Review: Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective

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Length

Release Date

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Designer: Raymond Edwards, Suzanne Goldberg, Gary Grady
Artist: Arnaud Demaegd
Publisher: Asmodee, Space Cowboys
Category: Deduction, Storytelling
Players: 1-8
Price: $44.00 Amazon.com

Content Guide

In keeping with its theme, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective deals with crimes, usually murders, that the players work to solve. The theme is pretty tame, but there are infrequent references to taverns, opium dens, etc. The narratives occasionally include minor profanity, and there is also at least one reference to Holmes’ cocaine usage. The game is very true to the Sherlock Holmes lore, so if players are okay with the source material, this game should be fine.

Review

Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective is like no other game I’ve played. It’s hard to even call it a game, because it’s really more of an activity. First released in 1981, it won many awards, including the prestigious Spiel des Jahres in 1985. In the current renaissance of board games, designers are pushing the envelope of what’s possible, and this means a lot of older games are being pushed aside as gamers clamor for the shiniest new titles. Despite being almost forty years old, Sherlock Holmes is just as popular as ever.

Lots of folks think of Arkham Horror as the first major cooperative game, but Sherlock Holmes has six years on it (1987 vs. 1981). In this game, you play as the Baker Street Irregulars, working together to solve ten unique cases. Supposedly, the goal of the game is to solve the cases quicker/better than Sherlock, but I’ll discuss that in more detail later.

The components in Sherlock Holmes are really cool, but really different. The game has no board, no dice, no cards, no tokens, no meeples, and no tiles. At this point, I’m making it sound like it is just an empty box, but it’s so far from that. Instead of traditional pieces, the box contains ten case books, each with a self-contained mystery for you to solve. True to the Sherlock Holmes theme, each case comes with the corresponding day’s newspaper, which will give clues and hints to aid you in solving the crime. The game also contains a map of London, divided into five areas, and the London directory—basically the Yellow Pages of the game. It just occurred to me that some of you might be too young to know what the Yellow Pages are…I need a moment to process that.

So yeah, that’s the whole game. Books, newspapers, a map, and a phonebook—I feel like I’m doing an awesome job selling you on this.—but there is so much within these meager components.

Sherlock Holmes creates an incredibly immersive narrative. The cases are basically “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories. Players begin by reading the introduction to the case, in which they’ll learn about the crime and gather a few clues and leads to follow. From there, they simply go wherever they want and do whatever they wish.

This is where the London map and directory come into play. The map is divided into five geographical sections, and the cases will include many names and places that correspond to the map. For example, Sherlock himself is located at 42 NW, meaning the famous 221B Baker Street is location #42, in the northwest area of the map. The relative geography to other places may or may not matter, depending upon the case. As an example of play, if players wish to visit Mr. Cumberba… er, Holmes, they simply flip to the entry for “42 NW” in the case book. There, they’ll read what they find at that location and continue on to somewhere else.

Players visit locations until they feel they have a handle on the who/what/where/when/why of the case. At that time, they can decide to solve the puzzle. In the back of the case book, the players will be asked a series of questions about the case. They will then read the solution, as well as the way Sherlock came to it. Their final score is determined based on how many of these questions they get correct and how many locations they visited, as compared with Sherlock.

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Sherlock Holmes is challenging to review because the meat of the game lies within the story, and I don’t want to spoil anything. I will try to sum up my thoughts in the most spoiler-free terms possible.

First, there is a lot of game in this box. Each case will take you two to four hours, so you can expect somewhere around thirty hours of gameplay in total. That being said, this is one of those “consumable” games, where, once you’ve played through the campaign, there’s not much replay value. You’ll know the answers, so there won’t be much incentive to go back through it again. However, I could see someone revisiting the game after a few years, once they’ve forgotten the solutions.

As for the cases themselves, some are better than others, but they’re all fun and engaging. Do note, though, that this game is HARD. The cases are full of red herrings, side stories, cryptic clues, and false leads. Sherlock Holmes asks you to keep track of a great deal of information, and as someone who struggles with reading comprehension, it was challenging for me at times to keep straight twenty different characters’ names and stories. If you decide to try this one out, you’ll need to take notes. Lots and lots and LOTS of notes. This game really asks players to get into the mindset of a detective. And speaking of detectives, let’s talk about Sherlock himself.

[Warning: The following section contains very slight spoilers. I won’t give anything major away, but if you want absolutely no spoilers whatsoever, skip to the “End spoilers” tag.]

As I mentioned above, the supposed objective of this game is to solve the case better/more efficiently than the master detective. All I can say is good luck with that; it’s pretty much impossible. Sherlock makes some major, perhaps unreasonable leaps in logic when solving the cases. He usually solves the case by visiting six to eight locations, which is ridiculous. As a comparison, I don’t think we solved any case with less than twenty, and we still didn’t always know the answers to all his questions.

Additionally, the questions at the end of the case are split into two sections: questions about the main case and questions about the side cases. In some of the cases, Holmes himself wouldn’t know the answers to some of the secondary questions, based on where he went and who he spoke to. I guess this makes sense because Holmes would be too brilliant to follow any irrelevant leads, but still…

[End spoilers]

I suppose that, thematically, the objective of besting the master makes sense, but it feels like it’s not in the spirit of the game. Being a story game, the fun comes from, well, the story. It comes from piecing together the narrative, following leads, talking to characters, and trying to solve a crazy puzzle. In order to get the full experience of the game, you’ll want to do everything there is to do, which seems like a counterpoint to the written goal. It’s as if the game wants you to play it as little as possible. If you try to play it like this, I think you’ll be disappointed. It’s my advice, and the advice of just about every reviewer who has written about this game, that you should ignore the listed objective and just play the game. Immerse yourself in the story. Solve the case at your own speed. Have fun. This game is a rich experience, and you’ll only be able to play each case once, so don’t rush through it.

sheh03_cluesAt the end of each game, you compare your score to Sherlock, who always scores one hundred points. You get points by answering questions correctly, but then lose points if you visited more locations than Sherlock. The highest score our group got was forty. Forty measly points, compared to Sherlock’s hundred. That’s like an F-minus. As I said, this game is hard. Or maybe we were just painfully bad at it. But I’m going to go with “it’s hard.”

Playing this game makes you feel like you’re stepping into an actual Sherlock Holmes story. Further marrying mechanics and theme, the rulebook includes a long list of friends and allies in London whom you can visit for help, most or all of whom are right out of the source material, including characters like Mycroft Holmes and Inspector Lestrade. Some cases will feature callbacks to earlier cases, and you’ll sense the presence of Moriarty throughout the whole story. You’ll feel brilliant, frustrated, excited, and stumped, all in one game session. It’s really engaging.

The end of the campaign leaves a little something to be desired, though. Don’t get me wrong, the last case is good, great even, it’s just not the epic finale I had hoped for. I won’t spoil anything, but my game group felt like the campaign didn’t end with the bang we wanted after thirty-plus hours of investment. Instead of a climactic conclusion, the campaign just ends with a normal case, nothing too special. While the overall experience was fulfilling, and the last case did have some nice twists, I would have liked to have seen more of a crescendo to the game. I wanted to feel like there was more at stake at the end of the experience, like it was really the culmination of a long campaign.

Thanks to the recent reprinted editions, this game is widely available, and, due to its nature as a one-and-done game, it’s fairly easy to acquire used. I bought the Ystari edition new a few years ago, and I think it was worth every penny. When we finished the game, I was happy to pass it onto someone else and let them have a crack at it. If you decide to try Sherlock Holmes, I have some suggestions:

1) Play it regularly (our group did weekly), so things stay fresh in your mind.

2) Play with the same group each session.

3) Don’t play with more than four players.

Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective is the most free-form game I’ve ever experienced. If you’re a fan of Tales of the Arabian Nights, I highly recommend trying this one as well. It has very little structure or direction, which can be a refreshing break from the increasingly rules-heavy games being made today. It’s not linear at all; you just do what you want, for as long as you want, and then see how you did. I really like this style of game, but naturally, I can see some folks not liking it. I know a lot of gamers who want defined objectives, a known endgame, and a rigid rules set. To those folks, I’d say stick to other games. But if you like rich narrative experiences, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective will deliver that in spades. It’s simply a marvel of game design. There are unexpected twists and turns, surprises, puzzles that require out of the box thinking, funny situations, and light-bulb moments where everything falls into place. This game is really something else. I can see why it remains an evergreen after all these years.

[As a side note, the Ystari edition I played had some language translation issues, but I understand that the newest version fixed them. I hope to play the Jack the Ripper and West End Adventures cases soon.]

The Bottom Line

 

Author: Stephen Hall

A bard pretending to be a cleric. Possibly a Cylon, too. I was there when they dug up the "E.T." cartridges.