Friday, July 25, 2014

Review: Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective

My wife excels at inductive and deductive reasoning. I enjoy games where I am forced to lie and come up with bluffs on the spot. I do well at these kinds of games. I like to think that this is why we are a good match as a couple even though it means that my goal in games is often simply to have my wife believe my lies. This is why our games of Letters from Whitechapel are amazingly tense. I as Jack and she as the Investigators are both fully in our elements.

Now my wife isn't bad at bluffing, but I am terrible at solution and logic games. And when we play games such as P.I. or Mystery Express, she's often easily figured out the solution well before I've even found my footing in the game.

 Unfortunately, I don't offer her much challenge as a competitor in these games. And so even though she does enjoy them very much, they don't make it to our table as much as they should because of this.

So, it just made sense to get Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. It can be played cooperatively and I am able to ride on her coattails and, oh, what a wonderful ride it's been.

The game is very simple in mechanisms and is almost a more free-form Choose Your Own Adventure story, a little like Tales of the Arabian Nights, but with more open endedness in movement, but no random dialogue trees.

Players begin by choosing a case (the base game has ten). There is a map of London which is broken into districts and has numbered locations on it. There is a directory, as well, which has names of London residents and businesses which gives their location number.

The prologue of the case is read aloud, in which the story begins and sets up the investigation. Usually the stories are set up in a manner such as someone coming to Holmes for aid in a case. The players are members of the Baker Street Irregulars and are privy to the conversations between Watson and Holmes. After hearing the set up, you are free to investigate.

The attention to detail in the newspapers is remarkable.
There is a newspaper for each investigation for the day of the investigation. It has articles and adverts and letters which help bring out the theme and setting. Plus, there may be some very subtle clues in the papers to corroborate stories or to possibly find more points to investigate from.

But when I said that you are free to investigate, you really are free. Once the prologue is read, you are now completely on your own. The prologue might have mentioned a few names or places, but it is up to you which to pursue and in what order. It is a strange feeling during your first play to be offered such open-ended freedom. It is a little unsettling, in fact, since usually this is only given when there is someone eyeing you from the other side of a game master's screen.

Perhaps you decide to go to the scene of the crime. You look up its location in the directory or on the map. Perhaps you decide to go to speak to a suspect or a witness. You look up their name in the directory to get their location. Perhaps they mentioned a foot print and so you look up Shoemakers in the directory and find out that there are five of them listed. So you look at the map to see which is closest to the crime scene or a suspect's house and you go to it. Or perhaps you go to each of the five shoemakers one after the other. You are that free in this game.

There is also a key showing how long it would take to walk from one
location to the next--a useful tool in corroborating alibis.
Once you determine where you are going and have its location number, then you look up that location in the Case Book and you read a bit of dialogue about what happens during your investigation or interrogation. There are little details in these story snippets which can reveal a lot to those paying attention. But, of course, all of the snippets have minor details in them and many can prove to be red herrings--just the happenstance of everyday life that really are not indicative of anything else. There are also grander things to discover as well, such as more names, possible motivations, other places to investigate.

The game is set up to really allow a lot of freedom in your investigations. Now, not every location has a story in every Case Book. If, for instance, I decide to go to one of the four furriers in London, but there is nothing there relevant to the case, I will not find an entry for that location in the Case Book.

This continues until you are confident that you can solve the case, at which point, you turn to the Questions section of the Case Book.

This is just one page of the 16 page directory
of places that you can go.
There are typically eight to ten questions to answer pertaining to the case, some are more primary to the case (who did it, why did they do it, how did they do it, etc.) and some are more secondary and may be related to clearing other suspects or noting how well you picked out specific details.

Once answered, you read an epilogue in which Holmes breaks down the case and reveals what happened and how he deduced it.

After reading the epilogue, you check your answers to the solutions. Each answer has a point value and the primary questions are worth more than the secondary questions. You tally your total and then compare your route to Holmes'. The Case Book shows Holmes' path and his route for his investigation. For every location more that you visited than Holmes, you lose five points. For every location less that you visited, you gain five points.

You then can compare your score to that of Holmes (who always scores 100 points) to see if you did better or worse than him.

There is a moment of elation that I cannot fully express when reading the epilogue where it validates and confirms your theories while at the same time stunning you by making you realize the simplest clues that you missed.

It is possible to play the game competitively, however, each player takes turns deciding which lead to follow next and what location to go. Once one of the players is confident that they can solve the case, they read the Questions and write down their answers, noting how many locations they visited. This continues until everyone has answered the Questions and then each player's score is tallied individually.

I'm not too much of a fan of the competitive play because it is a bit clunky. If you were truly being competitive, you are still being "dragged along" to locations that the other players want to visit even though you may think that they are pointless dead ends. Plus, you lose the interesting dialogue that occurs naturally in the game as you bounce theories off of one another. If you are competing with another player, I don't see why you would discuss the case and you miss the interesting discussions that can spark moments of revelation with one another.

Another reason why I am too much of a fan of the competitive play is that I am terrible at logic games and if I want a decent score, I need to ride my wife's coattails. So when we play, I try to mask my deductive uselessness by being the permanent reader and giving each character a consistent unique voice when I read their dialogue. I also write down the locations we go to.

At the end of our first case, my wife had three pages of handwritten notes. I had scribbled the number of the locations we visited on the margin of my notepad. However, I would like to point out that Wiggins had a difficult gravelly voice that hurt my throat after a bit of long dialogue and I did accents as well for some of the characters. So, I feel that the flavor of my reading helped my wife's cognitive ability by putting her more in the correct atmosphere.

For as much as we love SHCD, there are some issues with it. First of all, there is limited replayability. There are only ten cases and despite the freedom and range of means to explore in them, they all have only one solution. This isn't too much of an issue for me, as I feel that the ten plays is still fairly reasonable amount to be played (sessions run around 90-120 minutes each) for the cost of the game, especially since it is such an enjoyable experience.

There is an argument that could be made that this isn't really a game. And... they wouldn't really be wrong in the sense that most gamers consider games. It is an experience event, but considering how much I enjoy the experience, I don't mind.

Also the text in the Clue Books is written in a terrible font for the amount that needs to be read. It makes reading the pieces a little clunky as I've had to pause to decipher some of the writing. There are a few typos as well, which normally wouldn't be that much of an issue. However, in reading aloud, the combination of bad font, the occasional typo, and the stiff period style writing, it causes the spoken dialogue to break up a bit and not always flow smoothly.

But that said, the game succeeds with its attention to detail. The directory is immense and there are so many open options to explore. The only times that we've ever not found an encounter in our Clue Book was when we were thinking very much outside of the box and trying to focus on such a minute detail.

The newspapers are an incredible addition as well as they are completely period and thematic and give little hidden gems of information within, but they are very well hidden in the thematic atmosphere of the paper.

If you ever feel lost, there are always any of Holmes' allies that can be visited as well to perhaps aid your investigation, from Fred Porlock, to Mycroft Holmes, to Scotland Yard, to Sherlock himself. Each of these visits offers an "in character" bit of information on the current case.

I definitely recommend Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. The expansions are out of print, but Ystari has started to release expansions in French so it is hopefully just a matter of time before more cases come stateside in English. Until then, we are restricted to just the ten cases. Still, if you want to have a good, thematic, deductive experience, I suggest doing what I did: Marry a logic minded spouse, purchase this game, and then ride her coattails to fun and success.

1 comment:

  1. Are you aware that the original 1980s edition of the game had multiple expansions? The Mansion Murders, West End Adventures, The Queen's Park Affair and Adventures by Gaslight. (the latter one extremely rare). These expansions tend to have 5-6 cases, but that's easily 15-20 cases more to solve.