Wait! Read the intro to the Playing Detective series first!
Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective by Raymond Edwards, Suzanne Goldberg and Gary Grady
Sleuth Publications, 1981 / Ystari Games, 2012
The Facts of the Case:
Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective (henceforth referred to as SHCD) is one of my favorite games. It hails from a time when Paragraph Books roamed the Earth, a glorious era that saw gamers flipping back and forth looking up numbers and short sections of text, losing their place in the book, and pretending that they didn’t just accidentally read the next paragraph, because hey I’m here and why not and hey look at that and DAMMIT I JUST SPOILED THE SOLUTION.
(Side Note: Paragraph books. Ask your parents, kids.)
It’s a terrific game. Except it’s not really a game. Except it sort of is. Half game, half jigsaw puzzle, and half short story collection, it’s a game that’s been around since the early eighties, and with a single exception we’ll talk about a bit further down, there’s never been anything like it since.
(Side Note: At least, if there is, I’ve not been able to find anything like it. You’ll know if I ever do, because you’ll be able to hear my whooping leaps of joy from the next continent over.)
(Additional Side Note: I remember mystery jigsaw puzzles being inexplicably hugely popular in the ’90s. Are mystery jigsaw puzzles still a thing? I did one once, and all I remember is that it was a one-sheet story, the boring puzzle was a picture of the front right fender of a car smashed against a rock, and the solution was something I couldn’t see on the assembled puzzle anyway.)
It’s a board game with no board, a puzzle with no picture to guide you.
It’s as if someone wrote a bunch of Holmes stories, then instead of publishing them, they just cut up all the paragraphs, threw them in a hat, then challenged you to reassemble them in the right order. Oh, and they burned the ending, which you’ll have to figure out yourself.
The Game’s Afoot…Just as Soon as We Ditch This Scoring System!
The idea is that you’re Wiggins, that erstwhile scamp leader of the Baker Street Irregulars, and over the course of ten cases, you’ll prowl the taverns, courts, boarding houses, opium dens, and embassies (!) of London trying to ferret out the truth behind crimes that often times seem impenetrable even when you’re convinced you know all the answers.
(Side Note: You will never, ever, know all the answers. At least not until you read them in the Solutions guide.)
Each case starts with a brief introduction scene–sometimes a page or two, sometimes merely a paragraph, because occasionally ol’ Sherlock is a passive-aggressive jerk–and then turns you loose to find the solution. And when I say “turns you loose,: I mean literally–you’re on your own from there.
Armed only with a map of London, the London directory, some old newspapers and a list of potential places to get clues, you’ll conduct your investigation with nothing more than your wits and a paper and pencil. You’re free to decide where to go, which places to follow up on, and what’s worth investigating.
The way the game is “supposed” to work is that you take turns visiting locations by looking up their address, then turning to that address in the paragraph book and reading the clues, make whatever notes you need, and do this turn after turn. When you think you know whodunnit (and you won’t, not entirely), you’re challenged to answer several questions about the case and other ‘side’ events that you may or may not have stumbled upon in the course of your inquiry.
(Side Note: Yes. Side missions. In a paragraph game!)
At the end, there’s a scoring system, which awards points for questions answered correctly and doing it in the least number of turns possible.
My advice to you is to forget the scoring and the turns entirely, because they’re rubbish.
Because this is a game that begs you figure it out, and if you’re concerned about getting to a solution as fast as possible, you’re gonna miss seeing the forest for the trees.
And sister, what a forest this is.
The writing is acceptable Doyle-style Victorian London, doing the scene setting and character building as much as can be done in what’s usually a few paragraphs at a time. And that’s good, and expected. A few sarcastic remarks are thrown in here and there, which occasionally offer some comic relief.
But it’s in the plots that the engine lies, and in the way they’ve crafted a game that is purely deduction-based. And not the Clue-type deduction, where you’re just whittling down the possibilities from a finite number of combinations. I mean straight-up-honest-to-God-Deduction-With-A-Capital-D, where you have to figure out the plot and what happened based on whatever clues you managed to come across.
Which means you’re literally a detective here, sorting through the scraps and making connections and thinking logically and extrapolating and making leaps of intuition, and all that. It’s a solve-it-yourself mystery that pulls no punches and gives no quarter.
At best, you’ll glean a clue or two from the reproduction newspapers included with the game–and these might be my favorite components of any game, ever. They’re period recreations that will often contain a clue or two to open up a new avenue of investigation, but they’re even more fun just to get you in the mood of the game and read about the latest Parliamentary arguments for Irish independence, or the visit of the German attaché, or those damn colonials at it again over on the Subcontinent. Oh, and by the way, there was yet another diamond heist in Holland! The newspapers are brilliant in the way they seamlessly provide narrative and useful gameplay, and I love them to pieces.
(Side Note: The best part is that the cases in SHCD take place in chronological order. This allows for cases to have callbacks to prior ones, and you’ll sometimes need to go back and read the newspaper from another case months ago (or even refer to the details of the past case) to figure out what’s going on in your current case! So basically, SHCD has a narrative campaign mode.)
(Additional Side Note: Seriously. Campaign mode in a paragraph game! SHCD, y’all.)
It’s impossible to overstate the amount of work that must have gone into writing each of the ten cases, plotting them out, then spreading the clues out in a way that can be solved. That said, then, it’s not surprising that there can be a bit of dead-ending if you’re not quite sharp enough to make the occasional leap of logic. It’s entirely possible you’ll find yourself frustrated and not knowing where to go.
But here’s the thing: those moments where you’re unsure of what to do and can’t make sense of the information you’ve discovered? That’s when you start the actual gameplay. That’s where SHCD wants you to be the detective and figure it out. That’s the sign that, like any good sleuth, you need to go back over the facts and rearrange them again and turn each one over to see if anything new pops up or fits in a way you hadn’t thought of before.
And the brilliance is that it encourages you to go away for a bit and have a good think. Take a walk. Do something else. Let the facts steep for a while until you think of something that fits the facts, or an unexplained hole in the case, or a thread to follow up on, or a location that might logically be involved. And those A-Ha! moments? I’ve never had anything else like them in boardgaming, ever.
It Is a Capital Mistake to Sequelize before One Has Data:
After the success of the original ten cases, there were three or four expansions, some themed around a central story, that provided exactly the same gameplay with new stories. There was also a private eye-themed version of the system called Gumshoe, which was intended to be SHCD in the world of Dashiell Hammett’s noir-soaked San Francisco.
It was…less than successful.
First off, the cluebook was riddled with bugs–paragraph events that didn’t fire properly, couldn’t be found, or led nowhere. Unfortunately, when you don’t know what the completed puzzle is supposed to look like, missing pieces are twice as frustrating. There was errata published, which mitigated some of this, but still, it made for some unfair moments.
Second, Gumshoe tried to add a time dimension to the game that was supposed to add some urgency and a sense of a living, breathing world to the paragraphs. Now, each location you visited took X number of minutes, and you had to keep track of what time of day it was throughout your investigation. In theory, it was supposed to immerse you even further in the world by having to wait until, say, 9:00 PM to corner a suspect at the bar; if you went to that location any earlier, the suspect might not be present. Any later and you’d have missed him. In practice, the time-specific paragraphs just made you second-guess every single location you visited and really removed the charm of SHCD’s “sit back and let the grey cells work” approach to solving the mystery. Plus, because a lot of paragraphs are keyed to the time you visit them, you can’t just chuck the whole time nonsense and ignore it. I get what they were going for, but it didn’t quite hit the mark.
Third, the SHCD cases–although elements of some persist and figure into other cases–are all fairly self-contained; you can solve a case’s primary solution without having played any of the other cases. Gumshoe, on the other hand, pretty much requires you to wait on solving some cases until you’ve played through the entire string of “days.” So you’ll finish Day 1 and think, “I’ve gotten literally nowhere on this,” then go read the solution and wonder how in the hell you were supposed to know to investigate the racetrack. Turns out the “right” way to play Gumshoe is to play through the entire scenario set, then answer the questions. Which means you have to be juggling multiple cases across multiple days, and under the added time pressure, no less. Also, the game never actually tells you this. What should have been a slam-dunk theming of the SHCD system turned into a frantic, soggy mess of loose ends, unfulfilled expectations, and confusing plots. Very noir, that, but not much fun.
(Side Note: That said, I think Gumshoe does a couple of things better than SHCD. For one, you’re the actual detective–a not-so-subtle clone of Hammett’s Continental Op–instead of Holmes’ lackey that he hands extra work to because he can’t be bothered to work the case himself or pull his nose out of the cocaine for half a minute. Also, the writing is generally better, and the “feelies”–props included with the game–are next-level stuff: fingerprint files, coroner reports, newspapers, maps, phone directory.)
So, if you can find a cheap 2nd edition of Gumshoe on the aftermarket (and a copy of the errata), it’s worth playing through just to see where the series was trying to go. Noir fans who liked SHCD will like it in spite of the flaws.
When a Deduction Game Goes Wrong, It Is the First of Criminals:
While most of the cases are pretty diabolical to solve, there are a couple that will leave you scratching your head, wondering how on Earth a human being was supposed to divine the answer. A careful reading of the paper and Holmes’ clues will usually bridge that gap, but still. It’s entirely possible you might not take it in stride, declare the game unfair, and throw it in the fireplace.
(Side Note: Do not throw this game in the fireplace.)
Also, some of the writing is…well, let’s just say I’m not sure I remember Wiggins and his troupe of hobo children being invited into embassies, arms factories, or given audience with the president of the Bank of London. So sometimes, the strings holding up your disbelief begin to fray a bit at the ends. Necessary for gameplay purposes, but it stands out a bit more when you realize that the Russian envoy to England is basically divulging state secrets to the Artful Dodger in his living room.
Also also, the game also can occasionally suffer from the freedom it grants–go to one location before another, and you might stumble onto a scene that comes out of nowhere because the authors assume you’ve visited a prior location first. This doesn’t happen a lot–it’s pretty rare, all things considered–but it does throw you for a loop.
Next–and I cannot stress this enough–do not play this game if you don’t like taking notes. You will need to take notes. Your notes are the only game pieces, really. Again, I warn you: people who hate taking notes need not apply. Full stop.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out that since the both games are entirely plot-driven and narrative heavy, replayability is virtually nil unless you have a bad memory or go a long time between plays. Such was always the Achilles heel of the paragraph-driven game, and it’s no different with these two.
Whenever You Have Eliminated the Impossible, Whatever Remains, However Improbable, Is a Full Motion Video Game:
The original ten cases from SHCD were also made into full-motion video games for PC, Mac and Sega CD. Each “volume” took three cases and added a terrible user interface, apocalyptically bad acting, and frustrating guess-the-right-answer-from-these-choices solutions. One of these even made it to iOS systems in modern times! Don’t buy it. It’s terrible, unless you have a soft spot like I do for full motion video games in all their glory, which is an addiction you’ll hear more about later in this series.
(Side Note: I know what you’re thinking: “Mystery board games AND full motion video as niche passions? You, sir, must have a full dance card EVERY Saturday night!” Alas.)
There Is Nothing like First-Hand Evidence:
To this day, SHCD and Gumshoe are the only detective games I’ve ever played that let me actually do the detecting. SHCD is such a remarkable experience that I recommend it to virtually anyone with a modicum of smarts and who loves a good mental challenge. Play it with a group of friends or alone in an easy chair–it’s just as fun either way. You’ll wonder why you ever thought Clue was a detective game, and scoff at every “solve-it-yourself” book you see on the shelf.
5 of 5 meerschaum pipes for SHCD, 2 of 5 bent fedoras for Gumshoe. We’ll probably never see their like again–it’s just a hell of a lot of work to write, plot, and design a paragraph game, much less individual cases with the level of detail, immersiveness, and freedom that these games have. Which is a shame, because I would rip out my own teeth for this system with, say, an Agatha Christie or John le Carré milieu. (Heck, I’d do that just for a less annoying v2.0 of Gumshoe, frankly.) That said, if you’re the least bit interested in Holmes, mysteries, or intellectual puzzles that require a lot of lateral thinking, I can’t recommend Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective highly enough. A classic that won’t ever leave my shelf.
Where to Get It: SHCD has mercifully been reprinted by Ystari Games and just had another printing released. The new version has made some slight adjustments to a few of the original cases–mostly bug fixes and a couple of plot changes, but nothing major. The expansions are still out of print (and ridiculously expensive on the used market for the most part), so hopefully Ystari gets those done as well. Gumshoe is also long out of print, but you can usually find a copy on eBay or the BoardGameGeek market with some dedicated searching.