For a few hours each month, Katie Carlin, Olivia Curié and Sean Greening are no longer roommates persevering through a pandemic.
The arrival of a box on their Riverside doorstep transforms their house into a private detective agency, as the three sleuths scour the enclosed maps, letters, autopsy reports, crime-scene photos, items of clothing and other evidence for clues — and dodge red herrings — to solve an imaginary murder.
Carlin, Curié and Greening are among 100,000 people across the country who now subscribe to Hunt A Killer, the fast-growing series of murder mysteries from a Baltimore-based company that players gradually unlock using physical clues that come in the mail each month.
“The twists and turns of the plot are really fascinating,” said Carlin, a 33-year-old neonatology fellow. “Even my friends who can always predict the end of a movie, they don’t always get it."
For $25-$30 a month, depending on the subscription, Hunt A Killer creates an “immersive experience,” similar to an escape room, in the comfort of players' homes. Up to six players work through the evidence to determine each suspect’s means, motive and opportunity to commit the crime.
Co-founders Ryan Hogan and Derrick Smith have tweaked the game’s structure based on customer feedback since its 2016 launch. But they know why it has become a favorite quarantine activity — and one of the United States’ fastest-growing games, with $27.3 million in revenue in 2019 and a projected $55 million this year.
“What people need right now is a place to escape, an environment where they can disconnect from the news cycle, the pandemic,” said Hogan, who now lives in Seattle. “You get to explore a universe that feels real.”
The game is set up like a true-crime television series: Each murder case makes up a “season,” to be solved over the course of six monthly boxes or “episodes.” A new box each month supplies enough clues to accomplish more incremental objectives, such as identifying the murder weapon.
Impatient players can “expedite” the boxes and binge them all at once, like a Netflix show.
"Putting together an immersive story delivered episodically was always the goal,” said Smith, who lives near Parkville. “Entertainment can always be a positive distraction, and it’s something a lot of us need at the moment.”
Coronavirus precautions have led some players to host monthly gatherings over conference calls or video chats, while others playing in-person with family and friends have set up “murder boards” on their living room walls, unspooling red yarn to connect suspects, places, weapons and victims.
A book of cocktail recipes and Spotify playlists are available for each case to help players set the scene. The game’s Facebook group doesn’t allow spoilers, but it serves as a resource where the 130,000 members can find a helpful nudge in the right direction to find the next clue if they get stuck.
Players typically divvy up roles based on their own strengths and weaknesses. Carlin considers herself the leader of her group, although she’s quick to lean on Curié and Greening, who often are better at finding clues hidden in encoded letters or art, she said.
“Between the three of us, we could solve the box in not too long of a period,” Carlin said.
Heather Nicoll and her friend Nicole Beaudette like to pour drinks, set out snacks and clear their kids from the room for “Mommy Time,” as they’ve begun referring to Hunt A Killer.
“You get to feed off of each other," said Nicoll, 31, of Uxbridge, Massachusetts. “I’m the code-cracker person, and she’ll read through everything. We’ll take notes and compare theories.”
An antique cigarette holder, a lace glove, a vinyl record and a drumstick are among the items Nicoll has been impressed to unpack from the monthly boxes.
“It really immerses you into their world when you get stuff like that,” she said. “It’s kind of expensive, but you get what you pay for.”
Tracy Funk and her husband, Jonathan Prozzi, moved into a new house in Towson three weeks ago.
“One of the first things I unpacked was our Hunt A Killer boxes," said Funk, 37.
She doesn’t “expedite” the boxes, but she likes to wait to open them until a whole season’s worth have arrived, so she won’t be left waiting a month on a cliffhanger.
“We have a stockpile,” she said. “I tend to save up an entire season and then go through it all at once.”
Gina Albers and her husband, Don, use a binder and a timeline to keep track of the various suspects, evidence and events with their friends Karen and Jay Sterner in Stewartstown, Pennsylvania.
“It took all of our skills together to try to put all of these clues together,” said Albers, 54, who grew up in Dundalk. “It’s a way to keep us connected. Life gets busy, and we’re worried about doing things. This was something that guaranteed a date night.”