Wednesday, January 31, 2018

GJJ Games Review - Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty's Web by Keifer Art Inc.

Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty's Web
Designers: Lucy Keifer, James Keifer
Publisher: Keifer Art Inc.
3-6p | 20-40m | 
GJJ Games Review - Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty's Web by Keifer Art Inc.
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Game Overview:
When I was at the Chicago Toy and Game Fair (ChiTAG Fair) in November I met a bunch of great game designers and publishers.  One of the games that really caught my eye was Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty's Web.  At the time my wife and I were in the middle of binge watching the Sherlock series, and my wife loves almost anything to do with Sherlock Holmes (Consulting Detective is one of her favorite games of all time), so the great artwork and theme really caught my interest.  I spent a while talking to James Keifer, the publisher of the game and father of the designer, Lucy Keifer (and the artist Emily Keifer - yes, this is a true family production).  I came away with a copy of the game to review, but more importantly, I came away with a game that my wife was really excited to play!  In fact, we played it the very next day, and then a few more times that week.

Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty's Web is a tile laying, pattern matching puzzle game for up to six players.  Players take on the roles of Sherlock, Watson, Lestrade, Mycroft, Irene Adler, or Mrs. Hudson to work cooperatively and solve Moriarty's crimes.  They'll be matching patterns on Location, Witness, Clue, and Informant tiles to connect a path from each Crime tile all the way back to the Moriarty tile.  The game is more about solving a pattern and spatial puzzle than it is about unraveling clues like in Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, but it's still a mystery that needs to be solved.

Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty's Web is available on their website (www.sherlockholmesandmoriartysweb.com), Amazon, and maybe in your FLGS (ask them to order it from ACD Distribution if they don't have it).  It's $45 and takes about 20-40 minutes.  Officially the game supports only 3-6 players, but I've played fine with just two (each taking two characters), and since it's coop you can even play solo.  It's really the number of characters used that matters, not the number of players controlling them.

Components & Packaging:
The components in Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty's Web are very nice.  The game comes with 54 tiles of varying sizes and shapes, 45 large cards, six tokens, and six plastic stands.  The tiles are all top notch with linen finish.  There are six different types of tiles: Crimes, Witnesses, Informants, Clues, Locations, and, of course, Moriarty.  There are also six character tiles that have a short bio and a description of the character's special ability.
The game is chock full of gorgeous tiles.
The cards are larger than standard poker cards a bit thinner than most, and don't have the linen finish (a shame since they do get shuffled one to three times a game).  The cards are an unusual size, too (3" x 4" or 76mm x 102mm), so you won't be able to find sleeves easily, if at all.
The Moriarty cards look great, but they're thin and won't fit in any sleeves I know of.

There are six plastic stands for the six character tiles, which is odd though since the tiles are too big to use as character standees in the game (there are six wooden discs for that).  I've found that I prefer to play without the stands for the character cards.  The six wooden discs are colored to match the character tiles, but I think I would have preferred actual character standee tiles.  The discs work fine though.
Everything looks great, but the character cards are too big to be standees and the discs are a bit boring.
The box is average thickness, so nothing special there, although it is linen finished, just like the tiles.  The insert, however, is another story.  The game comes with a plastic insert that has a place perfect for every single component.  Every tile, card, token, and stand has a perfectly sized insert to hold everything snugly in place.  Some of the compartments even have small lips to make sure the top component doesn't pop out of place.  I store this game on it's side and have never had a single piece out of place when opening it up, even after tipping the game upside down!  There's even an extra space for the Kickstarter exclusive 'found object' character tokens, even though most copies of the game (mine included) don't have those items.  There are only two extremely minor issues with the insert.  First, the snug fit won't allow for card sleeves, although that likely won't be an issue if you can't find sleeves that fit.  Second, there's no room for any expansion items, which again won't be an issue if there aren't going to be any expansions.  However, a Sherlock Holmes theme just screams for more content, so who knows.
This is an awesome insert, even though it doesn't allow room for any future expansions.
I'd be missing a huge aspect of the game if I neglected to mention the artwork.  The artwork is absolutely gorgeous.  It's not bright and colorful, or beautiful landscapes like many other gorgeous games have lately, but everything is done in sepia tones, black, gray, and brown ink washes.  Only the characters have a smidgen of color.  Combined with the gorgeous typography and graphic design, this game just oozes Victorian English theme.  The odd shaped tiles and gorgeous artwork really make this an eye catching game on the table.  Artist Emily Keifer did an incredible job with this game.
All the artwork is extremely thematic and gorgeous!
Score: 8/10 x1

Rules & Setup:
Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty's Web is a fairly simple game, mechanically.  It's pretty fast to set up, especially with all the components already separated in the great insert.  Simply place the Moriarty tile in the center of the table.  Then shuffle each other type of tile (Crimes, Locations, Clues, and Witnesses - Informants are all the same, except for the artwork) as well as the Moriarty cards and place them in their own stacks face-down to the side of the playing area.

Then decide how many and which characters will be played.  The fewer characters used the more difficult the game will be.  I recommend playing with at least three characters, and felt the game is best with four, although you can play with as many as all six.  The number of players doesn't matter as much as the number of characters used.  Take the corresponding character tiles and tokens and give them to the player controlling each.

Decide on the level of difficulty and draw three to five Crime tiles, with a standard difficulty game starting with four Crimes.  Finally, draw one clue per character and lay them in the center of the table, not touching any other tiles, with a character token on each one.  Now you're all set-up and ready to play!
All set up for a game with four characters.
The rules are also pretty simple.  On each character's turn you'll go through three steps: Add a Tile, Move and Make Connections, and Draw Moriarty Cards.  The first thing you'll do is draw a tile from one of the stacks and place it face-up in the play area, not connected to any other tiles.

Next is where the meat of the game comes in.  This is also where most of the cooperative strategy gets discussed.  You are allowed to move up to two times.  A move consists of moving your character token to any other connected tile.  It doesn't have to be an adjacent tile, your token can move as far as you like, as long as the tiles it's moving through are connected.  At any time, before, or after a move (so before your first move, between your first and second moves, or after your second move) you can make and break connections.
Characters can move to any tile connected to the web, regardless of distance.
You can only make connections to the tile your character occupies, but these connections can be any tiles that are in play, whether they're orphaned tiles (i.e. not connected to anything), tiles already connected somewhere else, or even a chain of tiles that are connected somewhere else, or on their own.  Simply slide the tile(s) you wish to connect over to the tile your character is on.  Remember, you can break connections anywhere on the board, but once broken you can only make connections to the tile your character is on.

Now, not just any tiles can connect.  Each tile has two to four of the nine different patterns on its edges.  Locations and Clues each have two patterns, Witnesses have three, and Informants have four patterns.  Each Crime has one of four patterns on it.  To connect any two tile you must match the patterns on the adjoining edges of the tiles.  However that's not all.  Each type of tile has a distinct shape and the tiles have to also fit together on the board without overlapping other tiles.  So even though you may have two sides open for two connections, you might only be able to fit one tile there.  Or maybe neither tile depending on the layout of other tiles in the web.  This makes for a super interesting spatial puzzle in addition to the pattern matching.  It does get a little fiddly, and sometimes things will fit if you 'fudge' the connection just a little, so it's not a perfect system, but for the most part you'll know if tiles fit or not.
It gets a little fiddly at times, but the spatial element of the game can be fascinating.
Oh, and just so you're aware, there's not necessarily an even distribution of patterns on the tiles.  There are definitely some patterns that are more common than others, making some crimes more difficult to solve than others.  As you get to learn the game, you'll also start to learn which types of tiles are better for solving which crimes.

Once you've finished making up to two moves and the possible connections, you'll take a look at how many unsolved Crimes there are.  An unsolved Crime is a crime that does not yet connect back to Moriarty.  I.e. there is not a consecutive path of tiles from the Crime to the Moriarty tile.  Crimes can be completely unconnected to anything, or connected to some tiles, but if they don't eventually connect to Moriarty they're unsolved.  For each unsolved Crime, draw one Moriarty card.  Then resolve the Moriarty cards in any order.
Sometimes Moriarty cards won't do a thing to your cases, other times they'll take out key clues,
like the clue that was connecting two Crimes to Moriarty here.
Deciding how to resolve the Moriarty cards also spurs quite a bit of discussion.  There are two main types of Moriarty cards; cards that remove tiles from play, and cards that add additional Crimes to the web.  Adding additional Crimes just makes the game that much harder to win.  Moriarty cards might steal a Clue, kidnap a Witness, or remove a Location, and some of the cards may name a single item, e.g. Moriarty Kidnaps the Flower Seller, or a group of items, e.g. Moriarty steals the Cracked Glasses, Unusual Top Hat, or Footprint, or just a type of item and the players decide which one, e.g. A Clue Disappears.
Deciding what sequence to play the Moriarty cards in can sometimes be a big deal.
It is possible to protect these tiles from being removed if there are two characters on the tile (although some character abilities can change this), but generally if Moriarty wants to steal something, he will.  If a character's token is on the removed tile, that character has been kidnapped by Moriarty and must be rescued before the character can move or make connections again.  Move the token to the Moriarty tile and another player will have to move to Moriarty for one move, and then off of Moriarty, bringing the kidnapped character with, for the second move.  The sequence that the Moriarty cards are resolved can make a big difference, so there will usually be quite a bit of discussion.  Sometimes activating one Moriarty card will make another card ineffective.

Once the Moriarty cards are resolved, play passes on to the next character (kidnapped characters only draw a new tile and then Moriarty cards).  The game continues until either all the active Crimes are solved, all characters have been kidnapped, or a Moriarty card says to add another Crime, but all nine crimes are out already.  Once a game all players can get a single pass from the Queen to ignore a Moriarty card, so you only have one second chance.
As the game progresses you'll create a large web of clues, crimes, witnesses, and locations.
Overall, the rules are pretty clear and straight forward.  There are a few questions that might come up, but the designer has answered pretty much all of the questions on Board Game Geek.  The biggest question I had is if a card says Moriarty steals one of several items, but one of those items is being protected, can that be the item Moriarty tries to steal?  Or does he go for an unprotected item?  The official answer from Lucy, the designer, is that Moriarty steals an item if he can, however it's an acceptable variant to have him attempt the protected item for a slightly simpler game.

Score: 9/10 x2

Gameplay:
I was very excited to play Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty's Web, as was my wife and sons.  We were really thrilled with the theme and pattern matching mechanics, so we made time to play it the day after we got it.  After one play, my first impression was that the game was very close to great, but was just too random.  Players have no control over what Clues, Witnesses, or Locations they add to the web, so if the tiles you need to solve a crime are buried you won't win, just because the tiles don't come up when you need them.  This was particularly a problem with the three Crimes with the dots and lines pattern since there are only two Clues and one Witness that connect that Crime to anything.
Some crimes are easier to solve than others.

Unfortunately the element of chance in Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty's Web keeps it from being a truly great game. We loved the puzzle-y aspect of trying to fit clues and witnesses together to make a path of evidence from a crime to Moriarty, but really didn't like the randomness and lack of control that resulted from just drawing blindly off the top of a pile. We ended up losing our first game, but only because we drew a Moriarty Crime card before we drew a Clue that had a matching pattern. The game came down to just hoping we got a lucky tile draw, and we didn't (the clue we needed was two more tiles down).
If you have one crime left to solve, but you never draw a clue to connect it, you're out of luck, literally.
That was disappointing because we really liked the premise and other mechanics in the game. So I started thinking if there is a way to change the game so that players have just enough control to feel like they have some influence over the cases, without breaking the game.  My variant includes a few very minor tweaks for balance, but the one that really changes the game up is simply having players draw two tiles from their chosen stack.  From those two they can choose one to play and one to return to either the top or bottom of the stack.  My hope was that this would keep the growth of the web consistent with the standard game, but give players a little more control of what clues and witnesses they encounter. Being able to put tiles on the bottom of the stacks allows them to be cycled a bit faster, avoiding the issue of clues necessary to solve a case being buried.  This is both thematic (when solving a mystery you choose what to follow up on, you don't just sit there hoping a clue will land in your lap), and helps move the game along, too.
In my variant, instead ot picking one tile, you take the top two and decide which to play.
So, a couple of nights later we played three games.  First with 6 characters and 3 crimes to start. It was finished in 5 turns and Mrs. Hudson never took a turn. Then we played with 6 characters and 5 crimes. This game was super tough and we lost because we just couldn't draw the clues we needed and couldn't do anything about that. That game felt about the same as the game we played a few days prior with 4 characters and 3 crimes. Every game felt like the game was mostly due to luck. Good luck for the game we won game, bad luck for the other two games.

Then we played with 4 characters and 3 crimes, but with my variant idea. We drew 2 tiles from a stack, then chose one to play and put the other back on the top or bottom of the stack. The game went a ton better! We felt like we actually had a little bit of control, yet it was still a bit challenging. 3 crimes was pretty easily manageable, but 4 or 5 would definitely increase difficulty. With a choice when drawing tiles this felt like a much more fulfilling game, not just a random drawfest. We had a ton more fun this way.
Even with a bit more control in the variant, the game is still a challenge.
I tried playing a few more times with my variant and made a few tweaks, but I'm now finding the game very interesting.  It still has the pattern matching and spatial alignment puzzle aspect, but now feels like you have some control of the game.  If you're interested in the full variant rules, including a few other options (like better balanced abilities for Sherlock and Mrs. Hudson, treating kidnapped characters as unsolved crimes, sending solved crimes to trial, and more), download the file from here: Sherlock-Holmes-and-Moriartys-Web-Variants.pdf

Score: 6/10 x3 (with variant: 8/10 x3)

Replayability:
Sadly, the randomness in the base game makes it just too swingy to be a great game.  It is still fun to pull out occasionally though, as long as you don't mind the possibility of winning or losing due to luck.  However, with the variant described above I find this is a game that I really enjoy.  Each game presents a new puzzle to solve and having some choice about what tiles get played really makes you feel like you are piecing together clues to solve a mystery.  This is still a lighter cooperative game, but there's enough going on where you feel like you're playing the game rather than the game playing you.
Each game will result in a new, complex web of investigations.
Score: 6/10 x1 (with variant: 7/10 x1)

General Fun:
Even with the randomness, I still found the game fun.  Unfortunately the randomness also made it frustrating, especially toward the end when it was just a matter of waiting to see if we'd get the tile that would let us win, or the card that would make us lose.  The variant above makes the game a lot more fun.  The game is still tense, and there's still enough randomness that it feels challenging, but now your'e making decisions throughout the entire game instead of just reacting to what the game throws at you.

When I read through the forum posts and rating comments of the game on Board Game Geek I noticed that a few people loved the game, but even more felt frustrated by the randomness.  I have to agree that the randomness can really suck the enjoyment out of the game.  I won't be playing without my variant now, but this is still a game that will stay in my collection with the variant.
The game forces you to think in ways you usually don't have to think in Sherlock Holmes games,
but it's just as thematic as searching for clues in newspaper articles and witness statements.
The artwork and flavor throughout the game helps add to the fun.  There are lots of fun little details in the game.  The Crimes aren't actual Holmes cases, but the titles would fit right in with the best of Doyle's classics.  I really want to know more about the Riddle of the Dancing Men, or the Mystery of the Speckled Band.  With the right group you can even tell your own story, complete with the locations, clues and witnesses that helped solve the crime.
All of the artwork is exceptional!
Score: 6/10 x2 (with variant: 8/10 x2)

Overall Value:
Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty's Web can be purchased from www.sherlockholmesandmoriartysweb.com for $45, but with $10 shipping.  It's on Amazon for a few dollars less.  This seems a bit high, especially after factoring in shipping charges.  If you can find it at a local game store, though, you might be able to find it for a bit less.  At $35-$40 this would be a great addition to your collection if you like cooperative games, puzzle games, tile games, or Sherlock Holmes.  If you are a die-hard Sherlock Holmes fan who likes board games, this is both a good game and a great nod to Sherlock, so you'll definitely want it in your collection.
How will you solve the crimes this time?
Score: 6/10 x1

Final Thoughts:
In its base form, Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty's Web is a bit of a disappointment.  Not because it's a bad game, it's really quite good, but because it falls just short of great.  The random tile draws lead to a sense of frustration because there's nothing you can do but wait.  Fortunately it doesn't take much to make the game great.  A few simple tweaks to the rules and you'll be playing the Sherlock Holmes game you expected.  You'll still have a good time without adding in any of the variant rules, but I won't be playing the game without them now.  Yes, I may be a bit biased because I wrote up the variants, but I'd really love to hear your opinion of them if you get the chance to play.
It looks gorgeous, keeps everyone engaged, and really makes you think, all in a fast playing game.
Fortunately the game's shortcomings are overcome with a few minor house rules.  There's no need to change or add any components, or the theme, or the main mechanics.  Those are really the core of the game and experience, and they're great.  This is a different kind of Sherlock Holmes game, one in which the clues and solutions are manifest in the physical world, not just mental puzzles.  The tiles are a great tactile connection to the thought patterns behind solving complex mysteries.  The game looks gorgeous, too.

If Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty's Web sounds like a game you might be interested in, find it on their website (www.sherlockholmesandmoriartysweb.com), Amazon, or in your FLGS (ask them to order it from ACD Distribution if they don't have it).  And be sure to download my variant here: Sherlock-Holmes-and-Moriartys-Web-Variants.pdf

Overall Score: 68/100 (with variant: 79/100)



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GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends.  Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some are print and play versions of games.  Where applicable I will indicate if games have been played with kids or adults or a mix (Family Play).  I won't go into extensive detail about how to play the game (there are plenty of other sources for that information and I'll occasionally link to those other sources), but I will give my impressions of the game and how my friends and family reacted to the game.  A score of 1-10 (low-high) is given to each game in six categories: Components & Packaging, Rules & Setup, Gameplay, Replayability, Overall Value, and General Fun.  Rules & Setup and General Fun are weighted double and Gameplay is weighted triple.  Educational games have an extra category and Gameplay is only weighted double. Then the game is given a total score of x/100.

1 comment:

  1. CREATOR HERE - Love this, right on the money, been thinking about all this myself for a while now. Here's a link to my variant, which I'm probably going to go properly public with sometime soon.

    https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1887191/variant-add-some-control

    ReplyDelete