Letters From Whitechapel Board Game Review
By MARK WILSON
Year Published: 2011
Playing Time: 90 Minutes
Letters from Whitechapel (LFW) exists within a continuum. The predecessor of modern “one vs. many hidden movement” games is undoubtedly Scotland Yard, which is now approaching 40 years of existence.
On the simpler end of the spectrum are Scotland Yard and LFW’s younger sibling, Whitehall Mystery. On the more complex end, I’d cite something like Fury of Dracula. Each of these feature somewhat similar gameplay.
If we want to stretch the comparisons, you might include some tighter, 2-player tactical battles like those in Mr. Jack, another delightful hidden movement game, albeit one that’s somewhat removed from LFW in terms of mechanics.
Regardless, Letters From Whitechapel exists somewhere in the middle of all this. In it, like those others, one player plays the hidden villain, and one or more others attempt to locate them and capture them, through a series of clues and inferences as they traverse the game’s detailed map. The whole thing plays out like a cat & mouse chase.
This review isn’t to convince you to like or dislike LFW. Frankly, if you’ve played anything I mentioned above, or others like them, you probably either like hidden movement and one-vs-many games, you don’t, or you’re indifferent. Nothing in this game is going to dissuade you from that opinion. It’s very much a product of its genre, which is great, unless you don’t like the genre altogether.
Rather, my aim is to define LFW’s place in that hidden movement spectrum. In doing so, you can (hopefully) better define which is ideal for you.
Why Is It Always Jack the Ripper?
Seriously, we can find a new era, can’t we? At least Fury of Dracula has, well, Dracula.
But I enjoy Victorian England, so this isn’t a problem. Still, if stopping gruesome murders isn’t your thing, sorry. Here’s hoping they reskin it eventually as a summer camp scavenger hunt or something.
Anyway, the components are absolutely lovely. The board is the biggest treat here. It’s a masterpiece of intricate, thoughtful design, both functionally and aesthetically.
The wooden tokens and ancillary bits add amenably to the experience as well. I have no complaints on how it draws me into the setting. It helps the cat & mouse dance come to life.
The Core Is Intact
First off, let’s establish this…
The beating heart of one-vs-many hidden movement games, to me, is twofold:
- Being able to make legitimate deductions based on imperfect information. If you are able to deduce everything, or too little, the game will swing too far toward “solved” or “random,” neither of which is ideal for this type of game.
- Being able to match wits directly with an opponent. There are no mechanics to optimize here (or at least very few), because you’re trying to solve for the mind of your opponent.
This is why I love the genre, and any game in it that is worthy of our attention will have both. Spoiler alert: Whitechapel has both.
The game plays out over a handful of nights, each with a murder or two. The idea is that, early on, Mr. Ripper has the advantage of the players not having any idea where his “base” is. He also has the most tricks up his sleeve to evade capture. First-night arrests that end the game are rare, but not unheard of if the sleuthing group is lucky and/or Jack slips up. But generally, things only get dicey for Jack later in the game.
So after a couple nights, the cooperative group should have a manageable radius, within which they believe Jack’s base exists. The game’s tension ramps up in the final couple rounds, with the players trying to cut off or block points of entry for Jack, and Jack trying to stay one step ahead of them to get to safety on each night.
This isn’t to say the earlier nights are devoid of intrigue. How thoroughly you can evade detection on night #1, or just how close you get to identifying the location of a base, is crucial. Jack is incentivized to double back in order to confuse the pursuers, and also to throw off their calculations on base location. But they also have a predetermined amount of time to get home that night, or else they lose.
It’s a tight deductive puzzle that balances both roles quite well.
The Bum Lead
If I have a nit to pick, and I do, it’s that the starting location of some police inspectors means that one or more inspectors may have very little to do on a particular night. Players have some say in this, but it’s very possible to have a dud round where you’re just killing time, while your teammates are the ones actually bearing down on the killer.
This is mitigated some by lower player counts, wherein some (or all) players will have to control multiple detectives. Board Game Geek says the game plays best at 2 players. I’m not sure if this is true, but I understand why that’s the consensus. I like the table talk that occurs between multiple detectives, though. That cooperative experience is a highlight for me. But it also comes with more downtime, and rounds where someone doesn’t have much to contribute.
Whitechapel will almost always have this problem at higher player counts, but it’s accompanied with more table talk between investigators. The downtime has been enough to turn several friends off from the game, though, so it can be a big issue for some.
Length and Player Count
The game’s page says it plays in 60 minutes. That’s optimistic in my experience. Maybe on average, accounting for arrests that happen before the final round. But a full-length game with more than two players will take you ~90 minutes.
This is ok, though, if the game remains engaging, which it does.
The max player count is also a robust six. I think the earlier quibble is most likely to rear its ugly head at 6P, so this “advantage” of higher player count might not be an actual advantage for the game. It’s still generally excellent with five, at least.
Fury of Dracula, by comparison, holds up to five players, and has a lot more to do, but it’s also more complex and is considerably longer. Fury of Dracula has many fans, but it’s also potentially the most uneven experience. Dracula or particular players can have a brutal time if they’re on the receiving end of some bad luck.
Scotland Yard and Whitehall Mystery are the most streamlined, and will legitimately play in under an hour. Despite having played Scotland Yard, I don’t have quite enough experience with it to levy an opinion on it, but I do own Whitehall Mystery. It’s a distilled form of Whitechapel, and for my money packs in just as many tense moments as the longer, more sprawling Whitechapel. By shrinking the board and allowing for continuous play between rounds (rather than the soft reset Whitechapel has), it reduces the odds that your detective pawn is in a completely useless place for extended periods of time.
That said, Whitehall Mystery only holds four, and there’s something to be said for the slow burn of escalating paranoia and tension that comes with a longer play time. Whitehall has other marginal flaws as well, related to balancing in favor of the investigators, which I’ll probably cover in a future review. It’s the one I’ve enjoyed the most, but also may not be the best fit for some.
Mayhem in the Middle
These games are definitely in the same lineage, and fans of one are likely to be fans of the others to varying degrees. If I do reviews of the other games mentioned here, I’ll have similarly nice things to say about them.
Letters From Whitechapel fills an important niche in this continuum. It’s the one I find myself playing most often. Dracula is a lengthier “event” game that needs to be planned in advance. Whitehall Mystery often gets eliminated from game night contention because it only holds four.
Letters From Whitechapel, like a murderous bowl of porridge drowning Goldilocks in its frothy mush, is “just right.”
Which isn’t to say there aren’t occasional pacing flaws. It’s not a perfect game. But it’s a wonderfully solid representative of its type of game.