If you aren’t fazed by the rather grizzly theme of the game – the murders of Jack the Ripper in Victorian London – then Letters from Whitechapel’s simple rules but tense, gripping play may really appeal.
One player takes the role of Jack, and the other players (between one and five* opponents) take on the role/s of the five detectives looking for him. The board shows a map of Victorian Whitechapel and is dotted with numbers that Jack will move on, and black squares that the police will move on. At the start of the game Jack chooses one of the numbers as his secret hideout and records it on a notepad behind a screen.
Five potential victims are added to the map and Jack’s task – to win the game – is to murder all five of the victims over the course of four nights (the four rounds of the game) and make it back to his hideout on each night. The policeman’s task is to arrest him. They’ll be looking for clues on each night as Jack leaves a trail – the numbers he records on his notepad – and they will over the course of the four rounds get a better idea of where his hideout is.
They can also end the game sooner by successfully arresting Jack. Each of the five detectives can look for clues – establishing Jack’s trail (or lack of it) or attempt an arrest. Looking for clues consists of asking whether Jack has been on the numbers adjacent to that detective. As soon as a clue is found, that detective’s turn is over. (note that a detective can ‘find’ a clue on the location Jack is actually standing!) Attempting an arrest is a one-off: the detective names a number where he or she believes Jack to be, and makes an arrest. If Jack is there – and Jack must play honestly! – the detectives win the game. if he isn’t, the detective’s turn is over for the current round. Finding clues reveal the path Jack is taking from the murder scene back to his hideout, so whilst the detectives try to figure that out Jack needs to throw them off track by perhaps not taking the most direct route…
Jack has a couple of special moves (carriages and alleys) to help him give the detectives the slip, whereas the detectives obviously have weight in numbers. Whoever plays Jack will feel the tension more, but both sides can get a sense of the net closing in in a dark and tense game that can be played a little on the hoof or with more consideration and calculation.
*although you can play up to five detectives, we feel the game functions best (and fastest) as a 2-player, with one side as Jack and the other controlling the entire police force.
Letters From Whitechapel is one of many games that use grizzly moments from history to construct a game around. For some that can be off-putting and for sure, no matter how much time has past, there is no trivialising of such matters.
But the game itself doesn’t set out to trivialise or glorify anything. At its heart the game is all about evasion, deduction, and the tension generated from that. The focus is not on the act of killing, but the act of escape. Or trying to. And as such Letters From Whitechapel does a very good job. It can last a couple of hours but – if the ‘Jack’ player isn’t careful – it can also be over in a matter of minutes!
Thematically speaking, there is a rather brutal element of Take That. But in terms of gameplay there is none.
It depends how you play. You - the detectives in particular - can tear through a game in 90 minutes or you can ponder and take your time. The latter will obviously move slower.
See Fidget Factor. The game can be played with the detectives consulting and narrowing down choices by comparing clues with thoughts, which is a little brain-burny. It can also be played on hunches, or somewhere in between the two extremes.
It's almost impossible for this game to play the same way twice. And be aware, the game *can* last 2 hours, but only if Jack isn't caught. It can also be over in ten minutes.