05th Jul2017

‘Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective – The Thames Murders and Other Cases’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

Introduction

As I’ve grown older, one of my most enlightening realizations has been that there is just as much – if not more – opportunity to find inspiration from the past, as well as the present or future. For me, this is especially true of music and film, but it has never occurred to me to consider trying board games that predate my birth. Obviously I’m excluding more common games like Chess, Draughts and even Risk from this sweeping approach, but still, that means I am missing out on a huge range of games.

Enter the snappily named Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective – The Thames Murders and Other Cases (aka SH:CD for the remainder of this review.) This innovative interactive experience was first released in 1981, and has now been repackaged and rereleased for modern gamers, most of whom are clamouring for new and interesting ways to play their games. The question is, can a relatively modest effort from almost forty years ago deliver the goods in a market that has never been more saturated? Let’s find out.

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Game Components and Rules

SH:CD is undoubtedly a tabletop experience, but it isn’t a board game in the traditional sense. Instead, the heavyweight cardboard box contains a map of London with an accompanying directory of names and places, a rule book, ten numbered case books and ten matching newspapers. These components support any number of players, but I found that anything over five was a bit less enjoyable because the natural flow of discussing each clue becomes ever more disjointed by different opinions and voices.

Every individual document is well made from high quality paper, with a period printing style that helps to create a feeling of immersion in the game world. The main errors and issues raised in the original 1981 release have been ironed out, and I can’t say I found any material or even notable spelling errors. One minor issue I did find was that the game structure can throw up some oddities, but I’ll cover them a bit later on. SH:CD is in incredibly simple, straightforward game, and there is barely a need for a rule book when it comes to the order of play. Things do become more complex in the scoring element, but even that is relatively straightforward to follow through step by step.

What is probably most worthy of closer scrutiny about SH:CD is the quality of the creating writing, as that makes up about ninety nine percent of the games content. I don’t know if I can say that the writing in SH:CD is a good as that of Conan Doyle himself, but I am satisfied that it is better than it is in most board games, and at least as good as it is in contemporary crime novels that are set in historic times and places such as that of Holmes’ Victorian era London.

Game Structure

SH:CD prescribes a simple turn based structure, whereby each player takes it in turns to decide which location, suspect or clue to investigate, and duly does so, ultimately reading out text relating to that specific clue from the casebook, if it exists. All players share the common objective of solving one or more crimes which are described in an opening page or two of text, so in every game I played, this formal turn structure rapidly became incredibly fluid, with the only important factor (for scoring) being to record each location we visited.

No matter who is doing the bulk of the reading, or leading the group, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective is best when everyone is discussing clues from the last bit of text, or weighing up the pros and cons of visiting one location over another. Each body of text contains several clues, any number of which may be placed to misdirect or mislead. Assuming the active player decides to follow up a lead, they must use one or more of the game map, the directory and sometimes the newspaper to learn the correct number for the passage of text in the casebook. They then seek it out and read the words aloud for the benefit of the group.

Should the investigators get stuck, then there are ten “known associates” of Holmes that can provide a lead in almost any case. These associates include the likes of police officers, forensics experts, criminals and carriage operators. Their relevance varies dramatically on a case by case basis, but it’s not rocket science to figure out who might be useful. Similarly, the directory features a number of locations that might be useful in a given case depending on its nature, such as embassies.

The game ends whenever the players decide that they have enough evidence to answer whatever questions Holmes’ may have about the case. Usually, you’ll need a decent idea who committed the crimes described at the beginning of the case, and most times you’ll need to understand the motive and the method. Scoring is achieved by adding up points earned through correct answers, and then subtracting five points for each location visited beyond the number that Holmes himself visited in solving the crime. Holmes always scores 100 points, and it is not unusual for player scores to range from minus numbers through to just over 100, but make no mistake, beating Holmes is hard.

Game Experience

SH:CD is the kind of game that works best with a group of like minded individuals who each want to tackle the case in question as one big puzzle that must be worked through and resolved logically. Solving cases is generally quite achievable, but doing so with a higher score than Holmes is much harder, and it pays dividends to explain to everyone that visiting fewer locations is better. Being drawn into a wild goose chase can be really costly, so it pays to investigate only the clues that everyone agrees will be most valuable.

Regardless of whether you win or lose though, with the right crew, SH:CD is lots of fun. Since the game arrived I’ve completed six of the ten missions. Three played in person with friends and family, two on my own and finally, one via webcam, which is entirely possible if both players have a copy of the game. I’ve never beaten Holmes (although I came close,) but I feel as if I will be in with a good chance of doing so in the remaining missions because I now understand that in this game, less is most certainly more when it comes to picking your investigation targets.

Finally, on a related note, SH:CD really is only good for ten games, as that is how many cases are included in the base game and once you know the answer to each case, replayability is limited. That said, there is another game in the series (Jack the Ripper & West End Adventures) and I feel like any understanding gained here will likely transfer over. As for value for money; to me, ten really fun evenings with friends or playing solo is more than enough to validate the relatively modest price of admission.

On a slightly negative note, I did occasionally find that text in the case books didn’t match my reason for arriving at a particular location, and as a result I had to piece together names and faces that were unknown to me. This was usually because I had tackled clues in an illogical order, and of course the developers can only allow for so much of that whilst still writing specific specific and useful passages of text.

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Conclusion

In conclusion, I think Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective – The Thames Murders and Other Cases is a fantastic and unusual addition to any games collection. If you’re the kind of player that has an irregular group of gaming friends, or if you want to casually introduce a the idea of gaming to non-gaming friends over a glass of wine and a cheeseboard, then this is the game for you.

This game asks very little in terms of cost, complexity or time commitment, but once underway, it draws players in with excellent text, interesting mechanics and attractive and unusual components. Flicking through a newspaper from the 19th Century whilst your pals ponder the relevance of each informant results in genuine, heartfelt teamwork, and as a result everyone succeeds or fails together. Also, on a serious note, this is the first tabletop game I’ve played solo without feeling like a complete lemon, and it certainly beats a crossword. With these things in mind, I really have no reservations in recommending Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective – The Thames Murders and Other Cases very highly.

**** 4/5
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You can buy Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective – The Thames Murders and Other Cases online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator.

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