Thursday, March 8, 2018

Dave Reviews: Clues On Clues On Clues

13 Clues

Obvious crack: 13 Clues is thirteen times better than Clue!

The twist: It's true.

13 Clues has a similar theme to Clue: There's been a murder in oldey-timey England, and you need to figure out the murderer, location, and weapon. There's a variety of options in each category, and each player gets a sheet they write on to eliminate options until they've determined the correct combination. Everything else is different. There are no dice, no board, and there are actually several murders--each detective has their own to solve, and the winner is who solves theirs first, rather than who solves the single available mystery.

Players each receive a screen, one card from each category, and two extra cards from any category. You choose one person, location, and weapon, and put it in the front of the screen of the player to your left; also unlike Clue, mysteries are determined purposefully. The other two cards go into slots on the back of your screen, hidden from everyone else. In a six player game, this accounts for all available cards; with fewer players, some number wind up face down in the middle as secret information players can use actions to look at.

Each player starts with one magnifying glass. Magnifying glasses represents actions you can take on their turn, and you take as many actions as you have magnifying glasses. The main available action is to interrogate a witness, which means handing another player your magnifying glass and asking how many cards of a given color or type (male or female suspect; indoor or outdoor location; melee or ranged weapon) they see. They must answer honestly, but this answer includes cards behind their screen, which makes collecting clues a bit more complicated than just counting the cards of that type you can see and comparing it to the number the other player says.

The second common action is to look at secret information (if applicable). To do this, give your magnifying glass to the first player going clockwise who has none, then look at one of the cards in the middle. If all other players have a magnifying glass, discard yours into a general supply; should a player's turn come where they have no actions, they take that magnifying glass from the supply so they can do something.

The final possible action is to guess your mystery. Give your magnifying glass to someone else, same as looking at secret information. If you're right, you win. If you're wrong, the game continues. You lose any other actions you have if you make a wrong guess, so you always want to save your guess for last, no matter how sure you are you're right.

There's a short review on Board Game Geek that says a six-player game that ends before people at the end of the line get a turn is a bad game. That person is correct, but how they managed to do that in 13 Clues is itself a mystery. Here's how the game plays out: With six people, there are five screens with three cards each you can see, plus the two cards behind your screen. That's seventeen known pieces of information out of thirty. You fill in more information as other people ask questions; if you're very lucky, there might be a color or category where someone sees zero of it, and you'll get to cross off two or three of that type. If there are thirteen pieces of info left over and you need to cross out ten to be guaranteed of the right answer, or at least eight with some estimation to make a reasonable guess, and you go fifth (the latest a player can go and still deny the last player their first turn), you need that luck to hit on at least three of the turns before yours and get something useful out of the fourth. The odds of that are not zero, but they are so slight that if it happens, you can chalk it up to a crazy set of circumstances rather than a potentially recurring weakness in the game.

Another review complains that one person can get seven or eight actions while someone else only receives two. This is more plausible. Actions are passed around as the players want to pass them around, and if several people consider one individual the person they need to get information from. If this happens, though, they're asking that player questions, and the people not getting all those magnifying glasses can draw information from those questions as well. It's not perfect--the longer the game goes, the less likely it is that someone else's question is relevant to what you need--but there are more magnifying glasses than players (leaving some in the supply to start), and in the unusual circumstance that the supply has been emptied, a player with no actions takes one magnifying glass from the player of their choice. That review may have been based on an incorrect play (skipping people without actions); if not, it means the game lasted two or so rounds, and if players are handing one person seven actions in two rounds, they're not playing intelligently. Spreading the actions around is promoted by the fact that it keeps any one person from repeatedly targeting the information they need. Maybe a limit (three?) on how many actions someone can have would have been better, but it also seems fine to let people make that mistake if they want.

I'm cherry-picking these reviews to comment on for this reason: 13 Clues is a game best experienced over several playthroughs. Like many bluffing/deduction games, knowing your opponents can be as valuable as the pure logic involved, and that requires seeing people's strategies over time. Additionally, the balance of the game is not just good, but very natural.

  • While grabbing all the secret information available with your first few turns may seem like an obvious move, it doesn't necessarily offer an advantage. Looking at secret info lets you cross out one piece of information, and occasionally none (if a question asked already eliminated it). Asking a question might offer your opponents info, but if you have a good one ready, you can often knock out multiple pieces of info for yourself. 
  • You have to decide who to ask for information based not just on who you think can see what, but how much you're helping them by giving them another action. 
  • More often than not, people creep up on solutions around the same time, so you're forced to decide between a 50/50 guess and making sure you 100% know the answer at the risk of not getting another turn.
As any poker player will tell you about their game of choice, occasionally a bizarre outcome occurs. That's the nature of a game with an open-ended set of rules. That doesn't mean there's a problem. 13 Clues plays quickly enough that it's easy to play several times in a row; unless people are playing like absolute morons and throwing the game over and over, you should see what this game actually is the vast majority of the time. In fact, if there's a weakness, it may be that it's best experienced by running multiple games in a row, and thus it may not be for people who are attached to the idea of playing something once, putting it away for the day, and playing something else.

If that's not your habit, though, and you have 3-6 friends who like logic puzzles, it's a good buy.

Score: Twenty-seven known pieces of data out of thirty.

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