Today, I’d like to talk about the Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective system and its different scenarios that you can find in the original box, the most recent Jack the Ripper expansion and many independently sold (and often hard to find in English) scenarios like Carlton House.
Sherlock Holmes is unique in the world of storytelling. All you need is an old address directory of the Victorian London, an historically accurate map of London, newspapers from that time and a book of stories. You are presented with a murder at the beginning, just a few clues to get you going, like the name of the victim, the location of the crime and here you go, this mysterious old Victorian London with its narrow alleys and richly decorated mansions is all yours to explore. You can virtually knock on any door and talk to anybody. The game is a beautiful sand box and each scenario gives us a different perspective on this fascinating world. It goes beyond the main story with many sub-plots as well as flavour situations and characters which do an amazing job at immersing the players. These characters are rarely historical figures, but the typical Londoners of the time, living a typical life. What was a source of concern for many Londoners at the time? What was exciting them? You might have read about it, but in Sherlock Holmes, you get to experience it. And that is awesome.
The game is so well written that it doesn’t need more structure. Even though on paper the game is totally sand box, the game has this soft structure and linearity that means that when players experience a situation, the game knows how they got there and always gives the players clues relevant to where they are in the case. The game never feels scripted even though it is. This blows my mind, seriously. You get the best of both worlds: the exploration and sense of freedom of a sand box and the direction and sense of tension of a linear game.
Surprisingly, the game encourages the players to be efficient and visit as few locations as possible. I don’t get that. Most video games which create such a vast world with so much personality and flavour to it encourages players to explore every corner, looking for hidden treasures and rewards. To a certain extent, Sherlock does a bit of that with the sub-plots, but really, its scoring structure punishes players who want to spend as much time as possible playing the game. So what Marion (my wife) and I do is just disregard the scoring. This game is not about winning or scoring. It is about the experience. I don’t like when games discourage players to do what is fun. The action that is fun should always be central to the game play. And in my opinion, what is fun in Sherlock Holmes is the exploration, not the efficiency. I might have had a different opinion if the main plots were good enough to create that fulfilling experience.
But the main plots are of variable quality. Some are hand-crafted with love. They flow superbly. Others just don’t make real sense and feel they forced an element of surprise that fall flat. I remember a scenario where we preferred our version of the facts rather than the one suggested by Sherlock at the end of the scenario. And I get it, sometimes, crimes aren’t always logic, clues can contradict each other, key evidence might be missing. We would be happy to reach the end of a scenario with 2 or 3 possible explanations. But in some scenarios, we felt we were not given access to the right knowledge that would have allowed us to even consider the explanation that is put forward by Sherlock. He also very conveniently brushes away some key evidence which we have been using extensively to build our case. I remember another scenario where the intonation of the NPC when being interviewed was giving away a clue. That just doesn’t work for a game that relies on written text. The testimony from these 2 characters who – as far as we know - don’t know each other support each other? We should have thought they have an affair and are covering each other. There are many other reasons that could explain such behaviour from these NPCs, but the solution doesn’t even consider them.
I would have liked to use the map more, as only a few scenarios really use them. It is a missed opportunity in my mind, because the map really adds an interesting dimension to the plot and even more immersion.
Carlton House has many excellent scenarios (still disconnected from each other). The system feels quite different to the scenarios from the original box or Jack the Ripper expansion, as characters are confined in this huge mansion, with hidden rooms and mysterious secrets. Different groups of people live in the house, at different times, and each time, someone is killed and nobody is allowed to leave the house until we find the murderer. The scenarios feel more inspired by the world of Agatha Christie than Sherlock Holmes and do a very good job at feeling different from each other even though their set-ups have similarities. This expansion is using the floorplan of the house and the maps of London in a much more interesting way than most of the original scenarios.
We really liked the cases in Jack the Ripper. First, the main plots of the cases are connected, which isn’t the case in the original scenarios (some sub-plots might be connected though). Secondly, we loved the fact that most of the fictional characters that live in the world of Sherlock Holmes suddenly take a step back for historically accurate NPCs that were the actual people involved in the case at the time. The confusion, fear and frustration that gripped the community at the time do really come across. Don’t expect answers. Expect to experience the utter mess the investigation was and a fantastic historical reconstitution. The game also does a great job at pushing some hypothesises forward that differ from the most commonly acknowledged ones and backs them up with historical evidence very nicely. In my mind the Jack the Ripper scenarios are a work of skilled historians, of gifted story tellers and a make a fun and immersive campaign to play. However, for the first time, we felt the world we were in was getting too dark and unpleasant at times and we were not always as keen to explore it as long as possible. Some content is more mature than the other cases and knowing the descriptions are historically accurate adds a grim dimension at times.
All in all, we absolutely love Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective. But we have to play differently from what is intended. We don’t score at the end, which allows us to explore as much as we want, and that in our mind, is way more fun. Also, we play together. As one investigator. No turns, no competition. One of us has the book of stories, the other has the pad and a pen. And we talk and experience this amazing adventure together. True, sometimes, it gets a bit frustrating when we don’t agree with Sherlock at the end, mainly because we feel we were not always given the clues to make some of the important assumptions necessary to make similar deductions, but because we love the investigation more than getting it right, we don’t mind as much.
This system is rock solid and one of the best storytelling games I have ever played.
What is your favourite storytelling game?
What do you think of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective?
As usual, let’s discuss in the comments section below.
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Solid advice to ignore scoring based on number of clues visited.
SHCD was a labor of love for the original authors 30+ years ago. It is great that people are still discovering and appreciating it. Better yet that it has inspired new games and new cases.
I have all 3 new sets in my collection as well as all the old originals from Sleuth Publications.
I think should always change a game so it is fun for the group to play, whatever that means. I agree with playing totally cooperatively as a group. Another change is to forget about scoring, just try to solve the case's questions. You also bring up a good point about quitting when you want.
This is a great review of the SHCD series. Your description of the map based cases in Carlton House has reignited some of the excitement for it that I lost during my unboxing (lower component quality). The maps have always been criminally underused throughout the series. I personally didn't like the Jack the Ripper cases although I agree they do a good job bringing across the feeling of a messy mishandled investigation.
Apart from the three box sets currently out there are also a lot of free fan cases and a few odd cases that have trickled out throuhout the years. I'm always hopeful somebody will review them so I can decide which are worth playing and which are not. I recently played Sherlock Holmes and the Baby, which was an official case printed for inclusion in Different Worlds magazine. It's quite short, I think I finished in less than 45 minutes. The case is pretty easy but I recommend it because it adds good characterization to some of the series' recurring characters. The only caveat on the review is that you must read "The Sign of the Four" before playing, in my opinion it's one of the weaker Holmes novels but this case functions as a sequel to it.
- Last edited Fri Apr 27, 2018 5:32 pm (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Fri Apr 27, 2018 5:24 pm