In The Games Corner – Board Games Edition – Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective

Type: Co-operative
Players: 1-8
Time: 90 minutes? Depends how you play, but I’d call it feature-length.
Age: 13+
Size: Needs to go in a bag.

Someone I’ve played Sherlock with regularly describes it as ‘barely a game’, and I know what he means. That said, there are two ways you can play this nearly non-game. Let me explain what it is first, then I’ll explain that.

You’re playing to solve a mystery, of which there are ten in the original game (two expansion sets are available) and, while that may not sound like much, I’d be surprised if you wanted to do more than one in a night. (That’s not a negative comment.)

With each case there’s a casebook, and each of those opens with an introduction for one person to read and set the scene. The scene is usually 221B and, as you hear about the Terrible Thing, Lestrade will be acting like an idiot and Holmes will be putting him down from his customary position of smug superiority. The players (that’s you) represent his ‘Baker Street irregulars’ and, once the introduction is read, you all decide where you want to go – be it the crime scene, the morgue, theatre, pub, hotel, gunsmiths or pharmacy or wherever else is mentioned in the intro. Each of the places that are relevant to the case have their own entry in the casebook, sort of like a choose your own adventure. Eventually you’ll have read and deduced enough to have a stab at answering the questions in the back of the book, and then test your score against Holmes, who has usually won by visiting about three locations – which is very efficient of him, but doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.

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Which brings me onto the two ways to play. You can be super organised and divide your efforts, so one person scours the accompanying newspapers for clues (occasionally this is VERY important), think about how distances on the map factor into the cases (usually less important), study the history of the time, etc, OR you can play it in a more relaxed fashion and detach yourself from the impossible aim of matching Sherlock’s score – and choose instead to fully immerse yourself in the world the game creates.

And oh boy does this game do that. Essentially Sherlock is the act of reading a fractured story to each other, then trying to decide as a team how and why the bits fit together. If you’re a fan of sandbox computer games then it’s a bit like a paper version of that and, at its best, the more cleverly constructed sections really make you feel like a world is coming alive and happening around you. It’s quite thrilling. Some cases loosely connect to each other too, and steadily build a wider sense of the period. There’s usually an ‘aha’ moment partway through each case in which it all suddenly starts to make sense. And that’s really fun as a team, when one person makes that leap of logic and you all turn to look at them like they’re a genius. (Note: this person is rarely me, and I still really like that moment.)

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Now, there’s only one real negative to this game, and that’s how it presents women and other races. Women are invariably introduced through comment on their attractiveness (or not) and the johnny foreigners are rampant stereotypes: the Chinese skulk and look suspicious in their opium dens, the Irish are all red-faced drunks, etc. Some people will laugh at this, others will find it problematic. It’s a product both of the source material and that the game was originally written in the 1980s.

That aside, I thoroughly recommend Sherlock – I’ve had many fun evenings down its dark and winding alleyways.

(Note: There’s another detective game by the same people, called Gumshoe, that I’d love to see re-released. You can pick it up on eBay but it’s pricey.)

For improvisers: Ooh what a lot of fun you can have with this one. Apart from making strong choices when playing all the characters (attempt the accents at your peril), there’s the whole story building element. Early on in a case, the game presents you with several potential narratives toward a resolution, and choosing between them feels similar to identifying the path that a scene or a show might take. And it’s a cooperative effort, so there’s that team thing again.

 

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