Posted by: shatteredblog | June 8, 2011

Game Review: Letters from Whitechapel

Today I want to talk about a recent purchase of mine, a game published in the US in 2011 by Nexus called Letters from Whitechapel. This is a strategy/cooperative game for 2-6 players set in the Whitechapel neighborhood of London during the tense search for Jack the Ripper. The mechanics of the game will be familiar to people who have played Scotland Yard, in which the criminal player uses hidden movement while the investigators collaborate to block their escape.

The game board is the centerpiece of this game, styled as if it were an old map once carried by the Vigilance Committee as they patrolled the streets. On it, 195 numbered circles represent alcoves and nooks where a criminal or victim might hide while the black squares in between them mark road intersections that are used by the police to patrol the area. The game is broken into four phases that represent consecutive nights on which Jack commits murders, and in turn each night is divided into a number of steps meant to set up the board, allow the patrols some chance to move from their locations from the previous night and widen their search, and give the Jack player time to choose a victim. On each of the first two and the fourth night Jack kills one victim and on the third Jack commits a double murder killing two.

The current night of play is represented by the numbered spaces in the lower right corner of the board  (with all the blood spots). Jack’s hidden movement is represented by the long numbered line along the bottom edge, which during gameplay a Jack pawn is moved along. Once a murder has been committed the object of the game is for the Jack player to return to his secret hideout (a numbered circle chosen before the game begins that does not change) and the investigators must either track him and arrest him along the way, or move in such a way as to block him into not being able to move (since Jack cannot cross over a patrol pawn unless using a special move token. There are five patrol pawns, which are divided among the investigators if there are less than that number playing. Investigators can move up to two intersections per turn (two black squares) while Jack can either move to an adjacent numbered circle or use a limited special move token. Jack has two special moves, a carriage move that allows him to move two adjacent circles in one turn and allows him to move past patrol pawns unseen or an alley move that allows him to use a hidden path to move to any circle on the same city block. A night is up to 15 turns, plus a few if Jack decides to delay taking a victim at the beginning of the round and if the jack player hasn’t made it home by this he automatically loses.

The game suffers a bit in my experience from an imbalance toward the Jack player. If by the second night you don’t know where Jack’s hideout is then barring poor play by them you will lose as the investigator. I’m not entirely sure why this is, whether it is the mechanics of play or because it is balanced more to a two player experience where only one person controls all five investigator pawns. My play group is three, so we’ve not had the chance to play with more or less. Playing as Jack is quite entertaining as you see much more of what is actually happening in the game than the investigators get from their limited clues. It is also a long game, listed as 90-150 minutes on the box and taking consistently over two hours to finish with three people. The art of the board and player markers is top notch, as is the quality of the manual and pawns included with the game. Unfortunately the problems with the mechanics make this one hard to recommend, and I’ve spent time looking on the Board Game Geek boards to see if anyone there has come up with a work-around to create a more balanced experience.

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