I already had a concept for a Sherlock Holmes game so that’s where I started. I wanted to give players a sense of being the genius detective seeking clues to unravel the schemes of a criminal mastermind. Since few of us are anywhere near as clever as Sherlock (or his precociously brilliant younger sister Enola), the trick was going to be making the game require enough deductive reasoning for the players to feel clever, without being sufficiently difficult to make them feel foolish instead.
The game that came to mind was the old Mastermind board game, the one in which one player selects four colored pegs and the other player has to deduce which ones they are. The game was simple, yet kept me and my little sister entertained for hours as we tried to outwit each other.
However, I didn’t want a game as abstract as Mastermind; I wanted something more narrative, with the players traveling around London and its environs recreating moments from the show, and I wanted it to be playable with up to four players.
The hidden crime cards and revealed clue cards are the core of the game
After a bit of playing around with ideas and a bit of back-of-the-envelope calculation, I grabbed a deck of playing cards and tested a small game with my co-workers.
With a reduced deck, I’d secretly draw six cards, then get them to deduce what the cards were over several rounds. Each round I’d roll a die and use that to decide how many cards to deal them, then give them clues based on those cards. The number of cards and rounds it took to deduce the cards I held was nicely consistent, with just the right amount of variation. This became the core of the deduction side of the game: A criminal picking a scheme of some sort, and the detectives seeking clues to help them deduce that scheme.
The criminal combines puzzle cards with the map to challenge the detectives
The next part was to figure out how to get the clue cards into the detective players’ hands. Here’s where the narrative side would come in. The detectives would move around a map of London, investigating puzzling crimes to gain clues as to the criminal mastermind’s overall plan.
To increase the variety of puzzles and give the criminal player agency in this phase of the game, I came up with the idea of having cutouts on the puzzle cards. These revealed an additional talent for the map location, increasing the difficulty of the puzzle.
The detectives play on the case cards to solve the puzzle, while the criminal’s making trouble cards make it harder
The puzzle-solving part of the game matches the talents on the detective’s card to the talents shown on the puzzle. The detectives play on the case cards to add to their talent or otherwise outsmart the criminal, while the criminal responds with “making trouble” cards to make their lives more difficult. Should the detective succeed in matching the required talents, they get a clue card, either revealing one of the hidden crime cards or showing that there are no matching crime cards in the criminal’s scheme. Once they have solved (or failed to solve) their cases, the detectives gather to make their next deduction. If they fail to deduce the crime before the game ends, the criminal wins.
This basic concept survived contact with all of the playtesting, although the details have been refined many times since then. The highlight of this initial playtesting was a game I ran with the staff of another company that shared our office space. They weren’t gamers, but quickly picked up the game and enjoyed it. However, soon after this, things got busy, and the game got sidelined as other things took my attention.
Things changed when I discovered a second Enola Holmes movie was in the works and Gale Force Nine had gained the license to produce a board game for it. Out came the old design for a revisit. The first thing I decided was that I’d made the game way more complicated than it needed to be. If it were going to appeal to an Enola Holmes audience, it needed to be slimmer, faster, and less daunting, while at the same time retaining the gameplay that the experienced gamers on the playtest team loved.
The revised game made a tidy package, with enough challenge but faster play
I slashed the number of turns from six to four, the number of cards in the crime from six to five, the number of spots on the map from twelve to eight, and the number of other components commensurately. When I put down my axe, I was pleased that further playtesting showed that this streamlined version of the game played much faster, without losing the charm and challenge of the original version.
The rulebook got a similar treatment, with all the complicated and hard-to-explain bits clarified, simplified, or simply removed as unnecessary. An example of this is the way the rules handled the criminal’s first turn. Since the criminal’s first turn was sort of a double turn, putting out twice as many puzzles, the old rules were quite messy. By moving the criminal’s turn to the end of the round and adding the necessary parts of the criminal’s turn to set-up, I managed to make things easier to understand for first-time players.
The rules are split into the stuff you need to know and the details you can look up when you get stuck
I also split the rules into a quick start rulebook and the main rulebook. The quick start rulebook runs the players through the game without getting distracted by all the ifs, buts, and maybes. It uses illustrated examples so that players can follow through it, page by page, as they start their first game. The main rulebook then covers the same ground, but from a more technical viewpoint, answering all the questions that may arise and advising on the finer points of play.
As an all-against-one game, balancing it for two, three, and four players was one of the biggest challenges. One of the things that I’d done in my cleanup was to remove the previous attempts at balancing. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t work, but it did make clear the exact extent of balancing needed. That way, the bits that I brought back balanced the game for any number of players, without unneeded complexity or making any player’s task too difficult to manage.
Once I had everything working with the experienced gamers that I used to playtest, it was time to try it out on teenagers, especially fans of Enola Holmes. This went well, with the players picking up the game from the rulebook with little difficulty, despite an unfamiliarity with board games. The players enjoyed the game, loved the theme, but weren’t so enamoured of the way the deduction process was working. One family asked to take the playtest version home so that they could play more games!
That took me right back to the beginning. Grabbing a pack of cards, I spent an afternoon with my (not at all competitive) wife tweaking the deduction game in all sorts of directions until we settled on its final and much more satisfying form. A little more playtesting confirmed the changes had solved the problem, and it was off to the graphic designers to make the whole thing look pretty.
Inspired by the color palette and style of the movies, the graphic designers have created a visual look that matches the style of the game, simple, accessible, fun, and an intellectual challenge.
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