Game Review: Murder’s Afoot in “Foul Play”

foul play mystery card game - boxDeductive puzzles based on a process of elimination are a mainstay of family games, best represented by the popular Hasbro game “Clue”. Everyone’s racing around the board trying to collect as many clues as possible to eliminate suspects, weapons, and locations to be able to narrow down that classic question: whodunit? This entire class of games requires patience and a good memory, and you typically need to know the entire field of suspects (weapons, locations, etc) to be able to conclude that a specific clue either reinforces your suspicion that someone could have “dun” it or couldn’t possibly have been the heinous culprit.

Take that same basic premise but add actors, a memorable venue, and some friends and you have the making of a splendid evening of faux sleuthing. That’s what the UK-based After Dark Murder Mystery Events team does; they host murder mystery parties. Like many live performers, however, the pandemic required them to come up with something different, so they created the murder mystery card game called Foul Play. Their first card set is The Manor House Murder and it’s your job to follow the clues and identify which of the household servants murdered the lord of the manor. Because of an ingenious card design, the clues include weapons, family relationships, and the personal characteristics of the murderer. Every time you play, a different suspect will be the culprit. There are eight possible suspects and each game is built around three clues from the 15 included in the deck.

Setup takes just a few minutes and involves sorting out the cards and – without looking! – choosing one each of an “A”, “B”, and “C” clue from the three stacks, as shown here:

foul play mystery card game - example clues

All other clues are discarded. These three clues uniquely identify one of the eight possible suspects. That means there are 125 different combinations of clues pointing to one of the eight suspects as the murderer.

To understand the clues (which you normally wouldn’t see until you gradually uncover them in a regular game, I’m just showing them for illustrative purposes). It is critical to know your suspects:

foul play mystery card game - suspects

A close look will reveal all sorts of interesting information related to these possible culprits. For example, half of them are male, half are female. Some are holding guns while others have knives. Some smoke, some don’t. Some have gloves on, etc. You get the idea. By cross-correlating facts about the suspects and the clues you identify, you can then uniquely finger the culprit, the monster who killed our doddering old manor Lord.

To play the game – which supports 2-5 players – you extract the three clues you’ll be using (without looking at them), then shuffle them into the rest of the deck. Then nine cards, in a 3 x 3 configuration, are placed in the middle of the table. That’s the Crime Scene. Each player then gets five cards, one is put to the side to start the Discard Pile, and the rest of the deck becomes the Evidence Locker.

Players then take turns playing a card, taking the action specified, and, when they’re ready and have the suspect in their hand, announce that they have solved the crime and state not just the culprit but what clues have led them to be the only possible murderer. Here are example action cards, you can see they’re a combination of unearthing possible clues yourself, interacting with other players, and protecting yourself when other players try to steal your cards or view your hand:

foul play mystery card game - example actions

The Crime Scene cards are particularly critical because you can swap a useless card from your hand with one in the 3×3 grid. Hopefully, you’ll unearth another clue or even nab the suspect you’re starting to believe is the murderer. Note that the Block card lets you stop someone else from playing their action card on you, critical if you have valuable cards.

Here’s my starting hand:

foul play mystery card game - starting hand

This is a great starting hand, actually, because I have a suspect – Mort Throttle, The Chauffeur – and a clue (the orange evidence card). I don’t need to keep the clues, just know their contents. Remember, because of the distribution of suspect characteristics, each clue cuts the list of possible suspects in half (8 to 4, 4 to 2, and then down to the culprit). You don’t need all the clues, however, so you could narrow it down to two and guess if you were inspired. Get it wrong and you might end the game for everyone, but get it right and I say, Mr. Holmes, well played, sir!

Note: There are two ways you can play, called Good Cop and Bad Cop. Good Cop requires that you have a knowledge of all three clues before you accuse a suspect, while Bad Cop is more about getting enough clues that you can make an educated guess, beating out your fellow detectives in a race to the solution.

Therein lies the problem I have with Foul Play: Without some sort of scorepad to keep track of things, it’s quite difficult to know how to interpret clues as you encounter them. As with all games of this type, a wrong guess also has a heavy price, often the end of the game for everyone involved. The publisher is aware of the former problem and has a suspect lineup chart you can download from their Web site:

foul play mystery card game - meet the suspects

With that set of illustrations, you can more easily interpret how “has a gun” or “smokes” or “is related to another servant” narrows down the field of suspects. If you play the game without any sort of reference, it’s going to prove frustrating, particularly for younger players. My suggestion: Download and print out their suspect reference sheet and leave it on the table adjacent to the Crime Scene card grid. Some way to jot down clues as they’re discovered would be beneficial too, a clue tracker pad similar to what’s included in many editions of Clue.

What they have done right is the artwork. The graphics are really splendid fun and nicely evocative of a sort of Victorian household, the classic setting of a whodunit. The black lettering with shadows? That could be easily improved and hopefully will be in the second mystery deck, Once Upon a Crime, which should be out in a month or two.

Ultimately, whether you and your family enjoy Foul Play depends on whether you like deductive reasoning games. If Clue is a go-to on trips, this mystery card deck is a great alternative. You can carry in your pocket and solve mysteries on a plane flight or even while waiting for dinner after you’ve ordered during the evening rush. Otherwise, you might find yourselves sharing clues and racing to get the suspect card so you can accuse them of the crime, a different game entirely!

Foul Play: The Manor Murder Mystery card game is published by After Dark Murder Mystery Events and costs £8.95 (about $12.50 USD). You can learn more about it and the sequel Once Upon A Crime, at https://www.foulplaygame.co.uk

Disclosure: After Dark Murder Mystery Events sent me a copy of the game in return for this candid review. Indubitably suspicious. Or perhaps not!

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