Watson & Holmes is yet another boardgame derived from the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, whose characters now reside in the public domain for any boardgame designer to use at will. First published in Spain in 2015, the game is now out in a new, second edition, the first in the U.S., and features 12 cases that sort of star the famous detective and his sidekick, but really are just an old-fashioned mystery game wrapped up in the Holmes brand.
The gist of Watson & Holmes is familiar. In each case, the players, playing detectives themselves, get to read (or hear, if you scan the QR code on each case booklet) the introduction to a mystery, and must visit a series of places represented by location cards to gather clues and eventually solve the case by answering several questions—such as murderer, weapon and motive. The clues are usually subtle, and often require a player to connect something written on two or three different location cards to piece together that portion of the answer. Players visit one location per turn—and thus get one clue per turn—and, once a player thinks s/he’s got it all figured out, visits 221B Baker Street, writes down his/her answers, and checks the back of the card to confirm. The first person to do this and answer all of the case’s questions correctly wins.
It’s pretty simple, and the writing of the cases is good enough that it works on its own; you could probably just play this as a solo game, trying to solve a case without visiting all of the locations, for example. The competitive aspect of Watson & Holmes comes from the fact that only one player can visit a location at a time, and that players must expend the game’s currency, carriage tokens, to visit any spot. If a player bids one token to visit a specific location, another player can bump the first player by bidding one more token; the first player loses that one token and must bid again on another location—or can bump the second player by raising the bid again. Each player starts the game with ten carriage tokens, and can either use a turn to go to the carriage house to get three more, or, in games with a carriage location card, get that clue and collect three tokens at the same time.
A player who finds a location card particularly useful may also choose to place a police token on it, which prevents any other player from accessing that card unless s/he plays a “call off” token or a lockpick token to get to the clue. Each case has its own quirks that affect the availability of such tokens, but the base game gives each player one police token to start, and players can collect more at the Scotland Yard location card, or can go there to get a call off token. In our family plays, we never found it worthwhile to use these tokens—you’ll slow your opponents by a turn, maybe, but the clues are distributed well enough that there aren’t cards that are so valuable that you would want to both block your opponents from accessing them and also tip them off that you thought that clue was valuable. (It occurred to me that there might be value in putting a police token on a card you thought was useless, but I played this game with my wife and ten-year-old daughter, and I like them enough that I try not to be spiteful when playing.)
There are also character cards, drawn from Doyle’s stories—Lestrade, Mary Morstan, Wiggins—that players get at random, and which confer some special ability during the game, although again their benefit was marginal. There’s also a Watson card, available to any player as a bonus action for four carriage tokens; going there allows you to read aloud the clue on the back of any location card chosen by another player in that turn. Once someone has tried to solve the case and failed, the Holmes card enters play; a player can go there to read an incorrect guess by one of the ousted players, or to show one of those players a guess at the answer to get a yes or no on whether that’s the correct solution.
My daughter, who’s nearly 11 now and a boardgame veteran, had no problem hanging with the game’s text or theme but I think she was behind us in synthesizing clues that were broken up across multiple cards; there was one in particular, in Case 2, that was well-written but definitely subtle, and required details found on three separate cards that gave you enough to deduce the weapon. It’s less elegant than my all-time favorite mystery boardgame, the long out-of-print Orient Express, but Watson & Holmes is still well-executed and brisk enough to recommend for adults and older kids.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.