We meticulously cross-examine a favorite game of my youth and its modern-day reprint. Come Watson, the game is afoot!
Players: 1 – 6 Best with: 1 – 3
Age: 12+ GN Age: Teen
Game Type: Party Time: 1 – 2 hours
Publisher/Year: Sleuth Publications – 1981 / Ystari Games – 2013
Game Play: Mystery, Deduction, Reading (ugh)
Score: (1981) / (2013)
Eons ago, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced me to a world of gaslit streets, hansom carriages, Victorian society, and murder most foul. From A Study in Scarlet to His Last Bow, I was enamored with the mysterious tales of Mr. Sherlock Holmes and his faithful chronicler, Dr. John H. Watson. I always wished that I could be as brilliant as the famous detective, and in 1981, when a non-descript three-ring binder offered me the opportunity to match wits with the master of deduction, I leapt at the chance.
I loved this game so much that, despite being truly playable only once, the game survived the Great Purge of 1999. And 2003. And 2008. Recently, I saw that some dedicated fans had undertaken the monumental task of republishing this long out-of-print masterpiece, and I desperately wanted to do a side-by-side comparison. What follows will include an inordinate amount of trifling details, but to Holmes there was nothing more illuminating than trifles.
Part 1 – The Game
In Consulting Detective, you play the role of one of the Baker Street Irregulars, a gang of intrepid street urchins who occasionally assisted Holmes in his investigations. Ten mysteries are presented and you attempt to solve them in the manner of Holmes. You visit various locations that are detailed in each cases’ individual Case Book, looking for clues. The clues you discover will lead to new locations to explore and leads to pursue. When you think you’ve solved the case, there is a small quiz regarding the mystery to test your conclusions. Your score is based upon your, hopefully correct, answers and then comparing the number of locations you visited with the number that Holmes needed to solve the crime. Interestingly, this game can be played solo, as a cooperative group, in competitive groups, or as competing individuals. We prefer to play in cooperation, but every way is enjoyable.
Both versions are intrinsically the same but there is one immediate difference. The Reprint comes is a simple cardboard box that is just big enough to fit the game inside. The Original came in a (p)leather-bound three-ring binder with pockets for all the accessories. This was unique and different, and it felt like you had just opened a tome of newly discovered Holmesian adventures. Plus, The Original had ample room for all the expansions in the same binder. So, first point to the Original.
Part 2 – The Materials
The mysteries are challenging and none of the clues are handed to you on a silver platter. Even when you know that you need to speak with Sir So-and-so, you still need to locate him. Will you find him at home, at work, or at his favorite club? And what are the addresses for those three locations? In addition, most cases start with a short story where you meet the client and gain a few particulars about the case. But my favorite case begins with just a note from Holmes that says, “Read the newspaper.” To assist you with these investigations there are several items at your disposal:
The London Directory is used to help you look up all the addresses and locales you need to visit. Along with thousands of extra names and addresses to make it challenging and create a more immersive London populace. Both directories are identical in content but there are a few aesthetic differences.
The Original version is printed on heavy-weight matte typewriter paper with a card stock cover. The paper colors naturally with age and the type is a suitable typewriter font, appropriate for the period. The Reprint is on thin glossy paper with a similar glossy cover. The paper has a faux-aged coloring and the font type was unavailable in Victorian England, breaking immersion with the game. Point to the Original.
The Newspaper is used to find additional clues during your investigations. Sherlock Holmes was renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge of the news and tabloids. There is a separate paper for each case, and each paper is packed with pertinent facts, red herring fluff, and Victorian flair. The challenge is to cull the vital from the trivial. Better still; since each case is presented in chronological order, there may be a monumental clue to your current case hidden in one of the previous cases’ paper.
The Original game archived these papers within a single booklet. The typeface, three column design, and spacing were all evocative of the times but you were still clearly reading a booklet. On the other hand, the Reprint printed each paper individually, on newspaper-sized sheets, with the same attention to detail as the Original. If you sat by a fire, reading these papers, with your favorite meerschaum pipe and smoking jacket, you could be Sherlock Holmes. Point to the Reprint.
The Map of London is used to help you gain your bearings and occasionally plot a suspect’s movements. It should be my favorite element because I love maps, but it is not.
It is a fair representation of London for the purpose of the game, but I have always wished that they could have incorporated a map that better represented the cartography of the era. As such, the Original map is superior to the Reprint in size, quality, and evocativeness. Point to the Original.
Part 3 – The Presentation
Now we get into the meat of the mysteries and how they are presented.
Format – In the Original game, the mysteries are all contained in a single 3-ring binder. While I liked feeling that I’m reading a big book of Holmes stories, the mysteries in the Case Book were printed back to back. I would often inadvertently skip into the next mystery, start reading the wrong clues and get hopelessly confused. Meanwhile, the Reprint put each mystery into a separate case book. No more jumping into the wrong case. No more accidentally seeing the answers to the next mystery. Point to the Reprint.
Readability – However, the Reprint is almost impossible to read. The Original is printed in simple easy to read type on plain paper and is scrupulously proofread and collated. The same cannot be said of the Reprint. They chose an illegible font and then used all italics for some reason. They printed it on glossy paper to make it hard to read under a light, and used that fake distressed look that added obnoxious lines, blotches and shadows; obscuring the text even more.
Then there are the typos. So many typos. And errant grammar. And extra; punctuations for, no, reason. Some of them were almost humorous; like “due” instead of “clue”, “carnage” for “carriage”, “bock” for “back”, or “Tor” for “for”. Some were maddening, like when they replaced an exclamation point “!” with the capital letter “I” that so completely altered the sentence, that I had to find the passage in the Original just to see what it was supposed to say. Often times, the dialog would be in a single paragraph of text, and you could not tell who was talking.
But the most egregious example was on the Special Contacts page. Holmes has a number of contacts, such as the coroner’s office, Scotland Yard, underworld informants, etc., that we can use during every case. However, the list that includes all of the location addresses is completely mistyped, making it impossible to find them. Point to the Original.
Illustrations – One of the most underrated elements of the Sherlock Holmes stories are the wonderful illustrations by artist Sidney Paget. They brought vision to the amazing imagination of Sir Arthur Doyle. The Original went to great pains to include as much of Paget’s artwork as they could throughout the entire game. That coupled with numerous quotes from the source material really helped to evoke a sense of time and place and love of the genre.
The Reprint commissioned new illustrations, sans any quotes. The drawings are good and look like Holmes and certainly retain the noir elements, but they lack the charm, wit, and whimsy of the Paget drawings. Point to the Original.
Part 4 – The Mysteries
The score now stands at 5 to 2 in favor of the Original. Had the Reprint done nothing else then they would have had a reasonably good rendition that improved some areas of the Original game yet also made some silly mistakes in others. But they just couldn’t leave well enough alone.
I am about to give some major spoilers for one of the cases in the game. If you would like to skip ahead to my Conclusion, do so now. You have been warned. We played this case using the Reprint version.
The Case of the Mystified Murderess involves a man murdered in his hotel room. There are a number of suspicious suspects, but the case revolves around two sisters; a timid one and a wild one. There is also the identity of a mysterious “Society Burglar” to solve.
The timid one is charged with the murder. She was seen entering the hotel, and moments later a shot was heard and she is standing in the room with the smoking gun in her hand. Also, the gun was recently purchased by her at a local gun store. Yet it is obvious she has been set-up.
First off, the murdered man is also the Society Burglar. And the accused suffers from blackouts where she wakes up with no knowledge of previous events. The true murderer knew the victim’s secret identity, shared a glass of wine with him, shot him, removed a recently stolen tiara, climbed out the window using a trellis, and then hypnotized the timid sister to go to the hotel room and fire a bullet into the ceiling.
All the circumstantial evidence pointed to the wild sister. She is flighty, uncaring, and unpredictable. She dated the victim behind her sister’s back and has been seen at the hotel numerous times. Multiple entries describe her ability to climb difficult heights. She learned hypnotism from her doctor and she was the only person present at all of her sister’s previous blackouts.
But there was no evidence linking her to the crime. There was no evidence linking anyone to the crime. The only other suspect could be the doctor who knew both sisters and knew hypnotism but had no connection to the victim or his secret life. And he profoundly defended the accused of being innocent of the crime. The wild sister did not.
Having fruitlessly explored all the possible locations, we guessed the wild sister killed him for the tiara and framed the sister. But reading the Reprint solution, it was the doctor all along. Apparently, he inexplicably knew that the timid sister would be executed for the crime, her heretofore unmentioned inheritance would go to the wild sister, and it would only be a matter of time before he scammed the inheritance out of her as well. The Society Burglar, the missing tiara, and the two wine glasses found at the scene were irrelevant to the case.
This made absolutely no sense. There was no mention of an inheritance scam or any of the other ridiculous details in the Reprint’s solution. We were so irate at this solution that I checked the Original mystery. Of course, in that one, the wild sister was the culprit and the how and why were as we claimed.
I did a line by line comparison to see where this mystery went astray. The mysteries are identical except in four areas, two of them major, two minor.
First, in the single entry involving the doctor, both passages are the same, except that in the Original the doctor is described as corpulent (and thus unable to climb a trellis), but in the Reprint he is athletic (and thus guilty).
Most damning however is Location 28WC. That is the location of the gun store where the timid sister allegedly purchased the gun. In the Original, that entry states that it was actually the wild sister who bought the gun and used her sister’s name (The only true piece of evidence in the case). But if you want to visit that location in the Reprint, you can’t, because the entire entry is removed with nothing to replace it.
There are no other passages implicating the doctor or detailing his convoluted scheme. The other two “changes” involve a corrupt cop and a pointless rabbit-hole where you run around town checking pharmacies for drugs that are irrelevant to the case.
On a certain level, I applaud this effort. Changing the solutions would create a wholly new experience for those of us familiar with the Original. But this change was only done to a few mysteries; the others were copied verbatim. So why bother? Worse, the changes were incompetently done, and completely botched the entire mystery; making the case unsolvable. I understand that there are errata pages and added entries that you can find online to fix this mystery, but why fix what wasn’t broken in the first place? The Reprint really needed to hire proofreaders and play-testers to catch these problems before publication.
Part 5 – The Conclusion
Obviously, I am biased and I love this game. But it is not a perfect game and it is definitely not a perfect family game. My 11-year-old had no desire to even try it. My 13-year-old played it with us and his review was, “It’s fun but kinda boring.” This game is not for everyone. It is slow and methodical and completely unlike your typical game. But if you love mysteries and like the Choose Your Own Adventure style of play then Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective is an incredible experience. But which version to buy?
The clear winner is the Original version. I enjoyed the improved newspapers and formatting of the Reprint, and I also liked the changes that the Reprint did with the Quiz section. But its aggravating illegibility of a game based solely upon reading and the complete butchery of several cases is impossible to ignore. The choice is elementary; if possible, buy the Original edition of the game.
The good news is that the Original version is also a better bargain. The Reprint is now rarer than the Original. On Amazon, the Reprint is priced at over $100, and is at least $50 on eBay. Meanwhile, the Original is going for around $30 on eBay and all the Original expansions are about $20 each.
You know, maybe I should put together a reprint of another awesome Sleuth Publications Game that pits you as a hard-boiled detective in San Francisco in the film-noir 1930s – Gumshoe. Gary, Suzanne, Raymond (the game creators), give me a call. I’m serious.
As always, the game is afoot, and Game On!
“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth” – Sherlock Holmes
2 thoughts on “Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective”
Great write-up! Seen the game come and go through the shop over the years, but never played it.
Ahh, yes, the bane of computer-assisted printing, when designers ruin readability with italics and mottled backgrounds.
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