Review – Letters from Whitechapel

Letters from Whitechapel

Designer: Gabriele Mari & Gianluca Santopietro (2011)
Publisher(s): Nexus (previously) and Sir Chester Cobblepot (upcoming)
# of Players: 2-6
Ages: 13+
Play Time: 90-180 minutes
BGG Rank/Rating: #184/7.07 Category: Gamer’s Game

Letters from Whitechapel is a hidden-movement/deduction chase game about the hunt for Jack the Ripper through the streets of London in 1888.  The theme is relatively interesting but somewhat controversial, but in reality, the brilliance of the game comes from the elegance of the movement and search mechanics.  I’ve played around a dozen games of Letters from Whitechapel so far, and it’s even been the Game of the Month! for my game group, so I finally feel comfortable giving my final judgment on it…

Game Basics

(click here for complete game rules) One person is going to play the role of Jack, who will be tracking his movement on a pad of paper, hidden from the eyes of the other players.  Everyone else will be controlling the 5 Police pawns, who are moved around the board itself on each turn, trying to find clues and eventually arrest Jack. At the start of the game, Jack selects one of the numbered circles on the board to be his Hideout location and writes it at the top of his pad.  On each of the 4 nights in the game, he will choose a victim (2 victims on the 3rd night) somewhere on the board and then try to move back to his Hideout before the Police close in on him.

Setup

At the beginning of each night, there’s a little bit of a shell game that goes on between Jack and the Police before a new victim is actually killed.  It’s a little confusing, but I’ll try to give the basics of what happens:

  1. Jack places tokens marking potential locations for victims for that night, which also includes 3 blank decoys.
  2. Based on these possibilities, the Head of Investigation (a randomly-selected Police player) places tokens for the starting locations of the 5 Investigators, as well as 2 decoys of their own.
  3. Jack reveals removes his decoys and replaces the other markers with the wooden “Wretched” pawns
  4. Jack can then either go ahead and make a kill, or he can pull some shenanigans where he gets to reveal one of the Investigator tokens (which will either be a blank decoy or reveal the actual location of an Investigator), but also lets the Investigators move all the Wretched pawns one space.  This little game can be repeated 4 more times, but eventually, Jack will make a kill.
  5. The crime scene (Jack’s starting location)  is marked with a red tiddly wink, Jack writes that location into the first spot on his log, and the Jack pawn is placed on the crime scene spot of the time track.  The Investigator decoys are removes and the rest of the markers are replaced with their Investigator pawns.

The Hunt

The actual movement and search mechanics for the game are incredibly simple. Jack begins on the Crime Scene location and will move using the numbered circles on the board.  So on each turn, Jack simply writes the number of a connected location into the next box on his log sheet to move there.  He also then advances the Jack pawn on the time track, so that the Police players can track how many moves he has made. Jack’s movement is limited some in that he can not walk through a Police pawn using a normal move.

However, Jack does have a few other little tricks up his sleeve through using a limited number of special moves each night.  A Coach lets him move 2 spots in one turn, both of which get written on his log sheet and will give clues if investigated, but which also allow him to move through an Investigator’s location.  The other special move is to take an Alley, which lets Jack move through one “block” on the board into any other numbered location on the edge of that same “block”.  The special moves are really powerful when used at the right time, but Jack must always walk into his home space, so it’s always possible for the Police to completely block off his home location if they can figure out where it is.

The time track: with Coach and Alley markers, as well as the Jack pawn itself

On the lines between numbered circles, there are also a series of black boxes.  Police actually move between these boxes rather than on the numbered locations themselves.  So after Jack moves, each Police player gets to move their pawn up to 2 boxes away.  Then, each of these players chooses to either ask for Clues or make an Arrest:

  • When asking for Clues, they begin calling out the numbered spots directly adjacent to their current location.  If the number is anywhere on Jack’s trail for that night, a clear Clue Token is placed on the board at that spot.  If not, they can continue to ask about other adjacent locations.
  • If the Investigator thinks that they’re next to Jack’s current location, they can instead make an Arrest in that spot.  If they’re right, the Investigators win the game!

Resolution and Game End

Each night lasts until either Jack gets to his Hideout, he is Arrested by the police, or he runs out of time (15 turns on most nights).  If he gets home, you move on to the next night and repeat the process, but if he’s arrested or runs out of time, the Police win.  Jack wins if he’s able to make it home safely on all 4 nights.

The game board (image by DaveD at BGG – click for larger view)

What I Think…

After my first game of Letters from Whitechapel with my game group, I called the experience one of my top 10 game experiences, ever.  I’ve been a hobby gamer for 27 years now, so that’s a freaking lot of gaming to consider, but this game was so crazy good that it made me want to slap my Momma!* But sometimes, a game experience stems more from the people you’re playing with and a number of other circumstances, which might make the game itself seem a lot better than it really is.  In this case, however, I’ve come to believe that it really was the game, as this game experience was repeated to one extent or another through most all of my plays up to this point.

Game Experience

First and foremost, the thing that Letters from Whitechapel consistently delivers to me and the rest of my group is the tension and excitement of the chase.  I think that the simplicity of the actual movement mechanics in the game are instrumental to creating this atmosphere, because after just a move or two, they just totally get out of the way and let you focus on the real game; the cat-and-mouse chase of evasion and decuction, hard facts and intuition, bluffing and tells, escape or arrest.

In my first play as Jack, I literally had to get up and walk around the room because the tension was so incredible that I felt like I was having palpitations or something.  The Police were so freaking close, and I was afraid of giving something away by my reaction to them.  Having to listen to them discuss their ideas out in the open, knowing all the time where you really are but still having to keep a straight face when they lay out the exact route that you took or look concerned even when they are way off; that’s the thrill of playing Jack.  Even the process of asking for clues becomes this exercise in bluffing as Jack has to try and give as little away as he can regardless of how close or far the Police are from his actual location.  It is, without question, the most effective game I’ve ever played at creating dramatic irony and the suspense it breeds.

As the Police, the experience is a little different, but no less entertaining.  There’s still a lot of tension related to feeling like Jack is just one step ahead the whole time, but the coolest thing to me is actually the cooperative element of working with the other police players.  To some extent, there is a relatively obvious need to cover possible paths for Jack and search for clues spreading out from there.  But the network is complex enough that there are often numerous possible ways to go about this, and Jack can move fast enough that starting at the beginning and working your way out is often too slow to be fully effective.  So to have a realistic chance to win, the Police usually need to go a little further, take a few risks here and there, and rely just enough on intuition and maybe reading Jack’s reaction to their moves in formulating their plan.

Ideal Number of Players and Team Synergy

Time and time again, my experience on both sides of the table has definitely been that the collective effort of all the Police players is far superior to any individual effort from any one of them.  There’s just so much synergy when they’re all working together to develop the strategy, both for the logical/analytical and the intuitive/psychological factors of the chase.  Whether it’s one Police player remembering an important clue from a previous night, another having a “hunch” to check out a particular location where Jack had been, or the whole group working together to hash out the best overall strategy, the game just seems to work better and be more balanced with more players involved on the Police side.

On BoardGameGeek, however, there are some strong opinions that Letters from Whitechapel is best as a 2-player game.  They cite the downtime for Jack as the biggest issue, which I will hesitantly agree with on a purely technical (as in, time between turns) level.  But my real feelings are that they’re just playing it wrong!  Sure, Jack’s actual moves take only a few seconds and then he has to sit around, but the real freaking excitement for him is listening to the Police anyway!  I’ve played a couple of games 2-player, and they were fine (and certainly a lot quicker), but they were also no where near as tense or exciting as my 4- to 6-player games have been!   If the allure of the game for you is just about the analytical deduction part of it, then maybe 2-player is the way to go.  But if you’re interested in the thrill of the chase, then you’ve got to try it with more Police.

Downtime

But while we’re talking about downtime, I’d be turning a blind eye to a potential blemish of the game if I didn’t mention the potential for analysis paralysis present in the game.  With the Police acting so much in the dark most of the time, you could absolutely pick the game to death if you tried to exhaustively analyze and address every possible route and decision that Jack could have made.

Thankfully, I’m blessed with a very quick-playing group, so this hasn’t been a big issue for us.  We’re still pretty analytical and thoughtful about strategy, but we also tend to make a choice and go with it as much from intuition as anything else. I’ve even seen on the ‘Geek how some people have used colored cubes to mark all of the potential moves that Jack could have made, or even used laminated player boards to mark paths and clues.  Technically, this isn’t prohibited by the rules or anything, but it sure feels like cheating to me.  And it certainly adds time to the game, which many people complain about, so why make the game worse by adding things like this into it?

Game Balance and Player Skill

There’s also a lot of discussion floating around about game balance between Jack and the Police.  Our statistical experience has been that the Police have a slight edge in pure winning percentage.  But the more I’ve played, the more I think that Jack actually does have a notable advantage.  However, the biggest factor in these numbers is the experience and skill of the players in each role.  Since more people get to play Police, they tend to advance quicker along the Police learning curve, which is probably a little easier to do anyway.

But once a player has a few games as Jack under his belt and learns some of the more advanced tricks that he can pull off, it gets much harder for the Police to catch him. And while the core of the game is still the intuitive chase mechanics that anyone could walk up and understand, I also like the fact that there is still some significant room for developing skill with the game itself.  Whether it’s familiarity with the map and its quirks and connections, learning the best order to ask for clues, figuring out how and when to throw in special moves, or just knowing when is the right time to make an arrest, there are lots of real and specific skills and techniques that I can think of which must be learned and developed.  And for a game with so much replayability (since every chase will be different), it’s very rewarding to feel like you’re actually getting better at it over time.

Variants

Another cool thing about the game is that they added in a number of variants that you can use either to tilt the game balance to favor either side (depending on who your group thinks has an advantage) or just to spice the game up a little bit.  So far, we haven’t had the chance to try these out, but I like the idea of the designer and publisher providing those variants in the game.

What About the Theme?

I’ve talked some before about the theme and its implications for what could otherwise be a family game.  First of all, the actual gameplay is really rather abstract, being more about the chase itself rather than the reason for the chase.  So I’ve never once felt uncomfortable about the theme while playing the game.  But the graphic design, descriptions, and labels/titles in the game definitely convey and reinforce the murderous theme, and I’ve felt some discomfort while trying to write about the game thematically.

An actual map of Whitechapel from the period, including the sites of 7 of the Whitechapel murders. See how closely it matches the game board above.

Given all of this, I don’t think that it’s something I’m going to pull out with my little girls anytime soon.  My gut feeling is that it’s probably fine for teenage audiences, but any younger than that might be a little inappropriate.

What About Fury of Dracula?

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you’re probably aware that I also really like Fury of Dracula, which is a similar hidden-movement game of one vs. many.  Fury of Dracula used to be in my top 10, in fact, but Letters from Whitechapel has definitely risen past it and better fills many of the gaming needs that it used to fill.  I still like Fury, though, and am glad to have it in my collection, but here are a few points of comparison between the two. Fury of Dracula clearly has a stronger theme and tells a more coherent story.  If you read some of my past play reports from games of Fury, the strength of the narrative is fairly obvious.  That alone is enough for me to hold onto it.  And despite being about a blood-drinking undead monster, the theme is probably more acceptable to many people because it it wholly fictional.

 vs.
 

Unfortunately, the biggest logistical knock against Fury of Dracula is that it takes so much longer to play.  On average, it’s at least double (and maybe more like 3 times) the length of Letters from Whitchapel, sitting more in the 3-4 hour range.  And while that’s still not that long in the grand scheme of things, it’s much harder to fit into a weekday game night than a 120-150 minute game. But the worst flaw of Fury of Dracula is that, despite being a hidden-movement/deduction game at its heart, so much of the play is dictated by the randomness of the event cards.  Whether they’re giving more clues about Dracula’s location or helping him escape scott free, the work that the players are doing in the chase mechanics there is often undercut by some whim of the cards.  There’s still a lot of room to mitigate that randomness if you know what you’re doing, but it both prolongs the game and sometimes becomes frustrating on both sides of the table. Again, I like Fury of Dracula quite a bit, but Letters from Whitechapel is clearly the superior game if the chase experience is what you’re really looking for.

But It’s Out of Print!

That’s the worst thing about Letters from Whitechapel right now.  Maybe your FLGS has it in stock, but otherwise, prices are going up for it.  However, there is a light on the horizon, because Italian publisher Sir Chester Cobblepot secured the rights to republish it a few months ago, and they’re working on making plans and even adding some enhancements to the game right now.  I just volunteered to playtest some of what they’re adding, so I’ll be very excited to see how they’re going to take this nearly-perfect game and make it even better and more user-friendly!

The Verdict!

Letters from Whitechapel is a truly brilliant and elegant game.  If deduction, secret moves and diligent chases sound interesting to you, you really need to find an opportunity to experience it for yourself!

  • Rules: Very simple to understand, but still have a lot of depth in strategy
  • Downtime: Can be significant for Jack, if you don’t get into the spirit of the game
  • Length: Our games have lasted 105 minutes on average, with full games (all 4 nights) usually running between 120 and 150 minutes.
  • Player Interaction: Tons! (Cooperation between Police, chasing and hiding and taunting between Jack and the rest of the players)
  • Overall Weight: Medium
  • GamerChris’ Rating: 10

* Note that no slapping of my Momma actually occurred, nor does GamerChris.com endore the slapping of any Mommas, anywhere, regardless of how freaking awesome any game may be.

4 Comments


  1. Fantastic review. I kept thinking about picking up this game. Now I guess it’s a must! It will have to wait since I just got Mansions of Madness, Alien Frontiers, and Blood Bowl: Team Manager. =)


  2. I picked up the game after reading about your initial plays. And you are right, it’s a fantastic game. Though I’m not much of a co-op fan but the mechanics on this one are superb. It’s the game that Scotland Yard and Nuns on the Run try to be. I was this close to picking up the latter but I’m glad I held out for this :))

  3. Chris Norwood

    Very cool!  I’m glad you liked it as well!

  4. Gabriele Mari

    Thank you for your good review! Keep on playing!

Comments are closed.