Deadline casts players as detectives on the mean streets of 1930s New York. But its film-noir storytelling can’t overcome lacklustre cooperative gameplay.
Designers: A.B. West, Dan Schnake
Players: 2 – 4
Before I say anything about Deadline, I should declare a bias: I love film noir.
Movies like The Big Sleep and Double Indemnity are saturated with ambition, lust, violence and betrayal. They conjure up a world where quick-witted quips are as important as a quick trigger finger. Where the line between right and wrong is hazy, if it even exists. Where men are men, and women are deadly.
So when I saw a film-noir mystery game set in 1930s New York, my eyes lit up. The chance to don a fedora and prowl the streets in search of justice was more than I could resist.
Deadline casts players as a team of investigators tackling perplexing mysteries, and at first glance it nails the hard-boiled detective aesthetic. Its box art looks like the cover of an old pulp crime magazine. Its cases range from gritty murder mysteries to high-stakes manhunts. And its fictionalised New York is bustling with corrupt cops, ruthless criminals and high-society lowlifes. As you sit down to play, you can almost smell the bitter tang of cigar smoke in the air, hear the menacing growl of the city streets, feel the burn of cheap whiskey at the back of your throat.
Things start promisingly enough. You’ll choose one of the 12 included scenarios and read some introductory text giving you the major points of the case. Who’s been shot? Who’s gone missing? What’s been stolen? Your job is to fill in the missing details, unpicking events, uncovering hidden motives and bringing perpetrators to justice.
To do that, you’ll investigate using a set of clue cards. There’s a different deck for each mystery, and each card reveals further snippets about the case: the layout of a crime scene, the details of an overheard conversation, the tell-tale marks on a victim’s corpse. They create a tantalising trail of breadcrumbs leading gradually towards the truth.
Getting hold of this information isn’t easy, though. Clue cards are double-sided, and at first you’ll only see their backs. To flip them over you’ll have to play a symbol-matching mini game, working as a group to pair icons on clues with corresponding cards from your hands.
This card play is more frustration than fun. Restrictions on communication between teammates make it very easy to get in each other’s way, and you’ll find yourself repeatedly forced to drop out of rounds, clutching a handful of cards with no way to legally play them.
It’s supremely irritating. And the game punishes your failures by making subsequent rounds more difficult. You’ll pick up penalties that make it harder to acquire new clues, eventually even being forced to discard them unread. It means you’ll miss out on information that could be vital in your efforts to crack the case.
To give you a fighting chance, each player gets a one-off special ability letting them draw new cards, discard unwanted ones or otherwise improve your odds of success. But it’s still possible to find yourself screwed by unlucky draws, and it’s dispiriting to spend time and effort on a clue, only to realise that you never had a chance of getting it.
You’ll use the clues you do manage to obtain to answer a set of questions about the scenario. Who was the killer? How did the burglar get into the vault? Why was there a single black glove left in the drinks cabinet? This sleuthing is easily the best part of Deadline, but to get to it you’ll need to wade through a repetitive card game that outstays its welcome after about 20 minutes.
Strangely, Deadline’s card-based core is similar to other games I enjoyed much more. It’s reminiscent of The Grizzled, an incredibly poignant game about soldiers relying on the bonds of friendship to survive the first world war. It also reminded me of The Lost Expedition, which casts players as explorers trekking through a hostile jungle.
But where those games use limits on communication as a powerful metaphor for hardship, Deadline drops them into the mix with no thematic justification. It’s jarringly abstract in a game that sells itself as a narrative adventure, and it results in a cooperative game with few meaningful opportunities to cooperate.
Deadline’s presentation is a love letter to its source material. It evokes the black and white world of Orson Welles, Humphrey Bogart and Marlene Dietrich. But its gameplay does nothing to sustain the atmosphere, and with its mechanical underpinnings exposed, its aura quickly evaporates.
It emphasises its weakest points and overshadows its strengths. If you’re looking for a purely plot-driven alternative, the Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective series is a far better option.
- Full disclosure: I received a review copy of this game from its distributor.