A Treasure from the Sherlockian Centenary
In the winter of 1991, I was working on patrol as usual on 94 RPC in a nipping and eager air on Christmas Eve. People were scurrying quickly though slightly fog bound streets as the time was getting nearer to seven that evening; no doubt with thoughts of getting home as quickly as possible. Nearly every shop was in the process of closing, as I drove slowly west bound on Walnut street past Rittenhouse Square.
By tradition, the department tries to split the shift and double up officers to allow for others to take some time off. By this time I was a veteran of fifteen years, I always worked alone on my regular car, and the demands of the holiday were no longer a big concern. I had plans like anyone else. There were friends I would be visiting later that night. Center city Philadelphia was always a quiet place to work on holidays, and I was comfortable being there.
My thoughts were on that last minute gift that would be good for the family. As I passed the 1900 block to 20th, I noticed that a game store called “The Compleat Strategist” (yes, spelled that way) was still open. My first thoughts were that the manager must be Mr. Scrooge, and I would find old Bob still working at his desk inside in a cold and dimly lit room with a solitary candle burning. The window to the store had games from around the world on display and my eyes were drawn immediately to a small box with a Sidney Paget illustration on the cover. It was made by the Gibson Company, a game making firm in England. The title: “Sherlock Holmes: The Card Game”, and that illustration were enough to convince my spirit that this was the item I needed to buy.
I recall that the price at the time was around fifteen dollars. I paid the proprietor, and was out the door as quickly as I entered. I am always amazed that clerks make the assumption that an officer purchasing something that requires thought is a phenomenon. This reaction was very common until I became the local district representative with the Police department after I was assigned to the diplomatic core of the profession. But on that eve of 1991, my only concern was this unusual game that was now my possession. I was an avid game collector and player for many years. I had started as a young man in 1971, when I discovered Avalon Hill war games in a local hobby store in the Roosevelt Mall. It became a hobby for life!
The rules to the game followed a structure of one leading to another. The object was to empty your hand of cards and accumulate the least points over six rounds of play. Now the real pull of this game is that it features those old fashioned original illustrations that were first shown in “The Strand” magazine, where the original stories were printed. This provides a “romantic” atmosphere to play and people really seem to like this game!
First you selected a criminal card without revealing the identity of the character. Then, teamed with “The Game is Afoot” card, you counted out six cards for every player. After distribution, the person who held the “Game is afoot” placed this first and others in turn, followed instructions of location, then transportation to a new location either by Hansom or Train. As you play in the early stages, one player is definitely holding a criminal card, but you only can identify the culprit with an appropriate investigation card.
You can use a disguise card to check out other players cards secretly, or follow a clue. If you have the Inspector, you can make an arrest if you are at Scotland Yard. An alibi can be selected, or “Thick Fog” will cause all the cards to be gathered, shuffled and re-distributed according to how many each player had in hand. In the meantime there is always the possibility that more than one criminal may be held by a player or several players. If a person is down to only Criminals, when it is their turn, they all “escape”. So, you have to produce an arrest within a reasonable period. Three cards provide special circumstances. Watson allows you to make an arrest, but if false, you still must take all of the cards of the person accused, which adds a lot of points to your total if you don’t have the time to play them and the game ends. Another card, “Mycroft Holmes” is a clever card that allows you to exchange hands with another player. Usually you will pick the one with the least amount of cards and hope for the best. Finally, Sherlock Holmes may make an arrest at any location, if no criminal is detected, no penalty is held against the player.
I think we spent that whole evening in play. My children brought a copy when they went on a class trip to Florida. They ended up playing marathon sessions over and over. The game soon became an obsession, and it was a weekly selection at the very least.
All I could think of is what a great purchase this was. Any time I venture to teach this game, the players like it. They always ask where a copy can be obtained, and I tell them that it seems that it can only be bought through game collectors on e-bay, and usually it is in England. The game known as “The Centenary Edition”, which celebrated the one-hundred year anniversary of the creation of the great detective, is long out of print.
The game has been produced by victory games, but the components were cheapened and did not have that “romantic” style of the original. A third re-printing is now for sale, but it is a matter of taste. As I think back, this was probably one of the best Christmas gifts I ever purchased. It has provided many happy hours of frantic play, and given the average person a real chance to become a “detective” in an age of horse drawn carriages and gas lighted alleyways. Thank you Mr. Scrooge, wherever you are!