Reviewed by Herb Levy

DEADLINE (WizKids, 2 to 4 players, ages 14 and up, 60+ minutes; $44.99)


With the creation of the mystery story featuring the all knowing detective (credited to Edgar Allen Poe and his detective C. Auguste Dupin), the detective as puzzle solver became widely popular with stories featuring sleuths such as Philo Vance and, of course, Sherlock Holmes. Although Holmes has survived (and continues to thrive even today), the tough times of the 1930s saw a drastic change in mystery fiction. Pioneered by Dashiell Hammett, stories of hard-boiled private eyes and good “bad girls” offered a new kind of mystery featuring a new kind of detective: tough, dangerous and operating on “just this side” of the law. These stories found a home and flourished in the pulp magazines of the day and have since been collected, reissued, re-read and cherished over the years continuing to find fans and devotees of the genre. These captivating tales have also served as the theme for games. The latest game to find inspiration from these tales and to present a hard-boiled look at mysteries comes from the design duo of A.B. West and Dan Schnake: Deadline. 

Unlike the popular Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective Game that originally appeared in 1981 (and Gumshoe, its briefly appearing “sister” game that followed in 1985 and dealt with hard-boiled detectives), Deadline is a cooperative game. Players operate as a team of detectives faced with a case to solve.

There are 12 cases in the game (2 denoted as “easy”, 5 “normal” and 5 “hard”) with a set of Clue cards neatly packaged by case (but there is certainly the opportunity for expansion sets with more cases). The 65 card deck consisting of “Lead” (45 cards) and “Plot Twists” (20) is shuffled and players deal a starting hand (from 3 to 5 cards depending on the number of players). Four “matchbooks” are also part of the tableau along with three “bullets”. Each player adopts a character with a unique special ability. The introduction of the situation is read aloud from the Case Book with specified clues (in the form of clue cards) placed face down on the table.

Five clue symbols (a gun, fedora, filled shot glass, money, pack of cigarettes), all iconic items you could easily find in the pages of a pulp novel, represent the investigation in a stylized way. Clue cards will display a series of these icons.  The Chief Detective for this round, with consultation from his fellow players, decides which clue to investigate.

On a turn, a player may do one of three things: play a card, use his special detective ability or use “hot tips”.

Lead cards show a line of various symbols. There may also be a blank space. The goal is to create a line of symbols that matches the symbols on the clue. While the first player may play any card with any symbols, matching or note, subsequent cards MUST be able to match (and cover) at least 1 already placed symbol. Symbols that do not match cannot be covered. Blanks will match anything.  In this way, your line of symbols can be extended. With one card played, the next detective takes his turn.

As mentioned, all detectives have a special ability which may be used instead of playing a card. All of these are good ranging from discarding all your cards and drawing a new hand, drawing more cards and taking another turn etc. Or you can use “hot tips”.

Some Lead cards also have a matchbook symbol. When they are played, the corresponding matchbook is flipped over to its “hot tip” side.  Rather than placing a card, a player may flip two matchbooks back and draw 1 card. Or flip 3 of them and remove a “Plot Twist”. Or flip all 4 and remove TWO Plot Twists. But if no Lead card or detective ability or sufficient numbers of hot tips are available or a player chooses not to use them, that player must drop out of the round. When dropping out, you discard your hand except… if you have a Plot Twist card in your hand, your MUST play it. So just what are these “Plot Twists”?  Generally, they are NOT good!

Plot twists make things more difficult. Some just affect the detective who played it; others affect EVERYBODY. They might force you to add an additional symbol to a clue you are trying to uncover or force you to “unflip” a hot tip or force you to drop out of a round when someone else does or, worse yet, cause the investigation for that clue to fail when YOU drop out! (One good one, however, allows you to reactivate a detective’s special ability, an advantage that may only be used once each game!)

Should the icons of the cards played on the table match those on the clue, you are successful! That clue card is now turned over and read. This gives you added information about the case and, possibly, more clue cards to investigate. (These cards get added to the play area). Now the next round begins and the new clues and any previously unrevealed ones in play may be considered for further investigation. However, if all players have dropped out, all Leads already played are discarded and the players take a hit! The team has three bullets, one lost each time a clue remains unrevealed. The fourth time (and any subsequent times) this happens, the highest numbered clue card of the case is REMOVED unread from the game instead! Now all players draw cards to get back to their starting hand size and the next round begins.

When all clues have been either revealed or removed, the case is over and players must face the deadline. Questions for the case are found in the Case Questions book. All cooperatively try to answer both the critical and bonus questions, checking their answers to those found in the Solution Book. Depending on how successful the answers, the team can reach the rank of Master Detectives, Sleuths, Investigators or, the lowly, Gumshoes.

The icon over icon chain creation is the really interesting and enjoyable core mechanism of Deadline, a sort of puzzle to complement the mystery, which is why a larger deck of Lead cards would have been preferred. Despite some Plot Twists being removed (based on the number of players), Plot Twists still account for almost 25% of the deck, a virtual guarantee that, if not every hand then almost every hand, will be clogged with them. Although, a player may not have more than two Plot Twists in play on him concurrently (only one if it is the dreaded “You’re Being Tailed” which forces that player to discard a Lead card with a specific symbol), these Twists can be deadly. They hamper your chances to have enough Lead cards in your hand to have the right icons to play and, when you MUST play a Plot Twist when dropping out, more and more Twists inevitably come into play, ramping up the difficulty even further. To defend against this, it is essential to use hot tips judiciously to remove them and be thoughtful in which Twists to play so that more damaging ones can be held back or just discarded (a compensation of sorts for failing at a clue).

Although the game works with two, three or four players, with two players, you get a bigger hand of cards and can expect fewer Plot Twists to appear. (With two players, the maximum Plot Twists in play is four, with four players, you can have as many as eight!) Admittedly, Plot Twists are necessary “bumps in the road” (you can’t make it too easy to solve the mystery) but, in our sessions, fewer players make for smoother and quicker play. One Plot Twist allows you to reactivate the special ability of a detective; a good idea that might have been made better if using that special ability was not quite as restrictive so as to counterbalance the formidable obstacles that Plot Twists may create.

Atmospherically, the game scores high. The graphic presentation is outstanding with wonderful illustrations credited to Glenn Orbik and Tom Babbey, from the pulp magazine style box cover to the period photos used on the cards. No maps, no board, no newspaper clippings; all the action of the case flows from the revelations of the clues making for a crisp and streamlined experience. References to major players in the field of hard-boiled detective fiction and film get recognition in the names used for the detectives: Dash Hammett (Dashiell Hammett, the man who started it all), Ray Chandler (Raymond Chandler), Gloria Gramm (Gloria Graham, a quintessential film noir “bad girl”)  etc. Although Hammett gets a nod, I would have preferred a Sam Spade (“The Maltese Falcon”) reference instead of Tracer Shot from the Calvin & Hobbes newspaper strip.

So, is this The Big Sleep? Or is it “the stuff that dreams are made of”?  In the world of hard-boiled fiction and hard-boiled detective games, it all boils down to whether the game holds your attention, successfully transports you into a world of mystery and if those mysteries are fair (with players having a respectable chance to solve them). For anyone – and that includes me – who has any kind of interest in experiencing the thrill of the hunt for clues and criminals, of dangerous dames and two-fisted detectives, of mayhem and murder, Deadline delivers! – – – – – – Herb Levy

Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

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