Letters from Whitechapel
London, 1888. The specter of Jack the Ripper has the dimly-lit streets of the Whitechapel district in a frenzy. The police work day and night to investigate and apprehend him. Will they be able to capture the murderer before he claims his next victim?
Designers: Gabriele Mari, Gianluca Santopietro
Artist: Gianluca Santopietro
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Category: Deduction, Hidden Movement
Price: $47.99 Amazon
Letters from Whitechapel deals with some intense subject matter. Being a game about Jack the Ripper, themes of murder and prostitution permeate the experience. The graphic design of the board features blood spatters, and the game makes references to Jack’s letters describing his crimes, including his so-called “From Hell” letter. The person playing Jack the Ripper selects victims to kill each round. The victims are not specifically referred to as protitutes, but rather “The Wretched.” The historical background included, though not necessary to the game, provides a detailed timeline of the Ripper murders. All of this is somewhat abstracted, but it’s challenging nonetheless.
I’ll never forget my first game of Letters from Whitechapel.
It was a nail-biter from start to finish as my friend (Jack the Ripper) was barely keeping one step ahead of us (the police). I remember the game came down to its bitter end as we narrowed his hideout down to two possible spots. The way our policemen were positioned we could barricade one location or the other, but not both. We had to go all in on one. We didn’t know which to choose, and both seemed equally likely. As we deliberated among each other, the Jack player was visibly perspiring under the pressure of the situation, the last two hours hanging in the balance. Essentially the game came down to a fifty-fifty decision, so we opted to let fate decide.
“Heads, we block this space, tails, we block that space.”
Letters from Whitechapel is a one-versus-all game in which one player takes on the role of Jack the Ripper, and everyone else takes on the role of the police who seek to catch him. The game is played over four Nights (rounds), in each of which Jack must commit a murder and return to his hideout, a previously-selected space on a board of about two hundred spaces. In a sort of cat-and-mouse fashion, the Jack player moves in secret, writing down his movements on a hidden piece of paper. The police travel around the board trying to determine where Jack and his hideout are by following a trail of clues. Each turn, the police may ask Jack if he has visited certain spaces that Night, and if he has, the police get clue markers on those spaces. Using these clues, they try to recreate Jack’s movements, and ultimately catch him to win the game. Jack wins if he evades the police all four Nights.
After that crazy first game, Whitechapel shot to the top of my “want to buy” list. I reasoned any game that could create this kind of experience and elicit that level of emotional investment had to be doing something right. Once I acquired it and played through several more rounds, I was disappointed to realize that the game was maybe not as good as I had initially thought. Let me explain.
In my many rounds of Whitechapel, I have come to believe that the fun of the game hinges on it following an approximate formula:
- In Night one, the police should determine which half of the board contains Jack’s hideout.
- In Night two, the police should figure out which quarter of the board contains the hideout.
- In Night three, the police should narrow it down to a small area within that quadrant.
- In Night four, the police should go for the win, either by staking out his hideout so it’s inaccessible, or by arresting him.
My theory is if the game follows this pattern, it will almost always be a success. Players will really feel like detectives chasing a murderer. Each night, they will be armed with new knowledge to use, and Jack will continually feel the stress of having the police right on top of him. Games like this are the kind you’ll remember for years (as I can attest).
And then there are the games that don’t go so well, usually in Jack’s favor. If, in Night one, the police don’t get many clues, that’s a bad omen for the overall fun of the game. I have played games in which we were only able to track Jack’s first three or four moves in Night one, and they didn’t even follow a distinct direction. Basically, at the end of the first Night, we had little more information than we started with. Now, you might be thinking, “It sounds like you just weren’t playing the police well,” but I’m not sure that’s the case. We were spreading out to cover the most ground, but Jack, naturally, was staying as far away from us as possible, thus giving minimal clues. By the time we found anything, he was already almost to his hideout.
If the police fall behind like this, Whitechapel can become frustrating for them, and un-fun for both sides. The police can start to feel like they’re on a wild goose chase, hoping to find a random clue through dumb luck, and Jack may not feel any pressure, because he is so far ahead of them. It’s very unexciting is it when the questioning phase goes:
“Have you been here?”
“How about here?”
And so on and so on for ten more times. If the police repeatedly get no clues, the game starts to feel pointless.
In my experience, if Whitechapel doesn’t follow the trajectory laid out above, it falls flat. This is, of course, a huge problem.
First, it’s usually in Jack’s best interest to make his hideout close to a red space (a possible murder site, from which he can begin his movement) so he can quickly get there on the fourth night to win the game. This makes strategic sense. However, it’s really unsatisfying when Jack wins immediately at the start of Night four, because he kills right next to his hideout and then just waltzes in there before the police get to act. Sure, the police can try to strategize accordingly, but there is often little they can do to prevent this. (I’ve played with the house rule that Jack’s hideout must be at least two spaces from a red space, so the police have at least one turn. This doesn’t fix the problem entirely, but it makes it a little better.)
Second, I wish there was a way for police to learn if Jack has been to a particular location more than once in a night. The way the game works, if they ask if Jack has been to space X so far this Night, it’s simply a “yes” or “no” answer. Either he has or he hasn’t. So suppose that, on a previous turn, the police learned that Jack had been to space X. On a later turn, if a policeman is next to space X, he knows he won’t gain any new information by asking about that space. He’s already established that Jack has been there, so he knows the answer will be “yes,” regardless of how many times Jack was there. I would love to see a system in which they can gain additional clues if Jack has returned to a particular space in the same Night. For example, if the police find a clue on space X on the third turn, and Jack zig-zags back to X on the seventh turn like the weasel he is, it would be very telling if the police got a second clue by asking about X again later. This would help with the overall deduction, and it would be totally thematic as well.
Whitechapel exists in a unique binary: it’s either amazing or disappointing. It has the capacity to be tense and exciting or tedious and frustrating, and usually, the first night will be an indicator of which it will be. I mentioned before how each successive night, the police have new information gathered on the previous night to use in their search. This is critical, and if said information is not found, the game swings in a detrimental way. I’ve heard the phrase, “the rich get richer” used to describe runaway leader issues in euro games. I’d say that principle applies here as well; if the police don’t find many valuable clues, there becomes sort of a “Jack gets richer” problem.
Looking back to that first game I played, I realize that, fortuitously, it followed my formula perfectly. It was a dramatic game all the way through, but this is not always the case. I could easily see someone having the opposite experience where their first game is two grueling hours of playing Go Fish with Jack, only leaving feeling like they’ve wasted their time.
I’m not sure either of these experiences are an accurate representation of Whitechapel. Or perhaps they both are. This game can go either way. There are subtleties to playing both sides, and the game provides lots of opportunity for clever plays. With that said, these subtleties only tend to manifest themselves if the game is close. Once the detectives have Jack’s scent, they can make some meaningful deductions based on what they know in an effort to out think and perhaps even arrest him early. On the other hand, Jack hears their table talk, so he gets clued in on their strategy and works to counteract it. It’s a nice push and pull. Jack has lots of potential for trickery, such as doubling back, moving in a roundabout way to mislead his opponents, and using special movement abilities to make the police think he is somewhere he’s not. There really is a good deal of psychological “game” here. It just doesn’t always show.
It should go without saying that the theme of Whitechapel is intense. Though abstracted somewhat, it deals with issues of murder and prostitution, there’s no way around it. However, I feel that Fantasy Flight Games succeeded at implementing a difficult theme in a respectful way. It’s not over-the-top or explicit. It’s clear that a great deal of historical research went into making the game. The overall aesthetic has an appropriate late-nineteenth century feel, which really lends itself to thematic immersion. The rule book includes background information on the events of the Ripper murders, and the character tiles given to police players feature daguerreotype-style images of the actual police involved in the case. The game is dark, but tasteful.
I would definitely say this is a “try before you buy” game, more specifically, a “try multiple times before you buy” game, as your experiences may vary from session to session. If you like games like Scotland Yard, Specter Ops, or Fury of Dracula, Letters from Whitechapel is one you’ll probably enjoy. A full game lasts an hour and a half to two hours, and it tends to work better at lower players counts. (A lot of folks prefer Whitechapel as a two-player affair, because there is no table talk for Jack to hear. It becomes a much more chess-like battle of wits. I personally like the table talk, so I usually play with three or four.)
Letters from Whitechapel is hit-or-miss. In my game group, we usually agree beforehand that, if the game stops being fun, we can call it early, conceding the game as necessary. Some folks might not be okay with this, and that’s fine.
All in all, Whitechapel is an interesting deduction game. It does a lot of things well, but it has some substantial issues. I recommend it, with some caveats, for folks who enjoy games with rich themes, as well as fans of Scotland Yard-style hidden movement games. If these are not your thing, or if the game’s dark subject matter concerns you, this might be one to pass on.
+ Good implementation of theme
+ Jack has room for clever movements
+ When the game goes well, it's amazing
+ Nice bluffing element when placing pieces at the start of each night
+ Historical accuracy helps immerse players
- Can become frustrating for police players and feel like a lost cause
- Rules as written give Jack a huge advantage on Night 4
- Can drag a bit with AP-prone players
- Theme may be troubling to some