Inspiration on the Tabletop
The Blending of History, Literature, and Gaming
“Greetings gentlemen. The case you’re on is taking uncommon significance. The acts of the one called ‘Jack the Ripper’ since the publication of the famous ‘Dear Boss’ letter are putting to the test the highest echelons of the Metropolitan Police and of the C.I.D.”
You may not recognize the above Sherlock Holmes quote, likely because it was not penned by the illustrious Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The words come instead from the latest game in the Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective line. Entitled Jack the Ripper & West End Adventures, the upcoming release bears a name which truly speaks for itself. This collection fuses two noteworthy characters from the late 1800s, one of historical fact, and one from popular fiction. The Consulting Detective series has always been unique with respect to its gripping storytelling and intriguing mysteries, all based on the famous Sherlock Holmes. The new title, however, introduces a whole new level immersion by including historical context as well. Between literature and history, the game is born out of a perfect storm of past events and famous fiction—both often used for inspiration in media of all sorts. In today's article, we'll discuss the place for these stories on the tabletop, and exactly how they came together to inspire four brand-new Consulting Detective cases.
Tabletop Games in Context
Effectively a "choose your own adventure" criminal investigation in a tabletop format, Consulting Detective is certainly a more narrative board game experience than most, but it's far from the only time a board game has taken inspiration from history or popular media. Some abstract and family games utilize general themes and lighter narrative, focusing more on mechanics and gameplay than storytelling and subject matter. Others, however, derive heavy themes and atmosphere from well-known pieces of literature and famed historical figures.
Books, plays, and other classic literature can inspire games to different levels of depth. The Little Prince: Make Me A Planet, for example, is directly based on the story of The Little Prince, pulling quotes and characters directly from the beloved story. Shakespeare, on the other hand is a bit more distant, using characters from Shakespeare's most famous works, but also including more general ideas of working in the theater. Half of the game is deeply ingrained in its source material, while the other half leaves players more room to roam in their imaginary staging of a play.
Even further still from the literature that drives the genre is Mysterium. Last month, we dug into the murder mystery genre as it relates to our Sherlock Holmes titles, but this also applies to other murder mysteries. The investigative genre of literature eventually led to early role-playing games, simple tabletop titles, and now, the loosely narrated yet deeply thematic game of clues and interpretation—Mysterium. There is no one work in particular that the game is tied to, but instead, there's a broader literary theme and historical context that informs the very existence of such a game.
Yet another angle at storytelling in board games, related to those general literary themes, are games that center around the storytelling itself. StoryLine is one that puts its players in the position of "author," providing a framework and a number of thematic elements, and then leaving you to fill in the blanks and expand the story beyond the cards in front of you. It's truly an exercise in narrative creativity, encouraging players to think broadly about its well-defined themes, such as fairy tales and scary stories.
Any discussion of literature must also acknowledge the inspiration for that media—life itself. It is history and its many stories, passed along in many ways, that give us the inspiration for our words, both fact and fiction. Many of history's creations, adventures, and events have resulted in the books, television, and film we read and see every day. Tabletop games often follow the same path, and again, to varying degrees.
Games like 7 Wonders and Legendary Inventors take elements from history and build an intriguing game around them. You may be familiar with the many landmarks portrayed in 7 Wonders or the brilliant minds on your team in Legendary Inventors, although your actions and the possibilities in-game may be more in focus. Both of these games, however, include subtle yet keen details related to their inspiration. The wonder of your civilization in 7 Wonders, for example, requires certain resources and provides unique advantages, many of which offer a bit of insight into the civilization at its time. Similarly, the characters in Legendary Inventors are sorted carefully into teams based on their place in history, and each one has both starting and target skills that can be matched to that inventor's real-life contributions. Fun fact: the game also contains a bibliographical booklet for further reading!
Other games in our collection that approach history from a playful tabletop perspective are Lewis & Clark and Nations. Both games begin at the launching point of their respective historical endeavors—either the exploration of unfamiliar lands or the development and progression of a great civilization. Then, players are given the freedom to forge their own path, whether it parallels those taken in history or deviates from them.
Jack the Ripper in Holmes' London
The Jack the Ripper & West End Adventures collection in particular takes both of these sorts of inspiration one step further. The basis for the game comes from neither history nor literature alone, but carefully intertwines the two, weaving the fictional Holmes into historical events which took place in reality during the same time he was investigating crimes in his fictional London. Beyond that, the Jack the Ripper cases are heavily and faithfully rooted in nearly all the known and publicized facts about the Ripper.
During the self-named Jack the Ripper's killing spree, which took place from August to November of 1888, the culprit claimed five women's lives. With the exception of one controversial case, each of the murders was more gruesome than the last, as you will discover throughout each harrowing investigation in the game. Interestingly, Sherlock Holmes had just made his first appearance in-print shortly before, A Study in Scarlet having been released the year before the five canonical murders took place. His widespread popularity, however, is generally not noted until 1891. Thus, a connection between Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes may not have been broadly recognized at the time. In the century since, however, the connection has been drawn more than a few times, as many would like to imagine that if anybody could have caught the nefarious criminal, it would have been the fictional Holmes.
Chronicles on Cardboard
Some stories are passed via newspapers, others via word of mouth, and some in engaging, though fictional, novels. Whichever channel through which the story came, there are endless ways to interpret, twist, and retell them. Across the top of a table is our way, because it is these stories which always have and always will bring people together.
The deeply narrative Jack the Ripper & West End Adventures will be available at your local game store early next year.