Encyclopedia Brown vs. The Telephone
Have you ever enjoyed the company of an Encyclopedia Brown mystery book, solving its riddles right alongside those plucky kids? Or perhaps engaged in a game of Telephone, also known as Chinese Whispers by those insensitive to the soft-spoken natures of our eastern brethren?
If so, then Witness might be the game for you. Buckle up, Encyclopedia.
“This is the sort of game a bunch of teenage girls might play at girls’ camp,” my friend Joe said, in a disparaging tone that seemed to neglect the fact that accurate short-term memory and the ability to communicate quietly and efficiently would also prove excellent skills for spies, saboteurs, soldiers, librarians, priests, detectives, switchboard operators, therapists, any other vocation that demands reverence and discretion, and my oldest sister.
Though sure, I’ve only seen Telephone played twice: once in seventh-grade drama, when all the boys changed every other word into a penis joke, and a second time years later when I was asked to chaperone a girls’ camp. So as far as I know, Joe was fifty percent right.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, because I’m sure the question on your mind is, What on earth is this Witness thing about?
Good question! Put simply, it’s a combination of simple logic puzzles with the game of Telephone — you know, where you whisper a message into somebody’s ear, and they relay it to the next person, and then they relay it, on and on, until it spits out the other side and it’s completely different from the message you started with. So something like, “My cat has really bad mange” turns into, “Mrs. Ludtop has a wiener on her chin! *giggle giggle*” As far as I know, anyway. Like I said, I’ve only seen it played twice.
Witness goes something like this. Every game — each of which only lasts maybe 15 minutes — opens with someone reading the introduction to a new mystery from the Cases booklet. There are tons to choose from, over 60, spread out over a few different difficulty levels. And each of these mysteries are pleasantly different. You might be solving a murder, or trying to figure out which guests at a fancy dinner party are spies, or trying to deduce a deceased millionaire’s safe combination.
But this is where it gets tricky. See, each of the game’s four players — there must always be exactly four — now cracks open their very own booklet of clues. Within they’ll find a single piece of information. Sometimes two. And alone, these bits, these clues, are absolutely worthless. You’ll stare down at your meager crumb of info, then squint at it, then wonder why on earth it matters that you found a domino on the millionaire’s table.
Brace yourself, because this is where the game comes alive. Going around in a circle, each player now whispers their piecemeal clues to the next person. And then that person passes the clues — both theirs and the person who just whispered to them — to the next player. Around and around, until, in theory, everybody has all the clues.
While this is going on, you’re not only trying to stitch together all these little clues, you’re also working to remember them. You’ll be typing out numbers under the table like you were working a keypad, coming up with little mnemonics to recall that Johnny was out in the storm, but Brian was feeling quite warm. Only once all the players are done whispering can you finally pick up a pen and jot down all those half-remembered notes.
Then you’ll open another booklet (that’s number six, for anyone keeping count), and read out a bit more of the mystery. This time you’ll give everyone three questions to answer. After giving everyone a bit of time to work through the mystery, you open booklet number seven, read the answers, and see how well you did.
Cue the chorus of, “I never heard that clue!” and “Well, I told it to you.” You’ll hear it almost every game.
The thing about Witness is that it might sound pathetically simpleminded, but it’s actually clever to the core. Its smartness starts with all those well-wrought mysteries, tough enough that you’ll have to put your heads together (literally, lips sensuously brushing your buddy’s ear), but simple enough that while one of your friends sits there looking at his notes like they’re a speedboat about to run him down while he flounders in the sea of his own ignorance, with a few deductive backflips it’s usually possible to figure out what’s going on. Information is lost, misunderstood, or just plain confusing. But then you get to watch as the clues come together and suddenly snap into place, making complete sense all at once.
Or maybe you get totally lost instead, watching in consternation as your friends preternaturally understand how a bunch of dominoes spell out a specific six-digit string of numbers that will let them crack the millionaire’s safe. That’s okay too. Like I said, it only takes 15 minutes to finish a game. Even Joe came around, though he still insisted it was a girls’ camp game.
Good times. Now get cracking, Encyclopedia.
They said that to Encyclopedia Brown, right? In the books?
I have no idea.