Notebook in hand I’m scribbling down my findings, Wiggins is exhausted and even the faithful hound Toby is worn out by the Holmes brothers’ relentless investigation. Between the two of them, they’ve found a treasure trove of clues, their pockets overflow with old cigarette butts, bullet casings and fragments of the old map. This is the sixth case I’ve observed this morning, yet somehow I’m not entirely bored of the process.
At the UK Games Expo this year, I worked as a games demonstrator for the publisher Devir. Over the course of the Expo’s three days, I lost count of how many times I played and taught each of the games they were promoting. Of the games I demonstrated, the game that stuck with me the most was Holmes: Sherlock and Mycroft.
To my surprise and many of our stand’s visitors, Holmes S&M is not a game of shrewd deductions and unravelling clues like so many of the other games that share its theme.Holmes: S&M instead combines worker placement with set collection in a pleasingly simple and quick game for 2 that is not without some tactical depth.
Each player has three workers which they will move each turn between the available contacts each of whom provide a different action. Most actions revolve around gaining investigation tokens, effectively the game’s currency, and spending those investigation tokens to pick up clue cards. The aim is to collect sets of clues each of which have a number printed on them. At the end of the game, you score points for each set you have that is larger than your opponents set of the same cards. For example, you collect five ‘nine’ clue cards while your opponent collects four. You have the most nines, so would score nine points. However, points are deducted for each of the cards of the set your opponent has, so in this case, you score 5 points.
Initially, there are only five contacts to dispatch your meeples to with a new contract, who provides a new action, being revealed every round. You can never move a meeple to a contact that already has one of your meeples on it and if at the end of the round a contact has a meeple from both players then it is exhausted for a round. Luckily Lestrade, Watson and Mrs Hudson never tire of being pestered by Holmes and Mycroft so will always be available. It’s easy to imagine Holmes, in his dressing gown, sitting in 221B dispatching his irregulars across London while Mycroft uses his network of civil servants and spies from a snug in the Diogenes club. The theme is superficial, the mechanic of dispatching workers, as so many games have shown can fit virtually any theme, but, the game is quick and the theme fits easily enough over the mechanics that, along with the lovely art, means you’ll have no problem enjoying it.
Initially, you’ll have a limited number of contacts, so it’s important to make sure you move your workers in the correct order to avoid blocking yourself. As the game goes on you’ll have a little more room to manoeuvre but as new contacts reveal more powerful actions it becomes an exercise in efficiency. At most you’ll have five choices all of which are fairly simple yet feel important. The simplicity of the game meant that in all the games I played or observed turns rarely exceeded a minute and more often than not took seconds. S&M isn’t a particularly strategic game, outside of making sure you diversify the sets you’re collecting, there isn’t any. Individual decisions are important but not so much that a missed opportunity will cost you the game from the outset. The game’s depth comes from tactical thinking, reacting you your opponent and what cards and actions are available at the moment. The game doesn’t require any sort of Holmesian thinking or Mycroft master plan to be revealed at the game’s end, making it is easy to teach (roughly 5min) new players, while the constantly shifting board state will keep the game interesting throughout.
My biggest problem with Holmes: Sherlock and Mycroft is that one or two of the contact cards are a bit crap. Billy has his uses (if a bit niche) early in the game but becomes completely useless later on. If his contact card is revealed in the last few turns he is automatically disregarded when considered where to move your workers. Most of other contacts remain highly valuable throughout the game. Irene Adler (my favourite card) lets you steal visible cards from your opponent but becomes increasingly expensive to use as the game progresses. This is great as early on her ability is cheap but not that powerful but in the end game her ability can easily swing control of a certain set but she becomes even more expensive to use. The deck of contact cards is ripe for expansion to increase the variety in the game, especially if they add more interesting cards like Irene Adler.
All in all Holmes: Sherlock and Mycroft is a lovely little game. It’s quick to teach, quick to play and makes for an entertaining thirty minutes. For £17 you’d be hard pressed to find anything better. It does require some table space so it would be a push to play while travelling, though it does pack down into a compact box, and the production value of it is great. If you’re looking for a way to spice things up in the game room, S&M is a great start.