Purrrlock Holmes sets its aims high, attempting to straddle several lines that send similar games into well-known pitfalls. It tries to be a deduction game that is both cerebral and approachable. It tries to be semi-cooperative, encouraging players to work together but granting ultimate victory to a sole player. Most games that set these goals flounder, either committing too hard in one direction or losing cohesion as their mechanics contradict each other and fail to forge a genuine identity. It is with pride and no small degree of surprise that I am able to say how much I enjoy Purrrlock Holmes, and how well its mechanics complement one another to enforce an overarching theme.
Furriarty is stalking the streets of London on a crime spree, and Purrrlock Holmes cannot catch him alone. You, Scotland Pound’s newest inspectors, are hot on his tail. You cannot paws for a second or he might escape. You have to work together to solve the case, but all the while looking out for your own interests: whoever contributes the most to the case will be lauded for their achievements. At the same time you must be careful of infighting, or Furriarty will escape to spread more chaos.
You begin by setting up the trail itself, and setting Furriarty on it. You set down a line of tokens facedown, with Furriarty closer or further from the end depending on how many players there are. Each token has a point value from one to three. As you solve mysteries, you collect the tokens to the left of Furriarty, gaining victory points and closing in on your prey. However, once every round he will travel to the right, and escape if he reaches the end of the line. You will have to help one another solve their cases to ensure success overall, but make sure you are outperforming the rest of the team.
After setting up this line, you will deal each player one clue card facedown and four faceup, chosen randomly from the deck of sixty. Five suspects, each with twelve numbered cards, make up this deck. These numbers from one to twelve represent the hours during which you can find the. You will also have a helpful player board with information you can mark off with tokens, making it easy to keep track of the information you gather. Players can see everyone’s card but their own, and they can only collect clue tokens if they determine the suspect and number of their cards.
The way you make that determination is via the Investigate action. On your turn, you can take two of the cards in your hand, in whatever order you decide, to find if they are Leads or Dead Ends. The other players will tell you whether the card is a Lead, meaning that it shares a suspect with the clue card or is within one hour from it. You can use your player board to keep track of this information, slowly narrowing things down until you become certain.
As a final tool at your disposal, you can turn over your player board once per game, taking a one point penalty and calling Paws. Doing so lets you make an immediate guess, regardless of whose turn it currently is! Unfortunately, it is unclear whether players can interrupt one another via successive Paws actions. In my home game we opted not to, forcing players to keep more track during the course of the game and trying to engineer things in their favor over a longer period of time.
At the end of the round each player chooses two cards from their hand to pass to the next player. There are some important decisions you can make at this stage: do you hand off something that will help them narrow their choices down, and help the investigation overall, or toss away some red herrings to buy yourself an advantage? Those determinations feel close to those the characters you are representing would have to weigh, outrunning their fellow investigators but keeping the main goal in sight.
At any time on your turn you can make a guess. You can guess either the hour or the suspect of your clue or both. You collect Paw Print Tokens equal to the number of correct guesses you made, but if anything you state is wrong you get nothing. Either way you lose the card and draw a new one, granting you only a single chance to conclude your investigation. You can take the risk to get it all or play it safe and gather one Paw Print Token. This simple risk/reward scenario adds meaning to every turn. The risk of extraneous information might waste time you need to get the edge on your opponents. You also have to be careful to keep track of how many tokens remain on the track. You can’t let Furriarty get away, but you must also work to deny the other players the final catch. If he does escape, everyone loses regardless of point totals.
Purrrlock Holmes ramps up towards the end game, as players frantically try to gather as many points as possible, racing for Furriarty. You struggle to stymie one another’s’ efforts but not so much that the villain makes his escape. Furriarty is the only token guaranteed to be worth three points, which might make someone’s career at game’s end.
Purrrlock Holmes is simplistic, but every aspect of it is built towards a common goal, and built well. You find yourself exactly in the position of the fictional investigators, jockeying for superiority but keeping an eye on the common goal. You can help or hinder one another on this quest, and you will find yourself having to do both to make the grade. All of the mechanisms to invoke these feelings of a multi-story cat and mouse chase are integrated with one another directly, without needless complexity.
That’s not to say the game is perfect, however. The barrier to entry is a scant high for an average gamer. You will find yourself working on not only your own investigations but keeping track of the other players and the trail itself. None of these are particularly complicated on their own, but it will give a substantial edge to experienced players. Part of that edge comes from how simple the game is once you master those skills. You may find it difficult to truly sink deep into Purrrlock Holmes once you get them down, as enjoyable as it is in moment to moment play. The cards you give to other players is a huge benefit to replayability, making you reorient your play to one another’s psychologies on subsequent playthroughs.
Player count adds to this complexity, but only to a minor degree. It makes the game slightly longer and forces you to keep better track of the trail, but the main difference is that it makes the Paws ability a more complicated tool to optimize.
The art style is in as much form as the overall design, which makes me wish there was more of it. Apart from the player boards and the five suspects there is little else to look at. The Victorian/animal London aesthetic is charming, and full of puns. For a game with such limited components, it is a shame that they were not better cared for. Before I had even taken them out of the plastic, some had frayed edges. Even after that point it seems unlikely that they would last long, given the relatively low quality of the cardboard.
Designed by: Stephen Sauer
Published by: IDW Games
Age Rating: 10+
Time: 20-30 Minutes
Purrrlock Holmes: Furriarty's Trail
Purrrlock Holmes is a game in rare form, combining the best of deduction and strategy as you work together with your teammates but attempt to outperform them all. It only lends itself to so many plays before you wrap your head around even the advanced mechanics, but the its levels of depth make for varied challenges during the game.