05 November 2018
Put this in your pipe and smoke it, Holmes
Detective. It’s a title that delivers a simple promise. But Ignacy Trzewiczek’s ambitious and revolutionary creation overdelivers on its modest proposal in almost every regard, leaving one conclusion: this is nothing less than a modern crime-gaming masterpiece.
Detective’s masterstroke is its required companion website that opens up a fictional databank for players to access as they trace clues, eliminate suspects and discover extra chunks of story. Doing so isn’t exactly forensic science – you plug in a unique signature code when prompted and watch as the computer analyses fingerprints, soil particles, security camera footage, you name it – but using the Antares Database still manages to feel like living out an episode of CSI. You can almost smell the white latex gloves.
The database doubles as an interactive way of closing each case, calculating a final score from a set of questions, both crucial and otherwise, and serving up a satisfying page of narrative based on your answers, right or wrong. Though the writing veers into near-parody of police procedurals at times (it’s a tone that the game leans into, with slightly goofy ‘Previously On…’ recap videos at the start of each successive case), it’s sturdy enough to suck you into the captivating whodunit that runs through and across the five connected scenarios in the campaign.
The central mystery is genuinely fascinating, and gains a real-world intrigue from Detective’s welcome sprinkling of real life into its fiction – at points, you’ll find yourself using Google Maps to identify possible crime scenes, browsing Wikipedia to swot up on World War II divisions that characters belonged to and solving riddles with little more than a search engine and your intuition. The game isn’t punishing if you’re anything less than Poirot – there are enough helpful hints to at least nudge you in the right direction – but working for the answers for real makes solving each case a thoroughly rewarding few hours.
Paragraphs of text come thick and fast but there’s more of a game here than you might expect. Unlike seminal crime-puzzler Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, which let players’ sleuths exhaustively explore every lead before confronting the final set of questions, Detective employs a time system that lends a sly weight to every decision – can you afford to spend two hours chasing a potential red herring, if it risks your team having to work overtime and gaining stress? The light but effective gameplay is put to good use in certain cases that play with the structure, at points sending players zooming around the city – and having to deal with the additional travelling time – and at others confining them to a single location for a single day, racing against a ticking clock – literally.
The time pressure means that you’ll often move on from a case without every single scrap of evidence, some of which may or may not feed into future scenarios in the campaign (there’s no risk of being left empty-handed when you need a lead from several hours ago, thanks to a catch-all progression). Still, even a failed case provides the answers to players, meaning there’s little reason to revisit the scenarios – at least while the outcomes are even half-remembered, anyway. Don’t let that turn you off, though – there’s a good five evenings of top-notch entertainment and brain-busting here, and, like a ‘you’ve gotta see this’ TV boxset, you’ll no doubt want to pass Detective onto a group of friends and compare notes once they’re done.
Detective’s subtitle is half right: this is a much-needed modern update to a genre that has dutifully stuck to its roots for decades. But it’s not so much a board game as it is an experience to be sunk into, shared and remembered for a long time to come.
Detective melds analogue with digital, fiction with reality, and a carefully crafted experience with freedom in a masterful, accomplished creation. You might only play it once, but you won't forget it.
Designer: Ignacy Trzewiczek, Przemysław Rymer, Jakub Łapot
Artist: Aga Jakimiec, Rafał Szyma
This review originally appeared in the September 2018 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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