Sunday, December 16, 2007

Featured Game: Sid Sackson's Sleuth

These days game designers are well-known among hobbyists and often have their own followings. Often people will buy a game just because it's designed by Reiner Knizia or Richard Borg.
This is a fairly recent development however, and it used to be rare for game designers to even be credited.
But long before Borg and Knizia -- or even Dunnigan -- Sid Sackson made his mark as the first celebrity game designer. Before his time game designers, if recognized at all, would generally be recognized because of one signature hit. Sackson, while having some major hits such as Acquire and Can't Stop, is also known for the volume, breadth and creativity of his designs. His book Gamut of Games is considered a classic, containing several original designs from him, as well as others. He had a massive collection of games.
Larry Whalen, owner of a Providence game store, formed a game company called face2facegames to bring some of Sackson's designs back into print. Among those is Sackson's deduction game called Sleuth.
Like most Sackson designs, Sleuth is starkly simple in design, yet intriguing. Dispensing with a board (I believe a very early version of the game had a board) the game components comprise two decks of cards, a pad of "Sleuth Investigation Sheets" and the rules (in six languages: English, French, German, Spanish, Korean and Japanese). The cards are completely language independent, so the game works well in any language at all. In English the rules are just over 1,100 words long.
The game is pure deduction. One card is selected from a 36-card deck of gems and hidden, with the most of the remaining cards dealt face down evenly between the 3-7 players and any remainder revealed for all to see. Gems comprise three elements: color, kind and number.
The player knows what he has among his face down cards and whatever was revealed among the leftovers and spends rest of the game trying to figure out what the missing card is.
Questioning isn't free, however. Controlling the scope of the questioning is a 54-card Search Deck. During his turn a player selects a search card from his four-card hand. One interesting point is that the available search cards in a player's hand are face up, so an observant opponent may deduce information from keeping track of which search cards an opponent neglects to use.
Search cards some in three types: One-element, two-element and Free Choice. Play of a one-element card allows a player to ask how many gem cards sharing one feature he holds. For example, If the card says "clusters" then the player has to announce how many gem cards he has that are clusters (three gems -- the other possibilities are pairs and solitaires). This is announced to everybody.
A two-element card narrows the focus of the questioning. The questioner can ask the targeted opponent to hand over (face down) - any gem cards that share both elements. For example, if the card reads "green pearls" then the player might pass over for viewing a green pearl solitaire and a green pearl cluster. (The colors are red, green, yellow and blue; the gems are opals, diamonds and pearls). The questioner records the information and hands the gem cards back. The other players only know how many cards were handed over, but not their identity.
The Free Choice cards, naturally, allow the questioner to choose what kind of card, one-element or two-element, and what characteristics to include. The only restriction is that two of the same characteristic can't be chose, so you can't pick two colors, for example. At the end of his turn a player draws a card from the search deck to replace the card just played.
At any time a player can announce he's going to solve the puzzle and can secretly check the hidden card. If right, the player wins, otherwise the game goes on, with the wrong-guessing player staying involved to answer questions but can't ask any more questions or draw any more search cards.
That's it.
People who like Clue, but want to cut to the chase of deduction without wasting time rolling dice and wandering around the board will like this game. There's just enough of a luck element because of the board play that Clue does not present an exactly equal chance for all the players. Sleuth, on the other hand, is a completely level playing field. While the card draw randomizes things a little, it isn't enough to make a big difference. Winning will primarily revolve around proper sleuthing.
Face2Face Games has provided a real service by bringing this game back into print.

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