Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective is a story lover’s dream.
It presents like a fairly standard game. A thick, plastic-wrapped box of the usual size and shape greeted me within my Amazon package. But the moment I lifted it out, I found my first surprise: it was heavy, weighing as much as or more than a thick textbook. Peeling back the plastic, I slid the box open for another surprise: inside were no meeples, no dice, no markers or pens. Instead, I discovered a map, a directory, several newspaper printings, and about 10 booklets reminiscent of the sort used for standardized testing in school. The first booklet was the game’s rules, while the rest were the crux of the game—cases to be solved.
At first, I thought that calling Sherlock a game at all was a bit of a stretch; it really seemed, upon an initial reading of the rules, to be more of a collaborative open narrative in the vein of a Choose Your Own Adventure story. But buried behind paragraphs of clever text is indeed a very clever game, one that gives its players optional objectives and scores them against the performance of the one and only Sherlock Holmes. It is designed with the same spirit as an open-world role-playing video game in that the player or players make the choices and, upon those choices, either succeed or (in my case) spectacularly fail.
The premise is simple. Between one and eight players sit down at a table and choose a case; each is a mystery that needs to be solved, with the players stepping in as Holmes’s assistants in London. Every case has a pulpy title reminiscent of the old stories (The Pilfered Paintings or The Mummy’s Curse in particular), a newspaper printed around the date of the mystery, and an introductory narrative that explains the backgrounds and the initial facts of the case. The booklets are divided into sections that correspond to the postal quadrants of London—NW for northwest, WC for west central. Each of those sections then contains numerous “leads,” all of which are found on the map and in the directory.
A lead, of course, is the name of a person, business, or other place that can be looked up in the directory and then found in the case booklet for narrative details. These are not explicitly spelled out and sometimes require a bit of connecting the dots to find. One of the first leads my wife and I discovered was a cigarette found near the body of our murder victim. The cigarette was stamped with an acronym, which led us to a tobacconist, who examined the cigarette. We were lucky to learn that our cigarette was an expensive, rare make that only a certain few smoke, a list of whose names the shopkeeper just so happened to have for us. This became our suspect list, which was good, but it also became 10 additional leads we had to track down and follow up on, which was admittedly a bit overwhelming. The newspapers contain additional leads, as well as a number of fun little red herrings that will probably send players down dead-end paths.
The booklets also each contain a “Questions” page at the end that presents the questions the players must answer in order to solve the case, as well as a “Solutions” page where Sherlock Holmes breaks down exactly what he believed happened. Finally, an envelope in the back contains the answers to every question and the score associated with those questions.
The game’s production is top class. Booklets are printed on thick, waxy paper that will survive a lot of handling. The prose is well written and often very funny; more than once, I laughed out loud at a scenario found while chasing a bad lead. The leads are detailed but never overstay their welcome, and outside of one or two key scenes, they generally took less than a minute to read aloud. The rules recommend that players take turns as the “chief investigator,” each one choosing a lead to follow, taking notes, and then passing the hat to the person to their left. This was less important when there were just the two of us, but it did help to keep us both equally involved, and I can definitely see the benefit it would bring to a larger group. I can also see how playing with a larger group would decrease the difficulty, because if I’m being honest, Sherlock kicked our butts.
That’s not to say we didn’t follow every lead. We did! We read a few of them multiple times. We talked it out. I paced around the kitchen, because pacing is the proper thing to do when investigating, but alas, inspiration did not spring forth in my mind. We eventually cobbled together what we believed to be a reasonable scenario, but honestly, I think we knew that we didn’t really have it right. I was expecting a vast conspiracy, and in the end I found I’d quite spectacularly overthought it. The game doesn’t hold your hand, and it asks that you connect the dots it lays out for you if you want to solve the mystery.
But despite “losing,” despite the game’s difficulty and lack of hand-holding, I still really enjoyed my first foray into Sherlock’s mysterious world. We spent over two hours on the case, and this big dang box comes with 10 of them. Ten! I’m really tempted to bring one on my next long plane ride. I should also point out that the case collection I purchased, The Thames Murders and Other Cases, is only one of three available. Considering I paid $35 for it, it’s a phenomenal value, and the fact that other collections with even more cases exist really blows my mind. Sherlock tickled my brain, told an interesting story, and left me thinking about the things I did wrong—and the things I learned that I’ll apply to the next case, something I’m very excited to tackle soon.
Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective is available in stores and online from Asmodee North America.