Gaming Unplugged: Surviving Letters from Whitechapel

October 21, 2011

Last year, as part of my Halloween-themed columns, I discussed Fury of Dracula, a cat-and-mouse deduction game that featured four heroes chasing the elusive vampire across Europe in a race against time. While I enjoy Fury when I have the chance (and time) to play it, the combat mechanics and certain event cards occasionally detract from the experience and cause the game to run much longer than necessary. Letters from Whitechapel (published in the US by Nexus) takes the same hidden-movement concept of Fury and streamlines it, allowing for quicker — and more strategic — play.

Letters retells the murders of Jack the Ripper, pitting one player as Jack against up to five opponents, representing various investigators hot on his trail. The board is a giant representation of London, with 195 numbered circles connected by dashed lines; some of these lines have black squares at intersections. Jack moves in secret from circle to circle by writing down locations on a concealed notepad, while the investigators move their pawns openly along the intersections. The inspectors are obviously trying to locate and arrest Jack, while Jack is trying to out-maneuver his pursuers and return to his secret “home” circle (chosen at the start of the game). But it is not quite as simple as that, as each of the four potential “nights” of play has a specific structure.

Every night begins with Jack placing white tokens on the indicated red spaces; one of the opponents, chosen to be “lead investigator”, then places police tokens on yellow-outlined squares on the first night, and then on the investigator pawns’ last locations (plus two of the yellow squares) on subsequent nights. Several of these tokens are blank bluffs intended to keep the other side guessing. Once the tokens are placed, Jack reveals which of his tokens were bluffs and replaces the rest with white pawns representing “the Wretched,” Jack’s potential victims. He then has the opportunity to kill one of them right now, in which case he places a clear red “crime scene” marker on that circle and removes the other pawns. His other option is to give himself more time to return home; in this case, the lead investigator can move each one of the Wretched one space, although they are not allowed to be placed next to one of the police tokens — and then Jack can choose to reveal one of those tokens. This process repeats until Jack finally commits the murder, at which point the remaining police tokens are revealed and the corresponding pawns placed on the board. The game then moves into “the Hunt”.

Once the crime scene is known, Jack gets to move from it to an adjacent circle; the streets of London are winding and numerous, and “adjacent” circles can in fact be quite far apart from the perspective of the investigators. Further complicating matters are the limited number of special maneuvers available to Jack: “carriages” allow him to move twice, including through/past an investigator’s pawn (not normally permitted); “alleys” allow him to move from his current location to any location connected to it by an adjacent brown block of buildings (looking at the board should make that more understandable). The investigators then move all of their pawns either one or two squares, with any pawns in excess of players being handled by the current lead investigator.

After all five pawns have been moved, each one may inquire for clues or attempt an arrest — but a single investigator may not attempt both actions. Clues can be located in any circle adjacent to the pawn’s current location, but must be requested one at a time; if a location that is included in Jack’s current trail is selected, Jack announces that by placing a transparent “clue” token on the space and then that investigator’s turn ends. Canny players will therefore ask for the least likely locations first, just to rule them out and gain as much information as possible. An arresting officer instead selects a single adjacent location; if Jack is currently there, the investigators win immediately!

Once all investigators have acted, it is then Jack’s turn to move and the process repeats until Jack is either caught or returns home — and announces this fact (which he may choose not to do for strategic purposes). It is important to note that Jack must arrive home via a regular move (not a carriage or alley) and must move every turn; investigators may remain stationary if desired. Jack only has a limited number of moves to achieve his goal; normally this is fifteen moves, but delaying the kill can provide him with up to five more, as well as possibly freeing up a potential crime scene for subsequent nights. If Jack cannot return home in time — either because he screwed up or (more likely) because the investigators have cut off his route(s) — then he is caught and loses the game. A new lead investigator is chosen for each new night, and the third night has a slightly different structure than the others, but other than those slight changes this is the entirety of the game play.

In order for Jack to win the game he has to successfully evade capture on all four nights. This requires careful planning that all begins with the selection of his home location, as the various potential crime scenes are scattered all over the map. Judicious use of his special movement actions is also critical, and he gets fewer of those each night. The investigators know when he uses them, and if they pick up on his trail they might be able to piece together the rest of it through deduction. If they figure out where his home location is, they can often swiftly erect a blockade to prevent Jack from achieving his goal… but first they have to find a clue. The investigators start out the first night spread out all over the map, and typically only one will be anywhere near the crime scene. The investigators have to take care, however, as when the night ends they will mostly start the next from their most recent locations — possibly shuffled up a bit, but only two can actually move via use of the blank tokens. If they wind up concentrating on one area too much, they could open a huge hole in their net which Jack can exploit on the next night. The investigators have time and numbers on their side, but they will also need more than a little luck if Jack is on his game.

As with Fury of Dracula, Letters has an interesting social mechanic in the strategy of deduction. The investigators have to discuss their plans in the open, and Jack knows what they (think they) know. This can be beneficial, but it can also be agonizing. A skilled Jack player will have to possess a stony poker face, which is not easy when one or more opponents starts outlining his exact path in excruciating detail or obstruct his potential escape routes — not being impatient when revealing potential clue results is also a must. Investigators, on the other hand, will need sharp memories; the clues from each night are removed from the board once the night ends, leaving only the crime scene markers. How many moves did Jack make before he reached home? Where on his trail could those clues have fallen? A multi-player session will be quite different from a one-on-one session, as Jack loses the chatter but the investigator loses the aid of more man/brainpower.

Regardless of how many players are involved, Letters is quick-playing — especially when compared to Fury of Dracula. Without random combat, encounters, or special events the game is really nothing but strategy — although one can never quite anticipate the dumb luck of an unexpected/illogical move that pays off. The play time is still chess-like in its variability (especially with several investigators all trying to wrap their heads around the clues), and the downtime for Jack can be especially grueling at times, but overall most games take about an hour and a half. Letters also includes several variants (including the titular Letters) that can adjust the balance towards one side or the other and provide additional replayability. I have only played the basic version so far, but that version is more than sufficient for fans of a good brain-straining experience. Letters from Whitechapel retails for around $40, though it may be tough to find, as it’s out of print.