»3rd January 2019

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective is a series of boardgames where you take the role of Sherlock Holmes some unnamed protagonists who help Sherlock Holmes solve cases of mystery and murder in fin de siècle London.

It's a board game, but there isn't a board, instead you are presented with a series of casebooks containing passages of text linked to locations on a map of Victorian London, a kind of open-world Choose Your Own Adventure story.

Players are given an opening passage that sets the scene of the investigation; typically, and in Holmesian fashion, someone comes to 221B Baker Street seeking to hire Holmes to investigate some mystery. 'My husband has gone missing, he was last seen at the card club by his work colleagues.' Then you can look through a directory of London to find names and addresses to visit so that you can piece together the unfolding mystery.

As such, the meat of the game is a kind of reading comprehension puzzle asking you to make logical assumptions and educated guesses as to what is happening and where you should visit next. The skill comes in being able to make sense of what is going on without having to visit many locations, and being able to wisely pick locations to visit where you will gain the most pertinent information.

The game ends with you returning to 221B Baker Street to answer questions about the case, scoring points for correct answers, the goal being to come as close to or beat a score of 100 (which is assumed to be the score Holmes gets). Holmes gives an explanation for how he solved the case and you are told at this point which locations he visited, to compare with the path you took. The game is typically played co-operatively, as the puzzle-solving, gathering of clues and group discussion of theories is what makes the game enjoyable.

The game rewards you for roleplaying as Holmes, the master of observation of seemingly inconsequential forensic details, not for playing as a police detective, meticulously and methodically accumulating evidence to get to the bottom of a mystery. Trying to play in this style, and not simply hoovering up all available clues takes quite a bit of getting used to.

The strengths of the game are in the unfolding of the mysteries, the search for the strand of logic that runs through the events that you are trying to investigate. The really fun cases usually give you pieces of evidence that feed into a sub-mystery. For example, coded letters occasionally appear, which when decoded give you a shortcut to a point further into the case. Other times you may be given a list of names of suspects which you can wittle down through elimination, logical reasoning to narrow down two or three names which are the ones worth investigating.

The physical pieces of evidence, such as the single sheets of the Times or London Gazette newspapers that accompany every case, or the letters, ticket stubs, receipts, flyers, maps that are uncovered in cases add another interesting puzzle-solving element. Handwriting styles can be compared, sequences of events can be pieced together from multiple sources, locations of interest can be found by plotting out routes on a map.

The best cases call on lots of different skills and approaches. At the end of a challenging case where you have been successful you feel like a genius, whether successful or not, being able to see the internal logic of a case at the end during Holmes' explanation is satisfying nonetheless. The good cases allow you to always eventually work out what was going on, being able to see how shortcuts could have been taken later is still satisfying.

All of this depends on strong writing. Cases must make sense when viewed as a whole afterwards. They should reward players when they act like Sherlock Holmes. Of course Holmes would have worked out that a seemingly random string of numbers refers to a column-paragraph-sentence-word in today's issue of the Times.

Carlton House

It goes without saying that there will be major domos ahead--sorry, major spoilers--if you haven't played these cases yet.

The Carlton House Mysteries and Queens Park adventures is the most recent (2018) expansion released by Space Cowboys.

I'm not an expert on the production behind this game but a key point is that at some stage in production, the text has been translated from French to English, and in the Queen's Park cases from English to French and back to English. This has resulted in several recurring issues with the language of the game. The text often does not read clearly, active voice/passive voice can be mixed up, odd choices of words frequently crop up. This can have a huge impact on a game that is almost entirely text-based, where clues are meant to be derived from subtle choices of words or inference.

The feel and sense of immersion in the world of the game are shattered when names, historical details, vocabulary are off. Many times in the Carlton House cases you visit the houses of middle-class and aristocratic characters and talk to the house staff. In several cases, the opening passage of the cases introduces you to the major domo of the house. Major domo? Surely the game meant, butler.

One case is called The Defenestrated Novice. Let's look at that title in detail. Defenestrated, so someone is getting thrown out of a window. Novice? Like someone unskilled, an amateur? So someone who is not very good at something is going to get thrown out of a window. Ooookay.

Or is that novice as in an initiate to something, like a monastic order? So maybe a monk is getting thrown out of a window. Well this case is supposed to be in the aftermath of a ball, I'm not sure monks are known to enjoy the waltz.

Well, if you look in a French-to-English dictionary, underneath 'novice' you can find the word 'debutante'. Ah, of course. The Defenstrated Debutante. A story where an unskilled monk a young woman at a debutantes ball is thrown from a window. The fact such a glaring error is made in the title for a case shows that this game was never edited by a native English speaker. In this instance you are just left with an awkward, less meaningful title instead of a more elegant alliterative one that hints at what you will be investigating in the case.

The fact that such an alliterative title was mangled in translation suggests that these cases actually started their lives in English, were then translated to some other language (likely French, considering where the game was produced) and then back into English.

There's a Twitter account called @RosewattaStone which passes Magic Cards through several iterations of Google Translate with the resulting card text being free-associative absurd nonsense. I imagine a similar process was used by Space Cowboys when they translated Carlton House.

The translation errors were at times hilarious, frustrating, confusing, maddening. I might as well get these out of my system so I'm not itching to pepper them elsewhere:

The frequency of these translation errors reaches a point in the Queen's Park Affair where you simply cannot trust what you are reading. 'Did they mean to say that, or was it just a translation error?' is a question that floats over every single passage.

Instead of trying to understand the motives and hidden agendas of characters in a murder investigation, you're stuck at merely trying to understand what they meant when through the muddy English-to-French-to-English condensation I mean fog. See? I can't even make a jokes in the same style as these translation errors because you simply won't have a clue what I'm on about!

Mercifully, none of the cases used cryptic riddles as a game mechanic. Then again, how could I be sure?

Extar, over, out.


TCP/IP, it's fucking me off. Other protocols doing little more. Definitely got worse. Now making me curse. Removing IPX. Will it ever work? Never!