3:00PM - The glaring sun beat down upon the Novotel Hotel, a bland facade hiding a surprisingly bustling interior. Having just poured the remaining few drops of the days third coffee down my gullet, I made my way into the lobby, the humidity from the outside giving me a shiny look that was not ideal for the meeting I was about to have. Hearing my name, I steered towards the left side of the venue where the rest of the group had arrived, waiting for the final guest to turn up; me. Some greetings were exchanged, handshakes offered and taken, and before we knew it we were being directed towards an elevator that was about as big as my shower, that is to say disappointingly small. The atmosphere was building, as we all knew where we were headed and what awaited us there. The doors promptly opened, and down the hall we went, eventually stopping outside a non-descript entrance, only a few digits written on the front of it to distinguish that it was his. With one smooth manouevre by our host, he pushed it open and we all poured into the cool and clean room. A pile of biscuits sat on a chair to the side, but we all sat down, ready to play the first case of a brand new game called 'Detective'.
The UK Games Expo was full of delight and exhaustion, but one of the things I was most looking forward to was trying out this mystery solving game by Ignacy Trzewiczek, Przemyslaw Rymer and Jakub Lapot. With no rule book in our excitable hands, we were instead guided along the game by Mr 'Portal Games' himself, who gave us the overview to start with, some rough roles we should assign ourselves (narrator, note taker, computer person and card looker-after) and basically told us to get stuck in, with the odd explanation and rule clarification here and there. After that, we were to continue until we reached the conclusion to Case 1.
It is important to note that there are going to be no spoilers in this preview, but I will mention some specifics to the game mechanics and this may be considered spoiler-esque by some so here's your warning I guess.
Most of all, as you might expect from a man who writes a series of books called 'Board Games That Tell Stories', this is a narrative game, which is clear from the get go. You don't necessarily play as individual characters, though the game does give you a set which you may wish to claim. Instead you play as a group and while the characters do give you special skills, it is you, the group, who will decide if and when to use them. I ended up going through the entirety of our experience thinking (and acting, talking) like I was playing a version of myself, somebody just like me who just so happened to be a detective. It really draws you in.
The format the game takes is a mix of drawing cards from a pre-made deck, typing things into a companion app/website and looking up things online, all while trying to deduce exactly what the information that you've been given actually means. You'll start by being given the intro to the case, a la Consulting Detective, and given an overall mystery to solve. Immediately there is a difference between this game and the other primo mystery solver; you are told that at a certain day and time, there is an event taking place and you may choose as a group whether to attend, presumably depending on how the case is going at that point. The penalty for following this is using up the games biggest antagonist; time.
Time is a resource you see, and not the only one but the major one. You have a certain number of days to solve this and I would guess each following case too, each broken up into eight (?) hours. Of course, each activity (which in this case mostly boils down to leads that you choose to follow) costs time, as does the travel between the game's five different locations, and each new piece of information or discovery could open up more leads, and sometimes several at once. That your time is limited forces you to choose which evidence is going to give you the biggest rewards, in the form of information and more evidence. When the end of the day approaches, you may wish to extend yourselves by working past the end of the day, but this comes at a price, as you'll add a stress token for each hour you spend after 5pm hits. Each of these will lose you points at the end of the game, and it was certainly our experience that getting these tokens really wasn't something we considered lightly.
The game mechanics are very easy to grasp. At numerous steps along the way you get cards, which will give you information and either reveal new leads (aka more cards) to follow which might require you to be in a specific location, or give you an option to 'Dig Deeper'. These are options on the card which, if chosen, uses up a limited pool of skill tokens in order to go that little bit further in following the current lead. Perhaps a witness seems like they have more to say, or that item hasn't been checked thoroughly enough. As they come in different types and are limited in number, choosing whether to use one is a tough decision, and spending one on something that might come up empty is devastating for the team morale.
As well as text on cards, the game uses real world information too, such as knowledge of historical events and landmarks, that you can use the internet to look up during the game when prompted in order to help you understand parts of the case. This aspect of the game (and certainly one of the most talked about aspects pre-expo) didn't feel crucially applicable to the leads that we followed in the game, but this may be down to the way we ran the case. I doubt being able to score highly would be so reliant on internet based information, mainly due to the trolling that could occur, but also to isolate fans for lack of internet might not be the best idea. Still, it was forcing me to read up on events that I never really knew that much about before, which was certainly a unique element in the world of board gaming which so often takes you away from the real world.
Some cards give you a code to type into the 'police computer', which was one of my favourite bits of the game. The website they've set up feels very thematic and has lots of touches that put you in the mindset of a cop drama (the look of it comes right out of a modern day TV show). You may pull up files on suspects, look up evidence reports and even analyse fingerprints which all interlink but also come with elements that mean you might not be 100% sure on what you've actually got on somebody (more on that later). There are even transcripts of interviews which can indicate at various moments the interviewees stress levels. What you make of these things depends on how good at reading the situation. It's all very neat and thorough.
At the end of the case we played, which was either when we had run out of time or when we felt prepared enough to answer the overarching question of what happened, you are taken to a section of the website which quizzes you on your understanding of the case through a few multiple choice questions, with three potentially correct answers and one that simply states that you as a group 'aren't entirely sure' about what happened at that stage. This is clever, because by entering a correct answer, you gain a positive score, but entering something incorrect (which might seem plausible yet you have no evidence for it) will give you a negative score. The 'not sure' option at least keeps your score as it is, and so sometimes it's the right thing to do. After the questions, you are given your score, and well, let's just say that we didn't get a great result but at least our theory was right!
The answers to the case are never explicitly stated you see, and there aren't cards in the game that we saw that gave you the answers in black and white terms (according to Ignacy these don't exist). It is a crime solving game, and therefore what the game does is give you the different puzzle pieces but is up to you to understand how to put them together to form a coherent picture using your own logic, the evidence you found and the knowledge you've gained. It's the right approach for the game in my opinion, because there is so much that you might miss out on due to the limitation of time and the number of potential leads, that filling the gaps is pretty much a necessity in most playthroughs.
The feel of the game is important, and thankfully it struck the right balance between familiar and new and maintained that tone throughout the first case at least. During the story and its various twists and revelations, I felt linvested, and this is down to some clever elements like the consistency of atmosphere and the writing on each card as well as the small details like the language each NPC character uses. You know exactly what you're getting into from the box art and the look of the games components and it does what it does very well.
The most intriguing element which we never really investigated due to playing through just the first case is the campaign aspect. Certain decisions that your group make affect future cases by asking you to add certain cards to envelopes that you only get to see during the subsequent cases, and whether this has a positive or potentially negative impact has yet to be seen, but I am curious about it. Replayability is possible according to the designers, as there are too many cards to be able to go through even half of them in a single run through, so by playing the case again, you can discover new leads. Due to the narrative nature and the quiz at the end though, I don't really think this will be a game that a second or even third playthrough will improve. Maybe a few years down the line when most of the story has been forgotten, but will that be enough to keep it in your library?
This is a crime solving game, and so the biggest question that must be asked is whether this is a good game for those wanting to solve crimes. The answer is yes, as there is a lot to like here and the story is at least starting on the right foot, with a curious tale that seems to develop in an interesting way as you uncover leads. The way it integrates with the website is well done and only adds to the games atmosphere, and this definitely feels like the most narrative game that Portal have ever released. I didn't get the chance to ask him about expansions as we wrapped up our session, but they have certainly shown themselves to be keen on growing a successful brand so it wouldn't surprise me if this gained future episodes in the same way that T.I.M.E Stories did.
6:00PM - The group vacated the room, the mission barely successful but the focus of conversation already turning into a post mortem of the various ups and downs of what we experienced. The air outside was cool, the humidity departing as did the group with an exchange of goodbyes and a few business cards to boot. I was late for an appointment, but I pushed that thought to the back of my head as I looked back at the hotel. What will happen next? Will I face the experience again? With a slow grin, I realised that I was in it for the long haul no, for I just had to find out what was next. Until then...