Is this 40 year old game of cat and mouse the greatest classic board game?
Scotland Yard by Ravensburger was awarded the coveted Spiel des Jahres on its year of release in 1983. Now approaching 40 years old this distinguished classic has undergone only a few, very minor nips and tucks here and there but it’s still 99% the same design I first played as a 10 year old in the late eighties with my Dad and brother.
It’s an asymmetrical co-operative game with one player assuming the role of the mysterious ‘Mister X’ who moves mostly unseen around London and must evade capture for 24 turns, with up to 5 others playing as Scotland Yard detectives attempting to locate and apprehend Mister X.
Clearly the unwritten backstory here is that Mister X is a mechanic who’s reneged on the contract to repair Scotland Yard’s broken vehicle fleet, hence the urgency to apprehend him, and the Yard’s unexplained reliance on public transport.
The game board of central(ish) London – stretching from Tower Bridge and ‘the City’ in the East to Hyde Park in the West is presented as 199 numbered locations; each with multiple connecting transport links of up to three different modes of transport – yellow lines denote taxi routes, green bus routes, and red the longer underground routes.
All players move around the tabletop London via use of transport tickets – (remember those paper things!). The Detective players each have a limited set of 23 tickets: 11 taxi er..tickets (just go with it), 8 bus tickets, and 4 underground tickets. As each detective takes their turn, they surrender the relevant ticket to Mister X who effectively has a growing stockpile of tickets.
Underground tickets provide the swiftest journey across town, but there are a limited number of stations (just 14), buses permit a slightly shorter journey (66 stops in total), and taxis the shortest distance travelled but there are 199 of them!
Each turn, Mister X moves unseen, jots down the location number moved to in the travel log (a plastic frame placed over a notepad that has 24 cut outs) and covers the entry with the appropriate ticket used to get to that location.
Consequently, the detectives always have sight of which mode of transport Mister X used, just not his precise location. Fortunately, periodically (on turns 3, 8, 13, 18 and the final turn 24) Mister X must reveal his location to the detectives by placing his marker on the board – usually to gasps of “How did he get there?” before removing it and returning to the hidden movement until the next reveal.
To facilitate Mister X’s slipperiness further a few special moves are additionally at his disposal – two double move tokens – these allow the player to use two transport tickets in a single turn to get some distance from the law; and five ‘black’ tickets that can be used to represent two things – Mister X has taken to the Thames using one of 4 ferry stops reserved only for his use, or Mister X is concealing the ticket type used that turn from the detectives. Useful if Mister X wants to conceal use of the underground (only 14 stops on the board) or completely misdirect the pursuing detectives and take a taxi but plant the seed that maybe, just maybe they did take the underground…or did they?
Yes it’s a board game but it really can be a thoroughly nerve shredding, exhilarating game of cat and mouse.
With skilful play the detectives can be breathing down Mister X’s neck only to let him slip through the dragnet into a side street at the last minute, and it’s these close-shave moments that provide the joyous tense highlights for all players of this classic and retold anecdotally afterwards.
As a 10 year Robbie – the excitement was all about playing as Mister X – the hidden movement mechanic was sooo exciting – but as I’ve matured (slightly) I’m equally excited at the structured logical detective game. Detective players quickly realise that if they have any hope off capturing the slippery ‘X’ the best strategy is for some of their number to get to underground stations a turn before Mister X reveals their whereabouts. This allows for speedy redeployment across the board.
This game is not for the impatient however, playing as Mister X requires some level of cunning to ably sidestep fellow players whilst planning a couple of moves ahead to avoid capture.
Meanwhile, the detective players really do need to cooperate and coordinate their moves and budget their ticket usage to maximise their chances of apprehending the criminal mastermind.
Perhaps more so than other games the hidden movement mechanic really does require the player playing as Mister X to honestly record their locations and admit capture if a detective player lands on their location whilst hidden, or it all just falls apart. So, if you have any shady Pinocchio players in your gaming group maybe Scotland Yard is not for you, or just insist that until they can be a trustworthy criminal they can’t play as the…er..shifty criminal.
The board is enticingly colourful and beautifully illustrated and has so many of London’s landmarks, stations, museums, and parks labelled – it’s part geographical teaching aid! Certainly, as a kid it was very much a checklist of the places I’d been to or wanted to visit (and not just as a criminal evading capture).
The game components are numerous and are sure to be eye-candy to younger players. Lots of colourful bits n bobs to look at and handle. There’s a reduced ‘Beginners’ ruleset for the first game which introduces most of the rules and makes for a quicker game (13 turns rather than 23).
Mister X has a ‘no expense spared’ cardboard visor to wear so any observant detective players can’t intercept Mister X’s direction of gaze at the board, although a wily Mister X player can deliberately use this to misdirect detectives and remain at large.
It’s just a shame the game doesn’t also include five sets of deerstalker hats and pipes for the Yard’s finest to look the part. Never mind – after nearly 40 years we’re probably overdue a deluxe box set edition that will include such dress up props, in addition to Uber credits and cycle lanes.
Why Buy it?
Yes it’s old (approaching 40), but sooo much more exciting and engaging than tired classics like Monopoly, Cluedo and Risk. Perfect introduction to co-operative board games and equally fun and challenging playing Mister X or the pursuing detectives. I still adore playing this game after 35 years.