|Name||Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Thames Murders & Other Cases (1981)|
|Review||Meeple Like Us|
|BGG Rank||68 [7.81]|
|Player Count (recommended)||1-8 (1-5)|
|Designer(s)||Raymond Edwards, Suzanne Goldberg and Gary Grady|
|Artist(s)||Bernard Bittler, Arnaud Demaegd, Nils Gulliksson, Neriac, Pascal Quidault and Stefan Thulin|
|Buy it!||Amazon Link|
Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective is one of a breed of game we don’t often see on Meeple Like Us. It’s a game that is unabashedly about literacy where the thrill is in understanding and then commanding an arsenal of facts. It’s about diligent and methodical detective work, with nary a die or cardboard token in sight. We looked at Tales of the Arabian Nights a while ago – a similar kind of title although with far more of a ‘game’ wrapped around it. We gave Sherlock Holmes four stars in our review, because it is lit, fam. I believe that is what the kids are saying these days. Is Sherlock Holmes going to do better or worse in its teardown though than Arabian Nights? It’s time to don our deerstalkers and find out! The game is afoot!
There is nothing in the game that uses colour as the sole channel of information. The newspapers are black and white, and the in-game text is clearly legible for all categories of colour blindness:
The only area where colour could have been a minor issue is in the map of London. Usually you’ll make use of the London Directory to find locations though since it’s far easier than hunting for a tiny reference in the vast expanse of the city.
As such, we strongly recommend Sherlock Holmes in this category.
The obvious problem here is that Sherlock Holmes uses a lot of text. It’s an entirely narrative driven game consisting of long, intricate passages of finely crafted story. There’s a lot more of that than there was in Tales of the Arabian Nights but it’s also easier to deal with because it doesn’t have the minimum player count that goes along with that title’s hidden choice system. As long as you’re playing with someone that is sighted, they can take on the role of game narrator. It’s going to be necessary to take notes while playing, but there’s no reason that has to be in any particular form, or done by any one player. Sherlock Holmes with a narrator is a bit like listening to an audio-book rather than reading the thing yourself – if done well, it can actually enhance the experience. If done poorly, it’s going to be almost unbearable.
However, one player narration does make the game an extremely passive experience – all you’re doing in that scenario is listening and interjecting observations. You don’t get the thrill of poring over a map or excitedly grabbing a newspaper for confirmatory evidence. You’re also going to be locked out of occasional parts of the investigation. Some of the story passages come with images relating to evidence, and those remain obstinately inaccessible even with the presence of a willing narrator:
For those that have more minor sight issues, the game is designed in a way that makes it extremely visually inaccessible. First of all there’s the background to the main text – it’s unnecessarily busy. And then there’s the font, which is undeniably thematic but too ornamented to be easily read.
This is even worse for those evidentiary elements in the case book where hand-writing is used:
You can see the contrast in readability when you look at the newspapers. They are by comparison a joy to behold:
The issues with scanning the map for tiny references are going to be obvious, but the larger problem that goes along with location hunting is the astonishingly small font used in the London Directory:
All of this said, the game is playable with support because the act of reading is not necessarily one that must be shared equally. You wouldn’t necessarily lose much in the experience if the reader of the passages is comfortable in the role. It does though put a visually impaired player at the mercy of group composition, and that’s not a situation that we tend to consider very conducive to a recommendation.
As such, we don’t recommend Sherlock Holmes in this category, but if you like the sound of it there absolutely is a way you can play it, and meaningfully, if you have the right friends available.
As discussed above, while the game does have an associated reading level there is no particular reason why it can’t be read out by a single narrator for the benefit of all players. Sherlock Holmes lacks any significant gaming architecture too – there are very few rules, hardly anything in the way of game state, and a scoring system that as is simple as answering a few questions. There is a degree of attached numeracy to that, but the level isn’t high.
Core to the game though is the assumption of a certain degree of cognitive capacity. It’s a game where memory is going to be a hugely important element – names, places and the like float in and out of prominence as the narrative goes on. Sometimes they’ll be linked to the associated newspaper or an edition from previous cases. You can make notes as you go along to highlight key informatio, but sometimes its importance isn’t obvious at the time. Similarly, it’s necessary to hold in mind the relationship between each of the elements discovered thus far. You need to have a grasp on the shape of the investigation. There’s no game state reminder in front of you – all you have is your notes, your recollection, and the shared knowledge of each player.
A similar issue is the need to understand sometimes complex and subtle relationships between actors and locations in the story. Inductive reasoning is a high level cognitive process, and it requires a degree of fluid intelligence that is likely to render the game inaccessible to those with all but the most minor impairments. Concentration is also highly dependent on fluid intelligence, and this is a game that demands much focus from its players.
While the game does not require any formal pre-requisite knowledge to play, certain elements of certain cases are more understandable if viewed through the lens of historical or geographical context. There are subtle interrelationships of geopolitics happening in the background of each case and even if they are not significant it’s important to know the insignificance so the events can be ‘eliminated from inquiries’. Some evidence found during play makes sense only if analysed with relation to general knowledge about various topics, and a degree of connected logical evaluation goes with this.
With all of this in mind, we strongly recommend you avoid Sherlock Holmes if cognitive accessibility, in either category, is important.
As a collaborative game, most of the score disparity elements that may trigger emotional upset are significantly reduced. You will though need to resign yourself to the fact there is a very real chance you will end up with an embarrassingly low score as a group. Quintin Smith, in his excellent review of Sherlock Holmes, notes that in his first case he got negative sixty points and genuinely questioned how intelligent he was as a result. If you can have fun with that kind of catastrophic failure, it’s fine. However If you place a lot of emphasis on your intelligence only to find that you were comprehensively beaten in a game purportedly about your analytical flexibility, it can be disheartening. There is enough in each case that is fundamentally misleading or logically questionable for failure to be angering if emotional control issues must be considered. You might make a completely sensible and thoroughly logical series of connections only to find that you missed some fundamental element of the story that debunks your careful theory. When so much thoughtful evaluation hinges on information that may not have been available some degree of frustration is almost guaranteed.
However, it’s also the case that you can’t read too much into a failure of inductive reasoning. The game is full of red herrings and misleading clues, and the steady clock-beat of points being shaved off your score with each lead incentivises players to conclude rashly and live with the results. Since everyone has to agree with the answers, you can all simply bask in your collaborative failure. That might not be true though if one player has taken a lead in architecting the case. If you are dealing with a domineering personality with emotional control issues perhaps look elsewhere for an evening’s entertainment.
The game does come with a competitive mode in which every player answers the questions separately. Adopting that is optional, but dramatically alters the emotional accessibility of the game. It introduces the issues of score disparity that the collaborative framework mitigates. In this case, being ‘beaten’ isn’t just losing at a silly game. It can, but shouldn’t, be interpreted as being dumber than the player that won. It’s absolutely not the case, but logic does not necessarily dictate the way we feel about things.
Overall though we recommend Sherlock Holmes, just, in this category. This issue isn’t insignificant, but it is only going to emerge in certain group contexts.
The only physicality in the game is leafing through one or other of the supporting documents for the case. Unlike Tales of the Arabian Nights, you don’t even have to contend with awkward spiral binding or massive, heavy books. Other than that, the only game interactions are reading and talking.
We strongly recommend Sherlock Holmes in this category.
Communication is going to be hugely important in any game of Sherlock Holmes where there is more than one player. There is a very high reading level involved, and even if someone else is reading the text the sophistication of the language adopted is often difficult to parse. The game leans into the archaic and ornate literary styling of Arthur Conan Doyle. As such it often arrives at its points in a roundabout way. It’s important to the ambiance of play that this is so, but it does make understanding what’s going on a challenge.
The nature of the game too is that sometimes hugely important information is presented in a throw-away manner. There is no signposting as to what is going to have a bearing on the case. Not only is close reading required, close listening is key. The length of the passages is likely to make signing infeasible, and the sophistication of the language means that hearing aids may not be entirely up to the task.
Coupled to this is the need to communicate deep information in play, and some of this information will involve a spirited amount of debate. Every single lead you investigate costs you points, and as such a negotiation between players is necessary before any new passage is read. The range of information that may be relevant in play is considerable, and the intricacy of discussion can be significant. This puts a lot of pressure on whatever communicative support regimes are in place for any given group.
As such, we don’t recommend Sherlock Holmes in this category.
The box, as you can imagine, features a particular gentleman. There is no attempt at a gender balance. The source material here must bear the lion’s share of the responsibility for this since the franchise is very much a product of its time. As such the casual indifference (or sometimes outright misogynistic) ways in which women are treated comes, at least in part, with the territory. This is an area where I would have liked to have seen it deviate more aggressively from the context of the original works. Women, when they appear in the text, are primarily in the form of prim housekeepers or docile wives. There is occasionally a more proactive or interesting woman in the course of the story, but they are vanishingly rare. It’s a problem, but no more so than it is in the canon of Holmes itself.
At an RRP of £35 the game is reasonably affordable. That though must be set against the fact you are buying a product with an expiry date. There are ten cases in the box, which is a generous provision, but that means ten gaming sessions before you’ve drained it of all its juice. However, each case will take between an hour and two hours, so it’s not as if that’s going to happen very quickly. Cases though have almost zero replayability once they have been experienced.
That experience though is dense, and high value. It’s also very flexible – the game officially supports between one and eight players, but there is no reason at all it can’t go higher. Even if it has a shelf-life, it squeezes an awful lot into every minute. This is a sticking point for many people when it comes to buying a game, but it has to be viewed in context. Even of those games that have no built-in kill switch, how many of them will stand up to twenty hours of play? Games like that certainly exist, but I suspect the majority don’t see that amount of table time across their lifespan.
We recommend Sherlock Holmes in this category.
We’ve mentioned several times above that it’s possible to play the game as a more passive experience, with one player taking the role of narrator to support those that cannot read the often intricate and dense text themselves. That’s a perfectly feasible solution and if the narrator has a pleasant reading voice it may even be optimal. However, it does mean that a lot of pressure for a group’s enjoyment is placed on one person. This is a slightly unusual intersectional issue in that it impacts on potentially two people – visual inaccessibility in one player can exacerbate issues of social anxiety in another. You’re performing, after all. Being the centre of attention is something many people find uncomfortable.
For those that cannot examine the case book or the newspaper themselves, a very considerable pressure is put on memory. Without being able to reference what has come before, only one’s personal notes or faulty recollection is available to help deal with the case. When a visual impairment is paired with even a minor cognitive impairment, this may be enough to render the game inaccessible.
Play can take a while, especially if players are engaged in conversation about strategy, or simply enjoying the storytelling enough to meander around. The game is not intensive to play, but sessions may be long enough to exacerbate issues of discomfort. It scales elegantly down to smaller player counts though – even down to one. And unusually, it is extremely accommodating to players returning after a break. They just need to be caught up on what’s been discovered, and they can continue to lend meaningful support. We have encountered many games that permit easy dropping out. Comparatively few are as good as allowing players to drop back in.
Befitting a protagonist as rich and complex as Sherlock Holmes, the Case of the Game’s Accessibility has a somewhat interesting solution.
Despite having less of a ‘game’ to it than some other story driven titles, the expectation of inductive reasoning within narrative constraints makes Sherlock Holmes noticeably less cognitively accessible. Despite the casual misogyny of the source literature, it manages by a country mile to be a more sociological accessible experience than the more ‘worldly’ Tales of the Arabian Nights.
Much of what we’ve said about Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective is dependent on there being a player prepared to act as the narrator. It’s not that the game is impossible to play if a volunteer isn’t available – at least, it’s not always impossible. It’s just that some of the fundamental inaccessibilities of the game are neatly addressed by this approach. If being viewed as a solo game experience, or a game for a group with similar accessibility profiles, the absence of this individual should be considered more of a deal-breaker. Consider the discussions above to determine whether this would push the game out of accessibility for your needs. If it doesn’t, consider picking it up. It’s a great game, worth every one of its four stars, and deserves a place in anyone’s collection.
A word about teardowns
Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.
Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then this will not be the blog for you. We will not debate with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.
Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.