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Deduction Games 2.0

Greg Aleknevicus

September, 2005

In December, 2000 Bruno Faidutti and Frank Branham discussed deduction games. Since I'm a big fan of this genre I thought I'd give brief comments on some of the games I've played.

Gauner Trio

Gauner Trio consists of a deck of 35 cards, each showing a unique combination of three thieves (there are seven thieves in total). Gauner Trio card Each round, one player acts as the "witness" and draws a card which determines the guilty gang. The goal for the other players is to determine which three thieves appear on this card. Each "turn", one card from the deck will be revealed and the witness will indicate whether 0, 1 or 2 of these thieves appear on the guilty card. The first player to correctly announce all three guilty thieves wins the round. (An incorrect announcement eliminates that player from that round.) The witness then rotates around the table and the first player to win three rounds wins the game.

Very simple and seemingly straightforward it will usually take only four or five turns before it's possible to determine the guilty trio. However, the unique bit is that there's no turn order to making an accusation, whoever announces first gets the reward. This, combined with the relative ease of the deduction, makes Gauner Trio almost as much of a "speed game" as Ricochet Robot or Bongo. The deduction may be easy but can you figure it out before everyone else?

I'm generally quite good at deduction but I'm not particularly fast, so I do quite poorly at this game. Still, I like it. It's pure deduction, there's no luck and the game plays to completion in about 20 minutes. It's by no means a common game so it may take some searching to find a copy but it's well worth it, a real hidden gem.

Alibi

This Mayfair game obviously takes its inspiration from Clue Brenda has been murdered and it's up to the players to determine who did it, which weapon was used, where it was done and why. After each round of questions, players pass cards to their left hand opponent one card after the first round, two after the second and so on. This is similar to Mystery of the Abbey and the result is much the same you really can't do much in the way of intelligent deduction. Any information you gain about a particular player's hand is soon rendered next to worthless when cards are exchanged. Since you only get to ask a single question each round there's not that much deduction in the game. We found that you ended up asking questions mostly of your left hand opponent since you know what cards you have passed to him.

Unlike most deduction games, winning Alibi is not restricted to discovering "whodunit". Rather, there is a fairly elaborate scoring system that not only rewards deducing certain elements of the crime but making melds as well! So, if you have all three gun cards in your hand you may reveal them to gain points. This melding aspect seems to be an odd addition and since deduction is so difficult, it seems to play an overly important role in determining the winner.

Clue

A classic game which really needs no introduction. Who, where and with what? Great stuff and the game scores bonus points for having a theme that is very easy to connect with. Really, what's more interesting, discovering three numbers or solving a murder? I think many people have a poor opinion of Clue and that this is undeserved. It does have its problems but the most egregious ones are easily addressed with the following house rules:

  1. Roll two dice for movement instead of one.
  2. Pawns do not block movement.
  3. Player pawns are not teleported to a room when they are part of a suggestion.

The fun part of the game is making suggestions, not moving around the board. These changes have the effect of shortening the boring part while retaining the importance of board position. What you're left with is a nice little whodunit with some opportunity for deduction.

Clue piecesEven with these changes, it's not perfect the biggest problem is that very often the game is decided just as it's getting interesting. Sometimes one player is given information that lets her solve the mystery long before anyone else gets to do much detective work. The relatively few number of suspects, weapons and locations make this an all too frequent occurrence and it's the reason you really want to seek out Clue Master Detective (see below). Still, not bad and worth a second look if (like many) you haven't played in years.

Clue Master Detective

Clue Master Detective is just like Clue, only more so. That is, you get more of everything: two more weapons, four more suspects and three more locations. This goes a long way to ensuring that the game lasts long enough to allow meaningful deduction.

However, the official rules have most of the same problems as the original and add one extra bit that almost completely ruins the game. Normally, only the first player (in clockwise order) needs to refute a suggestion. In Clue Master Detective, all players are required to do so. So, if I suggest that Ms. Scarlet did it in the Conservatory with the Poison then I will positively be able to eliminate or confirm all three elements since they will either be in my hand, shown to me by another player or part of the solution. Ugh! Play the original method instead as well as using the three variants I list above. (There's also a number of "snoop spaces" on the board that allow you to draw a card from another player's hand. I'd suggest ignoring these as well.)

Clue: The Card Game

This game addresses the problems with the board by eliminating it altogether! Play is card driven and you maintain a hand of two cards. Each allows you a specific action such as making a suggestion (identical to the original game), moving to a location, looking at a card in another player's hand, etc. There's also another purely thematic change but it's one that annoys me greatly our investigation is now about discovering who did it, how they're escaping and to what location. To my mind, it's much more interesting to discover that Colonel Mustard did it with the revolver in the kitchen than it is to deduce that Professor Plum is traveling by train to Mt. Rushmore.

Clue: The Card GameThe clue cards now have secondary information on them (e.g. Miami Beach is "southeast", the train is "red" and "ground transportation") and this pertains to certain cards. (e.g. "Show me one northern destination card.") Overall the game works pretty well and I do recommend it. Like the original, it's biggest failing is that too often a player can stumble into an easy win. This is made more even more likely if a player happens to draw one of the three cards that allow him to look at all cards of one type from another player. These are far too powerful and so they should either be removed from the deck or modified so that the affected player need show only one card of the indicated type.

Cluedo Super Sleuth

I was really looking forward to this version of Clue as it moves the action a few hours earlier. Instead of starting with a hand of cards, the players must investigate the mansion uncovering evidence as they go. Thematically, this is superb but the game simply didn't work for us. Deduction seemed pointless as there were so few cards in people's hands and the game was slow, slow, slow! I only played once and since every player was unimpressed, we quit half way through. I suspected that we must have been doing something wrong but I poured over the rulebook (several times) to no avail. Avoid.

Mystery of the Abbey

This is Clue meets The Name of the Rose with a healthy dose of chaos thrown in. (My full review can be read here.) Suffice it to say that the primary attraction of Mystery of the Abbey is its atmosphere rather than its opportunity for deduction. Since cards are passed around, it's very difficult to make meaningful deductions and trying to do so may lead to frustration. In many ways this is a deduction game for those who do not like deduction games! It's probably best played when you have a mix of serious and casual players.

Sleuth

SleuthSleuth is another well respected game and I agree that this reputation is deserved. There is a gem deck which consists of 36 cards, each describing a piece of jewelry. These all have several qualities: colour (red, green, blue or yellow), gem (diamond, opal, pearl) and type (solitaire, pair, cluster). One is removed and the remaining cards are dealt to the players. Naturally it's the players' goal to deduce the missing piece of jewelry. This is accomplished via query cards and these list either one or two elements. (e.g. "Blue Opals",  "Diamonds", "Pearl Clusters", etc.) Each player has a hand of four of these and on a turn will query one of the other players as to how many cards he has that match that card. (e.g. "How many Blue Opals do you have?") Quite straightforward but also quite difficult in practice. Much of this is because devising a method of notation is much harder than in other games.

While I really like Sleuth, it does present a bit of a problem in a live game situation. There's a lot of information available to the players and there's a lot of information that can be determined through logic and puzzle solving. This is good but the problem is that it's also very time consuming and downtime can be extreme. As an example, consider the puzzle on the back of the Avalon Hill version of the game (reprinted here). For me this sort of situation is one of the reasons that Sleuth is such a good game. However, such puzzles are likely to take 5 or 10 minutes for the average person to solve. Now imagine sitting there while someone works through such a puzzle. Not exactly a fun experience for most. While I've never done so I suspect that playing Sleuth via e-mail might be an ideal solution.

Black Vienna

In my opinion, Black Vienna is the finest deduction game in existence. There are 27 "spy" cards, labeled A through Z (plus ) and three are secretly removed. The rest are distributed amongst the players whose task is to determine the missing cards. This is done through the use of "investigation" cards, each showing a combination of three agents (e.g. AHT, DMR or FGX). Each turn, a player will select one of the three face up cards and place it in front of another player. That player will then indicate how many of those three spies are part of his or her hand.

Black Vienna

There's certainly nothing novel or exciting about Black Vienna's mechanics but it more than makes up for it in actual play. I really enjoy good logic puzzles where one must work through a long chain of conditions and known facts to reveal some hidden bit of information. This is where Black Vienna excels because in every game I've played, it has presented the opportunity for exactly this sort of intense deductive reasoning. Obviously there's some level of deduction in all the games I've discussed but they tend to be hit or miss in regards to how clever a "puzzle" they present. Black Vienna has been by far the most consistently difficult game and this is a very good thing.

The downside to this is that it's not a game for the timid. More importantly, it's not a game for players of unequal skill level. If you don't like working through long chains of logic then you will not be competitive, period. There is also the issue that the game is absolutely unforgiving of mistakes if a player accidentally indicates that he has only one spy rather than two, it will completely destroy the work of others. Since there is such a large investment of effort in the game, you really do need to stress the importance of answering correctly. This is a problem with all deduction games but the reason it feels so bad here is that Black Vienna is so challenging to play. If someone makes a mistake in Clue, it's not that big a deal but if the same thing happens in Black Vienna, you feel that you've wasted 45 minutes of intense effort.

(You can try a relatively simple puzzle here.)

Code 777

In Code 777, each player has three numbers hidden from his view but visible to everybody else. These numbers are from 1 to 7 and in a variety of colours. Each turn a player will draw a card and answer the question aloud. The questions are along the lines of "How many colours do you see?" or "On how many racks is the sum of the numbers 12 or less?". Obviously, the answers that other players give will reveal clues about your own numbers. Once you think you've deduced your three numbers (colour is unimportant) you announce the fact and if you're correct, you get one point. Either way you then get three new numbers and the game continues. The first player to get three points wins.

Player rack from Code 777.

Code 777 is a very well respected game but I think it's over-rated. There are no decisions to be made as to the questions, you simply answer the card you draw. By itself this would not be a problem but many of the questions give little or no information to some players while practically revealing a code to others. Further, many of the deductions are rather straightforward and simplistic.

For example, Al draws a card that says "Do you see more 3s or more pink 6s?" He answers "pink 6s" and you can see a 3 on Bob's rack and a pink 6 on Carl's. Obviously you have a pink 6 on your rack.

Still, this does not mean that the game is bad, just that it's not the ultimate challenge in deduction games. While I'll usually prefer to play something else, it does have the advantage in being very accessible it will not melt your brain and for many people, that's a good thing.

Coda

A relatively recent entry and one that is better than it might appear at first. It seems to be quite simple and random but I've been surprised by the game's subtleties. Of note is the fact that it's very quick, usually no more than 10 minutes and so we often play multiple rounds. This is advantageous because luck does play a large part in the outcome. Despite this there's plenty of opportunity for deduction and strategic play. You can read my full review here.

- Greg Aleknevicus

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