I sat down to write this review. Then I realized that last night’s dinner was unsettling my stomach. During my trip to the gentleman’s closet, I began playing a game on my phone to pass the time. Then, digestions completed silently and rightly, I went to the couch to finish up, because those gems aren’t about to match themselves. Now with an empty belly, I consumed an entire spoonful of peanut butter, scraping the jar clean. Time for a walk through the neighborhood to clear my head. On the way back, I concluded to finally sit down and finish this review.
And therein lies the main problem with Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game. Come on down and I’ll explain.
Detective evokes many emotions, ranging from the thrill of discovery to the frustration of a misplaced clue, and even occasionally the genuinely troubling undercurrent of police brutality. But no matter where it takes you, the common thread between these elements is that it’s absolutely determined to belabor every single detail.
Let’s rewind. You and some buddies are detectives at Antares, a newly-formed federal agency that operates like a supercharged FBI. This agency’s main distinction is a supercomputer, which performs functions that modern crime shows routinely depict computers doing already. Picture information compiling and deep searches and you’ll be on the right track, as opposed to the sentient shenanigans of The Machine from Person of Interest. You’ll never blather about what your computer “needs,” for one thing.
But hey, it’s a supercomputer. And this is reflected in one of the game’s most important components, the Antares website. It’s functional, drenched in neon blue, and boasts the radical ability to, uh, check personnel files and cross-reference evidence. More than that, you’re informed that sometimes you’ll be allowed to check outside information, like addresses and Wikipedia pages. As someone who spends a whole lot of time assembling large quantities of information, this either sounds incredible or like extra work.
From there, Detective immediately splits into two halves. First up is the actual detecting, which you’d expect from a game about detectives. There are mysteries to solve, evidence and suppositions to gather and evaluate, and questions both immediate and lingering to suss through. It’s all about tugging on threads, except that these threads have been tangled into a Gordian knot of moth-bitten yarn. Each case’s briefing provides three or four leads, with each spooling into two or three more. As cards direct you to other cards, it isn’t long before there are a dozen different witnesses, suspects, and theories competing for your attention.
And for the most part, this is where Detective shines. You’re occasionally asked to make deductive leaps, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. Instead, it’s about picking your way through a mountain of information and looking for connections — a shared acquaintance, a date, a particular vehicle — and it’s nearly always a thrill uncovering these subtle intersections. Better yet, even though most of your time is spent bouncing between cards in traditional choose-your-own-adventure fashion, there’s enough variety across the game’s five cases that each approach feels fresh. One session features shady interviews and Lie to Me-style stress sensors, while the next sees your team requisitioning camera records or reviewing crime reports and architectural blueprints. These little dashes of variety go a long way toward masking the fact that you’re reading sequences of cards.
Just as important as all that detecting, though, is the game’s second half. This part is akin to a time management simulator, and deals with the realities of traveling from one place to another, the plodding pace of lab testing, and the stress of burning the midnight oil.
Each case comes with a deadline — say, four days — and from there you’re tasked with spending your hours as wisely as possible. Detective’s map of Richmond is broken into distinct areas, like Antares Headquarters or the Courthouse or Fieldwork, and traveling between them costs an hour. Every card also consumes daylight, ranging from zero hours for a quick phone call to three hours when waiting on lab work or for a clerk to extract some files from a crypt. Pursue too many dead ends and you’ll be forced to work overtime, gathering stress tokens the longer you plunge into the night.
This process of spending hours is necessarily simplified. You can’t make phone calls while waiting for lab results, and heaven forbid you consider dividing tasks between team members. Your vehicle resembles a clown car, the entire team listening in on every phone call and hounding every witness. It’s both faintly ridiculous and a necessary compromise, saving the game from becoming a hell of overlapping schedules.
Where it begins to take its toll, however, is when the time management butts into the actual detecting portion of the game — which, sadly, it insists on doing at nearly every turn.
Because it takes time to travel between locations, it’s natural to lump visits together. You might, for example, need multiple files from the courthouse, so you decide to request all of them at once. But rather than simply spending an hour to drive over to the courthouse, each of those cards will tell you, in painstaking detail, about every step of your journey. Sometimes literally. The first card will reveal how you went through security, took the stairs to the fourth floor, and flirted with the clerk while you waited for the documents. Then the next card will go through the same process. Ditto for the third card.
This extends to nearly every card and Antares file. Toss in endless descriptions about how bad the coffee is, regular visits to the cafeteria, and certain characters greeting you like they haven’t seen you in years even though you spoke two minutes ago, and you’ll get some idea of how intrusive this is.
This is a shame, because the need to parcel out your time is what grounds Detective in something approximating reality. There are never enough hours in a day to pursue every angle, so leads become a precious thing and even the topic of spirited debate. Exhuming a body might sound great on paper, but when you consider how all that paperwork and manpower will chew through most of your day, surely there are more economical ways to determine a cause of death.
But rather than rounding out its world, the fluff tends to place the details against a backdrop of static. Working overtime, our team encountered a witness who talked about how they were never awake at this hour — at 7:00 pm. Was this an essential clue? An indicator that we were ahead of the case’s usual progression? Or just one more instance of Detective waxing too florid for its own good?
It certainly doesn’t help that Detective is a marathon game. Thanks to a dense meta-mystery, its five cases are most coherent when played in sequence. After more than a few (real) days, we began to forget details and seek refreshers. But when every card was half-spent on descriptions about how we walked up the courthouse steps, piddled around at our desk, or meandered over to our boss’s office, concrete information was difficult to reformulate.
For a game so compulsive about details, Detective is also willing to sidestep any examination of how your agency operates. Legally tenuous interviews, beating witnesses for information — it doesn’t often veer into ethically shaky behavior, but there isn’t any introspection when it does. It’s a minor thing, a dash of flavor in a game that hews closer to a thriller than reality, but it’s odd to be deprived of choice in those moments. Doubly so considering how tech-savvy folks are these days. If the good guys can rely on supercomputers, why aren’t we wary of somebody recording our antics with a smartphone?
When you get right down to it, Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game is a mixed bag. Despite some problems — and a desperate need for an editor to prune out the cruft — it provides some genuinely electrifying moments. Two cases in particular upended the formula with genuinely gripping sequences, which injected new levels of stress into our team’s quibbling over how to proceed. When combined with some clever puzzles and a respectable ongoing meta-mystery, it’s hard to regret forging through the rough patches.
Then again, our completion of the game was also met with an air of relief. We slouched back in our chairs, breathing air, lungs filling and emptying, filling and emptying. We sorted the cards, returning them to their proper case stacks. Adam said he was going to bed. Geoff offered to take out our garbage on the way back to his car. Somerset headed off to shower. And I remained at the table, wondering if everything would self-narrate in my head for the rest of time, always too detailed, always distracting, and never let me focus on the really important stuff ever again.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. There’s a hidden mystery over there. See if you can find it.)