Cobbled streets lit by gas lamps, narrow alleyways stalked by shadowy figures, rattling hansom cabs and fog blowing in the night. The gothic image of Victorian London. I’m a big fan of mysteries and crime fiction, with some of my favourite stories of all being the Sherlock Holmes canon penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle back in the 19th century. Recently converted into a modern-day drama by the BBC, the stories of Holmes and Watson continue to endure and excite audiences as much as they did when they were first published. Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective puts you in the middle of these stories, challenging you to match wits with the master detective himself and solve crimes.
Several games have tried to recreate the sense of mystery and deduction of a good thriller, but none have come so close as Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. Although largely a kind of interactive fiction rather than a “board game” in the traditional sense, it deserves a place in any murder-mystery lover’s collection. The game originally came out in 1981 and won a prestigious Spiel Des Jahres award in 1985, leading to an expansion the following year and then, largely, 30 years of being forgotten. The game has recently been picked up and reprinted by Ystari Games.
There are 10 cases to solve in SH:CD, each of which tells a unique story with a mystery that has to be solved. Most of these involve an impossible murder of some sort that has got Scotland Yard baffled with a client approaching Holmes for help. The players take on the role of the Baker St Irregulars, street urchins who appear in the original novels that act as the eyes and ears for Sherlock Holmes himself across London. Rather than be given a specific task to complete as the Irregulars would have been, the players are left to solve the entire mystery themselves and, at the end, compare their solution to that of Holmes. It can either be played as one cooperative group, or players can pursue their own solutions. Given the large amount of reading involved, I would highly recommend the group option. In theory the game can be played by a single player, but that would turn it into an expensive gamebook – most of the fun of the game is in working out the case and deciding what to do together.
A game of SH:CD does not involve a “board” as such, but several components which must be used together to solve the case. The core of the case is the Casebook, which contains all of the narrative for players to uncover. Players start by reading the introduction out loud, which will set the scene and immediately suggest some lines of enquiry. There is a map of London, simplified, which shows hundreds of potential locations to visit. There are newspapers accompanying each case and the all-important London Directory. Players pursue lines of enquiry by announcing what it is they wish to investigate – the scene of the crime, a particular witness, an ally, a venue of significance – and look them up in the London Directory. This then tells players which numbered paragraph to visit in the Casebook, rather like the Choose Your Own Adventure stories of the 1980s. The players then read out what they find, note any new lines of enquiry, then carry on their investigation. Information can sometimes be cross-referenced in the newspapers (a prominent heiress lost a diamond ring? Perhaps she put an advert in the paper with an address in it?) including ones from past cases. Cleverly, much of what is in the newspaper is of little interest, but the flavour text is authentic throughout. A relevant clue might be tucked away in the Personal section, or perhaps in a back-page article. The newspapers are brilliant props and made to look like the real thing, albeit only a couple of pages in length to keep them manageable. Articles that are irrelevant in one case might contain important clues for another. Location information can be gleaned from the map – would it really take someone 30 minutes to walk from Oxford Street to Charing Cross Road? If Mr. Parkinson was seen coming from the west, could he have really been visiting the jeweller? The aim is then to produce a complete solution to the case in as few steps as possible.
The cases are detailed and often difficult to solve. There is no spoon-feeding here, and players will really have to think – logically and laterally – to make progress in an investigation. The game is not linear or “on rails” and the next steps are rarely signposted for you. There are red herrings aplenty and several “clues” that will throw you off the scent or distract you from the main investigation. Passing comments and little details can become suddenly relevant – perhaps the location of an item, the clothing of a suspect – so easy to overlook first time around. This gives a great sense of achievement when making a breakthrough. Cross-referencing and corroborating stories gives a real feeling of deduction and solution. You will need to keep notes as you go along as the amount of information in any given case is huge. Sometimes these clues can be a bit ambitious, with leaps of logic required in a couple of cases and sometimes seemingly downright impossible conclusions to draw from the available information, but on the whole the cases are well-planned and solvable with the text provided.
The game concludes when you have a solution to the case. There is no turn limit and you can, if you wish, pursue every single clue in the case – many of which will be irrelevant or dead-ends. It is almost impossible to beat Holmes’ “score” as the game reveals to you how “he” solved the case, usually in only 4 or 5 clues. Trying to beat Holmes feels counter-intuitive to me. It encourages you to try and solve the case as quickly as possible, but in order to beat his score, you’ll miss out on loads of the wonderfully-written narrative in the case. Each case can only be played through once; after the solution is known, there is no point playing any further which severely limits replayability. Why, then, would a player want to lessen this by only reading a handful of paragraphs of narrative in order to “beat” Holmes?
In order to address the issues of replayability, Ystari have recently released an expansion pack, Jack the Ripper & West End Adventures, and have a further one in development for later in 2017. JtR features authentic news clippings and illustrations from the Police News of the time. There are also fan-made scenarios available for download online. In theory, so long as someone is prepared to put in the time and effort with writing all the narrative, there is no reason why SH:CD couldn’t be infinitely expandable with the core set as more of a “toolkit” for future modules, with new casebooks, directories and newspapers.
As a “game”, SH:CD doesn’t work terribly well. There isn’t really a board, there are no meeples smoking pipes and no dice rolling. The game’s scoring system is its weakest aspect and terribly unsatisfying. However, if SH:CD is approached as an interactive experience to be shared with a group of like-minded friends more akin to an RPG, then it excels. No other game comes close in trying to recreate that sense of deduction and crime-solving. If you have ever dreamed of being the start detective in your own crime drama, SH:CD might just be the closest you ever come to it.