Sunday, April 3, 2011

Letters from White Chapel

Opportunity presented itself last night to get together with some friends and play games. The criteria for the evening - games needed to be strategic and/or Cooperative (also capable of accommodating 6 players). Enter Letters from White Chapel.

Letters from White Chapel is a fairly new (2010) game that has recently arrived in the states. The game itself focuses on the Jack the Ripper murders from the 1880s and is set in London. Within the game, one player takes on the role of Jack the Ripper, killing prostitutes left and right by gaslight, and the other 1-5 players take on the roles of police detectives and constables that were actually associated with the original murders who are trying to track down and arrest this savage unsavory killer.

There are 199 possible locations for Jack to hide.
Within the box you'll find an impressively massive 6-panel game board depicting a map of the White Chapel district of London, circa 1880, prostitute meeples and chits, investigator meeples and chits,  Jack the Ripper meeples, a bunch of clear miniature discs (clear, red, and yellow) that are used to mark murder victims and clues within the investigations, and a Ripper screen for Jack to secretly track his whereabouts on the board.

In some ways the game is similar to Scotland Yard or Mister X (which makes sense, because one of the game designers was the designer for Mister X) as one player is secretly moving around the board trying not to be found by the other players, but that is about where it stops. The games theme is much darker in tone (you know, killing prostitutes), Jack's location is only revealed once per turn, Jack and players can not and will not ever be on the same spaces (which requires them to search for clues and make arrests in order to catch him), and Jack can never cross paths with the police during his turn when trying to get back to his hideout. These make for a more intense and interesting play for all, especially for Jack.

The prostitute chits

The game begins with Jack secretly choosing his hideout and marking it on his sheet, followed by placing the wandering prostitute chits on the board at the designated starting locations of his choosing. Most of these chits are marked on one side with a red dot, while two are blank. The ones with red dots represent potential targets once the game gets going, where as the blank ones are "fake" prostitutes. At this point, only Jack knows which are real targets and which are fake.  

Photos of the investigators of the original murders
The investigators will randomly choose a chief of investigations, who will take the investigator chits, and more or less do the same thing that Jack did with the prostitutes, except five of the chits will correspond with one of the five different investigators (there are a couple of fake ones too). With the investigators in place, the killing begins.

The elusive prostitute meeple
Jack will reveal which of his marks are real, replacing the chits with Prostitute meeples. He has the option of killing one of his marks right then, or lay in wait. By waiting, the police chief gets to move the prostitute meeples on the board, preferably in favor of the investigators, making it more and more difficult for Jack with each move. This is followed by Jack revealing one of the investigator chits, letting him know the whereabouts of an investigator. Jack can wait up to 5 times before he is forced to strike. But when he strikes...

Investigator near the crime scene (red chip)
and a clue (clear chip)

Jack has killed, the hunt is on. A red clear token is placed at the crime scene, and he is off to his hideout. The investigators start to move in on him,  deducing the route he has taken tracking him down space by space to arrest him before he gets to the hideout. For every turn that Jack is left to his own devices, it becomes more and more difficult for the investigators to find him because the possibilities of where he has gone keep growing, and the investigators window of opportunity to find him gets smaller. Jack has 15 movements each night to increase his distance from the investigators and/or get home. 

Once Jack has safely arrived at the hideout, the night comes to a close, and the killing begins anew. The new night begins the same as the first, except that when the newly elected chief of investigations positions his chits, he places one where each of the investigators ended the night before. Over the course of the four nights, the investigators will try to hone in on where he is hiding, deducing where he is at, and make the arrest to win. Investigators will investigate locations for clues to see if Jack had passed through there. If he has, they can follow the clues to him and set up a sting for the next time. If they think they know exactly where he is at, they can make an arrest. If Jack is in the location they make the arrest in, he is captured and the investigators have won. If the investigators can ever keep Jack from getting to his hideout, then they have won. However, if Jack can kill 5 women in 4 nights, then the investigators have lost.

The actions of the game, listed on the players card
First time out of the box , playing the game can seem a bit daunting. The included example of play has 2 main phases, the first phase having about 9 steps to it, but this is all the initial setup and lead in to the game. As soon as all the chits are down, it quickly moves along and you are playing in no time. Because of its semi-cooperative style of play (5 vs 1), it does require the investigators to work together to coordinate their movements and actions. 

Our play of the game was fun, with a lot of back and forth with the investigators using mock English gentlemanly accents, and many a duels of fisticuffs were issued to one another. These fell to the wayside as soon as the killer struck, however, as we had to put our heads together to try and determine where Jack was going, and coordinate our efforts of corraling him to a smaller area of the board. From start to finish, it took us all five nights to finally catch the killer, and it was actually on the last possible turn of the game. Had we hesitated, Jack would have made it home, and we would have lost - quite the harrowing jaunt through the darken streets of jolly ole London.

While our gameplay experience was light-hearted, pleasant, and supportive to everyone's suggestions throughout, a couple things became apparent. As with most cooperative-play games, it can easily into a 1 vs 1+us type of game where one player has taken control and the rest are along for the ride. Also, the sheer distance from one side of the board to the other can leave one or more players out of the action. If a kill is made on one side of the board, and your investigator is off chasing tail on the other side of town, by the time they get near the murder, Jack is in his hideout (I can personally attest on at least one night). Due to the deductive nature of the game, it may not be as obvious for some as to what is going on, or where Jack is located (specifically or generally). For others, it is the perfect amount of math and deductive reasoning that will keep them amped and coming back for more. If you can play with a good balanced group of personalities, this can be a very fun, constantly different gameplay every time.

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