[Tuesday Night Board Games] 221B Baker Street

Sherlock Holmes (r) and Dr. John B. Watson. Fr...

Watson struggles to maintain the illusion of being impressed. Image via Wikipedia

Last Tuesday, Andrew led us through 221B Baker Street, a vintage board game in which the players are all detectives investigating a crime that left Scotland Yard utterly perplexed. It was an obviously well-loved copy from his youth. Andrew had a couple funny reminisces about playing the game with his siblings.

In 221B Baker Street, sleuths first learn what they’re up against by reading the case card. We played “The Case of the Bashful Benefactor.” The case card gives the story leading up to the start of the investigation and sets the goals, the pieces of information needed to solve the insoluble, usually items like a motive, a killer, method and so on. To answer these questions, such as “Who killed Melanie Blakesly?” players travel around the board gathering clues from different locations: the Tobacconist’s, the Pub, the Carriage Depot and so on. Movement uses the old school “roll a d6 and move that many spaces” technique, which conjured up memories of Clue for me.

Once a detective arrives at a particular location, they look up its specific entry in a long list of clues that cover a whole stack of cases. The Carriage Depot may have clue 57 in one case and 219 in another. In some cases, a location may not have a relevant clue or no clue at all. Some clues give information about characters described in the case. Others may be segments of word puzzles. One of the goals in the case we played through, the motive of one of the characters, was a sentence made up of homonyms of questionable accuracy.

Eventually, a player feels they’ve gathered enough information to be able to formulate a hypothesis about what really went on. They return to the starting point on the board, 221B Baker Street, and announce their answer. Then they privately check the back of the clue booklet. If they’re right, they confirm it to the rest of the group. Otherwise, that detective is out of the game and everyone carries on.

No one in our game got the answer completely right. We all got pieces of it, some more than others, but never all four, which is the requirement for winning. When I finally got back to Baker Street with a full notebook of clues, I spent four or five passes around the table trying to make sense of that really terrible wordplay puzzle.

Rolling the die isn’t the only thing that determines who gets to which clues first. At the start of the game, each player has a police badge and skeleton key card. The badge can lock one door of a location — a few have multiple access points, which can be useful in getting around the board — keeping other players from reaching the clue there, while the skeleton key removes the badge permanently. More keys and badges are available at the Locksmith and Scotland Yard locations, which can play a role in how one chooses to move around the board, particularly if people are being aggressive about barring other detectives from certain clues. I used my first badge early on, acquired another sometime later, but then never thought it to use it, even though there were still players who hadn’t acquired clues I was reading.

Before we started, Andrew warned us that the game can take a long time. I thought he was referring to individual turns running long. Actually, it’s because the turns are so short: roll a die, move your pawn that many spaces. If you end in a location, look up the relevant clue in the clue book. There is, however, only one clue book for six people. This leads to needing to track who gets the clue book next versus whose turn it actually is. There can be five people waiting for the book while the sixth copies down their clue, only to learn it’s time for them to roll and move again.

221B Baker Street is a weird game. It’s got that super simple roll and move mechanic attached to what are logic puzzles and brainteasers. I can see playing just the puzzle aspect by giving everyone the clues, but they’d probably need their difficulty upped to still make it fun and draw the game out; maybe by specifying the order in which they’re revealed and ensuring they’re all interdependent.

To continue the retrogaming theme, Nonny broke out Talisman after that. I was distracted by Betrayal at House on the Hill and Tsuro before taking up an abandoned Thief in Talisman, who, to be honest, is probably a little broken when you can lift the wand from someone just by saying so.

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