Thursday, April 7, 2011

Review: Letters from White Chapel

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. I am also not squeamish on theme, despite being rather pacifist in real-life. I am also a big fan of the Victorian era and have run a number of roleplaying systems set in the era, so I am somewhat versed in Jack the Ripper history and mythology from that research. And, for the record, I think that there are many more interesting things to do with prostitutes other than killing them.


The Overview:


The box cover artwork which is very consistent with the game materials: very thematic and evocative while being subtle in its presentation. 


Letters from Whitechapel is a semi-cooperative deduction game in which one player plays Jack the Ripper and commits a total of 5 murders over 4 nights. The other players control the Police Inspectors and Whitechapel Vigilance Committee members who try to track down and capture and arrest Jack's player who moves along the board secretly. Each night, after choosing a victim, Jack tries to return to his secret hide out location. The Inspector players try to find his trail and arrest him before he can successfully do so. If Jack succeeds in returning to his hideout uncaught for each of the four nights, he wins. The Investigators win if they catch Jack on any of the nights.

The game is for 2-6 players and it takes about 2 hours to play. There are always 5 Investigator pawns in play and they are divided up among the number of Inspector players. If there is only one Inspector player, he controls all of the pawns. This also will usually shorten the gameplay (sometimes hitting the 90 minute mark) since there is no need to discuss plans. However, with more Inspector players, the need for discussion increases as does the game length. A full table of six players could see the game go as long as three hours (though that is on the highest end of the spectrum).

The game is set up and Jack's player chooses a location for his hideout and writes it down on his tracking sheet. This will be the location that he has to get to after each murder. The Investigators distribute the five inspectors between them so that all five are controlled. The five "Boss" tiles are shuffled and placed face down. They will be used later in the turn to determine the which Inspector player will be the Head of the Investigation that turn and the inspector turn order.

Once that is finished, each of the four nights is broken into two Phases. The first is "Hell". This is where Jack and the Inspectors set up and Jack eventually chooses a murder victim. Once the victim is slain, it moves into the "Hunt" Phase. Each night has the same Phases and each Phase has the same steps in them.

Now one thing should be understood before trying to understand the specifics of the play. The board is intersected with crisscrossing paths and roads that the pawns will move on. However, it is important to note that there are two distinct types. The round numbered locations are the only locations that Jack and the Wretched (his victims) can ever end their move on. When they move to an adjacent location, they move across the square crossing spots and ignore them completely. They can never end their movement on a crossing square. The Inspector Pawns, however, are placed on the square crossing locations. While moving they completely ignore the round numbered locations when determining which adjacent crossing to move to. So the Inspector Pawns will never be in the same location as Jack, but rather may be directly adjacent to it. The yellow-bordered crossing squares are simply the start locations for the Inspectors and the red round number locations are the start spaces for the Wretched.



So, despite having to pass over three black square crossing spaces, location 99 is adjacent to location 86 for Jack's movement options. And when searching adjacent areas, the black crossing south of location 84 is only considered to be adjacent to location 84, since to reach any other location, it would have to pass through other black crossing locations. 


The Hell Phase is mostly setting up for the murder and each of the steps is generally completed very quickly. The Hell Phase consists of the following Steps:

Hell 1. Preparing the Scene: This is a simply set up step, where Jack draws a number of Coach tokens and Alley tokens based on which night it is. These are special movement options that Jack may employ during the Hunt and will be described there. However, each night, Jack receives fewer special movement tokens, making his escape potentially more difficult as the game progresses.

Hell 2. Targets are Identified: Jack starts with a number of Woman Tokens based on what night it is. Each night, he will possess three "bluff" tokens, which the Inspectors will not be able to initially distinguish from the real potential targets. Jack's player then sets out the Women Tokens, including the bluff tokens, face down on the board on any of the red starting spaces for the women. Jack alone knows which will be real women and which are the bluffs.

Hell 3. Patrolling the Streets: The Inspectors then reveal the top Boss Token. This will indicate which Inspector player will be the Head of the Investigation for this turn. The Head of the Investigation player will then take the seven Police Patrol Tokens and place them how he chooses on the board. Five of the seven tokens correspond to the five different Policeman Pawns. Two of the seven tokens are blank bluff tokens. If it is the first night, he must place all seven in the Crossing Locations marked with a Yellow Border. However, the Head of the Investigation alone knows which locations will have real Inspectors in them and which will contain the bluff tokens. If it is the second or later night, then five of the tokens must be placed on the positions that were occupied by the Policeman Pawns at the end of the previous night and the other two must be placed on Crossings with Yellow Borders. This means that Jack will not necessarily know which spaces contain real Inspectors and which contain bluffs.

Hell 4. The Victims are Chosen: At this point, after the Head of Investigations has chosen the locations of the Policemen, the Women Tokens are all turned over. Any bluff tokens are removed from the board. The remaining tokens are replaced with white Wretched Pawns, which will represent Jack's potential victims. They are revealed after the Police Patrol Tokens were placed, so they may not have Police Pawns near to where the real potential victims might be. However, Jack still does not know which of the Police Patrol Tokens are bluffs and which are real yet.

Hell 5. Blood on the Streets: With the Wretched Pawns exposed, Jack now decides if he wants to kill a victim or wait a little bit and try to ferret out some information from the Inspectors. If he decides to kill a victim, he immediately replaces one Wretched Pawn with a Crime Scene token. The remaining Wretched Pawns are removed from the board. If this is the third night, then Jack replaces two of the Wretched Pawns with Crime Scene tokens, as he makes two murders that night. If Jack kills a victim, then the night continues Step 8 of the Hell Phase (this Phase). If Jack chooses to wait, play continues with Step 6 of this Phase.

Hell 6. Suspense Grows: The Time of the Crime token begins on the first space and if Jack has delayed his murder, it is moved over one space. There are only five spaces for the Time of the Crime token to advance and if it has advanced to the last space, then Jack must take a victim and cannot choose to wait again. The Head of the Investigation then moves each of the Wretched Pawns on the board to an adjacent numbered location. The Wretched Pawn's movement cannot pass over a Police Patrol token or end adjacent to one. Since the Head of Investigations is moving the Wretched Pawns, he will most likely move them closer to the Police Patrols to ensure that the Inspectors will be closer to any potential victims.

Hell 7. Ready to Kill: Jack then gets to take his advantage for delaying the murder. He chooses a Police Patrol token and reveals it, discarding it if it is one of the two bluff tokens. In this way, Jack can ferret out where the Police Patrols really are and may be able to discover that a Wretched Pawn is less guarded than it might seem. Play then returns to Step 5 of the Hell Phase again. Remember, if the Time of the Crime token is on the fifth space, then Jack must choose a victim when he returns to that Step.

Hell 8. Corpse on the Pavement: Jack now records the location number of the Scene of the Crime where he took out the Wretched Pawn. It is recorded on Jack's tracking sheet and Jack is physically at this location at this time and will begin his escape to his Hide Out starting in the Hunt Phase. If it was the third night, Jack has committed two murders and he records them in the order that he wishes to have executed them. He will be at the location of the second murder that he committed. Jack then sets a timer pawn onto the board on the first space, indicating that he is on the first of his fifteen turns to escape.

Hell 9. Alarm Whistles: The Inspectors then reveal all of the Police Patrol tokens and remove any bluff tokens from the board. Each of the remaining tokens is then replaced by the corresponding Policeman Pawn. This will be the starting location for each Policeman for the Hunt Phase as they try to track down Jack. Any Wretched Pawns still on the board are also removed at this time.

The next Hunt Phase now begins. This Phase has the meat of the game to it and Jack will be moving towards his Hide Out clandestinely, while the Inspectors will be trying to find his trail and ultimately arrest him before he reaches his Hide Out. This Phase is more in depth and takes a bit longer to play out. The Steps of this Phase are as follows:

Hunt 1. Escape in the Night: Jack makes a move from his current numbered location to an adjacent numbered location. He records this move on his tracking sheet which is hidden from the Inspectors. Once his movement is recorded on his sheet, he moves his timer pawn one space on the track on the board. If it reaches 15 and Jack has not yet made it to his Hideout, then Jack loses. If Jack has reached his Hideout, then he declares that he has reached his Hideout the night ends. Any discovered clue chips are removed from the board and the night indicator is advanced one space and play starts again in Hell Step 1. If it is the fourth night and Jack has reached his Hideout, he has won the game.

There are a few extra movement rules to be aware of. First of all, Jack cannot cross over a Policeman Pawn on his movement. If he cannot make a legal move, then he is trapped by the Inspectors and he loses the game.

Jack also has a limited number of Special Movement tokens given to him at the start of the Hell Phase. Jack can employ these during his movement and then places the appropriate token on the tracking space on the board to signify to the Inspectors that he has taken a special move. The first is a Coach movement, which allows Jack to take a double move. He may move two spaces, but each is recorded on his tracking sheet and the timer pawn is moved over two spaces. With a Coach special move, Jack may cross over a Policeman Pawn. The other type of special move is an Alley. The Alley lets Jack move from his current numbered location to any numbered location on his current city block. A city block is considered any block of houses on the board that is completely surrounded, but not interrupted by, the dotted line paths that the players can move along. It sounds a lot trickier than it really is.

Jack cannot use one of his Special Movements to get into his Hideout. His last move must be a normal movement into his Hideout.

Hunt 2. Hunting the Monster: Starting with the Head of the Investigation, each Inspector player moves his Policeman Pawns on the board. Each Policeman Pawn can move up to two crossings per move. While Policemen Pawns can cross over one another while moving, they must end on different crossings.

Hunt 3. Clues and Suspicion: Again starting with the Head of Investigation, each Inspector player may have each Policeman Pawn that he controls either Look For Clues or Execute an Arrest on an adjacent numbered location (or locations) to his crossing.

Looking for Clues: If the Inspector looks for clues, then the Inspector names a number of an adjacent numbered location. If it is on Jack's tracking sheet (even if it is his current location), Jack places a turn token onto the numbered location and that Inspector's turn ends. If the announced number is not on Jack's sheet, then Jack informs him that there is no clue. The Inspector may then announce another adjacent numbered location. This continues until either the Inspector finds a location which is on Jack's tracking sheet or there are no more adjacent numbered location to announce.

Executing an Arrest: If the Inspector wishes to execute an arrest, he names one number of an adjacent numbered location. If that is Jack's current location (the last one recorded on his tracking sheet), then Jack is arrested and the Inspectors immediately win. If that is not Jack's current location, Jack informs him that he is not there and that Inspector's turn ends. Jack does not reveal if the location is on an earlier position on his sheet or not. The Inspector receives no additional information about it.

If Jack has not yet reached his Hideout or has not been arrested, play continues with Hunt Phase 1 again.


The Theme:

The theme is a dark one and playing a real-life murderer may make some people squeamish. However, the game's theme is brought out through subtle, yet very evocative means. The pawns are simple, but still induce a good sense of what they represent. This game would have actually been disserviced by making more detailed components. Much more of the theme is aroused from the real-life ties that are brought into the game. The Inspector Pawns are, for game purposes, exactly the same and only differentiated by color. However, when the Boss token is flipped over to determine that turn's Head of the Investigation, it ties the color to one of the real-life members of the investigation. Even the title of the tokens, "The Boss", is strongly evocative to the theme since this is the term used by Jack in a number of the taunting letters that he sent out to the Central News Agency, George Lusk and Thomas Openshaw.

However, these elements bring together the setting of the game, but the gameplay itself is the most evocative of the theme: tension. As Jack's player, there is a strong tension in the gameplay as you try to escape the Inspectors as they draw closer. However, you cannot show yourself sweating, since the Inspector players may gauge they are nearing you if you show any signs. For the Inspectors, the hunt is challenging and each night the trail is narrowed. There is a sense of accomplishment in discovering the clues that you have, but the frustration of having to wait for another murder before you can reign in closer to capture the criminal.

Another thing that really makes the theme stand out is the simplicity of the game. There is no combat. There are not cards. There are no detailed rules that offer exceptions and game changes to provoke the feel of engaging storyline. Instead, there is simply the game. And it does it well to make a tense play.


Learning the Game:

While, of course, strategy comes from experience, but it really doesn't take much to learn the game. I love Ameritrash and I do not shy away from thick manuals that list exception after exception and require several plays before you get to understanding the basics. However, this game has made me appreciate the beauty of simple, elegant gameplay. In some ways, it reminds me of Dune. The mechanics are surprisingly simple. However, the enjoyment comes from the fact that the mechanics fall away and you are simply pitted player against player.

That being said, I think that the evocative nature of the theme still pushes this away from being a family game or a gateway game despite the simplicity and ease of understanding of the rules. But that is fine. This is a gamer's game.


The Components:


The board in progress. Jack's pawn is just used to show that it is the second night. You can see the red chip indicates the Scene of the Crime, while the clear disks show the discovered clues that night (Locations 159, 160 and 145). The clear disks could be improved with a slight color tint to make Jack's trail stand out a little more for the Inspectors. 



Jack's Pawns and some of the Inspector Pawns. Jack's Pawns are never on the board except as time markers, but you'll not how the simple design is still very representative.




More Inspector Pawns and some of the Wretched Pawns. This is what Jack is murdering in the game: the white pawns. However, it is the theme and the atmosphere that makes it resonate more than a simple piece of wood.




The Boss Tokens give just a hint of insight to who the Inspector players are really controlling as they try to track down Jack.




Jack's screen and tracking sheet in progress. The number in the circle at the top (122) is Jack's Hideout for this game. Not that the inside of the screen has a small replication of the map.



As I mentioned before, the components are great because it is a combination of subtly and attention to detail that really captures the theme and mood of the game. The board is wonderfully designed and everything has a period feel to it. Real people, real locations and snippets of Jack's (supposedly) real letters are used throughout the game.

Jack's Movement Tracking Sheet is keep in a screen. The screen blocks the view of the Inspector players, but also has a smaller version of the map printed on the inside. This is a great thing to have, so that Jack's player can minimize how often he has to lean over to look directly at the board.

I only really have two complaints as far as the components go. First, the Clue chips are clear plastic circles. They are a little difficult to spot on the board. I think using a light coloring to them would help bring them out and help the Inspectors visualize the trail as it is uncovered better. It isn't a big complaint, but just a minor improvement that I could see that could be made.

Second, there are only 30 of Jack's Movement Tracking Sheets included in the game. This is depressingly few, especially because at least at the time of this review, there are no PDF sheets available on the web. I really would have preferred a pad of 60, or at least files to be more promptly made available on the web.


Playing the Game:

Gameplay is easy to learn and each player has a turn summary that they can use. I cannot stress enough how much I love it when games make enough player references for each player. What is even better is that each is personalized for the player, matching their Inspector Pawn color or for Jack himself.

As I mentioned, the game really builds tension and just the right level of frustration. Jack really is playing against the other players and not against convoluted game mechanics. The Inspectors really are playing against Jack directly and it is Jack's player's stealth and skill that they are up against, not random event cards that interrupt their work. This is a true deduction game.

There are also optional rules and components included to help either Jack's player or the Inspector players. This will help balance games with different skill or experience levels. I cannot comment on them because I have not played them. But this is simply because I do not think that they are needed. However, I am very impressed that they are included.


Scalability:

The game scales from 2-6. It is a great two-player game. It plays quickest that way, and there is no conflict among Inspector players. It is a chess match between two players.

That isn't to say that the game doesn't work with more players. However, since all five Policeman Pawns are used in every game, it is difficult to break them up evenly unless you either have 1 or 5 Inspector players. Any other combination will result in some players controlling different amounts of Inspectors from one another. It isn't a huge issue, but it does sort of tend to give a psychological effect that some players think that they are more or less important to the case.

Playing with a full 5 Inspector players also means that there will also be a chance that one (or more) Inspector players will simply be in a bad position during a night and not be able to contribute much to that night's investigation. This can, unfortunately, occur to the same Inspector on multiple nights, resulting in a less fun experience than those players who are hot on Jack's trail. This can be minimized by a good Head of Investigations player ensuring that Inspectors who were out of the action the last night are placed on more likely "hot spots" the next night. However, even with a conscientious Head of Investigations, Jack is wily and even with the best intentions, Jack may surprise everyone and take a victim on the other side of the board.


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. The more she likes a game, the more likely I'll see it in our rotation (without having to first build up my gaming capital by playing a bunch of games she prefers first). That being said, she is a big fan of deduction games. She loves Fury of Dracula because of the hunting aspect. She prefers to play the Hunters over Dracula, just as she prefers to play the Inspectors over Jack in this game. We set up our first game and she was quickly enamored with it and wanted to play it again a second time that same evening. She loves the game very much and I hope that it is just because she thinks that the game is great and not because of the psychological factor of her relating to and enjoying the aspect of catching me doing something wrong. But the game really did quickly win her over.

(And for the record, this isn't me putting Fury of Dracula down. I still love that game, but it is a different beast completely as random card draws help to alter the flow of deduction and there are elements of combat included which do not exist in this game.)


The Pros:

*Beautifully subtle and evocative components and design.
*Tense gameplay that creates the correct levels of tension and frustration.
*The play is between two players and not disturbed by events, random factors or card play. It is a true deduction and hunt game.
*Simple game mechanics that bring out the elegance of the design without bogging down the play.
*A great 2-player game, and still an excellent game for 3 or more players.
*The game is as balanced as the players, and with that in mind, they introduced optional rules to help weaker Jack players or weaker Inspector players.


The Cons:

*The theme is evocative, but too dark for some players since it is based on real-life events. Dark fantasy is different than dark history.
*The number of included Jack's Movement Tracking Sheets seems too few with (currently) no PDF support for extra ones.
*Some Inspectors may end up out of position to be effective during a night.
*Inspector break down is uneven except with 2 or 6 players.
*I have, on a few occasions, misspoke the name as "Letters from White Castle", which makes people think that I want to play a game about writing complaint letters concerning horrible gastrointestinal issues.


Overall:

Letters from Whitechapel is a fantastically evocative game of true deduction and pursuit. The mechanics of the game are minimal and simple, which leave for a true player vs. player feel. The absence of random draws and event cards allows for the players to feel that they are playing one another and not having the challenge artificially "enhanced" by the game itself. It's dark themes are not overstated in the components, but the mood set by the play still may draw them out too much for some players, making this game an uneasy fit for most families or many new gamers. However, if you are not put off by the theme, this truly is a masterpiece.


9.5/10

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