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Monday
Jun272011

Letters from Whitechapel - A Review.

Between the years of 1888 and 1891 a series of brutal slayings captivated the media of Victorian England. Unsolved to this day, the murders that shocked and terrified the downtrodden Whitechapel district, were perpetuated by a man who, in his shocking letters to the police, assumed the pseudonym “Jack the Ripper”. To this day, the unsolved nature of the crimes and the taunting correspondence from the infamous serial killer invoke a morbid curiosity in people, generating an unending stream of novels, movies, and speculation about what really happened under the soot filled skies over a century ago.

Letters from Whitechapel is a deduction based board game, designed by Gabriele Mari and Gianluca Santopietro, illustrated by Gianluca Santopietro, and published by Nexus Games. In the game, one player assumes the role of Jack the Ripper, who commits crimes, and attempts to avoid police detection through a mechanic of hidden movement across the winding labyrinth of streets and alleys. The other players portray the police detectives historically assigned to the Whitechapel Murder cases, and attempt to search out, and apprehend Jack through the use of logic and deduction.

The game takes place over the course of four nights, with a total of five murders committed. Although these numbers make for a tense and exciting game, they certainly aren’t arbitrary.  Of all of the murders that actually took place in the Whitechapel district while the police case was open, only five of them are considered to be canonically associated with Jack the Ripper, and of those five, two occurred on the same night, dubbed the “double event” by Jack’s own hand - and faithfully represented in the rules for Letters from Whitechapel.

This attention to detail in both the rules and components of the game makes it engrossing on a visual and intellectual level. So many of the rules and components have a solid grounding in the history of the Whitechapel Murder cases, and this adds greatly to the macabre theme of the game. From a mechanics standpoint, Letters from Whitechapel could have been a simple cops and robber themed game, but the art, components, and rules really bring 19th century Whitechapel to life, and really pull the player into the history.

Components:

The Board - The showpiece of Letters from Whitechapel is the enormous game board depicting the various streets and alleys of Victorian era Whitechapel. Intersections are denoted by black squares, and areas that can be searched for clues are denoted by 195 circles, each with a unique number printed on it. The illustration on the board itself is historically accurate in its representation of the geography of the area, and surprisingly, the tangled streets create a strategically intriguing play-field. The district map is pleasingly rendered in in sepia tones, the stark color choice creating a vivid contrast to the red circles that represent the victims’ starting locations, and the crime scene tokens - translucent plastic disks that seem to float above the surface as pools of crimson.

Pawns – The police, victim, and Jack pawns are large chunky wooden bits, stylized to abstractly resemble the English bobby hat of the investigating police, the tight corseted figure of a potential victim, or the gentleman’s top hat that has become so closely tied to the public image of Jack the Ripper. The pawns are enjoyable to manipulate, they have a nice heft and size. The colorful police pawns maintain an imposing presence as they move to tighten the net around Jack. And the Jack pawns, although never actually moved on the map proper (Jack’s movements are hidden), are utilized on the game board for bookkeeping functions, such as tracking the current round number, and reporting how many murders have been committed. This means that although Jack may be hiding in the shadows, he still has a definite presence on the game board.

Tokens – Both Jack and the police have a set of tokens that they place on the board during the first few phases of each night. These double-sided tokens represent the potential position of the police and the victims. They are simply illustrated, but work well to accomplish their purpose. Also in the box is a set of large cardboard tokens representing the different detectives hunting Jack down, each bears the likeness of an actual police investigator on the Jack the Ripper case, and is used to display the detective in charge of the investigation on a particular night. The final tokens used in the game feature illustrations of carriages and lamplights, and are used by Jack as resources to break some of the movement rules during his escape.

Winks - Letters from Whitechapel comes packed with a handful of transparent plastic disks, or winks. These disks come in three colors: clear, red, and yellow. The red disks are used to denote the crime scenes where Jack has committed an atrocity, and the clear disks are placed during gameplay to denote clues that the investigators have found during their search for Jack. The yellow winks are used as false clues for an optional game variant. The decision to use transparent plastic disks on the game board was inspired, as the mechanism works really well. The red disks really stand out against the game board, while still allowing the players to see the numbers below the marker. My only issue with the transparent winks, is that the clear disks can be difficult to see at times, as they blend in with the board; a lightly tinted grey may have given just enough contrast to make the clue disks more noticeable, while maintaining the elegant look of the game.

Jack's Movement Pad - Since Jack's movement is hidden, he writes his movement down in pencil on a pad of paper. The pad supplied is simple, and easy to understand, and contains quite a few sheets of paper in it. I am a conservationist at heart, and always struggle with games that have a paper pad, because I envision the day that I will go to play, and there are no more sheets left. In all reality though, the odds of going through an entire pad are fairly low, as the game itself takes a good chunk of time to play, and there are plenty of sheets included. Plus, modern inventions such as the eraser, and photocopy machine put the power in the hands of the OCD gamer to keep his components pristine.

The movement pad is perfectly sized to slide into an included cardboard sleeve. This sleeve can be unfolded to become a screen that Jack can use to keep his scribblings hidden. The inside of the sleeve has a small version of the game board on it, which Jack can use to plan his escape, without giving away his plans through his eye movements. It would have been really nice if small maps for each of the investigators were included in the game as well. Small dry erase maps would help the investigators plan and coordinate their movements, while keeping their suspicions secret from Jack. Luckily, the publisher has made downloadable maps available on their website, so if you have a computer and a printer you are good to go. Even so, small investigator maps would have been a really nice inclusion inside the game box.

Setup and Gameplay:

At the start of the game, each player is allocated a set of tokens: police tokens for the investigators, and victim tokens for Jack. The investigators take the white "wretched" pawns that will signify Jack's potential victims, and then choose their investigator pawns; there are 5 different colored investigator pawns, and they are all used, despite the number of players in the game - so in games with less than 6 players, someone will be controlling more than one investigator. Jack then takes the winks, and his special movement tokens for the given night, and places his black Jack pawns on the board to signify the current turn, as well as the current round. Jack also takes his movement tokens, and his movement pad.

After all of the tokens have been sorted and collected, a secret decision is made by Jack. He must pick a numbered circle on the board, and write it down on his movement pad. This chosen space is Jack's hideout. Although the game has not yet started, this decision may very well be the most important one in the game - for Jack at least. At the end of each of the four nights, or rounds of the game, Jack must always return to this hideout. The hideout that Jack has chosen for himself does not change throughout the game, and the investigators will get closer to determining its location as the the game progresses towards its climax, so Jack's hideout needs to be strategically placed.

Although the players have sorted their tokens, and have selected pawns, there is still a lot of setup to be done before the chase begins. However, Letters from Whitechapel follows the growing trend in gaming where setup becomes part of the game proper, so this setup process is part of the fun. Turning setup into part of the game makes the game very approachable, and eliminates the downtime between deciding to play a game, and actually starting. Letters from Whitechapel offers immediate gratification in this aspect, and you won't lose players to other games while it's being set up.

The game is played over five "Nights". These are rounds in which a murder (or multiple murders on the 3rd night) occur, followed by the investigators trying to track Jack down before he reaches his hideout. This first "setup" portion of each round is named "Hell", after the real-life heading in Jack the Ripper's famous "From Hell" letter. During this step, both Jack and the Investigators work to bluff, and place their pieces into the most advantageous positions. The second phase is called "Hunting", where the investigators try to corner the fleeing Jack using only their wits and powers of deduction, before Jack can reach his hideout and end the round.

Hell:

Jack begins "Hell" by placing each of his white "woman" tokens on one of the handful of red-tinted number circles on the board. Incidentally, these circles are situated on the map of Whitechapel in locations that closely parallel the actual places that the Whitechapel Murders occurred.  The woman tokens are double sided, with the front either being blank, or displaying a red dot. Jack chooses red-tinted number circles on the map, and places each woman token, face down, on a selected location. After Jack is done placing the tokens, some locations on the game board will contain a token with a red dot on it's face, while others will contain a blank token. The ones with the blank tokens are false clues, but the ones that contain a token with a red dot hidden on it's face will house a potential victim.

This placement of tokens with a hidden element adds a bit of bluffing to the game. In the next step, the investigators place their own tokens on the board in strategically optimal spaces, but they have limited information to work with, because they may be planning their strategy around a false clue that Jack has left. This bluffing mechanic, and hidden information, is found throughout the game, and is a real treat for those who love trying to read other players. It's this bluffing component that really elevates the game from a pure, dry logic puzzle, to a game that really showcases the human element of detective work. 

After Jack has placed his tokens, the investigators put their patrol tokens on the yellow square intersection tiles. Like Jack's woman tokens, the patrol tokens have either a blank face, or a colored dot, and each token with a colored dot represents a specific investigator. Just like Jack was given the opportunity to bluff with his woman tokens, the police can bluff with their patrol tokens, hiding the actual positions of their investigators from Jack.

After the investigators have placed their tokens, Jack reveals the position of the potential victims, and the white "wretched" pawns are placed on the game board in those locations. Jack can chose to kill one of the wretched now, or can wait up to five turns - but on the fifth turn he MUST claim a victim. Every turn that Jack chooses not to kill, the investigators will move the wretched pawns to adjacent circles along dotted lines printed on the board, but Jack also has the ability to reveal one of the investigator tokens to determine if it is a decoy or not.  This creates a nice tug-of-war between the investigators and Jack, giving the investigators more control over the tactical positioning on the board, but at the same time revealing more hidden information to Jack. When Jack does decide to kill, he can select any of the wretched pawns, and will most likely chose the one most strategically placed to avoid police detection. However, there are still a number of  police patrol tokens that are resting face down, so Jack doesn't know which tokens represent the actual investigators, and which tokens represent decoys.

After Jack has committed the murder, the wretched pawns are removed from the board, and the location of the murder is marked with a red "scene of the crime" wink. The wretched pawn that has been killed and one of the victim tokens are removed from the game entirely. This is a clever aspect of Letters from Whitechapel, because as the nights progress, the possible victims and murder locations steadily shrink, increasing the pressure put on Jack. After the scene of the crime has been marked, the investigators reveal their patrol tokens, and place their pawns in the locations indicated, and the hunt begins!

The Hunting:

The Hunting phase is where the cat and mouse portion of the game unfolds. Jack moves along the dotted lines connecting numbered circles, and always ends his turn on a circle. The Police, on the other hand, move between solid black squares on the board. This means that Jack and the police can never share the same space, and they travel different paths, but this dichotomy can create some very interesting interactions, in sometimes unexpected ways.

Jack kicks off the hunting phase by moving first. He writes his current location in the appropriate space of his movement sheet, and selects an adjacent numbered circle to move to. Jack is allowed to move along a dotted line to any adjacent numbered circle, but he cannot travel along a path that would have him pass through a police officer's pawn. This is often a difficult decision, as the position and future movements of the investigator pawns can make certain moves risky, and if Jack doesn't get back to his hideout by turn 15, he loses the game. After Jack has carefully selected his new position, he writes it down in his log. Although Jack's movement is hidden, he still gets a chance to manipulate his chunky black pawn, by moving it to the next space in the "move track" denoting the current turn.

Sometimes there is just no way around the police. Luckily for Jack he has a couple of aces up his sleeve. The movement tokens that he acquired at the start of the round can be used to help him in a bind like this. The movement tokens come in two flavors: alley tokens, which have a picture of a lamplight on them, and carriage tokens, which display a carriage illustration. Both kinds of tokens let jack bend the movement rules in different ways. The carriage tokens let Jack move two circles in one turn, and allow him to pass through a police pawn on the way to his destination. The alley token on the other hand, lets Jack veer off of the dotted lines that he is normally tied to, and allows him to cross a solid block of buildings to a numbered circle on the other side. Both of these options can be very powerful, but can also give an insight to Jack's location. If the police think they have Jack cornered, and he uses one of his movement tokens, they can be fairly confident that they have Jack on the run. Either that, or Jack is bluffing.

After Jack moves, the police get their turn to tighten the net around him. The police can move up to two black squares in any direction, as long as they follow the dotted lines. Once they have reached their destination, they have two options: They can search for clues, or they can attempt an arrest.

If an officer chooses to search for clues, he can name a numbered circle that is adjacent to his current location. Jack then looks at his movement sheet, and checks if he has been to that location. If he has been to that location during the night, he places a clear "clue" wink on the circle to notify the police that he was there. If a clue is found, that investigator's turn ends. However, if a clue is not found, the investigator can continue to name adjacent circles until either a clue is found, or he runs out of circles.

If an officer attempts an arrest, he has just one chance before his turn ends. The officer must name a numbered circle that he thinks Jack currently occupies. If he is correct, Jack is apprehended, and the police win the game. If not, the officer's turn ends, and he cannot take any more actions until his next turn.

This process continues, with Jack and the police moving and searching for clues, until Jack is apprehended or reaches his hideout. This process of "hell" and "hunting" takes place over 4 separate rounds, each round the number of victims shrink, and the police get a better and better idea about where Jack is hiding out.

It's important to note that the third night has a bit of a twist to it. On Sunday September 30, 1888 the mutilated bodies of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes were both found by police in the District of Whitechapel. The next day, the Central News Agency received a note in the mail, dubbed the "Saucy Jacky" postcard, in which Jack the Ripper took responsibility for the Murders. In this infamous letter, he called these two slayings the "double event"; and on the third day of gameplay in Letters from Whitechapel, parallel to the "double event" on that late September evening, Jack takes two victims. At a time in the game where jack is getting squeezed harder and harder by the police, having two crime scenes gives Jack a bit more breathing room, as he gets to chose which crime scene he will flee from, leaving the police the task of canvassing two regions of the map where Jack might be hiding.

Conclusion:

Letters from Whitechapel is a very enjoyable game that plays well anywhere from two players, to it's maximum of six. As the number of players increase, the advantage begins to tip more in Jack's favor unless the investigators can work well together to formulate a workable plan to deduce Jack's location.

Letters from Whitechapel is full of theme, and serves up a good bit of history through its artwork, rule book, and gameplay. Some may find the content objectionable, as the manual contains snippets from the actual letters sent by Jack the Ripper, with quotes such as "I saved some of the proper red stuff in a ginger beer bottle over the last job to write with but it went thick like glue and I cant use it. Red ink is fit enough I hope. ha. ha."; and the very first time playing as jack can be unsettling, when you realize that you have to choose someone on the board to murder. In a way, though, Letters from Whitechapel humanizes the tragedy of the murders, brings it out of the realm of stories and movies, and puts the reality of the events into focus in a very personal way. 

The bluffing mechanics in the game also enhance its logical, deductive nature, by adding a human element as players try to read each other, and determine their actions through behavior, as well as deduction. The players can almost put themselves in the shoes of a Victorian detective, interrogating witnesses, and trying to determine their inner thoughts. This is a really nice departure from a lot of deduction based games that rely entirely on building a spreadsheet to find the solution.

The components in Letters from Whitechapel are truly sublime in their muted simplicity. From the chunky pawns, to the beautifully and historically accurate board, the components scream quality. When the blood red crime scene winks begin to pepper the board, the contrast is both striking and beautiful, in a strangely sinister way. Jack's movement pad is well designed, and easy to use, and makes the movement process painless for Jack. Some mini-maps for the police players would have been nice, but the fact that Nexus Games supplies downloadable maps on their website takes large strides in making up for it.

Although there may appear to be a lot of rules to digest in Letters from Whitechapel, in practice they flow together seamlessly, and are easy to remember. After the first few turns, the rules become second nature, and play flows smoothly, allowing players to focus on their strategy. There are some optional rules and components included to help players tune their game experience. There are variations included to tip the game in favor of either Jack, or the police, depending on the needs of your gaming group. It's nice to see that the variations aren't just tacked on, as they include the same sense of history and theme as the core rules.

Hardcore analysis of the Letters from Whitechapel map, can reveal hideout placements, and crime scene locations that can make the game extremely difficult for the police to track down Jack.  If your game group plays very competitively, and you have members that will spend hours analyzing strategies, then Letters from Whitechapel may break under certain scenarios. There are some workarounds to avoid this, such as generating a random location for Jacks hideout, although I think that this removes some of the fun of the game. If you have a cutthroat game group, then you may have to resort to tweaking things a bit, although the vast majority of gamers will find Letters from Whitechapel extremely rewarding as it is.

Gameplay can often extend past the 2+ hour mark if Jack is being very sneaky, but the structure of the game allows the players a fulfilling experience, even if they only choose to play only one or two rounds, instead of the complete four. The progression from night to night does offer a wonderfully tense experience though, with the number of victims shrinking, the "double event", and the police gradually honing in on Jack's hideout. This dramatic swell of tension, that climaxes on the fourth night, can be hard to beat.

All in all, I think that Letters from Whitechapel is a great choice for any game library. It is enjoyable by casual gamers and experienced gamers equally, has a wonderful theme that only compliments the tense and exciting gameplay, and smartly tackles the deduction genre while avoiding the dry nature of some similar games. Even if you might not be drawn to the deduction genre, the bluffing aspect alone should give you reason to give it a play. Letters from Whitechapel is a great game, and will appeal to a large swath of interests. I definitely recommend it.

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    Letters from Whitechapel - A Review. - Home - Board Games, Video Games, Reviews, Previews, Fantasy Flight, Z-man, Game of Thrones, Walking Dead
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    Letters from Whitechapel - A Review. - Home - Board Games, Video Games, Reviews, Previews, Fantasy Flight, Z-man, Game of Thrones, Walking Dead
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    Letters from Whitechapel - A Review. - Home - Board Games, Video Games, Reviews, Previews, Fantasy Flight, Z-man, Game of Thrones, Walking Dead
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