|Interaction||Components & Design|
I’m talking about Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game by Portal Games, the most CSI boardgame you’re likely to find… and I say that in full knowledge that there is an actual CSI boardgame. Players in Detective are members of an elite squad called Antares, a high-tech crime fighting unit who will solve crimes reaching back eighty years and crossing oceans. These are their stories.
Follow my leads – How to play Detective
Detective is deck exploration game, superficially similar to escape games like Unlock. Each case is represented by one deck of cards, and as the game progresses you’ll draw more and more of them to uncover the story – in this case, to uncover the crime that was committed with all its sordid details
A game of Detective starts very similar to a game of Unlock. You pick up the deck for a scenario, read the introduction – what crime was committed, what evidence has been found already – and then start with the first card on the table.
Unlike Unlock, cards in Detective are not full of pretty pictures, they are full of text. Fortunately, and also unlike Unlock, there is no real-time time limit. You have plenty of time to read all of it. Read it carefully, there’ll be a test later. Literally. The bottom of the card will often have a section titled further leads, where you see your options where to go next. Following those leads, bit by bit, you’ll unravel the mystery.
Story text is not all there is on the cards, though. Each card also shows you how long it takes to investigate its lead. There’s no real-time time limit, but there is a limit on in-game time. Depending on the case you’ll have up to five days, with eight hours a day. You can work overtime, but doing so will give you stress tokens, and there’s a tight limit how many of those tokens you may collect on a case. Also, they are bad for your final score.
Also on the card is the location you have to visit to investigate the lead. Not in detail, you don’t have to go to the correct street on the map. The five locations on the game board are the Headquarter, the Lab, the Richmond P.D., the Courthouse, and Fieldwork, a catch-all for everywhere else you might have to go. Travel from one location to another always takes an hour of your precious time. You always move and investigate with your whole team, by the way. No splitting up allowed.
Time and stress are two important resources to manage, but they are not the only ones. Your team also has a very limited supply of skill tokens that you can use on some cards to dig deeper, be it through a more in-depth interview, expert computer research, or expertise navigating other agencies’ filing system. Those skill tokens are rare, and you absolutely won’t have enough of them to investigate all your leads in depth. Picking the right ones is how you solve cases, but sometimes you only get those by luck. Like real police work.
With all this talk about card, let’s not forget that they are not your only source of information. There is also Detective‘s own website, the Antares Database. There you find files, interview transcripts, and other lengthy documents about the case when a card instructs you to read them. It’s also where you manage the physical evidence you find. When you enter fingerprints, DNA samples, or other pieces of evidence into the database, it automatically compares them with other pieces of evidence related to this case and tells you, for example, if that new fingerprint you found matches one you discovered earlier – maybe even one that already has a name tag.
When you think you know who did it, why, and possibly how, or when you run out of time, you deliver your final report. You do so on the Antares Database, which will ask you a series of multiple choice questions related to the case. The more of them you get right, the higher your score for the case.
But what’s the motive to play Detective – our verdict
Detective‘s designer Ignacy Trzewiczek runs a blog and has published a book, both titled Board games that tell stories. He didn’t write the story for Detective, that credit goes to Przemys?aw Rymer and Jakub ?apot, but it’s pretty clear where the focus of Detective lies. And it succeeds at that, no questions asked.
It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Detective tells one story, not five. The cases are tightly linked, not five stories but five chapters in one, and the story they tell is tense and intriguing. You see an outline early on, but only towards the end do you learn how twisted it all really is. It’s a great story, and the game mechanisms are tuned towards telling it.
Mechanically, Detective is ultra-light, but all the decisions you make are geared towards telling the story – or withholding parts of it, because you don’t have enough time, you don’t have enough skill tokens, and you have to make tough decisions which leads to follow with your limited resources. And that is good and proper. Managing resources to solve the case and win, that is how a cooperative game should be.
There is, however, one thing I do not enjoy about Detective‘s resource management: The way stress tokens turn into negative points. I’m a story addict. If there is a story I want to know it. My first – and frankly, only – instinct is to look at all the cards I can get, including taking all the overtime tokens I can. If I have to choose between knowing the story and losing the game, then I can deal with not knowing the story. But those stress tokens take away from my score. I win either way, but I have to decide between winning a lot and missing some story, or winning less and knowing more story. Call me irrational – the fact that this rant on a minor problem is the longest paragraph in this review supports that view – but trading points for not knowing parts of the story, that’s just evil. Evil, I say.
Rant aside, though, there is one real issue with Detective, or there might be, depending on your group. Most cooperative games are susceptible to quarterbacking, meaning one player completely taking over the game. In Detective, where you don’t have individual game pieces and the cards and database have a lot of text that one player will be reading out to everyone else, it takes some discipline to keep everyone engaged. The rulebook makes great suggestions how to split responsibilities to give some spotlight to everyone, but you have to actively stick to them. Detective is a tough game for a shy person.
Another small warning, although I guess it’s pretty obvious, is about Detective‘s replayability. Once you’re through the five cases there’s really no point in playing them again.
Two warning and one rant aside, though. Detective sets out to be a board game that tells a story, and that’s what it does very well indeed. The CSI atmosphere is palpable, the story is tense, and the game mechanisms are tuned to telling it. The cases are tricky enough to make you think, too. If you want to use your brain in a different way next game night, less strategic planning and more solving a twisted case, this is the way.