Year Published: 1981 (2014)
Designer: Raymond Edwards, Suzanne Goldberg, Gary Grady
Playtime: 60-120 minutes
One Sentence Synopsis: My friends and I’ll show you! Ya smug bast…
I play a lot of games. A lot. Don’t get me wrong, it’s never nearly enough, but I try to sit down at least twice a week for 5+ hours each time and dig into numerous titles. As a result, regardless of what new game I’m playing I can usually reduce the learning curve and make a good showing of things by finding a previously played game to relate it to; it’s rare I come across something that is so dissimilar to most everything else out there that it provides a whole new experience for me. And yet, that’s exactly the feeling I got when cracking open Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective and finishing my first case: I felt like I had actually gotten to experience something totally new- like the first time you try a delicious, completely unfamiliar foreign food, or that feeling you got when you were just getting into the hobby and sat down for your first worker placement game.
Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective isn’t so much a game as it is a structured platform for discussion- a brain tease that exercises your mind in the best way possible. Its rules are minimal, only stipulating that you don’t cheat by looking in places you aren’t supposed to until you’ve committed to them, and that you hold yourself accountable when the time comes. You can realistically play with as many people as you want and take as long as you require, but the end goal is always the same in each of the ten included cases: solve the mystery, and do it better than Mr. Holmes.
Anyone familiar with Holmes will know his stories always end with the famed detective offering his smug explanation of how he arrived at his conclusions, which of course seem perfectly logical, simple, and obvious once he’s explained them. “Well, clearly,” you’ll say, or “How could I have missed that, it was so obvious,” and so it is with Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, right down to the explanation Holmes offers at the end of each case’s booklet which will take your ego down a few notches regardless of how well you think you did up until that point.
You, see the trick in Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective isn’t just to solve each case, but to do it by visiting as few places in the city as possible. You’re aiming for Holmes’s perfect total of 100 points, usually divided between four or five questions presented at the end of each case, but to do so would require the savant investigative skills of the Victorian classic: Holmes generally only visits a few venues, and anyplace you investigate over the number Holmes did will reduce your final score by five points. To compensate, extra questions are included about other capers you might have encountered during the course of your own investigation, giving the possibility of generating an additional 100 points if you really paid attention to the ancillary details. It’s a nice bonus-points system that helps make up for the brutally difficult task of achieving 100 points, keeps everyone’s minds engaged and looking for those minuscule clues that may swing the final points in your favor, and adds to their overall engrossment with the theme and flavor.
The same basic tools are at your disposal for each case: a booklet that includes a brief, thematic introduction to the case and all of the corresponding passages for places you might want to visit; a partitioned map of London that numbers each and every building; a corresponding Directory with names and stores matching locations on the map; and a 2-sided, over-sized newspaper sheet from the morning of each case that includes information about the current goings-on in the city. And that’s it. No pieces, no board, and in some instances quite literally once sentence to go off of.
The lack of direction can be daunting, and there’s one case in particular I read the introduction for and literally everyone in the group said “Wait…that’s it?” Don’t expect hand-holding (though visiting Holmes’s brother Mycroft may set you on the right path if you’re completely stumped or feel like you’ve veered off course) unless it’s from your teammates, who are your sole support network in figuring out the mysteries laid before you. The game is technically playable solo, but that completely defeats the purpose: you’re meant to talk it out. That is the game: bouncing ideas off of one another trying to figure out which place might be the best to visit next, or when confronted with multiple plausible options determining which is the least likely to pile on negative points. Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective may not always give you the direct guidance or smoking gun you’re seeking (interviews you thought would give you information may come up empty), and in some cases it can be downright cryptic so you’ll have to sit and ponder whether you’ve missed something, misinterpreted some information, or maybe even come back and approach the entire case from a different perspective. Be ready to backtrack, re-think, and take some risks based on deductive reasoning and speculation.
The newspapers can be helpful, as can careful re-readings of a case’s introduction, but there are all sorts of little tidbits you’ll find that might have something to do with the case, but really don’t, and here-in lies the genius of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: the game feeds you information and your mind creates the possibilities, pitfalls and all. You and your group are literally generating the twists and turns of the game as you play, and because of that no two groups will ever experience a case in the same way. A newspaper article you determined was innocuous thematic information and not worth pursuing may have struck a chord with another group and sent them on an hour-long trek across five additional locations, only to come up empty handed and having to double-back on their logic. Or maybe that group’s gambit paid off and the time spent “wasted” turns out to help them answer 60 points worth of bonus questions you can’t answer. Knowing those possibilities exist will keep you on your toes for each-and-every case, and keep you second guessing yourselves at every turn.
As with any campaign not all scenarios are created equal, and there are certainly some cases I was way more excited about or invested in than others. There’s really something for everyone here, though, ranging from cases with conflicting international intrigue mixed with love affairs where you’re not quite sure which angle could have provided the motive, to familial power struggles with lions, circus-folk, and hypnotism. There’s at least one scenario, however, that received a pretty bad translation from the French original and the resulting case book entries and final logic may be confusing. Some great fans have taken up fixing those issues, and you can find and print the few pages of changes for Case 3 here.
Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective is also obviously something you have to have the right group for. Get a bunch of people together who don’t mesh well, have no imagination, or who don’t talk, and you’re not going to have a very productive or pleasant experience. Experience is the keyword here, because you’re not really sitting down for a game, and as such you should play with people you like to have discussions with, not necessarily people you like to play games with. Furthermore, while it’s not a requirement your group should probably consist at least partially of people who participated in previous cases. It’s not essential, but it makes certain mysteries easier to solve if players can remember details from past sessions. Worst-case scenario keep the newspapers from the last couple of cases handy just so people who weren’t involved can have a little additional context.
As stimulating as the game is, knowing the results of cases means there’s no replay value, and that may be off-putting to some audiences. I’m not fully through all ten cases, but I can already see myself wanting more once they’re done (come on fan community!) Still, I’ve found each case takes between one and two hours unless you’re really having trouble making decisions about where you want to go, or have a group that has read so much Sherlock they can solve complex crimes in their sleep. At a minimum I’m looking at 20 hours worth of playtime for my group, and at a price of entry around $30-$40 that’s still great value for money when you consider you can play with as many people as you feel comfortable including in a discussion. Unlike Legacy-style games you can also re-sell Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective once you’re through- you can technically write in the booklets, but a sheet of scratch paper for each scenario will make sure the game’s components stay unmolested, and at the end of your consulting career you’ll have a relatively untouched game to pass on to a new group.
COG Takeaway: Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective is really unlike anything I’ve experienced before. It’s more a collection of ten structured, 2-hour brain teasers than a game in any traditional sense, but it’s something I’d encourage you to go out on a limb and try if you like logic puzzles and have a group you enjoy having reasoned discussions with. I can’t stress enough, however, that this is one of those games where your enjoyment is definitely tied to the group dynamic, and that once you’ve solved the included cases it’s not something you can replay. On the upside none of the components are destroyed or permanently changed like in a Legacy game so you can find your copy a new home at the end, and its discussion-based nature makes it ideal for skyping in old friends and long distance players to round out your cadre of amateur detectives.
Can’t get enough Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective? A LOVECRAFTIAN game with similar gameplay is coming soon! Arkham Investigator
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