Don’t fall. (All images property of Boda Borg. Used with Permission)
Escape-the-Room-style reality games, where attendees are locked in a room and given a certain amount of time to figure out how to escape, seem to be popping up all over the place lately. It’s a trend that has already make its mark all across America, and is now taking Canada by storm.
But it turns out Sweden is way ahead of all of us. For the past 20 years, Sweden has been hiding elaborate reality gaming compounds, called Boda Borgs, in remote regions of their country (and one in Ireland). These grown up playgrounds let people climb around dozens of linked rooms, solving puzzles and completing “quests.” And they’re finally coming to America.
Boda Borg began simply enough when three Swedish engineers set out to make a real life video game they could play with their kids. They designed a series of puzzle rooms that mixed mental dexterity challenges with physical obstacles where the player was simply dropped into the room and had to figure out the solution themselves, without even a clue to guide them. From this idea came Boda Borg, which has since grown into a multi-franchise reality gaming company.
The first location was in the small Swedish town of Torpshammar, which was chosen because there was an large, abandoned insane asylum that the company’s founders were able to take over for a song, thanks to program focused on bringing new business to rural parts of Northern Sweden. They remodeled the entire building, turning almost all of the available rooms into puzzle rooms, and adding a cafe and even a hostel for guests to stay in since Torpshammar isn’t exactly convenient to get to.
Only trial and error light the way through a quest.
The quests in a Boda Borg are split up into three difficulty levels, with green quests requiring little to no physical challenge (but possibly a more oblique mental one), red quests demanding a bit of physical interaction along with some brainy puzzles, and black quests consisting of minor feats of strength. Some of the quests are heavily themed, such as a prison escape designed to recreate a funner version of busting out of jail, complete with prison bars, faux stone walls, and hidden escape tunnels. Other quests, usually the more challenging ones, are less thematic and are simply puzzling, with the most challenging puzzle among the Borgs looking like a stark obstacle course out of a mini version of American Gladiators.
The rooms have evolved from their first incarnations as technology like motion and pressure sensors were added to make the puzzles both more accurate and more intricate.
When you enter a Boda Borg quest (in a team of three to five people), you are given no indication of how to complete the puzzles in a given room, nor how many rooms might be contained in a chosen quest chain. There is also a time limit, although the duration of this is also kept hidden from the team. Using basic deduction and trial and error, questors must unravel the solution to each room. Success is indicated by a green light that lets people know they can move on to the next room, while failure is indicated by a red light that means they have to leave the quest and start again. No information is given regarding by they failed. When players reach the last room in a quest, there is a magnetically sealed box that unlocks after the final solution is complete. Inside is a stamp that can mark a progress card.
The puzzles themselves vary widely. One room might ask the team to push a series of buttons in sequence while standing in certain spots, while another might task players to make it across a room without touching the floor, using nothing but a thin strip of molding to cling to. Motion and pressure sensors hidden throughout the rooms, monitor the progress and essentially “watch” the players, letting them know if they have succeeded or failed.
This would likely be considered a black level challenge.
From that first complex, the company grew slowly, but in similar fashion to the first location, with would-be franchisees locating cheap-to-free real estate, often in remote locations, and remodelling the sites into gaming complexes featuring up to a hundred different rooms, and following the same quest structure as the first. Today, the company has grown to eight locations, seven in Sweden, and one in Ireland. And now, after 20 years of unabashedly geeky gaming, they are finally coming to America with Boda Borg Boston.
America’s Boda Borg is being built in the former Sparks Department Store in the Boston suburb of Malden, that had sat vacant prior to Boda Borg moving in. The two-story brick edifice is not much to look at from the exterior, but the interior seems like it may have been a bit grander at one time, with tall, wide columns.
The site was still mainly under construction when we visited, but Chad Ellis, co-founder of Your Move Games and the American entrepreneur behind Boda Borg Boston, walked us through a number of the half-finished rooms. Ellis got into Boda Borg when he was blindly contacted through his college alumni network. After being convinced to visit Boda Borg in Sweden, he fell in love with the concept, and fought to get the first American facility opened in Boston.
Ellis took us through the bare puzzle rooms, pointing out tunnels through floors and ceiling where they would connect and through which visitors would one day pass. He explained that when it’s complete, Boda Borg Boston will have a full lounge, and dozens of challenge rooms on multiple floors. Boda Borg shares their puzzles between sites and the Boston location is going to feature a mix of heavily themed quests and more challenge-based ones. Among the coming quests include an Alcatraz escape, a jungle-themed adventure, rooms full of oversize objects where you become a human rat, a physical course (the toughest quest Boda Borg has to offer, which Ellis claims to personally be strength training for so that he can complete it), and a quest that is simply themed, “The Bathroom.” The hidden sensor tech could also be seen in some of the in-process rooms, giving a glimpse at the surprisingly comprehensive array of gizmos imbedded into the rooms themselves. But unfortunately, none of the rooms were complete enough to run.
Green level pirates.
What was clear from our visit is that this facility is going to have an impressive variety of quests and puzzles. Ellis manifested great enthusiasm for Boda Borg and its potential in Malden, although the facility’s appeal to adults and college kids, which it is banking on, is a bit murkier. The quests at a Boda Borg are largely designed to appeal to a wide age range, but it also seems to carry the geekier-than-thou air of other live-action entertainments like laser tag.
It remains to be seen if Boda Borg Boston’s quest to bring their decades-tested brand of reality gaming to American shores will be successful. But let’s face it, the geeks have won. With the rise of the Escape the Room trend, and a growing cultural acceptance of role playing in general, it might be time for Boda Borg to explode. It’s been working for decades in Sweden, hopefully Americans are ready to just let go and have a fun adventure in a fake Mayan temple.
Don’t be too cool. Enter the tomb.