Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective
Teaching Time: 1 min
Playing Time: 90 mins
Setup Time: 2 mins
Value For Money: Mid
Since my foolish quest has gone from trying to play all the Spiel Des Jahres to collecting and playing all the SDJs to now reviewing them all its time to look at Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective is a flawed game that I personally have a lot of affection for, but beyond my personal affection, its insanely far ahead of its time for 1985. Its got plenty of new and extended versions now and since a lot of the flaws in the original are production issues they’re a better bet, but the original is still well worth a look.
The game consists of a booklet of clues to a case which Sherlock Holmes is going to investigate, a map, directory and a newspaper. Players agree on a location to search by referring to the case or previous clues and looking up individual’s names and addresses in the directory, matching locations on the map or by extrapolating from the newspaper. Once players have identified enough clues that they suspect they can answer any relevant questions that could be asked about the case they decide to wrap it up. Players then answer a set of pre-defined questions which are scored based on difficulty and accuracy with points being deducted for players taking an excessive number of leads during investigation. Holmes then explains the details of the case and exactly how he worked it all out, if players took the same or fewer leads than Holmes they win.
When Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective goes well it’s a deeply satisfying and smooth game, it has the power to make players feel immensely smart when the pieces fit together and its story telling is unparalleled. However, if a group misses a vital clue, which is not only possible but is the very point of the game, the whole experience can fall apart totally. Once players lose their way there are a lack of multiple paths to victory or even framing elements of the story. As such once lost the experience can quickly devolve into wandering around London largely aimlessly asking anyone you come across random questions and the story breaks down in a similar fashion. It’s a problem that’s fairly common in computer games, the section of the game where players spend time clicking on everything in the room because they know they’ve missed something but aren’t quite sure what, but is almost totally absent from boardgames. It generally makes the game either incredibly ahead of its time or horribly hit and miss and frustrating, depending on your personal point of view. In addition, the game comes with only 10 cases, which clearly undermines the replay value.
Played slowly by a couple of players over a long rainy day this is a lovely experience, if you’re willing to sit back and have a twenty-minute discussion over every piece of evidence, to check and re-iterate the story at each step. With a larger group or played to any sort of time pressure points get missed and unless the group hits every note perfectly the experience can be deeply frustrating.
As a Spiel Des Jahres winner its hard to place Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, this is because its so far outside of the normal gaming experience, even today thirty years on it defies categorization. As far as elements go the box comes with a collection of newspapers, cases and map, making it stand out among games of the time, and almost any time since it has no dice, playing pieces, board or cards. Since SDJs often lean towards games with unusual physical components this almost avant garde minimalism means Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective makes total sense as a winner. As far as the game and the mechanics go, it really doesn’t have any, it’s a detective story pieced out, or a choose your own adventure as a parlour game. Its certainly a unique game and worthy of recognition, certainly back in 1985, is it a great game, probably not, even when the experience goes well its rarely totally satisfying. Since the aim of the game is to find answers to questions when you don’t know what the questions are the experience is always one of uncertainty and doubt, which fits the story but can make the game hard to enjoy. Even when players get a perfect score its hard to really own the victory since their explanation is usually more piecemeal than Holmes’ supremely smooth and confident one.
For Holmes fans who want a slow and relaxed playing out of a story with friends this remains a fine experience. As a piece of game history its breathtaking in its ahead of its time design. As a game for the competitive or those looking for smooth and consistent gameplay its best avoided.