Designer: Gary Grady, Suzanne Goldberg, & Raymond Edwards
Artists: Arnaud Demagd & Neriac
Publisher: Ystari Games, Asmodee
Play Time: 1–3 hours
Target Age Range: 13+
Published: 1981 (Original), Reprinted multiple times starting in 2011
Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective is a mystery game with a very familiar premise, simple mechanics, and engaging storytelling. Rather than playing the infamous Holmes, players take the role of members of Holmes’s Baker Street Irregulars, a group of street urchins that Holmes trained to investigate and deliver news. The purpose of the game is to follow a string of clues, much like the infamous detective, and eventually solve a crime.
I was surprised to learn that this game was originally published in 1981, as I had only seen newer reprints. In 1991, it was adapted into a video game with the same name, which spawned a sequel in 1992 and another in 1993. In 2011, Ystari Games published a French reprint, which was translated into English in 2012 and reprinted in 2015. Currently, Asmodee has an edition with new art and design. There are also several expansions available with additional cases beyond the original ten.
The game is divided into 10 mysteries, with each mystery intended to last a single session. Each case is given its own booklet, as well as an accompanying issue of The Times. In addition to these tools, players also have access to a map of Victorian London, a London Directory, and a list of common Holmes allies who can be used as resources during the various cases.
At the beginning of each case, there is a section of narrative that gives some basic information regarding the crime that has been committed, as well as a few person of interest and relevant locations. Players also have a copy of The Times with potential clues (and several red herrings) for that case, as well as access to copies of The Times from each preceding case.
Players then use that starting information to determine which leads they want to follow. In each book, there are dozens of different scenarios written that each correspond to a simplified address on the included map. If there is a specific person of interest the players want to interview, they can look him or her up in the London Directory to find their address, then read the scenario listed under that address in the Case File. Those scenarios will provide additional information that can lead the player to new clues and, eventually, to draw conclusions on who perpetrated the crime, how, and why.
There is also a list of common “Holmes Allies” on the back of the rulebook, such as Mycroft, Inspector Lestradt, and even Holmes himself. Players can, for example, read a brief scenario from the Head Coroner at St. Bart’s to learn more about the body, or head to a gossipmonger to learn about any shady dealings that have been going on in the underworld. If players are really stuck, they can also visit Holmes at Baker Street and he’ll give them a series of promising clues to follow.
At the end of each case is a series of questions that players must answer about the case which will give them a score. Following those questions is a narrative section wherein Holmes explains exactly how he was able to determine the facts of the crime. The players use that information to determine their scores from the preceding questions. In addition to the points awarded from those questions, however, players also need to factor in the number of leads they followed. The book indicates at the end how many leads Holmes followed to reach his conclusion. For every lead beyond that number the players followed, they must subtract five points from their score. (This means it’s possible for players to end up with a negative score.) Reading The Times, rereading entries from leads you investigate, and reading through the introductory segment of the book cost no penalties. In addition, there are a few leads for each case that are considered “free,” though it’s not specified which ones those are until after you begin to tally your score.
The game includes a mechanic where players can work separately from each other and compare their scores at the end, but I personally recommend playing cooperatively. There’s something satisfying about working with each other to figure out, once and for all, who committed the crime.
If there’s one place where Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective really shines, it’s the theme. You really have to be paying attention to catch on to some of the clues that are dropped, but the game is set up in such a way that you’re able to follow a series of breadcrumbs to eventually find the truth. The answers aren’t given to you, but the tools to find it are. You really feel like a detective following leads and making deductions to see through false alibis and find means, motive, and opportunity.
Each scenario is written in a prose format, complete with dialogue, and written well. This allows the characters to feel much more real, even during a brief interaction.
If players really want to double down on the mood, I’d recommend dimming the lights and maybe lighting a few candles and playing some music reminiscent of the soot-covered streets of Victorian London.
Visual/Physical Appeal (9/10)
There are a few different versions of this game available now, and all of them seem to be very well designed. The version I played (the Ystari English printing) does an excellent job of bringing the player into the game. The pages of all the books are designed to look like older pages, complete with water stains, burn marks, and other imperfections. The newspapers are made of a paper that is reminiscent of old newsprint (without the risk of getting newspaper ink on your hands).The fonts are reminiscent of old London, and the artwork is beautiful and feels authentic to the era as well. Very, very high marks here.
Setup Time (3–5 minutes)/Play Time (1–3 hours)
I don’t think you can get much easier of a setup:
Step 1: Take the map, London Directory, rulebook, case file, and all relevant newspapers out of the box.
… That’s it.
The nice thing about this game is that it can technically be as long or as short as you make it. Players choose when to end the investigation and answer the questions in the back of the book. That said, it can take quite some time to do a thorough investigation. In the end, though, the length of the game is really up to you—but I’d plan for at least an hour or two to get a full experience.
Complexity (Hard to define)/Teach Time (~5 minutes)
This game is deceptively simple. It’s very easy to understand how it works, but it’s still incredibly difficult, which makes sense. We’re matching wits with one of the greatest detectives of all time, after all.
The game mechanics are as simple as they come. If you want to check out a particular lead, then you read the entry in the book that corresponds to the address of that lead. You can look up the “addresses” of individuals by their name or occupation in the included London Directory. It is a good idea to have a pencil and paper on hand to take notes, though. As for teaching it, you really only need a few minutes to explain how the mechanics work. The rest of the necessary information comes through the narrative.
As simple as it is to teach, though, this game is hard, particularly if you’re hoping to beat Holmes’s fixed score of 100 points. In all honesty, you can probably give yourself a pat on the back if your final score is even above zero, much less above 100. (The first time I played, our final score was -30.)
There are two mindsets you can have going into this game. First, you can play to win, rationing every single lead you take in an attempt to get as high a score as possible. Second, you can play for the experience of solving a Sherlock Holmes-style mystery, worrying less about the points and more about just solving the crime. I strongly recommend the latter.
This is another one that’s hard to pin down. There are 10 different cases included in the game, each with different clues and events, so you can be assured to get at least 10 distinct plays out of it. But once you’ve played all 10 cases, you’re basically done. There are a few expansions available with new cases, which can extend that a bit. Really, it depends on what “replayability” means to you. It’s a long game, and if you’re the sort who usually plays their games a few times, then it’s very replayable, since every playthrough will be different. But if you’re the sort who wants to play the same game dozens of times over, this game has limited plays available.
The nice thing, of course, is that even when you’ve essentially “used up” your copy of Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, you can easily pass it on. Nothing is consumed or destroyed upon play, so you can give it away or sell it to someone else who can enjoy it completely.
In the end, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective is one of my favorite games I’ve played. I can’t reiterate just how hard it is, but it’s so worth it. There were moments when we uncovered new information that got our adrenaline pumping, because we could tell that we were close. We were so close to figuring everything out! And we really felt like we were the ones solving the crime. We had the facts, and we were making the logical connections between all the information we had. We took those facts, we analyzed them, and we drew a conclusion.
And we were wrong!
I think that’s one of the biggest selling points about this game to me. Most mystery games that give you as much information as this one tend to feel like they’re holding your hand and guiding you to the right answer. Every clue you find points you in the right direction. After all, everyone wants to win, right? Instead, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective is willing to give you red herrings and false clues, and that adds to its authenticity. When you’re trying to solve a crime, not everything is important. Just because you see a red string on someone’s counter, that doesn’t mean it’s tied to the crime. Sometimes, it’s just a piece of string. A picture. An overheard conversation. Not everything ties to the crime, and it’s up to you to determine which information is actually pertinent.
But I need to reiterate: You can either play for points or you can play for experience. I strongly recommend playing for experience, because in the end, that’s what you’re going to remember.
But you already knew that. That conclusion is, well… elementary.