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Subject: Mr. Jack - A Review rss

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Michael J
United States
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Mr. Jack is a clever 2-player game where one player plays the side of the detectives trying to catch a notorious criminal, played by the other player. At its heart, this is a simple game, with some very interesting mechanics added on top that elevate the strategic element of the game to new heights. A lot of people call this a deduction game, but my view is that it is a strategy game where the strategy is to minimize the amount of deduction - the deduction aspect of the game is the actual target, one that the criminal player is trying to destroy.

Players take turns moving pieces around the board, which is a hexagonal representation of a London neighborhood, complete with street lamps, sewers, and buildings. The pieces represent the detectives in the game, but one of the detectives has been "captured" and replaced by the notorious Jack The Ripper, who has taken the detective's clothing and disguised himself as one of them. The goal of the detectives is to figure out which of their lot is Mr. Jack in disguise. The goal of Mr. Jack is to escape, or to elude capture long enough for daylight to ensue and allow him to blend in with the crowd. The detectives lose if they accuse Mr. Jack incorrectly, so the detectives must figure out how to narrow down the suspects, and how to capture Mr. Jack once they have identified who he is.

Theme & Components
The game is very atmospheric. You spend most of your time staring at the game board, not at cards, or money, or other players, and the game board itself is beautifully rendered and captures the mood perfectly. Were the game board bland or out of character, I think it would kill a game like this where you spend most of your time staring at it. The art is generally playful and cartoon-like, which lightens the otherwise dire subject matter. Overall, this aspect of the game is well done.

The pieces are sturdy. The cards are thick stock. Overall, I think the components are great. My only complaint is that I had to put stickers on the pieces, which I hate to do.

The game proceeds with players alternating moving pieces. Each player moves two pieces in a round, for a total of 4 pieces per round. Play order shifts every round, for example 1-2-2-1, 2-1-1-2, 1-2-2-1, 2-1-1-2. Each round has a different set of 4 pieces that move (there are 8 total in the game), so pieces move in round 1 or round 2, but not both. The back-to-back turns in each round more than compensates for the lack of the first move, and can often times be more powerful than going first, as you get to use two characters together at your discretion, whereas the player going first or last cannot plan for this. The back to back moves can often times decide the game.

Each character can move 1-3 spaces per turn, as well as use a special power given only to that character. The special powers vary, and that makes each character unique. In addition, each character's interactions with each other character are slightly different, because you can utilize strengths of characters together in new and interesting ways as you learn how to more effectively use them. The 8 special abilities in the game are: extra movement and the ability to go through otherwise impassable objects, the ability to turns lights on and off, the ability to switch places with other characters, the ability to move other characters towards you, the ability to move sewer hatches (opening and closing different sewers, which act as quick movement), the ability to eliminate a random suspect from the list of suspects, the ability to shine lights down a street and light up all suspects on that street, and the ability to switch the open exits on the corners of the board. Most special abilities can be used before OR after turns, but some require use after a turn, or instead of the turn.

Characters can be caught in the light of a lamp post or a flashlight, or within the view of another character at the end of a round (after 4 characters have moved). If this happens, a suspect is considered "witnessed". If a suspect is not witnessed, they are "hidden". At the end of each round, the detective can ask whether Mr. Jack is witnessed or not. Using this deduction algorithm, you can often times eliminate suspects with this question alone. And this is the crux of the game. The detective is trying to divide all suspects in half, half in the light, half in the dark, so that they can eliminate half the suspects each turn. The player playing Mr. Jack is optimally trying to keep all remaining suspects together in one group or the other. This can be harder than it looks, and requires great planning to pull off, but occasionally, if you move correctly, you can extend the game just by getting all the remaining suspects into the same group.

If Mr. Jack is not witnessed in a turn, he can attempt to escape through one of the available exits. This changes the nature of the game for each turn Mr. Jack is not witnessed, as the detective player must suddenly worry about guarding exits.

Near the end of the game, when there are a few players left, Mr. Jack is trying to stay as far from other players as possible (or is he...), so that he cannot be captured. In some games, a player can identify Mr. Jack, but doesn't have enough moves to capture him. This requires good awareness of which characters have moved, which are still to move, and where those characters are.

The variables in the game are that lights can be turned on and off (and some go out automatically after each round of the game), manholes (quick travel access points) can be moved, exits (escape points for Mr. Jack) can be blocked and unblocked, and the characters that move per round are random.

Learning Curve
I'd say this game is easy to learn, but hard to learn to play well. It feels like a highly thematic version of chess. The first time you play, you will feel like you are just moving pieces for the heck of it. As you play more, you realize that a seemingly unimportant movement can cost you the game. The game probably plays best with two players of equal skill. Because of the large number of character interactions, and the large number of spaces on the board, the game will play differently each time out, and will challenge players significantly. Other players report the game transcending into multiple levels of depth as they play more, and this is the sign of a good game. I can't say I'm at that point yet, but I can see it happening, as each time I've played it, I've learned something new.

This is a game where bluffing can be the deciding factor in a game. I put this in a separate category because there are few games where bluffing can be such a critical component, and here it is actually a highly recommended strategy when playing as Mr. Jack. Because you will spend much of your time running around with only a few suspects left, it is important not to give away who Mr. Jack is. Your opponent is watching each move, and you want to ensure that their attention is always on the wrong character. This means you have the chance to play strategies where Mr. Jack is in the worst position possible, possibly causing your opponent to move a nearby piece towards another character a space or two. And that space or two can win you the game when it comes to a footrace in the end. There are no formulas for how to attempt this deflection, and each game you can try a new strategy to put your opponent off. This adds a tremendous meta-game to the gameplay.

Turn Examples
I have two suspects left, on opposite sides of the board. I move the innocent suspect towards an exit, trying to draw attention to him. If I can just move the other suspect away from the rest of the characters, Mr. Jack will escape. However, I planned poorly. On the next turn, I was left with the innocent character to move. If that character were Mr. Jack, I was close enough to move him out to safety and escape. However, because I was not Mr. Jack, I couldn't move him out, thereby outing the actual suspect. Had I moved the innocent character one move shy of where he was, I would not have had enough movement points to escape, and therefore I could have bluffed by running for the exit, and stopping on the doorstep. But instead, my movement left me too close to bluff, and thereby cause Mr. Jack to light up like a beacon. Still, Mr. Jack only needed to stay un-captured for one more turn. I had spent the prior turn trying to move people away from him, which succeeded to a certain degree. We turned over the last character tokens to move, and 3 of them were out of reach of catching Mr. Jack, but the 4th had just enough movement points to catch him. And there it ended, one space short of a sinister escape, and all because my decoy piece was one space too close to the exit to form an effective bluff.

In a different turn, I have two characters to move. I'm playing as the detective again, and I want to make sure I can separate out the suspects into equal size groups. The current groups are 5 in the dark and 1 in the light. If Mr. Jack is in the larger group, I do not help myself much. Time is of the essence. So I play the Sergeant Goodley character, who can blow his whistle to move other characters towards him. I manage to move two characters into the same street, although they are both still in the dark, and I move the last character towards a lamppost so he is witnessed. So now I am 1 in the light still, and 5 in the dark. However, my second character is Dr. Watson, who I can move to a street, and then shine his flashlight. In this case, I shined the flashlight down a street with suspects, thereby putting 3 in the light and 3 in the dark. This allowed me to eliminate half the suspects.

Wrap Up
I like this game. I give it an 8, and I might even move it higher over time. It's a thinker, and your opponent has to be prepared to think as much as you. Since I do most of my gaming with my wife after putting the kids to bed, this one doesn't come out much - it's too much of a thinker for 10PM. But I wish I could play it more. The game is easy to play in that you move a piece, they move a piece, etc... and you can sit back with a cup of tea and play and not worry too much about messing up the components. Compare this to games where you have to manage cards, money, resources, tiles, and other objects, this game is quite simple by comparison. But its simplistic nature hides a much more complex game, where one casual move can be your undoing.

8 / 10

I rate it an 8 out of 10. It's not a 9 because I wouldn't put this game in the category of "fun" games where new players can play. However, for players with experience, I think it is a great game, and a fun one at that. You'll have to play it a handful of times to get to the good stuff in the game, but if you like challenges, with a low level of randomness, this is a game for you.
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