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You’re in Alcatraz, in a jail cell. You shimmy through an opening beneath the sink and into a concrete corridor with flickering lights. But then you slip and take one wrong step. An alarm freezes you in your tracks. You can hear search dogs barking and approaching rapidly.
Only a few steps into your bid for freedom, you’ve been caught. Back to the jail cell you go -- to try again.
Escaping from Alcatraz is one of the 16 physical and mental challenges at a new gaming center here in downtown Malden, called Boda Borg.
With solid black and red furniture and clean, modern lines, the entrance to Boda Borg looks like the lobby of a boutique hotel. Behind the counter, employee Erika Smeds reveals the accent of the country that is exporting this product: Sweden.
"Someone actually came up to me the other day saying like, 'Oh, guys, first you’re giving us IKEA. Now you’re giving us Boda Borg. You guys are awesome!' " Smeds remembers with a laugh.
The Swedish company has opened its first U.S. location in Malden, brought to the area by Brookline board game entrepreneur Chad Ellis. He turned the Sparks Department Store building, after the 95-year-old business closed in 2014, into a so-called "questing center" with three stories of multi-room challenges.
"When you walk into a room, you normally know how everything works. You know what you’re supposed to do," Ellis says. "When you walk into a room at Boda Borg, you don’t. We haven’t told you the rules. We haven’t told you what to do. You have to explore and experiment and figure it out."
That's something Emily Gouillart, Ben de la Cretaz and Sara Ross quickly find out by trying Boda Borg for first time, on a quest titled “The Farm.” They open the door to the first room to enter what looks like a chicken coop, complete with the sounds of clucking hens and roosters. Each room has a riddle to crack or a pattern to identify before the team can advance to the next.
“This looks like a button of some kind, doesn’t it?” Gouillart asks. “I don’t know, I have no idea,” de la Cretaz replies.
The trio soon discovers that the challenges are also physical, like scampering through tunnels or popping up through chutes.
"Watch the feet because I got kicked in the head, I promise," Gouillart says at one point to her fellow teammates, fellow coworkers at Stock Pot Malden, a culinary incubator.
Turns out no one can do it alone. The coworkers discover it takes a team to solve the secret progression and finish the quest successfully, something they celebrate with cheers and high-fives like they'd just won a game show prize.
But the exhilaration from finishing "The Farm” quickly turns to frustration, as the team tries next a much harder quest -- escaping from Alcatraz.
"Let’s give it another go!" and "One more try!" might be the most common phrases said at Boda Borg. Because if team members fail the challenge, they have to go back to the beginning and start all over.
It’s a feeling of failure as a new bid for success is something that Boda Borg Boston founder Chad Ellis got hooked on. The Harvard MBA tried his hand at questing in Sweden before deciding whether to open a franchise in the United States.
Ellis thought about the business decision on the plane back. "And as I was flying home, I was thinking, 'But if I don’t do it, I do need to fly back to Sweden because I haven’t yet broken out of prison. I haven’t survived Platoon.' I started going through the quests that I needed to finish, and that was sort of when I was like: 'If I feel this way, that says something.' "
Ellis’ conviction is getting a boost from the growing trend of what’s called active gaming or reality gaming. The Norwood company 5 Wits creates movie-like experiences for people to act out. There’s also a single-room challenge, a pop-up in downtown Boston, called Escape The Room.
Boda Borg in Malden takes reality gaming to a new twist with 16 multi-stage quests in a single building. Two more quests are under construction.
Another player, Matt Lindstrom, compares Boda Borg quests to playing the character in a video game. If you fail, you go back to Level 1 and start over.
"It's frustrating to an extent but like the amount of satisfaction that you get when you finally do break through that barrier is really, really, well, satisfying," Lindstrom says.
Lindstrom's fellow quester Dani Negus says the satisfaction of finishing a quest is addicting. "It's like: ‘Yes! We got this. Let’s do another one, we have to do another one right away,' " she says, laughing.
Their teammate Corrie Lovejoy says the gaming helped her see skills in her friends that she didn't know they had. "And you can change up with each other’s strengths. Because you’re like: ‘I suck at this. Why don’t you try it? I’ll do your thing.’ So you get to kind of test out what each other’s good at, too," Lovejoy says.
The collective problem-solving necessary to finish a quest is one reason that Boda Borg is not only marketing itself to millennials who grew up on video games, but also to companies that want to train their employees to be more collaborative and innovative.
At a recent team-building workshop, corporate trainer Gillian Simkiss says Boda Borg offers a big step up from tired team-building exercises like the trust fall.
"It sort of cements and anchors an experience in a different kind of way from an academic kind of business learning: 'Let’s brainstorm and write on a flipchart,' " Simkiss says. "Which is why I think Boda Borg has a concept that’s going to be really useful to corporations."
A Cambridge biotech company has asked about renting out the Malden facility for an entire week.
Back in the Alcatraz quest, the coworkers from Stock Pot Malden have made some progress on breaking out of their jail cell. But after two hours and countless restarts, they still haven’t figured out how to time their runs through the prison floodlights in the second room. They keep getting caught. Eventually, they give up to go back to their day job, but de la Cretaz and Gouillart say they will come back and finish the quest.
"It was incredibly, incredibly fun," Gouillart says. "But that said, just because the last chapter is by definition the one that you failed at, oh my God, it’s a really good way of realizing just how deep into this world you’ve become."
And then she consoles her fellow coworkers.
"We’ll always have 'The Farm,' " Gouillart says. "We crushed it."
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Emily Gouillart's and Gillian Simkiss' last names. We regret the errors.
This segment aired on October 27, 2015.
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