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[Review] Sleuth

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Joined: 03/23/2011

I’m a huge fan of deduction games, especially Mastermind; but I quickly found that regular Mastermind is too simplistic and easy. I finally found a fun freeware edition on the internet; one that really gives me a challenge. Still, I’ve always found that deduction is more fun in groups; and Sleuth (Face to Face Games, 2004 - Sid Sackson) gives one the opportunity to play a deduction game with up to seven players. It’s nice to see games by the late great Sid Sackson be reproduced; something the Face to Face company seems committed to.

I really enjoyed Sleuth; but was quite impressed at how difficult the game can get, depending on the number of players. My first game was with seven players, and it was extremely challenging; with many of the players getting completely lost and slightly frustrated. I really enjoyed it, on the other hand; but found it extremely challenging, more so than any other board game I’ve played. When the number of players decreases, the game is much easier and quite fun, but still with a good challenge. For those who enjoy mind games, this one is demanding and fun, a true “gem” (excuse the pun - I must be reading GAMES magazine too much).

A deck of thirty-six gem cards is shuffled, and one card is set aside where no one can see (similar to Clue). The rest of the cards are divided equally amongst the players, with the remainder (if any) placed face up in the middle of the table. The gem cards are all different, and have three different characteristics each: type of gem (diamonds, pearls, or opals), color (blue, green, red, or yellow), and number (single, pair, or cluster). Each player is given a deduction sheet, where they can correctly cross out any jewels they were dealt, as well as the ones face up in the middle of the table. Another deck of “Search” cards is shuffled; four dealt face up to each player, and the remainder put in a face-down deck in the middle of the table. One player is chosen to go first, and play proceeds clockwise around the table.

On their turn, a player can use one of the cards in front of them to question one of their opponents. There are three types of cards, each with a different use:
- One-element Cards: These cards show one characteristic of a gem, such as yellow, or diamonds, or clusters. The person being questioned must state how many cards they hold that have that characteristic to all other players.
- Two-element Cards: These cards show two characteristics of a game, such as diamond pairs, yellow opals, or blue singles. The player being questioned must slide any cards they have that match both characteristics to the asking player, who then returns them. No other player can see the cards, but everyone can know the number.
- Free Choice Cards: These cards can be used as One or Two Element cards, giving the player a choice of characteristics.
- A player can forgo questioning another player, replacing all their search cards with new ones.
After questioning, the player discards the Search card, replacing it with the top card from the deck.

Players keep track of all information in the game, trying to identify the missing jewel. If any player knows (or thinks they know) the identity of the set-aside card, they can announce the fact at any time, even out of turn. They then check the missing gem card, and if correct show all other players, winning the game. Otherwise, they replace the card and are out of the questioning phase of the game, although they still must answer questions from other players. If a player waits until their turn to guess the missing gem, they can ask any one player any one question of their choice before guessing. The game ends when someone correctly identifies the set-aside card.

Some comments on the game...

1.) Components: The box is small, sturdy, and easily portable, covered with Sherlock Holmes-type artwork. The cards fit securely in a plastic insert in the box and have more of the 1800’s era artwork on them. The front of all the cards are fairly easy to distinguish, although I could see that a color blind person might have some trouble distinguishing between the color characteristics of the gems.

2.) Information Sheet: The information sheets may be daunting for new players at first and how to use them can be a chore. I personally drew out my own charts on the back of the sheets and used them, but other players have suggested other means of keeping track of who has or doesn’t have each jewel. Many of these suggestions are posted on the web in various places, such as, and will help different people. I’ve found that everyone has a different way of keeping track of the jewels; so if you’re having trouble, seeing what others do might help some.

3.) Rules: The rulebook is thick with over fifty full-color pages. This, however, is because of the many translations in different languages. The rules are actually fairly short, simple, and easy to explain; but some things are only mentioned once and could be easy to miss. I found that the game is easy to explain, but the methodology for keeping track of information is not quite so easy. People who are adept at puzzles will probably pick it up quicker than others, as many logic puzzles have the same characteristics as Sleuth.

4.) Strategy: The game is going to be more intuitive for those who have a logical mind, but there are several methods for tracking down the correct card. I prefer to eliminate every card, working with all gems concurrently, ending up with the correct missing gem; but others eliminate each jewel separately, thus possibly ending up with the missing gem faster. As long as you get a system and stick with it, asking the correct questions to the right people; you have a decent chance of winning. One of the biggest detriments I’ve found is incorrectly recording information, and then asking a question to someone that has already been asked. This is just wasting one of your questions and can conceivably cost you the game.

5.) Fun Factor: The atmosphere of the playing of a game of Sleuth is very similar to that of Ricochet Robot - almost dead silence - with each player mulling over their information. This is not your joyous, happy party game; but a serious mind twister. This doesn’t mean that the game is any less fun - I really enjoy it! The game has a certain appeal that many people would probably wish to avoid.

6.) Amount of Players: The amount of players greatly affects both time and difficulty. When there is a full compliment of seven players, the game takes a while, because there is so much information to keep track of. Questions that reveal a lot of information in a three-player game reveal only a smidgen with seven players. I really only recommend a seven player game to dedicated logic problem solvers; with three to five players it is a much lighter game.

Sleuth is a fantastic game, originating in 1967, and now finally reprinted in 2004 for all of us who never had the pleasure of playing original Sid Sackson games. It’s not a game that elicits laughter and shouting, but rather one of deep concentration. While this may not entice everyone, one cannot deny that a win in Sleuth is a great achievement; and one can feel a certain pride in their victory. The three-player game is fairly light, but still has some hefty “meat” in it, in the form of logic. If you love logic puzzles and want a good deduction game with only a smattering of luck (instead of mind-numbing Clue), then this is the game for you!

Tom Vasel
“Real men play board games.”

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