The Soloist: Detective Games

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04 July 2021
We explore the world of solo gaming one move at a time



Watch above for Charlie's thoughts, and then read below her written article for the magazine

Poirot. Christie. Marple. Fletcher. Lone detectives in the criminal world, relentlessly tracking down rogues of all kinds, it’s no wonder when we look at solo games that detective games swoop into this genre with such confidence. If you’ve ever sat with eyes glued to a detective book, or TV series, instinctively trying to reach the outcome based on the evidence provided at each stage, you’ll know the ease with which such investigations can build tension, and draw you towards seeking a conclusion. Perfect then, for when you’re sitting down to play a solo game and have the attention span of a pigeon, often reaching for the phone and struggling to stay engaged when there’s not another player there to keep you in check. Whilst it’s not to say that solo games aren’t engaging – this feature regularly champions the very best of solo gaming, in a genre that’s grown hugely in popularity – staying engaged and motivated when you’ve only yourself to blame is sometimes the toughest part. When there’s a mystery afoot however, as within detective games, within moments we’re zipping from clue to clue, location to location, suspect to suspect, forced to stretch our brains in search of the truth, and most importantly – paying attention.


Don your deer stalker, chew on an unlit pipe, and wrestle the magnifying glass from granny, is it possible not to immediately think of Sherlock Holmes when you think detectives? That of course, is where we begin with detective style games, and where better to start than with

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, originally released in 1981, but has had numerous reprints and expansions. Generally, the games under this branch are information rich, offering you a number of cases for you to solve. All of the evidence is given to you in the form of a handout of some description, and you’ll head into a case book – one of the many books contained within it – and then follow the clues or hints it’s dropping. For example, if you want to investigate a person, you’ll need to think of heading to the directory to find out where they live, you may need to consult a newspaper for more information about them, or a map for where they may have been. This style of constantly swapping between books, maps, or additional evidence, can be frustrating, and it can be tricky when you’re unsure of how to proceed without another player to think differently, however the satisfaction at opening the envelope at the end, and finding you’ve successfully solved the case, is a full eureka moment. 


Of course, as detective story styles change, games do too. We’re not in Olde Londonium anymore, and now we have the internet, cat memes, and Sherlock conspiracy theories. In gaming terms, we don’t just head through booklets in a choose-your-own-path style, but we also dig our phones out of our pockets and pop onto Wikipedia.

It’s a style that was arguably popularised by Portal Games’ Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game. It follows the same style of ‘here is the case: decide where you want to look next’, except the investigation breaks the fourth wall and goes digital. You might need to look something up on Wikipedia, or you might need to head to the Antares Database to dig up what government information is held, or simply check out new locations. Between wondering what the connections are between the suspects, how one could possibly have an alibi that contradicts the evidence, and researching on your phone, it really feels like you’re investigating. You’re drawn so far in to find those answers that you barely notice the four hours that have passed before you’re telling Antares what you think happened. Even when it backtracks into the 1950s in Dig Deeper, you’ll be using the same system, though you’re heading to the more time-appropriate library instead. It’s a style you’ll see similarly in those like the EXIT or Unlock series, to some extent the TIME Stories series, and other self-contained investigatory games, that sees you physically taking the next step and being compensated with answers at every turn…that see you read and repeat each time. 

With every revelation, every lie uncovered, every suspect ruled out, you get a little more satisfaction, a personal pat on the back that drives you towards the final outcome making detective games perfect for solo play, allowing you to proudly declare aloud “I have uncovered the culprit!” to an empty room. Rewarding, nonetheless.  

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Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective 

The now classic game is perfect for budding investigators, having been mostly fine-tuned and adored over each edition and expansion. Playing against Holmes himself, you’ll be eliminating the impossible and retaining the improbable, searching through the evidence you have and then find in the search of justice. With all the options for investigation you have, this is a perfect game to play as a lone wolf. Plus, you can also pick up some free scenarios to try out directly from publishers Space Cowboys, meaning you can instantly give it a try… before then going on to purchase the whole series. Elementary, my dear Watson. 


Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game 

Bringing a google search to a case book fight, Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game modernises the genre, speeds up the process, and minimises the components – though, there’s still a lot of cards. You’ll do as much if not more investigation, but over a number of different ways, and it’s up to you as to how deep you’ll dig in each avenue you pursue.  Gameplay is long and surprising, you’ll feel you get your money’s worth, and there are plenty more in the style and likely coming to keep you busy. These include L.A. Crimes, Dig Deeper, the pictured Season One and the Vienna Connection. Portal Games pride themselves on games that tell stories, and you’ll follow their twisty turny narrative into a whole world of intrigue, which you’ll willingly dive headfirst into. 


Chronicles of Crime: 1400

Before Track & Trace brought back popularity to the QR code, Chronicles of Crime took a successful crack at it, utilising an app alongside the game that lets you scan QR codes to bring up new clues and conversations. The benefit of this, is if you’re prone to *ahem* accidentally reading clues in different areas to where you’ve been sent, you physically now cant, as you don’t gain the information for your next lead without first scanning in the correct order, i.e. scan here to have a chat, scan here to put this evidence to the witness, scan here to send your trusty doggo off into the fray. Not only that, but in some instances, you can literally look around the room through your smartphone to pick up evidence from different areas, in a disappearance, or a theft for instance. Find yourself stuck on your own? Why not ask your family characters for a little help? It’s a clever way to bring (in this case) 1400 to the modern world, and with instant results, plus help where you might need it, and no paper shuffling, it has you zipping from clue to clue within moments. 


This article originally appeared in issue 54 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

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