221b Baker Street: The Master Detective Game Review
Time: ~45-90 minutes
Times Played: 14
Recently, there has been a glut of Sherlock Holmes-inspired games released to the public. Whether they are reprinting’s, re-imaginings or expansions, Holmes and the detective genre are well covered in the board game stratosphere. A few years ago, I was able to find and purchase an older Holmes-esque game: 221b Baker Street, a detective game where you try to discover the culprit, the means, and the motive for each case the game offers. Each case is a small paragraph that gives the players some vague information regarding the possible crime ahead of them.
There have been several versions of this game printed since its inception in 1975, so the box art and board might look different depending on which copy you are looking at. However, they all play exactly the same.
The cases might give you a definitive path to follow (such as, the crime being committed in the park) or it might be more abstract and not give you any real direction. The map has fifteen locations that can be visited, with fourteen giving clues. 221b Baker Street is the start and end location and does not offer anyone anything, besides the opportunity to crack the case (and win, or lose, the game).
The game plays as follows:
Read a case. A player reads the case out-loud so everyone can take notes and then reads it out-loud once again so everyone can clarify any discrepancies they might have had.
Roll the dice, move, and repeat until you reach a location. This is pretty self-explanatory. It’s one die that’s rolled and if you are going to utilize this movement mechanic, I would highly advise investing in extra dice so each player has their own.
Once a location has been reached, read the clue and make notes for yourself. If there is something promising, there is a standard note pad that each detective receives that will help solve the case.
Roll and move and eventually/hopefully solve the case! That’s all. Rinse and repeat until a victor emerges or everyone has failed.
To be honest, the clues given are not always helpful and the ones that are meant to give you that “aha!” moment can be sorely lacking in context. But you know what? It happens. This game is from 1975 and the standards were different (I assume, as I was not alive…).
This does create a kind of neat mechanic inadvertently though since for a lot of people, the information is limited. Do you play the risk versus reward game of trying to solve the case with the limited knowledge that the game has given you, knowing that if you’re wrong you lose the game completely? And not only do you lose, but you’re eliminated from the game as your cohorts move around the board, trying to wonder which clue you missed?
Or do you keep looking at clues, hoping one gives you the final push over the edge you need while your opponent rolls and moves towards the finish line? Is your knowledge of trivia and the time period sound enough to make such a move?
In addition to the clues, two locations offer a badge and key card that are available to block someone from entering a location that you have just left or to open a previously blocked locale. The badge stations a police officer at the door whereas the key unlocks the door. You would think it would be a key and lock or badge and court order, but that’s small potatoes. You only get one of each of these cards to start the game and can only replenish your stock (up to one each) by visiting the Locksmith or Scotland Yard. In all of our playthroughs, it has never impacted a game. More often than not, we used the badge as a red herring but that only works so many times before people catch onto the strategy.
So, that’s 221b Baker Street. Well, almost. The elephant in the room that I’ve glossed over is rolling to move. Each player must roll a six-sided die to move. The board is large, so traversing the map can take quite some time. Not only that, but if you roll a ‘6’ and it only takes ‘2’ to reach your location, you vacate those ‘4’ additional movements. This game is a lot of rolling a die and moving and passing that die to your fellow players so they can do the same. Most spaces are more than six spots away, so moving this way gets old fast. The mechanic should have been that a player could just move from spot to spot, location to location without having to roll a die. Maybe this is what games were like in the 1970’s. Maybe designers and players expected a die so they could roll to move and that’s why it was included. Who knows.
This mechanic can make the game incredibly long. If everyone is rolling low numbers, it’ll be ages before the locations are visited. It does offer a sort-of comical end game though if two players are trying to get to 221 B Baker Street. One player, rolling low, is strolling along, confident in their ability to solve the case without any reason to rush whereas another player, rolling high, is making a mad dash like they’re trying to cross an imaginary finish line. The mental image here gets me through most games.
For the components, the board and the die are uninspiring. The colors are drab. I suppose it’s trying to emulate a rainy, London day.
The die is small and light. The pawns are just plastic tokens. The game plays up to six and I don’t really see how it would change much from a two-player count to a six-player count. You could honestly add more if you’d like. I don’t feel like the game-play would be hindered (minus having to roll the die for each person). The one thing I do like is the note sheet. The helpful notepad easily lets a player neatly organize their thoughts and keep track of the goings on.
This game itself is not complex and can be picked up by most gaming groups. There are expansions available somewhere but once you play through the core cases, the game is just taking up shelf space for you.
Contrary to what it seems, we definitely enjoyed 221b Baker Street. We have played through almost all cases and definitely got our monies worth (since we paid like, $2 for it). But this was also the case that we did not know about other detective games.
Are there better detective games out there? Yes. No question. Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective is a much more mystery and detective-aligned thrill ride. However, if you are looking to get your feet wet, this would be a good place to start. The cases are not overly complicated and if you remove the aspect of rolling, games could probably last thirty minutes. If you saw this game at a thrift store, I would recommend snatching it up (as we did). If you were looking on Amazon to buy a copy, I’d spend the extra few dollars if you can to get Watson and Holmes or Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective.