One of my favourite games in recent years is Her Story. It’s more of a puzzle than a game, really; you’re trying to uncover the truth of what happened in a crime via a database of short video interviews with the suspect. The only way you can access a given video is by searching for a word that appears in its transcript and hoping it appears in the results; and to prevent you from just searching for the word “is”, the database will only show the top few search results. This means that the only way to find all the videos is by carefully listening to the interviews and noting down unique names or places or things.
Her Story is wholly linear – it would be nonsense to determine the outcome given its premise – and there’s no way to fail. Instead, it’s a tightly written and carefully crafted puzzle that demands and rewards close attention and engagement with the videos. If you play the game, make sure you have a notebook to hand.
Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective (SHCD) is basically Her Story: The Board Game. You solve a series of cases by interviewing people; and because this is a wholly analogue board game, the interviews are written down in a book, so it’s more like you’re reading interviews. In another curious parallel with Her Story, the main way you identify people to interview is by looking up their names in a directory (like a search index!), such that you need to pay close attention and take notes. Similarly, there’s only one correct solution to each case. There is a nominally a score based on how many people you interviewed before solving the case (the fewer the better) but most people don’t bother keeping track, and I encourage you to follow their example.
SHCD has an extraordinary reputation in the board game world. It’s ranked 65th on BoardGameGeek, on par with classics like Dominion, Codenames, Battlestar Galactica, and Pandemic; it’s by far the oldest game in the top 200; and yet it barely even qualifies as a board game! What, then, accounts for its popularity? As far as I can tell, the reasons are:
- Strong theming: SHCD is thoroughly drenched in Sherlockian lore, from the main cast to the most minor bystanders. The newspapers that accompany each case, the copious dialogue, the intricate map of London – they’re impeccably designed, at least in the modern edition. So whether you’re an ardent fan or merely an occasional TV watcher, you won’t find this game lacking.
- Novel (and good) game mechanics: I’ve never seen SHCD’s game mechanics – interviewing and ‘searching’ a directory for new leads – in anything other than Her Story, which was itself celebrated for its unique game design. But novelty alone isn’t enough; there are plenty of weird games out there, and some of them are really enjoyable, but only a few of those have mechanics that are as instantly understandable as SHCD’s.
- Not enough narrative puzzle games: There are surprisingly few good long-form narrative puzzles available, by which I mean multi-step mysteries with a solution. There are plenty of brainteasers and the like, but not so many that have actual stories and can be enjoyed over the course of an evening. That said, if there were more good ones out there, we’d realise just how bad some of SHCD’s puzzles are.
- People who dislike SHCD do not finish it: Each case in SHCD takes a couple of hours to solve, and I imagine most players are unwilling to pronounce a definitive opinion unless they’ve completed all ten cases. Consequently, there’s a selection bias amongst reviewers towards those who enjoyed it enough to play for a good twenty hours.
In case you hadn’t guessed, I didn’t like the puzzles in SHCD, which is a serious problem because the game is fundamentally all about guessing rather than solving (yes, I said it)
Even after pursuing every lead, visiting every location, and interviewing every suspect and witness, it’s very common to end a case with multiple plausible and even probable explanations for the mystery, in which case you’re at a loss as to which one you’re meant to pick. There are a few exceptions, like Case 2. This is one of the community’s favourites, and I’m pretty sure it’s because it’s the one that provides the most solid evidence in the game. By the end, you feel confident you have the answer, not merely an answer.
When it comes to narrative puzzle games, I don’t expect perfection or anything close to it. Having designed several alternate reality games and hundreds of puzzles, I know full well that you can’t predict how players will approach them, especially with lots of clues and red herrings. But when you have multiple reprints of a game that was originally made in 1981 – almost forty years ago – including multiple reprints of the English language edition, it’s baffling that there are still massive problems with several of the cases.
Take Case 3, for example. After an frustrating evening trying to solve this mystery, followed by an equally frustrating ‘solution’ presented by the fictional Sherlock (you are merely his hapless sidekick, dispatched to tackle the case independently), I discovered that this case has been broken for literally decades. Despite multiple attempted fixes to the narrative, including swapping the identity of the murderer, it remains a fundamentally broken and nonsensical story requiring massive leaps of logic, with plenty of posters on BoardGameGeek feeling the same way. Quite why the designers didn’t just cut their losses and write a new case, I’m not sure.
The problem continues, with Pieter on BGG describing the problem with Case 4:
As per usual, Holmes was leaping to conclusions based on very circumstantial evidence. While we came to the same conclusions as Holmes, our mindset was more like “Yes, that could be a possible explanation, but there is no real proof. It is all suspicion. It is clear why the lions were killed, and it is also very clear that Barry O’Neill was in cahoots with the person who did it, and it might very well have been Thomas O’Neill as they are brothers and he was in the neighborhood. But all of that is definitely not sufficient evidence to clearly pinpoint Thomas as the killer. Can’t we find more? Can we talk to Thomas? Can we link Thomas to the case in a stronger way than just saying that he is the brother and he is a thief and he was in Europe?”
Still, considering how the previous cases were constructed, we knew that when a story can be told that fits all the facts, for Holmes that is enough to assume that that is actually what happened.
Opinions may differ, but I feel that a satisfying solution to a mystery should not merely be plausible, it should be exclusive. In other words, the mystery should not have multiple plausible solutions – at least, not given a consideration of all the evidence. I can make exceptions for TV shows and movies where the action moves so fast that you don’t mind the occasionally leap in logic, but I’m not willing to extend that leniency to puzzle games.
SHCD commits an additional sin in a later cases that involve actual puzzles – Caesar ciphers and such – that got me very excited until their convoluted nature collapses in on themselves. Don’t even talk to me about the Bridge House Hotel problem.
We all imagine that we could solve a mystery through deduction alone, just like Sherlock Holmes does, so it’s no wonder that SHCD – an exquisitely-themed game with unique mechanics – has dazzled players and reviewers. What I don’t understand is why reviewers, including Shut Up and Sit Down, claim that SHCD wants to “provide you with a level, fair playing field”.
I’m aware this sounds like sour grapes from someone who wasn’t able to solve the puzzles. Trust me – I know I’m not good at solving puzzles (as it happens, I think that makes me good at setting them). But I do know when a puzzle’s solution is unfair, in that players could not reasonably be expected to have arrived at it given the evidence. The fact that this happens in most of the cases in the game, and that there are countless BoardGameGeek posts describing the same frustrations again and again, indicates this is not a trivial problem. It’s a major flaw riven through the very heart of the game.
People are in love with the idea of being Sherlock Holmes, of lying on the carpet with a cocktail in one hand mentally wrestling a mystery to the ground. And in SHCD, the thrill of the chase is real. The challenge of puzzling the clues together is real. The pleasure in acting as a detective is real. But it’s all for naught when the solutions are broken.
The world’s greatest detective deserves much better.
If you insist on playing the game despite all my warnings, here are some tips:
- Buy the Space Cowboys edition, which has the nicest materials and the fewest errors (Amazon UK, Amazon US).
- 2-3 players are best. Any more and you’ll get frustrated by having to pass the gamebooks around too much.
- Set a two hour time-limit to solve each case. If you don’t have it by then, you’ll just get more annoyed. For some cases, 90 minutes is enough.