Need feedback on the intro to a Sherlock Holmes game.

Sherlock Holmes murder mysteries have been a subject of matrix games since the late 1990s. Now that card matrix games are making their way into stores it’s time to bring back the Sherlock. What follows is a first draft of what I think the rules might look like. They mainly focused on how to start the game. One of the key features of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories is making Holmes looked brilliant at the beginning. Invariably he makes a few observations about Dr. Watson’s cufflinks and tells him exactly what he’s been doing for the last 5 years. That’s an exaggeration of course but basically it happens and most of the stories. For my game to be successful it needs to be able to start at that same place and then go into a fun storytelling game.

The rules

The player who brought the gain is the host. They guide players through the game set up and help things run smoothly during play.

Step one: Make Sherlock Holmes looked brilliant.

Dr. Watson has just dropped by 222B Baker Street. Holmes shows his genius by making deductions about what Watson has been up to based on a few observations. Pick one observation from the following list:

Watson has smudges of ink on his fingers.
There is distinctive tan mud on Watson’s shoes.
Watson’s pocket watch is missing.
There is an envelope sticking out of Watson’s pocket that has an Indian post mark.
Watson is walking with a pronounced limp.
Watson has a slight smell of Lavender.

Host to each player in turn: “You are Sherlock Holmes. You observe (pick one of the observations). What has Watson been up to, based on this evidence?

Each player makes up the brilliant deduction that impresses all about Holmes powers of reasoning.

Step two: the host picks a victim from the selection of cards and says how they were murder. Sherlock Holmes has been hired to look into the matter.

Step 3: Each player picks another character from the selection of character cards and champions them in the game. The host champions Sherlock Holmes but all the other players are Holmes as well. One of the player’s secondary characters is the murderer.

Host to each player in turn: “Playing an action card. Inspired by the card what is the last thing your character said to the deceased?”

The players makeup answers but we know one of them is lying because they are guilty of murder.

Step four: the host lays out location cards on the table. The players place their characters next to a location. The host places Sherlock Holmes and all unplayed characters including the murder victim.

The game is a foot!

Without realizing it you’ve just played the first turn of the matrix game. In this game you play a card and use it as inspiration to make up a little story about what happens next. Everyone gets to play one card a turn. They may say what Holmes or any other character does. Once everyone has gone the turn ends with a free move.

The rules will then go into the nuts and bolts of playing a card matrix game. Basically this boils down to playing a card, making up a story, and other players adding to that by playing cards. If they player objects to what another player says they can play a card and say what happens instead. This is the only case in which dice are rolled in the game, otherwise all the actions happen. Players will play action cards or scene cards. Scene card leads a story through a coherent set of steps and end the game when the last scene is played.

In short this is basically how it will work. What I’m wondering is if this is going to create the feel of a Sherlock home story and if it’s strong enough to make players want to play?


More on a Sherlock Holmes game

Working on a a Sherlock Holmes game. It will use cards like Fairy Tale Assassin League and Die Romeo Die. Going to do change the rules a little. First the players will make Holmes look brilliant then they tell the story of the clues and deductions.

One change will be the fewer dice rolls. When players lay down action cards no rolls are made unless someone calls for them. Need to decide how objections are done but likely it will be play one card and make one objection.


Psychotherapy simulation game actual play – Bob’s Brain

Did a variation of Bob’s Brain on Friday 9/26/14

The Staying out of Trouble group is an education meeting for people who get underage drinking tickets. The topic for the day: expressions of concern from others. This can be approached many different ways, using a simulation game to facilitate conversation is one.

The group had six people. I was there as the facilitator/therapist. Normally in Bob’s Brain the players are all the brain of Bob, and make decisions for him. Since expressions of concern is a two sided game I divided the group into two different brains. One expresses concern, the other receives it. We did two scenarios everyone got to don both roles.

The first step was to make up who the characters were. One group made up a college aged man, Jefferson. The other, a group of women, made a female character, Kendal. We decided that they were a dating couple, since the characters had to have some kind of close relationship for expressing concern. The group members made up what the characters were doing.

In the first scenario they decided that Jefferson was shooting blow darts at pizza delivery men from his dorm room. This is a very odd story and has nothing to do with drinking but apparent actually happened in the last week. First I had the Jefferson players decide what they were thinking doing this. Their discussion mimics how our brains work. They decided he thought it was fun. Since expressions of concern mean Kendal had to know I turned it over that group to say how she knew. They said he had shot darts at her to.

The game consisted of discussions between the players inside the teams and between the teams. Issues of sexism, relationship, the Bro Code, and the God awful dumb things that guys do came up. Interesting stuff.

The female team decided that Kendal was a prostitute, which they dialed back to being an escort, who is not doing sex acts. I would never have come up with this but since they did we ran with it. It spurred even better discussions.

Normally groups take weeks to reach a point where they have good discussions. This was the first day these six were together but the game got them right into great work. The game provides emotional distance. Players may project thoughts onto it but isn’t that what makes for good discussion.

A nice intervention. Lots of cognitive behavioral learning.

Chris Engle LCSW LCAC


Working on a color pallet for a Wild Wild West Coast game

At Gen Con, Will Niebling suggested I make my Roman Carnival game a Barbary Coast shanghai game. I like the idea. The game uses area control and kidnapping other people’s people to sell to ships for their return voyages or to employ in your own markets. There are a lot of photos from 1850′s San Francisco to inspire the art but I need a color pallet to unify it. So, what about the pallet from the intro to the 1960′s TV show “The Wild Wild West”?

Looking into it shows there is a nice restriction to the colors, blues, greys, red-browns, and only a splash of purple. Skin tones were mainly light shades of blue! Need to do some simplification of the range but this should work very nicely. Also I loved the show, that along with “Star Trek” and “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” were my favorites.


MatrixGames accessible to visually impaired gamers

Met with Pat Tussing at Gen Con. Pat is a blind gamer who played in some of my Matrix Games ten to fifteen years ago. She really enjoyed them and was impressed at how accessible they were to her. I know that Mark Kinney has run Matrix Games on the actual play pod cast “The Gutter Skypes” and that one of their players is blind. Since many games are not accessible to visually impaired gamers (including the most recent Matrix Games), this is a subject of potential interest.

Recent Matrix Games use cards – character cards, location cards, action cards and scene cards. They have a picture and a phrase that acts as inspiration to the player. Players have a hand of action cards which limits their choices. This is helpful activating people’s creativity because too many choices leads a lot of players to decision gridlock. The trouble with this mechanic is that it totally shuts out the visually impaired. To make things accessible I need to go back to the total freedom of action of the earlier rules and have all the scenario information be verbal. The rules need to be very simple and guide the conversation of the game rather than rigidly control it. The following scenario is a shot at doing that. I will post it as a video on You Tube so that visually impaired gamers can start playing.

First the rules:

Matrix Games are a story telling game in which players make up stories about what happens next. Players champion one character but are able to say what other characters do as well. The players are the authors of the story rather than just actors. One player acts as the host of the game. Their job is to keep things moving by encouraging players to make the next action.

Games are about specific situations called scenarios. A scenario write up includes an introduction, a short description of the characters and locations, and the type of actions that have to happen for the story to unfold. The host reads the scenario to the players before the game begins. Players then pick characters and start playing.

Each turn one player starts. They make up a story about what happens next. This may be very short or long and detailed but something in between these extremes is best. The other players (including the host) get to make one addition or make one challenge to the tale. If a player adds to the story they say what happens next or what is happening elsewhere. No dice are rolled, additions automatically happen. If a player doesn’t like the initial move or an addition, they may use their one action to challenge the story. They say what happens instead. The two players roll two six-sided dice. The high roller wins, re-roll ties. The winner decides which action happens. Usually they pick their own action but they can pick the other if the other players persuade them to. Once everyone has had a chance to make something happen the turn ends. The host picks who starts the next turn. The game continues until the story is finished.

Players may make anything happen in their stories. They say who is there, what they do, and what results from it. They may move characters to a scene, make up new characters and locations and even jump back and forth in time. It is helpful to not do everything in a single turn. Leaving blanks allows other players to fill them in and share in the action. Blanks also create suspense. Players are free to make anything happen, which can be a little daunting to some people. The host can help them by saying “If this was any other kind of game, you were your character and this was the situation, what would you want to do first?” Whatever the player says is their story.

Optional Rule: Allow players to challenge any story that says their character does something they don’t like. The challenge must say what their character would do instead of the first action. This challenge does not count as the player’s one action a turn.

Next a scenario:

Sherlock Holmes and the Missing Madona

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are sitting in the parlor of their residence at 221B Baker Street when the solicitor of Sir John Wilkes arrives. The solicitor tells them of the resent tragic death of Sir Wilkes. The death is suspicious but has been ruled of natural cause by the coroner. A priceless icon of Mary should have been in the room Sir Wilkes’ body was found in but was gone. The authorities decline to investigate further.

Holmes and Watson take the case and immediately go to the scene of the death, the home of Sir John Wilkes.


The home of Wilkes: Sir Wilkes lives in a fashionable neighborhood in London with his wife, daughter and son. As a Member of Parliament he often entertained dignitaries but the house is modest, with a main house, a nice garden and a stable.

Mortuary: Wilkes was found dead in the study of his home but the body has been removed to the mortuary. The coroner has ruled it a natural death despite the fact that Wilkes face was contorted and his tongue was swollen and black.


Lady Wilkes: A middle aged woman who once was a beauty but who is now past her prime. She is distraught about her husband’s death.

Darby Wilkes: Sir Wilkes’ 17 year old son. A student at Oxford home on break. He is reading history and is bound of a career in the Foreign Service.

Emily Wilkes: Sir Wilkes’ 16 year old daughter. A pretty girl, but not too bright. She appears to be distracted by more than her father’s death.

Bridget Jones: The Welsh housekeeper. She is an older woman who has served the family for forty years. She sees all and tells all, but is she telling the truth?

Captain Reggie Wilkes: Wilkes’ first cousin. He is a dashing army officer who is bound for greatness. He shows an unnatural interest in the families’ fortune.

Nico Papadopolis: A Greek merchant financier. He is a guest at the house. He is somehow tied up in Wilkes’ fortune which was largely made in Greece.

Holmes and Watson are also characters but they have no relationship with the family prior to the beginning of the game so they are not involved in the death.

What needs to happen in the game?

This is a murder mystery game. One of the players is guilty of murder! The goal of the game is to make Sherlock Holmes appear brilliant by revealing who did it and having them arrested. While two players may run the detectives, all the players will uncover/make up clues. They may do this by saying what Holmes finds or by having other people find them and show them to Holmes.

In the first part of the game the players will make up clues that show who had the means, motive and opportunity to commit murder. Players may offer alibis for their own character or plant clues that point suspicion elsewhere. Each new clue narrows down who could have done it. When the finger points to one or two players someone may accuse a character. They do this by saying who they think did it. So players make Holmes look good and pin the murder on one of the characters.

After the accusation the player running Holmes explains the case to the players, spelling out how the clues lead to the conclusion that the person is guilty. If the accused is championed by another player they get to point out holes in the case. If they players like they can then vote on whether they think the accused is guilty or not. Majority vote wins.

Thoughts on how this could be distributed to gamers.

When I was talking with Pat, the problems that loomed largest was how a game to the blind could be sold. Clearly the text of the game must be spoken which suggests it could go up as a You Tube file easily. The down fall of that is that it would be free. No payday for me. On thinking more, why not do the game up as a CD? It could hold the rules and many different scenarios. Each game would need appropriate background music to sound professional but I don’t see why that couldn’t work. There must be some sound engineer gamers around Bloomington I could talk to.

Anyway, the game above is ready to play. Please play and spread it on to others.

Chris Engle


Working on art games

Work on Undead America, Vanity Fair, Supply Line, and Alea Jacta Est (a Roman themed gambling game) and progressing apace. They will all be ready by Gen Con. Along with making the games I’m making frames to display them on walls. The first experiments are in and look promising. I will get some pictures up soon.


Origins 2014

I was over at Origins last week. Ran Fairy Tale Assassin League: City of Broken Dreams, Die Romeo Die, Hungry Dragon, and Bob’s Brain. I recorded a number of the games and am slowly getting them up on youtube. Things worked out well. Looking forward to Gen Con.


Vanity Fair: A game of power and greed in a medieval city. First Draft

My God I’ve been on a rules writing binge in the last four days! Three new rules sets in four days, and I’ve got another scratching at the door of my brain now. Amazing! These art games are going to be so cool, and so different from my line of story games. Enjoy!

Vanity Fair Rules
First Draft


Greed, envy, and lust for power are all the things that make up Vanity Fair and this game is all about those things.

Vanity Fair, the game, is set in a medieval city and is about the struggles for power between two to six important families. Players will collect retainers, gather resources from trade, trade their surpluses for what they lack, occupy territory and the offices associated with territory, and fight one another for control (especially at the end of the game). The game lasts between one to two hours.

Vanity Fair, the idea, is a very old allegory. In Piers the Plowman, it is the fairgrounds between the white city on the hill (St Augustine’s City of God), and the dark abyss (the fiery pit of Hell). On that plain of life all manner of corrupt and evil things happen, but also good things. A few centuries later, Pilgrim’s Progress coined the name Vanity Fair as a place visited by Christian on his journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. Vanity Fair, the game, ignores all this and concentrates on life. It may be life that will lead you to hell, but that is between you and God. Enjoy the game!


One City Map – divided into city block areas
120 Retainer Tokens (divided into 6 teams of 20 tokens each)
120 Resource Tokens (20 Grain, 20 Fish, 20 Cloth, 20 Wine, 20 Men at Arms, and 20 Priests)
3 Cloth Bags – One for grain and fish, one for cloth and wine, and one for men at arms and priests
6 Leader Tokens – one per family

Explanation of the components

The City: The city is a map divided into different spaces by roads, walls, and canals. They also have important places like docks, town halls, cathedrals and citadels marked as well. Players vie for control of these areas.

Retainers: Each family has a unique color (corresponding to a resource). Retainer tokens are placed on the map to show interest or control of places on the board. Retainers may also be used to kill other player’s retainers.

Resources: Resource tokens represent trade in the game, which is the life blood of all communities. Each resource corresponds to a color: Grain=Yellow, Fish=Blue, Cloth=White, Purple=Wine, Red=Men at Arms, Black=Priests. Each resource token has five plain sides and one colored side. This is so because resources are rolled as dice in combat. When the colored side comes up, it scores a hit and kills one enemy.

Leaders: Each family has one leader, represented by a larger token of the same color as their retainers. Leaders count as two retainers for area control purposes and are much harder to kill than regular retainers (they can only be killed by men at arms dice).

How to play the game

Players take turns moving and making actions. The youngest player goes first, play then goes around the table to the left. At the beginning of a player’s turn they pick a policy, that defines what they can do that turn. Policies both give and limit actions.

In their turn a player may: recruit new retainers, collect resources from one of three bags, trade resources with other players (to try and form ever bigger sets of colors), move retainers and leaders, and fight other people’s retainers (to kill them and take over territory). Once a player has completed their actions, the player to their left starts the next turn. Players may always stop play at any time to talk and strategize.

Policy Choices

Players chose one of three policies to follow for a turn: Recruit, Trade, or Fight.

Recruit: The player gains two new retainers from their off board stash and place them on the board. They may move retainers and their leader to take over areas by intimidation but may not fight and kill other people’s retainers or leaders.

Trade: The player picks one bag to draw resources from. If they have a retainer in the area associated with that bag, they draw two tokens. If they don’t have a retainer there they only draw one token. After drawing tokens all the players may trade with one another to try and form ever bigger sets of colors, the more sets the better. The player may not move any retainers or their leader, or fight.

Fight: The player may move all their retainers and leader and take areas by intimidation or roll resources to fight. Defending players may roll resources to defend if they are hit.

Winning by Intimidation

When a player has two retainer tokens for every one retainer another person has in an area, they may intimidate that player’s retainers. The loser moves their retainers to a neighboring area.

Areas may hold retainers from all the players, so the board will inevitably be a mixed up mess. When intimidating, the attacker picks one other player to beat up on. The rest of the players sit back and watch. Players may not combine their forces at this level.

Fighting = Rolling Resource Tokens/Dice

Players may fight retainers in areas where they have retainers. They may move in retainers to do this or use retainers who are already there. Having more troops present in a fight is not needed unless you want to intimidate the opponent rather than fight. A determined foe, like Cyrano De Bergerac, can face down a hundred opponents if they are brave enough and dedicate enough resources to the fight.

The attacker decides how many resource tokens they want to use, but there are limits. Tokens are rolled as sets of colors so if only one color is used, only one token is rolled. To roll two tokens they need to be of two different colors, for three tokens, three different colors etc. If a player dedicates a full set of six colors to a fight they do not roll and score instead an automatic hit.

The player scores a hit for each token that rolls its colored side up. Each hit kills one retainer, so it is possible to pull off a major massacre with luck.

Fighting leaders is a little different. Players still roll resource tokens to try and score hits but the only hits that can affect leaders are men at arms, so only red kills leaders.

Once the attacker has rolled, the defender may opt to roll dice to save their lost retainers and possibly do a counter-attack. The player picks sets of colors to roll and rolls. For each colored side rolled one hit retainer is saved. It takes a red roll to save a leader. If there are colored sides left over after all the retainers have been saved (not including leaders) they count as hits on the attacker, who lose that many retainers. The attackers may then roll a defense of their own. This goes back and forth until one side decides to take their lumps and lose retainers.

Victory Points

The goal is to have the most victory points at the end of the game. Players get points for the following reasons.

1 Per area you solely control
10 Additional point if the area is the city hall, cathedral or citadel
1 Per three color sets
3 Per four color sets
6 Per five color sets
9 Per six color sets
5 If your leader lives to the end of the game
5 If you have all twenty retainers out on the board

When the game ends

The game begins to end when the last token is drawn from one of the three bags when means the game could be as little as twenty turn but could be much longer.

When the last resource is drawn that player finishes their turn as normal. Play then will go around the table one more time in an orgy of violence as players fight one another for last minute advantage. The player who drew the last resource token goes last, which may be an advantage if they have anyone left alive to use it!

The final push for Victory Points

The last go around the table is an orgy of violence. The players must pick fight as their policy. They then move retainers and roll fights. Players do not have to fight but if you have a resource tokens that don’t fit into sets of three or more colors, this is your chance to use them up to advantage.

When the last player finishes their fight, the game ends. The players tally up their victory points. The player with the highest total wins. Players may share victory if they are tied.

At the end of the game it is good to return to the allegory of Vanity Fair and remember that all is vanity. The winner and the loser are the same. The only real winners are those who leave the fair headed in the right direction. Consider if your actions point you towards the city on the hill or the dark pit. If that teaches any lessons they are of your own creation because this is just a game!

Chris Engle
Hamster Press