Saturday 8 November 2014

Letters from Whitechapel

Like Mr. Jack, this is another game that explores the ever-popular Jack the Ripper theme. 
Only this time, the police will have a harder job finding him as Jack's movements are literally hidden from all...

Kudos to Sean for both showing me this game and (indirectly) providing some of the descriptions found in this review.

If my memory serves me well, it also carries the unusual distinction of being a game that Hari, Jack, Roy and Nimalan all enjoy playing.

Name: Letters from Whitechapel (2011)

Designer: Gabriele Mari/ Gianluca Santopietro

Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games, amongst others

Players: 2-6

Age: 13+

Time to play: 120 minutes

Price Range (AUD): $70 to $125 (crazy prices). I got mine for about $57.

Availability: Looks like a game that is quite hard to find online.

  • Deduction
  • Mystery
  • Jack the Ripper
  • Hidden movements
  • Historical
  • Cooperative/Gang-up-on-the-bad-guy

Andre Lim's Rating and Brief Summary:

7.6* out of 10. (Great tense deduction game - See my Rating Scale)

Letters from Whitechapel is essentially a cat and mouse game between Jack the Ripper and the detectives who are trying to hunt him down.

The premise of the game is that Jack has just committed a murder and is on the run, desperate to make it back to his secret hideout.

Jack's movements are secretly recorded in a notepad, away from the view of the police inspectors. Police have 5 constables on patrol who all can be moved and used to search for clues. Jack must be truthful and reveal if he has been on a particular spot when asked by the police. In such a way, police can deduce Jack's trail and the direction he is moving in after he has committed a murder. Jack also cannot move to a spot if a constable is blocking his path.

I like this game quite a lot because it has quite a lot of tension - perhaps I could be so bold as to suggest that the tension rivals that which occurs in a competitive chess match where both parties are forced to consider all their options and their opponent's reactions to such moves (but minus the complex strategy of course). There is also plenty of scope for Jack to muck around with the police by looping around in circles and taking risks (to keep them off his scent or to delay their finding of his house).

However as mentioned below, the game does tend to suffer from being too long in general, as well as being slightly annoying in terms of its setup phase. But this is something that can be improved upon if you play it more than once.

In a strange sense, I almost feel like Letters from Whitechapel would make for a good computer game (albeit, such a game would lack the fun derived from observing the body language and facial expressions of the player who is Jack the Ripper). This is because the movements of both the police and Jack could be simultaneously documented electronically which would look pretty cool (it would plot where Jack was and where the police was at a given point of time, and both sides could reflect upon how close they were to a loss/victory); furthermore, Jack's movements would be scrutinized and actually checked by a computer AI (so that Jack wouldn't make an illegal move or bump into the police). Contrast this to when it's played as a board game, since the detectives are forced to trust the actions of Jack the Ripper as it is only him who knows which movements he has made.

* December 2014: Reduced from 7.9. Whilst a great game, I think some of the gimmicks in this game are overly complicated and make the game unnecessarily long, particularly with the setting up/ positioning of each player's tokens before gameplay actually begins. It would make for a fantastic computer game though as these preparatory steps would be easier to manage.

The Good:
  • Game board apparently is an actual historical map of the Whitechapel district of London! 
  • Large board and sturdy components
  • Great room for deduction and deception
  • Some critics say this is a game best for 2 players?
  • Replayability - new strategies and bluffs you can use on each occasion!

The Bad:
  • The theme doesn't lend itself well to those who might not like the idea of recreating a point in history where women were brutally murdered (see also: Guillotine) - which is fair enough
  • The setup time is quite long and the positioning units phase of the game can also be quite annoying and tedious (but after a while you will get the hang of it)
  • Can take a long time to play
  • No accountability - no one can check Jack's actions except Jack (which is bad - we are all prone to mistakes). The exception is perhaps if you play with a neutral bystander who doesn't mind watching.

What makes this game fun? 
Running away, planting false trails and toying with the cops (if you are Jack); and the satisfaction of finally nailing that highly dangerous and infamous criminal everyone has been searching for (if you are the police!)

- This concludes the basic overview of the game.
If you are interested in reading about the components & rules to the game, please read on -

Rules & Components (Photos courtesy of my mum, Joanne)
[If you want to just jump to the action please just scroll down to "2: The Hunt Begins - Jack Escapes" or "Jack finally moves"]

One player is designated Jack the Ripper and will be the villain. Everyone else will be working cooperatively as detectives to catch Jack the Ripper.

The detectives take the 5 coloured detective figures (green, blue, red, brown, yellow), the 19 yellow clue tokens and the 7 black circular "bluffing" tokens.

The player who is designated Jack (usually the most experienced player) keeps the 5 red crime scene markers, the carriage and alleyway tokens and the 8 white circular bluffing tokens. Jack also receives a secret notepad as below:

Before the game starts, Jack will fill in the location of his hideout in the very top circle of the above notepad.

His location can be at any one of the numbers in the circles on the board, some of which can be barely seen above (but more are shown below). This is the location he MUST return to each night WITHOUT being caught by the constables on patrol.

The row starting with "1" indicates Jack's movements during Night 1, and the same can be said in respect of rows 2 to 4. [You will see how this works below]

The game is played over 3 nights, and in each night, there are two phases.

1 - Planning Phase

There is a preliminary planning phase that I won't go into too much detail - it can be quite confusing if you are new to the game. In short though, this phase is designed for both Jack and the detectives to position themselves: for Jack, the phase is used to decide where he will make his kill. For the detectives it is to decide where they will position their constables on patrol.

Jack does this by placing the white circular bluffing tokens onto the red circles. Those tokens that have a red underside represent places that Jack is thinking of making a kill at. Some of these circular tokens have nothing on their underside and are fake leads in the sense that they are not actually places that Jack intends to kill at.

Bluffing tokens - the black token has a blue underside, which represents where the detectives plan on placing the blue detective.

Similarly, the detectives do this by placing the black circular bluffing tokens onto the squares with yellow outlines. Like Jack's some of these are fake leads - they represent positions that the detectives do not plan on placing their patrol units.

(The number of tokens placed by Jack changes depending on which night it is.)

Jack will reveal his circular bluffing tokens, make a kill and then the detectives will then reveal the true positions of their constables. It might look something like this:

How the board looks like.
The bottom track ('the turn track') is a feature designed to help everyone keep track of Jack's moves. By default the crime usually occurs on Roman Numeral I as indicated by the red marker. (However, this is not always the case - I have not explained the more advanced rules where Jack can actually wait a couple of turns before committing the crime, but I did not want to bog down the rules with that)

In this example above, Jack has just made a kill at 65. Notice also that the turn track on the bottom has been marked with a red circle to show the time of the crime. At this point the turn track is telling us that Jack (the black figure) is currently at the crime scene. I will return to this example shortly.

2 - The Hunt Begins: Jack Escapes

Phase 2 now begins.


Close-up of the board, showing a square with a yellow outline and two potential murder scenes (65 and 84). As mentioned above, the numbers in circles are Jack's potential hideouts AND they represent the points at which Jack will move along. The black squares represent the points at which the detectives will move along.

It is important at this point to note that the detectives move their constables along the SQUARE markers. Constables can move up to 2 squares per turn.

Jack moves via the CIRCULAR numbers and can only move up to ONE circle per turn. Jack cannot move to a circle if a police officer is currently standing in the pathway that blocks access to that circle.

So, for example, if there was a police officer on the Yellow-bordered square above, if Jack is on Circle 118, he cannot move to Circle 120 as the police officer would be blocking him.

Winning Conditions

Jack has 1 winning condition:

1) Return to his hideout every night without being arrested by a constable.

The constables have one main winning condition:

1) Arrest Jack at a circle when he is currently standing on that circle. To do this, the constable must be standing on a square that is adjacent to a circle that Jack is currently on and actively make an arrest. Important: It is NOT enough for the detectives to know Jack's hideout. He needs to be actually arrested before making it back to his hideout.

However Jack can also lose if:
2) Jack is not able to return home after 15 moves  (as stated on Jack's turn track)
3) Jack cannot make a legal move (this is rare as it only occurs where Jack is blocked off by police constables and cannot move in any direction.)

Gameplay - shown through an example

What happens now is interesting.

From now on, Jack will take a turn to move one circle away from where he was previously.
Then the detectives will move ALL police pawns up to two squares away. After the detectives move their pawns, the detectives can perform only one of these two actions:

1) Search for a clue. This involves asking Jack if he has ever been to this circle for this night only. The policemen pawn must be adjacent to the circle if the detectives want to ask about that circle.

2) Make an arrest. This is the decisive action that captures victory for the detectives. Again, the policemen pawns must be adjacent to the circle for which they want to perform the arrest. An arrest can only be made on one circle, not all circles adjacent to the policemen.

This will repeat until Jack returns home.

So far, as the kill has just been made on 65, this is what Jack's secret notepad looks like:

He makes the notation '65' on Roman Numeral I, which is the starting point.

Jack finally moves

Jack moves first. He plays a carriageway token which allows him to move two circles in one go, instead of the usual 1 per turn (the number of carriageways given to Jack is reduced over each night - there is also a special alleyway token that lets Jack move to any circle that is connected to the same block of houses).

He secretly moves to Circle 82 then to Circle 80.

The Turn Track is thus changed to reflect this:

The turn track is a record that shows Jack's movements to date. At this point the turn track tells the detectives that Jack is 2 moves (or circles) away from the crime scene and that he used a carriage way to get to this position. Of course, precisely which circles he used to travel by is a mystery to the detectives.

Jack's hidden notepad also reflects this:

The Detectives move each of their policemen tokens a few squares forward (they all collaborate as to how they want to do this - no doubt they will want to attack all choke points). For example this is what they might do, crowd around the crime scene:

Using the Red detective pawn, they ask if Jack has been to Circle 67 this night. Jack says no as none of the numbers he has written above on his secret notepad match the number asked.

Green asks if Jack has been to Circle 98. Jack says no.

Blue asks if Jack has been to 46, 48 or 28. Jack says no to all of them.

The Police conclude that Jack has either gone upwards through 66 or 63 or gone west through 82 or 63

Jack's and policemen's second move

Then Jack (secretly) moves one normal step to Circle 78:

(Jack is 3 circles away from the crime scene)

The policemen move their pieces accordingly:

Green asks Jack if he has been at 82, 62 and 80.

Jack replies yes to both 82 and 80 and no to 62.

The detectives are excited as they have caught Jack's trail.

They place two yellow transparent discs on 82 and 80 to indicate that Jack has been there.

Continuation and End

This alternation between Jack moving and the police moving (and finding clues) continues until Jack gets 'home'. When this happens, a new night starts. The above steps are repeated, except that the bluffing tokens are placed on the spots where the police were present the night before.

The police need to arrest Jack - ie. be on the square adjacent to where Jack is AND arrest him on the right square - before the end of the 3rd night! As the game progresses the police should, in theory, have a better idea as to where Jack is hiding out.

Cooperative aspect and other rules

For simplicity's sake I have omitted the rules where at the start of each round someone new is the 'leader' or the 'boss' of the police - this boss has the final say as to what is done with police units.

There are also additional rules you can have such as giving Jack the ability to plant false clues (for every 5 yellow Clue markers he reveals to the Police during a given night, Jack gains a blue False Clue marker which can be used to stop policemen from looking for clues or executing an arrest at a random area of the board).

You can also give special powers to Jack to make life more difficult for the police through the optional "letters" scenario (but I don't know too much about this as I haven't played with those rules). There are also rules to make the police stronger.

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