Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments screenshot courtesy Focus Home Interactive

Why Players Always Return to Games About Baker Street and Jack the Ripper

How the Victorian Era endures as the classic setting for mystery and murder.

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May 28 2017, 5:45pm

Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments screenshot courtesy Focus Home Interactive

The first Sherlock Holmes novel was published in 1887. A year later, Jack the Ripper killed five women. While they had no connection in their time, the fictional detective and legendary serial killer have captured the imagination of mystery lovers for more than a century. Because the character is in the public domain, Sherlock Holmes has inspired numerous works that explore his eccentric and sometimes dark character. He was a voice of logic and reason in an age where science and mysticism tended to blur, solving cases that often seemed supernatural but in fact were nothing but the creations of inventive criminals.

Meanwhile, Jack the Ripper captures the imaginations of lovers of both true crime stories and unsolved mysteries. While he's far from history's most prolific serial killer, the time in which the murders took place made him the embodiment of a city's fears. London had become the center of the Western world, a place of grandeur and prosperity for some and anonymous suffering for others. In a deeply repressive and unequal society, the psychosexual violence perpetrated against women from among the city's massive underclass seemed like the era's nightmare fears come to life.

While the murderer's identity may never be known, it's understandable that one of the most compelling stories about him, From Hell, shows him as a wealthy man preying on the poor and vulnerable. Jack the Ripper endures to this day as a real-world, metaphorical horror story.

The mystique of those two characters breeds fascination with the city itself, producing visions of London like the series Penny Dreadful that combine historical fact and literary fiction. In the last years of the 19th century nobles looked to séances for entertainment, scientists sought to understand the basic forces of the universe and the workings of the human mind, and huge waves of immigrants came to London looking for a better life. It was a time when few things seemed knowable and thus monsters could be lurking anywhere.

Watson and Holmes boxart courtesy Ludonova

Along with good television, comic books and movies, the themes of change, mystery, deception and fear are also perfect for board games. Numerous board game designers have used Victorian London and the famous characters of Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper to let players try to unlock its secrets.

Watson & Holmes is effectively a far more complex version of Clue. Two to seven players take on the roles of detectives trying to solve a crime by visiting various locations and looking for evidence. Intuition is required to figure out where to go and what to do with the information gathered as some of the locations provide no useful details while others provide key facts on the suspects or timeline that must be parsed together with other clues like a logic puzzle. Players are encouraged to take notes on everything they learn since it might not be clear how relevant a fact is until later.

The information is dense but rich in flavor. The story starts with Holmes taking on the case and you intersect with him throughout your investigation. In one location you might find an excited Holmes closing in on a revelation after licking jelly off the roof of a train. In another he'll be berating Inspector Lestrade for missing some key piece of evidence that you'll need to file away. Like any good portrayal of Holmes his actions follow a puzzling logic that you need to parse along with a heavy dose of intuition and deductive reasoning to reach the correct conclusion before any of the other players.

Each location can only be visited by one player each turn, and players that want to fight over who gets the first look at the scene of the crime or some other key location bid against each other by placing carriage tokens representing their ability to get their faster. One player each turn can also use these tokens to enlist the aid of Dr. Watson and have him share the information at a location another player is visiting with the entire table. I like to think the in-game explanation is the ability to take a ride with Watson and have him blurt out a bit of what he's been watching Sherlock do.

Of course, if you guess wrong in your attempt to solve the case then you're out of the game, but you can have some satisfaction even then by taking on the role of Holmes. Players have the chance to pay carriage tokens to look at your answers or ask you to look at their guesses and confirm how many are correct. The combination of strategy and puzzle solving makes winning really feel like you've earned the right to brag.

Sherlock and Mycroft art courtesy Devir

Holmes: Sherlock & Mycroft is a much smaller scale version of the same concept. Each player takes on the role of one of the two Holmes brothers trying to solve the case of a bomb exploding at the House of Parliament. The two players visit characters like Mrs. Hudson and Inspector Lestrade, each having a unique ability that they can activate such as giving players investigation markers or letting them cash in those magnifying glass-shaped tokens in for cards from a clue deck. Each card represents a clue type such as fingerprints and footprints and points at the end of the game are determined by who could accumulate more of each given type than their opponent.

Doing that requires a mix of strategy and luck, since new characters are revealed each turn and some of their abilities are outright better than others. With actions so limited, the key is figuring out how to balance your resources to optimize the cards you collect, both by keeping track of what clue types your opponent is hoarding and worrying about the cards they can keep secret, which might seriously boost their score at the end of the game.

Holmes: Sherlock & Mycroft only takes about 30 minutes to play and Beyond Baker Street is about the same duration. That game has two to four players collaborate to try to solve a case before Sherlock Holmes can. Play closely resembles Hanabi—a popular short-form deductive reasoning game—in that players have a hand of evidence cards representing different numbers and colors, but hold them face-out so that each player can only see what their collaborators are holding. Players must give clues about what numbers or colors their fellows are holding to allow them to make the right moves. Eventually, they solve cases by placing matching colored cards on three cards on the board representing a suspect, motive and opportunity until they exactly hit each lead's numerical value. Most actions you take also cause Sherlock to advance in his investigation and if he hits the case's target number, you lose.

While Beyond Baker Street doesn't have the simple elegance of Hanabi, the extra components do add plenty of flavor. Each of the suspects represents a villain from a Holmes book, complete with a descriptive quote. Similarly each motive and opportunity card has its own definition, whether that's a crime of passion or a hansom cab providing a getaway vehicle. In contrast Sherlock & Mycroft really just feels like the Holmes name was slapped onto mechanics that could be easily applied to so many other themes. There's descriptions of each of the characters in the rule book and their abilities make sense for them – for instance Irene Adler lets you steal cards from your opponent – but while it's a decent game it never feels like you're solving a mystery. You're just using the trappings of an investigation to beat your opponent.

Beyond Baker Street art courtesy Z-Man

Jack the Ripper & West End Adventures, a standalone game in the Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective series, couldn't be more different. There's no game board or tokens, just an elaborate map of London, the day's newspaper, a guide to locations you can visit and one book per case that details what you learn there. Scenes play out through dialogue, so this game is particularly fun with a group of theatrically inclined players taking turn acting out the characters. But it's also a delightful solo challenge, evoking the fantasy of rivaling the master detective's brilliance.

Or in the dark twist of Jack the Ripper & West End Adventures, being on the job when he isn't. The first mystery in the series opens with Watson calling your group of Baker Street Irregulars to investigate the murder of Mary Ann Nichols, because Holmes has been incapacitated by drug use. Holmes has recovered by the second murder, but at the end of the series—which leads you to one of the historical suspects of the crimes—Holmes wonders if the Ripper could have been brought to justice if not for the detective's debilitating addiction. There are plenty of murders to solve in the parts of the game that don't use Jack the Ripper but these are particularly bleak when painted as avoidable.

Jack the Ripper is the star of Letters from Whitechapel, where one player takes on the role of the serial killer and the other five control investigators trying to catch him. Jack secretly moves through the streets of London choosing his victims, making his attack and then fleeing to a hidden hideout while the other players try to surround him. The game plays out over four nights and if the investigators win if they can ever catch the killer in an adjacent square and make an arrest, or just keep Jack from getting back to his hideout by sunrise. Otherwise the game plays out like history and he never faces justice.

While most of the players are on the same side, you have to be careful how much strategy you discuss as your antagonist is sitting right across the table. The board is huge and the investigators don't know where Jack will initially strike, meaning they often have to spend turns getting to the scene of the crime and trying to pick up his trail while positioning other officers in the general regions where previous turns make them think the hideout might be. It evokes the futility of trying to police such a huge space with limited resources. The goal of the players on the side of law becomes less about preventing murders as making the most of the deaths to further the investigation. Further death becomes a grim inevitability.

Letters from Whitechapel art courtesy Fantasy Flight

Jack has to be very careful planning his moves to avoid being boxed in, so his turn can take a while and the other players can't do much but wait. The game goes on too long and just doesn't have enough options for how to take your turn, meaning it eventually gets as tedious as a stakeout, broken up by brief bits of excitement when you seem to be closing in on the Ripper or, as the killer, when you have to figure out how to escape the heat. Because the player controlling Jack acts alone, they have the pressure of making their own mistakes but also get to enjoy the glory of outwitting all of their friends. Each investigator has a name, a historic person involved in the case, but they are clearly the game's supporting characters.

London doesn't need a famous detective or killer to be mysterious. London Dread is set in 1899 London and has its investigators travel around the city unraveling nefarious plots involving gang leaders, mysterious killers, cults and mad science. The game has its own audio soundtrack explaining the plot of each of the chapters, and providing ambient accompaniment as two to four players scramble to flip cards representing encounters that must be dealt with to advance the plot. Mixed up with them are threats that don't have to be dealt with but if left on the board will increase the "dread" level and make it far harder to defeat the chapter's antagonist. Players have only 12 minutes to figure out where they'll be going at each phase of the game, coordinating with the others to team up as needed. Of course mistakes are inevitably made that only become obvious during the resolution phase, when players go to a location expecting backup and find none or find themselves at a space that was already dealt with on a previous action.

The game sits at the crossroads between mystery and horror, drawing more inspiration from H. P. Lovecraft than Arthur Conan Doyle. Characters investigate the disappearance of lost relatives by searching opium dens and dealing with unfriendly Scotland Yard investigators, but they also experience supernatural visions and use occult tomes. Each character has their own story and special abilities and your group writes its tale together, with each chapter having good and bad endings depending on how you fare. London Dread is tense and difficult, with the challenge level only ramping up as you go through the game's multiple scenarios. But it's a particularly fun way to explore the city that has sparked so many imaginations.

London Dread card art courtesy Grey Fox Games

It's a quirk of history and fiction that even though Lovecraft's writing came out after the end of the Victorian Era and across the Atlantic that the dark horrors explored in his stories feel so at home in London at the end of the 1800s. It was a time of rapid change, a sort of twilight of a more magical era that would give way to the rapid spread of modern technology and the previously unimaginable violence of World War I. It's a time when a clever man could solve mysteries that would baffle an entire police force and when being curious or unlucky could mean learning truths you'd rather not have known. The fictions and facts blur together in a way that make the time and place as spectacular as the Wild West or ancient Rome. Visiting it through the best of these games lets you engage with those contradictions in a more active way than watching a period movie or TV show, putting you in the shoes of an investigator or a murderer delving deep into the secrets of a bygone era.