By Kathryn Eident
Nicole Merriman and Ashley Carr love a good surprise. In fact, they love surprises so much they decided to make them a business.
Starting April 1 (which is no coincidence), the two business partners will bring a regular batch of surprises to Cape Codders full-time when they open Riddle, the Cape’s first escape room, at Mashpee Commons.
If you paused at the phrase “escape room,” you aren’t alone, and that’s just the way Merriman and Carr like it.
“We want people to know just enough to get them in the door,” Merriman says, with a mischievous smile. “We want them to have an amazing experience they couldn’t imagine having.”
Put simply, escape rooms are live-action adventure games that require players to solve riddles, puzzles and other challenges to win. The games are played by teams of two or more over a period of 60 minutes − all while locked in a specially designed room from which they must “escape.” For Carr and Merriman, escape rooms are all that, plus so much more.
“Our goal is to really transport you,” Merriman says. “We want to be able to have you 100 percent submerged in whatever the game’s theme is.”
Their business is based on games that originated in Japan in the early 2000s. Escape rooms later caught on in Europe before making their way to the United States a few years ago. Today, there are escape rooms all over the country, including several in Boston and Providence.
The pair admit they’re relatively new to the concept themselves; they stumbled upon an escape room in Florida in March 2016 while attending a trade show for their other full-time business, Hot Diggity, two Cape-based shops that cater to dog lovers.
“We kept driving by this place, and finally we were so intrigued we had to stop and see what it was all about,” Merriman says. When they came out an hour or so later, they were hooked.
“We were elated,” she says. “When you have that feeling, you just want to share it.”
They decided they had to bring an escape room to the Cape.
“We literally started our business plan right there,” Carr says. “We were in the parking lot and the wheels were already spinning.”
The room they were locked in was relatively simple, but Merriman and Carr say the six rooms in their location will feature richly designed sets and complex storylines.
The rooms are so elaborate they had to hire professional set designers from as nearby as the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, and game designers from as far away as Bucharest, Romania.
“They’re brilliant,” Merriman adds. “I’m in awe of how their minds work.”
The result are rooms like a Paris café from the 1920s that will require players to solve a murder mystery, a pirate ship where the goal is to find treasure, and a room reminiscent of the board game Candyland, plus others.
Each game will vary in difficulty, so a family with kids could play in one room, while a group of adults could play in another.
Merriman and Carr say the games also make great team building exercises for local businesses. Executives at major companies such as Google, Microsoft and Apple have already used game rooms for their employees, Merriman says. “There’s a sense of camaraderie when you finish the game, and people often go out for a dinner or drink after to talk about it,” she says. “Our insurance people, our bankers – everyone we talk to − is like, ‘When are you going to open?’ They’re so excited.”
If the idea of being locked in a room seems unnerving, Merriman and Carr understand. Each of the rooms will have prominently placed buttons to unlock the door at any time. Specially trained “game masters” will also monitor each game on closed-circuit TV, and will even offer tips and clues to players who get stumped.
The pair doesn’t want to give too much away, though, since the element of surprise is such a big part of the experience.
“There’s a magical element to each room,” Carr says.
The air of mystique carries over to their marketing campaign, which was developed in partnership with Pierce-Coté, an Osterville-based marketing firm that works with many of the region’s biggest companies. They’re starting by placing cards in local shops they hope will pique their finders’ curiosity.
“If it intrigues you and you end up going to find out, you’re our customer. If you ignore it, you’re not,” Merriman says. “But if you like mysteries, word jumbles, challenges − this is for you.”
The only time they experienced a hiccup in their planning was when they talked to insurance companies about policies. Some companies were wary and gave them quotes that were simply not affordable.
“That was the only moment I had doubt in all this,” Merriman says.
They finally found a company that specializes in insuring fun houses, and got a policy for a tenth of what they had been previously quoted.
Asked if they worry that the Cape isn’t quite ready for such an unusual concept, Merriman and Carr say they’re prepared for the risk.
“Of course you do your research, but you believe in yourself and you take a risk,” Merriman responds.
The pair is so confident, they raided their retirement funds to pay for the initial investment.
“Running a successful business is about solving a problem,” Merriman said. “When you grow up on Cape Cod, everyone says, ‘There’s nothing to do.’ So we’re giving them something to do.”
They’re hiring as many as 15 employees, and reached out to theater departments at local high schools and Cape Cod Community College to find potential employees.
“The type of person we’re looking for is enthusiastic and will get that they’ll be integral to the experience,” Merriman says.
They will also have what the pair calls “movie theater” hours, operating from mid-afternoon to around midnight, with each game priced at $30 a player. They’ll change out the games every 12 to 18 months.
Before the big debut, though, Merriman and Carr hope the Cape’s future escape room enthusiasts are getting excited.
“There’s really nothing like it; the experience is addictive” Carr says, her own excitement visible. “If you have one inquisitive bone in your body, you’re going to love it.”