Suspects ★★★ | Review
There are surprisingly few mystery board games. While it seems a popular subject, most entries in the genre seem more concerned with logic puzzles than they are with investigation or murder. As a pastiche of Agatha Christie’s mystery novels, Suspects is one of the few new releases that bring a true whodunnit experience to the tabletop.
SHERLOCK AND POIROT
In many ways, Suspects follows the trail blazed by Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. Like the 1982 classic, it features a slate of hand-written cases that take the central stage over the simple, subdued mechanics. Both are games of reading and understanding, with every clue coming in the form of text. As a group, we are meant to read and slowly try to figure out what happened.
At the beginning of the game, we are given a small overview of a criminal case, including a map with the all locations we can visit and a series of people to talk to. Furthermore, we are given a numbered deck. If anything piques our interest, all we have to do is to pull the matching card from it. For example, if the butler is listed with the number 5 and we want to take him for a chat, we’ll go through the deck, get that card and read it.
It couldn’t be any simpler. And simplicity here is important. It allows us to focus on the actual mystery, rather than the game’s structure. The size of the cards also limits the amount of text to a reasonable amount, which becomes important as they start flooding the table. Some cards also reveal additional locations or lines of conversations to pursue, if we desire to.
The card system also allows for a couple of tricks. For example, in the first case, there’s a card representing the coroner. It has a colored line sticking out the side, as do all potential crime weapons. If we put them together and they match, it means it could have been the one used in the murder. If not, we must keep looking. Again, the simplicity of the mechanic lets us focus on the actual case.
These and other changes make Suspects a much lighter game than Consulting Detective was. The three hours per play have been cut in half, as has the difficulty. Questions regarding the case are presented up-front instead of coming up as a surprise. And notekeeping is no longer a vital tool, as paying attention to smaller details takes a seat back to the larger picture.
However, Suspects still captures that sense of mystery. It has a real shot at bringing Christie’s work to the tabletop because it’s willing to work on purely narrative terms. It presents us with a story and we are tasked with figuring out what happened. Unlike Antarctica or the Unlock series, it’s not a string of loosely themed puzzles. Rather, it’s a fair crime mystery novel with a few mechanics to guide us along the way.
MYSTERIES & MECHANICS
The issue with Suspects is that it’s mysteries just aren’t very mysterious. As far as crime goes, the cases included in the box are all fairly mundane. Whenever a character rushes in and asks for our help, it always feels a bit baffling because there’s no discernable problem that would require the aid of a master detective.
Rather, the investigation mostly follows procedure. We narrow down the scope of the case by looking for leads that give us an idea of what happened. Then we start checking suspects and see who could or could not commit the crime. And then we put everything together and try to see if we can string together a coherent narrative. There were only a couple moments in which I felt the need to be clever.
This is disappointing because Agatha Christine was known for her great plots. Her most famous novels, like Murder on the Orient Express and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd subvert the conventions of the genre, even. The lack of a strong central hook in Suspects makes cases less engaging and our investigations prone to aimless wandering. Stronger premises would have solved both issues.
Suspects is also inconsistent when it comes to clues. Many can only be found by combing the deck, but we are also punished for wasting time. Often, we come across two items or more items in a room, one of which will be absolutely vital to solve the case. But there’s no way to know which is the good one without checking all the red herrings. We may deduce that the last will of the victim is important but we can’t reasonably know if it’s in the drawer or the top of the desk.
Similarly, some cards can only be accessed by gathering three identical symbols. This is an interesting mechanic because it ties several clues together. But it doesn’t quite work because we can’t reasonably know where to find these symbols. Even then, it has the same problem as the matching cards that tell you which weapon was used in the murder: It’s fun, but it would be more fun to figure that out for ourselves.
Lastly, the scoring is surprisingly toothless. The first 30 cards are free and there’s only a slight reduction in points for the next batch of 15. While not always well-liked, the scoring was a huge driver of the themes of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective so I hoped for a similar feeling. Sadly, the scoring in Suspects is so loose that it takes pressure away from the investigation. There’s very little difference between good and poor detective work.
Still, I rather liked Suspects, despite its shortcomings. It had me poring over cards, discussing clues and reeanacting murder scenes. Each week, and beyond my duties as a reviewer, I wanted to come back to it and partake in a little investigation once again. There’s value to that, even if the cases are overly conventional and their underlying logic could be improved on.
I truly wish Suspects had had the ambition to go from good to great. It’s a clean design and the setup shows a willingness to go beyond the tried “escape room in a box” that dooms so many games to mediocrity. I wouldn’t be surprised if future releases in the series improved on the original, even. But the game as it stands today doesn’t reach far enough.
It’s important to note there are only three cases in the box. At 90 minutes each, that puts the whole package at less than five hours total. This is important, not just because it makes Suspects a fairly expensive title, but because it prevents it from building up on the strength of its first cases. It starts with a tutorial and is never given the time to stray away from that.
Suspects may not reach the heights of Consulting Detective but it’s enjoyable. While I would not recommend it over its predecessor it does not look silly compared to it. It’s a good game, with few hitches or problems. It’s just limited by its moderate sense of ambition and a few odd finishing touches.
|DESIGN||Guillaume Montiage (Case 1, Design)|
Sebastien Duverger Nedellec (Case 2)
Paul Halter (Case 3)
|NUMBER OF PLAYERS||1-5 (Best with any number)||SCORE||★★★|