We Can Stop Digging, Watson
Awhile ago, I reviewed Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. Well, if you hadn’t enough of my complaining about the original game, my family and I have finally gotten through the expansion Jack the Ripper and West End Adventures.
If you want a short, sweet summary of the experience: it’s worse than the first. Which is quite a feat considering how sour my family was towards the original game.
But if you haven’t read my prior review and you want more than “it sucked” then buckle up because I have a lot of thoughts about the experience.
First, a quick rundown of what Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective is. The game is quite different from your normal tabletop games. This is an (ostensibly) detective game about solving a crime by listening to descriptions or testimonies at various places and by a revolving cast of characters. The idea is pretty neat and certainly something that would be up my mystery obsessed family’s alley. The conceit is that you’re a member of Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars. These rapscallion street urchins are known for running tasks for Holmes but in the game you’re promoted to assistant consulting detectives and are given the same premise to the mystery as Holmes before being set loose into the streets of London to come up with your own explanation for how and why the crime took place.
And, more often than not, you’ll come to a better conclusion than Holmes. But more about that later.
The only tools you have available to solve the case is a map of London with various locations demarcated with a number, a directory, a list of Sherlock Holmes’ famous allies, the newspaper for the day and the case book which contains the meat of the adventure. After listening to the introduction of your case, you will look up locations on the map or by searching the directory for the address of potential suspects then consult the corresponding number in the case book. In this way you simulate the experience of crossing the busy streets of the Victorian Empire’s capital. And when you start running into some frustrating dead ends in your investigation, you can crack open the papers to get some additional clues to get you back on track.
Now, the game aspect of Consulting Detective is that you’re ostensibly in a competition with Holmes trying to solve the mystery before he does. And this aspect is what brings the whole experience crashing down on a fundamental level. But I’ll be addressing this portion of the game later since it’s an inherent problem in the original release that was only exacerbated with the expansion.
The expansion itself, however, is distinctly split into two experiences. The first four cases concern the infamous Jack the Ripper case and is the first instance of a crossover between Sir Conan Doyle’s fictitious character and a real world event. The latter section of the case is six additional cases set in the same style as the original game. It’s these adventures I’ll address first.
When comparing the West End Adventure to the original Consulting Detective collection, all three of us were grossly disappointed with the offerings. The writing is still the largest stumbling block but, more than anything, I found that these cases were simply far less inspiring than the original ten cases. We basically solved all of them within three locations in the book and they really didn’t feel as developed as the originals. Since I was the sole keeper of the case book, I also happened to notice that all of them were on the thinner end of the spectrum with all six approximately the same length as The Munitions Magnate and about as interesting. The Munitions Magnate I felt was a pretty good case solely because it worked as an excellent introduction to the game and its mechanics. The case itself is pretty dry and West End Adventures doesn’t really find any way to sprinkle some excitement into the mix.
In fact, outside of Dr. Goldfire and the Murder of Sherlock Holmes, I’m having a hard time remembering them despite having played them only last week. And of those two, I’d say only the Murder of Sherlock Holmes is interesting. I just remember Dr. Goldfire because it sounded like a James Bond villain.
Give me a sec as I look them up…
Jeez, even looking up their names I don’t even remember what A Simple Case of Murder was about. Oh, digging further I was confusing Savage Club with A Simple Case.
And that’s exactly the issue with this expansion. The only reason that The Murder of Sherlock Holmes stands out is because of its use of a theatre as a location for interviewing multiple witnesses/suspects. It felt like a missed opportunity since you’re given so much information concerning the theatre layout and suspect locations when all that information really isn’t relevant.
Contrasting these cases with the originals and there differences between their quality is quite stark. The Mystified Murderess (despite it being a written mess) at least had a rather unique concept. The Lionized Lions was my favourite simply for its cute setup. The Cryptic Corpse really hit a traditional Sherlock Holmes vibe and the details of The Pilfered Paintings were pretty amusing. Even with the annoyances of The Banker’s Quietus, The Mummy’s Curse and The Solicitous Solicitor, I’d say we found them at least okay. I’d say the only one we truly hated was the Thames Murders. And with those cases part of our frustration was trying to play the game “by design.”
West End Adventures, however, are all feel pretty much the same. There’s also the unfortunate issue that they’re pretty predictable too. Several start without an actual murder but you know you’re going to come across one pretty early on regardless. The lack of depth in these cases even reflects in Sherlock’s awful solutions. He resolves all of them within four or five clues because there’s really just not that much going on with them.
They’re bad and had the original release been on the level of West End Adventures, I can’t imagine the game ever being recommended.
The Jack the Ripper files, however, are a bit interesting. For one, there designers did some research into enacting some measure of authenticity so the nature of the cases is starkly different from the rest of the Consulting Detective cases. You’re going to be reading through gritty details and unreliable witnesses and testimonies. Here, the red herrings don’t feel like cheating because there’s a much stronger feeling of authenticity to its presentation. These four are certainly the strongest of the cases and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is due to the writers being constrained to actually following a real life case and thus don’t have some absolutely idiotic events occur.
Granted, Sherlock Holmes’ solution is completely asinine but that should be expected from anything carrying the Consulting Detective name.
But there’s some extra details that make the Ripper files stand head and shoulders above the rest. First, there’s a distinct change in the nature of playing the game. You’re provided far more visual aids in those four cases and are expected to pull out details and clues from those aids. It really helps to clear up some of the ambiguity which arose from the purely written accounts that can lead to contradictions in the rest of the cases. It also makes the newspapers a lot more interesting to read.
However, there’s a second element unique to the Ripper files that really needed to be expanded to the whole of Consulting Detective. You have the ability to follow up individuals about specific clues or questions!
Granted, due to the nature of the game, these follow up questions are pretty restricted but it’s a fantastic addition that really makes the game a better experience. Before the Ripper files, if you came across an important clue you had no ability to find further information about it. Say, after some detective work, you came across the name of a likely suspect there really wasn’t any way to ask the police about that suspect since the designers couldn’t know if you were visiting the police before or after learning of said suspect. With the Ripper files, however, there are many passages that come with some cryptic directions if you’re arriving at a location for a specific reason. Say, for example, you learn about a shady individual named Derek the Dirk who was seen in the area of one of the murdered women. When you go to speak to Inspector Lestrade, you will still get his generic chest puffing about how you ruffians shouldn’t be in his precinct. But at the bottom of the passage you might be rewarded with a little bold text reading, “If you are looking for information concerning Derek the Dirk then go to the location in this district corresponding with the number of the location you last heard about Derek the Dirk.”
Granted, if you’ve come to Lestrade before hearing about Derek, then you might be more vigilante about this missing Derek character from your investigation. However, after going through the casebook after the investigation, I found that there were some red herrings that you could investigate as well which adds that necessary element of ambiguity where you can’t know if following the lead on Derek the Dirk is a waste of time or not. And having a more responsive investigation is certainly worth the trade-off.
Course, none of this addressed Consulting Detectives true issue. It’s scoring system is a mess. The West End Adventures are even more of a mess than the originals. My mom kept saying that Sherlock cheats and it wasn’t until this set of cases that I finally came around to her point of view.
First, for Jack the Ripper and West End Adventures, we decided to play the game the way everyone recommends: ignore the scoring. But in doing so, I only came to see how incredibly arbitrary and awful the scoring really is.
Part of the problem is inconsistency. There were two cases where Sherlock admonished Wiggins for attempting to come up with a motive for the crimes. The very next case one of the primary questions asked at the end was about the culprit’s motive. Consulting Detective is constantly doing these contradictions. It sets up a sense of expectation in one case and in the very next it will break all the rules it had established. Sometimes the method a crime was committed is incredibly important. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how an impenetrable safe is broken into with a dozen witnesses in the area and no explanation given at the end for how it was compromised by the guilty parties. Sherlock cheats in this manner by dictating what and when something will be important and, without providing the questions ahead of time, there’s simply no way for the player to know what incongruities are due to the game’s design or simply bad writing. In one case, we had followed Holmes’ steps exactly but kept hunting down clues because we erroneously assumed we had to unmask the location or true identity of the criminal because literally every other case until that point expected those answers. And this time Holmes considered it unimportant… simply because.
I’ve put a lot of thought into the game aspect of Consulting Detective because it is so bad that it detracts from the experience. And I’m not certain there’s a satisfactory answer beyond simply getting better designers and writers. What is clear is that Consulting Detective does a horrendous job of ultimately making clear what you’re supposed to actually do in the game. And this is inexcusable considering they’ve published twenty cases and have had plenty of time to figure out a good method of doing so.
But I’m going to share my idea for a better way.
First, during the introduction of a case, the writers should drop most of the extraneous fluff and spend more time actually making clear what exactly the players are tasked to do. To use an example of what not to do, the Savage Club case is too vague. You leave understanding that there’s some sort of Bohemian Scandal setup for the adventure. You’re contact by a princely individual who wants you to address some embarrassing situation before it can get out. But the Savage Club doesn’t make clear what you need to do to stop that embarrassment. Do you need to reclaim the necklace? Do you need to prove the necklace was stolen? Do you need to retrieve the letters? Do you need to prove the letters were stolen and not intended for their current owner?
Since there’s no clear indication of what will solve this case, it will naturally lead to players meandering blindly all the while Sherlock knows immediately what needs to be done. Every player should finish the introduction to a case and know exactly what the first two questions in the back of the book are going to be. If this means Sherlock has to turn to the Baker Street Irregulars and literally spell out, “I’m leaving you, Wiggins, to find out who killed our victim and how” then so be it. Then players can properly go to scene and start deducing answers with this directed focus.
Second, if you’re going to have a competition with Sherlock Holmes over solving the case then Sherlock should spend a lot more time engaging with the damn case. That Sherlock solved most of his in four steps and the designers expect you to do the same is asinine. The designers are literally creating a game to not be played. There are so many locations to visit and sub plots to uncover that players are directly encouraged to ignore. It’s bad design. It’s also even worse that Sherlock will make broad proclamations about the case without actually having the evidence to make those claims. This goes contrary to the character and even contradicts a lot of his advice throughout the game. If the designers wanted a detective who made wild assumptions and didn’t bother to “eliminate the impossible” to find the truth. Holmes’ most famous quote is to basically hunt down leads and prove they’re wrong. Yet in the game he never, ever does that. He just magically finds a path that can make sense and doesn’t even examine whether there’s an “improbably but truthful” alternative.
So Sherlock should have some steps to corroborate witness testimony, to ensure his theories are sound and eliminate other possibilities. Sherlock should literally be used to demonstrate to players how to engage with the game and solve the case. No one is bedazzled when Sherlock pulls some nonsense solution especially when it’s trivially easy to go through the locations he did to come to his conclusions.
There should also be some consistency in his allies. It’s also asinine that only three allies are ever actually useful. Why are over half his allies “not in their office” for most of the cases. Why even bother putting them on a list to consult. Players shouldn’t have to guess when an ally is going to be important or not. Basically, what we learned is that Porky and Langdale Pike are the only really important allies to visit and basically you rotate between them for each case. And the fact that one in twenty cases requires you to visit the Carriage Court but there’s literally never anything to gleam from it otherwise is also stupid. Especially if there are no witnesses to at least suggest you should check out the movement of carriages by seeing a suspect climb into one.
Instead, all allies should be useful in some manner. Make most of them like Sherlock which give helpful hints pertaining to the case but aren’t necessary to visit. Make some of them consistently give direction to the sub plots that are bonus questions at the end. I like that Porky often asks you to look into elements pertaining to the case but from a wholly different direction and more of the allies should do that. That way, when you do get to the end, you aren’t completely baffled by some of those bonus questions which can seemingly come out of nowhere.
Finally, there should be far more consistency in how information is presented. It’s frustrating trying to find the right witness who will actually describe what a body looks like, especially when it’s a moment when Wiggins actually looks at the body himself! Anytime a new character is introduced, there should be some measure of important information provided so that witness testimonies for height, hair, accent and build can be easily determined. Also it’s bullshit that you can have someone interact with an individual to such an intimate degree like removing a bullet from them and they can’t even tell you their god damn hair colour!
There shouldn’t be one exact way to solve a case but many different angles that you can approach it. This does mean keeping track of all the minute details but that’s exactly what Sherlock Holmes is about.
The game ultimately should be designed in a fair, engaging and fun way that encourages people to think and analyse the information they’re given. There’s potential here that is absolutely squandered in the shoddy writing and it’s simply inexcusable for a game that requires consistency in information to have witnesses with incorrectly spelt names so you can’t even look them up in the directory until you stumble across the one individual that properly writes their name.
As it stands now, I’d hesitantly recommend the original Consulting Detective. But I would never tell anyone to play Jack the Ripper and West End Adventures. And any recommendation comes with ignoring the rules of the game which leaves me wondering why people would play it in the first place.
Truly, the best way to engage with Sherlock Holmes is to simply read the stories.