Full disclosure: A review copy of The Sherlock Files: Elementary Entries was provided by Indie Boards & Cards.
Solving mysteries and mystery games! Yes, this is one of my favorite things to spend time doing, and with 4 sets of The Sherlock Files and some new EXIT games in the house, it seems like we will be solving mysteries for a while, yet. I’m excited, frankly. Should be a lot to do. I haven’t actually tried The Sherlock Files before, so this should be an interesting little adventure. Let’s see what’s inside!
You may not be Sherlock, despite your love of scowling and distaste for Martin Freeman, but you’re certainly trying to live up to the reputation by solving mysteries on your own time. Three challenging cases have just come across your desk and you need to try and crack them as quickly as you can. I’d say that lives depend on them, but they’re all murders, so frankly, that ship has kind of sailed. But that doesn’t dismiss the urgency of the cases! You’ll have to work with your co-players to sleuth these cases where even the smallest clue might be important and a big clue might just be a red herring. Do you have what it takes to become worthy of comparison to the legendary Holmes himself? Or will you find yourself only suited for Scotland Yard?
Pretty much none, here. You’ve usually got one set of cards:
Choose one, read one of the introductions:
Take the first card and reveal it; shuffle the rest and deal each player 3 (2, if you’re playing with 6 or more player). You should be ready to start!
Your turns are very simple. On your turn, either play a card face-up or discard it face-down. You aren’t generally allowed to talk about what’s on your cards; you can only state what the underlined text is or if there’s text on a white background (like TOOL SHED or LETTER TO X).
Once every card has been played or discarded, take some time to come up with a theory, answer the 10 questions inside the sheet, and see how well you solved the mystery!
Player Count Differences
The biggest one is the solo game, honestly — in that, you can also discard to a temporary discard pile and then go through that temporary pile again later in the game, which is pretty unique. At higher player counts, the only major difference is that you have fewer cards in hand, so you’ll have to rely on the group’s collective memory if you want to keep all the details straight. Even then, I kind of worry that that distributed approach rewards just … memorizing the few cards you’ll get to see over the course of the game (there might be 30 or so in a mystery, tops). At 8 players, it seems like each player could potentially memorize two or three cards and then just hope for the best with the fourth one. Plus, that’s just a lot of player turns between your turn. While it might be interesting to watch a bunch of people solve a mystery together, I think for playing the game, I’m most likely going to stick to the lower end of the player count spectrum. As with all of these mystery-solving games, however, I don’t particularly trust myself to solve a mystery on my own, so I’ll happily wait for more players to play this one with. I played the whole box at two and it was fun, but it might be worth having a third person so that you need to convince two people of something before it’s accepted. There were definitely times I talked my co-player into the wrong idea because I was sure that I was right, and we could use a buffer against that. Plus, more players can have more cards in their hand in total, so something that seems irrelevant might actually prove to be useful with more information.
- Watch out for red herrings. Some things may seem a bit obvious, but are they supported by the evidence? Hard to say unless you dig deeper. If you’re not sure about a card, either discard it and try to remember what it says, or hold on to it until you have additional information.
- You have to have at least 6 cards discarded, and keep in mind that playing too many cards will result in negative points. There’s a temptation to only start discarding at the beginning or end of the game so that you can hit that limit and then ignore it, but you should try to focus on discarding cards with irrelevant information, rather than just trying to hit the discard limit. One thing worth noting is that there are more than 6 irrelevant cards in the game. So if you successfully get rid of every irrelevant card, you will always make it past the discard requirement.
- Be careful with discarding cards too quickly, as well. If you discard a card, it’s up to you to remember it! But you also may not have the context to make it useful. Maybe there’s a timestamp on the card that you think is innocuous but matters when compared with a letter on a different clue, for instance. Or maybe this card refers to a character that you haven’t heard of, but they matter on other cards. If you’re just chucking whatever card you have after a cursory glance, you risk losing access to real information.
- Check the cards closely! Like I said, you shouldn’t just discard without a real scan of the card. Everything put on that card is an artistic or strategic choice, and it’s your job to discern which is which.
- Try to develop a cohesive theory. This can help guide you towards what information you’re looking for, but watch out for confirmation bias! If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s essentially a cognitive bias that causes you to seek out information that justifies or solidifies conclusions you’ve already made. This means you might discard or ignore information that doesn’t jive with your theory because your mind is made up. Basically, don’t play this game with people who believe in geocentricism.
- Just because a card seems like it links with another card doesn’t mean that it’s actually relevant to your case. This is a particularly wily trick from the designers. You may get “Victim’s Computer” as a clue that you can read out loud, but it’s possible that while one of those clues is relevant, another “Victim’s Computer” card may not be. Don’t just assume that two cards are linked because they have similar titles or depict adjacent concepts.
- Make sure you are sharing information with your co-players, when you can. You can always read underlined information, so use that and see if your other players can latch on to that information or if it seems irrelevant. Information sharing is a necessary piece of the puzzle if you want to solve the mystery!
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- They had a voiceover that basically used highly-computerized voices and it sounded … odd. They seem to have removed it for later games in the series, but it would essentially Microsoft Sam its way through the introductory narration. Plus points for accessibility options, and plus points that it always made me laugh. Robotic voiceovers about a murder are … very funny.
- It’s nice that it comes with three cases! I think that gives it a nice bit of staying power in terms of value, plus, this is the kind of thing you can throw out at a game night for your friends even if you’ve beaten it before to see how well they did compared to you.
- As that implies, it’s reusable. I do love the EXIT series, but my biggest gripe remains that they’re single-use only. I get that you can only solve a puzzle one time, but whew I get stressed about physically destroying these. With The Sherlock Files, you can kind of just keep it around if someone wants to solve a mystery or for when you eventually forget about the answer because everything prior to a certain point becomes part of the Pandemic Haze.
- The variety of themes is nice, too. They’re very different cases, taking place at very different times. Sherlock is, himself, a fairly timeless character, so this makes sense, but it also allows for interesting things like themed sets to come out, if those things were ever made available.
- The box has a very nice aesthetic, too. It looks classy, though I will say photographing a black box is always a challenge for me given my Photography Aesthetic. Oh well, as always, I made it work.
- It seems like you could get pretty far by just trying to see how many cards your team can memorize rather than risking negative points. Especially at higher player counts, there can’t be that many cards if you want to try to min-max the scoring system. Seems … not fun, but I can’t and am not interested in trying to stop you from doing that.
- The communication restrictions can be a bit confusing. You can’t talk about a card you’ve discarded, but if someone says something, it seems like it might be worth saying “oh that reminds me of a card I discarded”. Is that against the rules? Worth clarifying, at least.
- The 6-card discard requirement seems arbitrary, especially given that this is a cooperative game and you lose points for irrelevant clues. If players really want to crack the mystery perfectly, let them. They’ll still get a negative score, I imagine, or at least a flat 0, but they’ll be able to see how the game wants them to think. The limit seems specifically not useful as a metric of player performance, and it just leads to players discarding useful cards out of a sense of panic. If the score penalty alone isn’t enough to disincentivize players, I’d argue there’s some chance that they’ll ignore the discard requirement, as well.
- We really didn’t find some of the cases intuitive. There was definitely one that felt perhaps divinely inspired, in that even after flubbing the case entirely and looking at all the cards, we didn’t get a good sense of what was going on. That’s certainly a way to go for a mystery, but especially if you’re making a game that’s a launching point for a new series, I think I would recommend making the cases relatively easy (or at least including a difficulty indicator on the box) so that players have a sense of how to calibrate. I don’t feel like the case we really didn’t enjoy is largely indicative of the quality of the game system as a whole, but I do feel like it’s somewhat indicative of the quality of this particular box. We have since tried some of the later ones and found them more intuitive. Out of this box, we really only liked Last Call. Tomb of the Idol was okay, and we really didn’t enjoy Death on the 4th of July, which was unfortunately the first one we did. Took some doing to get hyped to do the rest.
- It also felt arbitrary which cards were “necessary” and which cards weren’t. There are some clear examples of “oh, yes, that’s irrelevant”, but not all of them were? So it ended up feeling like a randomly-assigned penalty score at the end of the game.
- Similarly, if you happened to discard a card without the right amount of context, you could potentially throw off your entire conclusion. There are definitely some lynchpin cards which can really introduce a subtle twist, which is interesting! It’s just possible that you don’t notice that lynchpin and discard a card because the context is divvied up enough that you miss a key point. I think this points to The Sherlock Files failing in a way that I think more recent mystery games have avoided, which is redundancy. The Key, for instance, has multiple cards that present the same information in different ways, but it also has a penalty for having too many cards, rather than irrelevant ones. This seems like it could have gone a similar way, optimizing for players actually solving the mystery rather than just being off in the weeds somewhere.
- The lack of a hint system of some kind is not a particularly good innovation. Most cooperative mystery games have hint systems of some kind, and it seems like a miss to have nothing available here, not even online or as another stack of cards. This does give the impression that this is a more hardcore mystery game for hardcore mystery fans, and less of a casual mystery game for soft mystery friends, like me. Oh well.
Overall: 5.75 / 10
Overall, we were mixed on The Sherlock Files: Elementary Entries. I think that’s largely given that we really didn’t love Death on the 4th of July, and that’s a pretty tough thing to go up against when that’s the first out of three cases you do. Thankfully, our experience only improved, but on average the box is probably around here. One case we didn’t like, a case we enjoyed, and a case we thought was just okay. Averages out to a “almost good”, in my book, and I think that’s fine. For one thing, I think The Sherlock Files is missing a few things that are quality-of-life features from other mystery-solving series, and it adds some things that aren’t necessary. The game feels … punitive, at times, if you aren’t following the line of thought that the designers had when they were crafting the mystery. Did you throw away the wrong card? Rough. Did you miss a subtle clue? Too bad. I’m paraphrasing a wise quote, but I was told once that a well-designed mystery game is supposed to make the players feel smart, rather than forcing the players to acknowledge that the designers are smart. And I will definitely say that the designers have done good work, here. They have taken a mystery and broken it up into cards with little overlap that need to be pulled together quickly to draw a conclusion. But the conclusions seem to be non-obvious and depend on you being able to stitch together cards with limited communication. I think more could be done to help the players feel smart, though. I’ll point to The Key as a series, here, again, since they both deal heavily with cards and interpreting data to arrive at conclusions. The Key is less narrative-driven and more logic puzzles, so that’s a major point of difference, but it still succeeds where The Sherlock Files doesn’t quite, as it introduces ways for players to check their assumptions and more chances to get missable information. In my video game experience, players generally don’t like skippable collectibles in games, and I think the same logic applies here for skippable information. That said, I would strongly encourage not writing this series off. We tried one of the cases in the second box before I wrote this up to get a sense of changes that might have been made, and it seems to feel a lot more intuitive, even if there were some gaps in our understanding still. And I liked that quite a bit! I still would like the quality-of-life features to be added, however. Assuming that holds, I think I’d still recommend The Sherlock Files as a series (especially if you’re looking for more of a challenge), but I would love to see the addition of any sort of hint system and maybe some tweaks to its scoring system. For Elementary Entries in particular, I’d probably say it’s worth considering starting with a later entry in the series unless you’re a completionist. This is a useful title to get a sense of how the game is played and how the designers think, but I don’t think these were the best cases to solve.