Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Thames Murders & Other Cases ★★★★★
There are countless games based on the world’s most famous sleuth but none as great as Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. With just a book, a list of addresses and a bunch of newspapers, it captures the whole spirit of the Victorian investigator and reflects it, not just through its setting, but its mechanics.
Now subtitled “The Thames Murders & Other Mysteries”, it remains the best deduction game I’ve ever played and, despite some minor flaws, a truly engrossing experience.
In Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective we take the role of the Baker Street Irregulars, the investigator’s association of street urchins. Reading from the included books, we are presented a case by either Holmes or one of his clients. Then we are left to our own devices to try and solve it in a more elegant manner than the detective does.
The game uses a very old-fashioned technology, that of “choose your own adventure”. We learn about the case by reading paragraphs in a book. However, Consulting Detective differs from its traditional use by being completely open ended. We can go anywhere in London. All we have to do is find the address and read the accompanying text.
To aid in this process we have access to a few tools. The first is a map of London, so accurate that we can use Google Maps to find the same streets. The second is The Times, a vital source of information for the fledgling detective. Poring over the map and checking for potential connections gives a sense of immersion that could not be achieved without physical components.
We also have access to a series of informers. We may reach, of course, to Scotland Yard. Alternatively, we may contact Jasper Meeks for an autopsy report. Porky Shinwell provides information on London’s criminal underground and we can always turn back to Holmes if we find ourselves stuck.
After we’ve read enough clues to figure out the case, we go to the last page and prepare ourselves to present our view. Holmes shares his own solution and scores ours depending on the clues we’ve taken. The more clues we take, the lower our score. Each case takes about three hours to play, most of which will be spent reading and discussing what happened.
It’s hard to overstate how rich the game is on a thematic level. The designers not only loved the Holmesian canon but understood it well. The worldbuilding, the writing style and the historical detail is fantastic. I can’t recall a single element that was out of place. Like most pastiches it’s lighter in tone, but it works very well.
Some of the cases are reminiscent of the original novels. We can find references to the statues of the Six Napoleons, find clues with Toby the hound and even meet Tonga from The Sign of the Four, whose racist portrayal has been toned down (though not enough). And, while familiar, the cases are different enough that knowing them doesn’t affect the plot.
Like in the original stories, fragments of diaries, account books and notes make a regular appearance. The designers took the time to create a believable world, fitting the cases in the timeline and researching real brands of cigarettes. A lesser game wouldn’t have bothered and the experience would have suffered as a result.
After all, this is a deduction game. We must know about the world and its workings in order to make guesses about it. By sticking close to both the realities of the 19th centuries and the original stories, Consulting Detective allows us to dig into potential motives and tools of murder.
Still, what sets Consulting Detective apart from the rest of its genre is how it’s designed. Or, rather, how it isn’t. This is not a game in the mold of going from one place to another until you reach a happy end where everything is solved. Even if you read every single paragraph and write down every clue, it won’t tell you who the culprit is or what happened.
In other words, the game won’t give an answer just because you played it. It subverts this expectation that games must reward players for going through the motions. After all, this is a mystery game. If we could solve a case just by visiting the right places, there would not be any need for deduction. We would cease to be detectives and become glorified errand-runners.
This requires a challenging but interesting mindset. Instead of collecting evidence and hoping it all works together, we must find it for ourselves. What does the crime scene tell us about the murder? What’s the most likely motive, infidelity or securities fraud? Why would they take a seemingly worthless clock but not jewels?
Much has been said about the apparent unfairness of the game. Many have complained about solutions being arbitrary, requiring leaps of logic or otherwise not being supported by the text. Sherlock has gotten a reputation, even, of being a ludicrous cheater. But I haven’t found this to be the case.
Consulting Detective is remarkably consistent. However, it’s also rather difficult. It demands a very high level of patience and an attention to detail. We must take notes, rummage through the text several times and discuss every detail. While the cases aren’t perfect, I believe most of the frustration comes from this fact, not poor design.
It’s important to note that the game never demands a high level of evidence. Holmes is not a policeman and sees detective work as an intellectual exercise. He is not interested in meeting the demands of a court. To impress him all we need to is provide means, motive and opportunity.
FLAWS AND DEFECTS
Sadly, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective does suffer from a host of imperfections. Previous editions of the game struggled with typos, errata and questionable clues. The current version, by French publisher Space Cowboys, fixes the orthographic mistakes but maintains the original design flaws.
Some details are a bit forced, at least one informer isn’t useful and while Holmes may not “cheat”, he scores triples with uncanny efficiency. Reading newspapers is fun at first, but becomes a chore as they pile on. And while all cases are good, the first handful of adventures are on the shallower side.
The best example is “The Mystified Murderess”, the third case. The culprit was changed from one person to another for the newer editions but the clues were not fully changed to match, leading to a confusing narrative. I believe these issues could have been solved with some additional playtesting.
Even then, none of this has proven an obstacle to my enjoyment. The tension of the mysteries and the quality of the writing are strong enough to override these flaws. Discussing potential motives and jumping in excitement when our theories prove true have been some of the highlights of my last few years of gaming.
Given its simple rules, a completely unique set of mechanics and a proven track record of almost 40 years, one cannot go wrong with Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. It’s a great game and well worth playing for both experienced players and newbies alike.
|SHERLOCK HOLMES CONSULTING DETECTIVE: THE THAMES MURDERS & OTHER CASES (1982)
|Raymond Edwards Suzanne Goldberg Gary Grady
|NUMBER OF PLAYERS
|1-5 (Best with any number)