Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective was released in 1982, apparently to great critical acclaim. I’ve been thinking about it recently because while I play it cooperatively, I think it would be a fine solo game, and solo gaming is having a bit of a moment. It’s also inspired many imitators.
Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective (SHCD)
The game itself is very simple once you get the hang of it, and it only has a few components:
- A case book, which has the initial details of the case in read-aloud short story form. Then, it has details of what you find at every relevant address in the city, sorted by address (you aren’t meant to just read this part).
- A directory. Functionally, it’s like a phone book for addresses: you look up a name and find an “address” to follow-up in the case book. You can also look up businesses by type. (Because there are fewer locations than names and businesses, what is at a given address can change from case to case.) There are some Easter eggs in the names, so you can, for example, drop in on Charles Dodgson and see what he's up to.
- A newspaper “archive”. Largely for flavor, but the newspaper will give you some other leads to follow-up on or side-mysteries to solve. Older newspapers stay available and relevant as you go to later cases, so you can spot patterns in them.
- A list of “regulars”, addresses you can always try if you’re lost or stuck.
- A solution book. For each case, this booklet will have a “quiz” section, but you don’t know the questions until you think you’re ready to attempt it. There are some number of bonus questions in each case also, which can include unrelated mysteries, subtler details, or loose ends from previous cases. Finally, it will tell you how Sherlock solved the mystery in very few steps, typically by following huge unexpected leaps of logic like “obviously our killer was born, so we start at the registry of births and deaths…”).
- A map. Theoretically, every address can be found on the map, and travel times between them computed (to reconstruct the movements of a suspect, for example). However, this is not usually worthwhile.
Nominally there is some kind of scoring and a competitive element. None of this is necessary in practice because most of the fun is simply in interacting with the game.
The game spawned several expansions and many fan-made cases (largely in French and Italian). These used to be hard to track down, but Space Cowboys has been doing really nice slipcase collections of the original cases, the expansions, and some new cases (they’re all standalone, so you can start with any particular box). They have a free case available online, and the fan-made cases all seem to be available on BoardGameGeek. Some blessed obsessives have sorted all the cases they could find into a huge spreadsheet.
The original authors of SCHD also made a noir game set in 1940’s San Francisco. I haven’t played this and it’s hard to find, but from what I can tell it adds some kind of fingerprinting mechanic and instead of a series of loosely linked cases it’s only one big case that takes multiple sessions to solve.
The Martian Investigations
A fan of the original SHCD wrote their own from scratch, in the form of a pair of investigations in a Martian mining colony. They’re a couple bucks as print-and-play and skillfully executed. We had fun with them.
Arkham Investigator/Mythos Tales
The obligatory Lovecraft adaptation, Arkham Investigator, was initially released as a pair of free print-and-play cases (the downloads don’t seem to work anymore). Later there was obviously a crowdfunding campaign to expand this to ~10 cases and the name changed to Mythos Tales. These are pretty fun though, and they introduce a few new mechanics:
- Time tracking. Each clue you follow up on takes a chunk of time, and you can find different things at the same address depending on time of day. For example, you won’t find a vampire during the day. There’s also a time-limit before bad things happen.
- Inventory. Some locations will give you an “item card”, and then later locations will rely on that item. This is a rudimentary way to ensure you don’t accidentally solve a mystery by going to the right location for the “wrong” reason.
- Choose-your-own-adventure elements. Sometimes you will have to decide (for example) to pursue a suspect or not after you find them. On the one hand, this can yield further clues, but on the other hand, you can “lose” if you wander blindly into danger.
It’s fun to see variations on the form, but on the whole I think they feel like attempts to reign in the emergent chaos of the original SHCD and discourage exploration and hunches.
NCIS: The Board Game, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Game, T.I.M.E. Stories
People looking for similar games are often recommended these. I don’t think any of them plays exactly the same as SHCD, but they clearly all share a lot of DNA. T.I.M.E. Stories in particular is also from Space Cowboys.
When playing any Sherlockalike, I am frequently impressed by how much it feels like playing an open-world video game, but a full decade before such a thing could even have been be attempted. It even has the same failure modes! In 1991, someone ported the game to a computer with live-action acting, and apparently this also has been well-received. Somewhat more mystifyingly, someone has ported Arkham Investigator to Tabletop Simulator (I guess so you can all see the same books?).
Many people have attempted to write their own mysteries in the same vein as SHCD, and it’s easy to see the appeal. How might we go about doing this?
The community around the game has collected some tools you can use to set your mystery in the London of SHCD, like a reverse-engineered directory. And while the domain has lapsed, the Internet Archive has captured the remains of a community collection of other settings and scenarios.
Finally, we can take tools from mystery writing in other contexts, especially RPGs, to be sure we cover every angle. Fate reminds us that every suspect should have both a motive and an alibi. And the three-clue rule is pretty good for free-form RPG investigations, but it’s perfect for building the more constrained scenario of a Sherlockalike.