Board in the Stacks: Shahrazad

Shahrazad is a solo/2-player cooperative game from Osprey Games where you are building a tableau of tiles representing an ongoing series of tales told over several nights. The theme of the game is loosely based on the story of Shahrazad whose quick wit and storytelling prowess kept her alive for 1,001 nights and won her the hand of a formerly homicidal king. Yay for happy endings. Despite the storytelling theme there are no actual storytelling mechanisms in this game. Each “story” is represented by placing a series of tiles of the same color together with the tile’s number increasing as you progress the plot from left to right. If the numbers do not increase, you lost the thread of the story and will lose points at the end of the round.

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At the beginning of a turn you choose from two tiles to place on the tableau. The deck of 22 numbered tiles is shuffled and each player has a hand of two tiles to place. Tiles can be placed in an empty area in the tableau or they can replace an previously placed tile. When replacing a tile, the older tile goes back into your hand. For placing a new tile there are a few simple placement rules. Each tile needs to be placed adjacent to a tile on the table. The tile should be placed either above/below or halfway down the side of an existing side. Each column can only support three tiles (four in the solo game) so your stories need to progress as you branch out to the sides, trying to keep tiles in ascending order from left to right.

When the deck is exhausted, your story is told and you get to score to see how well you did. To score you flip over any placed tile that doesn’t increase numerically from left to right (any tile with a lower tile to its right). Then you flip over any tiles that don’t make a continuous uninterrupted arc from left to right (color doesn’t matter just yet). Now you find the largest set of tiles in each of the four colors, add up the results and subtract one point for each flipped tile and any gaps between tiles. If the resulting score is positive you play another round with any flipped tiles removed from the game. A negative score means the king was displeased with your story and you were killed. If positive, you go for another round and your final score is tallied after three rounds.

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The Endgame

Osprey Games continues their run of quality two-player games. The asymmetrical card game The The Ravens of Thri Sahashri and the competitive abstract game Agamemnon came on strong in gameplay and were both lacking in the art. Agamemnon was too minimalist and Ravens used an anime art style that just wasn’t as engaging. In Shahrazad though, the tiles are gorgeous. The artwork is beautiful and including several international folk tales, inspired by a traditional tarot deck (it was originally published in 2015 as “Tarot Stories” in Japan) all set within a middle-eastern aesthetic. The whole thing is just gorgeous.

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There is some conversation on whether this game shines better solo or as a 2-player cooperative. For me, it is made to be played solo and the 2-player game feels more like a variant — albeit, a successful one. However, the communal elements of the two-player game are satisfying. Given the field is relatively wide, I do enjoy the shared puzzle of Shahzarad over say the cooperative journey into frustration that is …and then we held hands. The placement rules are simple enough to provide a comfortable decision space without evoking any real stress.

Bottom line, Shahrazad is a beautifully produced puzzle with simple mechanisms, gorgeous art, and an accessible theme. It plays and teaches quickly. Rounds move progressively quicker and don’t tend to stall. It’s a perfect date game as long as you ignore the whole homicidal king thing.

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: Jack the Ripper & West End Adventures

pic3238299_mdSherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: Jack the Ripper and the West End Adventures (Amazon) is a series of cases that continue the investigations of the original Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. Space Cowboys (of T.I.M.E. Stories and Splendor fame) are updating and redoing the original releases. In this game, the West End Adventures are updated versions of the 1995 expansion to the original game with four completely new adventures centered around Jack the Ripper. The original Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective will be released as The Thames Murders and Other Cases later this year.

The Game

Similar to the original, 1-8 players work together as a team of “irregular” investigators working with, but also competing against, their boss Sherlock Holmes. Each case is contained in a booklet with an introduction, several locations with associated text, case questions to test how well you did, and the solution provided by Sherlock to measure yourself against. Each regular case utilizes a large fold-out map of London along with newspapers and a directory. The Unlike the original, Jack the Ripper cases are all linked together in a series and have a map of White-chapel included. 

An introduction is read aloud at the beginning of each case. The players are encouraged to explore the provided materials and come to a consensus on which location to search. The map has dozens of locations to visit in the course of your investigations. You will gather clues, visit locals who may provide information pertinent to your case or red herrings to lead you astray. Each location moves the team closer to solving the mystery new leads which in turn lead to new locations. Once the group has determined they explored and followed enough of the leads, they can move onto the questions for the case. There are a total of 200 points that can be earned from solving the primary case and any peripheral mysteries that may have been uncovered as well. Time is of the essence, so visiting too many sites and spending too much time can affect the final score.

Sherlock_Holmes_Consulting_Detective_02_2000x1333.jpgAfter the questions, the score is tallied and you compare your results to Holmes’ solution. However, the solutions provided by Sherlock require so many ridiculous logical leaps that it really only serves to prove to the players how intensely smart Sherlock is. You can ignore the score, and laugh at the result that Sherlock comes up with.  

Each case is a one-shot experience and with 10 cases supplied in the game. At 90 minutes a case, it more than provides enough value for the cost. At first glance there is very little option for replay-ability but having one person moderating the game (who knows the solution) can be fun to attract new players. It was also fun to allow new players to work through the game and provide an occasional hint.

Comparing this to T.I.M.E. Stories, I prefer the lack of game mechanics in Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. There is little set up, lots of reading, and plenty of discussion about what to do next. You can move from place to place, examine clues, develop leads, gather materials, and pour over the map and newspapers provided. Both games are certainly on rails but I find the streamlined experience of Sherlock Holmes much more enjoyable.

This is a gaming experience tailor made for bookworms! It reminds me of the experience of reading a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book with the added benefit of being able to share the experience with more than one person. Honestly, I never got to a good ending of a Choose Your Own Adventure book without cheating and I have never get even close to Sherlock’s solution in Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. Nor should I! Most of the fun is the disbelief of how he actually solved the crime and your own floundering steps towards a solution. You don’t get better as you play but you do get more creative in your solutions as you try to make the same logical leaps Sherlock makes.  

The Endgame

Take your time. Have a drink. Forget about the score. Explore possibilities with your group. Laugh at the red herrings and gloat over someone’s totally lucky guess that ended up being correct. It is totally OK to cheat at this game. If you can’t answer a question, go back and retrofit an answer. See where you went amiss.

This is a great introduction to RPGs for people who never even thought about playing an RPG. Let me be clear, it *isn’t* an RPG but it has that feeling of group cohesion, discussion and discovery. It has the added bonus of being played without a moderator and if you really wanted to toss in some characters, it wouldn’t be too hard to find some mystery tropes to include. They would have zero effect on gameplay but could make the experience even more immersive.

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective is an overlooked gateway game that no-one ever mentions. And it should be right alongside with Splendor, Ticket to Ride, and Pandemic. It is a small jump into Fiasco if you want storytelling or into Letters from Whitechapel if you want to get a bit more mechanical. The theme is familiar and immersive to most. The mechanisms are simple to practically nonexistent. It plays with little setup or rules explanation. 

The only downside of this particular iteration is that the theme of the Jack the Ripper cases can be off-putting. I have this same issue when I introduce Letters from White-chapel to some gaming groups. It is just a whole different level of dark from the classic Holmes mystery.This sequence of linked cases is bloody, historically accurate, and can be tough to stomach. Something about the jump from a purely literary affair to the reconstruction of actual horrible events of real victims may be too much. As a simple test, if your group would be down with From Hell or the Ripper Street TV series then they may be ready for this. My recommendation is to play the West End cases first and move into the Jack the Ripper cases only if this level of darkness is appropriate to your group.

So this makes my recommendation mixed for libraries. Even most adult groups of emerging gamers have been concerned over particularly dark themes. If you are worried about the grisly nature of Jack the Ripper, get the original Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective if you can find it. Or you can wait for the Space Cowboy’s re-release of the original as Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Thames Murders and Other Cases.