|Scotland Yard (1983)
|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Light [1.95]
|Player Count (recommended)
|Manfred Burggraf, Dorothy Garrels, Wolf Hoermann, Fritz Ifland, Werner Scheerer and Werner Schlegel
It occurred to me this morning that we hadn’t yet tackled a hidden movement game for Meeple Like Us. Here we are, almost two hundred games done, and we’ve managed to miss this whole genre entirely. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa. I will begin to make my penance by talking about Scotland Yard – the game that, as far as I am aware, is the precursor to all the popular hidden movement games that you can buy these days. Letters from Whitechapel, Fury of Dracula, Specter Ops… they all trace a direct line back to their honoured ancestor and so this seems like the ideal place to begin our discussion. Consider it too another installment of our occasional series on classic board games.
It’s always weird to be the first to do a thing. Progress is inevitably driven by failure – by learning from errors, both our own and of others, and then doing something different to make sure those errors are avoided in the future. When there are no lessons to learn from the mistakes of others, it puts you in the uncomfortable position of having to make those mistakes yourself. As far as I am aware there were no board game accessibility blogs before Meeple Like Us. No rigorous exploration of the topic at all. Board game accessibility as an academic topic was non-existent, mentioned in foot-notes if at all. I had to invent a methodology, develop a plan of action, and attempt to merge a range of conflicting personal and professional obligations into a working site. I made a lot of mistakes in the first year. I continue to make mistakes now. I admitted to one in the first paragraph of this review. A list of my daily flaws is available in either chronological or alphabetical order on request. Or you can just check any random Reddit thread about our work and find plenty of them explored in tedious detail.
All of this is to say – I have a lot of sympathy for Scotland Yard. I don’t think it holds up especially well after 25 years but it’s hard to mark that out as an actual failing. Its innovation is considerable. Its design compelling. Its presentation notable. It’s just been overtaken by the relentless twin marches of time and competition.
Here’s the deal. One of you plays the nefarious Mr X (I know, we’ll get to that). You’re an outlaw. A rebel. A baby driver being hunted relentlessly by the detectives of Scotland Yard. All the other players control those detectives as they spread out, throwing a net around the city of London. Your job is to avoid capture until a set number of turns have passed. Their job is to end up in the same location as you before that happens.
Each player has a set of tickets that permit them to journey around London. These permit travel by taxi (short distances), bus (medium distance) or underground train (long distances). To move you spend a ticket compatible with your local travel options, choose a destination, and discard that ticket.
All of the detectives are visible on the board, but the only sign you ever see of Mr X is a historical marker of that player’s last known location. The pawn that represents Mr X is a phantom, representing scattered information and eye-witness testimony that someone matching the fugitive’s description was seen at a particular place at a particular time. Unfortunately when any of your detectives get there, Mr X is likely to be long gone. This revelation of location happens several times during the game. If you find Mr X is in a wildly different location to what was expected it forces an abrupt reconsideration of evidence sufficiently aggressive as to result in conceptual whiplash.
Mr X works in a different way. Mr X has access to a special board which snaps shut over a sheet of paper. When moving, Mr X makes a note of to where they moved and covers that part of the paper with a ticket of an appropriate type. ‘I just moved by taxi’, the player might say. ‘Caught a bus and a show’. ‘Took an underground trip and ended up having to pay £3 to a busker that stood in front of me and refused to move until I paid him. It wasn’t even a good version of Hotel California.’. Mr X gets the full London experience, observed from the shadows. All the detectives know is his mode of travel, and occasionally not even that. Mr X begins with a set of ‘black tickets’ that can be used to get a ride on any available mode of transport without revealing it to the fuzz. As such, it can be frustrating to hunt out a target that has the infuriating ability to simply ‘go dark’ and end up at a completely different part of the city without you knowing how. Mr X also has a number of ‘double move’ tokens that permit two tickets to be spent in a turn. The hidden player is elusive, providing they play the game carefully. There are so many more detectives than there are fugitives though, and once they lock your trail down it’s difficult to shake them off.
There’s another little wrinkle though – when detectives use tickets they don’t get replaced. Instead they get given to Mr X. The more generous the detectives are with the public transport of the city, the easier they make the job for the fugitive. The cycle of tickets from detectives to detected has to be balanced with the need to capture Mr X.
So that’s your goal as a police officer. You need to catch up before this miscreant escapes into the bleak night of the British post-Brexit lawless anarchy that extends anywhere north of Watford. The fortress city state of London, where the rich hunt the poor for sport, is a modern version of the Purge. Or it would be if it weren’t for the fact the the police here have the same extra-judicial powers as your average Megacity One judge. Mr X isn’t going to jail. Mr X is being slung into an industrial, assembly-line crematorium wrapped in a flame conducting body-bag. Both parts of the system privately contracted from the Prime Minister’s personal disposals company. Vertical integration of police brutality and state control. Welcome to Tory London!
There is none of that subtext actually in the game but you know – intent is only one factor of the set of things contributing to the message associated with play. Watching modern western democracy crumble into petty little corrupt fiefdoms has a particular effect on me. It casts everything I do and see in a vaguely dystopian tinge.
Anyway, there are certain things that are obvious from this design. The first is that, certainly when regarded within its own time period, it’s extremely creative. There’s a fun asymmetry of information that makes everything tense, and can lead to some exceptionally fraught moments. Particularly as Mr X – you lay down a black ticket while you’re on an underground space, hoping the cops think that you’ve just shot off to another station. Really you took a taxi to the Lidl just around the corner. Nobody has any idea of what you did and yet the net still seems to tighten around you. You see a police car slowly cruise past the alley in which you’re hiding. Somehow they read the truth into your movements. Or maybe your body language. Or maybe when you inspected the board for places to go you gave something away. Whatever it is, they’re not biting on your bait. They’re so close. They’re going to find you. Oh no, one more journey and you’re caught…
… and then they zoom past on their way to another location and you breathe a sigh of relief. Except don’t actually do that because a lot of the game of Scotland Yard is played not on the board but in your physical presence around the table. You need to be calm. Implacable. You need a poker face that doesn’t reveal excitement or anxiety. The detectives draw most of their information from the movement tracker, but every twitch of your face is a potential confirmation of their hunches.
Playing as the detectives on the other hand means trying to reach a consensus of strategy without giving away too much to the fugitive. It involves poring over the map and the move tracker and trying to narrow down the possibilities. It means knowing that every move draws from a precious and limited reserve of tickets. On the other hand, if you do have a good idea of where Mr X has gone it’s also immensely satisfying. It feels good to build the cordon that gradually tightens the search to the inevitable point where you can execute the miscreant in a dark alleyway somewhere.
Surprisingly with all this, Scotland Yard isn’t a guessing game. The board does have important information in it – movement is only ever between a location and its next stop, and as such knowing Mr X took a ‘taxi, a taxi, then a bus’ creates a search radius around the last known location. The more detectives you have pondering the evidence, the more likely you are to be able to constrain a search to a particular region of the board. That said, the use of black tickets can completely undermine this as there are also secret dock areas that will take Mr X from one section of the map to another. If you suspect Mr X has gone to a dock and used a black ticket… are you being thrown off the trail? Did Mr X maybe just back-track in the hope that you’re now going to charge off somewhere else? You’ll find out eventually – Mr X reveals their actual location according to a fixed timetable – but those two or three turns of uncertainty can be the difference between success and failure.
It’s satisfying then to play Scotland Yard, whether you are Mr X or a Detective. And it’s satisfying in different ways. Tense in different ways. Thought provoking in different ways. But unfortunately in every case it’s anti-climatic in the same way.
Imagine this. There are three turns left to go. The detectives are pretty sure they know exactly where Mr X is. Westminster Cathedral. You have detectives nearby. Your target is in a one zone radius of the cathedral itself. Mr X is at location 155, 139, 140 or 153. You know this in your bones. In fact, you’re certain, given the tickets Mr X still has available, that 153 or 140 are the most likely spots. You have two detectives that can get to both this turn. One can take the bus to 140. The other can take a bus to 153. If you’re wrong, you’ve still got your quarry bang to rights because you know where they must be as a result of a process of elimination. It’s only a matter of time. The noose tightens.
‘I don’t have any bus tickets’, says the red detective. ‘I can’t get to 140. Let’s hope Mr X is at 153’
‘Yeah, I don’t have any bus tickets either’, says the yellow detective.
Mr X blinks, and wanders past a detective that to all extents and purposes has frozen up like an old Windows 95 machine trying to connect to the Internet.
And yes, I get that ticket management is an important part of the game but this is so broken from a narrative perspective that it just beggars belief. When the Real Police know the location of a suspect, they don’t hail a taxi. They yell into their lapel mics. ‘HELICOPTERS AND SWAT TO WESTMINSTER, GO, GO, GO! THROW UP A BLOCKADE. LAY DOWN THE STRINGERS. DON’T BRING ME PROBLEMS BRING ME SOLUTIONS! THAT SCUM SHOPLIFTED A WHOLE PIE FROM GREGGS AND WE’RE GONNA NAIL THEM FOR IT’.
In comparison the police in Scotland Yard are so aggressively underfunded that even their bus-passes are limited use. In one sense, this is actually quite endearing – it harkens back to a time when the general perception of police on British streets wasn’t quite so flavoured by Life on Mars. What’s more traditionally British than a slightly crap policeman getting a bus to capture a low-grade criminal for a trivial misdemeanour such as kicking over some bins?
But the real problem with this is that it causes Scotland Yard to kind of fizzle out rather than reach an exciting catharsis. In this scenario Mr X escapes because the detectives run out of ability to pursue, not because they were outsmarted or out manoeuvred. One by one, over a long game, detectives start to petrify in place. There’s no ticket renewal, no ticket trading. Only a limited supply of moves. Lower player counts have access to ‘Bobbies’ that are not quite so restricted but that’s a band-aid over a structural problem.
The other problem is that it’s all a bit… passive on the part of the detectives. They take in information and assess it, but they don’t get to force new information into the game. Imagine a version of this where the police actually had a toolkit. Where they could send, for example, a helicopter to scout out a particular region or could block off roads. Where they could temporarily call a halt to bus traffic, or random spot checks of taxis for a set period of time. Just something that carried with it the sense of problem solving rather than mere data analysis. We’re not talking ‘The Sweeney’ here. You’re not Regan and Carter. You’re one of the nameless flatfoots on the radio co-ordinating incoming reports from bystanders. There’s a lot to analyse, but not a lot to do.
The game also feels unbalanced at every player count. Too few players and there’s too much that can go missed and Mr X has a profound advantage. Too many players and eyes on the problem and then none of the detectives makes mistakes and Mr X has an equally profound disadvantage. This isn’t helped by the physical imbalance that goes along with information. Mr X must move covertly, and there are hundreds of locations on the board. How does Mr X know where they can go, and what routes permit them access? They look at the board. What happens when they look at the board? Every detective watches where their eyes linger. If you’ve spent a minute examining Hyde Park and its various routes you’ve pretty much given away your location without needing to make a single move. Or maybe not – it depends on how comfortable you are with pantomime. You can certainly permit Mr X to examine the board in secret by having all the detectives turn their backs or leave the room but that’s not exactly conducive to a fun game. Especially given how often it will need to be done.
As I said at the start though – you need to consider these flaws in context. At the time, these were design decisions with unexplored consequences and it’s only the robust testing of twenty-five years that has really revealed their problems. Scotland Yard is a game that seems lessened in comparison to its competition because it hasn’t had the virtue of the hindsight it itself permitted to others. It’s still a game worthy of attention – just not one easily recommended given the relative improvements many similar games have made on its core formula. That said, Scotland Yard is still a lot more intuitive than its meatier descendants and the simplicity by itself may be reason enough to pick it up.