Grisly, gruesome, great - Letters From Whitechapel Review (Nick O'Neill)
Letter From Whitechapel is the gruesome forerunner to the recent Fantasy Flight release Whitehall Mystery. Both deal with the kind of subject matter probably best not talked about in front of the children, namely the grisly murders of women in late nineteenth century London. Whitechapel goes so far as to place one of its players in the role of Jack The Ripper him(presumably him)self, while on the other side of the table the gallant police force search desperately for clues in an attempt to stop the maniac in his tracks.
Whitechapel has lain unplayed on my shelf longer than any other game, over three years, and yet there was something in those clean and clear rules that kept drawing me back to this box, tempting me to get it to the table. There were rumours that it could be too long for what it offered, that the tension was just a little too significant – my other half only rarely deals well with gaming tension – but the arrival of Whitehall Mystery in the house finally pushed me to blow away three layers of dust, skim the rules, and get it played. Oh, and it was Halloween as well.
Whitechapel will accommodate up to six players, but given that its basic premise is one against everybody else it plays perfectly well and probably more quickly as a simple head to head game. The beautifully illustrated and atmospheric board shows part of 1880s London, numbered circles and unnumbered squares all linked to each other in a delicate spider's web of possibilities. At the beginning of each game “night” Jack will strike in one or two of those circles and then try to evade capture until he makes his way back to his lair. Meanwhile the police will move around hunting for clues and attempting to arrest Jack or to keep him from making it back to his hideout until dawn arrives.
The component quality of Letters From Whitechapel, at least in the revised edition, is pleasingly high. The board is large, thick and heavy, while the tokens give the impression of being able to withstand repeated use without damage, an important quality in a game where many of them need to be indistinguishable from one another. The rule book, player aids and the board itself and all drenched in the theme of the time - a fact here, a splash of blood there, all enough information to lure the players into that accursed world.
Letters From Whitechapel plays out its barbaric drama over four game “nights”, each of which is divided into two phases, appropriately named Hell and The Hunting. The first half of each of these nights sees Jack stalk his prey, seeking the ideal combination of circumstances to strike and make good his escape. The way that this is achieved is simple and clever, a wonderful illustration of clear and simple game design that opens up a realm of possibilities for the players. Jack and the police are provided with a set of markers each, and both sets contain some decoy tokens. Jack's tokens represent possible victims while the police markers represent the trusty old foot soldiers of the Met, but neither side can be entirely sure of what the other side is up to. Once the white markers are revealed Jack's possible murder locations become known, but it is only when he strikes that the locations of the policemen are revealed, and then the chase is on – the police know for sure where he has just been, but cannot tell where he is now.
In the second part of each night Jack and the police take turns, Jack to move between adjacent numbered circles and the police to move between junctions and seek clues or attempt an arrest, but this is trickier than it sounds because there is no physical representation of Jack on the game board. Instead Jack keeps his location written down behind a screen as he ducks and dives and weaves his way around the city, sometimes using a coach or an alleyway to make escape easier. If the police search for clues in a circle that has been written down on Jack's sheet then they place a marker on that circle. They know for sure that Jack has been there this particular night, but what is so tantalising is that he could still be there, but that would take another policeman to attempt an arrest, and if nobody is nearby then Jack could slip through your fingers.
As the game progresses the number of potential victims is reduced, and with them the possibilities for Jack, and he also needs to strike twice on the third night, what Ripperologists term the “double event”. Jack is also slowly deprived of his alternative means of transport, meaning that an easy getaway on night one becomes a much closer run things by nights three and four.
Playing as Jack is a visceral and thrilling experience. Some of those circles are far enough apart to be useful, while others can get you trapped, as Jack is not allowed to pass over a crossing with a policeman on it, unless he is travelling by coach. You want to get back to your lair, but over the course of the first three nights any astute police players will have narrowed down where that might be. It is a game of slipping and sliding, of doubling back and false leads, and the feeling when a policeman is standing right next to you but does not know you are there is simply delicious. After the first game Jack will go away from the table already planning strategy for the next encounter.
For the police the first night of the game can be a distinctly underwhelming experience as the vast majority of the board remains blank, but as the game progresses clues will appear, and the game is all about narrowing down the range of possibilities of where Jack is and his destination, so that by the fourth night things should be delicately poised. Some will prefer to be the hunter and some the hunted – personally I am enjoying the game much more as the police, especially as I get to feel the thrill of putting together fragmentary and widely dispersed clues in a desperate attempt to collar a maniac.
Despite what has felt like a reasonably balanced experience, a game like this can tip off-centre if one side is a seasoned veteran while the other is new to the game. Helpfully Letters From Whitechapel comes equipped with various options to tip the balance either way, so if players feel that the game is too one-sided then it can be adjusted to make it a fairer battle, especially useful if, say, you have an experienced Jack against a novice police force. Cleverly, these options are linked into the theme of the game rather than simply being addenda for the sake of it.
It cannot be ignored, however, that Letters From Whitechapel deals with some truly gruesome events, and the idea of pretending to be a depraved killer will certainly not be to everybody's taste. Time has placed these murders at a distance, but there is no getting away from the brutality and horror of those killings. Other games deal with similarly uneasy themes, such as Hostage Negotiator, but it essentially comes down to using discretion as purchaser and player. At a push, you could always pretend that you are hunting down some rapscallion who has been stealing iPads from various Victorian gentlemen. Or maybe not.
Perhaps part of the reason that some might feel uncomfortable playing Whitechapel is that the atmosphere of the game is so pervasive that it is hard to feel that this particular board and these particular components could belong to any other time and place. The locations, times and groupings of the murders in the game are all as historically accurate as can be, given that there needs to be some leeway for the sake of the enjoyment of the players, and one genuinely feels concerned for the “wretched” (for thus they are called) as they wander the streets in the dead of night. Sorry, as their tokens move across the board. See? I told you it was atmospheric!
Gruesome or not, Letters From Whitechapel provides a genuinely enthralling gaming experience, and one whose rules are crisp and clear, so refreshing when much modern gaming has exceptions here and multiple mechanisms there. In an era when so many releases appear to have complicated and contradictory rules just for the sake of looking all grown up, Whitechapel is delightfully easy to learn, especially with the included player aids, and after a single practice round players will be able to concentrate fully on the gaming experience and what it offers. It also gradually reveals itself as surprisingly and delicately thematic in the playing, at least for the police – if you do not get fresh clues immediately after a murder then Jack could end up being almost anywhere on the board. You need to get to him quickly. Jack, on the other hand, encounters more risk after every murder, gives away more of himself to an astute opponent.
If the game plays out to its full length and with the maximum complement of gamers then it can easily go to and beyond the two hour mark as police players take turns to lead the investigation and discussions take place about the best possible moves, but there will also be shorter games when Jack is caught earlier on. Even so, the game is so involving once it is really under way that it only rarely feels as though it is dragging, and it never commits that cardinal error of having too little fun to fill the gaming time.
Whitehall Mystery is the newly-arrived reinterpretation of Whitechapel, offering a pared down and leaner but similar experience, playable in less time, and I am looking forward to seeing what it has to offer. Maybe it will give me that Whitechapel fix when I only have an hour to spare and fancy a little sleuthing, but I have to admit that the wider screen approach of its bigger and older brother is going to take some beating. It is not often that a game excites me this much in the first play and maintains that level of excitement, even heightening it, in subsequent plays, even rarer that my gaming partner gives out high praise, and yet Whitechapel has slotted into this exalted category without fuss or bother. It is early days for this, but it seems to have the potential to slot solidly into the top stratum of our favourite games, and for a grizzled gamer of many years that takes some doing. Letters From Whitechapel is a gripping and involving experience, atmospheric, thematic, cruel and rewarding in equal measure, and it has the potential to remain fresh for a long time - I am giving it 9 out of 10.
My name is Nick O'Neill and I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including complete seasons of Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it. I review for GamesQuest UK, write for Yaah! Magazine and tweet gaming thoughts @meepleonboard. In real life I am @ukcomposer.