Dale Yu: Review of Witness (Ystari)

 

Witness

  • Designer: Dominique Bodin
  • Publisher: Ystari
  • Players: 4
  • Ages: 13+
  • Time: ~15 minutes/case
  • Times played: 8 cases thus far (4 beginner, 3 normal, 1 difficult)

witness box

Witness is admittedly an “odd bird” for these games of ours.  But, don’t take just my word for it – that’s pretty much the opening description I got of the game in Essen from the head of Ystari, Cyril Demaegd.  However, just because it’s odd does not mean that it isn’t good (or at least different enough to give it a try)!

One of the things that sets Witness apart is that it is a game that plays exactly 4 – a condition that is rarely found in boardgames (heck, even Tichu has a version for 3 players…).    The game is set in the world of Blake and Mortimer – two fellows I hadn’t heard of prior to this game.

From my trusty Internet research library (aka Wikipedia): Blake and Mortimer is a Belgian comics series created by the Belgian writer and comics artist Edgar P. Jacobs. It was one of the first series to appear in the Franco-Belgian comics magazine Tintin in 1946, and was subsequently published in book form by Les Editions du Lombard.  The main protagonists of the adventures are Philip Mortimer, a leading  British scientist, and his friend Captain Francis Blake of MI5. The main antagonist is their sworn enemy, Colonel Olrik, who has appeared almost every book. Their confrontations take them into the realms of detective investigation and science-fiction, dealing with such themes as time travel, Atlantis and espionage.

In the game, players take on the roles of 4 of the main characters from the comic: Blake, Mortimer, Nasir and Labrousse.  In each of the 64 cases presented in the game, the four players will work together to try to solve a mystery. The game is cooperative – the four players work together as a team; there are no individual winners in Witness.

witness books

The mechanics of each case are identical.  The game revolves around seven different booklets – that are used at different and specific times in each game.  The players are seated around the table, and then the characters are assigned in a specific order around the table.  Keeping this order is necessary so that the player order matches the art on the Whisper tiles.  There are two different double sided whisper tiles in the box, and players randomly choose one (and randomly choose the side) and place the tile face up on the table.

The case first starts with the Casebook – the group chooses which Case number they want to attempt – and a player then reads the matching case number out loud to the players.  We have chosen to place a post-it note on the inside front cover of the book to write down the numbers of the cases that we have tried.   This short introduction is usually about a paragraph long, and it outlines the mystery to be solved in a few sentences.  Generally, the case outline also tells you what sort of important pieces of information you will need to remember.  This will be emphasized by the fact that those things are in bold.  The case book is left open in the center of the table – players are allowed to refer to this at any point in the game.

An example case

An example case

Players then take their own personal clue book (it will have the name and picture of their character on it), and the players are given a few minutes to read their personal information about the case – this will always be on a single page in their book, on the page whose number matches the case being solved.  At any point in the game, a player may always consult his own book.  Sometimes  the  clue is a single picture; other times it might be a longer paragraph with some bolded text within it, and sometimes a combination of text and graphics.  In any event, players take whatever time they need to study their page in the book and then try to remember all the pertinent pieces of information.

Schematically – let’s say that there are 4 players (A, B, C, D) that each know information (a, b, c, d).

At the start of the game – here is a chart about who knows what:

A: a

B: b

C: c

D: d

Then, the game moves into the whisper phase.  Looking at the Whisper tile, you will see the four players sitting around a table with some arrows in between two of the players.  There is a cardboard marker of a mysterious “Yellow M” which reminds players what round the game is currently in.   Following the direction of the arrows, players now whisper their information to another player.  This exchange of information is strictly one-way.  One player does all the talking and the other player can only listen.   The receiver of information is then given a few seconds to process and remember the information.  At this stage, there are no written notes.  Players must remember the information passed to them.  They may, of course, refer to their own casebook and the case overview, but they must simply remember any information given to them from other players.

Back to our example, in the first round, lets say that A talks to B, and C talks to D.  Thus, assuming everyone can remember the info, the chart now looks like this:

A: a

B: b, a

C: c

D: d, c

In the second round,  continuing in the same direction around the table, the players who received information in the first round now transmit information to the next player around the table (again following the arrows on the diagram on the whisper tile).  In this second round, the whispering players will now be  responsible for transmitting two pieces of information – both their own facts as well as what was whispered to them in the first round.  Again, the transfer is one-way, and no notes are allowed!

Halfway through the whispering, here is what the chart should look like after B whispers to C, and D whispers to A

A: a, d, c

B: b, a

C: c, b, a

D: d, c

The third round is identical to the first; A talks to B, and C talks to D. Again, the transfer is one-way, and no notes are allowed!

A: a, d, c

B: b, a, d, c

C: c, b, a

D: d, c, b, a

The final round is identical to the second; B whispers to C, and D whispers to A – now, the circle is complete, and all players should have all four pieces of information… Of course, this is only if the players were able to transmit, receive and remember the bits of information correctly!

A: a, d, c, b

B: b, a, d, c

C: c, b, a, d

D: d, c, b, a

Only once the fourth round is complete are players given a chance to jot down some notes.  There is a pad of note paper in the game as well.  Each player is given a page, and they are allowed to write down whatever info they think is necessary.  Again, the only time that players are allowed to write notes down is after the fourth whispering phase.

Now, it’s time to see how well the team managed to do.  One of the players grabs the Questions booklet, and turns to the page which matches the case number being solved.  There may be an additional piece of information, a sketch or other diagram included on this page.  Players may refer to this as needed.  On this page, there are three questions that pertain to the case at hand.  These questions are read aloud, and the four players write their answers down on their note sheet.

Finally, the team sees how they did by looking in the seventh and final book in the game – the Solutions booklet.  Again, finding the matching page number, someone reads aloud the answers to the three questions.  Each player tallies their correct answers and then the group sums their correct answers.   Success is judged based on the number of total right answers amongst the group:

  • 12 points: Old fellow! You’ve reached perfection!
  • 10 or 11 points: Goodness! You almost had it!
  • 7 to 9 points: Damn! Just a few small mistakes!
  • 6 points or less: Devil! Share your clues and try the case again!

That’s the whole game.  You can either pack it up, or pick another case and try again!

My thoughts on the game

Witness could possibly be called a deduction game, but there’s more to it than just simple deduction.  It also involves a lot of memory  – it also involves good communication skills because you need to be able to both transmit and receive the secret information in the game.  It is a boardgame form of the childhood game of Telephone.  It is definitely unlike anything else in my game collection – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing!  It’s an interesting change of pace, and as far as cooperative games go, it has a much different feel than most of that genre.

That being said, it’s also not a traditional cooperative game.  It’s not like players are discussing/arguing about how to best approach the game.  In Witness, it’s pretty much just memorizing stuff and passing it on.  Thus far, in my six cases, it does not appear that players are ever asked to be able to deduce/induce/infer which pieces of information are necessary for a case.  Even when I have looked ahead at a few “difficult” or “diabolical” cases, the information in the player books is still there simply laid out to be memorized.  The difficulty of a particular case is derived by the number of pieces of information to be memorized or what to do with the information once you know the bits.

But, this format makes sense when you think about the fact that the main mechanic of the game is the transmission/reception of information through whispering.  The game would break down if players weren’t always given the “correct” information to pass along.

The 4 detectives

The 4 detectives

The game is, however, very dependent on the players.  All of the participants have to have a decent memory, and frankly, everyone has to have good hearing!  Because each of the four players end up contributing to each player’s overall fund of knowledge, the group can’t make up or compensate for any one player who is unable to remember the facts or keep them straight in their head.  Oftentimes in cooperative games, you can still let a dis-interested player join in (or perhaps a young child), and simply help them make their decisions – but you are not given this luxury in Witness.

The game also doesn’t let you answer questions for a player who is unable to solve the logic puzzles at the end of each case – but if they are able to memorize the facts OK, then the game still works… at least all of the players will end the whispering round with the right bits of information.  I suppose you could always come up with a new scoring rubric if you knew that you had a player who wouldn’t  be able to answer the questions correctly…

One of the most common questions that people have asked me about Witness is my opinion on its replay value?  In short – both good and bad.  As far as any particular case goes, the replay value is low for me.  If you have any decent memory, you’ll remember the hook of each case.  For instance, though it’s been almost three months since I tried case #1 in Essen – I still remember the puzzle that I will be shown in the Questions book to solve.  While, I don’t remember all of the minute details about the case, the fact that I remember the overall puzzle to be solved will focus my memory on remembering the right things and how to put them together.  If I played the game with the same group of 4, we could slowly but surely work together to go through all the cases.  However, I haven’t done that, and each time we play now, we have to make sure that we find a case that no one has played yet.

That being said, there are 64 cases included in the game!   At this rate, I’m fairly certain that I might not play them all – which makes the replay value of this game near infinite – as I won’t run out of cases to attempt.  The cases are graded by difficulty, and they definitely get much trickier as you progress through the levels.  Just more than half of them are beginner and normal (34 total), so you and your group should have enough time to learn the ropes before you are confronted with the difficult and diabolical cases!

The other thing to be careful about while playing is to avoid spoilers.  If you have a good memory or you are able to speed read, you should take care when opening up any of the books to read.  Each case is on a single page in each book, but this does mean that anytime you are doing a case on a left-sided page, you might end up glancing at the information on the right side page.  And, while some of my gaming group don’t believe me, I’ve been able to remember some details from even a short glance at a page which has then compromised some of the surprise from that other case when I attempted it later.  We have now added a few blank sheets of construction paper in the box to insert in the books to prevent un-necessary peeks at information.

The graphics in the game are awesome.  The game is based on a Belgian comic, and the art maintains the style of the comic book.  The art style of E.P. Jacobs, although typical of the Belgian comics drawings (called “clear line” or “ligne claire“), is specific in its extensive use of light colors and shots very similar to what can be found in film production. The style here will be familiar to those who like Tintin, another Belgian comic. The genre uses clear strong lines of uniform importance. Artists working in it do not use hatching, while contrast is downplayed as well. Cast shadows are often illuminated while a uniformity of line is used throughout, paying equal attention to every element depicted. Additionally, the style often features strong colours and a combination of cartoonish characters against a realistic background.  All these elements together can result in giving strips drawn this way a flat aspect.

Overall, this odd game has been a lot of fun.  We’re not quite 15% of the way through the cases, and I’ve enjoyed the ones which I have tried thus far.  We did try a difficult case early on, and I’ll be honest with you, you’re going to need a fairly focused group with very good memories in order to score well on the questions on those cases!  This is definitely not the game for every group though, and your research on the game (which includes this review) should be able to tell you whether or not this will work in your group or not as Witness is really a single trick pony.  It does this one trick really well, but don’t go looking for it to do anything different.  I still want to try more of the cases, but it will have to be with the right players.  The occasions where Witness will hit the table will be limited by both the strict limit of only 4 players as well as only being played with the “right” players – but the game will keep its spot in the game collection due to its uniqueness in gameplay.

Opinions from other Opinionated Gamers

 

Nathan Beeler: Originally, I had signed up to do the write-up for this game, mostly because it fit so well with my love for quirky and bizarre mechanisms.  I’m strongly drawn toward games that are trying to do something different.  Without question, Witness is different.  But so far I haven’t managed to get my own copy, so I’ve only played it once, which is not enough to speak at the depths Dale was able to in his thorough review above.  Bummer.  I can say with certainty that the artwork was for me very evocative, very fun.  I don’t believe I’d ever heard of Blake and Mortimer.  I simply had thought it was just a Tintin spinoff.  The world needs more good games set in that kind of place, where everything seems to exist to create and resolve little mysteries.  The gameplay itself, which is unique if you don’t consider the activity Telephone to be a game, is hardly a natural fit for me: I’m terrible with memory games and generally don’t enjoy them.  However, couching that in a fairly short cooperative detective game seemed to evaporate all my reservations, and open the door to adventure.  On the whole, I’m eager to own a copy and tell as many people as I can about it.  Even if I have to whisper.

 

Joe Huber (1 play): Witness is a brilliant game design.  I would never have expected the Telephone Game mechanism to work as the central idea in a deduction game (and it most certainly _is_ a deduction game, if not only that); the fact that it does is an impressive accomplishment.  This is a game I think everyone should try – even though I suspect the distribution of ratings below is likely to be similar to the general distribution, as it will not be a game that everyone wants to keep playing.  But – it’s one of those games that shouldn’t be missed for the chance that it _will_ strike home with you.  Witness shouldn’t be a game for me – but I was taken by it, enough so that I suspect I’ll pick up a copy if no one else does locally.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Eric M, Nate B
  • I like it. Jennifer G, Joe H
  • Neutral. Mark J, Dale Y
  • Not for me… Ben McJ, John P
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About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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2 Responses to Dale Yu: Review of Witness (Ystari)

  1. Will Colton (DaGreenMachine) says:

    I must get this. I am completely intrigued. I think my wife would enjoy this one as well. Good review Dale!

  2. This was a must have for me when I heard about it at Essen. Must be getting close to Australia by now. Different, tick! Black & Mortimer universe, tick tick! Can’t wait.

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