The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Deduction Games

Bruno Faidutti


Frank Branham

December, 2000

Many games, to differing degrees, have an element of deduction. A good Poker player seeks to deduce the hands of his opponents by their behavior. He must pull information from their card exchanges and bids, but also their gestures, eyes, and expressions of happiness or discontent. Beginners are unpredictable, and that's why no one wants to risk bluffing one in a Poker game.

In trick-taking games, like Whist, Bridge, or Tarot, deduction depends on the tactics of the situation. In these games, the information from opponent's played cards is crucial to deciding whether or not to take the trick. In Bridge, the various bidding systems serve only to transform a very classical and straight forward bidding system into complex codes allowing information to be passed to your partner. Deduction is not only important in card games. Even in a game like Chess, which is among the most strategic of games, and in which each player has perfect information about his opponent's position, deduction is important. Unlike computers, which rely on quickly calculating possible moves, a human must try and deduce the overall strategy of his opponent. It is these guesses, rather than looking 10-20 moves ahead, which decide the winner of a Chess match. Sometimes, as in Poker, the rules allow calculating Deduction to be stepped on by its evil twin Bluff. Bluffing is the art of playing a game as if you have a completely different strategy or capabilities than one actually has. The sole purpose of this deceit is to undermine the reasoning of your opponent. What it adds is, like in spy novels, a second degree to the deduction process, requiring a player to filter out erroneous information. Bridge is even more complex in this regard, you must give proper information to your partner, but not to your opponents.

Even though many games have at least some element of deduction, only recently have games appeared in which deduction is the central element. These can be divided into three families. Purely abstract games, of which the archetype is Master Mind, usually only for two players. These require pure abstract reasoning, to the point of feeling like you are beating each other over the head with baseball bats.

Frank: Actually one of my favorite games of this sort, Code 777 is an abstract game. Each player has 3 numbers on a rack facing away from him. The object is to guess your 3 numbers. Players flip up a question card and must answer the question about how many (and color) of numbers he sees on the opponent's racks. The logic and brain power required is just right, even if there is quite a bit of luck in the game due to the question cards. Code 777 is long out of print, but an echo of the game can be found in the US as What's That On My Head?

Investigation games, of which the best known is Cluedo, are all set in a fixed milieu, the world of detective fiction. From detective novels, either Ellis Peters, Agatha Christie or many others, inspiration can vary, but the players are always investigators or detectives. No game to my knowledge exists on any other theme, save for the very mediocre Tombeurs (I also tried to create a game based on pirates hunting for a treasure with each pirate having a part of the information, but the result is for the moment hardly interesting.) The strong detective theme adds flavor, and sometimes a touch of humor, to games that are based entirely on logical reasoning. As these games lean toward a more theatrical aspect, we find our third group, the "murder mystery party" games. These are small role playing games constructed around a particular police mystery for players to solve.

Here we will look at only the games of the second family, police investigation. These are missing the coldness of the abstract games, and require less personal involvement than the party games. They are also a bit easier and better suited to most casual players.

The Games of Police Investigation

The name for Cluedo comes from the English word "clue", and under the last word is the name by which our American readers will recognize the game. The addition of the ending "do" gives the game a more distinguished Latin aspect, and also recalls the traditional English game Ludo (which is in the Parchisi family). Cluedo was invented in 1946 by Anthony Pratt, a clerk and amateur who had played in English murder parties, in an attempt to recreate the feel of the parties in a light social game. Published by Waddington, the game gained an immediate success, with Colonel Mustard being one of the best known British army veterans.

Cluedo is a game with simple rules, with luck limited to the minor role of the movement of pawns by dice. The winner is the player who can best organize his information sheet. The basic idea is simple: three cards are removed from the game, the rest distributed to the players. The winner is the first to discover the guilty party, the weapon, and scene of the crime by questioning his opponents. Everyone has played Cluedo, or at the very least knows of the game. Several websites with Biographies of Colonel Mustard and all of the pseudonyms of Miss Scarlet in all of Cluedo's translations and other bits of info can be found within. (I in particular refer you to the Cluedo Lines and Murder and Magic.)

The Two Rules of Cluedo

The official rules of Cluedo are very clear: on his turn, a player provides a supposition (Mrs. White in the Dining Room with a lead pipe). If the player to his left has one of these cards, he shows it secretly to the investigator. If he has none, each player in sequence must offer up a card if he has one until one player can show a card.

This rule is perhaps a bit simple, and is often not the one used by a majority of players. The game is rather more interesting if the investigator interrogates a player of his choice, and must stop there if the player cannot reveal one of the chosen cards. Some editions have this rule as a variant.

The Secret of Winning at Cluedo

Although luck is present in moving pieces, the winner of Cluedo is the player who can note and keep track of the largest amount of complex information. Most players are satisfied noting that "Herve has Colonel Mustard", or "Nathalie has neither Miss Scarlet nor the Lead Pipe, nor the Dining Room." A good player is one who can through whatever mystical shorthand on his pad, note that Francois has either Professor Plum, or the revolver, or the library. If he then places Professor Plum in Herve's hand, and the revolver in Nathalie's hand, he will then be able to deduce that Francois has the library. Experience shows that this sort of deduction almost always makes a difference, and allows a quicker solution if he can keep from confusing the elaborate notes required.

The King of Hearts has 5 Sons. This traditional American game, though little known, is perhaps an ancestor of Cluedo. With 4 or 5 players, deal out all face cards (12 total) plus the 1-10 of hearts. A face card and a heart are removed and the twenty remaining cards are dealt out. The game is then played like Cluedo: Each player chooses one opponent and asks a question like "The Queen of Spades had 3 sons": If the player has the Queen of Spades or the three of hearts, he must show it secretly to the questioner. Players may either take notes, or must play from memory. When a player has found the solution, he announces it and looks at the hidden cards. If right, he wins, otherwise he is out of the game but remains to answer questions.

Although Cluedo was the first board game with a police theme that featured deduction, other games have appeared in droves starting around 1970, often more sophisticated. Here are some of the more prominent.

Frank: Bruno missed a large wave of these during the 1950s and '60s in the US. See http://www.gamepile.com for a good overview of games from this earlier period.

The Children of Cluedo

Inkognito is a creation by Alex Randolph, one of the most prolific inventors of the past 80 years, and his young successor, the Venetian Leo Colovini. Pawns are moved through alleys and channels on a map of Venice, but it is Carnivale and everyone is wearing a mask and is incognito. Spies are swarming through the crowds. Each of the 4 players must first discover through a system of questions and answers a la Cluedo, which of the other three is his partner and which pawn is represented on the board. He must also attempt to mislead his adversaries by giving them useless information. Inkognito is a team game in which one's first task is to find out who is your teammate! A magnificent presentation, not just graphically, but the strange characters: Colonel Bubble (distant cousin of Colonel Mustard), Lord Fiddlebottom, Agent X, and Lady Zsa Zsa, and the Venice setting all fit together for a perfect atmosphere. This amazingly well presented game requires concentration and never really found its audience, which is a pity. The game does have two shortcomings. The game only works with 4 players. Some players can confuse the different-sized pawns, which can destroy the game.

There is a card game Mini Inkognito, which is a simple little card game which fails to achieve the charm of the original. I cannot recommend it.

The Secret of the Nile, by Michael Palm & Martin Drewes, published by Jeux Descartes/Eurogames, is a deduction game plain and simple, with a nod toward Master Mind in some ways. Footprints, drops of blood, and fingerprints are clues that lead to finding the guilty party. The unusual factors in the game are being able to change the solution in the middle of the game and that there can be several or none guilty of the crime. But the game is very dry and without a strong theme. Some similar mechanisms can be found in the better, but hard to find, game Murphy, where players search Asia to find the heirs of William Murphy.

Frank: Mayfair imported lots of copies of Flying Turtle's Murphy a few years back. It is perhaps easier to find in the US.

The prize for the most brain-frying game is Alibi (Jim Musser & Darwin P. Bromley, published by Mayfair Games), which is an enhanced Cluedo with a detective sheet that looks like the cockpit of a 747. This game adds the possibility of passing cards and making Rummy-like combinations.

Murder in the Abbey, which I created in collaboration with Serge Laget, is obviously inspired by Cluedo, since the object is to discover the missing card. The game is rather more interactive, and a little wacky — sometimes to the extent of a roleplaying game: The cards move, random events disrupt the game, and a player is not always obligated to answer questions. The theme, somewhere between Umberto Eco and Ellis Peters, adds a lot to the ambiance of the game. I leave next week to Essen with a new version under my arm — perhaps I will find a German publisher.

Le Grand Alchimiste, De Philippe Mouchebeuf, is another light Cluedo variant. I've not played it, but I've heard mainly bad comments about it.

The most chaotic and strangest of Cluedo's heirs is the unlikely Hoax, a child from the crazy creators of Cosmic Encounter, which is the only deduction game in which players can lie. Naturally, this leads to a game with little seriousness, and which tends to swing out of control. The game is out of print, but there is a German version, slightly more complex and less silly, called Die Erben von Hoax.

As for Super Cluedo, it is primarily Cluedo with some new pieces, extra weapons, and extra suspects. There are some new mechanics — some spaces allow, for example, one to look at a card at random from an opponent's hand. The changes enrich the game, to the detriment of the deduction aspect.

Frank: There are a few more in my collection. Sleuth is a rather hard and abstract missing card game where you are limited as to which questions you can ask. Whodunnit has four types of cards, but the game centers around board spaces which allow you to look at cards from other players' hands as well as ask questions. Danger Island is from a one-shot publisher which is Clue crossed with Talisman (and not very well, frankly.)

The Family of "One Against All"

Almost all of the deduction and investigation games, including my own Murder in the Abbey, revolve around the principle of "The Missing Card" invented 40 years ago by Anthony Pratt, the author of Cluedo. Among the rare games to have escaped this mechanism, the best is definitely Scotland Yard. A player (Mister X) plays against all of the others (the detectives). This original mechanism functions well - even though Mister X has decreased chances of escaping with more pursuers. The board is a map of London, which the detectives must navigate and surround Mister X based on the information of what sort of transport he uses (subway, bus, taxicab.) Constantly reissued, Scotland Yard is after Cluedo, the most successful deduction game, and probably the best to play with mixed groups of older and younger players. It is a game of logic which does not hurt the head too much, and a game of thought with interesting suspense and action, and a game of cooperation. The success of Scotland Yard has given new ideas to Ravensburger, who have sent Mister X to New York in a new version of the game called New York Chase, which is an adaptation of Scotland Yard on a map of Manhattan. Unfortunately, the new version is less interesting, and somewhat unbalanced in favor of the police, who now have helicopters. If you wish to play, find a copy of the original game (which was also released in the US by Milton Bradley at one point.)

Frank: The all against one games have had a few more variants in the US. My favorite is Parker Brother's Stop Thief, which provides an electronic version of Mister X. Clue: Mystery in the Museum is one in a similar vein as well as the better handmade German Finger Weg von Mona Lisa (Glucksritter Spiele.) One last variant exists in Waddington's Project: KGB game where the object is to figure out which of the players is mucking with cameras — not actually a very good game, however.

The Fury of Dracula, by Stephen Hand, in largely inspired by Scotland Yard, in that players track down and surround the famous vampire. More complex, the game is enriched by extra rules and the flavor of a roleplaying game, which is the target audience. It is the same idea, I believe as the recent US game Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which I have yet to see, but with a bit of luck will be able to play at Essen.

Frank: Nope. Buffy does not have any real sort of deduction, save for a hand of hidden cards. And everyone knows where the vampires are. But the two games do have a similar feel apart from the deduction angle.

The Second Cousins

221B Baker Street is a small and interesting game, but contrary to the title, the tactical game takes strong precedence over the deduction game.

While the theme is also about police, Heimlich & Co. (by Wolfgang Kramer, published by Ravensburger) is more of a game of bluff rather than investigation. Each player must move his pawn in order to finish first place in a race, but no one knows which pawn is owned by which player. It is necessary to carefully watch the actions of the other players, and try to figure out who owns which pawn. Of course a player that reveals the owner of a pawn receives a large bonus.

The same ideas can be found in the more interesting Mystery Mansion (Milton Bradley), which is rich in gadgets but also more interesting that its competitor, Mysteries of Old Peking.

A rather complex and boring intellectual and literary endeavor is Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective. The game, really designed to be played solitaire, and with cases that can only be played once, is quite complex. In the same vein is Murder on the Orient Express (Jumbo), long out of print, which had stronger board play.

Frank: I have always been quite fond of Murder on the Orient Express, and have the Just Games version and two of the expansion case sets they published for the game. I believe that Jumbo ripped out some of the rather elaborate board play but left the clever clues.

Some older games center around odd deduction variants. Whosit? (Parker Brothers) allows you to try and figure out which character each player has taken. The clever bit is that a voting box is passed around and all players toss in a chip. So you only get to see the summaries. Electronic Detective and Guess Who? are based around the idea of restricting categories until you find the suspect. Both are really little more than simple guessing games. But the oddest and most evil is the superb German game Timbuktu (db Spiele). The game centers around a memory component. Players are given two spaces on the board where robbers are lurking, then slowly given two more spaces periodically during the game. As you gain information, you can begin to guess other spaces are probably safe as well as deduce with certainty spaces that are definitely safe. The game suffers from just a little too much information floating about to keep in your head at one time, often promoting pain and suffering in some people…

The Other Side of the Coin…

Kill Doctor Lucky is published by Cheapass Games, a small American publisher. The board, the cards representing weapons, all clearly evokes Cluedo, but the object is to be the assassin. Each player has a good reason to off the odious Doctor Lucky, who definitely deserves his name.

And as Kill Doctor Lucky sold well, we now have Save Doctor Lucky, which I have not seen.

My favorites? Murder in the Abbey, of course, but also Inkognito, Heimlich & Co., and Scotland Yard.

Frank: Murder in the Abbey, Code 777, and Timbuktu have always been my favorites.

- Bruno Faidutti

- Frank Branham

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