Hello and welcome to the second or, if you count the introduction, third in my irregular blog series about the joys of board gaming.
My last post was, in a roundabout way, a description of why Forbidden Desert is a good substitute for the classic family board game, Monopoly. If I wanted to force a theme I might try to claim that today’s post is about a replacement for the traditional family board game Cluedo. Except it’s not really.
The subject of this post will be Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, and the reason I make the Cluedo comparison is that it’s a game where you spend most of your time solving murders. The major difference between Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective and Cluedo is that Cluedo attempts to re-create the impression of solving a crime by building its gameplay around strict principles of logical deduction that, when you get right down to it, are all about solving the mystery of which cards are in the envelope rather than the mystery of who murdered Dr Black. Conversely, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective builds its gameplay around the acquisition of tailor-made clues, all of which require you to use actual information to solve an actual (well, fictional, but actual fictional) mystery.
To digress for a moment, it occurs to me that, ironically, the type of reasoning in Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, a specifically Holmesian game that requires you think in a specifically Holmesian way, does not, in fact, involve any deduction at all. To be super super pedantic for a moment, the reasoning Holmes relies on is very specifically not deductive in nature. Cluedo uses genuinely deductive reasoning. If my mum has the rope and the revolver, my dad has the lead pipe, my brother has the candlestick, and I’ve got the dagger, then the murder weapon must be the wrench. By contrast, the reasoning that Sherlock Holmes (incorrectly) describes as deduction in the books and that you are called upon to use in the board game Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective is mostly definitely inductive – that is, it is about assessing a particular outcome as being more probable than others on the basis of trends and patterns. Despite what the great man says, there are few Holmes stories or Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective cases, in which you genuinely arrive at the outcome by eliminating all other solutions as impossible.
Anyway, that’s enough waffling about semantics. I’m going to spend the rest of this post talking about the many reasons this game is awesome. And a little bit at the end talking about some of its minor flaws.
Reason 1: The feelies, man, the feelies
I spoke a bit about feelies in my last post and the feelies here are of a very different kind. Basically, you get a map of London, and a bunch of newspapers, and a London directory and you actually use these things to look for clues. For example, if you learn that the victim had a meeting with Elias Wibblethorpe somewhere on Goodge Street, then you could use the directory to look for E Wibblethorpe and visit him at his house or you could use the map to look for locations on Goodge Street. Or you could read through the newspapers and see if you could find any references to an Elias Wibblethorpe and maybe you would and it would turn out that Elias Wibblethorpe recently gave a lecture at the Royal Academy and then you could go to the Royal Academy.
Essentially you feel like a fucking genius for at least the first two thirds of the game. When everything’s in the sweet spot you have this situation where you and your mates are sitting around a table, and two of you are reading newspapers, and one of you is looking through the directory, and one of you is pouring over the map, and someone is saying “oh wait, we found this stuff in the victim’s room which is obvious jewel-thieving gear and there’s all this stuff in the paper about this sequence of jewel thieveries that stopped just before the murder happened, so we should go talk to Porky Shinwell because he’s the guy who knows about the crime stuff.” And sometimes you’ll get, “hey, this small add in the personals section is from someone with the initials JM, I bet that’s a total red herring.”
Reason 2: You do the things you’re supposed to be doing
Most games that revolve around solving a mystery work like Cluedo. You substitute some other arbitrary piece of information for who the murderer was and you replace all the clues with logic puzzles and memory games. At no point during a game of Cluedo is it explained how my saying “I suggest it was Reverend Green, in the library, with the revolver” and then having somebody show me, say, Reverend Green actually translates into a meaningful in-world clue. I mean, yes, you can try to justify it. Maybe when Dave, who is playing Miss Scarlet, shows me Reverend Green’s card, it means she tells that she was with Reverend Green at the time of the murder, and this somehow exonerates Reverend Green but does not exonerate her … but you have to reach a bit. And, let’s not go near the old “this is a game where I can be a murderer but not know it and win by catching myself” problem.
In Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, on the other hand, every crime is a distinct scenario and solving the crime means working through a specific scenario booklet in which you have actual conversations with actual suspects, go to actual places and look for actual clues, and work out who did it by using actual, contextualised information about the actual crime that actually happened. I’d say it’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure book and, in a way, it is because you’ve got the same core structure of navigating your way through paragraphs of information. But, like Cluedo, a Choose Your Own Adventure is really replacing the mystery with an abstract, second order problem. Since any given paragraph will direct you to one or two others, you’re not really trying to solve a crime, you’re trying to solve a path through the book.
The only thing that comes even remotely close to this structure (and, in some ways, takes it even further) was Dennis Wheatley’s abortive series of mystery stories that consisted entirely of dossiers of interview transcripts, evidence samples and crime scene photographs. I do actually own one of these, and I love it dearly, but it’s not actually suitable to be “played” by more than one person at once, because it’s essentially a work of crime fiction and is designed to be read through in detail, rather than interacted with.
Basically, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective really makes you feel like you’re investigating a Sherlock Holmes mystery by the simple expedient of actually having you investigate a Sherlock Holmes mystery. You do Holmesy things and go to Holmesy places where you to get Holmesy clues that you use to make Holmesy deductions (or, to be pedantic, inductions or inferences).
This is awesome.
Reason 3: It is exactly what it needs to be
One of the other games I’m going to talk about in this series is Descent: Journeys in the Dark. This is a huge, epic, dungeon crawling adventure, the first edition of which culminated in the publication of an expansion called Road to Legend, which converted the game into a sprawling campaign in which four adventurers saved the world from the machinations of a terrifying Overlord. My partner and I played Road to Legend with some friends of ours for some time but only got a third of the way into the campaign before we all realised that if we wanted to play an on-going game in which a persistent set of characters had adventures in a fantasy world in which they fought against the agents of an evil Overlord whose job was only partially to actually kill them but mostly to make sure that everyone was having fun, exciting time round the gaming table then we might as well all just play D&D. So we did.
Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective strays perilously close to ‘why not just play an RPG’ territory. The levels of abstraction are so low that a lot of the time it feels like the stuff you’re doing is the same sort of thing you would be doing in an investigation-heavy RPG, such as Call of Cthulhu. Especially since part of the fun of the game (and obviously mileage varies on this) is pretending to be the Baker Street Irregulars.
There are, I think, two reasons that I would choose to play Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective over Call of Cthulhu when I would not play Descent: Road to Legend over D&D. The first is simply that you can finish a Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective scenario in a couple of hours and, ultimately, you get to set your own pace for the game so how long it takes depends a lot on your own patience. Essentially I can find a murderer in Consulting Detective in the time it takes to do character creation in a roleplaying game. The second reason is that the sheer level of detail in Consulting Detective is actually really hard to reproduce in an RPG unless you’re using an especially lavish pre-written campaign or your GM is willing to do a buttload of homework. Yes, there are moments in Consulting Detective when you’ll talk to someone and they’ll be evasive, and you’ll think, well, why can’t we ask this person about the muddy footprints. But that’s more than compensated for by the feeling you get from being able to look up addresses and find clues in newspapers and interact with the game on a material level.
Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective scenarios only work as Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective scenarios. They wouldn’t work in an RPG and they wouldn’t be particularly satisfying as short stories in their own right. The game uses its medium exactly correctly and that, again, is awesome.
So those are my main reasons for thinking the game is amazing. In the spirit of fairness, I should probably also run down some of what I see as the game’s flaws. And I should stress that none of these things keep me from loving the game, but that’s not going to stop me going on about them at some length.
Problem 1: Scoring
If there is anything I would call out as a legitimate flaw in Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective it’s the scoring the system. At the end of the game, which comes whenever you decide to go back to Holmes and give him your conclusions, you get the classic Holmes denouement in which he smugly explains everything that happened, and how all came down to the broken pin underneath the mantelpiece, which could only have been left there by a blind, Bolivian sailor, and how foolish you were for not spotting this immediately. I think I’d find this less infuriating if Holmes’ condescension wasn’t immediately followed up with concrete game mechanics. After the denouement, the game gives you a breakdown of the locations Holmes visited and your score is then calculated as follows: for answering a series of questions about the basic facts of the crime, you can earn up to a 100 points. This is essentially Holmes’ score. You then lose 5 points for every every location you visited in excess of those that Holmes visited. By way of compensation, you can gain a small number of extra points by answering secondary questions that aren’t really related to the main case.
Basically, it’s impossible to beat Holmes and very difficult to come anywhere near his performance. I recently watched a review of this game at Shut Up and Sit down (my favourite board game reviewing site) and the reviewer there said his score for the first case was minus 65. This means that if you view the scoring system as in any way meaningful he would actually have been better off going to Holmes immediately and admitting he had no idea who the killer was. This would have left him with a score of zero. Heck, he could have just guessed at random and probably come out with something in the 30s. Now I admit that I’m taking a sightly facetious example here but it highlights the fundamental absurdity of the scoring system. If a game is going to use points to measure outcomes, desirable outcomes should score more points than undesirable outcomes and the problem with the scoring system in Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective is that the opposite is very much true.
The fun thing about the game is that you get to explore this complex, richly detailed fictional scenario. But you only get the most out of that in terms of engagement with the content if, to the best of your ability, you go everywhere and talk to everyone. Very often the game will come to a point at which you are pretty sure you’ve got the nuts and bolts sorted out, but there will be other nagging questions that you’re either worried about or legitimately interested in. In one scenario, we knew that somebody was being drugged with laudanum and decided to visit every chemist in London because the game would allow you to do that and it felt like the kind of thing a detective should do—not, I will admit, a Holmesian detective, but the game is very clear that you aren’t Holmes, you’re the people who do Holmes’ gruntwork. Had we been keeping score, our score would have tanked. But we didn’t want to deny ourselves the experience of trying it and seeing what happened just avoid losing a few points from a meaningless number.
On a minor and slightly more technical note, keeping track of every location you visit is not only a needless faff, it is only when you finish the first scenario and have the scoring system explained to you in detail that it becomes clear that this is necessary. The core rules do mention that you are supposed to keep track of the number of leads you follow but it’s not immediately clear what that means.
Long story short: I honestly feel the game is improved if you simply ignore the scoring system. Fortunately, this is easily done.
Problem 2: Momentum
I should stress that this is very much an issue of personal preference, and partially one of self-discipline. I notice, for example that the folks at SU&SD feel the game has excellent pacing. My experience, however, has consistently been that the game is excellently paced for about the first two thirds, pretty well paced for the next sixth and then just kind of peters out into a “we’re not sure who to talk to now so we should probably go back to Holmes, then” situation. In the spirit of fairness, I do actually think this is partly to do with the mindset my friends and I go into the game with. And, ironically, partially a consequence of our choosing to play without scoring. We take a very completionist approach and, as a result, we usually run down every lead and check out the mysterious JM clues in the paper because, as intimated above, we care more about Easter Eggs than points at the end. But the obvious consequence of this is that we don’t stop until we’ve exhausted all the leads and that naturally winds up with our stopping point feeling a bit … meh.
I think part of the problem is that we consistently look for confirmation of our suspicions, which is entirely unHolmesian and perhaps strangely contrary to the spirit of the game. Holmes is a quintessentially Victorian detective who declares from his position of straight white male privilege that a certain thing is so and the world itself lacks the strength to deny him. So all the time my friends and I spend looking for actual evidence to support our beliefs might be a bit outside the scope of the game.
To put it another way, it comes down to the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning I talked about earlier. In a game of Cluedo you probably won’t risk making an accusation unless you know for certain the identities of the murderer, weapon and crime scene. And because Cluedo uses deductive logic you can know these things for certain. In Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, however, you’re often left with situations more like: the snake that bit the victim was from India, this suspect has recently come back from India. That is pretty much the definition of circumstantial evidence but it’s often all the game gives you.
And, again to be fair, I suspect it’s also all real life gives real detectives as well. I think, on some level, I find the endgame difficult because I keep expecting to have a scene where we confront a suspect, and they crack, and do evil voice, like in that Mitchell and Webb sketch. Basically, I think the way you’re supposed to play the game is to go and see Holmes the moment you have some idea who might have done it, accepting you might be wrong about some stuff.
Problem Number 3: Tricky genre assumptions
One of the things that the SU&SD review of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective called out as awesome was the way everyone gets to bring their own expertise to the table. So, as they put it, you’ll have one person bringing their knowledge about psychology and one person bringing their knowledge about the size of boats, and one person speculating about how old you could be and still make it over a 10ft wall. I agree with this to an extent but, of course, it falls down slightly where I’m concerned because my area of expertise is sort of … as … well … a writer.
Again, this is probably quite a personal issue but I find it very hard to tell whether I’m supposed to be asking questions like “could a sixty year old man have made it over that wall” or “is how easy is it to get lions to do things” or whether I’m supposed to asking myself “would someone write a story in which a sixty year old man climbed over a ten foot wall” or “would you write a story in which you could get a lion to do that.” This is especially problematic for me because I know the game was written in a Holmesian mode and Holmes stories quite often include elements that would be implausible in real life—although, less often than you might think and one of the things I like about early (that is to say pre-Final Problem Holmes) is its surprisingly down-to-earth attitude to crime.
I felt this issue particularly in the famously confusing and not terribly well regarded third scenario. I’m going to put this in an accordion so people who want to play this scenario don’t get spoilered. There won’t be very much detail about the scenario but I know people are sensitive about this kind of thing.
So, anyway, Scenario 3 is called the Mystified Murderess and sees you investigating the case of a young woman who was found standing over a man’s body with a gun in her hand, firmly believing herself to have killed him. It becomes clear fairly early on that there is probably some kind of hypnosis involved at some stage and this leads to all kinds of difficult questions. Both I and my equally nerdy friends found ourselves slightly paralysed with uncertainty about whether we were supposed to be thinking about this in terms of what you could realistically hypnotise a person into doing (not really that much, actually) or what you could hypnotise a person into doing if you lived in a sort of Victorian melodrama (basically anything up to and including murder and suicide). This made it basically impossible to tell whether hypnosis was an obvious red herring or obviously the right answer because it was definitely one or the other, depending on which genre we were in.
Problem Number 4: You can only play it ten times
I mention this so that nobody gets a nasty surprise. Because the way the game works is that you explore these unique scenarios to find out information to solve the mystery you can no more play the same scenario twice than you can read the same mystery novel twice and still not know who the killer is. I mean, you could try aiming for a more optimal path but then you’d be like Mr Data in that one episode of Star Trek where he jumps straight to the ending because he’s already the story.
Now personally I have zero problem with a game you can only play ten times. It might say unpleasant things about my lifestyle or my tendencies towards conspicuous consumption but I’m pretty sure that I do, in fact, own quite a lot of board games that I’ve only played once or twice. And even if there are some that I’ve played more often, we don’t have to compare like with like here. A copy of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective will set you back about £25 and while, yes, I’ve bought games for that much money that I’ve played dozens of times, I’ve also bought pizzas for that much money that I’ve eaten precisely once. As hours of entertainment per unit of currency go, a copy of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective is still pretty damn good value.
Certainly it’s better than another game I own which you can only play once.
So that’s the end of my epically long thoughts on Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. It’s basically great, it lets you really feel like you’re taking part in a Sherlock Holmes story which is exactly what I want from that kind of game, and you can play it with literally any number of people. Of particular note, it works perfectly well with one and is really nice with two, if it’s the sort of thing you both like doing, and this puts it in quite an exclusive category of games that work for couples.
If you made it through this with your brain in one piece congratulations. Watch this space for more of my rambling and incoherent thoughts on board games.