by Dave Neale
“As I have said before, Toby, we would benefit from more leadership and a clearer set of rules, like the humans have.”
“I don’t want to be like a human,” says Calabash. “No web comes out of their bottoms, only…”
“Well, Mylus,” interrupts Toby. “With my detectives, we might have all we need to keep the neighborhood safe. They’ve really shown what they can do today!”
Beyond the world of humans lies the world of the animals. What would a detective mystery look like in that world?
That is the question Clémentine Beauvais and I kept returning to in the initial stages of development for The Animals of Baker Street. It felt like once we left the human world, with its elaborate systems of law and government and ownership, the scope for detective mysteries suddenly narrowed. What crimes could an animal investigate? Were there “crimes” at all in such a world? Many fictional worlds with animal characters avoid these kind of questions by having fully anthropomorphic animals, i.e., animals that wear clothes and have jobs, and whose society is essentially human society with fur and feathers.
But this approach didn’t feel interesting to us. If our characters were animals, we wanted to explore what it meant to be an animal rather than a human and how animals might perceive humans. We thought about prior examples of this approach in fiction, such as Watership Down and The Animals of Farthing Wood, and couldn’t think of any board games that adopted a similar view.
And, importantly, we knew we were designing a detective game, so we kept coming back to the question: What would a mystery in such a world look like?
I knew Clémentine from Cambridge University, where we met when we were both doing PhDs, and I had read her Sesame Seade series of mystery novels. In 2018, when I realized I had seen no detective games aimed at children and families, I decided to approach her about making one. We went through various possibilities for a setting for the game, until finally settling on one based on…Sherlock Holmes.
Obviously, Sherlock Holmes has been done a lot in games (many by me), but after a lot of discussion, we felt that by focusing on the animals – and, most importantly, focusing on the animals as animals – we could approach it from a new direction.
Because of this focus, we asked for some early character sketches to be redrawn to remove the clothes and make them more like wild animals, and we decided that although the animals would find and use objects, they would not view objects in the same way a human might. Many human ideas and customs would be a mystery to them. The more we pursued this line, the more right it felt, and the contrast between the human and animal worlds really became a central theme of the stories. It was pleasing to see that this was picked up in one of the first reviews of the game (in French).
Clémentine and I would spend a lot time wandering the city, walking, talking and devising mysteries
The Grand Plan
Back in 2018, aside from the lack of mystery games for younger audiences, something I found missing in many detective games was that few combined individual cases with an overarching narrative. Most games I knew of then (and in fact, I think this is still true now) do one of two things: the cases either form a campaign or are entirely standalone. The campaign approach is satisfying because you get a sense of a grand narrative and rising stakes as the cases progress. However, it requires a committed group of players and excellent memory or note-taking, and it often means the individual cases can be unsatisfying because various things are left unresolved. By contrast, individual cases can be played much more flexibly because they require no committed group and no memory for prior cases, and each can be solved in a complete and satisfying way. However, a series of individual cases lacks the grand narrative and epic finale of a campaign.
I was determined that we aim for a satisfying middle ground between these two approaches, just as I had done with Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Baker Street Irregulars. In this middle-ground approach, each case is apparently standalone and can be fully solved in a single play. However, the last case brings together threads from previous cases into a grand finale with the highest stakes, thus combining the satisfaction of a campaign format with the flexibility of individual cases. And if information from prior cases is useful in the last case, players are directed to it at that time rather than having to remember it or rely on old notes.
I had some ideas for the overall story arc and told Clémentine the broad outline. As she was in York and I was in Cambridge, we discussed it on a call and fleshed out the details. We were both happy with the result — but that was when we realized, we had no idea exactly how we were going to work together…
The Cat is asleep.
“When does that cat ever wake up?” Calabash growls. “I wouldn’t mind a bit of action!”
“I would!” Briar peeps.
The room is full of things that are strange but that humans like (including a cat): dying flowers in glass prisons, books, broken trees shaped as chairs and drawers.
Collaborating: Who Does What?
Originally, we thought perhaps I would invent the mystery plots and game mechanisms, then Clémentine would write the text, but we weren’t sure. Neither of us had done anything like this before; I had never worked with another writer, and Clémentine had never made a board game. (She didn’t even really understand what a narrative board game was…) Eventually, we decided I would visit and we would start working on the game and just see what happened.
Once we were in the same room, it became apparent that the idea of dividing up tasks didn’t feel right. We both had ideas about everything. I remember at one point, after we decided roughly what the board should look like, I grabbed a large sheet of paper and began drawing it. Then Clémentine picked up a pencil and began drawing onto the same sheet, and a short while later we had an image that was a blend of both our drawing styles:
That moment was emblematic of how the entire design process turned out – one of us might start working on something, but the other would join in or comment or point out a problem, and the result was some mix of both our inputs that was impossible to pick apart again. While I can still clearly remember some ideas for puzzles or some sections of writing that came from myself or Clémentine individually, the majority of the game’s content is an alchemical mix that I don’t think either of us could have created alone. It was a way neither of us had worked before. While I have collaborated with other designers, the process tends to be one of dividing up tasks with regular check-ins and discussion rather than doing everything together.
Sherlock stares at paper a lot. It is one of those strange things humans do, and Sherlock does it with special intensity.
One of our first decisions was whether to use books or cards for the text. We felt cards would be better for the target audience; because cards could be left face up to re-read at any time, note-taking would not be required.
We also decided early on that we wanted the characters to have distinctive personalities and abilities. Given that the game was intended to be narrative, I felt the abilities should be narrative, too. In other words, whether a certain character was useful should be something players had to work out by the context and character description, not by any symbols or game mechanism. But that raised the question: If players decided a certain character’s skills were needed, how would they check whether they were right?
I wanted to avoid addition of numbers or anything like that if possible. Given the target audience, we needed a simple, tactile way for players to check the results of their choice. I can’t remember exactly how, but a month or so after we began working on the game, I came up with the magnifier idea. Each card would have magnifier handles at the top and the glass part at the bottom. If you wanted to use something at a location, such as a character, you would take the card for the thing you wanted to use and line the top of it up with the bottom of the location card. If any magnifier handles lined up perfectly with the glass part to make a full magnifying glass, you looked at the symbol in the glass to see what happened.
In the first iteration of this idea, every card had handles at the top and the glass part at the bottom, meaning you could in theory use any card on any other card. My original thinking was you would find some information described on one location card and realize it was useful at a different location, so would take the first location card and use it on the second. Unfortunately, this proved too difficult given the number of possible combinations it presented to players, and it was not very intuitive because using a location card on another location card felt strange thematically. Consequently, we simplified the system. Instead of information or items being embedded in the text of location cards, “information” became a type of card in its own right, which had handles at the top but no magnifier glasses at the bottom. And location cards needed only the magnifying glasses at the bottom. That meant you could use cards at a location, but location cards themselves were never used anywhere. With that revision, the system worked very well indeed, and while we expanded it in novel ways over the course of the cases to keep players on their toes, the core of it remains unchanged in the final published game.
Planning case 1
Regarding the content and difficulty level, we made the decision that we were going for something that could appeal to adults as well, so we ensured that half of our playtesting was with groups comprised solely of adults (although mostly non-gamers). Part of the reasoning behind this was that some plot ideas we had were fairly dark, including violence and some disturbing ideas. We were not making a cuddly, cute world of happy animals; these were animals that ate each other.
“Good evening, friends of Toby.” We look around to see Mylus alight gracefully on the Roof, having just flown in from the Beyond.
“Good evening, My-” begins Cherrywood, but she stops as the owl regurgitates a little pile of bones and fur.
Consequently, we aimed to create stories that were as surprising and mysterious to adults as children, and cases which adults would sometimes struggle to solve. Over many tests I think we achieved this balance, with both children and adults finding most cases solvable but challenging in places — apart from the tutorial, which is intentionally very easy! In fact, the children sometimes performed better than the adults as they would notice details the adults missed or just seemed to have a better grasp of the animals’ world.
We had animals on the mind while designing this game — two photos we sent each other during the process
While discussing difficulty level, I’ll say a few words on “losing”. It can be tough to design loss conditions into narrative games because if the loss condition is that the players fail to solve the case or don’t get to the end of the story, it can be very unsatisfying. To avoid that, we essentially adopted an “escape room” approach to winning and losing. You spend time tokens to visit locations, and if you run out of time before solving the case, you have technically “lost” and must read the negative event, but you then continue to play to finish the story. In the world of the game, something bad has happened because you weren’t fast enough, but players will still get the satisfaction of solving the mystery and there will be a resolution.
In playtesting, losing wasn’t particularly common, but it did happen even with groups of adults (more so on the later cases). Getting close to losing was common, with the difference between success and failure often coming down to a final decision with only one time token remaining on the clock. That felt like the right balance to us, given the intended audience.
So…What Is a Narrative Game Anyway?
When I first approached Clémentine about making a narrative game, she was enthusiastic but also rather mystified. She hadn’t played any narrative board games before and couldn’t really visualize what I meant. I think it wasn’t until our first tests that she really understood what we were creating. Consequently, the whole process was a learning experience for her, especially as she had written a lot of novels but never an interactive narrative. The way the card format limited the amount of text meant a different approach to characterization and plotting. The fact that players would analyze the text for clues meant being very careful about adding in details or references to things that weren’t important to the mystery. Early on she would often write an entry for a location in a way that assumed players had been somewhere else, and I had to point out that we had no idea where they would have been before that. Nevertheless, she learned quickly and has said how much she enjoyed the process because through it, she gained a new perspective on writing and got to create a fictional world in a way she had never done before.
It’s worth saying a bit more about one of the design errors mentioned above: writing an entry that assumes players have been somewhere they might not have been. As a narrative board game designer, ambiguity is often your friend in that sometimes you can write an entry that makes sense even if players come to it via different paths. There is one point in The Animals of Baker Street where players might go somewhere on foot or flying, but we could have only one card and it had to cover both options. I wrote the card text in such a way that it sounds like a description of flying if you imagine that is what you are doing, but if you think you are on foot it still makes perfect sense as well. For example, I refer to a character “looking up as we pass”, which nicely evokes the sense of being high above someone, but is also a phrase used when someone notices you walking down the street. Making use of this kind of ambiguity in language can be very useful as a narrative board game designer, where having multiple variants of a piece of text may not be possible due to the necessarily limited number of components.
What’s a Mystery to a Mouse?
And so, back to that persistent question. When we began the process of designing the game, I remember feeling baffled by it. In hindsight, I realize that was because we hadn’t yet begun to build our world. Once we understood the world’s patterns and norms, the expectations and desires of the characters who inhabited it, and the overall tone of the writing, answers began to present themselves. One thing we knew early on was that although they may not have a full system of laws that could be broken, these animals cared about each other — so what if one of them went missing? That seemed like a mystery our animal detectives would want to investigate, so we began work on what became the first full case, The Missing Mouse.
That central idea — our detectives will investigate what they care about — was key to answering the question of what these mysteries would involve. We had rejected the fully anthropomorphic approach, so these were not detectives employed to solve crimes that broke a system of law parallel to that of humans. Rather, they would be embedded in a world of complex interrelations between different animals and humans, and navigating that world and those relations would be the driving force behind each mystery. With this in mind, we decided to use a recurring cast of supporting characters and locations over all the cases, creating the web of relations that the player characters care about and hopefully the players would come to feel the same — and one person we knew our detectives cared about was Sherlock Holmes.
Best of all, sometimes, from the room above, we hear — him. Sherlock. Our hero! Playing the violin… Thinking… Talking…
BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!
“Those clients of Sherlock’s!” Edna grumbles. “Barging in like a war’s started.”
“Mr Holmes,” says a human voice above us. “You see before you a man whose life is at risk.”
“Eat up, my dears!” Edna pipes.
“Shh!” Calabash says. A little rude of her, perhaps — but Sherlock is about to speak to a man whose life is at risk, an even more seductive prospect than raisin sandwiches.
We used the characters’ connection to Holmes a few times in the stories, but mostly in the tutorial case, The Dearest Deerstalker, in which the detectives search for Sherlock’s missing deerstalker hat. Tutorial scenarios have become very common in narrative games and are a great way for players to learn the rules without having to read the whole rulebook. The tutorial in The Animals of Baker Street is very easy and light, and in difficulty, content, and narrative stakes, it isn’t like the rest of the cases, but it serves its job of teaching players the rules and introducing some of the recurring characters.
And those recurring characters are, of course, crucial because our detectives care about the animals and humans they know, in addition to having a general fascination for puzzles and mysteries. Suddenly, we were presented with a host of possibilities for investigation, including obvious things like disappearances and poisonings and unexplained deaths, but also lost hats, why humans do what they do, or figuring out why someone is sad. It turned out that focusing on the animal world, free of human laws and social structures, hadn’t narrowed the scope for mysteries in the way I thought it might; rather, it had expanded it to cover ideas we could not have covered in another setting.
With that realization, I remember feeling relief, surprise, and excitement.
The animals would probably have marked that moment with some tasty flies, seeds, and maybe a lump of old cheese, but being the humans that we are, we went for another glass of wine and got back to writing…