Down at the precinct, all is quiet. Then, with the ring of a telephone, everything bursts into bustling activity. There’s been a murder and you and your fellow detectives have been assigned to the case.
The phone rings again. An accident on Third Street. No big deal, you can spare someone to handle it.
Another call. There’s been a robbery at the electronics store. Oh, and a crowd of unruly punks has started to form on the street.
Yes, crime and chaos has run amok in the city, and Batman is nowhere to be found. Only you can investigate the murder, find the killer, and arrest him before it’s too late. Just make sure there’s a city left when it all ends.
Welcome to the world of Police Precinct.
How it Plays
Police Precinct is a cooperative game in which players take on the role of detectives investigating a murder, all the while containing the daily crimes and catastrophes around the city.
On a players turn, they follow a simple order of steps; first they move their car, then they do an action, then they draw a police card, and finally they draw an Event card.
Movement is simply a set number of spaces along the street. Actions are generally dealing with the problems around the city – handling emergencies, attempting to arrest street punks, or investigating different elements of the murder.
Police cards are like action cards that players can use to boost their abilities, and Event cards generally add bad stuff to the board – more emergencies, more street punks, and other specific events that police must deal with.
Emergencies, and Arrests are handled by rolling dice, with a certain target number equalling success. A player’s role card has a base number for each type of situation, which is the number of dice rolled in the attempt. This number can be increased in a number of ways, including other player vehicles being present, spending donuts (yes, donuts), and by allowing other players to play Police Cards with symbols matching the situation.
Success results in rewards, from donuts, to bonus cards, to looking at the top cards of certain decks, and failure generally sends you to the hospital. Success is also necessary to prevent crime and chaos from overwhelming the city.
Investigating the murder is similar to Emergencies and Arresting street punks, except there are no dice rolled. Instead there are several decks of cards tied to various parts of the investigation – Crime Scene, Autopsy Reports, Murder Weapon, and Witness Interviews. These decks are made of mostly of “Nothing Yet” cards, and a few “Evidence” cards. When a player Investigates, instead of rolling dice, they draw cards from the deck they are investigating, searching for those Evidence cards. Boosts in the form of other players, donuts, and police cards increase the number of cards drawn and as a result the likelihood of finding evidence. Fortunately, each time a particular deck is investigated, a “Nothing Yet” card can be removed from it, increasing the likelihood of finding evidence on further investigations.
Players win the game by arresting the Murderer, which requires them to find all the evidence first. They lose if the Crime Rate marker gets too high, or the city becomes overrun with Street Punks, or the Murderer escapes.
If players are looking to add an extra challenge, they can play with the “Dirty Cop” option, in which one player is a dirty cop that presumably got a bribe from the murderer, and is secretly trying to make the players fail. In that case, the Dirty Cop wins if the other players lose.
Commendation or Throw in Jail?
The reason Police Precinct first caught my eye was the theme. I enjoy the TV show Castle, and even though that show has had an unsteady level of quality the last few seasons, it can be pretty entertaining to watch a murder investigation unfold. Police Precinct looked like it had a solid chance of re-creating the murder investigation in board game form.
Fortunately, I was not disappointed when I actually played the game. While it is not an “incredible” game and there are a few gameplay shortcomings and component flops, it definitely provides a fun, thematic game that allows players to play at being detective.
The game actually moves along pretty quickly, which I think is a key selling point. The box estimates 1-2 hours of play, but I’ve found it to last closer to 1-1.5hrs, even with a full set of players. Turns are short but still allow you to accomplish things, making your turns feel valuable and the time in between them not too long at all. Which is great, because many highly thematic games can get bogged down with very clumsy rules. While the game isn’t as streamlined as, say, Ticket to Ride, it manages to avoid a lot of clumsiness while holding on to a very strong “police investigation” feel.
A big reason for this is the way investigation works. I wrote in a recent article about deckbuilding that the deckbuilding mechanism was only beginning to be explored. While Police Precinct is in no way a deckbuilding game, it uses elements of deckbuilding brilliantly to simulate the criminal investigation. As you spend more time investigating a particular aspect of the crime, the likelihood of finding real evidence increases. Beyond that, there are multiple ways for players to affect investigation decks, such as player roles, police cards, and certain rewards from Emergencies, which totally enhances the feeling of investigation. It’s a rather clever implementation of the mechanism. Not only does it feel like you’re slowly unravelling the mystery, but it allows all the players to participate and cooperate in different ways. It’s a lot of fun.
Another thing I like about this game is that there are a lot of choices – but not too many choices. Often, in cooperative games, there is a “correct” or “best” thing to do on your turn. In the good co-op games, you often have to choose between two things you desperately need to do, but in most co-op games you’ll spend a lot of time doing the obvious thing. Police Precinct gives you choices that are useful, important, and generally fun. There are always emergencies to handle and street punks to arrest and investigation decks to investigate, and all 3 are important to manage and will make you feel cool when you succeed. Even though characters have different stats and some are better at taking on particular events, the stats aren’t so drastically different that you CAN’T shift gears when you need to or when you want to. You also have the choice of using a marked or unmarked police car, each giving you a different benefit depending on which you use. If you earn donuts, you can buy upgrades to increase a specific stat permanently, or save the donuts so you’re ready for anything.
Not everything is shiny though. My biggest complaint about this game is that it can be too easy. Our first game we lost, but it was our first game, and I haven’t lost a single game since then. Our first game it felt like we were in gotham city, with crime and emergencies popping up on every corner. Our second game we just… won fairly handily. There are a few events that can really get out of hand if you don’t deal with them, like the Riots, but if you handle them quickly they don’t become a problem. And, even when they do, you can often ignore them and just focus on finishing up the investigation more quickly.
There are options to make the game more difficult, but for the most part they seem to me like they don’t affect all that much – or, they add an element of “we could lose totally randomly on a bad card draw without warning” if it goes too far. Oh, and even after the first few games when I felt like it was rather easy, I realized I had missed a setup rule, in which players start with Police Cards. Having police cards is invaluable, and so starting without them drastically increases the difficulty – but it was still not all that difficult. So, you could start without police cards, but honestly even though it made it easier, it was more fun to be able to play police cards a lot more and help other players.
The Dirty Cop option is an interesting addition that I’m not sure how I feel about. You may have heard that I really enjoy Traitor games – the Resistance and Battlestar Galactica are two of my favorite games, and I won’t say no to a traitor-laden game of Shadows over Camelot. But in this case, it doesn’t really seem to fit the theme. One of the things I enjoyed most about the game was working as a team to solve the crime, and the Dirty Cop sort of takes away that element. It’s not bad, and it doesn’t ruin the game, I’m just wavering between liking it and feeling like it was tacked on to increase the difficulty of the game. So, there you have it. It’s an option, it can certainly be fun, but I think I would have preferred a more challenging cooperative game over the Dirty Cop. Also, the Dirty Cop him (or her) self has very few options while undercover. Really all they can do is try to hoard donuts or mess with the investigation decks, and the impact there is pretty small. I think they actually get more powerful when revealed, with more ways to hinder players.
Even though the difficulty level is pretty weak, something else I dislike is the rarity of donuts, especially when playing with the Dirty Cop. However, the things you can do with them are fun, but you just don’t get to do them that often. With the Dirty Cop, as mentioned, it doesn’t seem worth it to spend 3 donuts to accuse, especially since the Dirty Cop gets more powerful when revealed. But it’s tough for one player to scrounge up two donuts to reveal his or herself as the Dirty Cop, so… it just seems like something is missing. I want a bigger challenge, and I want to be able to more cool things.
As for the game’s components, well… the character boards are nice and thick and the stats are pretty easy to see. Other than that, I’m not a big fan. For starters, the board is WAAAY too big. Now I’m all for a substantial board, but this thing is enormous. I have a big gaming table and there is barely enough room for players to keep their cards when this beast is unfolded. Did I mention it was big? Completely unnecessarily so, too, since there is more than enough room for all the parts to fit. Streets don’t need to be so wide and buildings could be smaller. It’s hard to see across the whole thing and there is many a table that just wouldn’t fit the board at all.
I find the graphic design to be rather average as well. Everything is also predominately grey. But the board is primarily different shades of grey with often-hard-to-read white text, the fronts of cards are mostly grey with other desaturated colors. Police cars are also grey, and the only differentiation between the different players is the name printed on the token, which means a lot of searching for your car token when you’re in a group of players and you want to move. These tokens, and the game overall, could use a bit of tasteful color to make locations easier to find and player tokens easier to differentiate.
At least the symbols on the cards look different enough, but the design is very text-heavy, and the art (when there is any) is pretty drab. It’s not a pretty game to look at.
On top of that, the rulebook is a mess, with poor diagrams (when there are any) and an overabundance of large blocks of text. The setup instructions take up a whole page and it’s easy to miss rules (especially when useful rule clarifications, like the phrase “deal players a certain number of Police Cards at the start of the game, are actually missing). Typos are all over the place, including both the rulebook and police cards, the most common (and confusing) being that Police Cards are often referred to as Player Cards, a mixup that often has new players searching for a deck that doesn’t exist.
I don’t want to leave you with a bad impression of the game, because when all said and done, Police Precinct is pretty darn fun. Yes, it’s a little too easy, but there are ways to make it a little more challenging, and the Dirty Cop will certainly add another layer of difficulty. The components aren’t perfect, but the mistakes don’t make the game unplayable. I think that Common Man Games did a pretty good job creating an experience that captures the feel of investigating a murder and attempting to keep crime in the city under control, and it will create memorable “story” moments you’ll retell with your friends. The rulebook has flaws, but is overall fairly well written, even if it could use a graphic designer and editor. I hope that someday Police Precinct gets a new edition with vastly improved components and maybe something extra to increase the challenge, but as it stands now, it’s a game well worth playing, especially if you have a co-op friendly gaming group.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Common Man Games for providing a review copy of Police Precinct.