Okay, kids, I want you to gather around your Uncle Brad – we’re going to play some games. No, Nero, you don’t need your phone for this. In fact, children, why don’t you all leave your phones in your jackets, and we’ll – yes, Harriet, you do have to put your phone away. I don’t care if I’m not your daddy – when I give an order, I expect it to be obeyed! Peter, take your cousin to her mommy and tell her Harriet is overwrought and needs a nap.
Stop crying, Harriet, I did not say you were overweight . . . although it wouldn’t hurt any of you to lighten up on the boba tea. Now, come on everybody, into the study – your Uncle Brad has a wealth of wonderful games to play.
Here we are, and – what’s that, Albert? No, I know there’s no Wii in here. That’s right, we won’t need a Gamebox either. Your Uncle Brad didn’t grow up with any of those silly contraptions. In fact, for the longest time I thought a PS2 was a prostate test. What’s that, Herc? No, we did have electricity when I was a boy. And no, I’m not going to explain a prostate exam to you. I’ll let it be a surprise!
So you kids all know how much your uncle likes his murder mysteries, don’t you? When I was your age, I could always be found with a book in my hand. I loved everything to do with detective stories: books, movies and plays, TV shows . . . and I learned to my delight that there were even some games based on the idea of solving a mystery. I thought that tonight, since your parents left you all with me so that they could go dancing, we would play some of these games. I certainly think they will kindle your interest in crime fiction, and – what’s that Hildegarde? No, dear, I did not read books on a Kindle when I was your age. The printed page was good enough for me. Don’t roll your eyes at me, young lady, I know your Instagram password and can send it to your mom like that!
Now, kids, the first murder mystery game any kid plays is called Clue. It’s sort of the gateway drug for mystery game players. Why yes, Dashiell, you’ve grasped the concept of a gateway drug exactly! What a knowledgeable lad you are! You and I are going to have a wonderful long talk with your daddy when he gets back from the club.
Clue was originally called Cluedo – yes, Maud, that is a ridiculous name, but you see, it was invented by a British man in 1949 . . . long before I was born. Longer than that, Roderick. Actually, it’s a pun on a Latin word, ludo, meaning “to play”, and – don’t call Uncle Brad a nerd, Roddy, there’s nothing wrong with being smart! The game takes place in the country mansion owned by a Mr. Boddy, who gets murdered every time you play, see? And the six players are each suspects in the mystery. You wander around the house, trying to figure out which suspect is the killer, which room the murder took place in, and what weapon was used. Look, kids, aren’t all these weapons cute? Harriet, would you pass them around so that each person can take a peek, but be sure that you don’t lose them!
It’s actually a very simple game involving the process of elimination. Anyone can grasp the concept . . . yes, even you could, Hastings. Players are dealt cards each containing a suspect, a weapon, or a room. You turn to another player during your turn and make an accusation, for example, “Professor Plum in the conservatory with the knife.” The player is then required to either show you one of the cards you mentioned – if he’s holding it – or to tell you honestly that he doesn’t have any of them. There’s not a lot of intellect required, but it’s fun to bluff, calling out an accusation for cards you’re holding yourself in order to send other people in the wrong direction. I always enjoyed the game for its atmosphere, for the sense that I was there, trying to solve a puzzle. As I would play with my parents and my brothers, somehow deep down inside, I knew that this game was the harbinger of great things to come.
Of course, I graduated from reading the Hardy Boys to reading Hercule Poirot. All those classic mysteries were a game in themselves. But then game playing got a whole lot more interesting in 1975 when – alright, I’m not going to say another word until somebody turns that child upside down and gets every one of those Clue weapons out of him. Shake him hard, Dash!
Okay, in 1975, I was hanging out in a games store at UC Berkeley – what kind of question is that, Charlie, of course I was popular! – when I came upon a newly published game based on the exploits of the most famous detective in the world, the super sleuth of Baker Street. Who can tell me his name? Yes, Philo . . . . ? No! No! No, it’s Sherlock Holmes, you little twit, not Sherlock Homo! God, you are just like your father . . . Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson solved all these crimes in the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, and 221B Baker Street invites you to move around the streets of London, visiting certain establishments to collect clues on the latest case and be the first to figure out the killer, the motive, the weapon . . . or whatever else the case file asked of you.
Yes, Maud, in order to play this game you had to think. The cases would get progressively more complicated, and each place you visited would give you a fact or a piece of a puzzle related to one of the answers. Yes, like a Rebus, Rebus! And you could use special cards to block clues from other players as you raced back to Baker Street to be the first to offer the solution. Although I have to admit that often it was hard to find others interested in playing this game, so I would solve the cases by myself. Okay, everyone, I didn’t ask for a collective “awwwwwwwww.” Geez, you guys . . .
The game was good, but something a thousand times better was just a few years away. In 1981, a new game hit the market combining the complexity of roleplaying with the logic of crime puzzles. Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective was the game to end all mystery games. Maybe it was the first grown-up game I ever played – get your mind out of the gutter, Archie – but these cases were challenging and fun. Not everything was spelled out for you. You had to keep a good head on your shoulders. You would read the beginning of a new case and take note of places that had been mentioned in, say, a client’s story. That would give you a hint as to where to visit. But sometimes you would go somewhere and find that the place was locked or a sign said, “come back at noon.” You would have to come back at another time to find your clue.
A London directory was included with the game, containing the names of hundreds of people connected with all the cases; it was up to you to comb through and see which might prove a valuable source for clues. And there were newspapers to search for news pertaining to a particular case. You had to read them very carefully because sometimes a vital clue would be stuck in a personals ad or a tiny article on the bottom of the page. And what was really fun is that you might read an article that had nothing to do with your case but you had to be sure not to skip it because it just might have something to do with a future case!
Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective really captured the flavor of the Doyle stories – in a way that 221 Baker Street did not. Several sequels were published, and then one came out that did not contain a solution – you had to send away for that, and I got pissed. No, I didn’t swear, Hilda! Oh, come on, “pissed” is not a swear word. Go ahead and tell Grandma, she’s said much worse! Anyway, I didn’t send away for that solution . . . I never found out the ending to that case . . .
In 1985, Sleuth Publications, the San Francisco-based company that had published Consulting Detective, scored against with Gumshoe, The Hardboiled Detective in the Thirties. The image of Bogie as Sam Spade (or was it Marlowe) graced the game’s cover, and the enclosed map of Frisco in 1933 contained every one of the city’s mean streets and all the places a Continental Operative like me would have to visit to solve these Hammett-like cases. There was a San Francisco directory and issues of the Call Bulletin (a real SF paper of the time) just like in the Holmes game, but there were also mug shots and info on a bunch of known criminals, as well as a fingerprint file, lab analysis on evidence, even autopsy reports on victims in the cases. The whole game exuded the atmosphere of tough mugs and their molls, but the fair play aspect of detection remained intact.
I think these two games are the finest I’ve ever played. Gosh, kids, I think I’ve forgotten the details of every case and could easily play this again if I had the time. We never know how good life is until it’s too late . . .
Put down that violin, Sheringham, I was not getting maudlin. Go ahead and laugh, kids. I think I’m going to take Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective and Gumshoe home with me and leave you with the other games, including this last one from 1986: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Game.
It’s not a bad game, but after the sheer bliss of the others, it’s something of a disappointment. The cases and clues are more complex than 221 B Baker Street but less so than the games from Sleuth Publications. It comes with a two-sided game board: on one side is a map of lower Manhattan and on the other side is a part of a New England village named . . . Bromley Station?!? Why not Wrightsville? Copyright laws? That makes no sense, seeing as was published by Mayfair Games with, I assume, the full approval of the Queen empire. And the character of Ellery that we meet here doesn’t match any of the incarnations from the books. And there are a lot of incarnations to choose from, so what gives? As for the cases, well, they are just . . . okay, and there are only five of them, so you spend a lot of money and literally do not get enough bang for your buck. Still, who am I to be critical of anyone who offers me another chance to match wits with a great detective? I think you kids will have a lot of fun with any one of these –
Kids? Kids? Where’d everyone go?
Hey, Gideon, where is everybody? Oh yeah? They got sick and tired of my running on and on about murder mysteries? They went to the family room to watch a movie? Yeah, sure, Gideon, go on. Run along and join them . . . That’s right, kids. Enjoy your movie. When it’s over, come see me in the study where I’ll be playing one of these games. I’ll be happy to answer any questions you have about The Last of Sheila.