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Witness

Reviewed by: Joe Huber

(Asmodee Editions/Ystari, 4 players, ages 13 and up, 10 minutes; $39.99)

Every year, after Essen, I participate in a few gatherings to play through the new games. Over the course of a few weekends, I’ll typically end up playing 30 or more new games – most of which I’ll never come back to again. I really enjoy playing new (and new-to-me) games, but as a practical matter my usual expectation is to find a half dozen or so games I really enjoy from each new Essen crop.

witness1This past year, I got to attend an additional post-Essen weekend, with just 3-5 gamers joining in to play almost nothing but new games. I played a total of 40 games in two and a half days – including 26 games I’d not played previously. And I hated all of them. Well, OK, no, I didn’t – or even close – but only one game struck me well enough to seek out a copy after even though I suspected that like most cooperative games, I didn’t need to own it. That game was Witness.

Witness is a cooperative deduction game – or, if you prefer, a cooperative logic puzzle – designed by Dominique Bodin and based upon (depending upon your favorite vernacular) The Telephone Game or Chinese Whispers. It’s a game for four players only, which always starts with a case, giving players some information about what they are trying to solve. Each person then reads their own case book, with some of the necessary information to solve the case, and the information is passed clockwise around the table. This passing of data occurs over four brief rounds. During each round, two of the players pass along all of the information they have to the next player. In the next round, the roles are reversed, and the listeners pass along their information instead. After four rounds (ideally resulting in all required data having passed around the table), players are finally allowed to take notes on the information they’ve heard; until then, it must be kept in memory. Finally, three questions are asked of everyone individually and, without consulting one another, every player must answer the questions. The number of questions answered correctly is added up, and a team score is generated.

About two months after I tried Witness, I had the opportunity to buy the copy I played and, in spite of my reservations, I decided to do so. And, much to my surprise, the game grew on me, quickly becoming a favorite – and so far my most played game of 2015.

This has not happened because the game is anything different from what I first thought. It’s a cooperative game – not typically games I enjoy enough to want in my collection. And I’m not generally overly enamored with deduction games either, though more of those work for me. But trying more cases in Witness has led to a desire to try more and more cases, and more complex ones as well.

But the game has been one of the most divisive of any game in my collection. In spite of trying to limit the audience to those I think would enjoy the game, I’ve witnessed many people for whom a single play was too much. At the same time, the game has been a big hit with others. As a result, I’ve tried to emphasize the nature of the game – a communication game with a strong memory element, leading up to a number of deductions at the end – to anyone who has been interested. That still hasn’t worked perfectly – I’ve not been able to guess accurately who will enjoy the game – but I’ve at least managed to avoid it with some folks.

Witness is a simply but nicely produced game, primarily consisting of books – a rule book, a case book, four player clue books, a question book, and a solution book, plus tokens to indicate who is who. The artwork, based upon the Blake & Mortimer comics, is lovely, and carried out consistently through the materials. Even as someone who had never heard of the series, I’ve found it easy to relate and the stories are engaging and clever.

There are only two disappointments I have with the game. One is that there are too many easy cases. All of the cases listed as easy qualify, of course, but the regular difficulty cases tend to be somewhat too easy as well. This takes away nothing from the harder cases, of course. The other disappointment is an easily solved one: the game comes with only 64 cases. While at one time I would have thought that plenty, now I’m nearly 1/3 of the way through them. Hopefully more cases will be released – maybe even with an emphasis on more difficult cases.

Witness is, in my experience, entirely unique. Because of that, I think it’s hard to judge if someone will like the game without trying it. It’s not hard, on the other hand, to judge if you’ll “dislike” the game; I doubt the game will convert anyone who doesn’t enjoy memory, deduction, or communication games. About the only camp it might convert is those who aren’t generally fond of cooperative games. I generally find such games enjoyable, but not compelling and not games I need in my collection. This is a strong exception. Even if no more cases are released, I expect to hold on to the game long enough to finally forget the cases previously solved.


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