With The Sherlock Files: Elementary Entries, Mystery Is in the CardsPhotos courtesy of Indie Boards and Cards Games Reviews board games
Sherlock Holmes is a ridiculously overused theme for deduction games. I’ve reviewed at least three such games for Paste, and didn’t love any of them, while there are at least a dozen games on Boardgamegeek that use “Sherlock” or “Holmes” or “Baker Street” in the title, to say nothing of other games that might try to sneak Arthur Conan Doyle’s character into game play. A murder mystery seems like a perfect theme for a game, but it still needs a decent mechanic, and some decent writing too.
The Sherlock Files: Elementary Entries is a new, case-based game that mostly works, because the mechanic is novel but easy to grasp. For each case, you get a deck of cards with clues on them, some relevant and some irrelevant. You shuffle the deck, give each player a small hand of cards, and on each turn you either play a card face-up so all players can see it, or you discard a card face-down because you think it’s irrelevant to the solution. Play continues until the deck is exhausted, at which point the players can discuss all the cards they’ve played—and, if they remember, the content of the cards they’ve discarded—to try to figure out the details of the murder. The case guide has 10 multiple choice questions the players must answer, about the identity of the killer, the motive, the method, and more, after which the players score two points per correct answer, and then deduct one point for each card on the guide’s list of irrelevant ones that the players didn’t discard during the game.
You can’t change your mind on a card after you’ve played it—once a card is on the table, for example, you can’t later decide it’s irrelevant because you’ve learned more—so you’re forced to make some wild guesses early in the game on cards because there’s no way you’ve learned enough to decide if they’re relevant. That probably makes getting a score all that much higher than 10 very unlikely; you’d need a very favorable shuffle, or just some great guesses, to get to double digits, although I also think we played it too conservatively rather than actively trying to hunt for irrelevant cards, since there’s no point penalty for discarding a card that turned out to be relevant. You could, in theory, discard all the cards you play, then just discuss them at the end—assuming your memory is good enough to do so—and avoid losing any points for keeping irrelevant cards. That would follow the letter of the rules, but not the spirit, and I think the game could use a tweak where you have to play some minimum number of cards to the table for each case.
The base game contains three cases, with a fourth one floating out there as a ‘demo deck’ that is itself a complete case; only one of them didn’t seem to work for us when my daughter and I played them all, “Death on the Fourth of July,” which I think requires you to make too big a leap to get to the conclusion. The other three are all solvable if you connect enough of the dots, and none of the cases relies on a single clue or card that could deny you the entire solution if one player chooses to discard it.
The cases are single-play, but you don’t destroy any components (as in the EXIT games) so you could at least give it to friends. The first box, Elementary Entries, has three cases in it, and there are three more cases published in Spanish already that appear likely to come out here at some point this year. The box suggests that it would work with one to eight players; I only tried this with two, playing all four cases with my daughter, and we found we could finish all of the cases in 30-40 minutes at most (the box says an hour), although we sort of threw up our hands for the one case that didn’t click for us. The designers call the game’s mechanic the Q System, with the implication that there will be other games that borrow the system with a different theme—it’s easy to see this translating to other concepts beyond murder mysteries.
The one oddity of the game is that Sherlock Holmes isn’t in the game at all: They’re just mysteries, and you’re supposed to use deduction to solve the case, but it’s strange to have Sherlock’s name in the title without having anything about him—even his name—appear anywhere in the cases themselves. They’re not even set in the era of the original stories, and there’s no Watson or anyone else from Doyle’s universe; it’s just the use of his famous name to get more attention to the game inside. That doesn’t affect my opinion of the game itself, but it’s just a bit strange when what’s in the box is good enough to stand on its own.
Keith Law is the author of Smart Baseball and a senior baseball writer for The Athletic. His latest book, The Inside Game, is due out in April 2020. You can find his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.