As soon as a group walks in, the clock starts ticking.
They have exactly 60 minutes to find their way out of a small cabin, and to do it, they’ll need to solve puzzles, find clues and undo locks.
But that’s all part of the fun at Hidden Key Escape Games — a physical adventure game that opened last month near Whitefish.
Here’s how it works: Teams of between two and 10 players enter the game space and are given a scenario. In the case of North Fork Cabin, they’re part of the search-and-rescue effort looking for lost hikers in the area. They’re also tasked with searching any buildings they come across, including the cabin. As a storm rolls in, they go inside, and that’s where the game begins.
“As a player, it’s that a-ha moment,” said owner Sandy Welch. “There’s actually a whole lot of adrenaline and endorphins and that good stuff. It’s a cool way to share an experience with other people.”
But players aren’t alone — there are video cameras and microphones spread throughout the room so the game master can keep tabs on the players, and most importantly, offer as many as three clues in case they get stuck.
Escape games are a relatively new phenomenon in the United States. The games got their start in Asia and were inspired by video games based on a similar premise — a player trapped in a room had to solve a series of riddles to advance to the next level. The first documented escape room opened in 2007 in Tokyo and quickly spread throughout Asia and Europe before landing in the U.S. in 2012 with the opening of Real Escape Room in San Francisco.
In 2014, Welch said there were between 22 and 24 escape room companies in the U.S.
“As of July of this year, there were 1,950 — and we were counted in that,” she said. “So we went from 22 to 1,950 in three years.”
The city home to the most escape games is Beijing with 182, while Los Angeles is the top city in the U.S. with 23. Welch said there are either seven or eight rooms in Montana in cities such as Missoula, Great Falls and Billings.
The former political consultant said she chose to open her escape game in Whitefish because of the town’s resident base and influx of tourists. To succeed, escape game businesses must constantly attract new customers — after all, a game can only be played once.
“Once I have three games up, you can be a customer of mine three times and then, until I tear it out and replace it with something else, you’re done,” Welch said.
Her plan is to open three games — North Fork Cabin, which opened in September; Vigilantes which is set to open in November; and a third will take shape in the spring.
Welch’s guests have varied widely, from a children’s birthday party to a group of attorneys. She noted that escape games work well for corporate team-building events and bachelor or bachelorette parties, too.
“A group that gets through really fast, gets through in about 50 minutes,” she said. “Every group has a different experience.”
Welch discovered the games during a visit to Florida to see her brother. Over the course of her two-week trip, she played three different games. And after retiring from the political consulting world, Welch needed something to keep her busy and this was it.
“It looked like a decent business model, but what really attracted me is the employees seemed to really enjoy their jobs and that was important to me,” Welch said. “Bringing something like this to the community is just cool. It’s a fun thing for people to do, it’s a fun job to be able to give to some people. It’s exciting.”
Hidden Key Escape Games, at 5790 U.S. 93 S., is open from Tuesday through Saturday. On weekdays, games run from 2 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., and from noon to 9:30 p.m. on weekends.
Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.