SdJ Re-Reviews #7: Sherlock Holmes Criminal-Cabinet (a.k.a. Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective)

  • Designers:         Gary Grady, Suzanne Goldberg, Raymond Edwards
  • Publisher:          Sleuth Publications, Franckh-Kosmos, and Ystari Games
  • Players:              1 – 6
  • Ages:                   12 and Up
  • Time:                  120 Minutes
  • Times Played:   5 (On the 2012 Ystari Edition)

Note: This review is spoiler free.  

“Come, Watson, come!” he cried. “The game is afoot.”

— Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Abbey Grange


Sherlock Holmes Criminal-Cabinet: The 1985 Winner, Shrouded in Mystery

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective (SHCD) was written by Gary Grady, Suzanne Goldberg, and Raymond Edwards in the early 1980s.  The Sleuth Publications binder edition is copyrighted 1981, and the release of that version seems to have been in either 1981 or 1982.  Sleuth followed up with a boxed edition in 1982 and a paperback edition in 1984.  The game was awarded the Charles S. Roberts award for Best Fantasy Game in 1982.

Franckh-Kosmos published the German edition in 1984 under the title Sherlock Holmes Criminal-Cabinet, and that version won the 1985 Spiel des Jahres.  The jury admired how the game could plunge participants into the world of Sherlock Holmes.  Interestingly, the jury also noted that Criminal-Cabinet borderlined on not being family material due to the complexity of some of the cases (a sentiment seemingly shared in this excellent Geeklist), and the jury observed that Criminal-Cabinet was more of an enhanced puzzle than a game.  To date, Sherlock Holmes Criminal-Cabinet is one of the only SdJ nominees or winners designed for solo play.  It was the first pure cooperative game to win the award.  

Not much has been written about the designers, though there has been BGG speculation about their whereabouts.  Grady was reportedly the brains behind many of the game’s puzzles, and Goldberg did much of the writing, adding the Victorian flair.  I wasn’t able to find much on the role of Raymond Edwards, but rumors are that he was later bought out by Grady and Goldberg.  These rumors appear to be true, as he is not listed as a designer on many of the game’s expansions, which Grady and Goldberg continued to release into the 1990s.  As I discuss below, there is considerable mystery surrounding the “designer” of the German edition, Anthony Uruburu.

Gary Grady released another game called Gumshoe in 1985.  One BGG poster heard that he and Suzanne Goldberg had married, but I was unable to verify this.  That claim does make sense, though, as the two designers would later work together on several SHCD expansions as well as on a series of books discussing the rules of classic games such as darts and dominoes.

Franckh-Kosmos (or just “Kosmos”) is a well known game publisher today, but its success started with Sherlock Holmes Criminal-Cabinet.  The company had existed since 1822, but it didn’t start experimenting with printing games until the 1970s.  According to the SdJ retrospective, the success of Sherlock-Holmes in 1984 solidified the company’s role in the game market.  Kosmos would later release two other SdJ winners: Die Seidler von Catan in 1995, and Keltis in 2008.

SHCD was adapted into a multimedia edition and released on CD-ROM.  It was reviewed by PC Mag in 1992, which said there were more than 50 speaking parts, 70 costumes, and 25 sets.  It was apparently handed out as a promotional disk with many CD drives.  The game was also released for the Sega CD.

The print version of the game was hard to find in English until Ystari Games reprinted it.  Ystari initially had difficulty locating the game’s designers, but then Tom Lehmann (of Race for the Galaxy fame) put them in contact with Suzanne Goldberg’s agent.  She gave them permission to republish SHCD, and Ystari released the French edition in 2011 and then the English edition in 2012.  Sadly, the closing line of the rulebook indicates that Gary Grady has passed away: “Finally, this game is dedicated to the memory of Gary Grady, who made us dream of the smog-filled London streets and led us to pursue Moriarty in the footsteps of Holmes, Watson and Wiggins.  Thank you!”

Several expansions have been published in French.  Ystari confirmed that they also intend to publish the expansions in English, but they told me that will not happen until 2016 or beyond.

The game has achieved high success on BGG, currently ranking #82.  Only three SdJ winners outrank it: Ticket to Ride, Dominion, and El Grande.

Just who is Anthony Uruburu?  What we know about the mysterious “designer” of the German edition. . .

Ystari Games described their quest to get permission for a reprint as a “real investigation.”  I share their sentiment, as researching the game’s German designer (Anthony Uruburu) felt like my copy of the game came with an eleventh case.  That case has been anything other than elementary, my dear Watson, and I still haven’t solved it.

Here’s what we know about the palindrome-named Mr. Uruburu:

  • He appeared as a character in one of the 1981 edition cases, and his character continued to appear in other printings.  He resides at 33NW according to the game’s London directory, and he’s a character in the case The Mummy’s Curse.
  • The Spiel des Jahres jury recognizes him as a designer of the game, and he continues to be listed as a designer on their website and over at Luding.
  • I asked Ystari Games and Tom Lehmann if they knew anything about him.  They do not.
  • According to the SdJ retrospective, he signed the German publishing contract and hasn’t been seen since.  He didn’t go to the SdJ awards ceremony.
  • He never designed another game.  To my knowledge, he is not credited on any of the expansions.

It seems likely (to me at least), that the name is a pseudonym, probably to conceal the identity of the German translator.  Alternatively, Grady, Goldberg, and Edwards (or Kosmos) did this to add mystery to the German release.  There is BGG speculation about who Mr. Uruburu is, started by none other than Stewart Woods (author of a book on the history of Eurogames that is a frequent source for this series).

If you know the answer to this puzzle, leave a comment below or shoot me BGG geekmail at chriswray84.  Ms. Goldberg seems likely to know the answer, and Kosmos surely does (they had to have sent those royalty checks somewhere, assuming that Mr. Uruburu exists), so I’m sure the mystery is solvable.

In the mean time, if I ever start a secret board gaming club, I’m calling it The Uruburu Society.

June 11 Update: I asked the SdJ jury if they had any information on the identity of this “designer.” Their understanding is that Anthony Uruburu is just a character in one of the cases. They said the German publisher listed him as a designer, but that he is not truly a designer. In other words, it seems that the German publisher just picked a name from one of the cases. This still leaves a few things unclear: (a) why the publisher would do this, (b) why they picked this particular character, and (c) whether the character has any special significance to the authors (such as possibly being named after a friend of theirs).

The Gameplay: You Versus Sherlock Holmes

This review focuses on the Ystari edition and assumes a group solution.  Separate solutions are possible, as is solo play.  Don’t worry: this review is spoiler free.

The players become a team of investigators called the “Baker Street Irregulars.”  The Ystari edition features ten tough cases for the investigators to solve, all set in Victorian England.  Each case has its own booklet with a case introduction, scripts for various locations around London, case questions (and corresponding answers), and Sherlock Holmes’  solution.  Additionally, there is a map of London, a directory, and several newspapers, all of which will be used across all ten cases (although newspapers with a date later than that of the case will not be used for that particular case).

On the back of the rulebook is a list of addresses for the game’s “allies,” who are recurring characters with specific skills of interest in the investigations.  For example, the coroner is listed, as are the police, a lawyer, a journalist, etc.

The game begins by one of the players reading the introductory text for the chosen case.  The players are free to consult the map, directory, and newspapers for additional clues at any time. After these materials are reviewed, the players agree which lead to pursue by traveling to another location in London.  For example, they might travel to visit one of the allies, or a potential witness.  The script for the chosen location is read aloud from the case booklet and the players discuss.  They are then free to pursue another lead by traveling to another location.  Players are permitted — and indeed encouraged — to take notes.  Leads and the reference materials can be revisited as often as desired.

Once the players think they have solved the puzzle, they can stop following leads and then move on to the “Questions” section of the case.  Each case has two sets of questions: the one about the primary case (worth 100 points), and one about ancillary matters that the Baker Street Irregulars might have uncovered along the way (also worth 100 points).  Players need to strategically decide how many locations it is worth visiting before answering questions: they can visit as many locations as they want, but their score might suffer, as there is a penalty for visiting excessive locations.

Once the questions have been answered, the investigators can tally their score and see how they compared to Sherlock Holmes.  The questions are generally worth 5 to 20 points each.  However, players must also track the number of leads they followed, and in the end they deduct 5 points for each lead they followed in excess of how many Holmes followed.  Thus, a negative score is possible.

Holmes always gets 100 points.  His solution is presented after the questions.

Does it stand the test of time? My thoughts on the game.

I like this game quite a bit, although I agree with the SdJ jury that this is more of an enhanced puzzle than a game.  The theming is incredible, and there is a feeling as though the players have traveled to Victorian England.  Everything from the language of the characters to the description of the scenery is spot on, and I suspect Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would be proud to have this game as part of the Sherlock Holmes universe.  I consider this the most thematic gaming experience I own.

I’ve seen the older editions of SHCD, and they seem a bit dated, although that is to expected after more than 30 years.  The game looks like it was copied off a page generated by typewriter.

By contrast, Ystari’s edition is beautiful.  The artwork they added is stunning, and the newspapers actually feel like real newspaper.

SHCD is very approachable for non-gamers, and the rules can be explained in two minutes or less.  That said, the cases are incredibly challenging.  The best I’ve done is 45 points.  Though I haven’t gotten a negative score, two teams in my game group have.  Paper for notetaking is a must.  I have noticed that this game doesn’t work particularly at my Thursday game group (which takes place in a noisy restaurant) since so much concentration is required.  I haven’t tried this game with children, but I’m told by a close friend that it doesn’t work particularly well (and, as noted above, the SdJ jury would likely agree with him).

I think SHCD is ideal with two or three players.  I’ve tried it in large groups, and the game took quite a bit longer, and there was group paralysis.  At the same time, I didn’t enjoy my one solo play: I like being able to bounce ideas off another person.  As the old saying goes, two heads are better than one.  More importantly, the game makes for interesting conversation, sometimes even hours after it has ended.

My biggest complaint is about SHCD that, by its very nature, there is virtually no replayability: you’ll get ten plays out of the game, period.  That said, I don’t think that is an issue for most gamers, who tend to play a game five or six times before moving on to the next great game.

In the end, I enthusiastically recommend this, even for non-gamers.  Is it for everybody?  Of course not.  If you dislike cooperative games — or games that are really puzzles — this probably isn’t for you.  But this is a great thematic experience, a true adventure into the world of Sherlock Holmes.  It is worth trying, and I think it is worthy of the SdJ honors it received.  I can’t think of a similar game that has outdone SHCD.

Would it win the SdJ today?  I doubt it.  I think it would be solid nominee for the Kennerspiel des Jahres, but it seems a bit heavy for the SdJ.  BGG gives it a weight rating of 2.8, making it tied for the third heaviest SdJ winner of all time (behind El Grande and Torres and tied with Tikal).  Moreover, recent juries have put a premium on games that appeal to the entire family, and by the jury’s own admission, Sherlock Holmes Criminal-Cabinet is primarily for adolescents and adults.

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Patrick Brennan: This is more for solitaire or group co-operative play if you’re into that kind of thing. Pick the most likely spot for the most revealing clues, read the text associated with the spot, then pick the next most likely spot, and so on. So it’s more like reading a novel than it is playing a game. If you want to score as well as “Sherlock” does in the answer section, simply hope that you prioritised the same spots as he and picked up all the same nuances. For competitive play, you run into the problem of having to pass the clue book around, and some of the text is lengthy, therefore a lot of downtime between turns. We played it as a 3 player for about 5 sessions and then decided the fun was done.

Joe Huber (1 play): Patrick’s summary nails it, in my opinion; being neither a fan of solitaire games or much thrilled by cooperative games, this was the last Spiel des Jahres I got around to playing, and it left my collection soon thereafter.  For a game of this sort, I’ve been much more taken with Witness.

Larry:  I tried this solo a few times in the mid-eighties and found the cases impossibly hard.  Most times, I didn’t have the slightest idea of what was going on and made next to no progress.  After several attempts, I just decided that this wasn’t for me at all and put it away for good.  It was pretty disappointing, as I like puzzles and this seemed like it would be a really good one.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it. Chris W.
  • Neutral. Patrick B.
  • Not for me… Joe H., Larry
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3 Responses to SdJ Re-Reviews #7: Sherlock Holmes Criminal-Cabinet (a.k.a. Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective)

  1. Great article. I don’t know about the Uruburu guy but his name is an old basque name (north of Spain/south-west or France), not a fake or a pseudonym.

    To add to your files, 4 news cases has been created and edited by Ystari from French authors :
    2 by Thomas Cauet, which is now hired by Ystari. One has been written especially to be part of Carlton House.
    1 by me ;-) Winner of the Ystari 2012 writing contest.
    1 by Cédric Lapouge, one of the second winners.

    Future publication may include a “Jack the Ripper” giant case from another French author.

  2. Chris W. says:

    Thanks, Stephane. I look forward to reading your case once it is translated!

    An update on the Anthony Uruburu situation:
    I asked the SdJ jury if they had any information on the identity of this “designer.” Their understanding is that Anthony Uruburu is just a character in one of the cases. They said the German publisher listed him as a designer, but that he is not truly a designer. In other words, it seems that the German publisher just picked a name from one of the cases. This still leaves a few things unclear: (a) why the publisher would do this, (b) why they picked this particular character, and (c) whether the character has any special significance to the authors (such as possibly being named after a friend of theirs).

  3. Really enjoying this series! A few years ago a group of us decided that we’d try and play all the SdJ winners but with 4 children between us, 5 adults, one of whom has now moved 200 miles away, opportunities for playing and reviewing them are limited. We’re nowhere near as dedicated or knowledgeable as you guys and it’s really interesting ti read about the history of each game. We’re very much looking forward to your thoughts on some of the more recent winners too!

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