Review: Letters from Whitechapel – Excellent When Fixed
In Letters from Whitechapel, the players attempt to catch the elusive Jack the Ripper and end his murder spree. Well, not all of the players. One of the group will take on the role of Jack and try to escape into the night after committing his murders. This all-against-one game may have some very strong themes, but the gameplay and enjoyment is just as great.
The Basics. Letters from Whitechapel is a hidden movement game. One player plays Jack. The board is a map of the streets of the Whitechapel district with every space numbered. There are well over a hundred spaces for Jack and the board is very large – this gives a lot of room for Jack to maneuver.
At the start of the game, the Jack player selects one area to be his “hideout.” He also selects several “the Wretched” tokens and places them on the board in specific locations – two of which are decoys. Then, the other players operate as the police trying to catch Jack. One of them is the lead for the round and selects the starting positions. There are five police and two decoy tokens, so Jack doesn’t know which are true and which aren’t. Then, the real Wretched tokens are replaced with pawns and the round begins.
Jack can either strike immediately or wait. If he waits, the police can move the Wretched pawns – likely to a more advantageous spot for them. But Jack can also select one of the police tokens and discover whether it is real or a decoy. Jack has the option to do this several turns but ultimately must select a victim. That pawn is removed and replaced with a red disc.
Then, Jack attempts to return to his home base from the scene of the murder. Meanwhile, the police try to track him down. Police can search for clues at a neighboring circle and will find one if Jack has been down that road. The goal is to catch and arrest him before he gets back to his hideout.
The game lasts four rounds. If Jack makes it back all four nights, then he wins. But if the police can deduce his hideout and capture Jack, then the police win.
The Feel. One of the great things about the game is that it feels very different depending on if you are Jack or one of the Police – but both experiences provide extreme tension, edge-of-your-seat gameplay, and excited heart palpitations.
Being one of the police means you’ve got teammates. The game takes on a cooperative nature as the police players discuss tactics, strategy, and decisions – often right in front of Jack. Since Jack’s moves are hidden, the police grope about on the board looking for clues. When that first clue is found, the game immediately intensifies.
Now, the police know a direction. They know where he was (the murder scene) and they know another place he went. This allows the police to narrow their search. And, depending on when the clues were found, they get an idea of how long it took Jack to reach that spot and how much further he could be beyond them. It’s nearly impossible to apprehend Jack the first night, but over the course of three or four rounds, the location of his hideout can be narrowed down considerably.
For the Jack player, the game can be incredibly tense. Jack records his movement on a separate sheet of paper. Even though Jack is off the board, he knows precisely where he is – and he can see the police players closing in around him. It can be especially unnerving when one of the police posits a theory about the route you took and advocates his fellows to investigate and you know that he is absolutely correct. At that point, you simply hope against hope that he is unpersuasive.
Jack also gets a few special abilities – a coach and a lamp that can allow him to move quicker, past police, or cut across an alley. The police will know when Jack used these items, which can make them risky to use. Or, they can be used simply for misdirection.
The experience for every player, then, is incredibly tense. One wrong move and you might be caught! Or one wrong move and Jack escapes! It is one of the few games where it feels like each and every decision is of critical importance. There is no economic engine or self-sustaining mechanic that you can get under control. Instead, it’s a constant cat and mouse game.
However, Letters from Whitechapel does have one major flaw. The rules, as written are completely broken in Jack’s favor. “Broken” is not a word I throw around all that often. A game can be bad without being broken. Letters is broken. If played by the rules as written (and confirmed by the designer), Jack can win without the police ever having a chance.
As written, Jack cannot kill a victim in the same place twice. But, once the wretched moves, he can reuse the same spawning point. So he selects a hideout near a spawning point, has the Wretched move one or two spaces, and kills them. He gets back to his hideout in one or two turns before the police can get any clues or information. Repeat for the next rounds and win. Broken and no fun.
Luckily, there is a house rule or variant that fixes this. You simply play that Jack cannot reuse a spawn point for the Wretched. With this fix, the game rests back into balance.
One quick word about the theme. Some have argued that Letters is far too violent, or is tasteless. After all, it recreates events that really happened. Several women were really killed in the Whitechapel district, and we shouldn’t make light of it. But I disagree. Under that argument, just about every war game trivializes the heroic sacrifice made by the brave men and women in uniform. And moving colored pawns and placing discs on a board is so far removed from the real events that any comparison just seems silly.
Components: 3.5 of 5. For the most part, Letters uses fairly standard bits. Cardboard tokens for the special powers. Clear discs for clues. Red discs for murder sites. Nothing really special. But the gameboard is really quite cool. The detail is fantastic, the artwork is evocative, and the movement tracks provide a fantastic tension. For that reason, the score gets bumped up a bit.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 5 of 5. Letters is a nearly pure strategy game. There are almost no luck elements. The only luck is when Jack tries to reveal a police token and tries to see whether something is a decoy or not. And, even then the police aren’t placed randomly but are instead placed by the opposing players. Letters ensures that all players are firmly in control of the game – and that’s what lends the incredible engagement and tension to the game.
Mechanics: 0.5 of 5 (4.5 of 5 fixed). The game is flat out broken. It’s a team game where, with the rules as written, one team can win 99% of the time. If it weren’t for the fix, this game would be utterly unplayable. And the funny thing is, the fix is so obvious I’m wondering why it wasn’t included as part of the ruleset. It seems like something that was somehow missed during playtesting. With the fix, the game provide a wonderful cat-and-mouse situation that creates an absolutely fantastic experience.
Replayability: 0.5 of 5 (5 of 5 fixed). Rules as written, Jack always wins. With the fix, this game has incredible replay value. With the board as big as it is, Jack can select from well over a hundred potential hideouts. Each one brings it’s own challenges and advantages which make the game unique. But the real variety is found in the opposing players. Jack and the police will constantly have to react to one another and re-tune their strategies.
Spite: 0 of 5. Despite it being a competitive game, Letters is without spite entirely. There is nothing that either side can do to directly harm or remove the other. In fact, the asymmetric goals of the game make it impossible for spite to occur.
Overall: 0.5 of 5 (4.5 of 5 fixed). Without the fix, the game is a snore and loses all tension. With the fix, the game is a fantastic, exciting, wonderful diversion for up to six players. I find that it’s actually best with six. The police can collaborate and scheme among themselves. That collusion and discussion is of pivotal importance to the fun. Although the game can be played two player – with one individual operating all of the police – it definitely loses something. Play it with the full compliment, and be prepared for an absolutely delightful gaming experience.