I have been a fanboy of the works of Arthur Conan Doyle since I was 12– not just for the exploits of Sherlock Holmes, of course, but also of Brigadier Gerard and the White Company and Micah Clarke (check them out, they are worth your time). Of course, it was Sherlock Holmes that initially captured me and retained my interest over the long run. So when Victory Point Games offered up version one of I Say, Holmes!, their card based game of deduction and crime-solving in a Sherlock universe, I jumped at it back in 2007. Sadly, one torrential downpour destroyed that version of the game very quickly before I got a chance to play it– blame it all on the somewhat more water-soluble ink that VPG was using back then. Well sir, I was so disgusted with my own stupidity that I mentally kicked myself and promptly forgot about the game’s existence– until VPG reissued it in their spiffy new “thick counters and sturdy box” format 2014, at which point I knew I wanted to try it again! I have yet to find a game evocative of the Sherlock theme and setting that truly focuses on crime-solving and detection, a subject that is under-represented in board gaming. Most “crime solving” games are really logic puzzles that stress deductive logic. There’s nothing wrong with that– I’m personally fond of many of them, such as Mystery in the Abbey, Cluedo and Alibi, all of whom require keeping notes to zero in on a suspect by process of elimination. My favorite in the genre might be 221 Baker Street, which is heavily Sherlock-themed. Only played it once, though.
And this game?
I Say, Holmes is a card play game for 3-8 players from Victory Point Games that tries to follow in that thematic tradition, to some extent, but is mostly a fast card game with a strong resemblance to UNO and maybe, rummy. Deduction is more a shot in the dark than process of elimination.
Cards are really the narrative engine of this game, and there are a lot of different kinds:
- Player Character Card: represents you, the player
- Information Cards: usually manipulates hands to provide more narrative information.
- Action Cards: Mostly for performing actions that try to bring about an arrest.
- “I Say” Cards: Not really defined well, but appears to be a way to score extra “I say” Tokens which increases your score (semi-randomly at the end of the game). Like a wild card you can play out of sequence.
- Country Cards: Setting cards where the action is out in the Countryside
- City Cards: Setting cards where the action is in the City (of London, I assume).
- Travel Cards: Moves player between city and country’
- Interrupt Cards: disrupt the action sequence and become the new current card.
- Villain Cards: the persistent goal of the game is to deduce the whereabouts of Villain cards (either in the draw pile or in opponent’s hands) and place them under arrest. Villains attempt to escape arrest (which ends the round).
Note that I’m inferring some of this from the cards themselves; there’s not a section in the rulebook that informs us what every kind of card is supposed to do, but there is a very helpful card index in the back of the rulebook.
This game is designed for 3-8 players, and in my observation plays better with more players. The player cards are dealt out and the draw deck is shuffled, and each player gets 6 cards– note that the draw deck is customized by number of players (a handy number printed on the bottom left will tell you what to include). The player with “The Game’s Afoot!” Card plays this and game play starts with that card as Current, and located in the city. Each card has some data point on it that will move a narrative along by restricting what can be played next in sequence– for instance, a card might be marked that it can only be played in City, Country or Travel settings. The exception to this is playing the out of sequence “I Say!” card.
The “Case” continues by the player playing a card that is “similar” to the left of the person who started the sequence, played in front of them to the left, as the current card is discarded. It passes from player to player– keying off the card restrictions, until hands are whittled down to either villains or interrupt cards, initiating either an “Escape” or an “Arrest” of the villain, and the game is scored for victory. If a player is “harboring a villain” in their hand, they will help the villain escape– (by displaying the villain and any interrupt cards left in hand). If a player wishes to accuse and arrest a villain, he can, but woe unto him if he guesses incorrectly, because then you add the accused player’s cards to your deck, which is a problem in a game that requires you to get rid of your cards to win!
I’ve not experienced it, yet, but I have read about games where a necessary similar/dissimilar card didn’t show up in a timely fashion and the game shuttled around the table as the group was “stuck”– this might be addressed in an expansion but I’m not certain.
Once you get the hang of it, I Say, Holmes! plays pretty quickly. After the first confused round or two the play/counterplay sequence usually works smoothly until one hits a card where you could read a result either way, then the game comes to a screeching halt as you re-read “The Game Sequence” section of the rules. There are some card interactions that required some clarification and furious fumbling in the card index at the back of the rulebook– fortunately there were a gang of similarly confused people in line ahead of me on Boardgamegeek, asking the same questions I did before me, so that was helpful. The designer, Alan Emrich, is very helpful online for setting any ambiguities via BGG forums. I played this game with a group of 3 people (total) twice and once with 5, and I have to say, get 4 or more or it’s not much of a game. My overall response (and the response of the people I played it with) was “Ehhhhhhh”.. which means, specifically, that I didn’t hate it, but it’s not the best game I’ve ever played, either. My big problem is that this is all about numbers and colors and matching things. It’s not really a game of deduction, not in the same sense as, say, ALIBI or SLEUTH are. I never was at a point where I could conclusively prove to myself where the Villain was and only successfully arrested him by taking a well-educated guess in a panic. The components are great (far better than the soggy bundle my 2007 version became). Standard Big, Thick counters, great (albeit thin) card stock, more or less thematic visuals.. Yeah, Sherlock Holmes never wore a deer stalker hat in the books, but that hat has become so emblematic of “Sherlock Holmes” I’ll forgive VPG’s art director for erring on the side of caution. I can’t quibble with the production, it is on par with many VPG games that I have played lately and that sets a high standard– it’s just not pushing my buttons for a detective game the same way that Alibi, Sleuth, the Mystery of the Abbey or Mystery Train do.
So, in summary a good game, but perhaps not a great one, your mileage will certainly vary. I don’t quite think of it as “Sherlock themed UNO” as some reviewers have mentioned, but I also agree that I don’t consider it as evocative of solving mysteries, either. Recommended if you like light, fast interplay trick-taking *style* of card games (though I wouldn’t characterize this game as a rummy game).