Boardtalk Empire - Mr Jack!

Imagine, if you will (and you'd better) that it's 1888. You're in the Whitechapel district of London. A thick, unrelenting fog holds every street and alleyway in it's murky grip. And somewhere, amongst eight people prowling the streets, is a murderer. Namely, Jack the Ripper. Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, Miss Stealthy, Sergeant Goodley and several other people are hunting for Jack, but one of them IS Jack. And if Jack leaves escapes, the game is over. Which, if history is correct, will not bode well for the women of London.

Sound harrowing? Well, Mr. Jack does manage to make the prospect of pursuing/aiding a serial killer in a lattice of overcrowded slums unbelievably joy-inducing, which I guess is a little weird morally, but hey, it's a board game. And it's a pretty good one at that; it's reasonably quick to play, the rules aren't encyclopedic or world-altering (like, say, those required to play Twilight Imperium), and it's one of those rare two-player board games that doesn't feel stunted and boorish.

So how does a typical game of Mr. Jack work? Well, there are eight characters in play at any one time, each of them ostensibly stalking the streets of Whitechapel in search of The Ripper. Each of them has a particular power useful for uncovering suspects, and the eight are shuffled and divided evenly amongst both players. Before the game begins, you choose who will be The Detective, and who will be Jack. The Detective's job is to figure out which of your four characters is the killer, and your job is to get your killer to the exit without being caught. This is where Mr. Jack gets really interesting.

For example: in the game I played last, I kept my characters milling about, half in, half out of sight of lamps (more on this shortly), hoping that my opponent would assume I was hoping to win by avoiding detection until the eighth turn, which is the only other way for Jack to prevail. Then, four turns in, I sent one of my characters screaming towards an exit, having cleared a path deliberately all game up until that point. My opponent, sprung the trap on Miss Stealthy, and, too late, realised the whole thing had been an elaborate cover. You see, Stealthy wasn't Jack, but she didn't have to be to make Jack's escape possible; Sherlock Holmes (how messed up is that, incidentally?) fanged it out of a southern exit, and I stood up to cheer the escape of a serial killer. Which only felt weird much, much later.

So how do you reveal the killer? Well, at the end of each turn, The Detective asks gets to ask whether Jack is in light or in shadow. Any tile adjacent to one of the various gas lamps around the game board will light up a suspect, and Watson has a lantern on him at all times that achieves the same thing. In this way, each turn The Detective can whittle down suspects, until you're left with one scared psychopath. And because at various points you get to control different characters and utilise their powers (you get to shuffle and draw the characters each turn), you can maneuvre the various investigators into and out of the light to narrow down your list of suspects quicker.

If there's one flaw in Mr. Jack, it would be the lopsided gameplay. If the game utilised asymetrical gameplay mechanics - i.e., playing as Mr. Jack took place with different rules, powers and mechanics - this wouldn't be an issue. Here, though, the fun is derived from the uniformity of play, and somehow the Mr. Jack player seems to have statisitcally lower odds of winning. This does mean that a Mr. Jack victory feels ten times more gratifying, but after asking around and trawling message boards, this seems to be a pretty common complaint. Having said that, it's entirely possible that the two expansions might add a degree of balance to the game, which frankly would add to a thoroughly enjoyable little title. 

Next week, I'll be reviewing the two player card game, Android Netrunner, in which hackers attempt to bring down evil corporations WITH THEIR BRAIN POWERS. I'm not even kidding. It's going to be awesome.

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