Simulacra Games is selling a crate of 1930s era memorabilia from the early days of animation for a studio that never existed. It’s not an elaborate counterfeiting scheme, but rather an elaborate alternate reality game in a box called The Wilson Wolfe Affair. Using the diary of a studio animator as a guide, players are guided through the crate’s exquisitely crafted materials artifacts by the diary of a studio animator to uncover the mysteries behind the Wilson Wolfe cartoons.

The Kickstarter campaign for The Wilson Wolfe Affair ends December 21st at 10AM EST, and the team has already blown past all their stretch goals,  with almost a thousand backers raising over $210K in pre-orders for the experience. This level of support is particularly impressive for Simulacra Games’ first foray into the world of puzzle boxes, and can be a craftily executed promotional campaign designed to showcase the team’s skills without revealing any of the mysteries of the experience itself.

Wilson Wolfe and the Animated Series
Prior to launching their Kickstarter campaign, Simulacra Games released a series of videos that served as an introduction to Wilson Wolfe, Jinks Studio’s version of Felix the Cat. For the first two videos, Wilson Wolfe’s adventures are framed in actual animated shorts. Mad Scientist Wilson highlights a restrained Wilson Wolfe struggling against his bonds as a shadowy figure approaches, while The Spooky Salesman shows Wolfe chased down a hallway by a spectral gloved hand.

Adding to the challenge of animation, each video contains a series of puzzles offering up tantalizing glimpses into the darker side of Wilson Wolfe’s production as well as more traditional clues that resolve in four digit number strings. One of the more impressive solves as documented on the Game Detectives wiki involved a story hidden in frames. The lyrics to the song in The Spooky Salesman spelled out instructions on where to find the four numbers hidden in the video. For the third number, the clue was to “get your frame the same to get the third in the game”. An encoded letter from the Order of the Third Circle that appeared in a stray frame of the video provided descriptions of four separate scenes in the video. Matching those scenes up with four framed paintings revealed letters hidden in the frames within a frame, spelling out the number “FOUR”.

The puzzle cleverly works with frames on multiple levels to spell out this solution. And while Simulacra Games promised that the main puzzles in The Wilson Wolfe Affair will be easier to solve than the ones found in the more collaborative preview round, seeing puzzles this elegantly constructed demonstrates the team’s skills at puzzle design, an essential task for a team releasing their first major public-facing project.

Wilson Wolfe and the Rotating Gourd
The final video showcased a hand-carved zoetropic pumpkin of Wilson Wolfe, lit and rotated at the perfect speed to turn a decorative gourd into a moving animation of Wilson Wolfe running away from something or someone.

Frankly, the zoetropic pumpkin alone was enough to convince me to back The Wilson Wolf Affair. The audacity of even thinking to animate a decorative gourd is impressive enough. Combining that with the skill needed to execute on that promise with fine enough details to hide puzzles in the color contrast of the pumpkin is taking things to a whole other level.

Simulacra Games Embracing Show Don’t Tell
Since half of the fun of mystery boxes is puzzling your way through its contents, Simulacra Games doesn’t reveal the final versions of any of the artifacts players will receive in the mail, either through the Kickstarter campaign or on their website. However, they still wanted to give people a taste of the experience before investing in the experience. To balance those concerns, the company did something I’ve never seen before: they created dummy solutions.

The Wilson Wolf Affair Kickstarter video and the related promotional materials contain examples of the artifacts players will receive in the mail, but have been modified to maintain the mystery. As the team explains,

We realised while making the game that marketing might be a problem – we wanted to show you all the cool unusual solutions our game entails but by showing those we would also be spoiling the game for you. So, we decided to make dummy solutions just for the preview. Any puzzles you can make out, or any solutions shown here, like the flame being held to the poster, the game board being folded to spell a word, etc. do not feature in the final game in the way shown.

This gives Simulacra Games the freedom to be remarkably explicit in terms of what players will receive for their money while at the same time revealing next to nothing. Backers at the “Silver Package” level ($79 USD plus shipping) receive 20+ individual cases built around the studio animator’s diary and extending across letters, newspaper, animated cels,posters, puzzle books, and the online resources those items help players find. Additional tiers going up to the “Platinum Package” ($289 plus shipping) expand on that base set with more artifacts tied to additional narrative paths. The added value from getting to see what’s in those additional tiers has led to over half of backers going for the highest tier of support.

The Vision for The Wilson Wolfe Affair
Simulacra Games hit the market at the perfect time. With recently released video games like Cuphead and Bendy and the Ink Machine reigniting nostalgia for the early days of animation and established mystery box retailers like the Mysterious Package Company and L. Delaney building the market for high quality mystery boxes, The Wilson Wolfe Affair hit all the right notes. But its greatest strength lies in solving the problem of talking about the product.

See, mystery boxes are like Fight Club. And the first rule of mystery boxes is not talking about them, to avoid spoiling the surprise for others, especially if they’re receiving the packages as gifts. The Mysterious Package Company addresses this by having a gated members only club that allows a safe space for discussing and ordering the packages, once you’re in the know. But you still don’t really know what you’re getting. By designing an experience that’s safe to talk about without spoiling the mystery, Simulacra Games has come across a different answer to that problem.

Simulacra Games lists the cult 1981 board game Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective as an influence, as well as the MIT Mystery Hunt – and like the Mystery Hunt, Simulacra Games aspires to make their experiences part of peoples’ annual puzzling calendars, receiving a “massive package of themed stuff, and then spend the next few months of their life getting absorbed in it, mulling over old notes over on the subway, meeting with friends to look over the weird objects to get a different perspective…getting further toward the full story every time.”

To learn more about Simulacra Games and The Wilson Wolfe Affair, visit their website and Kickstarter page, and check out the Game Detectives wiki and Discord server for news on what players have discovered so far.

Updated to add: While the Kickstarter campaign has concluded, it’s not too late to pre-order The Wilson Wolfe Affair from Simulacra Games’ BackerKit page.