There’s no greater detective than one Sherlock Holmes, 221B Baker Street, London. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a fair share of up-and-comers trying to prove your worth. In Watson & Holmes, you are one of those up-and-comers, following in Holmes’ footsteps to test your own investigative skills. With the guidance of Watson, you’ll visit locations, talk to suspects, and examine objects to see if you can deduce mysteries as well as Holmes – and faster than the other players competing for Holmes’ attention.
How It Plays
Watson & Holmes is a competitive mystery game. Included are 13 scenarios, each providing a different story, set of locations, and solution.
The game is begun by reading the scenario introduction and the two or three questions that need answering. From there, players race to investigate characters, locations, and items to find the answers to those questions.
Each round players first take turns bidding for location cards. Only one character can visit a location each turn, so when you place your character you can spend Carriage tokens to try and secure your spot. If another player wishes to go there, they have to outbid you. When you are outbid, you lose 1 token and you get another opportunity to either up the bid for the same location or try for an additional location. Once everyone has picked a unique location, the next phase begins.
After the locations are settled, each player reads their location card. Cards might have descriptions of a location, interactions with a character, or objects examined in detail. Written notes are acceptable (and encouraged). Once everyone has finished, a new round begins.
There are a few special locations and cards that are generally present in each game. The Carriage house gives you no clues, but extra Carriage tokens. Scotland Yard is the place to go for Police tokens or Call Off tokens; Police tokens block access to a location from all players, and Call Off tokens can be used to remove Police tokens.
221B is the location to visit to check your answers with Sherlock Holmes – that is, if you’re ready to make a formal guess, you go there. If your answers are correct, you win the game!
Watson and Holmes are available as well, although neither are Location cards. Watson can be recruited with 4 Carriage tokens, and he forces another player to read their location card aloud. Sherlock allows you to ask a set of limited questions to a player who has guessed (and failed to win the game) to narrow down your answers.
Once someone has successfully solved the mystery, the case finale is read in which Sherlock clearly explains how all the details connect, and there you have it. Elementary, my dear Watson!
The Game Is Afoot!
There’s something so engaging about trying to solve a clever, well-written murder mystery. I don’t know about you, but whenever I read a crime thriller or watch an episode of a good detective show, I examine the clues and try to figure out who the murderer is before the protagonists of the story. Cooperative games in this vein have existed for a while now, but Watson & Holmes gives you a chance to test your deductive skills not only against Sherlock Holmes, but against your friends.
The rules are simple enough to mostly get out of the way, letting you focus on solving the mystery based on the clues you read. You wouldn’t want to get hung up on the mechanics of a thing like that, which would ruin the experience. No one I’ve played with has had trouble grasping the system which basically boils down to “read one clue at a time.” The only questions that pop up are usually about when you can get the Watson card and how Holmes works.
Aside from reading clues and trying to put the details together quickly, the few “gamification” elements that have been added don’t have a huge impact on the game. Yes, you can bid for a location… but most of the time that doesn’t happen. You only have so many Carriage tokens, and they’re hard to recover anyway. So most people are more likely to just nab an open card. This may be less true as the game goes on and players narrow down key clues to a few specific locations, but even then – once you’ve visited a place, it’s hardly worthwhile to go again just to block someone else. In a few rare cases, locations have multiple cards and you have to visit multiple times to see them all.
Usually there are multiple ways to gain information. There would have to be, or you’d have to visit every location card to solve the puzzle, and that would be dumb. That also lends to visiting different locations – why spend your carriage tokens when you might get the information you need elsewhere? That being said, sometimes all paths lead to a particular card that has the key to tying the threads together. These you’ll likely end up bidding for.
You also have the police tokens, which are also not commonly used. The trick is, it’s hard to tell which locations it’s worth trying to block – is the clue you’re reading now unique and valuable, or is it easily gleaned from other cards? You don’t know until you’ve seen other cards, and then it’s too late. It wastes a lot of time to try and get extra police tokens or to go back to a location to block it, so it’s really difficult to be strategic in the way you play the token. You can’t exactly learn from game to game either, since every mystery is different and once you’ve played there’s no point in going back. You might as well plop one down on your first or second location just to slow someone down.
The best element of gamification added, I think, is Watson. It’s always useful to bring Watson in to play, but since you have limited carriages there is strategy as to when to pay for him. You can always hope someone else does, since the benefit of reading aloud serves the whole table, but then again Watson might be used on a card you’ve already seen, making him useless to you. So there lies strategy and intrigue you can apply and learn to use from game to game, and it actually has a solid impact on other players.
Other than that, the game relies heavily on the mystery. Unlike a cooperative game, Watson & Holmes suffers a little bit by having to allow you to approach the mystery from multiple angles. From a competition standpoint, multiple angles are required, or the victory would just go to the person who got on the right track first. But with all these various entry points, it can’t build up a tension in the narrative. Frequently the answers to two out of the three questions seem pretty apparent just from reading the introduction. It’s not required to understand all the details behind the questions, or have context for anything, in order to solve the mystery and “win” the game. You can win on pure intuition and guesswork, which can make for a disappointing experience. I had one game where a player made an (admittedly risky) attempt to solve the mystery after only 3 turns, and won the game. The rest of us didn’t exactly have an enthralling experience.
Also missing from the experience is the ability to banter with other players, to discuss theories and ideas and which paths to pursue, or suggest how pieces of the puzzle might fit together. In this game you don’t want to say anything lest you give a key clue away to someone who needed it. Not everyone is as good at deduction or investigation, and whereas they could still participate or maybe even have key insights in a cooperative game like Consulting Detective, they’re pretty much adrift here. I have people in my game group who, while they willing play along, know they aren’t going to win this game. That’s not the greatest experience to roll in to.
The cases do range in difficulty, from 1 to 3 stars. Difficult cases have more complex clues to put together, as well as special rules brought into the mix to increase the challenge or limit access to cards. The mechanical restrictions I haven’t found particularly engaging – does it really take as long to read a single page of a book as it takes to search an entire room or interview a suspect? But there have been some interesting cyphers to work through in the hardest cases.
Perhaps obviously, the hardest cases are the most satisfying. They lead you down long paths of clues that you have to piece together, and you suffer through red herrings, making it harder to jump straight to the (correct) conclusions. Unfortunately, there are only a few 3-star cases in the box. I’d so much rather have 1 or 2 each of the 1 and 2 star cases, and 10 difficult cases that provide more satisfying experiences. The easier cases feel like the win just goes to whoever happened to read a few right cards first rather than who best put the clues together.
I guess it’s safe to say I don’t think Watson & Holmes is a bad game, I’m just not particularly excited about it. I’d rather play a cooperative game like TIME Stories or Consulting Detective and work on the mystery as a group. Those systems allow for a much better escalation of tension, and they can present clues in a more natural way that builds up a plot. I’d rather compare theories and dig deep into a mystery than race to solve these riddles with the barest minimum of information.
But maybe your group is filled with competitive crime-solvers, and this experience is right for you. Even for that, I wish there were more of the most challenging cases in the box.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Asmodee North America for providing a review copy of Watson & Holmes.