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I Say, Holmes!

Reviewed by: Herb Levy

(Victory Point Games, 3 to 8 players, ages 13 and up, 30 minutes per player; $35)

isayholmesSherlock Holmes lives! Could there be any doubt? Not only are the Sherlock Holmes stories still in print (have they ever gone out?), the Great Detective can also be found in other media, most notably in the current television series that place the master sleuth in today’s world: Sherlock (produced in England by the BBC) and Elementary (the hit series on CBS television here in America). So why should games be any different?

Sherlock Holmes has been a feature player in games for over a hundred years. (Think of Sherlock Holmes by Parker Brothers, first issued in 1904!) The latest incarnation of this sleuth in a gaming universe comes from designers Stephanie Newland and Alan Emrich who take the often uttered phrase of Holmes’ loyal friend Dr. John Watson for the game’s title. I Say, Holmes!, as mentioned in the rules, is inspired by Sherlock Holmes: The Card Game, published by Gibsons Games over 20 years ago (and featured in the Spring 1992 issue of Gamers Alliance Report). I Say, Holmes! is actually a second edition of the original game of this title that first appeared in 2007 with changes to its game play.

I Say, Holmes! attempts to capture the storytelling aspect of the Sherlock Holmes canon as players follow the trail of clues to close the case. To do this, the game uses 125 cards and a bunch of tokens. Tokens indicate where the action is taking place (in the City or in the Country), which mode of transportation is being used (hansom or train), telegrams received, clues discovered and which cases are resolved.

Cards marked by a number less than or equal to the number of players are removed to create a “starting deck”. These cards are then dealt to all so everyone has a starting hand of six cards. The player who receives “The Game is Afoot!” card reveals it and places it in the center of the play area. Now, In clockwise order, each player will place a “suitable” card to supplant the one in the play area which will then become the current card. A suitable card is a card that is permissible to be played as indicated by the colors and names indicated on the current card. (If a player should have 7 or more cards in his hand at the start of a turn, he may play 2 cards – making a “deduction” in game parlance – provided both are allowed, i.e. follow the Story Sequence color coding of the current card.)

All cards contain the same basic information which include a Case Point Value (ranging from 0 to 7), a title (indicating the type of card it is, color-coded for ease of play), Special Instructions (if applicable) and a list of Story Sequence Suitable cards (naming which types of cards may be played next). If you do not have a playable card, you must draw one from the draw deck. If the one you draw IS playable, it can be played. Otherwise, it stays in your hand and the turn shifts to the next player.

As rounds continue, players will use a variety of cards. Travel cards move the action from the City to the Country. Telegrams will randomly assign tokens to players which will either lose them Victory Points or gain VPs for players to their right and/or left. Alibi and Mastermind cards are “interrupt” cards and may be played out of turn in response to another player’s action (such as to prevent another player from looking at the cards you hold). And then, of course, there are the powerful “I Say” cards.

There are 8 I Say cards depicting important characters from the Sherlock Holmes mythos (ranging from Sherlock himself to Sherlock’s brother Mycroft to Mrs. Hudson, Irene Adler and more). If played in “story sequence” (which means when the requirements of a particular location or mode of transportation are in effect), I Say Cards will enable you to claim a “clue token”. Clue tokens come in three varieties (magnifying glass, deerstalker and pipe) with only one of each type allowed to be held by a single player. These clues can be worth Victory Points. When chosen, however, they are NOT revealed, not even to the one choosing them. They will remain secret until the final scoring. You may also play I Say cards out of sequence but, in that case, no clue tokens are collected. But I Say cards do more than have you collect clue tokens.

Playing I Say cards can, for example, cause card shifts (Mycroft allows you to choose an opponent who MUST exchange hands with you while Mrs. Hudson has you gather up the discards and reshuffle them with the Draw pile to form a new Draw Pile), get rid of unwanted cards (Irene Adler allows you to discard a Villain card in your hand) and, with the help of Holmes and/or Watson make an arrest.

An arrest may be made by playing an Arrest card (which may be countered by playing an Alibi or Mastermind card) as well as playing Sherlock Holmes and/or Doctor Watson. It is also possible to make an arrest if you have no cards (or only Alibi and/or Mastermind cards) left in your hand. If the arrest is not countered, the arresting player takes the hand of the accused player. If NO Villain cards are found, the arresting player must take ALL of the accused player’s cards into his own hand. (The accused then draws an equal number of cards to form a new hand.) But if a Villain IS found, the case is closed and scoring occurs.

The arresting player discards ALL of his cards save the Villain. All other Villain cards are discarded and do not count for scoring. Now, all Case Point Values of all cards held by ALL players are totaled. The arresting player claims the highest valued Case Closed token that does NOT exceed the total value of Case Points determined. (Case Closed tokens are worth Victory Points.) Alternatively, the Villain may escape.

If a player holding a Villain card has only Villain cards and/or Alibi and Mastermind cards in his hand, he may immediately reveal his hand to end the round. (Players can easily tell if this is the case by just glancing at the cards’ point values which appear in a red, bloodshot, circle.) That villain has escaped and that player takes the Villain token (and its Victory Points).

Once an arrest or escape occurs, all cards are collected, new hands dealt and a new round begun. This continues until the Sherlock Holmes: His Last Bow Case Closed token is collected. This ends the game and final scores are calculated.

To the Victory Points of any Case Closed and Villain tokens collected, players add their now revealed clue and telegram tokens. High score wins. Tie? Then the player with the most Case Closed tokens wins. Still tied? Most Villain tokens. Still tied? Most clue tokens. If still tied, then the game is truly a draw.

It’s always fun to adventure in the fog shrouded Victorian London of Sherlock Holmes. I Say Holmes! grants you that opportunity. The technique of going from venue to venue, guided by the color-coded cards, works well. The slipcover to the game is a striking and familiar silhouette of Holmes and the interior card artwork also does the job quite well. Even so, the Sidney Paget artwork, used in The Sherlock Holmes Card Game, is the standard for what Holmes and his world looks like so it’s a shame that Paget’s work was not used. Although the character artwork is fine, the portrayal of Mycroft on his card is a little puzzling. Mycroft, in the stories, is obese. (Some say Rex Stout based his Nero Wolfe character on Mycroft.) Here, Mycroft looks as slender as Holmes! (Perhaps the artist based this on Mycroft’s appearance in Sherlock or Elementary where he is slim but that is certainly an unorthodox portrayal.) More curious, though, are some of the game play choices made.

In the worth of Villains, John Clay (from The Red Headed League for the non-Sherlockians among us) is worth 6 Victory Points. Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime, is worth only 5. Why? Another oddity in value concerns the Case Books. These tokens actually DECLINE in value as you approach His Last Bow, the final case. The Hound of the Baskervilles, valued at 75 Case Points, is worth 6 Victory Points, His Last Bow worth only 1. True, it is hard to end a round with 75 Case Points in play, nearly impossible with less than 5 or 6 players. But it is also true that it is hard to end a round with close to 0 (although as higher Case Point cases get claimed, His Last Bow stands alone and is forced to be claimed). Still, it would have been better had the game progression gone from low valued cases to higher valued ones, adding some tension to the end game and providing a chance for a player falling behind to catch up. Speaking of the end game, the whole idea of not being able to examine the clue or telegram tokens is counterintuitive. Card games, by their nature, have a significant amount of luck built in. These clue and telegram tokens add an additional – and large – luck factor that goes against the grain of Holmes who is the supreme rationalist.

I Say, Holmes! offers a slice of Sherlockiana that folks who know nothing about games may find appealing. After all, Sherlock Holmes is a recognizable figure for virtually everyone and the game gets high marks for atmosphere and card quality. Collectors of Sherlock games will enjoy the game for that reason alone. Yet, there is a large luck factor at play here which will dampen the enthusiasm for the game for some. I say that I Say, Holmes! is a most definite “try before you buy”.


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