I have a problem. Years of playing alternate reality games and transmedia storytelling experiences have trained me to love room escape games. Getting locked in a room and relying on a group of friends to figure out what we’re supposed to do to get out? Pretty much my dream come true. But there are a limited number of rooms in Philadelphia, and I’ve done them all. And for the most part, it’s not as fun playing a room escape game for a second time. It’s like going to the same murder mystery dinner party twice. Once you know everyone’s secrets and whodunnit, you’re either stuck watching on the sidelines, or end up spoiling the mystery for everyone else.
Okay, so I’ve done all three rooms currently running in Philadelphia. But there are hundreds of rooms running globally, so I can still scratch my room escape game itch when I’m on vacation…but I have to do it alone, unless the friends I’m visiting haven’t similarly run through all of their local games. Otherwise, I’m stuck waiting for more rooms to open up in my area, or for escape room designers to find a way to make their games more replayable. Luckily, Boda Borg has come up with a solution to both problems.
Boda Borg started in Sweden, and has been running “reality games” since the mid-90s, long before the current wave of room escape games swept their way through Asia and North America. Boda Borg currently has eight locations in Sweden and Ireland, but only recently opened their first North American location in Boston. The core concept is the same: a small team of participants enter the room, and have to figure out how to use the surrounding objects to get out of the room. But because Boda Borg evolved independently from traditional room escape games, the experience is considerably different, in practice. The main difference? The rooms are designed for teams to fail fast, and fail frequently.
Boda Borg’s business model enables this “fail fast” mentality. Rather than reserving a room for a particular time slot, Boda Borg Boston offers a 2-hour pass for $18, or an all-day pass for $28. This buys unlimited access to the building’s 20 “Quests”. Each Quest’s difficulty is rated primarily on the physical demands of the rooms, with “Green” rooms focusing on cognitive challenges, “Red” quests requiring moderate physical activity, and “Black” quests requiring…well, let’s just say “Black” quests lie somewhere between Survivor challenges and American Ninja Warrior, on the difficulty scale. Players who realize a Quest is too cognitively or physically demanding for them can easily move on and try a different room, finding the perfect fit for their personal appetite for challenge.
Quests are designed for teams of 3-5 people, with the goal of progressing through 2-5 challenges, with a separate themed room for each challenge. Solve the challenge? A video monitor over the door to the next room will flash a green symbol, and the door or passageway to the next room will unlock. Fail? The symbol will flash red, and your team takes the loser’s exit, and must try again from the start. Complete the challenge in the final room, and a drawer will unlock with the Quest’s stamp of completion. Each Quest is heavily automated, requiring little to no supervision from Boda Borg staff. And theming is a major part of the challenges, with the nature of the Quest often informing each challenge’s solutions. The entrance to the Alcatraz-themed room, for instance, asks teams to enter the Quest through a crawlspace under the sink of a prison cell.
Quests are designed to go by quickly. Our group failed out of some rooms five seconds after entering, and it was rare to spend more than five minutes on a single challenge before either the time ran out or someone on the team inadvertently triggered a fail-state through their actions. Boda Borg is designed to be merciless, demanding teams to fail multiple times before giving up the coveted stamp. Our team became particularly fixated with the Haunted House themed quest “Spook House”, and cycled through the room over a dozen times trying to figure out the secret to the second challenge. Even after passing that it, I still want to go back to figure out how the Boda Borg team designed the room from a technical perspective. There’s a dash of magic, in the challenge design. Each Quest’s theme is baked into every aspect of its design, from floor-to-ceiling. It becomes much easier to solve each Quest’s puzzles by embracing the various themes. Entering a haunted house, or a pirate adventure, or a cat-and-mouse adventure? Getting into the mindset of the theme can help inform what you’re supposed to do next. Following that logic you may figure out what you’re supposed to do, but that doesn’t mean you’ve sussed out why it works.
The purely cognitive rooms are similar to traditional room escape games: once you’ve figured the room out, some of the excitement and allure fades away on repeat playthroughs. But by building out Quests to only last a few minutes instead of an hour, it’s much easier and more enjoyable to come back and watch friends who aren’t in on the secret squirm, before moving on to Quests you haven’t conquered. And because physical and skill-based challenges are incorporated into so many of the rooms, you can go into most of the Quests knowing exactly what you’re supposed to do and still fail. Because of that, there’s a lot more replay value for the experienced Boda Borger.
For the purely physical rooms like “Tough/Tougher/Toughest” and “Superbanan”, the rooms function as collaborative jungle gyms. Buying the 2-hour pass to tackle these rooms is akin to registering for a Tough Mudder run, or signing up for a couple hours on a rock climbing wall with a group of friends. The only difference? With Tough Mudder and rock climbing, it helps to work together. With Boda Borg’s physical challenges, it is impossible to get through on your own. Tackling these rooms is essentially a team sport, and I could easily see myself paying to watch teams of skilled athletes race to finish Quests in record time.
By designing Quests to go quickly, it’s much easier for repeat visitors to bring their friends and re-do Quests they’ve already completed. If they’re feeling mischievous, they can force their friends to go through the challenges a few times before slowly doling out hints. Even knowing the solution, many of the challenges require speed, dexterity, and a little bit of strength to overcome. And with plans to rotate up to 25 Quests through the location, it’s all but impossible to finish all that Boda Borg has to offer on a single day pass.
If you find yourself in the Boston area, head on over to Boda Borg in Malden, conveniently located off the Orange line. To save time and get the most out of your visit, make sure to fill out the (rather lengthy) waiver at the footer of the Boda Borg website before heading over. The building is open from 10am-10pm on Sunday – Thursday, with extended weekend hours from 10am-midnight on Friday and Saturday.
I still have a serious room escape game problem, but it’s changed: now, I just need to find more excuses to visit Boston. Hey MIT Mystery Hunters, who’s up for a few puzzle quests as a warm-up for this year’s Hunt?