Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective
Published by Ystari Games - 2012 Edition
Designers: Raymond Edwards, Suzanne Goldberg, Gary Grady
Head Artist: Arnaud Demaegd
1 - 8 players ~ 1 - 2 hours
Review written by Luke Muench
I never understood why people liked Sherlock Holmes. Not the super-popular BBC show, mind you, I mean the character in general. His personality extends little beyond an intense intellect and a love of pipes, puzzles, and violins . His adventures, have something of an expiration date, lacking the same punch on multiple go-arounds. And his world, while filled with a fantastic cast of dastardly villains, can feel constrained and largely unexplored. Holmes feels more like a vehicle for a story than he is an interesting story in and of himself.
Needless to say, I was rather hesitant when first faced with the prospect of Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. It was unlike any game I had encountered before; a game that boasted legacy- and escape room-like elements way before the genres came into their own, that pitted you and your friends against the wits of a man we so often were encouraged to root for, and did so in a world that was potentially as open as the worlds of large-scale video games like Skyrim or Fallout. Yet it was these very reasons of hesitation that eventually coerced me into picking it up, making me wonder if such an experimental idea might work.
Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective has one of the most accessible gameplay systems in the industry. When sitting down to play, your group will select the next mystery booklet from a series of adventures, each mystery leading to the next in chronological order. After being prompted by a brief introduction, including a narrative full of clues and red herrings, players are let loose, allowed to explore as much as they’d like for as long as they want.
Your tools for dissecting each story are the mystery booklet, a London directory, each published newspaper to date (every mystery includes a newspaper that has clues for the current and future cases), a sprawling map, and your own wits. Much of the game hinges on you deducing which locations you need to visit to gather information, looking up the names of people and places in the directory to then lead you to the appropriate paragraphs of dialogue in the booklet. While many of these are false leads or wastes of your time, a few provide hearty chunks of story to be sorted through and discussed liberally. My friend and I clutched desperately to a notebook throughout our escapades, jotting down anything that seemed remotely relevant or worth considering. The map can be occasionally useful, allowing you to trace the pathways of certain characters, deducing who could have been where on a given night. The newspapers often contain pertinent articles regarding the mystery at hand, but sorting through previous editions can lead to some fruitful and insightful discoveries.
In this way, each scenario has the same general flow; regardless of what’s happening, players can do this to their heart’s content until deciding to reveal the end-scenario questions, forced to answer them with what little knowledge you’ve gathered. Its each story and the way they are presented that really makes each entry stand out in my mind. With titles like The Tin Soldier and The Lionized Lions, my friend and I were jittering with anticipation as we opened each book, enthralled in what they might contain. Introductions can give you a vast network of ideas to consider or next to nothing at all, directing you to peruse what resources you have with little direction. Paragraphs of dialogue and observations open you up to the various secrets the tales contain.
Yet what breathes life into this mystery-themed box of choose-your-own-adventure novels is the player interaction. With every piece of new information, we would puzzle out every detail, fine-combing each sentence for some thread of logic to grab hold of, creating lengthy and convoluted conspiracy theories, leading us further and further down a rabbit-hole we were more than happy to be lost in. It felt fantastic to feel so connected to another human being mentally, your minds entangled with the same exasperating quandary that surely had a solution, if only we could find it.
Getting caught up in the tales of Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective was by far the best parts of the experience. The worst were when each scenario came to a close.
After literal hours of searching for answers, me and my friend would finally puts our minds at rest, flipping to one of the back pages to the booklet to see what questions we needed to answer. And while some were to be expected, asking us the circumstances of a murder, others left us profoundly puzzled, referencing people we had never heard of, scenarios that had never reached our thoughts. Slowly we realized that, despite our hard work, we had no clue what had truly happened, a fact that Sherlock quickly and painful made clear. Each game ends with the great detective rattling off a grand speech as to how he solved the case, presenting what little evidence he needed to come to his conclusions, mocking us in the most heartbreaking of ways. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about being outsmarted and learning from the error of my ways. But when EVERY session ends in this way, the game starts to grate at you, make you feel like you’re simply wasting your time.
You can score yourself against Sherlock, seeing how many leads you followed versus his and adding up what meager points you get from correctly answering the questions. Our first game, my friend and I received -5 out of 100 points, which we found hilarious. Despite our outright loss, we knew that this was a special game, one that would test our mettle. It made us ready to take on another challenge, see what more the game had in store for us. By game five, we barely felt there was a chance of us coming close to the right answer. And in that moment, we put the scenario back in the box, closed it, and never looked back.
A few weeks later, I decided to take it upon myself to introduce the game to one of my weekly game night groups. We made an event of it, cooking English-themed dishes and playing some thematic music. I got dressed up for the occasion, acting as the narrator, as I had already played the first scenario and knew most of what was to come. And while the experience was fun enough, it was clear to me that four players began to push the envelope of the player count. A good portion of time was spent while players silently perused the newspaper while others waited their turn, or in chaotic noise as everyone tried to speak their mind at once.
Something else I noticed was how this crew marched to every location they could think of without abandon. While my two-player team carefully selected which handful of places to investigate, these four ran back and forth across the map in search for as many details as they could find, putting me to work as the narrator. And, ultimately, they received the better score of 25 points because of it, having gathered all the knowledge they could before attempting the solution.
While this certainly is a valid strategy, it felt like it undermined the intent of the game. Rather than carefully picking through what you know and slowly moving to a few points of interest, it seems that bulldozing your way through as much as possible will likely get you the better results unless you are a particularly observant player.
The last thing worth noting is just how many typos there are in the game. I’ve heard talk of some that render some scenarios impossible, though I personally didn’t note any, but these can be a pain to slog through, giving pause in the middle of a five-paragraph entry that can throw your train of thought. It’s also rather hard to comment or judge based on this, as there are so many editions of the game in existence that I can’t say if these typos are in every copy universally or just some of the earlier editions.
It’s undeniable how unique and worthwhile this game is. With one of the best story-telling structures in tabletop gaming as a whole, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective will take you on a ride unlike any other. Yet the amount of resilience and patience required will test you, and for some gamers, they’ll wonder if the purchase was really worth the investment. So if I am to recommend this game at all, it’s with a couple of caveats. First, recognize that you will almost inevitably lose at some point over the course of the game, and decide whether or not you will be okay with that. And second make an event of it; make Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective into your own personal movie, a grand narrative for you and your friends to intimately explore and immerse yourselves in this engaging game.
Who should get this game: Narrative-focused players, aspiring investigators, those searching for a free-form adventure.
Who shouldn’t get this game: Those who need structure, the easily deterred by defeat, short-form gamers, anyone who balks at the thought of legacy games.
Luke Muench is a regular contributor to The Cardboard Herald and host of the Budget Board Gamer youtube channel.