22 November 2017
Crack cases in smoky 1930s New York in this co-op puzzler
From the pulp magazine cover of its box down, Deadline is in love with noir. Its detectives are thinly-veiled homages to iconic hardboiled writers such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, its cards feature literal symbols of the genre – cigarettes, whiskey, bundles of cash, revolvers and fedoras – and its 'plot twist' events play off of classic crime-fiction tropes, with skeletons in the closet, threatening phone calls and being tailed all part of the drama hindering players in their efforts to solve each of 12 unique cases.
The reason Deadline works quite so well is because it is absolutely aware of its roots. There are echoes of the more exposition-heavy Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective model in the need to gather information and answer a series of questions at the conclusion of each mystery, but Deadline deftly condenses the process from Consulting Detective’s endless paragraphs of text into a series of concise clue cards. Each burst of writing is enjoyable – it occasionally becomes a little too noir-by-numbers, but remains solid enough to keep each mystery intriguing throughout the relatively breezy sub-hour play time.
With a unique deck for each case, these clue cards drive the thrust of each story, yet they’re not the core of the game. Rather than simply picking a place and reading the linked narrative, players must unlock a selected clue by laying down lead cards from their hand to achieve a specific combination of symbols. Cards must overlap and match previously-played symbols – with players unable to discuss specific cards in their hand, a mixture of luck and thoughtful placement is needed to access each location and progress the story. It’s a straightforward and breezy setup that ends up bringing a more active ‘gamey’ feeling to the background deduction, balancing the slightly less challenging conundrums to make it far quicker and less intense than Consulting Detective.
This also means some of the thick atmosphere of Consulting Detective is sacrificed for a more guided and streamlined style of storytelling. As the narrative is restricted to the back of cards there are far fewer red herrings to end up chasing, and no need for a notebook crammed with incidental details and questionable evidence. All the information you need is on the clue cards, which can be referred back to once revealed, making it far easier to keep track of what’s important and reducing the common frustration of illogical logical leaps.
While the clue cards for each case are unique, the symbols on the lead cards are used for every scenario, making them feel quickly repetitive – a sentiment reinforced by the disposable generic flavour text on each. As they’re just the oil allowing the narrative cogs to turn smoothly, it’s not a major problem, but it does detract a little from the atmosphere of 1930s New York City.
While Deadline is not a particularly tough or mechanically deep game – in fact, it's best approached as a light storytelling experience – there is a gentle sense of pressure applied by the ability to fail clue cards, forcing players to suffer the negative effects of plot twists and eventually start losing access to clues – risking the inability to fully crack the case. It keeps the tension up without being punishing, a thankful decision given the reliance on drawing certain cards. The constant momentum means it’s impossible to find yourself stuck at a dead end, something that hardcore sleuths may find slightly disappointing but everyone else should breathe a sigh of relief at.
For once, you should absolutely judge a game by its cover. If Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective is a verbose crime novel, Deadline is a pulpy magazine: fast, easy, a little silly and enjoyable to the last twist.
Deadline has enough intrigue and tension to hold together as an engaging mystery, introducing light cardplay and the right level of guided storytelling to feel satisfying without being completely throwaway. It’s a joyful celebration of crime fiction wrapped up in an enjoyable and accessible game.
Time: 45 minutes
This review originally appeared in the October/November 2017 issue 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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