Location-based encounters. A map of the city. Crimes to solve. At first blush, Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective and Gumshoe, The Hardboiled Detective in the Thirties have a lot in common, but the experience of playing them reveals two very different games.
Gumshoe is a little bit of a rarity, a thirty-five year old game that has never been reprinted. At first glance, it looks like it might be considered to be a deluxe version of Sherlock Holmes. While Sherlock contains a map, address directory, and cheat sheet with recurring contacts, Gumshoe contains two maps that dwarf most tables, stacks of fingerprint and mugshot cards, multiple directory books, autopsy reports, and more. As a fan of Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective, I was eager to dig in.
To highlight the key differences:
Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective
- Focus on the mystery elements- making logical deductions to unravel the case
- One mystery per one game session (usually)
- Scoring system to determine how well you do per chapter
Gumshoe, Hardboiled Detective in the Thirties
- Focus on the adventure elements – choose your own adventure while chasing crooks and scanning through evidence
- Multiple new crimes introduced per chapter, many with no leads to follow up on until a later session
- No feedback on when a case has “started” or “finished” or when you should look at the answer key
For all the detective regalia in Gumshoe, very rarely have we needed to apply logic for how we spend our time. In fact, in our second session with the game, we had a little bit of time left on the clock and had zero leads we could follow up on.
After finishing our second round, I went back and followed each of the branching options for the big event of the day- a car chase pursuit of a gang of jewel thieves. The group of thieves splits twice during the chase, and depending on your choices you might end up crashing into a fire hydrant, pursuing one of the thieves on foot through Chinatown, or scouring the site of an exploded vehicle.
From a choose your own adventure perspective, it’s pretty harrowing. However, one detail I noticed after studying the full branching paths is that no matter which branch you take, you never quite feel like you’ve “won” or picked the right path. When my group played through this round, we lost the trail of the guy we were following and only had one finger print to work off of, and that print wasn’t listed in the directory.
It felt like a dead end, especially when at the end of the chapter, the questions we were asked all dealt with the identity of the jewel thieves. But upon searching through all the options end to end, I found that had we kept up pursuit of the thief and dodged a few more bullets, our only reward, at a very high time cost, would have been a few additional fingerprints or watching the thief hop on a bus. So maybe our outcome wasn’t so bad after all. Had we pursued either other group of thieves and made all the right choices, we wouldn’t have gotten any more detail about them or the jewels.
The choices you make that determine if you get anything at all from your pursuit also seem a little arbitrary sometime, and maybe that’s the point. A thief enters an apartment building. Do you follow him in or stake out the outside? If you follow him in, maybe you witness an important conversation. Maybe you get punched in the face and lose three hours. If you sit outside, maybe he comes out in an hour and you can tail him to a new location. Maybe you never seem him again and waste the rest of the day.
Ultimately this approach is fine if you play Gumshoe with the right perspective- it’s a simulation of the PI life from the thirties, not an Agatha Christie story. The PI life isn’t always fair, and you are inevitably going to take a wrong turn or get beaten up. It’s imprecise, but PIs sometimes need to operate off hunches.
Our group prefers the tight narrative and well-crafted mysteries of the Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective games, but we will continue to play both. Both games are still ideal for a night of cooperative story-based gameplay and we’ve got a long way to go before we finish either game.