Thursday, August 18, 2016

Outsmarting the Great Detective

Last year, I wrote about Hanabi, a cooperative card game with a cute gimmick -- players face their hands outward, so that they see all the cards except their own. It was a fun little game, but with perhaps a ceiling on that fun due to its simple rules set and lack of a concrete victory condition. So now comes a new game to try one-upping Hanabi: Beyond Baker Street.

Players are Scotland Yard inspectors teaming to solve a crime before than busybody Holmes beats them to the solution. As in Hanabi, everyone plays with their hands faced out, and players can take an action on their turn to give a fellow player a clue about their hand contents. But then Beyond Baker Street piles on additional rules. It definitely increases the complexity, but adds some rewarding depth in the process.

Each clue given makes Sherlock Holmes advance one space along a track. If he reaches the end of it, he solves the mystery and defeats the players. Each time the players successfully confirm one aspect of the crime (motive, method, or opportunity), Holmes is forced one space back on the same track, giving the team a whisker of breathing room. There are also a variety of other actions that can be taken in limited fashions that give the players strategic ways to "punt" their turn, helping the team by not unnecessarily advancing Holmes.

Then there is the small deck of character cards, from which each player is dealt one at the start of the game. Enthusiasts of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories will recognize various characters from the canon. Gamers will enjoy how the variety injects replayability into the game -- and can even make it more of a challenge, as some characters actually hinder success rather than help.

That's not the only way in which difficulty can be modified. There are 6 different levels of challenge at which you can play. Each one starts Holmes progressively farther along his track, and also restricts the number of cards the players can dump without penalty to "The Impossible," a special discard pile which the players must build to a specific number exactly before they can win the game.

For all the added rules this game has over Hanabi, it still plays in roughly the same 20 minutes. So assuming your gaming group is willing to embrace the additional overhead, you'll be rewarded with a more variable and strategic experience. It seems only appropriate to me that I grade this game a notch better than the B+ I gave Hanabi. Indeed, A- feels about right for Beyond Baker Street. Thanks to the brisk run time, I've already played this several times since it was introduced to me. And since we still haven't attempted it on difficulty levels 4 and higher, there seems to be plenty more for us to explore.

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