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Review: Witness [Spoiler Free]

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witness_boxcover

Step into the comic book world of Blake and Mortimer and be drawn into the mysteries of–

Wait, you’ve never heard of Blake and Mortimer? Really? Well, neither had I. Turns out it’s a Belgian comic featuring two detectives, the impulsive Mortimer and the straight-laced Blake, who consistently find themselves drawn into mysteries or trying to solve criminal cases.

Fortunately, you don’t need any backstory to play the game. You don’t need to role-play, and the mysteries aren’t continuous or set in any consistent world. All you need to know is: mysteries. Get ready to solve some.

How It Plays

In Witness, players are tasked with solving mysteries by sharing bits of information with each other and putting the pieces together using logic.

The game includes 64 different cases. To start the game, someone reads a case introduction. Then, each player looks at the corresponding clue in their character’s book (the four characters are Blake, Mortimer, Labrousse, and Nasir) and studies it.

The four heroes of Witness. These fearless gents are whispering clues in each other's ears...hopefully after eating a breath mint.
The four heroes of Witness. These fearless gents are whispering clues in each other’s ears…hopefully after eating a breath mint.

Players alternate in pairs whispering to the next players in the circle (randomly determined by a turn tracker) their clue, as well as every other clue they’ve heard. In four rounds, every clue will get whispered to every player at least once.

Then players have a chance to take notes on what they’ve heard, to try and parse extra information or sketch images that were described to them.

Each case has three questions that are read once everyone finishes their notes. Each player, individually, must answer the three questions without help from the others.

Finally, the solutions are read aloud, and each player scores 1 point for every question they get correct. The goal is to get all 12 possible points.

These are the casebooks for the group. The "Cases" book includes some patter that sets the grounds for the case, the "Questions" book offers what players are trying to solve, and the "Solutions" book tells the players why they are wrong.
These are the casebooks for the group. The “Cases” book includes some patter that sets the grounds for the case, the “Questions” book offers what players are trying to solve, and the “Solutions” book tells the players why they are wrong.

Solid or Circumstantial?

I admit it: when I first saw the box for Witness, I was not thrilled. I didn’t know much about the game, nor the comics it is based upon. It looked fairly drab and unexciting.

Boy am I glad I opened the box.

Actually, even after the box opened I wasn’t psyched. “Telephone” isn’t exactly high on my list of mechanics I hoped to see implemented in a modern hobby game. That’s essentially what it boils down to: a cooperative game of telephone with a scoreboard.

Oh man, I’m glad I played because, sheesh, I might have missed out on this pile of treasure.

This is a game you can learn in 30 seconds and play a full round of in less than 10 minutes, yet you’ll still spend more than an hour playing just because you keep wanting to go back for another case.

The cases are rather well put together, and a lot more interesting than they seemed at first glance.

The round tracker shows who whispers to whom. There are two double-sided tracks included with the game.
The round tracker shows who whispers to whom. There are two double-sided tracks included with the game.

What makes the game fun is that you’re given such obscure details, and you have no idea what exactly you’re trying to figure out. You try to put together the clues, but sometimes you miss a key detail or put some pieces in completely the wrong way, and suddenly you’re grasping for the answers. Under pressure, it becomes so difficult, even on the easy missions, to remember and not get confused. And it’s not always sentences you’re trying to communicate. Sometimes you’re trying to describe an image, or figure out where people are at certain times of day, or who was wearing what disguise.

And it’s definitely that potential for failure, for getting it wrong, that makes it so engaging. Did I miss something? you’ll wonder to yourself. Did I say something wrong to the next person? There have definitely been games I’ve screwed up information I passed along, only to realize it the very next turn when I get the clues whispered to me again. Oops! I ruined it for everyone.

The mysteries are so quick that it’s easy to shake off being completely wrong, and you just try again. And every mystery is different. Without giving away spoilers (these details are generalized and not taken from any specific mysteries), in one game you’ll be trying to remember distinct images like the way three brothers tie their ties, and in the next you’ll be trying to figure out who was sitting next to whom in row K of the theater. The details are weaved together in clever ways that are simple enough to remember, but challenging to resolve under the pressure of trying to remember all the details, interpret them correctly, and answer the questions. That’s even assuming you didn’t accidentally hear something incorrectly or whisper something wrong to the next person.

This is a great game for anyone to play–anyone who can read and do bit of abstract thinking, anyways. There are basically two rules, and they’re nothing about action points, placing workers, or building tableaus. You just whisper to the next person all the clues you know, and they can’t ask specific questions. That’s it. That’s all you need to know. If you want to get someone into gaming, this is a great game to try. Especially if someone likes mysteries or logic puzzles, but even if they don’t. I mean, c’mon. The clues themselves are short and straightforward, so it really is accessible to just about anyone. You don’t have to be a master memorizer to get the fun out of this game.

There are really only a couple “disappointing” elements to this game, and I’d hardly call them flaws. The game requires exactly 4 players. No more, no less. I don’t know about you guys, but my gaming group usually doesn’t have exactly 4 people in it, which is too bad because I want to introduce it to everyone. Maybe I just need 2 copies and 8 friends. That sounds difficult.

Given the structure of the game, it makes sense that it requires 4. It is heavily balanced on the complete circle of information, and you’d have to write a completely new set of mysteries for different player counts. And in many ways it just doesn’t seem like it would work otherwise–with each player added, you need another clue to memorize. The clues have to make their way completely around the circle for everyone to have the right information. Five is a lot of clues, but three or fewer people wouldn’t really be enough to make a challenge. Four is just right.

The individual casebooks for each character.
The individual casebooks for each character.

But, you know where the four-player count really does work? If you happen to be a couple, and you happen to invite another couple over for dinner. I think that’s a pretty common thing. Now you have the perfect game to pull out for an evening of entertainment! Double dates, my friends, double dates. Single people? You just need to get a date. Or have 3 friends. Single people have their pick of friends, right?

There’s really only one more element that could be considered a drawback: at least some of the cases require knowledge external to the game. I remember distinctly one mystery that required the players to parse names from a visual riddle. One of the players hadn’t heard of the name in question before–it was a relatively well-known name from the real world, but not mentioned within the game itself. So, if you hadn’t heard of that name (like this player didn’t), it made it next to impossible to figure out the answer to the clue, and that takes away some of the fun. It’s fun when you have a chance even if your information is vague or might be garbled; when you just have no clue, all you can do is sit there.

Since I haven’t played every mystery in the book, I don’t know how many of them include elements like this; still, each mystery is only 10 minutes long, and if you play one that falls flat, it’s easy enough to pick up and try the next one.

There are a TON of cases included, and while you can’t exactly replay the same mysteries the next day, you’ll most likely completely forget the answers and any important details by the time you get through all 64 of them. And honestly, if you play this game 64 times, I think you may have gotten the value out of it that you paid for. Maybe they’ll release PDFs of new cases, or a sequel game (the components are so minimal, it’s hardly conducive to expansions; you might as well release more self-contained games with new mysteries). The only annoying thing is that cases are printed next to each other on facing pages, so you have to be careful not to glance at future details and ruin those cases before you play them. I’ve found you can just fold the pages back, though, so problem solved.

The rules are super simple.
The rules are super simple.

So basically, everything about this game is excellent. My complaints are tiny compared to the fun of the rest of the game; it’s so easy to pull out, teach, and play with anyone, gamer or not. You can play 1 game in 10 minutes, but you’ll probably play 3 or 4 games in a row. You’ll laugh at your own stupidity and your silly mistakes, and you’ll cheer at your successes. It’s a great party-like game for two couples or a small group of friends when there are exactly 4 of them. It works as a quick filler between games, a game night starter or finisher, or to fill an evening with casual gaming.

This isn’t a game I “recommend you check out if you get the chance.” This is a game you should own, play whenever you can, and use it to introduce new people into the world of modern gaming.

Trust me. It’s worth it.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Asmodee and Ystari for providing a review copy of Witness.

A Second Take from @FarmerLenny

I’ve mentioned before that I have a general rule when it comes to purchasing board games: if a friend has a game, I don’t buy it; I play their copy.

After playing Futurewolfie’s copy of Witness, I broke my rule and bought my own. I had to.

I’m a huge fan of logic puzzles. In the past, I’ve bought books of them–the ones with “X always tells the truth; Y always lies” and that require making tables, crossing off what you know, and then deducing what you don’t. I still enjoy Sudoku puzzles when I have unoccupied time and don’t feel like reading. But Sudoku and other logic puzzles, while fun, are solitary activities. Witness takes what I love about these solitary activities and builds a surprisingly social and uproariously fun game around them.

Logic puzzles don’t usually get people excited, but that’s where the gimmick of Witness comes in: this is Telephone, except what you’re whispering isn’t just a phrase that has to come out the other end, but the information necessary to solve a case. This is brilliant. Each player studies their clue books and then passes on what they think is important–but what they think is important isn’t necessarily what the players will be quizzed about. Similarly, as more information gets passed around, players have to try to keep it straight. It requires memory and synthesizing a puzzle but without writing anything down. Sometimes two players are talking about the same thing, so it could behoove a player to place the facts into a coherent story to pass along. (Although I’ve seen this backfire when a player makes a wrong deduction that sinks the rest of the team.)

I’ve been the hero who has saved the team from certain error and the weakest link who has brought the team’s score down. Since the cases are so different from puzzle to puzzle, and they revolve around different skills, there is room for multiple intelligences to shine. Sometimes players will have to memorize sentence clues, sometimes they’ll have to convey diagrams they’ve viewed, and sometimes the order of clues whispered is important. But until you open the question booklet, you don’t know what the crucial information is, so you pass along as much as you can.

More pictures of the components. The physical components are minimal, but the gameplay here is huge. (And the box is surprisingly heavy.)
More pictures of the components. The physical components are minimal, but the gameplay here is huge. (And the box is surprisingly heavy.)

I wasn’t familiar with Blake and Mortimer before playing the game, but no matter. The Tintin-style artwork and the character exhibited in the casebook and cluebook were enough to draw me in, and I was hooked. I don’t think you have to care about the source material to be drawn into the game. It’s definitely a European-inspired comics flavor, but it’s one I easily bought into, the moment I read the first case.

Witness comes with 64 cases of varying difficulty, from “easy” (they’re not all that easy) to “diabolical.” I’ve not yet played puzzles of every difficulty, but I’m eager to make my way through the casebook. It’s just that with new players, it’s probably best to start with easy cases before diving in to the more advanced ones. As players become more experienced, I look forward to solving the harder cases; the few I’ve tried have certainly whet my appetite.

Witness has a surprising way to draw people in. While it has not met with universal approval (what game has?), even players who say they aren’t good at memorizing things or don’t like puzzles have enjoyed it. I think there are enough unique elements in the game that there’s something here for most people. It’s just a shame that Witness is a four-player-only game (although, as Wolfie points out, I understand why). I would certainly pull it out more frequently were it not so rigid in its parameters. No matter. Twilight Imperium is a rigid game that Futurewolfie still finds people to play (how is beyond me); I will pull strings to make sure Witness happens as well. Because it’s worth it, and this is one of the most novel and thrilling games I’ve played in a while. You get the satisfaction of feeling clever when you’ve made a good deduction. The joy of the human condition when solid intel goes hilariously awry. And the camaraderie of teamwork as you solve a puzzle together.

Unlike Wolfie, I don’t think Witness is a game that should be in every collection. Some people don’t like puzzles (although even some of those who say they don’t have enjoyed Witness); others don’t like their friends’ spittle in their ears. But Witness is definitely a game for me, and if you like puzzles, deduction, or even just completely novel game experiences, Witness is a game for you, too.

Evidence says...

  • Wolfie's Rating 9.5
  • FarmerLenny's Rating 9.0
  • User Ratings (0 Votes) 0
    Your Rating:
Summary

Pros:

The easiest game to teach ever
Tons of cases included
Plays very quickly, but you'll play many times in a row
Simple but very useful components
Well put-together cases are really interesting
Inexpensive
Great for non-gamers
Great for pairs of couples

Cons:

Some mysteries require knowledge outside of the game
Cases are printed right next to each other in the booklets
Requires exactly 4 players which is sometimes hard to get

9.3 Excellent

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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