Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game

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5 Chits, 4 Giggles

Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game from Portal Games is one of the industry’s newest mystery solving titles and it’s brought to you by the minds of Ignacy Trzewiczek, Przemysław Rymer and Jakub Łapot. Playing this game, you’ll become detectives in Antares National Investigation Agency and across five cases (and presumably more in the future) you will attempt to get to the bottom of several interlinked crimes through the use of deduction and decision making, all the while being mindful over that most valuable resource of all; time.

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Before we delve properly into the review, some of you may know that we played a demo of this game previously and wrote up a preview which you can find here, and in it you will find a little more detail about the mechanics at play. Therefore, if we do skim past some mechanical details, you can probably find that information in the linked article. With that said, let’s get to the bottom of the real thing!

Storytelling in games is something that Ignacy is clearly very passionate about, having written a couple of books (based on his blog) on how this hobby has the ability to make you feel real emotion during gameplay. What’s not so surprising then is how the narrative in Detective has been carefully crafted for maximum captivation. There are lots of atmospheric touches present that make you feel closer to the story that the game is telling you, including the flavour text that you read on every new card, visual considerations across the game as well as other little surprises that I really couldn’t spoil for you. The cards never settle for the minimum ‘You’ve discovered this...”, they tend to do everything with a little exposition and a lot of description, which is highly appreciated.

Without spoiling anything, the very first case you come up against involves a stolen national heirloom, and your mission is to find out what happened to it. You are given a few details to start, breadcrumbs if you like, and after that you are left pretty much to your own devices, and which trails you follow comes down to you and your group. The leads come in the form of new cards from the deck, and each case has its own, so when you feel like you want to discover more about a certain item or perhaps you wish to interview a suspect, the cards will tell you where to look. What I really liked is that certain cards give you the option to ‘dig deeper’ (essentially turning the card over to reveal more info) by spending one of the groups skill tokens. These are risky, because sometimes what you reveal is useless, but other times you may gain really valuable insight about the overarching story. How can you tell which ones are useful and which ones aren’t? The answer is you can’t, and because there are only limited tokens in the game and very few ways to go back later in the game to activate these cards again, the on the spot decision making makes for a tense moment. If you end up biting the bullet, either result will end up being quite memorable; there are no middle of the road results!

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We already talked about the games use of real-world information in the preview, but for me this was the only questionable decision about the game. At certain moments, a ‘WiFi’ symbol on some cards directs you to research that object/person/location/event via the internet (or an encyclopaedia if you’re old school) and while this was a really unique and clever addition to the gameplay, it never felt to me like it completely fit. Perhaps this came down to my choices in the game, or perhaps in my haste to get back to the exciting gameplay and decision making I skimmed over the Wikipedia article and missed something, but the fact is the information you’re asked to look up is usually quite full on. I never enjoyed the lessons at school which forced you to ingest so much data, and this reminded me of that. When do I stop reading and start playing again? Am I retaining the right information for later on or is this supposed to make sense right now? It’s certainly not a bad addition, but a confusing one.

Speaking of clever concepts, this is perhaps the only game that I felt had a genuine reason to involve an online element to it which also added to the game’s ambience. Antares, the game’s mythical agency, has a whole database of information to access through your own laptop, and is vital for playing Detective as this is where you’ll take the final test for each case (a multiple choice quiz that challenges whether you’ve learned enough about what happened). The information you can access is triggered by certain cards which give you a code, and when inputted into the website they unlock suspect profiles, DNA data and more. I really enjoyed the way this was integrated,. For example, in one situation we discovered several fingerprints, some of which were discovered to belong to people involved in the case. However, some of these were still a mystery to us, but later on after revealing a new suspect, these mystery prints were revealed to belong to them. The discovery of a missing connection happened a lot and in different ways, leading to many ‘aha!’ moments which became some of my favourite bits of the game.

Decisions are perhaps the most important part of Detective, and for a mystery solving game this is a huge boon. You’ll pull cards from the deck based on which leads you want to follow, and a limited number of these are given to you at the beginning of the case, and it is entirely your choice which one you’d like to follow first, if at all. Each one takes up a varying amount of time depending on what it is, though you never know how much until you’ve committed to it. For example, analysing DNA and pulling evidence from the archives usually takes longer than talking to witnesses, and with only eight hours to use each day (though you can choose to use more but at the cost of a lower score) do you risk using nearly half of those investigating something that might not even get you another good lead? This is where your decision-making skills come into play, encouraging discussion among the players. As movement between locations costs time, if you’re already in the Lab you might consider following another lead there over chasing up a more exciting but likely time consuming one over at the Courthouse, but of course, wherever more than one person is involved, it is likely that you’ll disagree on the best course of action!

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Which brings me on to a valuable factor that I discovered about Detective; how perfect it is for gaming solo (which might mean a future update for our solo gaming guide). While these experiences are often best shared, I did two of these cases on my own, and as somebody who champions the social aspect of playing board games, this was still a really entertaining experience playing solo. Even without having an extra head to bounce ideas between or a pair of ears to hear my deliberation about certain decisions, the same sense of wonder and accomplishment followed each new step in the case. In each situation, the case took three real life hours, so this is a very good value game, and nothing about it felt artificially prolonged.

One of Detective’s best attributes is its intuitiveness. It is not a difficult game to learn, partly due to how everything makes sense, and the rule book is not only thorough but not very long either (I did experience one situation that wasn’t 100% clear during one of the cases but it was such a specific instance and everybody seemed to agree on what the intuitive thing to do was, that I think it’s unfair to bring it up as a critique) so this for me was a big positive. There has been a lot of discussion regarding the role of rulebooks in gaming as of late, so it is important to start discussing this in all reviews, which is something we will begin doing from this point onwards.

Presentation in Detective is fantastic, everything from the game’s box art, to the thematic artwork, the look and feel of the accompanying website and the text. This definitely comes out somewhere near the top for aesthetic and production value, and that’s pretty much all that needs to be said on that point.

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My favourite thing about this game is that a lot of the conclusions you come to are not concrete. What you determine from the evidence and information you discover will ultimately come down to your own interpretation of events. There is always a little bit of uncertainty wherever you go, though whether that’s to replicate realism or to add doubt to your investigation and increase the tension is not obvious. Either way, this makes the end of case quiz that much more important, as a right answer adds points to your score, but wrong conclusions will deduct points. The lack of solid evidence really tests your commitment to your own investigation, and I reckon even Sherlock Holmes would be hard pressed to get a maxed out score in any of the cases present here!

With so many leads to follow, it’s impossible to find all the information, though this was obviously done on purpose and the game is replayable in that sense. I ended up doing the first case twice and did end up with different notes, but for me a game like this builds up to the conclusion, so replayability is not a factor I take into consideration when purchasing a mystery game, but it is nice to have the option. I did reach a few dead ends during my investigations, however I genuinely didn’t feel like all of them were due to poor decisions, just unlucky ones. The argument could certainly be “Well that’s just like real crime solving” so I guess that’s fair, but in a game it’s no less frustrating.

Ultimately though, those looking to purchase a modern crime solving board game would find no greater product than that you’ll find here. Everything about it, from its look, to the production quality, to the synchronicity between the online and offline aspects of the game all push this far beyond what we’ve come to expect from the mystery genre until now. Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, the natural comparison to this game, certainly has a lot of ground to make up if they want to compete with Portal’s take!

Review by Russell Chapman