Friday, December 16, 2005

The Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective series

I don't remember exactly when Iain Cheyne first came to my attention, but it must have been nearly 2 years ago. His blog was one of the first boardgame blogs that I discovered. His blog was also one of the most frequently updated blogs and that was always appreciated.

Iain has been blogging since before blogging was cool. I believe Iain even had a blog before his current one, but I am not personally familiar with that endeavor. Iain was much more than helpful to me when I was just starting to blog. He offered some helpful advice about posting pictures to my blog (which was giving me fits at the time) and generally seems like a nice guy. He even sent me a bunch of RSS links when I was getting my RSS thingy up and running.

Thank you Iain, and the rest of you enjoy. CF

First of all, thanks to Koldfoot for honouring me with an invitation here. Rather than talk about games in general, I thought I'd go into detail about a series of games The Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective series. I rank the original game as one of my only perfect 10's, but the series is rarely discussed and this sort of game is not published any more, so I think they deserve a little more limelight.

Rather than being a deduction game like Sleuth or Zendo, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective is a detective game. You are put in the position of one of Sherlock Holmes' helpers, the Baker Street Irregulars, and given a case to solve, usually in parallel with Sherlock himself. You are given a set of clues:

  • a long list of crime fighting contacts, like Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard or Porky Shinwell, an underworld informer.
  • a map of Victorian London
  • a newspaper archive
  • a London directory, full of peoples' names and addresses.

After poring over them, you get a book of disconnected paragraphs, rather like the Fighting Fantasy choose-your-own-adventure books of the early eighties and you go forth and try to solve the crime, typically a murder, in the shortest possible number of steps. Once you think you all think you have solved the crime, you finish reading and someone reads out the solution. Sherlock then explains how he solved the murder, typically in a quarter of your time and you marvel at his brilliance and your own stupidity.

What marks these games out is the attention to thematic detail. The writing, clues and graphic design are all very evocative. The language is very close to Conan Doyle's. It is as close a hybrid between gaming and literature as you will ever find. These are the perfect games to play with people who love literature, but are less keen on games themselves. The strength of the theme and the free-form mechanics make it feel like a role-playing game with the work taken out. You still have to think hard and take notes to solve the problems, but at least you do not spend your whole time looking up rules or role-playing.

The original game had two modes of play, either competitive, reading the paragraphs in silence and racing to the solution, or collaborative, reading the paragraphs together and discussing the solution. I much prefer collaboration, as it moves more quickly and it is an excellent way for people to get together. In later expansions, the competitive mode was dropped. Because of this, the game suits less competitive gamers but also might alienate the opposite. It is definitely the best team game I have played as a real story comes out of it. I would much rather play this with a few friends than organise a Murder Mystery dinner.

This is also the best solitaire game I have ever played. If you ever enjoyed Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, you will love this.

Replayability is a problem. After playing a case, it is finished for you. On the other hand, several of these games were published and I am nowhere near exhausting the gameplay in them:

  • Queen's Park Affair - a stand-alone supplement. This is actually one huge case and my wife and brother ran out of stamina pretty quickly. I recommend you play this solo or only with a dedicated group. I really wanted to like this as I grew up about a mile off the map you see below, and you can almost see my workplace at the western end of the map. I will have to finish this solo sometime.
  • West End Adventures - a stand-along supplement. It includes a set of cases like the
    original game. I thought some of the details were less authentic, like a few stray Americanisms that jarred a little. Otherwise, it is just as good and it has my favourite box cover.
At least one of the 5 cases in this game requires that you've not only played the original, but that you remember details from some of its cases clearly. This was very disappointing to my group, as it not only made it impossible for us to solve that case, but it also spoiled a case from the original game before we got to it. I recommend that you only play this game if you've already played and finished Consulting Detective.
  • Gumshoe - The same system ported to the 1940's Los Angeles of Raymond Chandler. I have not played it, but the components are amazing, even more detailed than the previous games. There are mug shots, autopsy reports, fingerprints, a lavish map and the regular telephone directory etc.

Other companies made paragraph based boardgames, but these are the only ones I have.

I asked my wife for her comments. She said the number of false leads the players were given irritated her, but she says she will still play it with me. I agree there are false leads, but that is what makes the game challenging and makes it feel authentic. It is certainly the hardest game I have been able to persuade her to play with me more than once. She was put off by our Queen's Park Affair debacle. I hope I can persuade her to try a shorter case again, so she can remember what she enjoyed in it the first times.

She also pointed out that the amount of data you are presented with is overwhelming. That is realistic as you are trying to solve the mystery in as lifelike a way as possible, but these games do not hold your hand. This is intimidating for the first game or two, but becomes easier with experience as the cast of characters, map and telephone directories stay the same.

A couple of years ago, Chessex had them in stock, and the original is very available on eBay and at the BoardGameGeek marketplace. I highly recommend you pick up a copy if you want an original, challenging gaming experience.

As a final note, if you're really stuck about whodunnit, think of the most unlikely person it could be...

The images in this post were taken from the BoardGameGeek and are used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial 1.0 licence.


Alfred said...

Welcome aboard, Iain!

These are among my favorites, too--great games, especially for solo gamers...

Anonymous said...

I agree that this series is brilliant.

The Queen's Park Affair and Mansion Murders were also released as expansions. (That is, you needed the base game to play them.)

Pawnstar said...

Encouraging stuff; I've owned SH:CD for years and never played it. Maybe it's about time.

Sleuth Publications had some sort of connection with the local game shop of my youth, Games of Liverpool, and it is their address which appears in the game, if I remember.

The fellow who ran that shop has recently opened another game shop a few blocks away from where the original was, and though the shop part is a bit smaller he seems to be doing alright. I must pop in when I'm visiting the family.

Anyway, he told me something about how they were agents for the company over here, but I can't remember if they held responsibility for the worldwide distribution or just UK. Sorry I don't remember the details, and I apologise if I have misrepresented anyone or anything here.

Melissa said...

Like fellonmyhead, I've owned Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective for years (20 or so) and have never played it. I also have the Mansion Murders expansion.

We're about to start packing for a holiday, with very limited space in the car. These might be just the thing for us to take away with us.

Thanks for the inspiration!

Anonymous said...

Great series, though the later expansions were much harder to work through than the base game.

Gumshoe, with it's great bits, and location (I live in the Bay Area, and all the action takes place around SF) seemed like a sure fire hit, but it is the least cohesive, and absolutely requires that you work on multiple cases at once. It appears to have a number of individual cases, but it is actually closer to the mega-cases of Queen's park.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this thread and for keeping it online. This is a great reference for this game and the expansions. I have the original and am trying to hunt down all the expansions. I never realized the difference between the expansions, and your experience playing them is helpful. Keep up the great work!!