Dan Blum: Review of Watson & Holmes

Watson & Holmes

  • Designer: Jesús Torres Castro
  • Publisher: Ludonova
  • Ages: 12+
  • Players: 2-7
  • Time: 45-75 minutes

Times played: 3, went through the other 10 cases solitaire

It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data.

It’s usually not that useful to contrast a game under review to one other specific game, but in this case I am going to because there is really only one other game on the market anything like Watson & Holmes, namely Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. If you’re interested in Watson & Holmes you have probably already played SHCD or are thinking of buying it.

In SHCD the players read an introduction to a Holmesian case and then set out to look up “clue points” in a book. To determine which points to go to they are equipped with a map of late Victorian London, a London directory (somewhat abridged), newspaper issues supposedly from the days in question (also abridged), and sometimes ancillary materials such as letters, notes, etc. When the players think they know the solution they look at a quiz which will cover many points of the case and their score is based on how many they answer and how many clue points they visited. The game is probably most often played cooperatively or solitaire; while one can play competitively there’s no interaction at all and it can drag since only one player can look at the clue book at a time. (For more details see the SdJ Re-Review of the game.)

It is of the highest importance in the art of detection to be able to recognize, out of a number of facts, which are incidental and which vital.

Watson & Holmes has the same general structure but with many differences in the details. There is no map and no books. Instead the introduction to each case is given on the outside of a folded sheet of paper and the clues are given on a set of large cards. These cards are arranged on the table at the start of the game with the backs showing; the backs each have a number and the name of a place, person, or object that (probably) has information relevant to the case. The fronts of course have the information, which is given as if excerpted from a Holmes story; in some cases the relevant information is obvious but in others small details may prove to be important, as was often the case in the original stories. Fortunately players are allowed to write down whatever they want (usually – see below). When someone thinks they know the answer they go to 221b Baker Street  and write down the answers to a few questions; unlike in SHCD the questions are given in advance. The card for 221b has the answers to the questions and the narrative explanation of the solution is inside the case’s folded sheet.

I had the strongest possible reason for wishing certain people to think that I was there when I was really elsewhere.

The other major difference between the games is that W&H is competitive. On each turn players place pawns on the cards they want to look at. Only one player can look at a given card each turn; if you want to look at a card another player has claimed, you can place there, but you have to bid more carriage tokens than they did (thus getting there faster, thematically). They can then outbid you or move to a different card; this process continues until everyone is on a different card. There are a few additional mechanisms in the game. Players can use police surveillance tokens to protect cards against being read; these can be removed with police call-off tokens or bypassed with lockpicks. If not playing the introductory case 0 each player has a randomly-chosen character (Mycroft Holmes, Irene Adler, etc.) who has a special ability which might be useful. There is also Dr. Watson, who is not owned by a player but may be hired for one turn by spending carriage tokens; the player doing so can make another player read their clue card out loud. (Holmes himself only appears in the game if someone tries to solve the case and fails – they then become Holmes and can give some information to the other players.)

Some folks might say there was madness in his method…

With games such as this there are two important aspects to consider: do the mechanisms work well, and are the cases good? SHCD, while a venerable game enjoyed by many (and a winner of the Spiel des Jahres), is not without its problems in both areas. The “mechanism” of poring over newspapers and such to figure out where to look for clues is excellent from a thematic standpoint, but it definitely requires a serious engagement with the game; casual players need not apply. More importantly, some of the cases have drawn many complaints for the bizarre leaps of intuition required to find all the important clues.

Ah! there lies our problem. There is one rather obvious line of investigation.

Watson & Holmes certainly makes finding clues easier: you simply go to a card. While this is less thematic than SHCD I can’t fault it – in theory. In practice it is sometimes problematic. The introduction to a case will give you a certain number of cards that are obvious starting places. If there are enough of those for all the players, that’s fine, but some cases have more than others and many don’t have enough for the upper end of the player range. If you’re playing such a case with more than five people (more than four in some cases) at least one player is going to end up visiting a card which they have no thematic reason to visit (it will be something that hasn’t been mentioned yet). If this card ends up having useful information the narrative will assume a visit to an “earlier” card which hasn’t taken place (again spoiling the theme), and it might be a red herring – there aren’t many of them but there are some. (A player going to a possible red herring could buy Dr. Watson’s services so they are guaranteed to get some useful information, but that’s expensive and everyone else gets the information as well.)

I am afraid, my dear Watson, that most of your conclusions were erroneous.

If played with a maximum of four players things can in general proceed with everyone choosing some card they have a thematic reason to visit each turn. However, there are some other problems. None of the cases have problems as severe as the worst SHCD cases, but they are definitely not of consistent quality. Some are well done, with logical solutions which can be deduced from a reasonable amount of information. However, some are too easy, some rest on shaky deductions, at least one has significant holes (contradictory witness accounts) which are never explained, and one has information which logically leads to a very different conclusion than the one given. My final tally was six good cases, five bad, and two middling.

One problem which is present in many cases (and the one which Joe Huber highlights in his comments below) is that there are many clues which can only be found in one place. From a thematic standpoint this is fine, but it definitely means there is a luck element to the game: if both cards A and B seem like reasonable places to go next based on what I know, but card A has important information while B does not, it makes a big difference which one I choose; there are simply not that many turns in the game, so effectively losing one is a big problem.

You never learn that the gravest issues may depend upon the smallest things.

There some other problems with the way the cases are constructed. The cards are well-written overall and have a good Holmesian flavor, but they do tend to assume a narrative linearity which isn’t present. This is probably unavoidable to some extent, but I think that not enough effort was made to minimize this; for example, in one case if you visit card B before A (which can be done perfectly thematically, since card C is an initial lead and points to B) you are reminded of what you saw at A, removing any need to go there. There are other instances which are not as bad but still a bit jarring. There are also some more serious issues:

  • Scotland Yard is a card in every case, reasonably enough. You can  always get the police tokens there. Sometimes you can get information as well. This is fine when it’s made clear in the introduction or on another card, but sometimes it isn’t and players have to choose between possibly missing a clue and possibly wasting a round; since there aren’t that many rounds in the game wasting one is bad. My suggestion is that if some piece of information which the police seem likely to have doesn’t present itself after a few rounds, visit Scotland Yard – it will probably work out.
  • There are a number of instances where several cards need to be read in succession, occupying more than one turn. In one case this is handled well: players know in advance that one location contains two cards and it is thematically appropriate. In other cases this is not handled well: in two cases the split is across different locations, has no good justification (Holmes merely refuses to explain something on site and insists on going elsewhere), and is not advertised in advance, while in another case the players are warned but there is no justification for requiring two turns to look at the information except to slow things down.
  • Case 5 is written with much less detail than the others so it adds a special rule that you are not allowed to make any notes. It is certainly possible to play that case without notes, but I know many people would be very annoyed by this. Why not just add more detail to the cards and allow notes? (The Irene Adler character can also prevent people from taking notes, but just for one turn.)
  • Case 11 has the cards divided into two groups; players have to take a train from one to the other. This is fine as far as it goes (or would be if the rules didn’t mix up which group was which), except that the train is inevitably a chokepoint. More than one player can use it in a turn, but only one gets to read the card, which has information which thematically would be available to anyone who entered the train station (or consulted Bradshaw’s).

We were gradually coming to that conclusion, were we not, Watson?

This no doubt sounds very negative. However, while I was certainly annoyed by the game, I did enjoy two of my three actual plays and also enjoyed running through the rest of the cases by myself. As noted at the start there is really only one other game at all like it, and that has its own problems and also has a limited number of cases (expansions were published for it back in the 1980s but have not been re-released, so they are not always easy to find). So if you think you would enjoy this sort of thing I would recommend it with significant caveats: don’t play with more than four players (fewer is fine), go over the characters before the game and toss any that you think you will find too annoying, and if something really unthematic (like the case 11 train) comes up don’t be afraid to just make a thematic house rule on the spot. I would also recommend starting with case 0 even if everyone is an experienced gamer, as that is one of the better cases; definitely do not jump to case 1 as it is one of the worst ones. (I wouldn’t insist you skip it, but it would leave a bad first impression.)

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers:

Joe Huber (1 play): I enjoyed the _story_ behind the one Watson & Holmes scenario I played – but rather than drawing me into the game, it really made me want to read a good mystery.  While the problem could be solved from multiple angles, getting the right information felt nearly entirely random – when the case was solved, I’d never seen one critical piece of information, simply because I had wasted a turn on what seemed a likely lead that didn’t pan out; the other players who didn’t win had hit similar issues.  As a solitaire exercise, that might be more interesting; as a game, it didn’t work for me.

Dan again: For the record, Joe played case 1, which as I noted is poor, and one reason it is poor (not the only one) is that I think it is especially prone to this.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:

I love it!  

I like it.

Neutral. Dan Blum

Not for me… Joe H.

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