Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective

As I’ve been sorting through my Sherlockiana in recent weeks, I’ve recently dug out all of my old Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective game materials. I mention it briefly on the About page as one of the foundational things that got me into this hobby, and while I haven’t played this version of the game in a few years, I might give it a whirl again. If you’re unfamiliar, there’s a more recent version of the game out there now which has received a number of accolades, too! I have only barely played that one, though I do give it as an option for my students to play in my Games & Play and Interactive Storytelling courses. Instead, I thought I’d write up a few reflections on my history with this amazing game, one that still holds a special place in my heart.

I don’t remember the name of the store I bought this game at, but I remember approximately when — around 1984 or so, at a toy store in the (dearly departed) Southwyck Mall in Toledo, Ohio. The game originally came in a glorious, dark brown, three-ring binder.

The choice of a binder was meaningful to me, even then, because of two things — it signaled to me that this wasn’t a “board game” nor was it a “role-playing game” (when, I suppose, it’s kinda both and kinda neither). It was something different. The game binder stored cases and clues (not a “module”), had space for me to save my progress in solving the mysteries, and had enough small (paper) parts that they needed to be organized in some fashion.

And there are a lot of parts to this game, though perhaps not as many as most contemporary board games. Each part of the game — the Case Book, the Clue Book, the Quiz Book, as well as the Newspaper Archive, London Map, and London Directory references — was simply text on paper. No dice, no cards, no tokens, nothing to track progress. Just paper, printed in black and white with lots of well-themed, Sherlockian wordage punctuated by (typically) the classic Holmes art of Sidney Paget.

And I can’t overstate how to me — a young teen nerd who was becoming obsessed with Sherlock Holmes — it was important that this game align with the same images of Holmes I saw in my illustrated edition. During that era, when the Jeremy Brett Granada series was making similar connections to the original Paget art from The Strand magazine and elsewhere, it seemed to have a simplicity of design that seemed to flag itself as a game without connection to any particular media tie-in. The early 1980s were distant enough from Rathbone/Bruce that there was no meerschaum and deerstalker other than on the cover itself, and so it felt like both the Granada TV interpretation and this game were trying to reclaim the original rather than make something new. While the legacy of the 1970s Holmes craze seems to have been a partial impetus for the game, there’s nothing here that hints at The Seven Per-Cent Solution or any other revisionist pastiche. It was simply… “original Holmes,” or a well-intended approximation, presented in a fashion that aligned with the original depiction of the characters.

But it’s more than just a Sherlockian paratext, it’s a game. To play the game, one navigated its several texts a turn at a time and in, basically, whatever order one wanted. Starting with the setup of the mystery in the Clue Book, the player would “visit locations” including a set of regular informative characters drawn from the canon (Jasper Meek, Porky Shinwell Johnson, Mycroft Holmes, etc.), going to the places where significant figures in the mystery resided/worked at/etc., following clues from one location to another, digging up clues from the map and the Newspaper Archive, and so on. All giving you more from the Clue Book to read, more questions and answers (and often delightful red herrings!) about the mysteries at hand. And, part of the game was determining what the actual mysteries even were at times — there were multiple times I’d played through a case, opened the Quiz in the Quiz Book, only to see that there was a question about a character or a place I hadn’t encountered at all.

The game had a competitive element if you wanted it, but I never played it that way. The fun of the game was never in speedily beating another player to the solution nor in “beating Holmes” (which no one I played with ever did). The joy was in navigating a story nonlinearly — it’s basically a Choose Your Own Adventure text with locations in lieu of page numbers, the navigation between them being up to you rather than as binary or trinary choices. And that model has become the inspiration for a number of other games, including Mythos Tales, which is set in a Lovecraftian narrative world.

I played the game for hours as a teenager, sometimes carrying the binder along on shopping trips with the family (along with a pre-Walkman portable tape player, so I could listen to a “Radio Reruns” cassette tape of the Gielgud/Richardson adaptation of “The Bruce-Partington Plans”). It was a surprisingly big part of my life for a while, and I’ve held on to my original copy of the game all this time since.

As an adult, I’ve expanded the collection and tried to gather up what I think is a mostly complete collection of the official expansions to the original game — other than “Sherlock Holmes & the Baby,” a case co-written by Dave Arneson and his wife Frankie (yep, that Dave Arneson!) that appeared in Different Worlds issue 44 back in 1986. Here’s a quick tour of what I’ve got.

First, back when I was a teenager, I bought The Mansion Murders expansion, the first expansion released for the game. In my version (not sure if there was an earlier one than this), it was released as, essentially, a pack of printed, looseleaf paper, three-hole-punched like the original set, so they could fit in the binder. And thats where mine have resided for 35 years or so.

And it’s… pretty much exactly the same game, except with the inclusion of new maps for the titular “mansion” where these mysteries take place.

Perhaps more interesting, then, was the third expansion — The Queen’s Park Affair. This eschewed the looseleaf paper approach, though I still squeeze mine into my brown binder.

This brought a few very welcome innovations to the game. First, as if this was an Infocom interactive fiction computer game, there were “feelies” or additional paper notes, receipts, business cards, etc. included in an envelope addressed to Holmes.

These were really great — simple additions that helped flesh out the mystery with tangible “clues” and also ground it a bit at the table. And, there were a lot of them!

The number of feelies here also reflects a change in scope from the first two expansions, which were a selection of individual, smaller mysteries. The Queen’s Park Affair is one large mystery which takes place over multiple days in multiple locations — and didn’t include a solution! Unlike the previous versions of the game, this one was a contest.

Tracking one’s progress on the new day/time sheet, one would attempt to solve the more complex mystery to one’s satisfaction, complete a contest entry form (essentially the Quiz Book), and then wait to see if you won. I didn’t enter — you can see blank entry form above, along with the letter I received from Sleuth Publications sometime around 1989 telling me the solution and who won, a woman from San Diego if I recall correctly. I never finished The Queen’s Park Affair, clearly, and soon after I received the solution, I went off to college and lost interest in the game for a while as, well… college.

I eventually picked up Adventures by Gaslight and West End Adventures just within the past 15 years or so, and have held onto an copy of Gumshoe — think The Queen’s Park Affair, except set in 1930s San Francisco. But I haven’t played any of them. One of these days, I hope to! As the tiny foot in the picture above may indicate, there are other people in our house now who can make it difficult to play games during a months-long quarantine.

Well, that’s a lot of words on a lovely game, but as I finished writing this up, I realized I’d forgotten to take any pictures of the most significant thing about it for me. This messy mass of paper:

Perhaps it’s a little hard to see details here, but I’ve kept a few dozen pieces of paper tracking the games I’ve played over the past 35 years. Some on vintage 1980s looseleaf paper, some on notepads my wife and picked up at work. All giving me a nice little record of my Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective games: Memories of when I was 14, trying to solve a mystery while flipping through the binder by myself in the back seat of my parents’ car; when I was 23, playing with my friend Jeff (who later gifted us a copy of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective for our wedding!); when I was 35, playing in the middle of a Wisconsin snowstorm with my then-new girlfriend, now-wife Liz.

I’ve flipped through these old, yellowing, three-decade-old notebook pages multiple times over the years. There’s something great about a game that yields a simple record of play that you can hold onto, especially when you’re often playing with others. And that the whole game is made of paper — unfancy, black and white print on unfancy, rough paper — really resonates with me. I flip through pages of paper to play the game, and I’m left with a little paper record. Certainly not the only game where this is the case, but one that feels awfully Sherlockian to me for some reason.

Perhaps this is just a note about the new version of the game, which seems functionally identical but lacks the charm of this original version for me. While the recent Ystari/Asmodee version of the game is certainly an ostensibly much nicer production, it also looks too… artificial for my tastes? Rather than reprinting Paget’s drawings on paper, the new version is printed on glossy paper with new art and an overly ornate, “stained old paper” background image. This makes it hard to read text (which is often quite small), and, equally importantly, doesn’t feel remotely like 19th century paper. I’m no Luddite, but there’s something about the roughness of the original production and the reliance on Paget’s drawings specifically that just sucks me in.

And I guess I’m saying that for a game that relies so much on nostalgia, the original Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective hits a number of nostalgic notes for me on several levels. That probably goes without saying given the theme, but as I look back at a game I’ve carried around with me for 35 years, it’s inescapable that multiple levels of nostalgia are going to intersect. This is a game that, for me, is about harkening back to not just the Holmes stories, but also to the original art, to flipping through old paper, to reveling in cheaper, “disposable” print entertainment, and to playing with the past.

Anyway, just a few thoughts. Thanks for reading! As per usual, you can let me know what you think on Twitter at @sherlocking.