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Published: Sunday May 4, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday May 5, 2014 MYT 6:43:58 PM

Novel Games - Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective review

Elementary, dear player: Roam the seedy streets of Victorian London with the great Sherlock Holmes as you try to beat him at his own game.

Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective
Players: 1-6
Publisher: Ystari Games

LET’S get one thing clear: if you come to Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective (SHCD) expecting a mystery board game like Cluedo or Scotland Yard, you’re in for a bit of a shock. For while there certainly is a cracking good mystery almost worthy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at the centre of each game, playing SHCD is more akin to reading those old Choose Your Own Adventure books – not only are you required to do a fair amount of reading, but each lead you follow or clue you sniff out will set you on a different path around Victorian London.

If, however, you like the idea of immersing yourself in Holmes’ world, and enjoy having a literary bent to your games, you may just find yourself thoroughly intrigued by SHCD.

NO CAPTION, ETC OUT AND PLACE CLOSE TO COUPON ON THE PAGE

The game puts its players in the shoes of the Baker Street Irregulars, the ragtag gang of street youths that, in Doyle’s novels, assist Holmes in solving his cases (no, you do not get to be the great detective himself!). In each round, the players are presented with a case file – with names Watson would be proud of, like The Mystified Murderess and The Cryptic Corpse – outlining a crime and the circumstances surrounding it.

From there, the players are free to decide which leads they’d like to follow in their quest to solve the mystery. To help you along with this, you are given several items: a map of 19th-century London, a directory of people and places in the city, and copies of The Times newspaper that correspond with the dates of the case files. The aim of the game? To unravel the mystery with the same number of leads (or fewer!) as Holmes does.

As you may have deduced, this isn’t a board game in the traditional sense, as there are no dice, cards or even a board. Instead, it is a game that relies on logical thinking, attention to detail, imagination and problem-solving abilities; or if all else fails, your ability to cook up outlandish, soap-operatic conspiracy theories in the wild hope that you may somehow hit upon the solution (our first attempt at the game resulted in a convoluted solution involving a tawdry affair, a murdering sociopath and a spy in disguise!).

A typical round may go something like this. One of the players reads out the case, and the next player decides which lead she’d like to follow based on the information at hand. This could mean looking up a particular address in the London directory, investigating a relevant piece from that day’s newspaper, interviewing a suspect, or visiting a specific location on the map. The lead you decide on will correspond to an entry within the case file, which you read out, and which will then give you more clues to follow. So now, it is the next player’s turn to decide on a lead.

The game is quite flexible in that players can either compete against each other or try to solve the mystery as a team. It is also entirely possible to play solo by simply pitting yourself against Holmes.

Each time we played the game, however, we ended up working as a team to solve the mystery, discussing which leads to follow next and working out the clues together. This may have something to do with the group dynamic, or it might simply be that the mystery at hand was too juicy not to discuss!

When enough leads have been followed for a player (or all the players) to take a stab at solving the mystery, they turn to the back of the case file where there are two sets of questions to answer: the first are directly related to the case, and the second are about peripheral events that occur around the same time.

Each correct answer gives you a certain number of points, but you also lose points for every lead that exceeds the total number taken by Holmes. The closer your points are to Holmes’, who always scores a perfect 100, the better. (If a player attempts to answer the questions and is wrong, though, he or she is out of the game.)

Dynamic duo: Basil Rathbone (right) as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr Watson in the 1939 movie adaptation of The Hound Of The Baskervilles. This was Rathbone and Bruce’s first appearance as the detective and his faithful sidekick; the movie was an unexpected hit and the pair went on to star in 14 Holmes films together, becoming the most popular movie versions of the literary characters.

Now, before you run out and buy your deerstalker hat and pipe, let me just tell you this: you are probably not going to beat Holmes. In fact, you are probably not going to come even close. Actually, you are probably going to follow an embarrassing number of dead end leads and unearth about half a dozen red herrings before you even come close to solving the mystery. Because in this game, like in the novels, Holmes is a smug, self-satisfied genius who makes deductions seemingly out of thin air – it all makes sense when the answer is revealed, but you’d never have made the connections yourself.

Nevertheless, like reading a good mystery, the enjoyment of SHCD is as much in the journey to the end as the end itself. The amount of thought and research put into creating this game is impressive, and make each case come alive for the players. The case files, written in witty Victorian English that closely mimics Doyle’s style, are great fun to read out loud. And the daily newspapers not only provide valuable clues but also provide fascinating insight into life in Britain at that time.

It is a pity that such a painstakingly detailed game falls short somewhat in the presentation department. The map of London, for instance, is printed on thin, glossy paper that is more than likely to rip after a few games. And the case files have a fair number of typos, which can be jarring while you’re reading aloud. It would also be useful to have some extra elements to make the game more playable, such as tokens to mark important locations on the map.

Players should bear in mind that the game only comes with 10 case files, so once you’ve solved all the mysteries, that’s pretty much it – while expansion packs were previously available, there are no plans yet to reprint them.

SHCD may also not appeal to players with a competitive streak, or those who prefer their games to have a clearly defined winner or loser. To those, however, who enjoy the idea of trawling through “the great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained”, imaginary notebook in hand, eliminating the impossible in search of the truth (however improbable it may be) – well, then, the game is afoot!

Review copy of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective was provided by Imagine Games.

To get into the mood for this game, watch this trailer for Season 3 of British TV series Sherlock.

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Novel Games, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, board games

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