzzling on the eve of her departure, we hit a wall and decided to finish in a subsequent session, culminating in the awesome final resolution via skype; and I wouldn’t trade how we tackled it for the world.
Again, this game’s greatest strength is that it does such a wonderful job blurring the lines between the game and reality. There are no arbitrary turns, time limits, or action points to confine you. You use time, space, cooperation and creativity to uncover the secrets held within these objects, little artifacts ranging from the mundane to downright bizarre.
That said, I don’t think this is for everyone. Choose carefully what group you do this with, as I think the sense of collaboration of working with a team is a huge part of the experience. Too big of a team and some people may feel like they are just along for the ride, too small and you’ll lose the advantage of different perspectives. I think the sweet spot is 2-4 players, maybe 1 if you are really into puzzles. Speaking of which, if you don’t like puzzles, word games, or cooperative experiences, I don’t think this will be the game for you. Also, The Tale of Ord requires grit; resilience; a sense of defiance to carry you through those moments where it feels like the answer is just beyond your reach. I promise you, whether by hint or hard work (probably both), you’ll get there; but if you have to be able to buck up to push yourself through; it’s worth it.
Finally, there is no avoiding the cost. The Tale of Ord in full costs $160 for 4 chapters. This is atypically expensive in the realm of tabletop gaming when you consider that you will likely only go through the puzzle once. And while it is technically possible to preserve the components for future use, it’s likely you’ll have bent, torn, broken, marked, and otherwise changed most of the components before you’ve seen it through.
But for us? Three gamers hungry for discovery, looking for a fantastic way to spend a couple nights together, the experience was irreplaceable. The Tale of Ord has so far proven to be a masterclass in puzzle design, allowing us to embark on a challenging and rich adventure that all three of us consider well worth the cost. Furthermore, this game has contextualized a new format of tabletop gaming for me; showcasing the limitless possibilities of what narrative-based collaborative puzzle solving can be. And for that reason, I’m on the edge of my seat. I can’t wait for the next chapters and to see what next PostCurious, let alone this entire genre, will bring.
Review copy of The Tale of Ord parts 1 & 2 were provided by PostCurious. You can check out The Tale of Ord at http://getpostcurious.com/ and learn about designer Rita Orlov at https://www.ritaorlov.com/
Special thanks to Jennifer Kelley, part of our trio, for help with photography and gif-ifying our review!