The Cardboard Hoard: Initial Thoughts on Detective - A Modern Crime Board Game
When Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game was nominated for the 2019 Kennerspiel des Jahres in May, Portal’s Ignacy Trzewiczek celebrated by releasing “Suburbia,” a free stand-alone Detective case that could be played using simplified rules and a few print-and-play components, for a limited time. The publisher calls this case “a perfect scenario for a one-off game session,” as it is “a bit shorter and simpler than the other missions.” So it seemed like the perfect place to jump in -- and for free, the perfect price as well.
Okay, I’m going to ruin the suspense right here and say that I enjoyed the Suburbia case so much, I bought Detective after playing it. So I am able to give an overview of the game’s components, and not just the print-and-play bits I used for the stand-alone case.
First, a note on the Suburbia stand-alone case. While it is no longer available as a free download, it is available as a $10 purchase from the Portal website. I highly recommend it as an entry point for two reasons. First, its stand-alone nature makes it easily playable in one session of around two hours. Second, that session will act as a tutorial, teaching you the game before you get into the five-case campaign found in the base game box. This will prevent any potential learning game issues when you start the actual campaign game.
The components of the Suburbia case include a printable board, an introduction to the case that begins the story -- involving the murder of a young woman -- and a pdf file with a number of cards that are read when you visit different locations throughout the game. It streamlines the game by eliminating the investigator’s special abilities, which makes sense as an intro/demo scenario. I played the scenario referencing the cards directly from the pdf and managed fine, but I admit it would have been smoother if I printed, cut and sleeved them all. But I didn’t feel I could manage that without accidentally gleaning any spoilers.
As for what is included in the full game, there is a game board, wooden markers and cardboard tokens, 36 card decks for each of the five cases, five character tiles, plastic evidence bags, a casebook, and a rule book. They all fit nicely in a custom plastic insert in the box.
Both the standalone case and the full game use the Antares Database, a website with collected witness reports, interrogation transcripts, suspect files, and evidence -- including fingerprints, blood, hair, and more. Important: This means the game requires a digital device that is connected to the Internet to play. However, one neat aspect of the game is that at certain points when it mentions certain real-world landmarks -- such as the Quicken Loans Arena in the Suburbia case -- it encourages you to Google them for background information, grounding the fictional mystery in very real-world trappings.
The game concept itself is fairly simple. Figure out “whodunit” in an allotted amount of time. Time -- your most limited resource -- is spent going to different locations, questioning witnesses, and interrogating suspects. Get as much detail and background as you can without getting tripped up by extraneous information and red herrings. Use deductive reasoning, and some educated guesswork, to answer a set of questions when your time is up and your final report is due. You are then graded based on your answers, as well as the amount of evidence you were able to collect to prove your theory.
You won’t have time to follow every lead, and you’ll only have enough special tokens to call in so many special favors, so there is plenty of tension in deciding which leads will be the best use of your time. The game says it can take three to four hours to play, but I suspect this is contingent on both your playgroup and the amount of deliberating they want to do at each decision point, as well as the playgroup size -- since I played solo, I didn’t have to convince anyone of my reasoning, and just followed my instincts, playing quicker than I would have if I had to confer with teammates.
This game feels inspired by -- and a hyper-modern take on -- Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. However, even some people that didn’t like SH:CD may still enjoy this experience. Anyone that was tripped up by the Victorian setting will not have that issue here. Also, judging by Detective’s reception, there is less of an issue with typos and general errata. With some of the game going digital, some of this can be mitigated by updates to the Antares website, if necessary. However, anyone that didn’t like SH:CD because it was a cooperative deduction game is not going to find anything different at the core of the experience here, regardless of the modern theming or digital integration it employs.
The digital integration has pros and cons, of course -- many of which have been discussed with every game that mixes technology into tabletop gaming. The obvious pros include removing some game maintenance overhead from the players by storing it on the website, by using less physical components, and by very effectively helping to sell the theme of the game. The cons are that the game requires an Internet connection, and can be interrupted by a power outage or drained battery. A longer term concern is that it potentially gives the game a finite lifespan, as it will no longer work if and when Portal decides to stop paying the hosting fees for the website.
One minor gripe I had was that at a few points, I was pulled out of the story by slight linguistic/translation errors, like one character being referred to as the assistant coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers “junior team." The dissonance I had is because in the NBA, the “junior” league is called the G League, thanks to its sponsor, Gatorade. In the Cavaliers’ case, their G League affiliate, the Canton Charge, plays in Canton, Ohio, and not in Cleveland, where the story was set and the character lived and worked. So it read as a non-native translation, which was mildly off-putting, but not critical in any way to gameplay.
From my play of the Suburbia case, Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game seesm like a great addition to the hobby for anyone looking for a substantial, stimulating deduction game that makes its players feel like real detectives. I can’t wait to jump into the full game campaign after enjoying my initial taste of the game.