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Killer on the loose – Whitehall Mystery Review

1888 – the year of Jack The Ripper.  Everybody knows about this, surely, and most are fascinated by the questions that still whirl around those horrific events.  But what about the Whitehall Mystery, also in 1888, involving the discovery of parts of a woman’s body around London, one find even made on the site of the building works for Scotland Yard?  Who (says he in his best Loyd Grossman voice) would play a game based on this?  Well, I would, so let’s don our deerstalkers and capes and travel back to Victorian Laaahndon to find out more.

Whitehall Mystery Board Game

From the same world as Letters From Whitechapel.

Welcome to London!  Welcome to Hell…

I had Letters From Whitechapel sitting on my shelf of shame for nearly three years before I finally got around to playing it, and the impetus for that momentous event was the arrival of Whitehall Mystery in the house.  Letters From Whitechapel, based on the horrific murders of Jack the Ripper, fitted the bill perfectly for a grown up Halloween gaming evening, so to the table it went…and we loved it.  Tense, entertaining and fun, despite its gory subject matter, this game of hide and seek returned to the table the very next day, and I have been hankering to play it again ever since.  Only pesky work has stopped me from going back to it on more occasions.

Letters From Whitechapel has an awful lot going for it, and is actually in the running for my best new-to-me game of the year, another poke in the eye for the Cult Of The New.  Admittedly it is not quite perfect – every extra player increases the play time of the game, just because of the amount of discussion that goes on, and if played to the fifth evening Whitechapel will certainly hit at least the two hour mark even with only two players.  It can also feel extraordinarily open at the start of the game as the detectives scrabble for information – any information – to help them in their search for the Ripper.  With all that said, Letter From Whitechapel really excels as a two player hunt-and-hide game.

Whitehall Mystery Board Game

Are you brave enough?

Whitechapel or Whitehall?  Gruesome either way!

Enter Whitehall Mystery, a pared down version of Letters From Whitechapel by the same designers that trims the player count to a maximum of four (down from six) and promises to play in an hour or so.  Is this the game to replace Letters From Whitechapel in collections around the world, does it sit happily alongside its elder sibling, and is this the best jumping off point for players new to this shadowy world?

Let’s get the elephant in both of these games’ rooms out of the way first of all, for both Whitechapel and Whitehall take as their theme the merciless and bloody murder and dismembering of unfortunate women in late nineteenth century London.  Some gamers who are usually more than happy to reenact ancient battles or splatter orcs or crush Jedi might find this a step too far, but it does at least make for an almost suffocatingly oppressive gaming atmosphere, especially as the police know how vitally important their task must be.

Whitehall Mystery Board Game

1888 London awaits.

Familiar to play…yet anything but cosy!

The second edition of Letters Of Whitechapel was characterised by great components, including a large and ridiculously solid game board, and I am glad to report that Whitehall Mystery displays the same level of commitment to quality gaming.  The box and the board are both smaller, but the graphic design and other components demonstrate the same attention to detail.  The discs from the original game are replaced with figures, such as those found in the Dear Boss expansion to the base game, and the grotesque and grisly theme is everywhere.  Be in no doubt, Whitehall Mystery inhabits the same hellish world as its forebear.

For those familiar with Letters From Whitechapel the gameplay of Whitehall Mystery will feel as familiar as a gaslit alley, while those new to this incarnation of the capital will find the rules to entertainment ratio tipped gratifyingly in favour of the latter.  The board is divided into four quadrants, and before the game begins the huntee selects a crime scene in each quadrant, their aim being to visit all four before they are caught.

Looking for clues!  Hunting for evidence!

The murderer travels between adjacent circles on the board, noting them on their hidden sheet, while the inspectors move between crossings, hunting for clues and attempting arrests.  The criminal cannot cross over an inspector, and if they are ever unable to move or the inspectors execute an arrest in the circle where they are currently hidden then they lose the game, winning it if they make it to the fourth crime scene.

Whitehall Mystery Board Game

Circles and junctions – hunters and hunted.

The huntee can use various means of transport to aid them in their escape, as well as ducking down back alleys, and Whitehall Mystery introduces boats, which are new to this particular gaming world.  These allow the hunted player to move between any two circles on a single body of water, and together with coaches and the aforementioned alleys they allow for a crafty criminal to duck and weave out of the grasp of the various inspectors.

Whitehall Mystery Board Game

Alleys, coaches and boats – use them wisely.

Need more balance?  You’re the (Dear) Boss!

There are other advantages and disadvantages, offered to both sides, which mean that Whitehall Mystery can be balanced to suit the ability of its players, something that Letters From Whitechapel contained as well.  In fact, components from the Dear Boss expansion can also be used to tweak the experience even further, meaning that the worlds of the two games overlap, even if they are not fully compatible with each other.  It means that even weaker players can feel as though they are competing on a level playing field by using the inspectors’ special abilities, for example.

Whitehall Mystery Board Game

Clues but no murderer.

This possibility of balancing the game is one of its plus points and, if truth be told, there is a decent number of other pluses as well.  One of the better facets of Whitehall Mystery is that, like its bigger brother, it is strongly thematic and allows the tense give and take of chase and evasion to be played out within a strongly atmospheric framework.  Take the characters and the theme away and you are left with an abstract game that probably works just as well, but the inclusion of contemporary characters and other smaller details all serve to draw players into this particular gaming world.

Whitehall Mystery Board Game

Pick a character and be dogged in your pursuit.

Lean and trim, not light and airy!

Whitehall Mystery also captures and distills the various elements that make Letters From Whitechapel so enjoyable.  It is tense, fun and involving, and it is rarely easy to tell who is ahead – one side, especially the investigators, can feel within touching distance of victory, make a wrong choice over where to search for clues, and suddenly find that they are back to square one.  The knowledge that any mistake, even a very small one, can be expensive enough to cost you the game, is part of what makes Whitehall Mystery and Letters From Whitechapel so gripping, and the reshaping of the larger experience into a lean and mean, less fiddly and more payable package is worthy of applause.

However, there are some negatives to Whitehall Mystery as well, some of which it shares with Letters From Whitechapel and some of which it possesses all on its own.  Each extra player above the (best) count of two will add length to the game, and I still maintain that this and its older brother are best as simple and pure head to head games, even if they also function well with more bodies (that’s live bodies) around the table.  The game’s strong thematicism might also make it just a little too close to the bone (literally) for some, and while that is totally understandable it might also prevent may people from experiencing the enthralling experience this game has to offer.

Whitehall Mystery Board Game

Time ticks by as the police continue their hunt.

Every decision matters!  Every move counts!

Likewise, those who enjoy their gaming in the currently fashionable choose-what-you-like-and-it-doesn’t-matter sphere of gaming might well face a rude awakening here.  Every decision matters and has the potential to lose you the game, and while I enjoy that stress and believe a game should punish its players at least a little for bad decisions, some might find that Whitehall Mystery is just too full-on to be fun.

Lastly, and most significantly for me, while Whitehall Mystery does an exceptional job of taking everything that was good about Letter From Whitechapel and making it happen within an hour, it lacks that widescreen cinematic beauty that makes Whitechapel so great.  Of course it has the potential to get to the table more often, but with time on my hands I would always go for a single game of Letters From Whitechapel over two of Whitehall Mystery, and I say that as somebody for whom the length of the first game kept it off the table for over two years.

Whitehall Mystery Board Game

Plenty of room to hide.

Whitechapel too long?  Whitehall is the quick fix!

Having said that, it is hard to pick too many holes in what Whitehall Mystery is and does, and it finds itself ideally pitched for those who play in two but find Letters From Whitechapel too long.  It includes all those elements that define the first game, throws in a couple of new tweaks, and wraps it up in a slightly more economical package that cannot help but appeal, and it also takes up commendably little shelf space for what it offers.

I need also to point out that Whitehall Mystery is a fine experience in its own right.  I know that I have compared it to Letters From Whitechapel almost incessantly, but it also functions without any major problems as its own self-contained experience, and it could be considered without reservation for inclusion in a collection that needs a hide-and-seek game whether or not Letters From Whitechapel nestles snugly on the next shelf along.

Whitehall Mystery Board Game

They seek him here, they seek him there…

Practical and playable!  Prove your superiority!

While Whitehall Mystery therefore lacks some of the cinematic nature of Whitechapel and that dramatic narrative that stretches across five nights, it has that invaluable ability of being able to get to the table more often and keeping everything that was important about the bigger game.  If I had to keep one of the two games it would be Letters From Whitechapel by a whisker, but I am more than happy to have them both in the collection and to use them for different game-sized gaps in my timetable.

Ultimately I cannot give Whitehall Mystery as high a mark as Letters From Whitechapel because I simply cannot bring myself to believe that it is the better game.  It may well be more practical and playable, but better?  No, I cannot quite swallow that pill.  However, it is being compared directly to gaming greatness and it does not quite reach that level, but that is not to say that it is not a wholly engrossing gaming experience, and always bear in mind that your mileage may differ substantially from mine.  As a great jumping off point into this world of shades and misty visions and also as a game worthy of sitting alongside the old stager from a few years back, Whitehall Mystery does enough to warrant a solid 8 out of 10 and is strongly recommended to those who think they are more clever than their opponents.

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Nick O'Neill

I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.