Can it really be over a year since my last romp down Memory Lane? I can’t think of a better time to revisit a classic that’s still in the BGG Top 100 after almost forty years. Put on your deerstalkers; the game’s afoot!
The first edition of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective (SHCD hereinafter) came out in 1981, published by Chessex. When I read about it in GAMES Magazine I knew right away I would love to play it–if I could find a copy, that is. It wasn’t the kind of game I’d find in the toy section of The Bay at Yorkdale. I’d have to head down to Mr. Gameways’ Ark near Yonge & Bloor to get it, and that was a trip I wasn’t brave enough to take on my own yet.
I’d already read all the original “canon” Sherlock Holmes and I may well have seen The Seven Percent Solution by then. I’m pretty sure I hadn’t yet seen The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Smarter Brother (which remains one of my favorite movies of all time). The idea that I could wander around London solving cases just like he did was intoxicating.
SHCD was different from any game out there, and certainly any Sherlock-themed game–of which there was really only one, 221B Baker Street which was a roll’n’move not far removed from Clue. In its mechanics it was the ancestor of today’s Choose-Your-Own-Adventure and Escape-Room-in-a-Box genres. The player(s) take the role of Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars, urchin assistants who Holmes uses to scuttle around London picking up tidbits of clues. The idea is that as we now are getting older, Holmes thinks we can handle some of his simpler cases on our own.
Everything in the box simply reeks of gaslight-era Victorian London. Not literally, fortunately. All the writing is done impeccably in Arthur Conan Doyle’s prose-style, starting with the introductory chapter in the casebook where Holmes takes Watson through a list of his most common sources of information, whom you can consult in every case (though their usefulness varies widely from case to case). Then there are the cases themselves–ten in all, each an intricate maze of red herrings and dead ends, most of them murders, but a couple of robberies thrown in too.
You read the case and then…you’re on your own. Your tools are: the list of Holmes’ sources from the introduction; a map of Holmesian London; a copy of the front section of that day’s Times; an address directory; and a Clue Book.
The Clue Book is split into sections by Case with numbered paragraphs. Every location on the map, address, and source comes with a reference number, which you look up to see what happens when you visit or call there. Much of the time, not much happens; you’ve pursued an empty lead. But with keen observation and the ability to connect disparate bits together, you will be able to answer the questions in the Quiz Book, which if correct earn you points.
Your score is modified by your travel time around London and how many Clues you’ve looked up, which you then compare to Holmes’ “actual” score. I’ve never bothered with that–it’s too much fun just exploring.
SHCD is a cooperative game with no turn structure which came out long before anyone defined “The Pandemic Effect”, let alone Pandemic. Therefore, a bossy player can ruin it for everyone else and some (myself included) prefer just to play it solo, which also has the benefit of letting you explore the case at your leisure.
On the other hand, with the right group willing to get into the spirit, SHCD can become a kind of RPG with people reading out sections in plum British accents. There is a lot of reading, by the way, so I advise you to share it around if you play in a group. And if one person is willing to shoulder all the reading, SHCD makes for a perfect social-distancing video-call kind of game as well.
Through the 80s various expansions and standalone sequels of SHCD were released, but it drifted out of print despite winning the Spiel des Jahres in 1985. It wasn’t until 2012 when Ytsari bought the rights to re-release it, which then passed on to Space Cowboys and Asmodée. I picked up my copy second hand at Origins in 2009 along with several expansions. Even though it’s beat-up and raggedy and I still haven’t played through all the cases I would never think of getting rid of it.