Room-in-a-box, Aug 2019
The Scarlet Thread of Murder is an ambitious concept for a game – perhaps too much so for its own good. Unlock!’s Sherlock game does well at capturing a genuine feeling of investigating a murder mystery, but the result makes for a game that can leave players floundering.
Its central innovation is a system for discovering ‘locations’ – if you find a reason to go to a certain place, you can enter that place name into the app and it tells you which card to take. In addition, the usual Unlock! system for combining cards is used for interrogating suspects – with of course time penalties for asking irrelevant questions. And there’s even a fold-out sheet to help organise (a small part of) the information you gather.
I thought that succeeded remarkably well at conveying the game’s theme: investigate the crime scene, chase down leads, interrogate suspects and form a hypothesis. And if the game goes smoothly for you, you might well find this to be one of the best games in the Unlock! series.
There are a couple of puzzles that I thought were a little weak, but those really aren’t the problem. What it really needs is a better hint system. The standard one works well when you need a hint on a specific card, and is terrible when you’re not sure what to do next. The structure of Scarlet Thread – very non-linear, with a great many cards in play at once – renders the hint system almost completely useless. Moreover, what you’re most likely to need a clue for is just to realise that some small detail on a card is in fact a prompt to try going to a new location. Miss any such clue, or even if you carelessly miss an instruction from the app or one of the cards, and there’s pretty much no way to recover the game – you’re left with a partial set of clues and no way to proceed.
The solution of the mystery is narratively satisfying, and the way you translate it into a final code is very clever. I’d really like to like this game; in most respects it’s a superbly clever translation of a classic murder mystery to a playable card game. But there are just too many ways for the game to go off the rails, at every stage from the very first steps through to the final wrapping up. For the right group this could be a big success; but even so I’d suggest passing over it in favour of one of Unlock!’s other titles.