One of the stranger themes in games is that of Jack the Ripper. If you don’t know anything about this famously unsolved case, here it is in a nutshell: between the years of 1888 and 1891, eleven women were murdered in the Whitechapel district of London. It is unclear about who the killer was, but five of these women were attributed to a mysterious killer known only as Jack the Ripper. The brutality of the murders, along with the fact that we still don’t know who did it, has captured the imagination of the general public for well over a century. At the time, the media was all over this story, which may have sparked some copycat murders, but some letters that link what has come to be known as the “canonical five” made authorities believe that the Ripper was the murderer of those.
As an odd of a theme as that is for a supposedly “fun” experience, several games have been made about the subject, notably Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper and Mr. Jack. Now a new one is coming out called Letters from Whitechapel. The game was designed by Gabriele Mari and Gianluca Santopietro and is being published internationally by Nexus Games. You can play with 2-6 people aged 14 and up, and you can expect a game to last two and a half hours. Aside from the heavy team, the game is a deductive experience that seems to be reminiscent of something like Scotland Yard or Fury of Dracula. Without even knowing too much about it, I have to say that it has one of the most intriguing box covers I’ve ever seen.
Inside the box, you get a board that shows Whitechapel in 1888. There are five police sheets, one for each investigator, and a Jack the Ripper sheet for Jack. There are 5 head of investigation tiles, 7 black police patrol tokens, 8 white woman tokens (5 of which are marked with red), one red time of the crime token, 5 special movement tokens, and 4 Jack’s letter tiles. There are 5 white wooden pawns (“wretched”), 2 black pawns (Jack), and 1 wooden policeman pawn for each of the player colors. Jack gets a player screen, as well as a pad of movement tracking sheets. The game also includes three transparent yellow False Clue tokens, 19 transparent white Clue tokens, and 5 transparent red Crime Scene tokens.
One player will be Jack for this game, while the other players will be the detectives trying to catch him. Jack will be performing moves secretly on his tracking pad (you have to supply your own pencil). He’ll have to choose a Hideout, which can any numbered circle on the board that isn’t red. Jack’s goal is to return to his Hideout after the night’s murders without being arrested. The detectives have the opposite objective – either capture Jack or prevent him from returning to his Hideout. All five policemen will always be used, so with fewer than six players, someone will be controlling more than one cop.
A game of Letters from Whitechapel takes place over four game turns, referred to as “nights”. Each round represents one of the nights in 1888 when the canonical five were murdered – August 31, September 8, September 30, and November 9. Each night follows the same sequence, and is divided into two parts: Hell and Hunting.
The Hell phase is the build-up to, and the committing of the murder for the night. Based on which night it is, Jack will collect a number of special movement tokens – Coach tokens, which allows Jack to move an extra space; and Alley tokens, which allows Jack to cross a block of buildings. Jack will also distribute Women tokens to red numbered circles around the board. Five of these are marked with red, marking the targets. The other three are unmarked. Marked tokens will be out of play after each night.
The police will then patrol the streets. One policeman is the Head of the Investigation (as determined by a tile draw). He’ll place the police patrol tokens face down on yellow bordered crossings on the board in any order. Two of these are black, while the others are marked with player colors. The black ones are false patrols to confuse Jack.
Now Jack reveals the potential victims. He flips all the women over, then replaces all the red marked ones with the wretched pawns. The red Time of Crime token goes on I of the Time track. Jack can now either kill a victim or wait. If he waits, you move to the “Suspense Grows” phase. The time token moves to the next number (V is the end…if the time token is on V, Jack must kill). The HOI then moves each wretched pawn one space to an adjacent, unoccupied circle. It can’t end its move in a space with a police patrol token, or a crime scene. After this movement, Jack may reveal one of the police patrol tokens. If it’s black, it is removed; otherwise, it stays on the board. Jack then makes the decision whether or not to kill again.
When Jack finally kills someone, he removes a wretched pawn from the board, discarding it and one of the red marked tokens from the game. The pawn is replaced with a crime scene token. Jack will note the time of the crime (I-V) on his pad, as well as the circle where the crime was committed. This is his current position. During the third night, Jack will be killing two victims (the so-called “double event”). An alarm sounds, and all detectives are revealed and replaced with pawns. All remaining wretched pawns are removed from the board. It’s now time for the Hunting.
First, Jack makes a move to an adjacent numbered circle, then advances his pawn one space on the move track. There are 15 spaces, plus the five for the time of the crime (I-V). If Jack hasn’t reached his hideout by the time he gets to 15, he loses. He can use a special movement token if he wants. As soon as he makes it to his hideout, he announces his success and the night ends.
After Jack moves, the police all move a distance of two crossings, ignoring the circles. Each cop also gets to execute one action – collect clues or execute an arrest. You can collect clues by naming any one of the numbered circles around you. Jack must then tell you if it appears anywhere in the current night’s row, then must place a clue token there. This means that space was on Jack’s path. To execute an arrest, announce one circle you are next to. If Jack is there, he is arrested and you win. If not, tough.
The night ends when Jack reaches his hideout, or when he is arrested, or if the move track reaches 15 before Jack escapes. If Jack reaches his hideout, move on to the next night. If four nights have passed, Jack wins. If the police succeed in arresting Jack or preventing him from reaching his hideout, they win.
When I first started looking at this game, I was thinking that it didn’t really offer anything new to the hidden character movement genre. However, I’m more interested as I look at the rules. The game is very thematically rich, and though it’s such a brutal story, it’s quite interesting how the game appears to play out. It’s interesting that there are two halves of a game turn – the set up, and the chase. It’s also interesting that only two people are playing the first half. I’m sure everyone will contribute opinions in that first half, but there’s one person on the police side versus Jack. I like that you get some bluffing elements on both sides during the first half. The time track is also interesting because the longer Jack waits, the more moves he’ll have on the way to his hideout. However, the police will get to move the potential victims closer to the cops, making it more difficult for Jack to get away.
The theme of this game seems like it will make it a tough sell. Other games that have done this one player versus all the others typically use fictional source material for their theme – Scotland Yard, Fury of Dracula, Mansions of Madness, etc. This game is using a true story, and is very factually based. There’s even a rundown of the history included in the rules. People play simulations all the time – wargames are very popular, and historical games like Twilight Struggle are about periods of time that can be just as dark. However, the story of Jack the Ripper might rub some people the wrong way.
I was initially attracted to this game by the gorgeous box art, but I have a feeling that there’s a wonderful intellectual exercise of a game behind it, especially if you can get past the dark theme. I’m really wanting to try this game now after delving into the rules. It’s a game that is listed as lasting 150 minutes, but it could be much shorter if Jack doesn’t play well. Apparently, the game will soon be on shelves in the US (March 16 is the last I heard), so I’m curious to see some reviews as people get to play it. It retails for $50 if you’re interested. I know I am…maybe not something I want for myself, but definitely something I want to try.
Thanks for reading!