an automated physical challenge/ puzzle facility (now with 17 games instead of 16)
rough on the knees (kneepads recommended)
worth spending at least half a day exploring
Some of the games had changed:
Infrared had dropped from the Boda Borg spectrum, replaced by the affirmational and strangely puzzley Awesome. We won this one quickly and seemed to have surprised the staff by doing so. It was a weird, low-budget game that we got a kick out of.
Rock & Roll had died, replaced by the communicative Shapes. We loved Shapes even when we encountered what we’re confident was a technical glitch.
Step Up had stepped down, replaced by ball-based Boll Koll. This was a fantastic addition to the Boda Borg lineup. This teamwork/ physical challenge/ puzzle mashup had a phenomenal ending.
Potions was entirely new. It’s the main topic of today’s discussion.
Boda Borg is a Strange Beast
I love and hate Boda Borg; I mostly mean this as a compliment.
The hybrid of challenging gameplay, automation, and some basic flaws in the human brain makes Boda Borg both brilliant and messy.
Players learn how to puzzle through each game with trial and error. Failure isn’t just inevitable; it’s how you learn to play in a Boda Borg game.
This gameplay is overseen by automated systems. The systems work really well, most of the time. Occasionally, some of them seem janky. We’ve lost for seemingly no reason in rooms that we knew how to solve. Sometimes this was just a fluke; sometimes it shattered our trust in a game. There is a real opportunity, and need, for Boda Borg to clean this problem up as it can break otherwise fantastic experiences.
This leads to what I call Boda Borg superstitions: situations where we more or less know how to solve a room, but because we don’t quite have it all figured out, we try not to change anything from what had worked before, resulting in us adding an extra step or constraint that has nothing to do with the proper solution to the room.
This play structure is complicated by the occasional unexpected and barely-clued psychotic spike in difficulty.
Boda Borg offers some beastly challenges that would be a nightmare in an escape room because of time constraint and limited freedom. In an escape room, you cannot abandon a puzzle that you aren’t enjoying or cannot solve. In Boda Borg, you can. That’s why this is more than acceptable; it flat out works.
Boda Borg isn’t meant to be fully won. It can be done, but the photos of teams that have successfully completed all available challenges are shockingly few.
Potions is one of the new games, and one of the most – if not the most – aesthetically pleasing installments in Boda Borg Boston (rivaled only by Alcatraz).
Potions was a Potter-esque wizard’s laboratory where each phase took us on a journey to best a dragon. The set had that earthy, medieval vibe that immediately conveyed fantasy.
The first room was a purely cerebral puzzle. It was smart, challenging, and fairly well clued.
When we knew what we were doing, it was possible to complete this first room incredibly quickly.
The second phase of Potions was a mostly self-evident dexterity puzzle. We got to a place where we worked through this challenge with military precision.
There was one massive oversight in this room. The conclusion seemed like it had originally been designed as a far more complex puzzle and Boda Borg had smartly simplified it after play testing. Unfortunately, the remaining infrastructure for the more complicated version was still there and its presence was confusing as hell…
which brings me to room 3.
The third room turned everything that we thought we had learned on its end and presented what I think is the most difficult twist that I’ve ever seen in a puzzle game. It was a total brain melter. (It was also unnecessarily and obnoxiously complicated by that left over puzzle infrastructure from the end of room 2.)
We killed ourselves to figure out the first trick to room 3… but we did it, in part thanks to short lines at Potions and in part thanks to helpful hinting by the friendly staff.
We kind of figured out the second half, but ultimately couldn’t sort it out. We ran out of time and patience before we could complete Potions.
Trial & Error Learning
I don’t think players will trial and error their way through the third room without some form of redirection.
Boda Borg has conditioned players how to think and learn from these games. Potions offered a genius twist on the parameters of gameplay. It expanded what Boda Borg gameplay can be. It was brilliant.
It also wasn’t clued. The solve was clued. The twist was not. Not even a little bit. We didn’t have a fighting chance. We also weren’t going to get lucky. Boda Borg superstition couldn’t help us here.
Potions was a fantastic case study in how Boda Borg is interesting, infuriating, and wonderful; it vacillated among all three.
Boda Borg is pushing the envelope. Potions is pushing that even more. We hope Boda Borg can refine the clue structure just a bit more. We didn’t want to walk away from this one.
The root of what makes Boda Borg special is the freedom to explore, the expectation of constant failure, and the openness of the facility.
If we stopped deriving pleasure from a game, there were always 16 others for us to attempt.
Team size: up to 12; we recommend 4-6 (more for a different experience)
Duration: 60 minutes
Price: $30 per ticket
Organized Chaos was all about collecting evidence of crimes. There was a silly number of crimes to solve and a massive heap of evidence to collect in our attempt to collate the evils of an organized crime family… and doing so was chaotic.
While Room Escapers introduced innovative gameplay and some fun moments, the entire experience felt uneven. The quality of the puzzles, cluing, story, and set were all over the map. Some of it was great. Some of it fell short of what we know Room Escapers is capable of producing.
Organized Chaos is worth playing if you’re looking to keep a large group occupied or are interested in exploring an innovative approach to escape room design… even if some of it doesn’t quite gel.
Who is this for?
Any experience level
Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle
A massive amount of content
A couple of memorable moments
A few strong puzzles
It was the 1990s and organized crime was running rampant through Boston. Our agency had finally caught a break in our investigation and we had a brief span of time to investigate Spanky’s Pub, a notorious front business. Our goal: find evidence to close as many unsolved cases as we could before we were stopped by the mobster’s lawyers and their rolls of red tape.
The starting area of Organized Chaos was split in two. Spanky’s Pub, a Boston bar complete with a beautiful old beer tap and New England sports insignias took up about two thirds of the gamespace. The remaining third of the gamespace was dedicated to evidence collection with a whiteboard-painted wall, evidence bins, case files, and a listing of missing evidence for each case.
The level of set detail fluctuated depending upon where we looked. Some portions were on point; others were a bit on the bare side.
Room Escapers’ Organized Chaos was an atypical escape room with a moderate level of difficulty.
The goal was to find the evidence needed to close as many cases as possible. There wasn’t a traditional win/ lose scenario. We were given a score based on our case close rate. Closing a case required the recovery of three pieces of evidence per case.
Core gameplay revolved around searching, puzzling, and remaining organized.
+ Room Escapers’ new School Street location had a spacious, comfortable lobby where they opened up the experience.
+ Our objectives were crystal clear and much of what we needed to accomplish was accessible to even the greenest of escape room players.
– While waiting for our game to start, we were presented with a selection of case files that would be relevant to the gameplay. While more competitive players might want to familiarize themselves with the material ahead of time, many teams will likely find these files dense, overwhelming, and filled with red herrings. We liked the concept, but as it was set up, the pre-game felt like homework and didn’t build up energy for the main event.
+/- There wasn’t any reason to read the case files; we could solve almost all of the crimes with just the evidence checklists. On the one hand, this made the gameplay itself less tedious than if we had had to read the case files. On the other hand, we were sitting on books of needless red herring detail.
– One puzzle couldn’t be solved without either a thorough case file reading or specific outside knowledge. This opened us up to a entire file of red herrings. It also deviated from the pattern learned throughout gameplay that we didn’t need to read the case files.
+ There was a lot to tackle in Organized Chaos. Players were never lacking things to do.
– We didn’t get a sense of the characters or the crimes from the focused search for evidence. Even after solving all the cases, we left with no emotional investment in any of characters or the crimes.
+ Room Escapers provided a dedicated evidence organizing workspace. We especially enjoyed the whiteboard wall.
? Successful teams will likely designate an “evidence cataloguer” to manage the chaos. This person likely won’t experience the rest of the gameplay. Depending on your group, this could be the perfect role for someone… or no one.
+ Room Escapers built a number of fun puzzle interactions and releases into thematic set pieces.
– The point system felt anticlimactic and tacked on because we were only truly introduced to it after the clock had stopped. As a result, the concluding moments of the game felt muddy.
+ Organized Chaos was aptly named. It could keep a large group busy. It was utter chaos managing all that we needed to do. Organizing it was the goal.
Tips for Visiting
Organized Chaos is at Room Escapers’ School Street location.
It is easily accessible by subway. Get off at Park Street or Government Center.
If you’re driving, the Pi Alley Parking Garage is right nearby.
Boxaroo is back in business after a long hiatus. Conundrum Museum was a puzzle-driven escape room that one of our teammates described over drinks as, “the most challenging escape room that I’ve ever played.” This was a difficult escape room in an elegant, but not particularly exciting, environment.
If you’re in escape rooms for the puzzles, Conundrum Museum is top-notch and worth playing if you’re anywhere nearby.
Who is this for?
Players with at least some experience
Players who don’t need to be a part of every puzzle
Challenging and interesting puzzles
A great late-game reveal sequence
We were framed! We had been visiting a renowned art museum when a number of pieces went missing. Thankfully the police response time left us an opportunity to unravel the mystery before we could be arrested.
Conundrum Museum was an art gallery escape room with the white walls and assortment of art displays-turned-puzzles that we’ve come to expect of the genre.
The aesthetic twist: Boxaroo added a massive and intriguing crate in the middle of the room, along with a number of hidden interactions and technology.
Boxaroo’s Conundrum Museum was a standard escape room with a high level of difficulty.
Core gameplay revolved around searching and puzzling.
+ Conundrum Museum had a strong opening sequence that established the story.
+ One set piece grabbed our attention from the early moments. Late game, it delivered on built up intrigue.
– Conundrum Museum started off slowly. Although the majority of the gameplay was nonlinear, there was only one starting puzzle. It would be easy to flail around for a while before figuring out how to start in on anything.
+ Boxaroo designed a variety of puzzles, many of which required or benefitted from teamwork. This dynamic was the heart of Conundrum Museum.
+ At its best, Conundrum Museum brought about fantastic aha moments where it felt like the lights suddenly turned on and everything suddenly made sense.
– One puzzle felt a bit too dense. We took multiple hints on this puzzle, each hint confusing us more.
+ While Conundrum Museum included a lot of locks, it was generally clear where to input any derived code.
+ Our team enjoyed – and I loved – the inventive meta puzzle. It has forever secured a place in my heart.
? While not a problem for us, one significant sequence of Conundrum Museum required above-average command of English. There was a mechanism by which people could learn the necessary words… but if one were resorting to it, then they probably wouldn’t enjoy it all that much.
– Conundrum Museum was emotionally level. The grand reveals and more intriguing moments struggled to get our hearts pumping because we were still in a white-walled, calm, environment.
+ Our gamemaster was a character in our story. Even when we experienced some technical difficulties at the start of our game, our gamemaster remained in character and improvised. Boxaroo handled the technical troubles as gracefully as possible.
? Conundrum Museum was puzzle-driven adventure. It was not epic or overly dramatic, but it was a cerebrally satisfying team experience.
Tips for Visiting
Boxaroo is easily accessible by subway. Get off at Park Street or Government Center.
If you’re driving, the Pi Alley Parking Garage is right nearby.
At least 1 teammate needs to be able to crawl a short distance.
Team size: we recommend 2-6 depending on the experience you’re looking for
Duration: about 2.5 hours
Price: $49-85 per ticket
Club Drosselmeyer brought together swing dancing, a fantastic band, magic, acrobatics, puzzles, intrigue, a beautiful setting, and lots of interaction. The 2017 show fixed or dramatically improved the gameplay issues that I discussed last year.
If you didn’t get to attend the limited run in December 2017, and if they run a sequel, find a way to get to Boston for this in December 2018. Hopefully they’ll run a 1941 event.
Who is this for?
Immersive theater fans
People who are fine with crowds
People who don’t need to be part of every interaction
Any experience level … for puzzlers or dancers
Dance, acrobatic, and magical performances
Puzzle hunt-style puzzles
One year after Club Drosselmeyer 1939, we again found ourselves in our dancing shoes stopping another Nazi techo-conspiracy in a reimagining of The Nutcracker.
Last year, when we learned that Drosselmeyer Industries was creating fighting robots to support the war effort, we prevented the plans for these bots from falling into German hands.
This year we found ourselves in between two factions: Drosselmeyer Industries and King Technologies. Both fighting robot manufacturers wanted to earn a military contract with the US Government.
To determine who would win the contract, a robot from each maker would battle at the end of the night. It was up to us, the attendees, to help the companies upgrade their bots for battle.
Club Drosselmeyer 1940’s setting was identical to last year’s production, near as I could tell. The only additions were upgrade boxes for each robot, and an intimate back-stage set for winning teams to encounter.
We returned to the OBERON Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the stage was decked out with signage and bandstands to remind you that this was Club Drosselmeyer. The staging was decadent and beautiful.
The actors were decked out like it was a Christmas party in the 40s. As attendees, we dressed the part as well. (Those who didn’t dress for the occasion did it wrong.)
The evening included intermittent stage performances ranging from magic by Herr Drosselmeyer himself, to Lindy hop and waltz, and even an aerial silk act.
The puzzles were delivered puzzle-hunt style, as mostly paper-based challenges. There were 5 different missions, each consisting of a series of puzzles. The missions culminated in a single meta-puzzle. Each mission was assigned by a specific character in the show who provided both the challenge and the context for it.
Upon completing a mission, we were given punch cards for different robot features. We could drop them into one of two boxes to upgrade the robot of our choosing. This was essentially a voting feature. As players solved puzzles, they gained the opportunity to support either the good or the evil robot.
An anecdote: I was eavesdropping on a team debating which robot to support. One guy persuaded his friends to upgrade the evil bot arguing (and I’m paraphrasing), “It isn’t really clear if he is bad. He just seems like a stronger, more fierce bot.” Many folks upgraded the Nazi-bot that evening. To me it was abundantly clear that this was a battle of obvious good and evil. It was interesting to observe.
Everything that was great about last year’s Club Drosselmeyer still applied to the sequel, without exception. I’m not going to rehash them. There were also some critical improvements this time around:
The evening’s introduction clarified our role, as attendees, in the evening’s festivities. It gave direction as to whom to approach and how to start playing.
The characters were able and eager to provide direction if we were confused. Additionally, there were extra Club staff floating around who would help out for a flirt or a bribe. (Fake money was casually dropped and hidden throughout the Club.)
The devastatingly long lines that we contended with last year were virtually gone. The longest that I waited to meet with any character was about 3 minutes. Because the lines were eliminated, there weren’t the same crowding problems that we had previously encountered.
The acting was a whole lot better. It also put greater emphasis on dancing and farce, which played much better to the strengths of the cast.
The teams that completed the main game got some nifty bonus interactions. The first team to complete the game (which was us, at the first performance) also made a decision that impacted the finale.
Even with the gameplay improvements, it was still difficult to figure out how to approach gameplay. Were we teammates with our table mates? (Only if we wanted to be.) Could we team up with others? (Yup.) Did you need a team? (No, but you wouldn’t finish the game on your own.)
We uncovered a lot of fake money, but we weren’t clear how to use it. It also lacked value because it was overly abundant.
Much of the stage acting, while improved, was still a little forced.
While the finale played to the strengths of the performers, it got a little bonkers. This was amplified because some characters and plot threads were serious and others were farcical. It was a bit challenging to keep up with the tonal leaps.
Tips for Visiting
If they run it again next year:
Dress up. Even if you don’t go full 1940s period accurate, put on a suit or a dress or something. You’re going to feel silly if you show up in jeans.
They don’t open the doors early. Bring warm layers. They have a coat check.
Be open to all that Club Drosselmeyer has to offer.
Club Drosselmeyer took place in December 2017 and is not currently running.
In this sequel to Room Escapers’ first game, Pirate’s Booty, a disgruntled former employee of the Cape Cod Treasure Hunters hired us to plunder a recently rediscovered pirate ship. With a hurricane bearing down on New England, we had an hour to liberate an estimated $1 billion in gold or face the wrath of the storm.
Pirate’s Booty II: The Lost Ship was largely set on a pirate ship. While portions of the set were recycled from Room Escapers’ first game, this was an entirely new experience. New puzzles. New narrative. New game.
Pirate’s Booty II: The Lost Ship upped the puzzle difficulty. We had made fairly quick work of Room Escapers’ earlier games, but in this one, we really earned our victory.
Additionally, there were bonus bags of treasure hidden throughout the escape room.
Pirate’s Booty II: The Lost Ship got the action going quickly using a technique that Room Escapers pioneered last year in Naughty or Nice. It’s a good trick. The encore wasn’t a bad thing, but if you’re familiar with their most recent offering, you’ll also see it coming.
The set was a big step up from their previous room escapes.
There was whole a lot to do. Pirate’s Booty II: The Lost Ship kept us busy.
The hurricane game clock fit right in.
The in-character hint system was effective and well integrated into the escape room.
We particularly enjoyed the more tangible and thematic puzzles, of which there were many.
Finding gold was an entertaining way to expand the adventure and encourage participation without requiring every team to solve the game to 100% completion.
This was a funny escape room. Room Escapers has an enjoyably unsophisticated sense of humor and they are not afraid to use it.
A few puzzle flow and gating issues sprang from having access to puzzle components and clues related to them too early. With a large team, someone inevitably wasted a lot of time investigating an item that was completely useless at that moment. This was frustrating.
In the escape room briefing, our gamemaster introduced us to a guide book. He flat out told us to read it from cover to cover. The guide book game mechanic generally causes frustration, especially in large team games. Room Escapers did it better than most by giving us multiple copies and thus avoiding the usual guide book bottleneck. That said, we still had to read and retain information that we might want to apply later, which wasn’t particularly fun. We also continually had to retrieve guide books as we progressed throughout the ship. Every time I encounter one of these guide books, I find myself wishing that the clues were more integrated into the set, rather than tacked on with a book.
There was a climax to Pirate’s Booty II: The Lost Ship, but it fizzled a little. There’s opportunity to do more with it.
Should I play Room Escapers’ Pirate’s Booty II: The Lost Ship?
Room Escapers has come a long way since they set sail with the original Pirate Booty. Each subsequent room escape from them has been more interesting and ambitious. Pirate’s Booty II: The Lost Ship continued that trajectory.
This escape room was fun, funny, and kept us busy until the very end.
Newbies should go in ready to make use of the well-integrated hint system and experienced players should attack this ship humbly yet aggressively. There was a lot to do. It was fair, but it was not easy.
We were staying in an Airbnb-ed tent in the woods when we learned that previous guests had gone missing. We needed to determine their fate and escape it ourselves.
The Retreat captured the woodsy feel of a rugged weekend getaway. Trapology staged this adventure at night, which made for a dramatic, low-light setting.
The puzzling was linear. It started off simply and became increasingly complex. The Retreat had a remarkably smooth difficulty curve.
The puzzle flow with the incrementally escalating complexity worked really well.
The set was varied. We enjoyed the thematic transition.
Trapology crafted mild horror, avoiding kitschy and childish props. The Retreat was approachable; it set a scary tone, but wasn’t truly horrific.
The Retreat was amusing. We especially loved the humor incorporated into one of the late-game puzzles.
The Retreat took place almost entirely in low light. While on-theme, this could also be frustrating. We relied a little too heavily on flashlights.
Although entertaining and thematically appropriate, the puzzles felt born of the escape room genre rather than created to convey the narrative.
Should I play Trapology’s The Retreat?
The Retreat was a well-designed, small-team game in downtown Boston. We don’t usually see this type of escape room in a major city and it was refreshing.
We recommend The Retreat to newer players looking for an on-ramp and the comfort of their own group. The smooth difficulty curve makes this escape room a good starting place.
Experienced players will likely play through The Retreat pretty quickly, but once it gets going, there are some fun puzzles to chew on.
We are delighted that The Retreat offers a small-team experience. Because it is built for 2-3, and could even be enjoyed by a solo traveler, we recommend that Trapology use private bookings (maybe with tiered pricing) so that players don’t inadvertently get crammed together. It’s an intimate game and best enjoyed that way.
Grab a close friend or two and go exploring Trapology’s Retreat.
Captured by a madman and locked away in complete darkness, we had 30 minutes to escape his trap.
The “you’re playing this game in the dark” pitch wasn’t an exaggeration. It was pitch black. The only illumination that we could see was an ever-so-faint emergency exit sign above the door and the LEDs around the gamemaster’s camera.
The Hole was entirely designed around playing in darkness. The puzzles were solvable via touch only. While there were zero jump scares, there were a few things that felt a bit icky.
Although the room escape was a little unnerving, it was exceptionally safe. There were no tripping hazards; it had ample padding along the floors and walls.
The Hole was an adventure through the darkness, not a puzzle game.
While there was plenty to keep our team busy, there was only one interaction that I would call a puzzle.
The Hole was a wholly different escape room. It forced us to explore, communicate, and interact in new ways.
It was fair and it was safe.
Opening locks in the dark was strangely satisfying.
There was only one true puzzle in The Hole. I wished there’d been even one more.
One early challenge greatly overstayed its welcome.
Elements of this exploration were a little more icky than they needed to be. Note that it wasn’t scary or dirty, just a bit gross.
Should I play Wicked Escapes’ The Hole?
If you’re interested in a different sort of challenge, I highly recommend The Hole.
Bring the right team. Everyone needs to be calm and communicative in darkness. You should also be comfortable with each other because you will touch, bump, and awkwardly interact.
If you’re looking to solve intricate puzzles, The Hole won’t be for you.
If you’d rather embark on a story-driven adventure, this room escape won’t be for you. The story is just a setup for the dark escape.
And, of course, if you want to gaze upon a beautiful set, this won’t be your game; there is literally nothing to see.
Beginners can absolutely attempt The Hole, but I’d recommend that they play at least one other game first, just to get a handle on how escape rooms work.
Experienced players should dive in, so long as they aren’t repelled by the darkness, ick-factor, or minimal focus on puzzling.
The Hole takes room escapes somewhere else. It’s a different type of challenge. The puzzle is in exploring, navigating, communicating, and putting all of that together. We really enjoyed it.
Our first night as rent-a-cops guarding the Kuddelmuddel Museum of Marginal Curiosities got off to a rough start: a cat burglar made an attempt to steal the Museum’s most prized artifact, The Sultan’s Lock. After removing it from its display, he stashed it elsewhere in the museum, triggering a security lockdown. We had an hour to find the lock and return it to its display before the crime was pinned on us.
If it’s not clear from the description, The Great Museum Heist Caper Job was a funny room escape. Set within a modest museum, the game looked and felt the part.
The puzzling centered on the various exhibit displays; they looked great. They were large and they felt it. Everything was tangible and responsive.
Wicked Escapes used technology thoughtfully throughout the puzzling and did a great job of breathing life (and humor) into the various interactions.
The Great Museum Heist Caper Job was full of hands-on interactions. We picked things up and moved them around. These items had heft, size, and polish.
The puzzles were responsive. With every correct solution, the set revealed new objects or information. This design built forward momentum.
The setup was humorous. Everything from the premise to the exhibit names to the display descriptions made us laugh, if we read closely enough.
While the reading was entertaining, at times a substantial block of text would halt the flow of gameplay.
The initial set was not particularly impressive or interactive. Fortunately it quickly opened up. The starting area felt like underused space.
Should I play Wicked Escapes’ The Great Museum Heist Caper Job?
The Great Museum Heist Caper nailed so much of what makes for an excellent escape room. The puzzles were big, built into the set, and had gravity. Moreover, accomplishing things felt like an accomplishment.
The Great Museum Heist Caper is a fun and worthy room escape for newer and experienced players alike.
If you play escape rooms because they bring you to new places and give you puzzling you can’t recreate at home, you will enjoy The Great Museum Heist Caper.
We attended night one of Club Drosselmeyer, Boston’s two-night World War II-themed mass-puzzling, swing-dancing, and immersive performance event, and had a swell time.
The event was so massive, detailed, and incredible that we asked its creator, Kellian Adams, to talk about the intricacies of show.
We were most surprised to learn about how the show changed on night two.
How did you develop the concept for Club Drosselmeyer?
I had always wanted to build an interactive game-based theater piece. I was at a ballet showcase when it occurred to me that The Nutcracker might be the perfect piece to experiment with because
Interesting characters move around.
The basic storyline connects but isn’t too tight.
It’s a well-known story.
It lends itself to some great music and visuals.
It would have to be performed around the holidays.
The holiday connection was key for an experimental piece because people have more tolerance for playing along with magic and the unexpected during the holidays (as well as spending money on tickets and getting dressed up!).
What were your inspirations?
When I decided that The Nutcracker would be the base for the show, I pulled from a lot of my favorite movies. Casablanca was the main one: I had always wondered what it would be like to be a patron of Rick’s Cafe Americain, where there are all sorts of intrigues happening around you, but you might not be aware of any of them. I designed my main character, Drosselmeyer, as the club owner, which tied directly to Rick, especially where he had his perch up above everyone.
Each character has a fairly involved backstory. For example, mother Ginger – aka Ginger Lamarr – was Hedy Lamarr. Phylo Farnesworth is the inventor of the television and I took his dance team from the movie College Swing. Fritz was modeled after this fabulously devious playboy named Washington Porter Jr. Rhett the Rat was modeled after “King” Solomon, a Boston mob boss in the 30’s. You can see all of our character inspirations on Pinterest.
How much autonomy did each of the performers have?
The performers had a lot of autonomy in developing their characters and the storyline. I built out the structure of the story and they filled in the blanks.
Alice, Clara, and Phylo, for example, delved into radar and so that became a major part of the storyline, which hadn’t been part of my original vision. Also, many of the performers wanted to address the ethical question of whether we should use artificial intelligence, so we did.
The hat idea was from the actor who played the character Beta. One of my favorite parts of the whole show was him wearing a lampshade. He came up with the idea of handing out “research notes” folded into hats. They were detailed enough that many players tried to crack the codes and solve the notes, except there was nothing there!
What were your other favorite moments?
I loved seeing the looks on people’s faces when they came in on Sunday night. I don’t think they had any idea what they had signed up for, but then they walked in and the space looked beautiful: the band was playing, everybody was dressed up, and it was magical. It was so wonderful to watch everyone transition into “Dross mode!”
My other favorite moment happened during a dress rehearsal. A few people came up to me (as the character Kit) and said “WE KNOW WHO THE NUTCRACKER IS!!” Then they pointed at Beta, who at that moment was wearing a lampshade on his head and jumping up and down on the dance floor. In character I asked “that guy?” They looked at me, kind of dumbstruck and followed up with a defensive “well—he’s just a prototype…” and it was this amazing, hilarious moment where they were explaining to me the story that I wrote, and making excuses for it.
I also LOVED the waltz scene. It was a wonderful, magical moment to see everyone spinning in the snow!
Which aspects of the piece were most successful?
I was really proud that the whole “different levels of engagement” thing worked. I genuinely felt like there was something for everybody to do.
I took a lot of different activities that I love, but that can be really intimidating for other people, and arranged them in a way that I think was less intimidating than they expected. I’ve heard the usual comments to these activities SO MANY times…
Puzzles… “I’m not smart enough.”
Talking to characters… “I’m shy, that’s so awkward.”
Getting dressed vintage… “I don’t have anything fancy.”
Swing music… “I can’t dance.”
I think when they all appeared together there was at least one aspect of the show that almost everyone could engage with at some level. If none of them were even mildly appealing, you could still just sit in a beautiful time-travel club, watch the floor shows, listen to the incredible, original music of a really good swing band, drink martinis, and hang out with your friends.
What were the biggest challenges to bringing this piece to the stage?
The uncertainty of it was really hard for the cast members.
I deliberately chose my dancer friends rather than auditioning actors because I knew I didn’t want Club Drosselmeyer to be a traditional theater piece, and I didn’t want lots of professional theater people on board telling me I was doing everything wrong (because I was absolutely doing everything wrong). Also with friends, I was hoping they’d be better with the uncertainty of building something nobody had ever seen before when there wasn’t any proof that this method would work. (Nobody I knew of had done it, so I didn’t have much to point to.)
I also didn’t start with a written script, since there were a lot of moving parts. I sort of twisted myself (and my story) in knots trying to incorporate everyone’s ideas and keep them feeling good about their characters. We ended up with some serious story holes as a result. Next time I would write the whole thing out and hand it to them as a finished “script” and go from there. I would also hold auditions for some of the roles.
Were there any notable differences in player behavior between night one and night two?
There was a MASSIVE difference in the players between night one and night two.
Night one was a Sunday. At 7:00 everyone was at the door, dressed to impress and ready to play. I met people at the door in character as Kit Hollingsworth so I felt the definite buzz of electricity as everybody came in.
Night two was a Friday. At 7:00 I was at the door and … crickets. People arrived slowly, harried and distracted, and a lot of them weren’t dressed as nicely as they had been on Sunday. Many had been stuck in traffic and were grabbing really quick dinners. In general, they had a harder time transitioning into the right mood.
People also drank a lot more on Friday than they had on Sunday, probably because they didn’t have to go to work the next day.
How did you change the event from night one to night two?
First, we added line management. We added an extra person to “interview” people in the Drosselmeyer line and make sure they wanted to actually be there.
Second, we asked the performers to soften their characters and be more forthcoming with information, even if their character would “never” do that. There was this line between pretending, where you try to get as close to your character’s authentic response as possible, and performing, where you acknowledge there’s more to it. We had to remind ourselves that it was theater and our goals were for people to learn the story and have fun.
And finally, we didn’t change the ending, but the audience did.
We experienced the cheery ending on night one (because we chose it). Can you talk about the ending on night two and the reaction to it?
The teams were looking for blueprints, in order to bring these to one of the characters and trigger the ending of the show. On night two, the winning team decided to hand the blueprints over to the bad guy.
We actually had two groups get to the blueprints at the same time, but the group that wanted to give the blueprints to Drosselmeyer (the good guy) had one number in their combination wrong, so the other team got them instead and gave them to Rhett (the bad guy).
When other teams realized what was happening, a lot of them tried really hard to keep the bad ending from occurring. They tried to negotiate with the winning team. Then another team tried to negotiate directly with Rhett to get the papers back. Afterward, the actor who played Rhett told me after that he was really concerned they were going to physically restrain him and take the papers back.
The bad ending was really dark. When Rhett walked out, we pulled up the house lights and played Springtime For Hitler over the loudspeaker. No curtain call. Just awkward house lights and silence.
I wanted to create something where people felt that they had agency. I also didn’t want to theater-coat any of it and make the bad ending fun or cheerful or pithy. Choosing to give technology to Nazis is bad and I think we should let it be bad. I got many emails and asides from people telling me they thought it was an unkind ending, but it was 2016 and I didn’t really feel like giving people a happy ending if they didn’t choose it. Some people were upset and said that because they hadn’t chosen the ending – it had been chosen for them – they shouldn’t have had to suffer through it, but things don’t really work that way. Others said that they weren’t even part of the puzzling – they were just drinking and hanging out and then this terrible thing happened, to which I was thinking: EXACTLY. I wrote a lot about this in a blog post.
I don’t think I would do it like that again, but I’m glad that we did it once. That’s where theater and games diverge, right? I never could have done that with a show.
What surprised you most about how the event played out?
We were surprised how crowded the space was and how long people had to wait in line to speak with key characters. We expected some amount of waiting but not to the extent that it happened, so we got that under control the second night.
We were also surprised that people found it hard to engage with the story. They were confused and didn’t quite know what to do. We had three characters whose job it was to pull people in and we had a full “instructions” sheet, but it wasn’t enough. Next time I want to have a “briefing room” where – out of character – we help the audience figure out how to engage.
I was also surprised that people were so upset about the “bad ending” the second night. I did build a ton of story and nuance in there; it was a pretty dark commentary on 1939 and 2016. On the night of, people just looked confused, like it was a mistake. The people who chose the bad ending literally said “wheee! We’re glad he’s dead! Being bad is fun!” Everyone else was just like “oh well.” Later on they expressed that they were upset and even outraged. I wasn’t expecting the “slow burn” on that ending.
How did you manage to put on so much spectacle with tickets as affordable as they were?
It’s hard to overstate how helpful it was working with Oberon and the American Repertory Theater. The pricing for the space was really reasonable and they helped with EVERYTHING from staging to lights to sound. This was a risk for them because they didn’t entirely understand what we were doing. I got this wonderful email from them afterwards where they said “we took a crazy risk and it paid out in spades!!” I’m saving that email forever! A bunch of people in the Oberon staff said it was one of the coolest, most unique, and beautiful shows they’d seen in that space.
Also, I design everything based on my resources. We had a lot of dancers and musicians and friends to abuse. Just about everybody worked for us under cost. Hooray for friends!!
Do you have any advice for creating this type of piece that you’d like to share with our readers?
Stay infinitely flexible. Give good people what they need to build good things and just keep your eye on the ball. I’m just so proud of how my team made this crazy idea into something special.
Use your resources. Club Drosselmeyer worked because I had a swing band, singers, dancers, and people who knew how to dress like it was 1939. If I’d had to find these people or have other people create this environment, it would have been much more difficult.
What was it like seeing the entire piece come together?
AMAZING!!!! Day of, I looked at the set and the band and the dancers working on things and I was like “this is exactly what was in my head… and now it exists.” It was a surreal experience. It was both totally natural because it had been hanging out in my head for such a long time and totally unnatural because I’m aware that imaginary things don’t usually exist in real life.
Should we expect a sequel?
ABSOLUTELY!! The story will have to be completely different. I think there will be some new acts and new characters. I think it will have to be 1940… and that brings a whole new set of challenges. Germany just marched into France so we’ve got the French Underground and there are spies everywhere!
What’s next for the team behind Club Drosselmeyer?
We’re buzzing along with our Edventure Builder games and we just released updates to a game we built with the Boston Children’s Museum at lxbgame.com.
I’m most excited about a modular escape room for middle schoolers that I’m brainstorming with the Teacher’s Education Resource Center… I don’t want to say too much about it other than that I really really hope it happens.
We’re also building something for this summer likely called the “society for historical inaccuracies.” It will be an interactive mystery tour around Boston, helping people stay abreast of all the things that never happened in Boston fictional history. I’d like to say we’re making history. Up.