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.