Normally, allowing five prostitutes to die and letting their killer get away scot-free would not be considered a successful evening. The paperwork alone would probably take up half the night. Fortunately, the prostitutes and the killer were little wooden playing pieces, and the only thing to die tonight was our dignity as our best laid plans proved no match for Jack the Ripper. Or, as we know him, our friend Lionel.
Letters from Whitechapel pits up to five players acting as London detectives against one player as Jack himself, trying to stay one step ahead of the law while finishing off his list of victims. Jack’s movements are hidden from the other players, who have to rely on deduction and intuition to gather clues as to where Jack is going after he commits one of his killings. If he reaches his hidden lair four times without getting caught, he wins the game. Find out exactly where he is or keep him from getting home before a countdown runs out, and the police win. You’d think a game with such a macabre theme would be a grim slog, especially considering the three hours it took us to play it, but it’s actually a tense cat and mouse game that requires the police players to put their heads together and the Jack player to have one hell of a poker face.
After a preliminary sequence where the potential victims are moved around the board (a fairly detailed map of Whitechapel complete with historical notes on the actual murders), Jack claims a victim, marking the location of the murder with a token. It’s the one time Jack lets the police know exactly where he is, because after that, he goes to ground, and the other players have to guess where he might be going. They move after Jack does, and can search for clues at locations near them. If Jack is or has been in one of those locations, another token goes on that spot. Each round of the game becomes a race, with the police trying to get a clear idea of his path, and with Jack not wanting to betray how close they might be getting to him. Since the board allows for multiple avenues of escape, one wrong deduction could have the detectives completely off the mark. But if Jack’s not careful, he can run out of moves before he gets to safety. There’s plenty of calculation and planning required here.
Which accounts for much of the game’s length, especially with six people at the table. There’s not a lot of what you’d consider traditional “gaming,” like moving pieces and such. Most of the time is spent on planning moves and mulling over clues. It’s a highly social game, one that would be a bit of a trial with the wrong group of people, since you have to cooperate or else you might as well be the Keystone Cops for all the good you’re doing. The Jack player does fly solo, which I imagine can make them feel a little isolated at times, but the game does a good job making sure both sides are interacting with each other, so it never feels like two separate games are going on that just happen to be using the same board.
I will say that initially, the game felt a little scattered and overwhelming. Looking at all the spaces and paths on the board, I didn’t see any way we had a prayer of finding Jack, and the order of play seemed overly verbose (a deliberate stylistic choice attempting to conjure up the lurid tabloid headlines of the time). By the second time Jack eluded us, though, I was totally hooked, living and dying with every move, every false lead, every revealed clue.
In the end, the spot we were sure was Jack’s lair turned out to be off the mark, and he skipped merrily from his final murder to his home in one short move with nary a detective in sight. Afterwards, Lionel went back and showed us all the paths he took during the game (the Jack player is required to log them all to keep him honest), and we were amazed at how many times we were practically standing right on top of him only to let him slink away into the alleys. It made us want to play again right then and there, because we were sure we’d get him this time. It’s the mark of a great game when you feel that way after three hours of playing, and when you can utterly fail and still have a good time. Letters from Whitechapel may just be the most fun you’ll ever have with a serial killer. Now there’s a pull quote for the box top.