Monday, April 4, 2011

Scotland Yard and the Case of the Shorted Tickets

My first experience with Scotland Yard was at a family get-together. My sister had found it at a garage sale after a friend of hers told her it was a great two-player game. While I'm not sure it fits this bill, and I'm not sure it was the best fit for my family, Scotland Yard is an enjoyable--albeit sometimes frustrating--way to pass an hour.

Scotland Yard is a simple, semi-cooperative game for two to six players. One player controls Mr. X, a criminal trying to elude capture by the Scotland Yard detectives. The other one to five players play as the Scotland Yard detectives trying to capture Mr. X. The board is a map of London, and each space on the board bears a number and tells what modes of public transit stop at that space.

This is an older version of the game, similar to the one I
have. You can see on this picture the numbered spaces.
What makes Scotland Yard interesting is the movement. All movement in Scotland Yard, for Mr. X and the detectives, takes place on public transit--either by taxi, bus, or underground. (Mr. X has an added mode of transport, the water taxi.) Each ride costs a ticket of the corresponding type. The detectives have a limited supply of tickets for each, and when a detective uses a ticket, he hands it to Mr. X to form Mr. X's ticket supply, essentially giving Mr. X unlimited tickets. Mr. X's moves are hidden, and he only places his pawn on the board after every three to five moves. He secretly records his moves on a sheet using the number on the space where he moves, and the only information he reveals to the detectives is the way he traveled to that space.

What I like about Scotland Yard is the amount of interactivity. Table talk is encouraged, and this is the most fun part of the game. The detectives are working together to try to nab Mr. X, and the game keeps up the tension the whole way through. I also like that the detectives have a shorted supply of tickets (that is, they cannot take whatever transport they want the whole game). This forces careful planning and budgeting of tickets early on, as Mr. X will most likely escape by taxi if the detectives are not careful. Playing as Mr. X has its own set of challenges. You try not to reveal where you are or show on your face when the detectives hit on your strategy. You also try not to celebrate when they completely miss the boat (or water taxi). I typically try to provide Mr. X with a pair of sunglasses; newer, fancier versions than my garage sale find now include a hat that says "Mr. X" on it (which is a nice touch, though I doubt Mr. X would advertise himself like that on London transit). I also like that Scotland Yard is simple--you can teach it in about five minutes--but the strategy is deeper than the initial simplicity of the gameplay. And because it is mostly cooperative, new players can join in and not be expected to have fully formed strategies at the start.

What I don't like about Scotland Yard is that the game is tipped--almost overwhelmingly so--in Mr. X's favor. Mr. X's ticket supply is not limited. He also has two tiles that allow him to move twice, helping him elude capture. He can take the water taxi. Catching Mr. X, in my (admittedly limited) experience, is rare. I suppose this makes it that much more gratifying when you do capture him, but Mr. X is more often caught by a fatal error in his logic than in the superiority of the detectives'. Also, Scotland Yard is a fairly cerebral game and can result in long, analysis-heavy turns. And because it is a cooperative game, it can become a "ringleader" kind of game, where one player calls the shots and the other players do his bidding. (I'm sure I'm guilty on all these counts.)

Scotland Yard isn't the kind of game I'd pull out all the time, or even often, but I do enjoy it most of the time I play it. If you're in the mood for a strictly cooperative game, I would choose Pandemic over Scotland Yard, but if you're looking for a mostly cooperative game with an added element of human unpredictability and competition, Scotland Yard should be a hit.


  1. My uncle tried to teach my brothers and me this game back in 1984. We made a trip to MI for a funeral, and my hopelessly cerebral uncle tried to entertain 5 boys aged 13-6. This was not the best choice of games for that goal.

  2. Er...yeah, that doesn't seem to fit the occasion.

  3. I've had a slightly different experience than you as far as the success of Mr. X. My experience has been that the ideal number of players is four. With three detectives and a Mr. X, I find it to be split about 50-50 as to which side wins. If you have four or five detectives, it seems that they win more than half the time, while less than three is almost a guaranteed win for Mr. X.

    I can't help but wonder if part of the reason for those statistics is because I usually play it with good friends who have a similarly devious mind. I foresee what the other would do because that is what I would do, and vice versa. I find when I play contrary to my instincts as Mr. X, I'm more likely to win if I play mistake free, but I'm also more likely to make a mistake and lose.

    Either way, it's a good game, and I agree that Pandemic is superior to Scotland Yard. I really enjoy your reviews.

  4. Joel, do you play it consistently with the same group of friends? I've played with a different group each time , so that could explain why nabbing Mr. X is so hard (I'd be less likely to see in those few plays how players think as detectives and Mr. X). It might get easier as you play with the same group.

    I don't know if you've tried the expansion to Pandemic (I haven't), but there is a game mode added that is similar to Scotland Yard, with one player acting against the team and logging his moves secretly. A Scotland Yard killer...? Okay, probably not, because SY takes place in London exclusively--and who doesn't want to play a game centered in London?

  5. I don't always play with the same group, but I have only rarely played once with a group of people. Some of the success comes from the familiarity that comes about in playing strategy games, but I think the more games you play, the more you recognize tendencies in each other that you have to fight over time.

    I haven't played that particular mode of the Pandemic expansion, but I look forward to playing it. However, I share your sentiments that you can't replace the London aspect of Scotland Yard. I'll let you know if/when I do play that mode.