Great unique theme.
Potential alpha player issue.
Theme is grisly (no gore). May not be for everyone.
Letters from Whitechapel is based on the very real and horrific serial murders committed during the 1880’s in olde london town, which to this day remain one of the most discussed and theorized upon unsolved mysteries of our time. Personally I’ve always been enthralled by this dark moment in UK history and have absorbed much of the literature and media that surrounds this event with each author adding their own distinct theories of who how and what. Alan Moores seminal comic masterclass From Hell probably stands out as one of the greatest, the less said about the Jack Sparrow movie loosely based on his exhaustively researched and written work the better.
But you may ask this is all very nice, however do I really want a board game based on the serial murders of prostitutes, well in an answer yes, yes you do. Designed by Gabriele Mari & Gianluca Santopietro Letters from Whitechapel is a deduction game which tastefully avoids the more graphic elements of this event and focuses on giving us a tense and gripping game of cat and mouse played out in the fog shrouded streets of Victorian London.
The game itself is relatively simple to set up and play, someone gets to be Jack and everyone else is a copper. Played out over four turns each depicting a night when Jack will strike killing and then bolting back from the site of his most recent crime to get home. The Police are charged with working together to try and find where Jack is and catch him before he completes his murderous spree on the fourth evening.
Now here is where it gets really interesting, all of Jacks movements are hidden, they are secretly recorded behind a screen by the player who is Jack, so other than when he strikes the police don’t know where he is. All Jack has to do every night is make it back to his home before he runs out of moves or is caught.
This being a Fantasy Flight release you can bet it looks beautiful, and yep it does. Surprisingly for them its relativity component light but all of them are lovely and subtlety thematic. The board is a huge map depicting the tangled streets of the Whitechapel district this is where all the action occurs. It has a clean but very effective design appearing like the plans of the desperate police force, pinned on some wall somewhere in a station house.
Aside from the board there really is little else other than the pieces and counters that are used to track the hunt. The rule book is excellent and can be used to play through the first turn to get everyone up to speed. There are also some player aides that can help as a simple memory jogger to whats happening.
This game plays from 2 up to 6 and in my opinion the more the merrier with this, the smaller games are still a great deal of fun. But I have found this really becomes the tense and nerve jangling race against time it should be when there are a table full of amateur detectives.
So lets dig into how this all works. Before anything else happens Jack gets to pick where his house is and notes it on his special move track sheet that he keeps hidden behind a neat little screen that comes with a handy smaller map of the board. This is his goal for each night and its selection will dictate how Jack will play the rest of his game.
Part 1: Hell
Each night follows the same pattern. First the board is set up. The player who is Jack goes first and places 8 white tokens depicting the women onto the board, 5 of these have a large red dot hidden beneath for where the victims will be and remaining 3 are blank. These can be placed out over any of the 8 murder locations on the board highlighted by a red number wherever Jack wants and only he will know which one is real and which is a decoy.
The police do the same thing but with their 7 police patrol tokens 5 being real the others decoys.
Then the white tokens are revealed and the ones with the red dots are replaced by the wretched pawns, so now we know were the intended victims are but as of yet the police patrols are still a mystery.
Jack chooses his action first and that can be to either strike and kill a victim or wait giving him more time to get home. If he has waited then the police get to move the wretched pawns once. So while this may give Jack precious extra moves it also means that the police can start to maneuver the victims closer to a police patrol effectively increasing the odds that Jack can be discovered. Once the victims have moved Jack gets to choose one of the patrol tokens and flip it to discover whether that is real or a decoy.
This process can be repeated up to five times, but on that fith turn he has to strike.
There’s been a murder!
When he does strike Jack writes that number down on his sheet in the corresponding box and then the games afoot.
Part 2: The Hunt
So this is where the real fun begins.
Jack goes first and secretly moves one location and records it down on his sheet.
Then all the police get to move, and this is where it becomes a game of cat and mouse. After a policeman has moved they can perform one of two actions either to search for clues at any of the neighboring locations by calling out the number or making an arrest by choosing a site they believe Jack is at.
If they search for clues and call out a number that jack has visited then a clue marker is placed on the board a yellow chip, these become a trail of breadcrumbs that start to uncover where he is moving across the board.
And so this is repeated, with each turn marked off on the time track, so it becomes a ticking clock for Jack to make it back undiscovered to his home. And if he does then he’s safe and we go back to the top and start the whole process again.
Tense Nervous Headache
So this is a really tense game. If you are playing as Jack, as the nights progress you have to come up with deeper and smarter ways of outwitting your foes. The first couple of nights are a breeze for this dapper prostitute murdering gent about town, the police will bumble around desperately prodding about in the hope of catching a whiff of where you’ve been and usually coming up short. But even now mistakes can be made, because by the end of the second night unless the investigation is being led by Inspector Clouseau they are going to have a pretty damn good idea of where your sneaking off too each night and so the net will slowly close.
Suddenly every decision is a nail biter, do you hold off for those extra turns to give you more time during the chase. But every extra turn will put those wretched pawns closer to a patrol and potentially further from your front door.
Now Jack has a few tricks up his sleeve to help in his nocturnal activities. He gets two special moves the amount of which decrease as the nights draw on. One is a carriage which allows him to move two spaces and sneak through the policeman’s drag net, which can be very handy. But this is also announced to the investigators and a marker is placed on the time track to show when it occurred. This will cause a new flurry of discussion to start, how close were they, did he sneak passed. Jack can also use an alleyway that will allow him to sneak to any other location on a blocks perimeter he is standing at that time, again a very useful move but its use will tip off the hunters as to Jacks shadowy movements.
It may sound that Jack has a pretty boring game, make a move and sit and watch. But no no, that is not the case. As you hunch there eavesdropping on the initially clueless observations of your pursuers you try to stifle a smug smile, their not even close snigger. And then they find a clue, and then some bright spark starts to piece it all together.
To sit there as fingers are waved or discussions are made about where you could be is tension inducing, especially when they are discussing your possible location without knowing that you are indeed standing exactly where they think you are. And by night three when you have to kill two victims and your special moves have been limited and the full weight of the force is centered on your location, its suddenly a whole new game.
If the police are smart they will form a dragnet about your suspected home, and suddenly it becomes some devilish game of hide and seek as you try to slip through their net without them noticing.
Its not all beer and pizza for the good guys, the first two nights its true that you’ll going to be playing catch up and the worse is although every clue found is brilliant, its easy to forget as you scurry about trying to find where he’s gone Jack is moving further away from your grasp. And especially when a carriage or alleyway is played you know with a sinking feeling that he can suddenly have disappeared into the fog and the trail has gone cold.
I love this game and its theme, it just oozes off the board. Yes its long with most games at least running to a couple of hours, every minute is a thrill, of either elation at outwitting your opponents or nerve jangling suspense as they close in on your location, block your escape routes and all the while that round timer is counting down. You sit there doing the math knowing you have a handful of turns left and need at least three of them to make it back, a costly detour can mean the end of your game.
And who is playing and how will make or break your evenings entertainment, the dreaded alpha player can rear its head, and potentially derail the whole investigation. But even that is kinda thematic, it won’t have been the first Police investigation fouled up by poor theory’s or deductions. There can be nothing more thrilling for Jack to hear a blowhard announcing they know where your house is and prodding a finger down in the completely wrong location. This will slow them down but sooner or later it will become clear that Mr Know It All was wrong and then he’ll probably grow awful quiet when he see’s that his blustering may have cost the game.
And if everyone is getting too good at one role then the game also comes with a bunch variants that can be used to tip the balance to one team or the other. Replay-ability is huge, with my group gagging for the opportunity to play Jack and try their hand at outwitting the others. I fully recommend you give this one a shot its theme and mechanics work seamlessly together and its simple enough to teach that any level of group can quickly pick up the rules, and the inbuilt learning curve will mean they will understand the nuance and strategy of the game at exactly the point they need too.
A great game with a brilliant integrated theme.