What is this game about?
Detective: City of Angels is a detective game set in Los Angeles in the 1940s—think L.A. Noire, the board game. You and your fellow detectives, if you choose to play with them, will solve several crimes that take place throughout the city, using a very cool game system to gather evidence and interrogate witnesses. While the first couple of cases are easy to solve, they quickly get more challenging and will give you a real thrill.
There are several ways to play Detective: City of Angels. The "default" mode is competitive, in which several players are able to temporarily hoard evidence, bribe each other to see those hidden cards, and listen in on private conversations with witnesses. They also take kickbacks from mobsters in order to pay more bribes. Whoever solves the case first wins, even if they have to play a little dirty to get there!
To play this version of the game, you'll also need a player called the "Chisel," who is basically the GM. The Chisel will win the game if all of the detectives lose, so it is in the Chisel's best interests to misdirect the detectives as cleverly as possible. That's right—in this detective game, your suspects can lie. Each suspect could give multiple answers to a question, some of which are more useful than others. It's up to the detective to decide whether to challenge the Chisel about a response. If the detective is successful, they gain "leverage" over the suspect and can force the truth out of him or her the next time they ask a question. If they challenge and are wrong, then the Chisel gains leverage and can prevent the detective from gaining valuable intel at some point in the future.
It is also possible to play the game cooperatively, either against the Chisel or against a gamebook that simulates the Chisel. When you ask questions or search locations, you will be directed to numbered passages in the gamebook that match the search and response cards you would use in the multiplayer mode. As in the competitive game, you will receive sometimes-dubious responses from your suspects, and you'll have to decide whether to challenge. Challenge incorrectly, however, and you'll end up taking on stress tokens, which can shorten the amount of time you have to solve a case.
How does it play solo?
To play a solo game of Detective: City of Angels, you just play against the Sleuth Book, which contains the same information you would find on the search or chisel cards in the multiplayer game. You are directed to numbered paragraphs by a player grid, and you will still have the option to challenge a suspect's response to you. Instead of managing leverage tokens, the solo player must manage their detective's stress levels while they attempt to solve the case in time.
Detective: City of Angels is truly something special. I love detective games in general, but this one might be my favorite yet (although I will always be a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective). The cases come together beautifully, and the puzzles are intriguing and infuriating. The noir setting really comes through in the dialogue, in the flavor text, in the game components, and even in the really fun glossary of period-appropriate terms that is included with the game. In terms of both style and substance, Detective: City of Angels wants for nothing.
The real question is one of how you want to play the game. The game works very well in solo mode, and I really enjoyed solving cases by myself. I have played most of the cases this way. But I'd be lying if I said that was the best player experience possible. I think the best role to play when you break out Detective: City of Angels is the role of detective in the competitive mode. The added difficulty and hilarity of racing for evidence, trying to see everything first, and choosing when to pay bribes gives the game an extra edge that you just can't get any other way. The good-natured bickering that results from racing your friends to solve a mystery makes game night extra wonderful.
My issue with competitive mode is the role of Chisel. While technically the Chisel should be trying to win by throwing detectives off the trail, I have found that I enjoy the role most when I treat it like being the GM of a role playing game—the kind of GM who is hostile to all, but who ultimately wants the players to have a good time. By keeping the game fun for the players, and trying to make sure that no one detective gets too much edge on the others, you can make Detective: City of Angels a truly magical experience for the people who are playing it. By letting it be not all about me, I've had some really good gaming experiences with people who love games but don't necessarily identify as "board gamers," and to me, that is dynamite.
I also don't recommend holding the players too tightly to the time restrictions of the game. That is, even if they run out of time and the Chisel "wins," it's a good idea to let everyone keep playing until the mystery is solved—that way everyone winds up satisfied. I know it's not in the rules, but I am always going to do what makes the players happy. I also do this in solo—if I don't solve the mystery "in time," I acknowledge that, but still let myself see the case through.
My primary experience of this game is of solving the cases on my own, then acting as the chisel for other players. This has been a very satisfying way to play, and I have a great love for Detective: City of Angels. The new expansion on Kickstarter right now is an instaback for me. But I also wish that I could be a regular old detective more, with someone chiseling for me. Because wow, that is fun.
Do I recommend it?
Absolutely. However you choose to play this game, it is truly excellent. I rarely see a game that is so immersive and well constructed. Just know that there is a limited number of cases, and you'll have to make choices about how to experience them.
Overall Rating: 4.5 stars
5 stars — I love it!
4 stars — I really like it.
3 stars — I like it.
2 stars — It's okay.
1 star — Meh.