I remember the first time I drove a car. I was behind the wheel with my dad in the passenger seat and we were going down an empty street behind our neighborhood. I mean, it was completely empty. There were no houses, no other cars, no people around, nothing but a straight, flat road through an open expanse of yellowish grass and dirt. It was absolutely terrifying. We were literally inching along at about 5 miles per hour, but—to me—it felt like the world was flying by uncontrollably and we were about to crash through the sound barrier. It’s not like I’d never ridden in a car before. It’s not like I hadn’t put in hours driving as fast as possible in Need for Speed III. But there was something frighteningly different about actually being in control of an actual car.
I wasn’t one of those kids who got his driver’s license on his 16th birthday. When I was in college, I took the bus and train to get to class every day. Sometimes I miss it. You get on, you sit down, you can read a book or stare out the window at the city passing by, and eventually you end up where you want to be. When you’re sitting by yourself in your car with the radio on, nothing happens. But, when you’re on public transportation, things happen.
Sometimes you have to wait 20 minutes for a connection, standing huddled in the back of a bus shelter to keep out of the horizontal rain. Sometimes you overhear a hipsterish guy three seats in front of you claim that the only person who plays guitar like him is Jack Johnson and, because the human brain is completely unexplainable, you still remember that 10 years later. Sometimes the person next to you gets taken off by men in uniform because they don’t have a fare. Sometimes you’re so tired that you’re practically sleepwalking and you accidentally step in front of a crew of firefighters and obstruct them as they’re going to put out a fire in a planter by the train platform. Sometimes, when it’s snowing, you need to grip the handrail tightly so you don’t slip on the slushy bus step in front of the girl who is your bus crush.
If only there was a board game incorporating all of the bewildering clamor and complexity of taking public transportation.
In fact, there is such a game: Scotland Yard.
In Scotland Yard, the board is a map of London showing locations connected by train, bus, and taxi routes. One player is “Mister X,” a fugitive from justice. The other players are detectives trying to capture Mister X by landing on the same location as him. The players take turns using train, bus, and taxi tickets to move from location to location. The catch is that the detectives can only see where Mister X is after every fifth move he makes. The rest of the time, his location is secret and the detectives have to try to deduce where he is based on the types of tickets he has used.
The idea of Scotland Yard is instantly compelling. There’s just something primally interesting about the story of a suspect on the run. North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief, Man Hunt, The Fugitive… most of my favorite movies have that as the plot. Plus it’s set in London! You can pretend you’re Sherlock Holmes chasing down a scoundrelly criminal. Or Bert the chimney sweep running away from responsibilities.
Like a lot of games I’ve come to enjoy later, I wasn’t completely enamored with Scotland Yard right off the bat. Counting out all of the tickets to set up the game is a bit tedious. The game appears relatively simple… you’re just moving pieces around a map? That’s the whole game? But it got into my head. The first time we played, I was Mister X and every turn I kept thinking to myself, “Should I play it safe and go to a space where it’s impossible for them to get to me, even though it backs me into a corner—or should I make a move to slip past them, taking the risk that they might catch me?” Sometimes you don’t have a choice and you have to just sit there, sweating and hoping they don’t pick the one move that would cause them to land on you.
The rule book is only about two pages long, but out of those two pages and the irregular, labyrinthine board, a surprisingly subtle and complex game emerges. The thing that I enjoy most about Scotland Yard is feeling like I’m learning and grasping it more and more each time I play. I enjoy those moments when I feel my understanding of the game grow deeper, when I feel like I’ve peeled back another layer of strategy.
Scotland Yard comes with a hat. Like, a full-sized cloth baseball cap that you put on your head. It indicates which player is Mister X and it prevents the other players from seeing exactly where he’s looking on the board as he’s planning his moves.
When you’re Mister X, you can hide meekly and quietly under the hat. Or you can do what I do: try to psych the other players out. I always enjoy conspicuously staring at one part of the board when actually I’m on the opposite side. Or using a mystery move next to the river to make the detectives think I’ve taken a boat. Or just saying ridiculous things like, “You’ll never guess where I’m going to next… location #92…”—when obviously that’s not where I am… or is it?
Scotland Yard can be played with two players. In that situation, one player is Mister X and the other player is all of the detectives. Because each detective has a separate supply of tickets, the detective player must manage five different stacks of tickets and keep each stack associated with a specific pawn on the board.
The easiest way to do that is with a set of markers that are the same colors as the detective pawns (red, yellow, blue, green, and black), sitting one marker next to each pawn’s tickets. Unfortunately, the version of the game that I have doesn’t include any markers for this (possibly because of the high cost of baseball caps?). Fortunately, tokens from other games like Payday or Ticket to Ride work great.
It sort of doesn’t make sense if you think about it. Do we even need to be doing this since London has CCTV everywhere now? Why does Mister X have an unlimited supply of tickets? Is he really rich or something? Couldn’t he just hire an Uber and get out of here? Why is the country’s largest police force only sending out five detectives to cover an entire city? And why do the detectives have a limited supply of tickets? Budget cuts? Really onerous bureaucracy? Couldn’t the department just get them a bus pass? If the police department can’t even afford a bus pass, I can see why people were mad enough to vote for Brexit.
Scotland Yard is not a game about Celtic lawn mowing, but it is one of the best presents my wife has ever gotten me. It’s special to me because it’s not something I told her I wanted—it’s something she discovered that she knew I would like. She researched games similar to ones we enjoy, then she researched the best edition of the game, and then she bought it for me. The fact that she put that amount of thought and effort into getting a present for me makes me feel loved.
One thing I wonder about every time we play is whether you are guaranteed to win if you play perfectly. In chess, a king and a rook can always checkmate an unprotected king, but you can’t force a checkmate with a king and a knight. Are the detectives guaranteed to haul in Mister X unless they make a mistake? Can Mister X always slip away unless he makes a wrong move? I don’t know. I haven’t figured it out, but that’s okay. Not knowing your chances of success is just a part of life.