Detective games

I’ve been playing Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter and it’s been an ok experience. I’m a big fan of the stuff Frogware has done with these games, and though they’ve added some weird stuff like more quick-time events and annoying mini games, the experience of playing as Sherlock with your faithful companion Dr Watson is still pretty solid.

But last night I hit a bug that annoyed me. I was in the fourth chapter, so I imagine in the home stretch, and I encountered a big I couldn’t move past, I was supposed to go into the sewers to continue my investigation but the game essentially locked up if I did so. I googled for info and found a post to the Steam forum by the developer that said yeah, you’ve pretty much got to restart the case, sorry about that. So I lost about an hour which, yeah, could be worse but still pretty annoying. Not sure I can give a thumbs up for this game. But I’m hopeful I’ll complete it.

Detective / investigation boardgames are really flooding on the market these days. Chronicles of Crime is another one. The gimmick is that much of the interfacing with the game happens through a smartphone app. Want to interrogate a character? Scan their QR code, and you’ll get some text to read out loud. Want to ask them about a specific item or person you’ve found during the investigation? Scan the QR code of that item while still in the discussion UI for that character. Etc.

There’s also a secondary bit of functionality in the app where, when visiting a new location, one player looks at the scene on the phone app (potentially in VR) and describes items of interest, other people try to find matching items from a deck of cards.

The primary upside of this app should be that it’ll let the scenario designer provide different responses depending on the information you have. And a smaller benefit is that there will be intermediate points in the story where the players prove that they’ve figured something out (by asking an astute question), not just the traditional “answer these five questions at the end of the case to prove you solved it” model.

Also, new cases can be sold as DLC to the phone app, no need for full board game expansions. All the physical components are generic (e.g. having a deck of 50 items and 50 persons), the story is completely in the app. But I don’t know that I really want to call it a “benefit”.

Unfortunately the execution just isn’t there. The amount of text you get for a single action is a couple of sentences. This makes the experience of playing the game just kind of slow and fragmented: there’s no chance for whoever is reading to even get into the narration before it’s cut short and you have to scan another QR code. And since the snippets are so short, there’s very little room for subtle hints. It’s just the most heavy-handed tripe imaginable. This is probably because the authors had to provide tons of filler text as answers to non-essential conversation branches, and couldn’t polish the parts that actually matter for the story.

The one scenario we played was just boring. There was none of that “we have no idea of what’s going on here or where to go next, so let’s toss around some ideas” discussions that’ll usually happen during Consulting Detective. It was just following up on the obvious clues one by one.

I doubt I’ll ever play a second scenario of this. But at least it solved the problem of the game giving static responses regardless of the players’ theoretical / actual knowledge of the case. My group has thought it was a real issue with the whole Consulting Detective-like genre. Now we know that the cure is probably worse than the disease.

Mythos Tales used Requirement Cards to at least somewhat let them track receiving clues and such (as well as having encounters based on time of day). It’s still a little clunky and the writing wasn’t as good as Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective, but it shows promise.

Yeah, the problem I have with that approach is that it’s obvious to the players that they didn’t get the entire scene. (And it also becomes obvious exactly when they gain whatever it takes to unlock the parts of the scene they missed out on. “Visiting this location gave us card 3, wasn’t there some place where we needed card 3?”). Or at least that’s been our experience with Time Stories, which uses a similar system.

So rather than being a reward for the players figuring out some part of the mystery (which is the experience I want), it just adds some hidden dependencies to which order you need to do things in.

I guess Return of the Obra Dinn is a detective game? It’s certainly got investigation and deduction. It’s also doing both of those parts in ways that are really interesting, though maybe not applicable anywhere outside of this particular game.

First the investigation part. In Obra Dinn you’re navigating through a sequence of 3d scenes, each one frozen in place at the time of someone’s death. Your goal is to figure out who died and how. There is very rarely (never?) enough information in just that one scene though, so you’ll need to scour a bunch of related (or perhaps unrelated!) scenes for further information.

The important part is this: there are no game mechanics involved with the investigation. You are doing nothing except looking at the scenes and trying to read it. There are no pre-defined points of interest to act on. There is no indicator that you’ve found something, let along found everything. It really is just you as a player looking at stuff and deciding what’s important. Or once you’re late into the game, looking for some very particular bit of evidence on a specific character that you’ve decided could work as the cornerstone of your next deduction step.

It’s just ludicrous how much more satisfying this open ended investigation is than going through the motions of gathering predefined facts in the more typical game.

Now, there is a downside to having the investigation part be so free-form. How do you prove to the game that you’ve understood the case, when the game doesn’t know what facts you have. The multiple choice systems like in Frogwares games would immediately leak information. The Consulting Detective style “write your answer down, then read the real answer, then decide whether you got it right” system only provides feedback at the end of the game and doesn’t give the player the option to refine the answer. And free text parsers are too hard.

The solution in Obra Dinn is kind of brilliant, kind of broken. What they do is only allow entering one form of deduction: what’s this character’s name and who died. There are 60 characters whose names you know from the crew manifest. You need to map their faces to their names. And there are probably 30 possible causes of death, with some additionally requiring you to name the killer.

Given this structured form of data entry, Obra Dinn requires you to correctly answer the same question 60 time for different characters. This almost entirely removes the issue with the questions themselves leaking information. It’s a standardized question with a ton of fixed options.

Since getting 60 answers right would be unreasonable, any time you get three answers right they’ll lock in. This is the kind of broken part: It’s a bit too forgiving, since unfortunately getting feedback for the correct answers implicitly gives feedback on the incorrect ones too. Even if you’re not explicitly brute-forcing the game, any time you get a set of three locked in it’s safe to go and change the answers you have for all the other characters a bit on whatever dimension you’re uncertain about.

I’ve complained in a bunch of posts in this thread about games only letting me deduce stuff at certain points in the story. It’s really frustrating to figure out something ahead of schedule, but getting no credit from the game since the question won’t be asked until the answer is totally obvious. Obra Dinn kind of does this: the game will inform you about whether you have enough information to determine their identity and the current difficulty of making that determination. But that’s just a guideline, and you can just ignore the warnings and enter your guesses (sorry; your iron-clad deductions).

Anyway, this system probably can’t be adapted to any other game. There’s not a lot of scenarios where triaging through 60 corpses makes sense.

As for the non-detective parts of Obra Dinn? The visuals are really striking once you move around in a scene, in a way that screenshots didn’t prepare me for. There’s a couple of really annoying UI issues (e.g. the way your first viewing of a scene is timed). And while piecing together the story is great, the final bit was a bit of a letdown.

Overall definitely worth playing.

Fun game, pretty enjoyable stories.

LK I am buying that NOW. I bet that’s fun. Spooky sounds edition!

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: Jack the Ripper & West End Adventures is a standalone SHCD expansion. It contains six cases based on the classic West End Adventures expansion, and a four case Jack the Ripper campaign.

I’ve only played the Jack campaign, and it’s not good.

The writing is just terrible. The authors weren’t out to write a good yarn, but to make the point that Victorian London was actually a pretty shitty place to live and not worth romanticizing. Visit a place that really should be very relevant to the investigation, and you’ll probably get half a page of turgid exposition on just how a Victorian laundry functioned and how horribly exploited the workers were, followed by a paragraph on the actual character you came to see. Toward the end of the campaign we started just summarizing the bullshit flavor text rather than reading it out loud.

A second problem with the writing is that the descriptions of the crime scenes are gruesome as hell. Lovingly written descriptions on exactly how the victim was cut up, which body parts were cut off, the exact state of various organs, etc. And unlike the blah-blah-blah on Victorian social issues, you actually do need to read through this to solve the cases. It’s of course realistic, but it’s also actively unpleasant.

So, very little of the charm of Consulting Detective is there. What about the actual gameplay?

On that side Jack has two large structural issues. One is that in the three first cases you don’t really have a mystery to solve. Like, any attempt to actually investigate the whole crime will fail and the game pretty much even says that up front. Instead you’re supposed to be investigating some fairly arbitrary aspect of the crime for each case. Since the real world is messy and ambiguous and your goals are so vague, it’s hard to do well on these. It feels like half the job is deciding arbitrarily which bits of evidence to ignore totally.

And then in the fourth case you get another arbitrary task. After coming back with the answer, you’re told that it was critical for figuring out the case, and are thrown back into the game to consider all five murders (one case has two murders) as a single unit. The intended solution depends on leaps of intuition that are totally absurd even by the standards of Holmes, basically pattern matching from a single example. I think it’s genuinely unsolvable the way they intended, though brute forcing would have been an option.

But the most inexcusable thing is that we actually would have solved the crime in an earlier case using another approach, and tried to do it, but the game just outright shut the door on following that thread.

I don’t think the designers were at fault here though, other than the choice of subject matter. This was supposed to reflect a complex and ultimately unsolved real-world crime. That’s not at all compatible with making a whodunit that’s solvable by normal people.

I honestly don’t think the Jack campaign is worth playing, no matter how much you like the genre. The only value is in seeing just how badly things can go wrong when following the normal Consulting Detective template. The other cases should be known quantities, except that apparently the rewrites broke one of the cases again.

Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game is actually name of a board game, and it’s about detectives. It’s modern since you need a phone or a laptop to play it.

At this point, you know the drill for how a Consulting Detective-alike works. There are cards with text on them, you decide as a group which cards to read, try to deduce from the text what happened, and at the end of the case answer a bunch of questions.

The website has three major bits of functionality. First, some cards will tell you to enter the name of a person to the site, and that will unlock their bio with all kinds of information like a picture, height, hair color, blood type, time of birth and death, links to relatives and known associates, etc. Second, some cards will basically unlock more text of exactly the kind you’d find on the cards themselves to be read on the website. There seems to be no rhyme or reason on what is printed on cards and what’s only available electronically. Third, sometimes you find physical evidence like DNA or fingerprints. The website can be used to match this evidence against the DNA or fingerprints of people in the database.

Nothing the app does is compelling. The first two features are just a more awkward text delivery mechanism. The third just feels like busywork. Find evidence or a new person, press “match”, and you’re maybe spoon-fed the connection between a scene you’re investigating and person of interest.

The other thing the game does is introduce a far too complicated and random time management mechanism. You’ve got a limited number of time for the investigation, so you need to prioritize rather than read every single card. That’s fine. But you don’t actually know how much time each card will require. Each day has theoretically 9 working hours available, if you exceed that you start accumulating stress tokens. Get too many, and you lose the scenario. So at the end of each day you’re playing this stupid push your luck mini-game. There’s also another resource management system where some cards have text on the flip-side, and you can only read it by spending a token from a limited pool.

These attempts at introducing more game mechanics aren’t quite as misguided as in Deadline (2017), but even here the only thing they achieve is detract from the game.

The structure of the actual cases is more interesting. This is a campaign game, a little bit like Jack the Ripper & West End Adventures. There are five cases which are linked together. You have specific investigative goal in each case, but the cases are closely linked together, and information from one case will carry over to the next. The campaign is far better designed than in Jack the Ripper (where the first three cases might as well not have existed). The first case starts with good hook: a watch that previously belonged to a Nazi war criminal turning up in an auction in Virginia 70 years later, and then builds up to a narrative with a cast of characters that span decades, with lots of connections and drama between them.

We had a lot of of fun re-constructing these past events in each case (one of the cases is mostly missing that link, and we didn’t find it very interesting). It really does feel like you’re building up this huge display of information connected by red string, like a conspiracy nut. There was way more of people suggesting ever more outlandish theories and than tearing them down than in Consulting Detective, since we had so much more data to work with.

We weren’t very satisfied by the final conclusion though. The game kind of disappears up it’s own ass with one plot twist too many, and ends up feeling incoherent. Given what the final solution was, the actions of some characters just make no sense at all. Our theory was much better!

The story works well for most of the campaign. What doesn’t work during any part is the writing. It’s just absurdly verbose and content-free. During the first game something like 90% of the cards spend a couple of sentences describing that it’s currently raining. The characters drink endless cups of coffee, and always remark on how bad it is. They eat more often than the characters in an Enid Blyton book. There are whole cards that are blatantly obviously just flavor text, followed by the instruction to go read another card for something actually related to the case. If the person reading the card is literally skipping full paragraphs and paraphrasing them as “blah blah”, you’ve done something wrong.

But there’s something to Detective. It shares a lot of the problems of Deadline and Chronicles of Crime. All of them have terrible writing, all of them are trying to cram too much actual gameplay into the experience. And both Detective and CoC are totally reliant on awful apps. But where the other two games were such miserable experiences that I’d never play them a second time, in Detective we found ourselves able to forgive these missteps. The larger mystery spanning across the full campaign was compelling right from the start, and really only stopped being compelling after the final scene.

Thanks for the detailed write up once again!

I’m still sad that Sherlock Holmes Cosulting Detective doesn’t have more cases…
Sounds like your Detective MCBG also doesn’t really fill that gap, even though mechanically it scratches some of the same itches.

As a fantasy game version I can recommend “Legacy of Dragonholt”, though thats closer to a Choose your own Adventure than a detective game. Structurally you have a character sheet where you determine some skills and during the game you jump from paragraph to paragraph and sometimes there are checks relating to those skills. There is a murder to solve, but most of the time you go on various seperate adventures all based around the “hub” of a village.

Its a pretty substantial story and takes at least 16 hours to finish and I really enjoyed it. I played it solo, but it works with 2-3 persons as well, though obviously it contains lots and lots of reading!

What’s really sad is that Asmodee apparently totally screwed up with Carlton House & Queen’s Park. Those should have been good old cases, but they did another re-translation from French. Previously they got an rules editor with a great reputation (Paul Grogan) to polish up the writing. This time they seem to have just used the translation made by a non-native English speaker, and probably not even a professional translator.

Just how hard can this be! :(

Sounds like your Detective MCBG also doesn’t really fill that gap, even though mechanically it scratches some of the same itches.

It’s one step forwards, two steps back. The campaign structure with the cold cases and a cast of dozens spanning 70 years works really well. I hope somebody runs with that idea but has better writing and fewer gimmicks.

Unfortunately that’s enough to make it the best one of these that’s been published in the last couple of years…

Thanks, looks like it might be something to play with my nephew. How’s the writing?

To be perfectly honest, I’m not really a good judge in that respect. It seems good to me? I checked around and the reviewers seem to like it! Here are 3 reviews & their comments regarding the writing.

So yeah… Sounds like the writing is up to scratch!

Hidden Agenda was Supermassive’s follow-up to Until Dawn. Again written by Larry Fessenden, and again using the likenesses of the voice actors for all the characters. Except this time they couldn’t swing Peter Stormare, Rami Malek and Hayden Panettiere. Instead it’s the ex-girlfriend from Arrow.

It’s a serial murder police procedural. The Trapper is taking hostages and killing both them and the first responders. You’re playing as detective Becky Marney and DA Felicity Graves, who are on the case. The game will walk you through a bunch of scenes, you’ll make a bunch of binary decisions on conversations (respond sarcastically or optimistically) and other actions (go in to a reported crime scene guns blazing or investigate cautiously).

Like Until Dawn, this then gives you a story with branches based on your decisions that eventually merge back to the main trunk of the story but might, in combination with other outcomes, cause the story to branch again later. I watched another playthrough from Youtube maybe six months after we played the game, and it was substantially different than ours.

The game has two main gimmicks.

  • It’s one of the handful of games that used Sony Europe’s ill-conceived Playlink tech. You don’t use a PS4 controller, but instead every player connects to the game using their phone. The phone is then basically used both as a touchpad input for moving cursors on the TV, and a second screen for doing things like viewing character bios. (Unlike Until Dawn, you don’t have direct control over character movement).
  • It’s got a strange co-op system where each decision is supposed to be done by majority rule. So you discuss as a group what should be done, and then vote. Hopefully you don’t get deadlocked. Except in each scene, one player is assigned a special agenda. They need to make something specific happen, while the other players are presumably trying to advance the case as efficiently as possible. To make this work, the game then needs a scoring system that’s separate from actually solving the case.

The story is good, the voice acting is good, and Supermassive’s facial tech is still great. A serial killer procedural was an inspired choice for a Until Dawn follow-up.

It doesn’t really work as a game. Oh, we had a lot of fun discussing the case as it progressed and arguing over the options. But:

  • It doesn’t really matter if you figure out what’s going on faster than the characters do, since there’s very few (if any) ways to take advantage of that knowledge.
  • It’s too hard to map the binary conversation / action options into outcomes. I’m fine with that being the case for the ripple effects: it makes sense that if something you do in the first scene has an effect on the very last one, that effect is non-obvious. It’s much worse in the short term, where you can’t even predict the immediate effect. It ends up feeling very arbitrary.
  • The traitor mechanic, where a player will be trying to subtly derail the scene is just horrible. It’s just nonsensical from a thematic standpoint, and given the arbitrariness of the decision tree, it’s already unlikely you’re going to get a good ending even with everyone pulling on the same rope.

Maybe it’s unfair to even put Hidden Agenda next to these other games, since it clearly didn’t try to be a game about deduction. But it’s at least adjacent, and gave a glimpse into what a game in this genre could be with way more resources behind it. Hidden Agenda wasn’t even that far off. Really all it needed was for the story to be more ambiguous halfway through, and give the players as a group some way of gaining an advantage by demonstrating understanding of the case at key points.

@KristiGaines stunning pixel alert!

Undo is a series of short mystery games, of the style where you read snippets of text in a non-linear order, try to piece together the story, and then answer questions about it. The central conceit is that you’re trying to prevent a death by traveling back in time and changing some small things in the past. Each box contains a single scenario that’ll take maybe 30-45 minutes to play (based on the one that I played: Undo: Curse from the Past; the box says 45-90 minutes but the upper end of that range is just absurd).

The game-play is quite basic. There are a dozen cards with a location+time on the front, and a scene of maybe 100-200 words on the back. One round consists of a player flipping over a card, reading the text, and then making a decision on what to change. The card will have three options. One option will be neutral and score 0 points, one will score positive points, and one will score negative points. In a departure from the standard formula for these kinds of games, you have to answer immediately after reading each card rather than at the end of the game.

The game lasts (IIRC) eight rounds, so you’ll never get to read everything. In addition to the main location cards, each location has a second auxiliary card that will give more information about a specific object in the scene. You get to flip over four of these during the whole game.

The system just doesn’t work on any level. There’s not enough text to start with (maybe half of what a Watson & Holmes scenario would have?), but it feels even more miserly since the text gets spread out too thinly over separate plot threads. So it’s unsurprising that the story that gets told is painfully straightforward rather than a mystery you really need to work at.

Multiple-choice questions don’t usually work well in these games, since the options basically always give away too much. That’d be even worse in Undo since you’re seeing questions constantly through the story, and get instant feedback on whether you picked the right answer. The way Undo tries to solve these problems is by making the multiple choice options vague and ambiguous. Even if you understand exactly what is going on in the story and what outcome you want, it’s often quite unclear which of the choices will have that effect.

It doesn’t help that after choosing the answer, you get just the score as feedback. It’s sterile and unsatisfactory. If there was a bit of narrative for each result, maybe the results wouldn’t feel quite so arbitrary. At least there would be some insight into what kind of logic the authors were following.

Undo is not worth the time, nor the money.

Just in case you were still thinking about this, we’ve played through about 2/3 of Legacy of Dragonholt with a party of 4 people and have had a lot of fun with it. Our group has been mostly ignoring the activation token rule though, which tends to turn the game into easy mode. We’ve covered every skill so it feels more like playing an old Fighting Fantasy book while keeping a finger on the previous page in case things go horribly awry. Great story and writing though so I think it’s well worth playing through.

A while back, I began playing this game on a whim, and I haven’t quite finished it yet, so I may not have gotten to the point where I can answer this question with confidence. I will mention that it’s essentially a puzzle book in adventure game format. It’s mostly serviceable, with some puzzles more relevant to the case than others. Otherwise it seems to be on-rails from the beginning.

It’s to my understanding that the mode you’re talking about is less randomly generated and more an alternate path written with a different culprit in mind, like the way they alter the mysteries in Kindaichi from the transition between manga and anime so a consumer of either would still have a chance to figure out who it is. I won’t be able to tell until I see how things are in the game, of course.

Thanks, that makes a lot more sense! I must have misunderstood the review I read.

You’re welcome. Though… I think I might make another post about it when I finish both modes of the game just to be sure.

Speaking of Frogware titles, I had been making my way through Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Silver Earring when I came up against something I was hoping wouldn’t make an appearance: a stealth section. Stalled on it a while then opted to find a bundle of saves someone kindly uploaded on the internet, so I could work around it in some way. Unfortunately, it does seem like it’s … well, a thing. At least for the area I stalled at. Being stealthy makes sense for the story but I was hoping I wouldn’t have to, like, dodge patrolling AI in real time.

I’ll probably miss out on a part of the game by doing this, but I want to at least have a chance at piecing the mystery together.