On September 21, 2004, in Games, by peterb

Everett Kaser had one great idea for a game.

He’s taken that one idea, and leveraged it into many, many games. Which of them you play is a matter of taste. But if you don’t own at least one Kaser game, you’re missing out on the most addictive puzzlers since Sokoban.

Rewind to 1990: my friend Nerak hands me a floppy with a DOS shareware version of Kaser’s great idea: the game Sherlock. Have you ever heard those logic puzzles that begin: “Doctor so-and-so needed to seat 12 people at the dinner table. The lawyer wants the vegetarian dish, and won’t sit next to the doctor. The man with the yellow hat wants roast beef. Red wine is being served to the person who has the chicken…” (and so on, and so on, and so on). Sherlock is a more abstract version of that puzzle.

The main playing board is a 6×6 matrix of cells. When the puzzle is solved, each cell will contain a single icon. When you start playing, each cell has 6 small icons representing the possible inhabitants of that cell. Cells are grouped into rows. So, for example, the 6 cells in the top rows are all faces; to “solve” this row, each of the 6 possible faces must be put in its proper cell. With the default icon set, from top to bottom, the rows were faces, houses, numbers, fruits, road signs, and letters. (More recent versions of Sherlock allow the player to customize the board size from as small as 3×3 to as large as 8×8.)

Arrayed around the main board are the clues. There are a few different sorts of clues, all in pictographs. I find that as I read them, I translate them into words in my head: “The ‘No Parking’ sign is in the same column as the face which looks like a big lemon head.” “The green house is between the strawberry and the number ’3′.” “The letter ‘H’ must be to the left of the Egyptian Headdress Guy.” You’ll quickly learn there are corollaries to the different rules that let you make progress quickly (for example, if the green house is between the strawberry and the number 3, then logically it can’t be in columns 1 or 6, which are not ‘between’ anything).

To help you keep track of what possibilities are available, you can right click on a ‘small’ icon (or a clue) to dismiss it from consideration. Left-clicking on an icon is an assertion that you believe you know where it belongs.

To call Sherlock an addiction is to underestimate it. Every game is different. Every game is fun. I have been playing Sherlock for more than 10 years. I’ll be playing it forever.

Kaser, knowing a good thing when he saw it, took the Sherlock idea and ran with it. The first sequel was called Dinner with Moriarty, and was a more elaborate (and slightly less abstract) version of the same game:

The nefarious Professor Moriarty is giving a dinner party. As luck would have it, YOU have been invited. Professor Moriarty and his guests are seated about the table, and each person is eating a different food on a different colored plate and drinking a different drink. It’s your task to determine WHERE Moriarty is seated (along with everyone else) and which person he’s poisoning.

The core mechanics of Moriarty are the same as Sherlock, although the board configuration differs and there are some slightly different types of clues.

There are other variations, as well. There’s Honeycomb Hotel (Sherlock tilted diagonally and with the addition of borders between cells that you must deduce.) There’s Latin Squares, a particularly vicious variation which adds affinity groups which span multiple rows and columns. There’s Occam’s Quilt, in which every cell has not only an icon, but also a background color and a background pattern, only one of which must match with its neighbors. These are generally harder games. Any given Sherlock puzzle is always solvable — somehow — given the provided clues. It’s about straightforward deduction. Honeycomb Hotel and Latin Squares, however, will often generate puzzles which require the player to make forward progress by making an assumption and then eliminating that assumption as invalid when they discover a contradiction (the games provide an in-game mechanism to make reverting to the move before you made your assumption simple).

Kaser has created some other great games in addition to his deductive masterpieces: Descarte’s Enigma, in particular, is a great implementation of the “Paint by Numbers” or “Nonogram” puzzle. But it is with Sherlock and its kin that my addiction rests. Until Cliff Johnston releases A Fool and His Money later this fall, I’ll be clicking my way through Kaserland, one small deduction after another.

Regrettably, Kaser’s games are only for Windows (and in some cases PocketPC). If you can track down a DOS version of Sherlock it runs fine on Mac OS X under DOSBox. Sherlock is available at Kaser’s web site, as are demos of all of his other fine games. You can purchase full versions on line, as well. Enjoy.

And remember: I warned you.


1 Response » to “Elementary”

  1. Jon says:

    All of the icons in Sherlock have very short nicknames in my head. I often mutter “baldy must be two away from beardo”. I’m sure I’ve played over a thousand games of this over the last 10 years.

    I find Dinner With Moriarty to be dull, and I especially don’t like how “adjacent” changes meaning depending on whether you’re dealing with a “corner” icon or an “edge” icon, but to each his own.

    Honeycomb Hotel is my favorite because of “the path”: a nonbranching path must go through every space on the grid exactly once, beginning and ending at specified points. There’s a great interaction between the clues which specify spacial relationships and the clues which specify relationships along the path, and it feels like my entire brain is engaged to get those to balance.

    Latin Squares is almost overkill, because clues are now coming from four directions: row, column, color group, and “other” (the clues around the edge), and it’s next to impossible to build up a chain of deductions without just doing grunt work of looking at each of them in turn. However, this is made fun in an unexpected way because for the first time he gave keyboard shortcuts to the “what-if” and “reject” buttons. If you want to let something percolate in your mind, you can profitably use your time by just poking almost randomly. This is a fast way to find one-step deductions that you’d otherwise miss due to the overwhelming busy-ness of the grid, without mousing up to the toolbar to hit the what-if button for every test.

    You didn’t mention the overll hardest one: Knarly Works. There are no “other” clues to help clarify sub-parts of the board, there’s only “row”, “column”, and “everything must connect to everything else when you’re done”. Beyond the 5×5 size, almost everything you do is within a “what-if”, and the chain of deductions to prove failure can be quite long.

    The most amazing thing is that, starting with the original Sherlock, there has always been a hint system within the games. They know how to solve themselves, and the hints are (with the exception of Occam’s Quilt) presented in terms of the logical deductions that are available and that the player could and/or should be making. If we’d had these games as assignments in my Artificial Intelligence class, I’m sure I would have gotten a better grade.