Murder and mystery for the modern day Sherlock Holmes. With Donuts.
Players: 1 – 5 Best with: 3
Age: 16+ GN Age: Teen
Game Type: Board Time: 3 hours
Publisher/Year: Portal Game / 2018
Game Play: Mystery, Deduction, Skill Management
Available from: Online, Hobby Stores
Score: out of 12
Reminiscent of the classic mystery games like Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective and Gumshoe, Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game will have you fire up the old grey cells, as you wage wits against a slew of crime and misdemeanors, from stolen heirlooms to murder most foul. But unlike its ancestors, Detective is set in the present day, with all the modern resources available to today’s armchair sleuths; mostly internet access and a database that apparently stores evidence from every criminal case ever, even 50-year-old cold cases. How very convenient. In fact, access to the internet is mandatory to complete these cases, so I hope your Wi-Fi bill is paid.
You play as part of a team of investigators for the newly formed Antares detective agency which is also part of the FBI for some reason and run by a clichéd, wise old mentor who is inexplicably bound to a wheelchair (and probably has a bald head, a monocle, and a Van Dyke beard.) But you are not the idealized slueths of Christie, Doyle, and Poe, solving crime for the trill of the hunt. No, you are working class stiffs, punching the clock, dodging traffic, and drinking copious amounts of coffee while typing mundane reports and trying to avoid overtime. Just like real-life. Almost. In real life, cops love overtime. It’s like legally stealing money.
There are five types of agents to choose, from private eyes to psychologist and investigative journalist. Each agent brings a different set of skills to the table, allowing you to gain more evidence. But not all agents are created equal. For example, the Analyst is vastly superior since he is the only one that can increase your pool of skill tokens. Meanwhile, the retired cop is absolute rubbish. And since none of these guys add anything to the narrative, you may as well max out their abilities, which is to have three players play as the Analyst, the Psychologist and the P.I., while keeping the cop and the reporter as “consultants”.
There are five cases in the base game and each case is filled with all manner of clues, red herrings, and dead-ends; delivered by a series of case-specific cards, an exclusive website, and in my favorite moment of the game, a batch of handouts hidden within the game box itself. I love mystery games that provide tangible evidence to examine, so I was totally surprised and positively giddy when this occurred during the game.
As to the mysteries, they are well written, with good twists and turns, and clues that get more complex over time. Some of the clues from the earlier cases may even be relevant to cases later on. And in addition to the five presented cases there is an over-arching mystery that ties them all together. And I really like that each case has a time limit, forcing you to carefully choose which leads to follow. At the end of each case, there is a short online quiz to determine your score which is also affected by how much evidence to actually found and by how little overtime you worked. What’s up with this overtime thing? There must be some serious budget cuts at this detective agency.
But the verdict isn’t all good for Detective. The Skill Token mechanic may be necessary but it is silly. Imagine this conversation with your Interrogation Expert, “Nope, I’m sorry, but I’ve already talked to one witness today, I couldn’t possibly talk to anyone else. Maybe tomorrow.” And the Stress Token mechanic caused by working past 4pm is plain dumb. Apparently, the rush hour traffic at 5pm is just murder. I know this is designed to make it impossible to just brute force visit every clue in the game, but almost every case is impossible to solve without working at least once “after hours” and to be penalized for this in the final score is just wrong. You’ll be hearing from my union rep about this clear violation of worker compensation!
But the most egregious violation is that the game is overly verbose and woefully time consuming. It took us almost 2 hours just to read the convoluted rule book. And the rules are not that hard! Every card is filled with must-read (‘cause there might be a clue) but wholly irrelevant details, like the step-by-step procedure of walking through a lobby every single time you visit the Lab, or the fact that one day for lunch we ate a Greek salad, black coffee, and a bottled water. Do they lend immersion to the game? Yes. Do they create a narrative feel? Yes. But while these literary “darlings” may be great for a mystery novel, they bring a mystery game to a grinding halt. And as every editor will tell you, as a writer, you must “kill your darlings”. The worst is that it makes the mysteries feel less like Hercule Poirot and more like Nancy Drew.
Plus, when one player has to spend several minutes inputting dozens of “signature” codes into the game’s online database searching for more clues while everyone else sits around waiting, that is not a good sign. Halfway through, my son wanted to quit because he was so bored. But, on the flip side, he was really invested in solving the mystery so he muscled up the moxie to muster on. We put him in charge of reading all the clues which helped considerably.
As for playing the game with the kids, this game has a lot of factors going in to that decision. The game is rated for ages 16+ but the material is fine for any teenager. But the game is complex and very long (including the reading of the rules, the first case took us five hours to solve.) You will have to decide the maturity and game fortitude of your children before you crack open this case with them.
For our final denouncement, the game is mysterious enough to overlook its negatives and we are really looking forward to the next time we can contend with these chronicles of crime. If you are a fan of crime novels and deduction games then Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game delivers a compelling caseload of conundrums, wrapped in a riddle, enveloped by enigmas.
As always, quitting time is a 4pm sharp, and Game On!
The crime must be evaluated in its totality. And, above all: Why + How = Who. – John E. Douglas, FBI Elite Serial Crime Unit