Crime Scene Reconstruction Of Wretched Destruction – A Review of “Letters From Whitechapel” by Fantasy Flight Games

Back when I was still a neophyte gamer, I had no idea about hidden movement games and hadn’t played a one vs many board game since Hero Quest in the mid 90’s.  Well, one day my wife and I were walking around a board game store in Syracuse and she mentioned she wants a game like Clue.  I happened to look to my right and spot “Letters From Whitechapel” by Fantasy Flight and based on the game description, I thought maybe it would be similar to Clue.

Well friends, I have now played this game countless times and I can safely say that this game is NOTHING like Clue.  But, it also happens to be one of my favorite games of all time.

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The similarities are jaw-dropping

Mechanics:

So the gist of this game is that one player plays as Jack the Ripper and murders prostitutes (or “Wretched” as the manual likes to call them) on the board.  He then needs to make it back to his home-base which he selected prior to the start of the game.  It’s up to the other players (up to five people playing as cops) to capture Jack in the ensuing chase to his hideout.  The hitch is that the cops can’t actually see where Jack is because that punk is moving via secret pad of paper!  The gall of this guy!

Jack moves one circular space per turn across a map roughly (or completely accurately, I have no idea) representing the actual Whitechapel area.  The cops move zero, one or two spaces per turn along the black nodes in between the circles and can search for clues or make an arrest.  When searching for clues, the cops identify which circle they are searching and Jack identifies whether he has been there or not using clue chips.  Its through these clue chips that the cops can begin to trace where Jack is heading each night (the game is played over four phases, or nights).

Jack is not able to move through any cops during his turn except when he uses his special moves.  He is able to take a carriage to move two spots, leaving the fuzz in his wind.  Or he’s able to use an alley token which allows him to move to any spot on a connecting block, regardless of how many spaces away it is.  These items are essential for Jack to make his escape (and game-breaking when played incorrectly like when my wife thought that the alley token allowed her to LEAP from one corner of the map to the other.)  But the amount of special moves Jack has is reduced each phase of the game so things get more and more hairy.

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Hmmm after further thought, I realize this game is more similar to Battleship.

That’s pretty much it.  There are some nuances that I didn’t mention but the rules are very streamlined and simple (though damn, Fantasy Flight tried so hard to make their rulebook more complicated than it needs to be).  And the elegance of the mechanics really heightens the tension in this game as things are kept moving, despite the game being approximately two hours long.  There are a couple of balance issues but if you play with the right people, this shouldn’t be an issue.

33/35 (Loses some points because of those balance issues and the over-wordiness of the manual.  Gosh with the amount of padding in there, you would think that it was written by me.)  

Gameplay:

Now this game is not for everyone.  My sister-in-law couldn’t enjoy it because she didn’t see anything inherently interesting in a hidden movement game (I maintain she didn’t give it enough of a chance).  Some people let the theme drive them away from it.  Others just seem to think the game is repetitive.  And others feel like the game is too intense to play often (which I can understand).

With that said, I LOVE THIS GAME.   I have never played another board game that gives me the same feeling of tension that this game gives me.  The game may seem slow but every turn feels essential (and there are up to 80 turns per side in a game).  As Jack, you second-guess every move you make and beat yourself up for doing something obvious.  You never feel safe because the cops are (usually unknowingly) all up in your sh&$.  And once they start figuring things out about your general route, the game gets more and more intense.  (Plus, at least for me, there is an element of embarrassment  for being caught after a stupid move.)  And if soiled pants and feeling ashamed is not what you are looking for, just do a good job of fooling the cops and you might spend the last two phases with nary a cop in sight.  You can laugh at your opponents right then and there (but that might tip them off to something) or you can pretend that you are in terrible trouble and then mock your opponents after the game is over.  Pretending to be a notorious mass-murderer has never been more fun!

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Plus pretending to look this dashing is a win of its own.

So that’s the Jack part.  But what about the cops?!  And that’s the magic of this game.  The cops play completely differently.  Its like two different games in one.  As a cop, the tension is still present but its in a more controlled, less panicky way.  Throughout the game, you feel like Jack is about 34 steps ahead.  You have to manage (either by yourself or as a team) how your cops are going to spread out to cover as much ground as possible while not wasting time heading down dead ends.  You also have to figure out the ideal locations to put your cops because the order that they search for clues matters (yeah I know, reading that doesn’t really tell you anything but trust me, that is essential).  And then once the chase begins, its up to you and your brethren to suss out if Jack is bluffing, if he’s doubling back, when he’s trying to lead you astray.  It sounds overwhelming, but if you’re into solving a puzzle at all, or just working together, it is incredible.  Its more satisfying to me when playing as a cop and you capture Jack rather than playing as Jack and eluding the cops.

I have barely touched on the social aspects of this game but this game has that also.  As Jack, you are constantly pretending that you have to make a tough decision, or you’re moving quickly to fool the cops into thinking that you aren’t in a bind.  When someone guesses a clue, you might hesitate as if you’re really looking to see if you had been there when you know for a fact you never were.  (Granted any half-way intelligent person would realize what you are doing but its still fun!)  And then there’s the dialogue that the cops can have in front of Jack.  Some people like to whisper amongst each other.  I like to loudly exclaim my theories on where Jack is just to see the reaction.  This aspect of the game is a pretty underrated aspect.

Really, there are only a couple of issues.  One is that the game can potentially be very boring if the cops do a poor job of finding clues early on.  The game can be quite dependent on the person playing as Jack  making the game enjoyable (though this is not always the case, especially if the cops are experienced).  This might mean lolly-gagging around rather than high-tailing it back to your base.  While this might not be the ideal winning strategy, the game is more enjoyable for Jack as well when the cops are somewhat in the right ball-park.

The more pressing issue is that the game can be very unbalanced.  The game is designed to be balanced in favor of Jack (which makes sense since he was never caught).  However, it can be even worse.  Playing as Jack, you can select your base to be right next to the spot that you kill one of the women of the night.  This means that theoretically, in the last phase of the game, Jack can escape immediately with no real shot for the cops to do anything.  Granted, the real Jack the Ripper was kind of a jerk and this seems like exactly the kind of jerkiness he would do in real life but I think it hurts the game slightly.  The cops have to be EXTREMELY good to be able to prevent a situation like this.  We fixed this by having a house rule where Jack is required to make a certain number of moves before getting to his base.  Playing this way, Jack generally wins about 2/3 of the time.

The cops have their own way of tilting the balance in their favor though and that is by writing everything down.  When playing as the cops, I love having to triangulate locations with my hands and going off our gut feelings to figure out where Jack may be.  HOwever, when the cops begin writing down EVERY possible permutation it becomes MUCH harder for Jack to win.  While this is not necessarily a bad thing, and makes you have to try different things with Jack, I feel like this ruins the thematic immersion for me.  It feels less like a game of cat and mouse, and more like one guy moving around secretly on the board, and the others solving a logic puzzle.  To me this is a game about a guy murdering people and then racing to his hideout with the cops hot on his heels.  It is not a game where a guy murders people, then chills out every two minutes to wait for the cops to go over copious notes to optimize their routes.  But this is just my personal preference and one way of getting over this is to institute a time limit.

Problems aside though, this game is consistently fun, tense, and dramatic.  I love the moments immediately after the game is done when everyone is discussing all the moves that went on during the game and the various close calls and near misses (those are the same thing) that occurred.

37/40 (The gameplay is awesome but has some balance issues that can be fixed through house-rules)

 

Theme

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Nothing is quite as chilling as bloodstains next to snowmen.

Holy crap, the theme in this game is just dripping from everywhere.  The clue tokens and murder tokens on the map make you think you are actually observing a crime scene from way up in the air.  Jack playing a carriage by tossing the token in the box constantly makes me think of horse hooves pounding away on the cobblestones.  The feeling of doubling back on the murder scene, darting in and out of alleyways, or (in the case of the cops) setting up a blockade hoping like hell that Jack is going to have to come back that way….everything  has an element of dread/tension to it and that’s all due to the phenomenal theme.  And that’s what makes this game so unique.  I’ve played other thematic games but the gameplay here is noticeably improved due to the theme.

10/10 (Fantastic example of game-play being completely enhanced due to the theme)

 

Potential/Replayability

This game is incredibly re-playable.  There are about 200 possible home-bases for Jack and each region of the map has it’s own variety of dead-ends, alleyways and choke-points, making each chase feel unique.  You can make things interesting by having a random hideout generator.  You can play this game 1 on 1 which is completely different from playing it 5 on 1.

The only issue is that the game is on the  longer side so you rarely play this more than once in a gaming session.  Especially if you want to read one of my reviews which tend to drag on as well.

14/15 (I am willing to play this at ALL times but loses a point because for some reason, other people don’t want to play a two hour + game multiples times in a row)

 

Overall

This game is in the pantheon of my board games and is the highest rating I’ve given so far.  Granted I’ve rated a grand total of THREE games but still…this game is incredible. If anyone has an interest in hidden movement games, they should really play this.

94/100 

 

 

 

 

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