In Holmes: Sherlock & Mycroft, 2 players will take on the roles of the titular geniuses as they attempt to unravel the details of a bombing in London. Designed by Diego Ibanez, beautifully illustrated by Pedro Soto, and distributed afar by Devir and in the US by our friends at MeepleSource, Holmes aims to deliver a satisfying experience in less than 30 minutes for a pair of would-be sleuths. But does its case hold up under close inspection?
Mycroft represents the crown’s investigatory lead, trying to determine the guilt of the accused. Sherlock, on the other hand, has been hired to prove the innocence of the man. The game is afoot as these two brilliant minds are pitted against each other, both racing to gather clues, interview witnesses, and ultimately determine how justice must be served!
Andrew: Of course, that’s all pasted-on theme. Holmes is a set-collection game with some light worker placement mechanisms. Despite all the thematic window-dressing, it’s not a deduction game at all, though the rulebook does go out of its way to add little literary tidbits to enrich the experience.
Jess: Well, that may be true, but I think the theme is still fantastic! While it’s true that it’s mostly pasted-on, the different characters and the way they interact does have some thematic elements, like Irene Adler being able to steal from the other player or Toby being a good tracking dog. And besides, it’s just plain fun!
The goal of Holmes is to be the player who has gathered the most evidence, thereby scoring the most points at the end of the week-long investigation. This is the set collection core of the game; you will try to snag as many cards from the 7 different suits of Clue cards (plus wilds and map fragments, but we’ll address those shortly), trying to hold majorities in as many of the suits as possible. These majorities translate into end-game points, and whomever has the most points wins!
Gameplay in Holmes takes place over exactly 7 rounds, each round representing one day of investigation. Each round, players will take turns assigning one of their 3 action markers (meeples) to an available witness. Each marker assigned will trigger the effect of that witness, and every witness has different effects. Generally, these effects center around gaining and spending Investigation markers, which act as a currency for purchasing Clue cards. There are 12 Character cards in all, and some examples are:
- Mrs. Hudson: Lets you take 3 Investigation markers
- Inspector Lestrade: Lets you spend 3 Investigation markers to claim 2 clues from the offer.
- Shinwell “Porky” Johnson: Discard 1-3 of the visible Clue cards and redraw to replace them
Andrew: Now, one of the brilliant things about Holmes is how it handles these characters. See, on day 1 of the investigation, you will have 5 characters to visit – Doctor Watson, Mrs. Hudson, Inspector Lestrade, and two other randomly drawn characters (though there is an alternative setup rule which allows each player limited control over which two characters start on the board). And each day, one new character will be randomly added to the tableau.
Jess: That makes a surprising amount of difference in how the game plays. Some characters are really powerful if they show up early, like Billy the Bellboy, but are next to useless if they show up last, and vice versa. So not only is it random who shows up when, but the order that they appear really changes the landscape of the game.
Andrew: And add to that the fact that if both players use a character in the same turn, that character becomes unavailable for the following turn, you have a constant churn of available actions that players will have (or not have) at their disposal. It adds a surprising amount of variety to what is actually a very tight, short little game.
Another thing that adds depth and complexity to Holmes is that, at the beginning of each round, your meeples start on the location where you assigned them last. And since you can never assign your meeple to a spot that you already occupy, you will be forced to shuffle your assignments around, instead of relying on the same tactic turn after turn. It’s pretty darn clever!
Once the 7 rounds of Holmes pass in a blur of placed meeples and painstaking acquisitions, majorities for each clue type are determined and points are calculated. And there again we see a bit of brilliance in the game’s design. Often, with area or set majority mechanics, the reward simply goes to the victor – if you have 3 shmegbops and I have 5 shmegbops, then I get the shmegbop point bonus (Holmes is, however, completely lacking in shmegbops of any sort).
However, in Holmes, things are not so simple. Each suit is worth its face value, the 9 suit is worth 9 points at the end (and is comprised of 9 cards), the 7 suit is worth 7 points (and is comprised of 7 cards), etc. But instead of simply awarding points to the person who has majority, for each suit the majority holder wins points equal to the suit minus the number of those cards their opponent holds. For example, if I have 6 copies of the Fingerprint clue (suit 9). You have 2. I end up with 7 points: 9 (the value of the suit) minus your 2 copies of the card.
Jess: That’s actually really smart design, because it means it’s never worth it to ‘give up’ on a suit. Just because your opponent has a lead doesn’t make those cards worthless to you. You need to mitigate those points!
Andrew: Exactly. And if you do manage a shutout on a suit, then you get 3 bonus points, turning those low number, easier-to-cinch suits into potentially big point swings. Do you have all the 4s? That’s worth 7 points instead!
Add to that wild cards which can substitute for any clue type and map fragments which give progressively more points the more they are collected, and you have a lot of small, clever scoring mechanisms that add greatly to the game’s strategy. The simplicity of the game’s mechanisms, and the speed and ease with which it plays does not diminish its cleverness in the least.
Andrew: What we have here is one of our new favorite date-night games. Holmes: Sherlock & Mycroft is beautiful (especially with the MeepleSource component upgrades), it’s accessible, and it manages to generate tension without causing direct conflict – one of our required attributes for a good 2-player game.
We totally recommend Holmes: Sherlock & Mycroft. It is an excellent game for 2, giving you more strategy than a simple filler without overstepping itself in terms of length of depth. You can order it directly from MeepleSource here, as well as the neat upgrade kit for the meeples and investigation tokens. We wholeheartedly recommend the lot of it!
(Thanks to Devir for providing our review copy and to MeepleSource for providing the component upgrade kit to us. Their generosity didn’t influence our opinions.)