In Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Thames Murders & Other Cases, 1-8 players take on the role of the Baker Street Irregulars, helping Holmes solve the cases he is uninterested in or too busy to attend to. By following leads in various locations across London (and taking down meticulous notes), as a
Roleplaying comes in two flavours. One is the more performative, elaborate act of taking on a character that you’ve lovingly created, buying into their philosophy and taking gaming decisions based on how they might act.
The other form is more subtle. It creeps up on you, almost without noticing. Imagine a game of Pandemic. You draw the role of the medic, which may at the start just feel like any old ‘special ability’. But halfway through the game, you’re feverishly invested in your medic, trying to work out how to most efficiently cure those darned diseases. This is highlighted even more in Pandemic Legacy, as your character grows across play sessions.
Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective is spectacular in the way that it doesn’t assign you a role at the start of the game, but it flows so brilliantly – the role-playing comes so naturally – that you don’t even realise it’s happening.
Consider the first case we played. Before I knew it, I was drawing diagrams with interconnecting lines between people and places, scribbling wild conspiracy theories in the margins and pacing the room, looking for a new angle or the slightest hint of inspiration. Suddenly, I was a detective in Victorian-era London. I hadn’t planned to. I didn’t know if I really wanted to. But with unfathomable ease, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective had lured me, and would not let me go. Not until I’d solved the ‘The Case of the Munitions Magnate’.
So how does one become so engrossed so easily? Consulting Detective is so mechanically simple, yet theme drips from it like blood from bullet-strewn torso. For each case (of which there are ten in the base game), you are given 3 things: an introductory chapter, providing the outline of the case and a few names and places of importance; a copy of that day’s newspaper, which may or may not hold relevant clues; a map of Victorian London, with well over 150 locations marked; and a directory, full of names and locations of people, business and locations.
Once you’ve got your tools, the game just… leaves you to it. Each turn consists of a player deciding on a ‘lead’ to follow – this could be visiting a person at their home, going to a place of business or other location (embassies, tobacconist, hotels, Scotland Yard.. the list is endless). Then they flick to the directed paragraph in the case book, and (if there is a relevant clue) are provided with a short paragraph or two that narrates your encounter. You may gain valuable information from a witness, find the name of a key suspect, or find that the gentleman you’re looking for has popped out for a walk.
Each encounter, you’ll be making copious notes to try and make sense of the case as it develops. And where it develops is up to you – do you follow a line of enquiry that seems to hint that the murdered man was a jewel thief? Or do you instead press hard with the fact that this might be an international conspiracy, and head to the French embassy? You note a victim has fascination with trains, so perhaps you could visit Waterloo station to see if anyone there knew him. If you know a suspect smokes, do you know his favourite brand? You could visit them. The game even provides a list of regular contacts to visit – Inspector Lestrade, Mycroft Holmes, all can make an appearance should you need steering in the right direction.
Once you feel you’ve gained enough information, you flip to the end of the case book. You’re asked a series of questions – some directly about the case, others that may focus on the wider story – before Sherlock walks into the room and explains exactly how he did it (only in about a tenth of the time you managed it yourself). Here might be the game’s biggest flaw, in that it tries to score you on how many leads you took to solve the case – when, in fact, the game is good because it takes so many turns. If you complete a game as quick as Holmes – in four turns, for example – you’d be done in twenty minutes and probably have the game selling on eBay in the hour. Taking the initiative to follow your own leads and gut instincts – even if they ultimately lead nowhere – are what this game is about. The writing is so good, and the intricacies of the cases so interesting, that it makes no sense to rush to beat Sherlock’s score.
While the quality between cases clearly will not be the same – you may find some cases hit that sweet spot more than others – they each still offer something fascinating, and often the encounters you have and notes you make will keep sucking you in, forcing your inner detective out into the open. It’s terrific that a game that first came out in the 1980s is still so clearly an outstanding title, and this is due to just how easy and natural it makes playing a detective feel.
I’d go on, but the doorbell’s just rung and I rather think this is a case that might need my attention…