Sunday 30 June 2019

Review - Detective Stories Episode 1: The Fire in Adlerstein

Designed by Alexander Krys
Published by iDventure
For 1 or more players, aged 13 to adult

Detective Stories Episode 1 The Fire in Adlerstein

Sometimes people ask me why I love board games so much. To this question, I invariably proffer a raised eyebrow and a vaguely dismissive response along the lines of, "Everything."

And "everything" is true, of course.

But the one thing that really makes board games so special for me is their capacity to tell stories, or more accurately, their provision of the tools you need to craft your own stories.

The notion of a game as a storytelling device usually suggests a strong theme, and I absolutely love thematic games; but the simple application of theme alone isn't the same as good storytelling. Reading a few lines of text off an item card, or flipping an "event" card as you enter the next room of a dungeon, is only the window dressing. The story isn't what you read or see or do; it's what you feel. A truly great game knows this, and weaves narrative within the mechanisms, making them so intrinsically linked it's impossible to play the game without truly experiencing the world the game seeks to create.

When I think of games that blend story and gameplay seamlessly, I think of Tash-Kalar, Dungeons and Dragons, Winter TalesFireteam Zero, and Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. And I think, perhaps in time, I may be able to add Detective Stories to the list.

Now, for the sake of full disclosure, I was recently contacted by the good folk at iDventure. They asked if I would be interested in receiving a copy of Detective Stories Episode 1 to playtest and review. The game has been available for some time in a German language edition, but it's now being localised for other territories, so they wanted a fresh pair of English-speaking eyes (?) to look it over.

I always take it as a huge honour when someone asks me to check out their game, so I obviously accepted; and that's how it came to pass that last week I received in the mail a box containing a police case file, some bagged evidence, some seemingly random photographs, and a letter from one Mr Notebeck pleading with me to prove his innocence. I can't speak to the overall quality of these materials as I was playing a pre-production copy, but I could instantly see the potential for a truly immersive experience based on the unusual mixture of components.

The letter from Mr Notebeck briefly outlined how he was driving through town and saw a burning building. He stopped to take photographs and then left, only later discovering that someone inside the building perished. Now he's banged up for a crime he (possibly?) didn't commit, and is relying on me to sort out what really happened.

And that's basically it in terms of guidance. Really, you're on your own. (Well, I wasn't. I was with my wife, a large notebook, a laptop computer connected to the Internet, and a bottle of wine.)

A game of Detective Stories in progress

The conceit is simple: The designer wants you to feel like a real detective. You have a case file full of paperwork (travel bookings, medical records, legal documents, statements from witnesses), bags of evidence (crumpled scraps of paper, books of matches, photographs, prescription tickets), access to any real-life website or resource obtainable online, and your own ability to piece together clues and solve puzzles. Once you know who the criminal is, you go to the official Detective Stories website and enter the name to find out if you're right. Get it wrong, and it's back to the drawing board. Get it right and you get to grab yourself a doughnut. (Doughnuts not provided. Other stereotypes are available.)

I sat down to solve this mystery with my wife, and this sort of thing is made for us. My first two published novels were crime mysteries, and my wife works for the police. Solving this case was absolutely a matter of honour and we tackled it with gusto. My wife immediately started making a timeline of events leading up to the crime, and I began poring over various documents to start working out a list of suspects.

And yes, before you ask, we did solve the case. It took us three hours, some late-night mental arithmetic, and a lot of scribbled notes, but we got there in the end. And yes, there was a real sense of achievement in getting the right answer.

Unfortunately, I can't really tell you much more than that. The whole nature of the game demands that you approach it without any prior knowledge, and talking about what we did to get to our answer in anything but the vaguest terms would surely ruin the enjoyment of the experience. I can't even really share pictures of the components with you.

What I can tell you is that this is a very finely crafted puzzle. It has an interesting narrative, comprising the stories of multiple people who all have reason enough to want to see the world burn, and everything slots together in a very satisfying way. There were even standout moments that genuinely thrilled (notably a brief foray onto Facebook for a bit of social snooping, and an instance of a seemingly irrelevant scribble proving to be part of a larger picture that provided an alibi for a key suspect).

Unfortunately, there were a few elements that tarnished the experience. Particularly, I don't feel the game leaned heavily enough into the idea of using the Internet to access additional resources and real-world information, especially in one case where a seemingly important website listed on a piece of evidence provide to be a fictitious site with no real-world counterpart. It would have been very satisfying if the designers had created the site and laced it with additional information. Additionally, a few clues were perhaps a bit too obviously signposted, and there was one maths-based puzzle that erred on frustrating rather than challenging, and which undermined the sense that we really were working a case.

But perhaps these minor glitches can be ironed out prior to publication, or at least in time for episode 2? I, for one, am very keen to find out, as I thoroughly enjoyed my time with this first installment.

Of course, it's also worth mentioning that, as with other games of this type such as the popular "escape room" games, there's no replayability. Once you've solved the case, you can't go back and do it again. If you get the wrong answer, you have the option of trying again, but winning means you're done.

This is going to be a problem for people who balk at the idea of spending money on a game that might provide only two or three hours of enjoyment. This is a prickly issue, and really it's going to come down to personal taste. As long as the game is priced reasonably, I don't see a problem with paying for something that might only provide one evening of entertainment, as long as it's fun. I would much rather have one truly enjoyable gaming session, which creates lasting memories, than several mediocre gaming sessions.

Games don't have to last forever, as long as their stories do.

Besides, Prince may once have said there's joy in repetition, but there's also joy in regifting. Especially if you get a chance to be smug when your mates can't crack the case.

Detective Stories Episode 1 was kindly provided for review by the publisher. It's already available in a German language edition, and will be available in other languages later in the year.

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