It was New Years Eve and we were inches away from closing the 1934 cold case of the disappearance of 23-year old Broadway starlet, Viola Vane. You see, shortly after a starring turn in her first major production at the Cadence Theater in New York City, Ms. Vane disappeared without a trace. Eighty years later, her mummified remains were found stuffed into a trunk in the theater. Clearly, the actress hadn’t vanished. She’d been murdered. And after months of investigation, my partner and I, champagne and code-breaking scribbles in hand, were about to set Ms. Vane’s restless spirit free. But she’d have to wait a few more minutes—the ball was about to drop, and we had to call our families to wish them Happy New Years.
Oh, the things we get up to during isolation. I recall a time when my New Years Eves were spent with friends on the rooftop of some stranger’s apartment in Brooklyn, fireworks blaring over the Manhattan skyline. Things were different this year. It was just her and me, 1920s music spinning on the record player, both of us dressed in whatever period-appropriate clothing we had, sitting there in our empty apartment like some scene out of The Shining. But it was a memorable New Years nonetheless. We didn’t have time to feel bad for ourselves. We had Hunt a Killer, and the untimely death of Viola Vane to entertain us.
I’m not too much of a true crime junkie, but my partner is hooked—the documentaries, the podcasts, the Wikipedia holes. Hey, I can’t knock her for having a hobby. I suppose that’s why, when I came across the true crime tabletop game and subscription service Hunt a Killer, my interest was piqued. I thought it could be a fun way to occupy our time as the winter that everyone was anticipating to be “the worst few months of our lives” was rolling in quick. And it was. The game, I mean; check back in with me later to see if this winter turned out to be as bad as people predicted.
Hunt a Killer, which is a little bit like an escape room that you play on your dining room table, comes in two models: There are subscription series, like “Curtain Call,” the six-episode story that my partner and I obsessed over, or bulky all-in-one games (a.k.a. premium boxes) that contain an entire investigation from start to finish. The folks at Hunt a Killer were kind enough to also hook us up with one of those too, called “Death at a Dive Bar.” It took us about four nights to crack, while the “Curtain Call” monthly setup took about two nights per box—that is, if we really had our thinking caps on. Hunt a Killer also makes a line of horror games, with the current season set in the Blair Witch universe. From the looks of the first two boxes, it’s about as good as “Curtain Call” with a sprinkle of terror. Fun for the whole family!
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As I said before, the grimy details of demented killing sprees don’t stimulate me all that much. (Is my brain not weird enough? Is real-life death just too boring for me?) But there is a certain old-fashioned, tactile joy that comes from rolling up the sleeves and getting elbows-deep in these Hunt a Killer mysteries, and I think it comes from the fact that the whole “game,” if you want to call it that, is 100-percent blue light-free. Sure, the same goes for Monopoly, or Settlers of Catan, I guess. But Hunt a Killer feels different than your run-of-the-mill board game. For one, you’re working together toward a common goal, not trading petty real estate deals for hours on end. Some parts of the investigation are a real challenge—especially decoding the many, many ciphers that may come your way. And since there’s an underlying narrative here (the fate of the Cadence Theater rests on your shoulders, for god’s sake!), Hunt a Killer stimulates your story-hungry brain. Let me explain.
When you open up a Hunt a Killer box, you start with a detailed analysis of the investigation from, in the case of “Curtain Call,” Ms. Julia Adler, the current caretaker of the Cadence, and a woman in desperate need of help settling this decades-old mystery so the theater can finally get a breath of fresh air. She’ll walk you through all the evidence in the box. Sometimes you get handwritten letters, little matchboxes with codes scribbled on them, creepy little totems like engraved rings or keys, or even newspaper clippings covered in (fake) blood. That personal touch helped us connect with the characters, which, again, made it feel different from the standard board game experience—nobody ever felt any empathy for the Monopoly Man. From there, it’s up to you to figure out what the hell’s going on. “Curtain Call” routinely tasked us with ruling out suspects, which meant deciphering codes and poring through mundane logs like rehearsal notes from the production’s stage manager to see who looked the least suspicious. When you reach a conclusion, you send along an “email” to Ms. Adler via the nifty Hunt a Killer member site. She actually writes back!
Anytime I’m around parents of young children, I hear the phrase screen time thrown around at least a few times an hour. With all of us locked down inside for the winter as even the sanctuary of outdoor dining becomes inaccessible in the bitter cold, blue light intake is a serious problem. The New York Times reported in January that TikTok alone averages 31.1 million users a day, which is an 82 percent increase from last year. So, yes, screen time in children is an issue. But what about us? What about our own reliance on blue light?
Although we may not be able to leave our home all that much this winter, I’ve been hard-pressed to find things that scoop me away from the boredom of social isolation, as well as divert my eyes from the many, many blinding-white screens that constantly surround me. Hunt a Killer quickly became our Thursday night ritual, each week transforming our little one-bedroom apartment into a moody crime scene. For $30 a month, this is one subscription service I can endorse. Hell, the discovery of [redacted] as Viola Vane’s murderer (who would have thought?) may have been surprising enough to make me a true crime junkie after all.
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