Review – Letters from Whitechapel
|Designer||Gabriele Mari, Gianluca Santopietro|
|Publisher||Fantasy Flight Games|
Letters from Whitechapel deals with some intense subject matter. Being a game about Jack the Ripper, themes of murder and prostitution permeate the experience. The graphic design of the board features blood spatters, and the game makes references to Jack’s letters describing his crimes, including his so-called “From Hell” letter. The person playing Jack the Ripper selects victims to kill each round. The victims are not specifically referred to as protitutes, but rather “The Wretched.” The historical background included, though not necessary to the game, provides a detailed timeline of the Ripper murders. All of this is somewhat abstracted, but it is a challenging theme nonetheless.
I’ll never forget my first game of Letters from Whitechapel.
It was a nail-biter from start to finish as my friend (playing Jack the Ripper) was barely keeping one step ahead of us (the police). I remember the game came down to the bitter end as we narrowed his hideout down to two possible spots. The way our policemen were positioned, we could barricade one location or the other, but not both. We had to go all in on one. We didn’t know which to choose, and both seemed equally likely. As we deliberated, the Jack player was visibly perspiring under the pressure of the situation, the last two hours hanging in the balance. Essentially the game came down to a fifty-fifty decision, so we opted to let fate decide.
“Heads, we block this space, tails, we block that space.”
It was heads. We won. It was epic. (And the Jack player almost flipped the table.)
Letters from Whitechapel is a one-versus-all game in which one player takes on the role of Jack the Ripper, and everyone else takes on the role of the police trying to catch him. The game is played over four nights (rounds), in each of which Jack must commit a murder and return to his hideout, a previously-selected space on a board of about two hundred spaces. In a cat-and-mouse fashion, the Jack player moves in secret, writing down his movements on a hidden piece of paper. The police then travel around the board trying to determine where Jack and his hideout are by following a trail of clues. Each turn, the police may ask Jack if he has visited certain spaces that night, and if he has, the police place clue markers on those spaces. Using these clues, they try to recreate Jack’s movements, and ultimately catch him to win the game. Jack wins if he evades the police all four nights.
After that crazy first game, Whitechapel shot to the top of my “want to buy” list. I reasoned any game that could create this kind of experience and elicit that level of emotional investment had to be doing something right. Once I acquired it and played through several more rounds, I was disappointed to realize that the game was maybe not as good as I had initially thought. Let me explain.
In my many rounds of Whitechapel, I have come to believe that the success or failure of this game hinges on it following an approximate formula:
- In night one, the police should determine which half of the board contains Jack’s hideout.
- In night two, the police should figure out which quarter of the board contains the hideout.
- In night three, the police should narrow it down to a small area within that quadrant.
- In night four, the police should go for the win, either by staking out his hideout so that it’s inaccessible, or by arresting him.
My theory is if the game follows this pattern, it will almost always be a success. Players will really feel like detectives chasing a murderer. Each night, they will be armed with new knowledge to use, and Jack will continually feel the stress of having the police right on top of him. Games like this are the kind you’ll remember for years (as I can attest).
And then there are the games that don’t go so well, usually in Jack’s favor. If the police don’t get many clues in the first night, it’s a bad omen for the overall fun of the game. I have played games in which we were only able to track Jack’s first three or four moves in the first night, and they didn’t even follow a distinct direction. Basically, at the end of the first round, we had little more information than we started with. Now, this may sound as though we were just playing poorly, but in fact, we were being strategic, spreading out to cover as much ground as we could. Jack, of course, was staying as far away from us as possible, and by the time we found any clues of real value, he was already at his hideout.
If the police fall behind like this, Whitechapel can become frustrating for them, and un-fun for both sides. The police can start to feel like they’re on a wild goose chase, hoping to find a random clue through dumb luck, and Jack will likely not feel any pressure at all, because he is so far ahead of them. It’s very unexciting when the questioning phase goes:
“Have you been here?”
“How about here?”
And so on and so on for ten more spaces. If the police repeatedly get no clues, the game starts to feel pointless.
In my experience, if Whitechapel doesn’t follow the trajectory laid out above, it falls flat. This is, of course, a huge problem.
First, it’s usually in Jack’s best interest to make his hideout close to a red space (a possible murder site, from which he can begin his movement) so he can quickly get there on the fourth night to win the game. This makes strategic sense. However, it’s really unsatisfying when Jack wins immediately at the start of night four, because he kills right next to his hideout and then just waltzes in there before the police get to act. Sure, the police can try to strategize to prevent this, but there is often little they can do about it. (I usually play with the house rule that Jack’s hideout must be at least two spaces away from a red space, so the police have at least one turn to do something. This doesn’t fix the problem entirely, but it makes it a little better.)
Second, I wish there was a way for police to learn if Jack had been to a particular location more than once in a night. The way the game works, when police ask Jack if he has been to a specific space, it’s simply a “yes” or “no” answer. Either he has or he hasn’t. This means that if the police already know that Jack has been to space X, they won’t gain any new information by asking about that space a second time. I would love to see a system in which they can gain additional clues if Jack returned to the space again. This would help with the overall deduction, and it would be totally thematic as well.
Whitechapel exists in a unique binary: it’s either amazing or disappointing. It has the capacity to be tense and exciting or tedious and frustrating, and usually, the first night indicates which it will be. It is critical that the police find substantive new information every night; if they don’t, the game swings in a detrimental way. Jack simply gets further and further ahead, and no one has a good time.
Looking back to that first game I played, I realize that it followed my formula perfectly. It was a dramatic game all the way through, but this is not always the case. I could easily see someone having the opposite experience, where their first game is two grueling hours of playing Go Fish with Jack, only to leave feeling like they’ve wasted their time.
I’m not sure either of these experiences are an accurate representation of Whitechapel. Or perhaps they both are. This game can go either way. There are subtleties to playing both sides, and the game provides lots of opportunities for clever plays. Once the detectives have Jack’s scent, they can make meaningful deductions based on what they know and try to out think and arrest him. On the other hand, the Jack player has the benefit of hearing the table talk, so he gets clued in on their strategy and works to counteract it. It’s a nice push and pull. Jack has lots of potential for trickery, such as doubling back, moving in a roundabout way to mislead his opponents, and using special movement abilities to make the police think he is somewhere he’s not. There is a strong psychological metagame here. It just doesn’t always show.
I would say this is a “try before you buy” game. If you enjoy games like Scotland Yard, Specter Ops, or Fury of Dracula, Letters from Whitechapel is one you might really enjoy. This game has the capacity to be amazing, but it is quite fragile. When it’s good, it’s really good, but it can also be disappointing. It’s worth a try, but potential players should understand what they are getting into.
UPDATE: December 2020
Publisher Giochi Uniti has just released a new edition of Letters from Whitechapel, which Asmodee will be distributing in the US. This addendum will focus on comparing this latest version with the original Nexus Games version I have from 2011.
The 2020 edition of Whitechapel has a few significant improvements over the 2011 edition. For starters, this new printing uses wooden discs instead of cardboard tokens for seeding the board with police and Wretched pawns. (If I’m not mistaken, I believe the 2012 version from Fantasy Flight had these, as well.)
These discs are a major upgrade. Not only are they far more tactile than tokens, but they fix the problem of component wear and tear. As the image above shows, the tokens in my old copy of Whitechapel have seen some color fade from being moved around the board. (As I recall, this happened very quickly, too, after only a couple of plays.) The wooden discs are much more durable and should hold their color more or less indefinitely.
Another improvement is the upgraded privacy screen for the Jack player.
This new screen is larger and more detailed, and it has privacy flaps on the sides to keep opponents from accidentally peeking. What’s more, the original screen from the 2011 edition was laid out like an envelope and was prone to tearing when opened. Happily, the screen in the new version is designed differently, so it eliminates this problem altogether. Its mini-map is also slightly larger, so the Jack player will not have to squint as much to see the numbers on it.
A minor downgrade in quality comes from the the letter pieces. Where the originals were cardboard tiles with thematic illustrations, the new ones are just text on cardstock; not nearly as attractive.
However, the new letter pieces provide much clearer detail about how they work and when they can be used, so there is a slight upside to them.
There are few other small difference between the two versions (e.g. the alleyway tokens are larger in the 2020 release), but they are mostly cosmetic.
Between the two versions, the 2020 release is slightly superior, mostly for the inclusion of wooden discs and a better player screen. The older version is perfectly functional – my copy has seen many plays over the years – but the new version is definitely the one to get for players looking to try this game out.
A review copy of the 2020 edition of Letters from Whitechapel was provided by Asmodee.
The Bottom Line
Letters from Whitechapel has the capacity to be amazing, but its design is quite fragile. It is worth a try, but players should understand that the experience may end up being more frustrating than fun.