I loved Usborne Puzzle Adventures
And my ongoing quest to bring them back
Retrospective time! As a child in the 1980s, my absolute favourite books were the series of ‘puzzle adventures’ published by Usborne in the UK. Released between 1984 and 1998, these books were aimed at 8-13 year olds, making me the perfect age around 1987.
The formula was simple: each book would tell an exciting adventure tale, with the reader having to solve puzzles and riddles along the way. Each double-page spread would have a new chapter of the story, fully illustrated, with a question at the end. The reader was supposed to solve the puzzle before moving on to the next page. The solutions would be hidden within the text and the illustrations, so the books rewarded close reading and observation skills, as well as logic, problem-solving and mathematics.
They were sneakily quite educational, but I found them hugely engrossing and exciting. Interactive stories in which I had to play an active part! Remember, this was the mid-late 80s, which was before computers were common in households. Video games were largely confined to the arcades. There were home computers, but they were expensive and limited in power - plus, video games were still finding their feet. The closest comparison were the Choose your own adventure books, which had started in the late-70s. As an 8 year old I found those too complicated and heavy - whereas the Usborne books scratched that gamer itch while being more approachable.
When my son was born in 2012 I remembered those puzzle adventure books, and wondered if they were still around. They stopped being actively published around 1998, and I’d stopped reading them at least six years before then. After hunting around, I did discover an omnibus reprint in a local book shop, which I quickly grabbed. Other than that, there hasn’t been any recent reprinting that I could find.
There’s an argument that a lot of this sort of thing transferred into computer games. Why would a 10 year old want to read about Agent Arthur’s Arctic Adventure when they could be Link and go on a quest to save the Kingdom of Hyrule? There’s a video game for every adventure and mystery genre you could think of, more instantly appealing (albeit more expensive) than a puzzle book. In fact, the Agent Arthur mini-series of Usborne books were basically 9-year-old me’s version of Uncharted, back in the late-80s.
I like to think there’s still a certain charm to the Usborne formula, though. My son really enjoys the ‘choose your own path’ stuff in The Phoenix magazine, for example. There’s a tangible satisfaction to a paper-based interactive story. Video games are so impressive, so convincing, so technically sophisticated, that seeing ink and paper accomplishing something even vaguely similar feels like a proper magic trick, and is satisfying in its own way. Plus there’s the factor that for under-10s, having physicality and tactility in the reading experience is crucial for retaining their attention.
It’s also got me thinking. Is there still a market for this kind of stuff? Is it something that could be done in an indie publishing way, with short form, illustrated puzzle books for young readers? I’ve encountered some self-published ‘choose your own adventure’ books (the quality of which is highly variable), so this stuff does still exist.
Or perhaps there’s some sort of hybrid model that could be explored now. A product that bridges the gap between book and game, with interactive elements and a literature-first approach. Perhaps that’s what point-and-click adventures do already? The likes of Return of Monkey Island and Unavowed.
Those are big games. For younger readers in particular, something shorter and more immediately satisfying is needed. There’s also a simplicity to the Usborne design, in that most puzzles were confined to the double-page spreads: this meant that you didn’t have to backtrack through the book to find clues, and could be certain that everything you needed was right there. There’s an immediacy and focus to the puzzle design that keeps the reader moving forward through the book without becoming frustrated.
I’ve been trying to find a vehicle for me to explore a more illustrated project for a while. Ultimately, I’d love to make a comic, but my drawing skills really aren’t up to the task just yet. An illustrated, short-form puzzle book, though? That sounds more doable. It’s something that could probably exist online as a Substack newsletter, although it would likely need to be aimed at older readers.'s is already doing a great job of delivering bite-sized interactive games-via-newsletter.
To be aimed at younger readers I’d need to embrace a print version, and a book like this requires a level of design beyond what a simple novel formatting tool can manage. It might therefore by time for me to finally grab a copy of Affinity Publisher, as recommended by people called Mark (thanks toand for the tip a while back).
I have no idea if the Usborne puzzle adventures ever reached beyond the UK shores. I presume they were popular in the UK at least, to have run for so many years - including well past when I grew out of their target market.
Were you into any unusual puzzle or interactive books as a child? Let me know down in the comments. :)