Sunday, 10 January 2016

Review - Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective box art.


Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective
Published by Ystari Games
Designed by Raymond Edwards, Suzanne Goldberg, Gary Grady
For 1-8 players, aged 8 to adult




I love Sherlock Holmes.

I don't mean the television show, Sherlock, starring Bandersnatch and Bilbo. I don't mean those loud and obnoxious movies starring Iron Man and Gigolo Joe.

I mean the original works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

I remember the first time I read The Hound of the Baskervilles, reading every description carefully, trying to see if I could figure out the mystery. I remember pausing at various sections, and thinking through the chain of events, making deductions, puzzling through clues.

I wanted to solve the case before Holmes did.

Of course, I didn't.

But it was fun to try.


So, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective was always going to be a game that was on my radar. However, it is only recently that I acquired a copy.

I finally purchased the game when I noticed that my wife, who was once my main gaming partner, had lost interest in much of my games collection. I had started to accumulate more miniatures games, and war games, and complex games with a lot of mechanisms and exceptions to the general flow of the rules.

Stuff she isn't keen on.

She still plays some of my older games, but she shows little or no interest when newer titles land on the doorstep.

Where once we had played games together all the time, now I spent most of my time playing games solo, or playing with my regular gaming group, while she did something else.

Didn't like that.

No, Sir. Didn't like it at all.

So, I purchased a copy of Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective as part of a cunning plan. The intention was to bring something to the table that would catch her interest. A simple game, with a small rule set, which would allow us to work together and have fun. Something challenging. Something that didn't require dozens of cardboard tokens, hundreds of cards, and an army of plastic miniatures.

Something completely different.

And I think it is fair to say, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective is very different indeed.

It hardly even classifies as a board game. It is more of an... activity, I guess. You could compare it to a "choose your own adventure" game book, but that wouldn't do the design of the game justice.

Basically, you get a case book, a map, a selection of newspapers, and a directory of addresses. The map is divided into five sections (North West, North East, and so on...) and each section contains numbered addresses which all appear in the directory. Each numbered address also correlates with a section of text in the case book.

The colour map and London directory, necessary for foiling the nefarious schemes of villains found in the Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective board game.
The beautifully presented map of London and the accompanying directory.


It all sounds complicated on paper, but it really isn't. The way the components work together is actually a touch of genius.

For example, during a case, you may learn of a potential witness. You look up the witness in the directory, and the directory gives you the address (such as NW1). This tells you where the witness lives, so you can find them on the map. It also tells you which section of text to read from the case book if you go to visit that witness.

And that's how the game works.

It's that simple.

And yet... Not simple at all.

Sometimes you get given a partial address, and you have to use the map to find the exact location. Sometimes you get given a location as part of an alibi, and you have to refer to the map to see if it is far enough from the crime scene to rule out a suspect. Sometimes you find a product, and you have to look up companies in the directory that might have manufactured that product, or companies that might have recently sold the product. Sometimes you have to look in the local newspaper to see if there are any current affairs that might help you, or maybe even advertisements. Sometimes a suspect gives you a piece of information, and you need to study the map, think about the victim's movements on the night of the murder, and then cross-reference that with something you saw in a newspaper from an EARLIER case you solved.

But I can't give you any actual examples of any of that. If I did, I would be ruining the game. Because this isn't so much a game as it is an experience.

You have to experience it for yourself.

And all I can do is tell you about my experience.

I can tell you that, at one point during our first investigation, I was talking though a potential sequence of events with my wife. As she reviewed her notes on the case (four A4 pages of them!) I rose from my chair, poured a glass of red wine, and proceeded to pace around the table as I continued to piece the events together.

I was in the moment.

I was more engrossed in the game than I had ever been in any other game before.

And the genuine sense of excitement when I thought I had worked out something about the murderer's relationship with the victim based on evidence at the crime scene is difficult to describe.

Playing through these investigations is some of the most fun I have ever had playing a game... any kind of game... And I strongly recommend everyone gives this title a try.

A game of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective in progress, with copious notes and maps spread out across a kitchen table with glasses of wine.
The first investigation, about a bottle of wine in...


But, there are a few provisos...

First, I should mention that my wife works for the police (not as a detective, I might add), and before I started writing fantasy novels, I used to write crime thrillers. Solving crimes (while being a bit of a busman's holiday) is something that appeals to us. We have the right kind of mindset for the business at hand. We know how to analyse events, and we pick up on little details quite well. I don't mean to say we find the game easy. We certainly don't. But I think we are well-equipped to face the challenge.

The cases are tough, and you need to be logical, imaginative, and precise to solve them, let alone solve them as quickly and efficiently as Holmes does.

Oh yes, beating Holmes... Didn't I mention that?

At the end of the game, there is a bit of a points salad, where you gain points for solving various aspects of the case, but lose points for visiting too many locations. You tot up your points, and compare to Holmes, who always scores 100.

Beating Holmes is close to impossible. You can't afford to look over even the smallest detail. And even if you figure out the criminal, the motive, and every other aspect of the case, you may still find Holmes did it better.

But beating Holmes isn't the real aim of the game. The aim is just to beat the villains... To solve the cases.

And it really isn't easy.

You can't solve the cases through brute force. You can't simply visit every location and hope that eventually the answer becomes obvious. You need to analyse everything you are told, study every clue you get, and then make logical deductions. You need a certain amount of creativity and imagination to figure everything out.

There is never a point where the game says, "Congratulations, by talking to this suspect you have solved the case." YOU have to decide when you have solved the case. If you have been given every last scrap of evidence, and you still can't put it together in a way that makes sense... Well... You're screwed, and that's going to be very frustrating.

And even if you do think you have solved the case, it is your decision whether to call it a day and find out if you were correct, or else visit a few more locations to double-check. Each new location you visit lowers your score, meaning you are less likely to beat Holmes, but you may find new evidence that makes it apparent your original solution was incorrect.

The fact it is the players who determine when the game ends, means the playing time varies significantly. You may decide you have all the evidence you need after 30 minutes; but if you are struggling, it could be hours before you start to feel like you are in a position to point the finger. That's if you ever do feel like you are in a position to point the finger, of course.

It is also worth noting that the game involves lots of reading. If you are playing in a group, you need to play with people who are comfortable reading out large quantities of text. Poor readers, people with dyslexia, and younger players (for example) may struggle, especially when faced with some of the more archaic words and phrases. If you don't know why a Colonel's batman might go to the milliner for his paramour's birthday, sometimes you are going to feel like you are reading a foreign language.

Finally, and this will probably be the sticking point for some people, there are only ten cases. And you can only play each case once.

There is absolutely no replayability.

Whether you solve the case, or fail horribly, by the end of a play session you are going to know the solution, so you never have the chance to go back and try again.

The ten case books from Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, each containing a cunning mystery to unravel.
The ten case books. Ten unique and creative challenges. But only ten.


For me, this is a minor concern. The game cost me less than £30, and if I get ten evening's entertainment out of it, then that's a very good investment, as far as I am concerned. Seriously, that works out to £3 a game. I can't even buy a drink on a night out for that much. But, for anyone who likes to be able to play a game hundreds of times, this is going to be a problem.

For me, this game a winner: Clever, imaginative, creative, engrossing, thematic, deep, satisfying, and challenging.

But I know what you're thinking.

You want to know if my cunning plan worked,

Did I solve "The Case of the Wife Who Doesn't like My Board Game Collection Much Anymore?"

Well, I wouldn't want to spoil anything, so I'll just tell you that we're playing again this evening.

I'll leave it up to you to deduce the rest...

4 comments:

  1. When we heard about this game, we knew we had to buy it. And the hype was high, but when we played... we loved. It was and it is the best game we have ever player as a couple. We even have "Sherlock nights", when we pour some tea and play the game for hours on end.

    Love to hear you love it too :D

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  2. Playing this game with my wife is an absolute joy. But we pour wine, not tea...

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  3. Apologies for replying to an older post but I bumped into your blog and was reading through various old reviews. This one jumped out at me becasuse it's a game I wrote a bit about on my own blog once.

    The lack of replay-ability isn't a major thing when the cost is as you say, yes, although I'd argue it makes it hard to introduce the game to other people if you're the veteran and they're the amateur. Replaying the first mission of Space Hulk or Heroquest is no big deal - but replaying the first case of Sherlock Holmes does not look like it would be very interesting. There are fan-made cases at least.

    I felt a bit miffed by the scoring system whereby an excellent score could only be obtained by completely ignoring the bulk of the adventure book. I mean the correct move total for the first puzzle is only four, which isn't very much at all, especially if you're playing as a group with a few competing theories that need tested. I get that you want a good few red herrings and blind alleys to make things interesting and that being as good as Sherlock Holmes should be difficult. Still, the roleplayer in my finds it a bit frustrating to be penalised for wanting to explore the world and the people.

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    Replies
    1. Please don't apologise for commenting. I appreciate you taking the time to read my review and post your thoughts.

      The bonus points make it a bit easier, but I've never worried too much about challenging Sherlock. I am more concerned about exploring the clues and making sure I fully understand what has happened before going into the endgame. For me, the main aim is always being able to answer all of the questions at the end.

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