The PLAYlist 02: Watson & Holmes
Welcome to The PLAYlist, Under the Radar's column which pairs tabletop game reviews with custom-tailored playlists. In our second installment, cinema editor Austin Trunick looks at the new mystery-solving game, Watson & Holmes, and its predecessor, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective.
You can make a valid argument for any decade being the best decade for movies, but can you argue that any had more genuine crowd-pleasers than the 1980s? I mean, does any other decade have all of Back to the Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Breakfast Club, and The Empire Strikes Back? (And don’t even get me started on what that decade meant for fans of the horror, science fiction, or action genres.) When truly great pop entertainment appears, it seems to come in waves.
You could make an easy argument that the 1980s were as equally good to tabletop gaming. Along with Cosmic Encounter, Fury of Dracula, and Survive, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective counts itself among an elite pack of board games which emerged in the early- to mid-80s and became bona fide classics. These titles have stood the test of time and continued to wow new generations of gamers through semi-regular reissues over the years. Each new edition of these perennial favorites has been slightly improved, with rules tweaks, expanded gameplay, or major (but usually beautiful) cosmetic makeovers. All, that is, except for Consulting Detective, which has remained relatively unchanged for the last 35 years. Sure, there have been different translations, and components of varying degrees of quality, but for the most part the copy you’d buy today is going to be pretty close to the one that was for sale all the way back in 1982. That’s a testament to just how great this game was out the gate. It’s hard to improve upon perfection, right?
The way I typically describe Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective is as a multiplayer, cooperative Choose Your Own Adventure story, where at any point there are dozens and dozens of possible paths open to you, and the tale doesn’t end until you decide you’re done with it.
All that comes in the box is a bunch of paper: ten thick pamphlets pertaining to ten different cases, a stack of faux Victorian newspapers from the dates of the crimes, a directory and a map of London broken into quadrants. After you read aloud a prompt detailing the crime and its starting clues, you’re on your own. You can go most anywhere you’d want to – any place with even a tangential link to the mystery will have a corresponding entry in the case book. Read it aloud, take notes, and then decide where to go next. When you think you’ve got your brain wrapped around a solution, you flip to the end of the case and check your answers.
What makes SHCD – as we’ll condense it – such a joy is that it can really feel like you’re part of an actual, Sherlock Holmes mystery. This is thanks to the game’s rich flavor and authentic-feeling prose, which survived the translation from the French to English impressively well. [Full disclosure: our experiences are based on the Ystari edition from 2014, which does have one, semi-notorious typo.] Each entry is written in a style very much in line with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s timeless stories. Every location or witness you visit will have their own bit of write-up – ranging from mere sentences, to an entire page – that becomes part of your personal Sherlock Holmes mystery. Winning happens when you’re able correctly to solve the crime, which you can attempt whenever you feel you’re ready. (Technically, you win when you’ve visited an unrealistically low number of locations – but getting them right at all will usually feel like accomplishment enough.) It isn’t in the least bit easy, but it doesn’t feel like much of a loss even if you fail to solve the crime. The fun is in reading aloud the entries, discussing the clues with your friend(s), arguing over where you’ll go next, and being involved in the ways each story unfolds before you.
If it’s not painfully obvious, we eagerly recommend Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, even to people who generally aren’t into board games. If you’re any fan of mysteries, it offers ten great nights of entertainment for yourself and a friend or two.
Now, do you recall what I said earlier about it being hard to improve on such a fantastic design? Well, developer Space Cowboys and their distributor, Asmodee – the current holders of SHCD’s publishing rights – don’t seem the least bit intimidated at the prospect of following up an undisputed classic. This spring they’ve put out its first set of new, English-language cases in multiple decades. This collection is called Jack the Ripper & West End Adventures. While all previous incarnations of the game featured stand-alone cases that could be played through in a single night, the first four cases in this volume revolve around everyone’s favorite series of unsolved Victorian serial murders. These Jack the Ripper cases are linked together to form a sort of campaign, which can be played across several evenings. (The remaining cases – the West End Adventures, if you will – are meant to be played as one-offs, like those in the original game.) It’s a cool twist, and one that we’re really looking forward to diving into ourselves.
A sequel wasn’t enough for them, though. These folks have followed their ambition even further with Watson & Holmes, a brand new game that offers an entirely new take on Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, pitting you against your friends in a race to solve a bunch of the Great Detective’s lost cases.
Watson & Holmes
Out this month from Amodee and Space Cowboys, Watson & Holmes takes that old, beloved Consulting Detective formula and turns it on its head with one significant departure: this game is competitive, rather than cooperative. Instead of working together with your pals to find the answers, you’re rushing to get to them first, and doing your best to throw the others off the trail.
Rather than a fat clue book, Watson & Holmes’ thirteen cases each come with a deck of location cards inside its own snazzy envelope. These cards are laid out across a table as directed by the case’s setup pamphlet. Each player starts with a standee depicting a Victorian crime-solving type, an allotted number of carriage tokens, and a police token. (You’ll need to supply your own scratch paper and writing utensil to each player, for notes-taking purposes.) There’s also the option to play as specific investigators with unique abilities, which adds some intriguing asymmetry to the mix.
After reading aloud the case’s setup paragraphs, the game begins. Alternately, you can scan a QR code on the cover of the pamphlet and be directed to an audio file of someone reading out the case in an adorable British accent – this is a nice touch which adds to the flavor, and is a welcome method of modernizing the old SHCD formula. The players will then take turns bidding on locations with their limited supply of carriage tokens, with the winner of each round of bidding getting the exclusive pleasure of reading the clue on the back of their chosen card. These clues are similar to the entries you’d find in SHCD, but because there are far fewer per case each one seems to be relevant in some way to the mystery, although it won’t be obvious what information is worth keeping in mind. (So, take good notes.)
The real brilliance of Watson & Holmes is that because everyone’s reading clues in a different order, the way the mystery unfolds and its answers reveal themselves is personalized for each player. The writing that went into this design is very clever, because it allows for multiple ways of coming to the correct conclusions. Depending on which clues you read first, you’ll be following different leads from your opponents and looking for things that they aren’t. Two or more people might solve the case, but how they did so could have meant taking entirely different paths. The greatest joy of Watson & Holmes may come after the game, in hashing out just how everyone else came to their conclusions, because everybody’s experience will be so different. (There’s a great feeling of released tension then, too, as there’s very little talking while the game is going on.)
Here, you don’t win only by solving Sherlock’s case and finding the right answer to all three questions, but by doing so first. At any point, a player can move their token to 221B Baker Street – Sherlock’s hizzy – and declare they’re attempting to solve the case. He or she writes down their answers, then checks them against the case key. If they’re right – and their solutions are accurate – they say so, and they’ve won. (Hopefully you hang with honest folk.) If they’re wrong, though – or they’re missing any vital details asked for on the answer card – then they’re out. That’s it. Kaput. Done. They’re still involved in the game in other ways, but they’re out of the running for the gold. And so, the stakes are high. With that need to beat your opponents to the punch, the pressure’s on to make your move and grab the glory all for yourself. But… how sure are you about your answers? Are you really sure, or are you about to send an innocent man to prison? Maybe you play it safe, and wait another turn or two for the picture to become clearer? But then, the person sitting to your left has a smug look of confidence on their face. Do you go for it, or not? (Tell me: do ya feel lucky, punk?)
My favorite wrinkle in this wild deduction race are the police tokens. Whenever you leave a location each turn, you have the option to “tip off the police,” leaving behind one of these tokens on top of the card. (Imagine the scene – or witness? – wrapped up in yellow police tape, making it significantly more difficult for a nosy private investigator to poke around the location.) This prevents other players from moving into the spot, unless they’re willing to obtain and expend one of two other, specific tokens – but that takes time, and in a game where you’re racing to the finish line, one or two misspent turns can be big.
The fun in these police tokens lies in deciding when and where you’re going to use yours. Did you pick up a card and find what you believe to be a juicy clue? Maybe you’ll use the token then, making it harder for your opponents to get that same information. Or did you just make a misstep, and read a card that you believe is a total dud? Perhaps you’ll drop your token then, and hope that your opponents take the bait– and in turn make them expend two whole turns trying to uncover your red herring. The police tokens are one of Watson & Holmes’ simplest mechanics, but it adds all of its best mind games.
Watson & Holmes supports two to seven players, but if you’re only planning to play this with one other person, you’ll be better off with Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective (or the brand new sequel, Jack the Ripper & West End Adventures.) Those games offer very similar, highly flavorful experiences, but there’s exponentially more communication going on throughout. Plus, Consulting Detective remains just as effective a solo game, and really shines at two and three players, which allows for wonderfully fun, heated discussions over which leads or theories you’ll follow on each turn. (The player count can go higher, but too many more people and it can devolve into a volume competition, where the loudest person in the room will steer the game.) It’s also worth noting that Jack the Ripper & West End Adventures is a stand-alone set, and so you can feel free to start with that one before Consulting Detective if the Bloody Jack subject matter interests you.
If you think you’ll be playing with three or more people on a regular basis, though, by all means you should jump on Watson & Holmes. Each player you add makes the board more crowded, the competition for spaces that much more important. The more players, the more frenetic and harried your race to solve the case will feel. At these higher player counts, your suspicion and paranoia in regards to your opponents’ progress will feel that much more pronounced. In addition, it’s worth noting that Watson & Holmes is a shorter game, wrapping up in about an hour due to the more finite number of clues and the way everyone’s hurrying to get to the end first. (Consulting Detective, in contrast, can take an entire evening if you visit dozens of locations.) This smaller time investment makes Watson & Holmes far less daunting to get to the table when among non-gamer pals. They’re different, but equally enjoyable experiences. Watson & Holmes is frantic fun for a table full of friends. Consulting Detective is a game you get cozy with along with your significant other and a whole bottle of wine.
This column’s playlist features deep(ish) album cuts from the early discography of Depeche Mode. Like Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, the band first appeared in the 1980s and hasn’t gone away, continuing to sound fresh and at the top of their game with each new album. (Speaking of which, the British synth legends’ fourteenth studio record, Spirit, just landed last week. You can read UTR’s review here.) We’ve hand-picked a selection of darker tracks from their first few albums to use as mood music for your first game of Watson & Holmes. These 90-odd minutes should last you through an entire case, but don’t be afraid to set it to loop should you need to take an intermission.
Join us next time, won’t you, as we discuss what is perhaps the most (literally) delicious-looking board game we’ve ever played.
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