By Cliff Bellamy
DURHAM — Remember the 1990s? Knowledge of the decade might help you navigate the first problem-solving game at Bull City Escape, but immersion in the decade is not necessary to participate in the game, said Alice Cheung, owner of the business that opens Friday, June 5 at 711 Iredell St. in the Ninth Street business district.
Teams of two to six people get 60 minutes to search clues, solve puzzles and look for codes to the key that will allow them to escape from the room. The theme of the first game is the 1990s, and the space has paraphernalia from the decade — Furbies, calendars and magazines from the decade, posters of Boys II Men and the Spice Girls, and videos of “Independence Day,” “Sleepless in Seattle” and other movies from the era.
Bull City Escape (bullcityescape.com) describes itself as “an interactive, real-life escape game,” recommended for families, companies and groups, and puzzle enthusiasts. Participants can solve the escape puzzles as a team-building exercise, or just for fun.
Cheung played her first escape game about a year ago, and “I loved it immediately,” she said. She has played games in spaces in different cities, all with varied themes — a pirate theme in San Francisco, an office theme in Philadelphia, a warehouse theme in Birmingham.
As she played the games, she began wondering, “If I designed it, what would I do differently?” and the idea for Bull City Escape emerged.
Cheung keeps a notebook with her in which she brainstorms ideas for puzzles and future themes. Future escape room themes might be a mad scientist scenario, or a combination murder mystery with a “Downton Abbey” feel, Cheung said.
Cheung, who will mark her second year in Durham this summer, thinks Durham is an ideal fit for this kind of business and activity. There’s “such a quirky and brainy population here. They’re so open to new ideas,” Cheung said. She has lived in different cities, but “no place has felt like home quicker than Durham.”
She mentions The Scrap Exchange as one example of Durham’s creativity. She also credits American Underground for nurturing entrepreneurs, and the city’s support for small businesses.
Before opening the business, she attended seminars on small businesses at Durham Technical Community College, and worked closely with the non-profit Women’s Business Center of North Carolina-Durham, which she called an “incredible” resource for new businesses.
Bull City Escape’s Ninth Street area location was perfect. “I gave up square footage for location,” Cheung said of the space. “I love that we’re surrounded by small businesses.”
Employees at the Women’s Business Center helped her to test the escape room and game. Members of the center also will participate in a group-building game at the Friday opening. The game will be both a team-building exercise and a way to help Cheung grow her business, said Briles Johnson, executive director of the center. Johnson said she had never participated in this kind of game before, “which is another reason why it is very intriguing and exciting.”
Cheung studied psychology and education in school, and brings that knowledge to bear when designing puzzles and games. “All of the puzzles are designed for different kinds of intelligence, so everyone in the group can contribute something,” she said. “The most successful teams are the ones that bring those different kinds of intelligence” to the problems, she said.
People who want to play one of the games can show up individually, or as a group. Cheung recommends reserving a time on Bull City Escape website.
Cheung said she is open to talking to groups about new themes and game ideas. Looking ahead, one of her dreams is to have a larger space, and perhaps multiple themes in different spaces in Durham.
Escape games are “an immersive entertainment,” Cheung said. “You’re not just absorbing something from a screen. … You’re fully present with your team members and you’re working toward a goal” of solving the puzzle.