During the excitement and revelry of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, something sinister was happening. A man calling himself H. H. Holmes began building a hotel. He would hire and fire contractors and construction workers quickly, so no one but he would know the hotel’s full layout. It was full of doors leading nowhere, labyrinthine hallways, and shoots that could easily slide something or someone down to the basement. Excited travelers from far and wide would check into the hotel, and while some would come and go without report of anything unusual, many would never leave alive.
In the game “Crimes in History: H. H. Holmes’ Murder Castle,” you and your opponents take the role of people who have had an association with Holmes and are now falling under the suspicion of the police. Only by going into the Castle and collecting evidence to clear your good name can you avoid the hangman’s noose, and there simply isn’t enough evidence to share with others in the same predicament.
You start the game with four room tiles representing the pharmacy and three parts of the basement. The players begin with their miniatures (or standees) in the pharmacy, while Holmes begins in the part of the basement that connects to the pharmacy. During a round, there are six action tiles that players can choose from, each with a main action and bonus action. These actions can let you move one or two rooms, collect evidence, add a room tile adjacent to a doorway in the room your character occupies, draw an event card that can give your character some abilities for later use, and cause Holmes to move about the Castle. Once a player has picked a tile, they can perform the main and bonus action. Then, going clockwise around the table, each player will also be able to do the main action on that tile if they desire. Then the next player picks a tile, and so on.
The goal is to fill your player board with cubes representing five different types of evidence and then be the first to return to the pharmacy. The player boards are very thick cardboard with recessed places to keep all the cubes you collect as you explore. In my copy, those boards and the cardboard Ferris wheel have started to bend. While it’s a little annoying, it doesn’t have a negative effect on gameplay.
Every time a new room tile comes out, it will have a safe that can hold a certain number of evidence cubes. These are pulled from the loading section of the Ferris wheel and placed accordingly. Once a Ferris wheel section empties, the Ferris wheel rotates to a section with different evidence cubes, and the now emptied section gets refilled randomly from a bag. The bag seems to be the one part of this game that’s not well made. Nearly every time we pull cubes out of it, red threads also get pulled out. The Ferris wheel mechanic is fantastic. I love how it lets you plan for which types of evidence comes out next. For example, if you need a lot of yellow and there isn’t any in the current section of the loading zone, you might want to take the bonus action that lets you rotate the Ferris wheel before it empties.
Once all players have taken their turn, or when someone chooses the Move Holmes action, you pull a card from the Holmes Movement Card deck, and if the rooms listed on the card are currently on the map, then the current first player gets to choose to which room Holmes moves. If he ends up in a room with a character, that player must lose up to three evidence cubes depending on how many times Holmes has caught them.
This game has very light, easy to learn rules. The box says it takes 15-20 minutes per player, and by our second game, we finished faster than that. There is a lot of fun to be had here. Each character has a special ability that can be used once per game. The event cards that characters collect can add some strategy and surprise to every game. In one of our plays, my character had two cards that would let me pickpocket one piece of evidence from another player. I was able to reach another character before she got to the pharmacy with all the evidence she needed to win and take some from her. Another time, a character was able to use a peephole event card to take a look at what my event cards were to know how big of a danger I posed to them.
There is a good amount of take-that in H. H. Holmes’ Murder Castle, but perhaps due to the game’s shortness, it never seems too cruel. Nothing sets anyone back too far, and it is very satisfying to thwart each others’ plans or get revenge for having been thwarted.
It is worth noting about Crimes in History: H. H. Holmes’ Murder Castle, because the room tiles don’t all have doors on every side, and some are dead ends, that the size the Castle can grow to can vary. In our first game we ended up pulling out a dead-end almost every time we drew a room tile. This made the Castle very small, and because that limited our choices, and because you can’t move through a room that Holmes occupies, it left us with turns where what we could do was either very limited, or our choices just weren’t helpful to anyone. By contrast, we never fully explored the Castle in our second game, and once it was over we drew the tiles one at a time and found that we actually could have expanded out to the point where we’d used all the tiles. Having the tiny Castle of the first game seems like it’s an edge case, but it’s worth noting that it can happen, and the gameplay really suffers when it does.
While the theme stems from a series of grisly crimes, the game itself never feels too dark. There is the occasional tile with blood spatter or a dead body, but none of it is very graphic, and the art style is cartoony. Players can’t die or kill anyone in the game, so none of the game’s actions are genuinely violent. People who absolutely can’t stand even a hint of darkness in their games may want to steer clear, but it’s pretty mild considering its inspiration.
In that first play in the tiny castle, I thought the game was just okay. It’d be fun to pull out with true crime fans or use it as a filler between heavier games. After that initial play, the fun ramped up immensely, and I felt like I could easily make a night of playing this game several times.
If you are a fan of true crime, this is definitely a board game to get. I backed it on Kickstarter based purely on the theme before reading anything about the gameplay, and I ended up being pleasantly surprised. If you enjoy light games that have you continually tripping up your friends, this can be a great addition to your collection. It’s only the occasional tiny castle that keeps me from scoring this higher.